I’m working on a new essay that is. . .well. . .almost working, but not quite. Each time I read the draft, I get to the end, and I don’t feel that resonance that I should feel. This is a sign that I haven’t gone deeply enough into my material. I haven’t found all the layers that should be there. I’ve stopped too soon.
Autumn Semester classes begin this week here at Ohio State University. Even after thirty-four years of teaching, this time of the year always lifts me up when I think of the time we’ll spend, my students and I, sitting around a table talking the talk about writing and literature.
At the start of each school year, I recall the story that the then Chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln told when I was a Ph.D. student there. The night before classes were to begin, he came across a young man in Andrews Hall, where the English Department is housed, looking into an empty classroom. When the chair asked if he could help him with something, the young man said, “I’m just looking at the room where I’m going to have my composition class.” He said this with a sense of wonder and awe.
I’ve just returned from teaching a novel workshop at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, and I want to share a writing exercise that I hope will help you know your characters better while also allowing your own vulnerability to take you to a deeper level of engagement with the material. The greater your engagement, the greater will be the reader’s.
Something happened last week that I can’t tell you about without potentially embarrassing another writer. That’s something I try to never do. We’re all laboring in the vineyard of words. I respect anyone who faces the blank page. Suffice it to say that the thing that happened became a test of my belief that we should all give back more than we’ve received along our writer’s journey. I’m a writer and a teacher who has trouble saying no. This time, though I had every reason to refuse, I said yes again. I said yes for the sake of this writing life that’s given me so much.
Hot, dry days. Cicadas chirring. The corn stands tall with its tassels and silks. The soybean plants bush out, nearly knee-high or better. Pickers snap cantaloupes and watermelons from the vines. Peaches, peaches, peaches.
Here in southeastern Illinois, these are the dog days, the moment of pause before we make the turn toward autumn. Life moves a little more slowly, gathering itself for the work soon to come—the start of school, the harvest, the hunkering down for winter. For now, though, it’s a lazy Sunday full of bright sunshine, a gentle breeze moving through the leaves of the maples and oaks, twilight coming just a tad earlier each evening.
A good piece of fiction opens by putting together some sort of knot that will have to be untangled by the end of the narrative. This knot can be constructed from characters who are at cross-purposes, or from a problem that has to be solved, a journey undertaken, a visitor whose presence challenges the status quo, a touch of mystery, a character at odds with him or herself. The key word to all of these situations is “instability.” From the opening of the story or the novel, a world is in the midst of changing even if the characters don’t quite realize it.
This past week’s release of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, has me thinking of the first time I was aware of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the book, but the film, which I saw with my aunt and grandmother at a drive-in theater when I was seven. I remember being completely engrossed with the world of Scout and Jem and Dill; the more adult elements of the film weren’t yet within my grasp. I have to believe that my aunt and grandmother were counting on that fact, assuming, of course, that they knew in advance that the film dealt with complicated issues of race and class and sexuality and gender, which, of course, they may not have known. Drive-in movies gave us somewhere to go in our small Midwestern town. For some reason, my aunt and grandmother were responsible for my care on that particular evening. Maybe they needed something to entertain me. Maybe it was just that. Maybe we were just going to a show.
Is it just me, or has narrative fallen out of favor with a large number of creative nonfiction writers? While I admire the lyric, the experimental, and all the forms that we continue to create in this extremely elastic genre, I still encourage young writers not to be so quick to dismiss narrative because narrative has much to teach us about the line of inquiry we take into our material even if we’re not interested in telling stories. From narrative, we learn about the treatment of characters, including our own; the contemplation of detail; the route to the often contradictory sensibility of the essayist; the pathway to the essays that call us urgently to the page; the means by which we consider the plurality of the lived life. Narrative gives us the foundation from which to diverge when the material, or our own personal aesthetics, require it.
I’ve been spending some time lately wandering through cemeteries, chasing down departed ancestors. I particularly love the old country graveyards, some of them alongside small churches, some of them on hillsides along gravel roads, some of them only accessible by driving through a farmer’s barn lot or down grassy lanes between cornfields. The stones are sometimes so worn that I have to trace the letters with my fingers to make out the names of the dead. My great-great-grandmother’s stone has fallen to the ground and most of it is blackened from the elements, but still at its top her name is perfectly legible, Elizabeth J. Beneath that name, I trace the letters etched into the stone and make out the last name, “Martin.”
Give me this day a focus of mind,
a love of the word,
a willingness to try to understand those who confound me,
a patience with my own shortcomings,
a forgiveness for every time I didn’t write as well as I might have,
compassion from those I’ve hurt,
tolerance for those who have offended me.
Open my heart to the world in all its mysteries and contradictions.
Keep me from pride.
Keep me from envy.
Help me to be thankful,
to be ever mindful of this gift,