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,
Painted in white letters on a lane of the high school track where I sometimes run or walk is the word, “Finish.” Each time I passed it on Father’s Day this year, I thought of how my own father made sure I understood the importance of completing what I started. I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating now. Whenever I complained that I couldn’t do something he wanted me to do—loosen a nut, fit a grease gun to a zerk—he’d say, “Can’t never did nothing.” How true about so much, but especially true when it comes to writing. Can’t never finished nothing.
When I was a small child, my father always told me the flags flew on June 14 because it was his birthday. It’s true that the 14th was the date of his birth, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that the real reason the flags flew was because it was Flag Day. Although he’s been dead since 1982, each year on the 14th I see the flags on display and I think of the joy my father took in telling me that story.
I recently had the pleasure of teaching at a writers’ retreat sponsored by The Sun Magazine in North Carolina, and I came away with what I always do when I’m a part of such groups: a reinforced belief in the power of the written word. Not that I ever doubted—I’ve always believed that writing is as essential as air and water and food; at least it is to me—but still it’s good to see the evidence in what transpires between participants at such events.
Someone asked me recently if I ever cry while writing fiction. This person said it had happened to. . .um. . .a friend of his, and the “friend” found it alarming. As fate would have it, I’d just read something that the singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams said about how her father, the poet, Miller Williams, taught her to not censor herself when she wrote. “I met a young man who came to me for advice on how to be a good songwriter,” she said, “and I told him don’t be afraid to dig into the deepest part of yourself and face your demons. He gave me the saddest look and said, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ He was afraid to do that. I felt bad for him. It never occurred to me that someone would be too afraid of doing that.”
On this Memorial Day, I’m thinking about peonies, which, for some reason, folks in my part of southeastern Illinois always called “pineys,” with a long “i” as in “pine,” meaning to long for.
On our farm, when I was a boy, we had peony bushes along the edge of the side yard where each summer the grass gave way to the start of my parents’ vegetable garden. Each year on what we called Decoration Day, my mother cut the “pineys” (we had crimson and pink and white) and arranged them in coffee cans wrapped in foil paper. She filled in around the flowers with loose gravel I gathered from our lane, making arrangements we could leave on the family graves in the country cemeteries where my ancestors, all of them farm folks from Lawrence and Richland Counties, were buried.