Again? New Perspectives on Old Material
Continuing to respond to your requests for blog posts about particular topics, I turn my attention this week to the question of how I’m able to write about my parents again and again while coming at that material from fresh angles.
To be honest, sometimes I worry about my returning to the story of my family over and over. I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home throughout my childhood and on into my teenage years. Then I think about what a notable writer said—maybe it was Fitzgerald, maybe it was Flaubert (some of you will surely know)—about a writer being lucky to figure out early on what his obsessions were and to spend a lifetime writing about them.
No single event in my life has shaped the rest of it the way my father’s accident did. I keep trying to write myself out of it, but I never quite succeed. That’s why I have to go back and tell it again. The key to writing about the same material over and over is to find a fresh perspective. I try to change the camera’s lens. For example, I just finished an essay about my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her blindness and her belief in the faith healer, Oral Roberts. Through her story, I approach the story of my father in this piece called “The Healing Line.” The central event of the narrative is a moment I’ve written before from my own perspective. Writing about it this time, I look at it through my grandmother’s perspective, through the circumstances of her life, and I find something new because I do that.
In another newly finished essay, my father’s story comes to the page through the story of a night when a strange young man, lost and confused, came into our house. I use his desperation, his cry for help, his reaching out to my mother as a way of thinking about the secret anger we were trying to keep hidden inside our home.
My key, then, to revisiting the same material numerous times is to always find a different lens through which to see that which won’t leave me alone. My obsession, it seems, is never ending, as, of course, true obsessions always are, but the position from which I see is always moving, using different characters or situations as my viewfinder. The end result for me is a fuller picture of my own experience. I learn something new with each essay that I write. If the material is richly complicated, as this story of my family is, I’m not sure one will ever run out of new ways to explore it as long as the writer is open to the slightly off center perspective that other characters or stylistic choices can provide.
Thanks, Lee. It’s good to know about your creative process. I learn so much from this blog.
Thanks, Denise. Happy Holidays to you!
Thanks for this, Lee.
You bet, Jill. Not sure how useful it was, but it got me to articulate some things that I hope others may be thinking about.
Well put Lee. I also like to write about the same thing(s) over and over … my father is a “sweet/sour” spot for me as well. Thanks.
Thanks, David. The complicated things, like father-son relationships, bear going over again and again.
Thank you Lee. Wisdom.
Thank you, Dianne, for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
In no meaningful order, a few impressions(your posts always spark some good hard thinking about essay making):
1. “. . . I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home throughout my childhood and on into my teenage years. ”
Maybe I was just in a perverse mood, Lee, but I couldn’t help peeling that line off from the others; and on its own, it’s a brilliant piece of passive-aggressiveness. “Yeah, I worry that you lily-livered, pampered and fragile bourgeois types are getting tired of the kind of real suffering you can’t be bothered with”.
2. “No single event in my life has shaped the rest of it the way my father’s accident did”. Lucky bastard, was my first thought, well, a nan0-second long thought.
But I think that inane thought gets at something all essayists struggle with. We’re afraid of being seen as narrow-minded or narrow-hearted, but we also crave some big narrative that’s chewy wherever you bite into it.
3. The fact is, your family story would become tedious were it not for the grace, the intelligence, and the poetry of your writing. Even the most dramatic personal story can grow stale in the telling were it not for the ability of the writer to turn it over and over, as you do. I would mention that you also write about other events and stages in your life, so that your essay collections never seem claustrophobic.
By the way, observant Jews read the five Books of Moses from cover to cover every year, finding new ways to understand it and read themselves into the portions they read each week on Shabbat. Of course, one needs a story of some heft to dig into.
Thanks again, Lee, for helping us think about what we’re doing, or trying to do.
Stuart, thanks so much for these throughtful comments. It’s the turning things over and over that makes the difference, yes? I wish you and yours a peaceful and joyous holiday season.