Writing Toward Understanding

I just got back from a family reunion in southeastern Illinois, and next month I go to my fiftieth high school class reunion. The events have me thinking about a writing exercise that should work for both fiction and creative nonfiction.

Maybe you’ve had the experience of being close to someone and then drifting apart, either by a lack of effort to stay in touch, or maybe by a direct wound or insult that severed your ties. If you’re writing creative nonfiction, you might begin by presenting the facts of how you and someone you were once close to came apart. Maybe sometime later you had the chance to meet up with that person. Did you take that chance? Why or why not? If you never saw that person again, what do you think would happen if you did. What would you say and/or do? What do you think the other person would say and/or do? Write a speculative piece where you imagine this meeting.

If you’re writing fiction, perhaps you can use this prompt to develop your characters, and by extension, your plot.

Remember, you’re not writing for forgiveness or redemption, and you’re not writing for revenge. You’re writing because you want a deeper understanding of what happened in your relationship with this other person. What is it you don’t know? What have you always wondered about? This is your chance to write your way toward a better appreciation of the factors involved in the split. It’s an opportunity to understand the sources of your behavior as well as that of the other person.

If anyone would like to share what they end up writing, just post it in a comment.




  1. Angela on July 13, 2023 at 12:09 am

    Peti pulled onto Mema’s street and scanned the numbers on the houses dotting the abandoned neighborhood. None of the houses looked familiar, but Mema’s restored flower bed – even in late winter – was a beacon to her door. Uncle Calvin, grizzled face and shoulders bent, sat on the steps studying her as she got out of the rental car.
    “I hardly recognized Mema’s… your house,” Peti said.
    “Used to be.” Calvin’s soul patch had grown into a scruffy beard that filled the slot in his open-collared shirt. “This one’s the replacement.”
    “Calvin, it’s Peti.”
    “I know.” He gave her a hard stare and then looked past her down the street. “Ma said you’d be here today.”
    Peti leaned toward her uncle, ready for a hug, but Calvin stayed seated and patted his pockets like he was feeling for something. She brushed past him, maneuvering her luggage past his elbow sticking out as he pulled a tobacco pouch from his pocket. His hair was gray, sparse on the top. She recognized the same hairline as her father’s.
    Calvin had been attentive to Peti as a little girl, taking her to the docks to watch bags of oysters being loaded into refrigerated trucks. Even though he was on the docks during the day and playing in clubs at night, Calvin made time for Peti. Today he seemed bothered that she was there.
    Before Peti had a chance to knock, her grandmother flung open the door.
    “My lands, Peti, didn’t you grow up to be a beautiful woman.” Her grandmother pulled her inside.
    “Mema, you look amazing.” Peti felt her bony frame through a thin house dress as they hugged. “Same as the last time I was here.” Peti started to touch her grandmother’s soft waves of snow-white hair, but her grandmother grabbed her hand and kissed the palm.
    “Now don’t go fibbin’ before God and your grandmother,” Mema said. “Get in here where I can see ya better.” Mema pulled out a chair. “Tell me what you been upta.”
    Peti pointed to the porch as she sat down. “I saw Uncle Calvin on the steps.”
    “Yep, that’s Calvin. Don’t mind him, Boo. He’s a right miserable man.”
    Peti loved to be called Boo, further evidence that Mema loved her Yankee granddaughter very much.
    “What happened? Calvin used to have that job harvesting oysters, and he’d take me to the docks to see the haul.” Peti had loved clasping his meaty hand that stayed closed today. “Doesn’t he work anymore?”
    “You remember rightly.” Mema smoothed a wrinkle in her dress. “Oystermen are havin’ a hard time these days, have for a while now. He mopes ‘round most days, pitiful like.”
    “Was it Katrina? Did Calvin lose his job after the flood?”
    “Naw, Katrina was the nail, but the oil spill was the hammer,” Mema said. “The oyster beds, they came back a couple years after Katrina.” She shook her head. ”But the oil, it did most of ‘em in, one way or t’other.”

    • Lee Martin on July 13, 2023 at 11:46 am

      Dear Angela. Thank you so much for sharing this. I feel the distance between Calvin and Peti in a heartbreaking way, but I also feel the knowledge that Mema brings Peti with her explanation at the end. I love the detail of Peti holding to Calvin’s meaty hand as a girl, and I also love the way you’ve captured the flavor of the characters’ dialogue. Above all, though, I feel the deeper understanding that Peti has. Thank you, again.

  2. Angela on July 29, 2023 at 7:58 pm

    I appreciate the feedback from a Pulitzer finalist, and I suspect you’re being very kind. Your posts are instructive and entertaining. Thanks for the words.

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