I was scrolling through Facebook one day when I came upon some photos my former neighbor had posted—photos of classic cars that he’d owned in the small town where we both lived when we were teenagers and then young men. In one of the photos, my parents’ house is clearly visible, my father’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 parked in our front yard. It’s always a bit of a shock to see a visual representation of some part of our past lives. Often, as in this case, we come upon it accidentally. We look at a photograph, and then suddenly realize that the background contains something of who we once were: someone we remember, but not quite; someone we carry with us, even though we can never again fully be that person. The same is true for family members, especially those who are now gone. We see an image of the people they were—maybe we see something they once owned like a house or a car, or maybe we see the people themselves, and even though we ache to reconstitute their lives, we know we’re doomed to fail. Those of us who write memoir or personal essays know well the feeling of almost being able to reach back through time to touch our family members again, only to have a hollow feeling when we’ve put them on the page because the only time they were ever wholly who they were is gone forever. Still, we face this challenge each time we write our stories. We keep trying to accurately represent the people we once knew.
It’s harvest time here in the Midwest. Farmers are busy cutting beans and corn. The days are getting shorter. Leaves are starting to have some color. The nights are loud with the sounds of insects busy getting ready for the winter. This is a time for gathering.I know we’re tempted to think of autumn as a death of sorts and winter the long grieving period before the rebirth of spring, but these days, nearing my 60th birthday, I’m concentrating on collecting and celebrating and looking forward to the lovely days ahead. I’m thinking of autumn, not as an end, but a new beginning. I’m thinking of winter as a time of renewal.
When The American Scholar invited the essayist, Brian Doyle, to write something in response to the horrific events of 9/11, Doyle’s replied, “No, there is nothing to write. The only thing to say is nothing. Bow your head in prayer and pray whatever prayers you pray. There is nothing to say.” But, as Jennifer Sinor reports in her piece on voice in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, the events of 9/11 wouldn’t leave Doyle alone, and eventually he realized that in order to move on into the future, he would have to meet that day on the page. The result is the stunning essay, “Leap,” that focuses on a man and a woman who, hand in hand, jumped from the south tower. Sinor rightly tells us that voice results from a writer internalizing his or her subject and then being willing to be vulnerable on the page. Doyle’s essay is a marvelous example of exactly that in the way he immerses himself in the subject matter through research and the way he finds his own stakes there—his sense of his humanity and the human capacity for love.
We’re starting to make the turn toward autumn. Soy bean plants are yellowing in the fields. Cornstalks are starting to turn from green to brown. Goldenrod colors fence rows.
Too often, I hear people disparage the Midwest for its lack of dramatic scenery. Here in the heartland, we learn to notice subtlety and nuance. Look out across a soybean field this time of year and you’ll see the various shades of yellow: amber and mustard, poppy and flax. In the cornstalks, you’ll see chartreuse and pear, ochre and copper.
On Labor Day, I like to give thanks for the fact that I’m able to spend a good portion of my time moving words about on the page. When I left college between my junior and senior year, I worked for a year and a half in the press room at a tire repairs manufacturing plant. I burned my arms on the presses, I breathed silicon fumes, I worked ten hour days, I came home so tired in the evenings that often all I could do was bathe, eat, and fall asleep. I can’t tell you how much I admire the people who labor with their bodies. That work taught me much about perseverance, about working when I didn’t feel like working, about determination, dedication, dreams. That job was a pivotal time in my life. I saved my money, and I went back to school. From then on, I was a serious student. I wanted to be a writer and a teacher. I’ve been fortunate enough to be exactly that for a good number of years now. Everything I’ve accomplished began with the work ethic I learned when I did that factory job. I learned to put my head down and go, to shoulder through the hard hours, to just keep working. With that in mind, I offer up these ten quotes about the work of the writer. Keep doing the good work, my friends. Give thanks for it every day.
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.