I imagine that most of us, given our druthers, would choose to live an orderly, measured life, but, of course, we know that isn’t possible. Something always goes wrong, either a small bump, or a life-altering event. I’ve come to think that such changes are necessary to the writer. Some sort of dislocation occurs, and we write in response to it.
At least, it’s always been that way for me. As many of you know, when I was barely a year old, my father lost both his hands in a farming accident. My mother took me to live with my aunt and uncle while my father was in the hospital. When he finally came home, carrying with him a deep anger, and I was reunited with my parents, the lives we lived as a family were forever changed. I grew up with a sharp awareness of how life can separate into before and after. I also knew early on the desire to return us to a stable place. I couldn’t articulate any of this then, but surely I felt it deep inside me—the feeling that we were in trouble, that my father’s accident and his subsequent anger made loving in the way we had before that day impossible. Our day to day lives would always be shadowed by the accident and all it had cost my father, my mother, and me. We’d literally been lifted from one life and set down into another.
Isn’t this what narratives do? Don’t they usually open in the midst of some sort of instability, some sort of trouble—some sort of dislocation, if you will? Don’t our characters—whether they be ones we invent, or whether they be ones we represent in memoir—strive with their words and actions to return to a place of stability?
It’s interesting to me, then, to think about the role dislocation plays in the process by which we become writers. I should say here that dislocation doesn’t always come from large events like my father’s accident. Sometimes it comes from something smaller and more manageable. For instance, I moved with my parents from our farm in southeastern Illinois to a southern suburb of Chicago when I was seven. Suddenly, I was the new kid in a land very culturally different from the rural home I’d left. Or how about the time when my father took me into the small town closest to our farm one Saturday so I could watch the cartoon shows at the high school gymnasium. How foreign the other kids seemed to me even though we lived only ten miles apart. In all of these cases, my senses became heightened. I watched closely, observing the way people behaved, the clothes they wore, their mannerisms, etc. I cataloged everything I could that might be useful to me if I wanted to fit in. My desire was to be normal, to feel that I belonged, to believe that everything would be all right. In a way, I suppose I started constructing narratives in my mind that convinced me that life could return to a safe, familiar place. I could stop my father’s accident from happening, I could keep us on the farm, I could be a kid just like the kids I saw around me in that gym.
I suppose I’ve always written to try to save someone. Narrative exists for me because I believe in redemption even when, often, life itself doesn’t seem convinced such salvation is possible. I obsess over my father’s accident. I’m sure some of you think I write about it and the aftermath way too much. But, you see, I can’t stop, and I guess that’s because I don’t want to accept the fact that the accident happened and threw my parents and me into a different life, one more challenging and difficult. I keep trying to write my way back to a better place. I do the same when I write fiction. I create characters who have their own troubles, their own dislocations, and I tell their stories in hopes that they, too, can return to less troubled lives.
The point of all this? To invite you to think about your own moments of dislocation, large or small. To recall what it felt like to be the person you were at those times. To think about how you tap into those feelings each time you write.
Stay tuned. I’m feeling my way through these thoughts, and I have more thinking to do. Please feel free to help me with your comments. Perhaps next week I’ll have a writing exercise to help us put to use the sorts of things I’m asking us to do.