When we write personal narratives, we are both the participant and the spectator, both a character in a story and the narrator of that story. From each position, we can adjust the angle of vision, moving the camera slightly, in order to increase our understanding of the people in our lives and the situations that make up our experiences. Too much “me time” isn’t necessarily good for our narratives, which can start to feel claustrophobic if the writer doesn’t invite us to see and feel from perspectives located less closely to the interior.
I was talking with a friend the other day about revisiting the past—the often-painful past—when we write memoir. My friend admitted to having night terrors when her work with the story of her mother became too intense. Eventually the conversation swung around to the question of why we do this. Why do we keep going over our stories when often the act of telling them affects us so deeply?
I tried the usual answers. We write about the past in order to document it, to preserve it, to come to terms with it, to move beyond it. “Yes,” my friend said, “but why is all that important to you?”
This was one of those mornings when I didn’t want to work out, but I knew that if I did, I’d end up feeling better about myself and the world in general. Sometimes we have those days, those days of “just don’t want to”—and, of course, the easy thing is to “just not,” but sometimes if we force ourselves to do just a little bit, we suddenly find that we’ve done a lot.
Take from this what you will.
There came a time, toward the end of my father’s life—though we had no way of knowing the days were running out—when I had to bathe him. My mother, his caretaker ever since the farming accident that cost him his hands, was in the hospital, and so I did what she had faithfully done for twenty-six years. I helped him out of the canvas harness that held his prostheses—his hooks, he always called them. I undid the safety pins from his tee-shirt sleeves, the pins that fastened his arm socks to those sleeves and kept them from drooping. I pulled the tee-shirt over his head. The skin on his neck was red from sun, his chest and stomach were white. I helped him out of his trousers, and then I tugged down his boxer shorts.
This is the time of year, nearing graduation, when a number of newly minted MFAs find themselves wondering what their futures hold. They’ve put in their time. They’ve written and studied and taught. They’ve practiced their craft. Many have even published in a few journals. On the whole, they’re writing better than they did when they entered their programs, full of optimism and allowing themselves to dream all good things.
But now what?
There’s a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis whose glass panels catch the reflection of a smaller skyscraper opposite it. To look upon the taller skyscraper makes one believe that the smaller one is rising up inside it.
This is how an essay can work. One structure can contain another. The first gives us an organizing principle; it also provides a point of focus, the thing upon which we keep our eyes.
But so much is going on outside our field of vision. A second structure is rising up, one that will eventually demand our attention. We don’t know what that second structure is, nor should we, when we’re writing our first drafts. We want it to surprise us, so it can also surprise the reader.
I saw a photograph once, but now it only exists in my memory. It was an 8 x 10 glossy of the congregation of the Berryville Church of Christ, the church I attended with my mother when I was a small child on our family farm. The church itself was a one-room affair with a brick chimney and white-washed clapboards. It sat a little ways south of Berryville proper, which is to say it was just a bit south of the Berryville General Store. My grandparents at one time managed that store. They lived cattycornered from it in a modest frame house. In March, 1956, my grandfather came home from church on a Sunday evening, had a heart attack, and died. I was five months old, and I would know him only through the things he left behind, the things I found later when I spent my pre-school days in my grandmother’s care—the cigarette lighters and pipe cleaners; the glass paperweights and the Bicycle playing cards; the Zane Grey novels and the concrete wishing well he built in the yard.
It took me a good while as a writer to trust the world I knew best—that world of small farms and towns and the men and women who worked hard at jobs that didn’t pay them nearly enough. Sometimes those people lived too large for their own good. Sometimes they made poor choices and suffered the consequences. They cut each other with knives, they burned down buildings just for the thrill of it, they left families to run off with someone not their wife or husband, they ended up in prison, they took a deal from a judge and went to the army to avoid ending up in prison, they lived lonely lives of regret because once upon a time they’d had a chance to really be somebody and then, like the years, that chance just went away. Despite whatever wrong turns they took or lives they wished for, they often found joy in the most simple things: a few hands of Pitch around a kitchen table, an ice cream social at the Methodist Church, a tenderloin sandwich carried home in a paper bag from Bea’s Cafe.
Spring has me thinking of summer—ah, glorious summer—a time that can seem like a call for renewal and fresh starts for the writer. Here are some things we can all do to get the most from that period of rejuvenation.
1. Get out of our comfort zones. Do something we never thought we’d do. Skydiving? Why not? Or something less dramatic. A trip to somewhere we’ve always wanted to go, a gift we’ve always wanted to make, an instrument we’ve always wanted to play, a sport we’ve always wanted to try. Whatever our choice, we can do something to expand our realm of experience.
Spring is creeping in, and isn’t it about time? Here in the heartland, we earn our springs. Temperatures above fifty, the sight of green shoots coming up in flowerbeds, birdsong at dawn—it’s enough to give us hope.
It takes a world of optimism to write a novel. We have to convince ourselves that such a thing is possible. So here in early spring, are some things I’ve learned.