Brenda Miller writes about how paying attention to form in creative nonfiction can invite the writer to make “inadvertent revelations where the writer no longer seems in complete control.” She says, “Form essentially becomes the writer’s inky courage.” Here, then, is a writing activity I developed that asks the writer to work with metaphor as a way of coming at emotional material indirectly. If it works, the activity should make the following possible (again, quoting Brenda): “Revelation or discovery emerges organically from the writing; the essay now seems to reveal information about the writer rather than the writer revealing these tidbits directly to the reader.” Sometimes our material is too emotional for us to face head-on. Sometimes we need a form in which to contain it. By paying attention to the artistry, we can discover what we have to say. Here, then, are the steps of the activity, followed by the essay I wrote in response to the prompts.
1. Choose an abstraction to write about, something large and intense like grief, or sorrow, or love, or joy.
2. Daydream a list of particular emotional memories that the abstraction calls up in you. Write a paragraph focusing on one of those memories. Begin with the line, “I remember. . . .”
3. Now do a bit more daydreaming. When you think of the moment you’ve portrayed in the first paragraph, what other memories come to you? Grab onto one of them and make that the focus of your second paragraph, moving forward or backward in time.
4. In the third paragraph, concentrate on a particular object that comes from one of your memories. This object will be the title of your 750-or-fewer word essay. Describe the object. Put it into action. Gather the details that will lead to your final paragraph.
5. In this last paragraph, let the object grow into a metaphor for the intense emotional meaning rising in the essay. Write a simile, such as “That sloth is as slow as grief.” (From Jill Christman’s “The Sloth,” a much better example than my own essay.)
6. Find a fact with which to open the essay. Add a sentence to the beginning. Find a way to evoke that fact at the end.
A buoyant object floats in the air without using energy. It goes as it goes. I remember an afternoon in April—this was forty years ago—when I drove home with the sort of carefree delight that an eighteen-year-old boy can have in spring. My parents were waiting for me, and had been for some time, but I didn’t know it. My father said, “Where have you been?” My mother’s face was set with what I now know was worry. I was to drive them to the hospital, she said. My father had been ill in a way that I took little note of, and now the doctor was admitting him for tests. It was my Easter vacation from school, and I’d been at the state park with some friends. We’d been flying kites, and I had no reason to think that my parents might be in need of me. A sunny day, a cloudless sky, daffodils in bloom, the smell of grass, a fresh wind—I thought I had all the time in the world. But when my mother said, “We went out looking for you,” I knew that I was wrong. Standing in my house, I felt cut loose from all that was familiar and safe, swept up in time’s irrepressible current, and yet anchored to all that was yet to come.
Days later, in the parking lot of the hospital, my mother told me, “Your dad has cancer.” Just like that, something inside broke free and left me forever.
I’ve never forgotten the way I held onto the string as overhead the kite tugged at me. I bent back my head and watched it flit and dip and soar. I heard the plastic shudder and pop on its balsa wood sticks. I felt each change of direction, the kite going slack or taut.
Now I think of quail and goldfinches and the way they bob and dip. Swallows swoop and arc. All according to their instincts for flight. All in a beautiful and graceful motion. But this kite, glorious as it was, shook with the wind, rose and fell in a ragged and unpredictable way. No fault of its own. It was plastic and light wood at the mercy of the air currents. I did my best to hold it steady. I felt the strain of it trying to keep itself aloft. I thought, This kite is as stupid as misery. How easy it would have been to open my hand and let it go. In the end, I couldn’t save my father, nor can I save myself or anyone I love. Still, that day, only a length of string between me and the sky, I kept faith. I believed in the miracle of flight. I held on.