The Last Time: Using the Past to See the Present and the Future
Last night, at The Ohio State University, we commemorated the conferring of MFAs on this year’s class with a gala reading from their work. We call this event Epilog. I’ve always wondered why whoever named the event didn’t go with the preferred spelling, Epilogue, but, no matter, the meaning is the same: an addition that comes at the end of a literary work.
So here we are at the end of things, which, as we all know, is really the beginning of something else, something yet to be defined, something yet to come. I’m thinking about how writing about last things can lead to thoughts about the present and the future. Too often, young writers of creative nonfiction are so dedicated to recalling the past, they miss the opportunity to make that past revelatory of times to come. We write about where we’ve been to better know where we are now and where we’re going.
With that in mind, here’s a writing activity designed for creative nonfiction writers who want to use past experiences as a way of exploring the present and the future. Of course, if you’re a fiction writer, you can easily adjust the following prompts to fit a character you’re working with in a story or a novel. I imagine the activity might help you better understand the sources of that character’s behavior in the dramatic present of the narrative you’re constructing.
- Begin by recalling a last time. Maybe it’s the last time you saw a loved one, the last time you talked to them, the last time you did a favorite activity, the last time you felt (fill in the blank). Take whatever liberty you need to with this prompt so it takes you to a moment from the past that you still revisit, a moment that evokes a sense of loss.
- Now take that moment into the present, using this line as a prompt: “I carry this with me when I . . . .” The key is to be very specific about particular moments from your present that you suspect are influenced by this memory from your past.
- Now, let’s look to the future, using this line as a prompt: “If I could only let it go, I’d. . . .” Be specific about the ways you think your life would be different if you’d never experienced this loss. “I imagine myself. . . .”
- Finish by challenging the observation you made in step 3. Find the positives in the loss you’re recalling. “If it hadn’t been for that, I never would have. . . .”
What haunts us—our missteps, our obsessions, our losses, our regrets—are never only about the people we were at the time. They’re always about the people we’ve become and the ones we’re in the process of becoming. Writers of creative nonfiction can use the past to make sense of their presents and their futures.
Right on the nail, Lee.
Thanks so much, Dianne.
A lesson worth learning.