It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’ve agreed to speak to a local writers’ group that meets in a banquet room at an MCL Cafeteria. I’m doing this instead of working on the draft of an essay that I’m eager to finish, instead of prepping for the two workshops I’ll teach this week, instead of writing the numerous letters of recommendation that are waiting for me, instead of reading the book I’ve agreed to blurb, or the manuscript I’ve agreed to review for a press. I’m gathered with twelve people in this banquet room because I have trouble saying no.
My practice has been to nearly always say yes when someone asks me to do something even though it surely costs me time for my own work. I’ll admit to sometimes being grumpy about it, but then I tell myself that’s bad form. Make your decision and live with it. I’m trying to be a good soldier. I’m trying to pass on what I know.
Would I rather be in my own writing room working on that essay? You bet. But I’m not; I’m here in this banquet room with twelve people whose common ground is their love of expressing themselves in writing.
I start by talking about how the writer has to be aware, has to be the sort, as Henry James said, “upon whom nothing is lost.” Then I read one of my essays, in which the following line appears: “Sometimes we touch the world, and sometimes the world touches back.” The essay, “The Classified Ad,” is from my most recent collection, Such a Life. The essay tells the story of how I saw an ad in my hometown newspaper from a woman who was trying to find her brother, who had been adopted. Beneath that storyline, though, are issues of family, loneliness, regret. I saw the ad and I knew the man the woman was trying to find. He was the boy who kicked me in the leg in grade school at a time when my teacher had instituted the Old Testament law of an eye for an eye. I was supposed to kick him back. I describe this moment in my first memoir, From Our House. It’s a moment, as I say in “The Classified Ad,” that squeezed me onto a fine line between compassion and cruelty and determined so much of what I would write in both fiction and nonfiction.
If you know my story, you know that my father lost his hands in a farming accident and became an angry man. You know about our difficult relationship. You also know about this boy, David, and how at my young age I sensed that the last thing he needed was for me to obey my teacher and kick him back. He came from a poor family, he wasn’t athletic, or good with his lessons. He was on the outside.
In “The Classified Ad,” I help his sister find him, and one night near Christmas he calls to thank me. I describe how I sit in my study looking out at my neighbor’s garish Christmas light display while I talk to David, who is in his sister’s home at a party to celebrate their reunion.
In the question and answer session after my reading, a man asks why I spent so much time talking about those Christmas lights. I tell him I used the description to pace the scene of dialogue but also to contain the emotions that come fully to the surface at the end of the essay. When I wrote about those lights, I exaggerated the curmudgeonly part of me that thinks people with such displays are smug, that they’re projecting a happiness that we unadorned folks don’t have. Just now, I first typed “unadored,” as in loveless, which is the feeling that comes over me at the end of the essay. The description of those lights—the juxtaposition of that gaiety with the celebration in David’s sister’s house, and also with the quiet in my own house, was necessary to creating the end of the essay.
The man who asked the question looks skeptical, and I’m afraid he’s not getting it. Then he says, “That’s a good technique. I’m working on a story now, and you’ve just given me some ideas.”
That’s why I say yes. I know there’s always a chance I’ll say something that will make a difference for someone. I might be able to offer something that will save a writer, no matter how skilled or unskilled, some time.
I say yes because when I was a boy, another boy named David kicked me in the leg, and my teacher told me to kick him back. I say yes because, when I did, I was so ineffectual that he laughed at me. I say yes because I remember how that made me feel, like I was the one on the outside, lost, hoping that someone might help me.