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.
The essay opens with the memory of my nearly-blind grandmother, who lived with us when I was a small boy, listening to the faith healer Oral Roberts and his television program on Sunday mornings. A distant cousin told me years and years after my grandmother’s death that she had “healing hands.” I remember the night she saved me from one of my father’s whippings by pressing a hot teacup into his bare arm. I wrote about that moment in my memoir, From Our House, but I’d never considered her perspective of the accident that cost my father both of his hands and the anger he brought into our house until this essay that I’m working on now.
I remember those Oral Roberts shows so well and the way he healed the afflicted. So throughout the essay I’m working with that image of the healer and I’m connecting it to my grandmother, who through her action, brings my father to a moment when he momentarily puts away his anger, and I reach out to him with tenderness. Why shouldn’t that be enough to give the essay its resonance?
I’ve realized that the reason the essay lacks power at the end isn’t the scene upon which it ends, but the fact that I haven’t fully looked at healing in the essay. Sometimes we can be too narrowly focused on an image or a metaphor. We can think we know exactly what it means and where it should lead us. We have to be open to surprise. The metaphor or image has to evolve so by the time we have our last reference to it, it’s taken on qualities it didn’t at first have.
In my essay, I’ve been so focused on my grandmother as healer, that I’ve forgotten myself as healer. Not the boy I was, but the man I am. From my position now, I want to give my father’s hands back to him. I want to reconstruct them from flesh and muscle and bone. Even though he’s been dead thirty-three years, I want him to be able to take off his hooks and never have to put them on again. I want him to throw off his anger, so he and I can begin to live the life we should have had.
I wasn’t getting to that in the early drafts of the essay. I wasn’t giving the central image the freedom it needs to grow, and by so doing, to take me more deeply into the material. This proves that once we think we know exactly where a piece is going, we’re in trouble. We’ve locked it down. It has no life of its own. It can only be what we’ve decided it is. Essays and stories and poems are built from leaps in thought and emotion and incident. They must unfold like a dream in which anything is possible. We have to invite chaos in order to be open to what we’ve come to the page to say. I don’t want to know what that is until the page tells me. Now that it has, I have more revising to do. That’s the exciting work. Keep doing it, my friends.