Last week, I made a post about the role dislocation may play in the creative process. More specifically, I invited you to think about the moments in your own lives when you felt like an outsider. I also invited you to think about narrative as a response to these moments of dislocation. How do these moments attach themselves to us, helping to form us as writers, and how can we transform them into stories, either fictional or personal narratives, that readers will find not merely interesting, but also compelling?
It seems to me that the development of the writer begins as a covert operation, a process not openly acknowledged or displayed. Within our moments of dislocation, particularly those of our childhoods, we’re ignorant of what’s happening to our heightened powers of observation and to the emotional depth and sway of the moments we’re experiencing. In short, we’re unaware of how we’ll carry those moments and what they’re teaching us about human behavior forward into the writing we’ll one day do. Our evolution as writers depends on our growing awareness of exactly these things: the knowledge that seemingly mundane details carry with them the emotional complexity of our lives; the way to use these details to write more vertically down through the layers of these complex emotions; the awareness that life and the people in it, including ourselves, are usually made up of contradictions. As we begin to write, we’re eventually able to see ourselves as interpreters, not only cataloging the details of experience but also using them to come to a fuller understanding of how what happens is instructive, showing us something about ourselves, others, and the world around us in a way that gives us more truth than we think we have the right to expect.
Such awareness often comes with a price. In narrative, we either recreate a personal experience or else transform that experience into a fictional world that transfers what we’ve learned through our own living to invented characters and situations. Either way, we sometimes run into truths that we don’t wish to acknowledge because of what they say about us, our loved ones, or human beings in general. But if we have courage—if we have faith in a strong sense of who we are, not only as writers but as people—we can face these complex emotional moments and communicate them to readers in ways that will allow them to share our wonder, our dismay, our urgent responses to the marks those experiences have left on us. There may indeed be a price all writers pay if they’re writing about something that really matters, but there may also be something to be gained. We carry our stories to others because it’s our human instinct to have someone listen as we try to explain our lives to ourselves.
I suggested last week that I might have a writing activity this week, one that will help us translate emotionally complex moments of dislocation for readers. Here it is:
1. Identify a moment of dislocation for yourself, either small or large. Come up with a moment in which you felt very much like an outsider, or very far from what you’d always known, or lost in some way.
2. Catalog the sensory details that you associate with that moment: what did you see, hear, smell, taste, touch?
3. Write a brief passage that records that moment through the sensory details alone. You might begin with the prompt, “I (or a fictional character or persona you’re creating) remember/ remembered the. . . .” Fill in the blank with a few sensory details. Don’t they to record everything, just the ones that most strongly resonate with you.
4. What to you know from the details? Have they brought you to some sort of discovery? Write a line or two that communicates what you’ve found. You might begin with the prompt, “I (or again the fictional character of persona) didn’t/don’t know, then, that. . . .”
As a means of illustrating how this writing activity can work, I’ll close with a few sections from my essay, “Never Thirteen,” which appears in my memoir, Such a Life. The essay features my first kiss, my separation from the girl when my family moved back downstate for my high school years, and questions of what it means to truly love someone. In this section, I’ve come home from my girlfriend’s house, and I’m listening to my mother shave my father behind the closed door of our bathroom. Because it was difficult for my father to shave himself with his prosthetic hands, this was a task my mother performed daily. I rarely saw any physical affection between my parents, but on this day, I came to a better understanding of what love-making really meant, and it was the sensory details—ones I’d barely noticed previously, but ones that now contained a significance that a combination of events had prepared me to acknowledge:
When I get home, my mother and father are in the bathroom, the door closed, and I know from the way my father says in a quiet voice, “Be careful on my throat,” that my mother is shaving him. I can hear the safety razor scraping over his whiskers, the swish of water as my mother rinses the razor, and the clacking sound it makes as she taps it on the edge of the sink. . . .I can never fully know the accommodations they had to make after my father lost his hands, but I can remember their murmurs behind closed doors—the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves, as soothing as the rill of a brook hidden in a deep woods, a private code between them—and know that all the while I thought them impotent and numb they were making love each day right before my eyes, and I was too blind to see it; I was too busy being young.
In that moment of dislocation, I was a voyeur to someone else’s life. When I put that moment on the page, I became an interpreter of their experience, which then led me to a question about my own, a question I’d never known to pose until I started writing:
I listen to the sounds their bodies make as they move: the harness of my father’s hooks squeaking as he turns his head and shoulders, my mother’s soft-soled shoes sliding over the tile floor, the gentle whisk of her dress as it brushes across my father’s twill trousers.
I listen to their dance, and I think about Beth and the way we clung to each other behind the woodpile. Suddenly, in the presence of my parents’ gentle and selfless choreography, my future opens, and it terrifies me with its broad expanse of time, its uncertain possibilities. I step into my adult life, wondering how long I’ll need to live, how much I’ll need to lose, to learn to love like this.