Sometimes there are words. Sometimes there are big words with small ideas. Sometimes there are small words with big ideas. Sometimes you can push go. Sometimes you can hear the small words make big sounds. Sometimes there is big skill. Sometimes there are genres that you can only play. Sometimes there are platforms that don’t allow frames. Sometimes, to get the Bending Genre essay of the week, you have to click here. And then again, there.
One day nine years ago, I bellied up to the urinal next to a fantasy writer named Charlie. This was during the second year of my MFA, and the fiction class that Charlie and I were enrolled in had just finished workshopping a story of mine. After we zipped and flushed, Charlie said, “Hey, man. I heard one of your songs on the radio the other day. Good stuff. Really poppy.”
He was talking about Watershed, the band I’d played in since I was a teenager, the band whose budding success had driven me to drop out of college as an undergrad and, years later, whose frustrations had pushed me back to school to try for a master’s in creative nonfiction. As Charlie had said, Watershed’s songs are poppy—and fast. The kind of songs where boy-meets-and-loses-girl in three chords and three minutes. Every now and then one of them got played on the radio, and I smiled at how cool it was that a classmate had heard it. “Thanks, man,” I said.
Charlie turned toward the sinks. “But here’s what I’m wondering,” he said. “Why doesn’t your prose have that same kind of, I don’t know, concision, I guess. That same quick, hard burst of joy?”
His question stumped me for a second. I’d come out of that day’s workshop feeling good, thinking the class had liked my piece: 6,000 words chronicling a disintegrating marriage in the Detroit suburbs, via a painfully detailed backstory and narrated from the POV of (stick with me here) the wife’s Guatemalan trouble doll. Clever! Meta! This story had come on the heels of my first effort, an 8,000-word behemoth that was also about a rocky Michigan marriage, with an even more painfully detailed backstory, this time from the POV of a small town tow-truck driver. Gritty! With social class sensitivity!
My fiction was positively breezy compared to much of the nonfiction I’d been writing, longwinded essays that left no personal crisis unexamined. My fellow nonfictioneers were largely doing the same, and in our workshops we dissected pieces about death, disease, sexual abuse, and—that ever-present staple—white men plagued with chronic dissatisfaction. Now that I think about it, sitting next to some of my classmates’ manuscripts on that workshop table, my essays, earnest as they were, were comparatively lighthearted. But measured against the song Charlie had heard on the radio, a lot of my work was, well, what’s the opposite of poppy? Sludgy?
I don’t remember exactly how I answered Charlie in that bathroom, but I probably unleashed a screed about how prose writing gave me the space to delve deep into character, motivation, and the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. Because this was grad school, I likely used the word ontology. I almost certainly used privilege as a verb.
The truth is I didn’t know then why I could write concise and joyful songs but had trouble writing concise and joyful prose. I think I know now. As an MFA student, I didn’t yet have the experience or training to write poppy. I hadn’t earned the confidence. I thought that in order to be taken seriously, I had to take myself über-seriously. I thought that longer + sadder + darker = more important. I thought that real writers wrote in the minor key.
I see now that this was the same mistake I’d made as a high schooler in the mid-Eighties, when I first picked up a hand-me-down acoustic. I figured myself to be a smart kid. I was good at calculus and physics, and I dominated American civics. I knew I could easily become a chemical engineer or a lawyer. But those jobs were for pudgy suckers with Sansabelts and comb-overs. I was going to be a rock star. Not some headbanging baffoon, but a serious musician-type, like the guys in my favorite band back then, Rush. But every time I strung together the three chords I knew—A, D, and E—it always came out sounding silly and simple. How could that be? I read Ayn Rand. I was sincere, dammit. Striving to be intense. I wanted to write songs that mattered (the italics here indicate that I am bringing two clenched fists to my forehead in tormented earnestness—to be followed immediately by earnest torment).
One day I brought my acoustic over to my friend Colin’s house. He also played guitar, and he had decided that the two of us should start a band, the band that would eventually become Watershed. While I was strumming away on my trusty A-major chord, Colin told me to shift my index finger so that it sat on the first fret of the B-string. I wrestled my fingers into position, and there it was: A-minor, the sincere sound of my sincere heart. Ayn Rand played on six strings. From there I learned D-minor and E-minor, and before long I was writing lyrics like He finds disillusion here, disillusion there. He drinks from the well of his own despair. My minor-ness was boundless.
This reliance on minor keys didn’t last long—only all through high school and my first three years of college. But after my bandmates and I dropped out of school and into a rusty van, we learned what disillusion really looked like (playing humorless, five-minute ballads for the bartender and the doorman on a Tuesday night in Charleston, WV), and my sense of what counted as an important song changed. I stopped listening to Rush and started listening to the Replacements. I slid my index finger back to the major position and got to work writing three-minute power-pop tunes.
Why the switch in sensibility? If you would have asked me then, I would have said that I had finally figured out the kind of song I was actually good at writing: quick and catchy. I would have said that I’d gotten better at my craft and that “lightweight” pop songs are much harder to write than “serious” minor key dirges. I would have said that songwriters too often use the minor key as a shortcut to—or a substitute for—meaning, as if minor chords automatically give a song gravitas. I would have said, “Rock songs don’t need gravitas. They just need to fucking rock.” I would have used those exact words, and I would have been exactly right.
I’m twice as old now as I was then, so I can see that there’s an additional element I didn’t quite understand. Before I dropped out of school, everything I knew about heartbreak and hardship was purely theoretical. My life was simple. It kicked ass. I was a civics-dominating, Rush-loving, suburban kid with nothing more dire to worry about than talking my mom into letting me see the R-rated Risky Business at the megaplex. Because my day-to-day was so poppy, so major-keyed, I had the luxury of tormented earnestness. But as soon as I dropped out of school, hit the road, and started getting my ass kicked a little bit, then I lost the need to write glum and dark songs. When my life edged toward minor, it freed me up to write major. And by then I was a practiced enough songwriter to know how to do it.
Sorry for that painfully detailed backstory, but I’m exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present. And right now, in the present, my life still kicks ass, but it’s much more complicated than it was nine years ago when I had that exchange with Charlie or twenty years ago when the band was playing for the bartender and the doorman in West Virginia. Now I’m the father of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter. Now I have to think about the quality of the kindergarten I’ll soon be sending my son to. Now I have to monitor childhood speech development and cognitive milestones, and I have to find a way to explain to my kids that yes, we do in fact live on a big blue marble that circles the sun. And yes, some day the sun will go dark.
Now that my life is so wonderfully complex—and now that I’m a more experienced and confident prose writer—I’m trying to write with more sweetness and light. I’m trying to write with self-deprecation but not self-flagellation. I’m trying to avoid writing (and reading) essays that strike the same minor key notes my own work has struck time and time again: excessive gimmickry, admitting ones own faults and limitations in a naked attempt to gain the reader’s sympathy, the inclusion of backstory under the guise of exploring the ways in which the past comes to bear upon the present but really doing it mostly for nostalgia’s sake, exaggerating the innocence of children to amp up sentimentality.
I’m trying, but it’s not easy.
Writing in the minor key is easy—for lots of reasons. From a craft perspective, stories need trouble, and trouble ain’t cheery. From a practical perspective, ours is a community that rewards the sincere and solemn, as most literary journals lean to that side of the scale. Then again, the fact that last year’s AWP Conference featured two separate panels on how to inject humor into creative nonfiction suggests that we already suspect we’ve been taking ourselves too seriously.
Mostly, though, the minor key is easy because the material presents itself so easily. Death and suffering are everywhere. So are beauty and happiness, of course, but we often avoid writing about them because we don’t want to seem Pollyannaish. Safer to go either sad or ironic. Which, by the way, is how “important,” hipster bands typically cover mainstream pop songs: either in a whisper or while flying a postmodern devil-horn fist. Both ways can be cowardly.
After starting to work on this essay, I put it aside for two weeks so that my wife, kids, and I could travel to Ohio to spend some time with my wife’s mom, who, according to her doctors and home hospice care workers, had only a few days to live. I hate to admit this, but while we were staying at my mother-in-law’s house, essentially waiting for her to die, I found myself processing the events not so much as lived experiences but as potential essay topics. Needless to say, all of those topics were dreary. An afternoon of shopping became “Buying My Son His First Funeral Suit.” An excellent curried-chicken salad dropped off by a neighbor became “The Last Grape on the Serving Spoon.” And, yeah, I know it. Despite my original intentions, this essay, the one you’re reading now, took a sharp turn toward the minor key. Like I say, I’m trying, but it’s not easy.
Maybe I can learn from my mother-in-law. She was a piano teacher, and the hospital bed she spent her last days in sat in her living room, two or three steps from the piano bench. A few hours before she died, she smiled and told all of us who were gathered around her bedside that when she looked back on her life, “It was awesome.”
In the moment that was as minor as minor gets, she played one last resounding major chord. A quick, hard burst of joy.
Joe Oestreich is the author of Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. His second book, Lines of Scrimmage: A Story of Football, Race, and Redemption (co-written with Scott Pleasant), is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC, where he co-edits Waccamaw.
The “really real,” as William James called it, will not be theorized.
My theory was I could tell just the vivid rollercoaster parts.
My writer friends read those pages and said there’s not enough ketchup and too much mustard, so to speak.
“Off the record,” I said, and proceeded to tell them the extra-page details, the ham, bacon, and eggs: the intimate details that made him three-dimensional,
the secrets that would give it all away.
(sigh) they said: “That should be on the page.”
Dammit, I said, in so many words.
I have to say the real thing, but I can’t, cannot,
or think I can’t.
My lovely writing friends write fiction, and they got my fiction brain humming:
Driving northbound on the highway home from that writing meeting I saw how I
could maybe give him a different job, a different city, a different passion—
extend the preface caveats wider to fit in all the dilemmas
and beg for reader pardon.
In fact: in the next moment, stuck in rush-hour traffic, I thought it would be perfect to make him a stonemason
and he would build perfect stone houses, you see, and the metaphor
took me away and I could see it and as I drove
I made the specific sculptures he might create, and I saw this phantom
as his hands strewed gravel, made Stonehenge, taught me words like
igneous and basalt which I already knew but was pretending
for the sake of this geologic fantasy that I did not know
because that made it neater and slightly
better than it was.
I was not really driving on the highway
I was falling in love with this man I’d never met, this man who made analogous art
and I could taste it.
I heard the song of fiction and it was meaningful and good.
I passed exits and off-ramps and knew next with
a sick feeling in my gut like a cruel word or getting fired that
the promise I made for this specific project and only to myself, the formal constraint, was that each sentence should be true.
Each effing sentence.
Could I do it anyway? But that won’t work because I’ve written almost this whole book
(think of the time)
and written myself into a corner of sorts. What now—what the book needs…
Then, I-95 south of Bridgeport around exit 25, I broke up with nonfiction.
I hated it: nonfiction’s flat, frizzy, fizzed-out demanding bitchiness.
There was nothing on that nonfiction highway: no art, no sweetness,
just green square metal signs and the humidity and the asphalt
and it was as sucky as when I was ten, without hope that the future could be
strung with sentences. Like I was ten
and with really bad hair. A home perm. That bad.
(Oglivy. Bangs curled in the wrong direction. The unavoidable really real.)
The relentless realness of facts slung by like roadside debris
and I wondered when exactly I had taken this fraternity pledge
this Bodhisattva vow complete with hazing
Just let it be a novel let it be why not rewrite it as a novel
I had wanted to write fiction, you see, and loved it first. I wanted to
but am not a novelist only because I
good at it.
Or: It turns out I am writing nonfiction because I am stubborn.
I could just switch sides.
There are no sides. There is only the bargain in each project that I make with my self. And those bargains are only as good as every stupid human promise like
I love you.
But then as the difficult industrial lace of rust and fences hemmed me in
and the smokestacks of Bridgeport anchored the sky as I sped past on I-95
I realized I only had to say the next true sentence
and the next true sentence is this:
there is something I cannot tell you
but here is why I cannot tell you
and here’s how it feels not to tell you
but here’s what I can tell you:
I can tell you how he liked his coffee.
and I can tell you the size of my grief at carrying secrets
which is the weight of being alive
and I can tell you why secrets matter sometimes
more than pages
and I can tell you how my thin worn-out secrets
and the promises I make to myself like formal constraints
make me believe
I am still trying to be a good person even though
I have made so many
Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program.
I think more than you’d suppose about Annie Dillard’s cat. Also, Vivian Gornick’s mother. Many of you will see already where I’m going with this. Some of you will already have an opinion on what makes that cat and that mother different from a boy who jumped from a roof of a casino one night, or another, in 2003.
I write literal truth, actual nonfiction. I tell readers exactly what happened, any ways my knowledge of an event is limited, and my bias for or against it, and I make no composite characters (I’m particularly proud of that, too proud no doubt). Life is insanely unbelievable enough, each life rich enough for two lifetimes. I don’t even make up dialogue that is more than one sort of organically transcribed step from verbatim. I may also tell you that an event makes me think of, even “see,” unicorns and leprechauns, but you will understand if I do so that I am speaking metaphorically, or at the very least, claiming only my own experience, not the facts of the experience at large. I’m just like that. I come from a family in which every single member might remember whole decades differently and then proceed to hinge our future personalities on it. So our interpretations are broad. But our factual claims are parsed down to the most excruciating, politest line where our own memory meets the other’s with the least violence. We hate to argue on uncertain ground.
On the one hand, facts. On the other hand, feelings. Desires. Wishes. The kind of memories that are packaged like wedding dresses in clouds of archival cushioning, a sort of tissue paper of bruises and heart squeezes and gasps.
I admire with a hot and sweeping lust the writer Anne Carson, who it seems to me could not give any fewer shits about literal truth but commits wantonly to an emotional reality. Here’s the fairy forest, the beginning of each piece seems to indicate, the mouth of the Labyrinth. Once you’ve reached the center – she shrugs – You are confused maybe? But I told you where we were going, and you said yes. Opposite to this on the spectrum of my trust, and thus my love, are writers like James Frey (poor man, short-hand among us for liar) and John D’Agata, the author in About a Mountain of the boy who jumped from the casino roof a certain night; though on the actual night the boy jumped, the boy is the author of his own life, and others can only relay his facts. When I read a piece that I believe to be true – not tricky in its form, not winky in its rhetoric, not magically realistic in its content – then I expect it to be true. I do not want to fall in love under false pretenses. D’Agata is my boyfriend who tells me he has no other girlfriends, only for me to realize, months later, that he means they are not girlfriends because he does not call them that, and so.
What has all of this to do with cats and mothers?
Annie Dillard begins a memoir of hers, the justly well-regarded Pilgrimage at Tinker Creek, with a passage about her cat jumping onto her and leaving bloody footprints. The blood, I think, distracted people from ever putting too much thought into the cat, least of all its provenance, and anyway, who would wonder at it, a solitary female writer owning a cat, the least surprising development in a memoir perhaps ever. Only at a reading as she was asked about her work did she as she answered supply this electrifying fact: the cat was not hers.
Well, who cares? People apparently. Readers had been told it was her cat, by her. I used to have a cat, she’d said. Still, in the end, it really wasn’t that important. It’s fine, we’re fine. But we had been burned by other untruths from other authors, and it stung, and now there it stands as a cautionary tale to other memoirists. No one wants to be caught with a cat that isn’t theirs.
What stuck for me was really only this. How could such a capable writer, one who connects me so deeply to the whole of the wide and mysterious everyday world, miss such an opportunity for metaphor? The cat of a neighbor, the cat-at-large of the neighborhood, knows her with such intimacy that it would leap through her bedroom window to her, step lightly onto her chest, and print her with its last mission, from the streets across her into the bedsheets, as the author wakes up to the world herself?
It’s hard to write. Sometimes fewer words work better. She was on her way to another, perhaps better, point. All of that can be true, and still. No one wants to be caught with that cat again.
Gornick’s mother in Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments got a composite treatment in which Gornick collapsed multiple conversations into one or two. You are maybe now getting a sense either of the exacting drive for truth that drives memoir, or a sense that perhaps we need additional hobbies. But the fact is, it matters, this imprecision. It is slippery. One likes to know where it is, and where it isn’t. Gornick is an agile writer, like Dillard, and choose this for narrative reasons easily understood. I think writers reacted badly to Gornick’s admission – again, made by herself in a craft conversation with students – because it worried them not in and of itself but because under it writers sensed an abyss. It was a gateway choice. After it, what? A life imagined whole cloth? James Frey?
No. After it, we address the humans that are writers at play. Memoir is not after all autobiography. You will see why I am so forgiving of Dillard and Gornick’s narrative manifest destiny momentum, and will marvel at how I have the cajones to talk badly about my boyfriend John D’Agata.
Time and I are intimates. Not sexy intimate but the kind where pillowcases smell like the head of the person who sleeps there and also the way you accidently stare at the lines on your partner’s face of fifteen years instead of remembering to listen to them talk sometimes, or maybe that’s just me. The kind of intimacy you never pursued on purpose.
I track time like a jealous lover, because I am fearful of death. I used to think something in my memory I had yet to unlodge stuck that fear there, something in the way I learned about death. That my father became a priest when I was around ten and I was faced with theology and existentialism at such a combustible age? That the extreme force of will I was born with couldn’t change this one thing ever? The time when my teacher told a room of fourth graders that the sun would be imploding some day and would be taking our descendants with it, but not to worry, humankind might be kaput by then anyway? Was that the day? In any case, I have begun to think it is genetic because my very young daughter worries with it too, like another loose tooth.
And in my obsessive account-taking of time that I call “writing nonfiction,” I did fall in a sort of love with time. We became familiar. I watch its movements as closely as I might a Brassai photograph held to a lamplight: Paris was good that year, that kiss will always have happened, that woman was young once too. It is a lover who will leave me, I am sure of it, but while it is here I will never take for granted its lush face, its deliberate pace, its follies and humors, the moments when I can feel the force of it on me. It is intimate, as I said, my attention.
So when I wrote my first book, a memoir, the only thing I tinkered with truth-wise was time. I knew just how to do; it seemed fair, it was my familiar, and I knew well what worked on it. Other people are other people. I would never mess with their lives. Ask anyone who has read the book: I was extremely fair to other people. Hey, reviews say it. Also, I was accurate about the place I lived to an anthropological degree. No fact-checker would need to wonder about the miles that truly lie between Salt Lake City and Wellsville, Utah, nor about the mores and habits of my Mormon neighborhood from dusk to dawn. The dialogue of everyone is just what they said, the wonderous puzzle of humans saying crazy amazing things or perfectly exemplary every day things just replicated lovingly in the text.
But writers: I moved before the book was done. And the book was about being there.
The infraction is so slight. One trip taken after I moved is included in the timeline as having happened last, just before I moved. But I’ve thought about it a lot. I’m glad I did it too (she says defensively) because in thinking about this narrative choice, I learned something very important.
I think no one writes more beautifully about temporal moments than Virginia Woolf. I’m not the first one to think this – her essay and collection both called “Moments of Being” are anthologized and taught widely – but I’m one of the cadre of readers who believe it. No one else has honored so well those moments that fall in between other moments, the ones that define us in ways we can’t explain when we aren’t looking for it, so much better than those moments we work ourselves up for and stand on the top of the mountain for, waiting on the lightning and the tablets to be passed down. And my time as I left such a beloved place was full of this, the inconveniently sublime. Maudlin ridiculous moments patting trees and sides of houses, hikes of pilgrimage and exodus on days of horrible weather, sitting on my dogs’ graves speaking, it must have appeared, in tongues, to nothing. And in these ways the occasion on which I returned to Utah, the place of the book, after I’d moved, well, it was not on a different timeline. My address had changed but my head hadn’t budged. Splitting hairs? Sure. But did it affect anyone else? No.
And so that’s where my line is. If Vivian Gornick wants to mishmash all her deceased mother’s conversations into one, she’s allowed under my own law of creative nonfiction. She’s feeling it. I’m unlikely to do that largely because I am interested in the mundane aggravation of seemingly worthless time (see above, re: me and Time’s love affair) and what it reveals on further investigation, i.e. all the times our mothers don’t say anything “worth” recounting. But I haven’t tried to telescope forty years of conversations yet, so don’t count me out.
I wrote once that memoir is held by a “tensile strength.” I think unacknowledged untruth, in nonfiction, is the un-annealer, the ruiner of metals and bonds, the thing that anti-climactically releases the tension of the narrative into disparate parts. I think that the truth of this unbelievable life, well-considered and well-loved with the attention of craft and retrospection, is the spring we can’t stop pressing together if only to watch it work over and over, jumping in our hands like a live thing.
Liz Stephens is the author of the memoir The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press. She has served as Managing Editor of Brevity, was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction, and is included in an upcoming anthology Dirt: A Love Story from University of New England Press.
In 1988, fresh out of college and working at a macrobiotic deli in a health food store, I had an affair with the stock manager, a married Irishman living illegally in the United States and the father of a three-month-old daughter. In the mornings, when we met before work to make love in the back of my car, he smelled of baby powder and the beer he’d drunk the night before at what he called his local, The Dribble Inn. We flirted through the workday, French-kissed in the walk-in freezer. One day six months or so after our affair began he didn’t show up for work. Just like that, he was gone. This was in the days before cell phones; he didn’t get in touch to tell me that his wife had found out and given him an ultimatum: quit his job or she’d take his daughter away and make sure he never saw her again.
Two years later I’m in graduate school in Colorado, sharing an apartment with some guy working on his MBA. At seven in the morning I get a phone call. It’s the Irishman. He and his wife have split up; he wants to see me again. In his wallet he’s been carrying a note I wrote him. He has read it so many times that it’s falling apart.
He flies out to visit me. I’ve just gotten over the chicken pox and my face is still flecked with scars. We’re massively in love with each other. I have written down everything that’s happened between us, since the day we met, and in his absence I’ve imagined him and dreamed about him and probably misremembered him in a hundred thousand ways. Now we’ve found our way back to each other. I spend most of the next summer in the tiny house he rents with three other men, two of them English and living in the States illegally. For its cesspool problem the house has earned the nickname, “The Swamp,” which we have to navigate to get inside and make love on his twin bed with the trundle pull out for when his daughter stays with him.
I move to Utah to pursue a Ph.D. We maintain our relationship long distance. Two years later, on my birthday, my friends take me to Chili’s for dinner. I’m sitting there wondering why my friends have taken me to a shitty fast food restaurant on my birthday when a waiter steps up to the table and places an ice bucket containing a bottle of champagne in front of me. The waiter is my Irishman. He has come straight from the airport and he’s here to stay.
I’m one of those writers who draws from my own life to write fiction. My first book is a collection of short stories, Come Back Irish. Versions of the Irishman appear in many of my stories. But someday, I tell myself I’ll write a memoir. That memoir.
I have tried for thirteen years to write that memoir.
I have not written that memoir.
Why do some nonfictional stories resist being told? On a table near my writing desk sit twenty-four journals I kept during the years of my love affair with the Irishman. They’re filled with details that evoke the tenderness and difficulty and hilarity of two people from very different backgrounds who fell in love nonetheless. There’s the time I took him to dinner at a friend’s house in a wealthy suburb of New York City and the host presented him with a six-pack of Guinness, as if it was the birthright and duty of all Irishmen to drink six packs of Guinness (N.B. he hates Guinness, is a fan of Budweiser). The day I first met his daughter, at the wedding of one of his roommates, and I got nervous and drank so much wine I threw up all over my green linen dress in his van after (thankfully) we had dropped off his daughter at her mother’s house. He got me undressed and into his bed, and when I awoke several hours later, I wandered barefoot down the street to the Dribble Inn and found him drinking pints with the usual gang. “Ah, barefooted like a peasant,” he exclaimed, and didn’t even mention the embarrassment I’d made of myself earlier. Or one time in Utah, when he was giving me a ride to work in the truck he bought when he moved out there with me and I noticed a black liquid sloshing around in the plastic well between our seats. “A sea of tea!” he said. He was in the habit of drinking a cup of tea on the way to work at Fedex, and over time, tea had sloshed out of his mug and into the well. He liked it like that.
And one time we’ve made love in the back of the van and afterwards he’s hungry, so we go to the drive-thru at Taco Bell, ten in the evening, and he buys a bunch of stuff to eat and we sit in the van in the parking lot while he rests the clamshell on the steering wheel and eats messily and happily, licking his fingers. I refuse to eat anything at this late hour. At the end, folding the clamshell shut, he lets out a despairing sigh. “What?” I ask, alarmed. To which he exclaims, reaching into the paper bag beside him, “I forgot my mild and spicy sauce!”
I’ve often tried to begin the memoir with one of these moments, but it falls flat. We are too ordinary; I cannot in words convey the charm of his accent and the unfettered pleasure he takes in his senses without turning him into a leprechaun.
Have I just not found the right form to tell this story, the right voice? Is the story of two people from different backgrounds falling in love just too played out? Do I simply lack the confidence of Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff? Or are some stories meant only to be lived, not told?
It has been fifteen years since I left the garden-level apartment with the intermittent box elder bug infestation where we lived together. He still lives there, still pays $400 a month for rent, still has the framed Matisse poster in his living room that I forgot when I moved out and and asked him to ship to me in Alabama, where I met my husband and got married ten years ago. Recently I visited Utah again – for an atheist convention, of all things – and met him for dinner. It was the first time I didn’t swoon when I saw him. He was an ordinary middle-aged man eating a plate of fish and chips. In a few months, he told me, he’s taking his Filipina girlfriend to his hometown in Ireland and marrying her.
Is there an algorithm that will predict the moment when a writer can begin productively to translate life experience into nonfiction? Must a certain number of years go by? Or does this impasse mean I’m supposed to give up on my desire to write the nonfiction version and write a novel instead? In order to write the memoir, must our feelings toward the experience we want to write about be utterly neutralized, as by some reverse alchemy that changes gold back into workaday metal, “massively in love” into mere material? But by the time I’ve reached neutral, will I still want to write that book? If I have to wait until I’m sixty, will I be even be able to summon the intensity of those years?
You tell me. I’m still sitting here with my twenty-four journals, waiting.
Wendy Rawlings is the author of two books, The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her nonfiction has appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama.
The box of shells was heavy. Heavier than I thought it would be and when I opened the lid the bullets all sat in perfect little rows, nose down, gold and shiny with a dot of silver in the middle of each, held in place by cardboard forms. My father had let me pick them up off the store counter and we walked out to the truck and I got in the middle between him and my older brother. I was six years old and this this was the weekend after Christmas. My brother had just gotten a brand new Winchester. 22 rifle and we were driving out to our cabin, forty minutes from where we grew up, to fire it for the first time.
The rifle had been the last present my brother received and when he took it in his hands, a pile of wrapping paper all around us, I thought to myself, a real rifle. Real bullets. No more “bang-bang” noises would have to be made. Instead, we could now create the sound when we went to the cabin and pulled the trigger. The rifle’s stock was so smooth and polished. I marveled at how pretty the wood was and how sure it felt it my hands. My father told us it was not a toy. He went over basic safety measures. Never point the rifle—even if unloaded—at someone. Keep the safety on until you are ready to fire. Do not be careless. Never point the rifle at anyone. He kept telling us that one. As I handled the rifle, marveling over it, I turned without paying attention and when I did I saw it was pointed at my father. I had broken his most important rule. He grabbed the rifle’s barrel and swung it to the side then he reached out and slapped the back of my head. This is one of the two times in my life he hit me.
The cabin was actually a two-story house my father and uncles had built on a hundred acres of land in the country near where they had grown up. For my uncles it served as a hunting camp and a place for their friends to come for the weekend and have a few drinks and watch Kentucky basketball games. For my father it was a way for him to stay close to nature. While my uncle Roscoe busied himself with a variety of elaborate deer blinds all over the property, my father concentrated his efforts on planting an orchard on the hillside below the cabin. I remember going with him to the nursery and picking up peach and apple saplings whose trunks were covered in white plastic and then watching (and helping just a little bit) as he planted them.
My father went to the cabin nearly every weekend and my brother and I went with him and while we were there we went through a boy’s education of rural life, I suppose. We rambled all over that large piece of property, climbing mountains, fording creeks, staying up late with our cousins to tell spooky stories in the middle of the forest with our flashlights turned off. An old basketball hoop with a dusty dirt court served as driveway and most Saturdays the trucks were moved into the grass to make room for pickup basketball games. My father was a good player with strong, quick moves and fakes. He made dozens of bank shots that bounced off the makeshift plywood backboard and through the hoop. I loved going to the cabin not because I loved nature so much then but because I loved being near my father and brother. My favorite memories of those times are when we left to come home on Sundays at dusk in the fall or winter and the air was cold outside the truck. In between those two I felt so safe and warm and I would fend off sleep for as long as possible until I couldn’t any longer. When the pace of truck slowed, I knew we had entered our hometown and the truck would take its familiar rights and lefts through town that led to our house. When I was older I would wake up then, but when I was still young, I pretended to be asleep so that my father would have to carry me in the house.
The cabin was a constant in my childhood. The way I grew up and where I grew up now seems quite suburban, though I wouldn’t have known to phrase it as such then. At the cabin, alongside my cousins, I realized how much closer they were with nature. They were real country boys. One morning, after a poor attempt at squirrel hunting with my older cousin, I watched him skin his kills. He narrated the entire event more, showing me where to make my incision with my knife, peeling and tugging back the fur like someone might on a stubborn banana, and I knew at a very young age, I would never attempt that myself. Early on the elements that marked my cousins as country to me—their knowledge and affinity to the land, their ability to hunt and kill, to skin and cook their game, their knowledge of flora and fauna of the mountains of Appalachia—were, in some ways, always going to be mysterious to me. While his brothers had continued to hunt into adulthood and passed on that tradition to their sons, my father stopped. He hunted growing up out of necessity not enjoyment and I think he viewed that time of his life as something he left behind once he went off to college then the army, then a thirty year career as a business executive. But he loved the woods and he trucked us out to the country with him every weekend where we were surrounded by all these men doing, as silly is it might sound, manly things. Roscoe had a contraption that loaded his own shotgun shells with buckshot. My uncle J.B. and his sons came out and went deer hunting and on Saturday mornings everyone except my father, brother and me, would take off just before day break and with camouflage pants and grease paint on their faces and head out for whatever hunting season was in session. I arrived on Friday nights with blue jeans and books from school to read—nobody judge, though, reading was as important as hunting in my family—but it seemed there was something out there in the woods I was missing that would tell me how to be a man in this world. I felt this very early in my life, longed for it really, even though I could never bring myself to be any kind of huntsman. The arrival of that rifle on Christmas morning meant to me that suddenly I might begin to understand the world of men I visited every weekend and by learning to master the rifle, I would feel connected to the land, to my father and all those other men we were around.
Holding the shells we walked out to where the targets were. Thirty yards away Roscoe had tacked up the concentric circles on old bales of hay. A month or two before this I had already learned how to shoot a bow and arrow but a rifle, a firearm, was a much bigger thing. Remembering now, I realize how nervous my father was. He went over those directions again and I remember a certain obsessiveness I had about the safety on the rifle because I believed as long as it was engaged and the rifle was loaded then everything would be okay. Because it was Tim’s rifle he fired first. The loud pop of the gunpowder exploding rang in my ears. Everyone had come out to watch us. Roscoe and J.B. My cousins. This added some sense of gravitas to the occasion, confirming my own ideas and speculation about manhood and crossing into its threshold. When my turn came, my father was extra careful. He admonished me once more and I kept thumbed the safety because I was sure I was going about it and some terrible accident would occur. Dad had been rated “marksman” in the army and he got me all set up, standing close behind me. He shouldered the rifle for me and taught me how to aim and told me to go ahead and put my finger on the cold metal of the trigger. I rested my cheek on the stock of the gun and looked down the barrel to small nib of the sight at its end. I think I asked if I was doing this correctly, following procedure that is, and I think he was amused at the seriousness with which I took on the task. When he told me I had the all clear, I pulled that trigger and felt the jolt of it in my shoulder, the rush of wind from the bullet exiting the rifle toward its target, the acrid smell of burning powder.
It was awesome. I didn’t even look to see what I had hit. I just wanted to load another bullet and fire once more. My father then went into the cabin and brought out a variety of cans and set them up in the distance for us so that our strikes were instantly rewarded with the somersaulting of Mountain Dew cans. I turned out to be a pretty good shot and emboldened by my success, I kept firing away and my father indulged me. He showed me how to balance the rifle on tree limbs to steady it and then he showed me how to shoot from the ground. We spent the entire day firing that rifle, depleting our supply of shells. And while I enjoyed it the fear that I might mess up and discharge the rifle in the direction of him or my brother was always there.
A .22 bullet is small caliber. I was told when we were learning to shoot that our rifle would only be useful in killing squirrels and rabbits, but .22 caliber bullets punctured the lung of President Reagan and took the life of RFK. Fired from a rifle, the bullet takes advantage of the barrel’s length and travels at a speed of 1,125 ft/s and after four hundred yards the bullet can still be traveling at a speed of 500 ft/s. I didn’t know these numbers then when I was six. I didn’t know them until just a few minutes ago when I looked them up but what I learned as a boy both from my family and from my own experience firing the rifle was that a firearm was a weapon and that the bullet left the chamber with enough force to shake me and to create a whirring sound of its own propulsive force. The sound of gun fire echoed in the valleys below us where we fired all day and were so common out in the country that it became easy for me to distinguish between the sound of a .22 versus a .12 gauge shotgun versus someone who was simply letting off a firecracker.
Last week a Washington Post headline popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed to tell me there have been at least 74 school shootings since the one in Newtown, Connecticut. This came on the heels of another school shooting in Oregon, which came on the heels of another shooting in Las Vegas, in which a man and a woman walked into a fast food restaurant and drew on two officers sitting at a table. I don’t even know if angry is the word to describe how I feel anymore about gun violence in this country. Defeated is more apt. But every time one of these tragedies happens, I return to the six year old boy I was the way my father took so much care and seriousness in teaching me. And I remember how afraid I was then. Holding that rifle and firing and knocking those cans down was great fun but it was incredibly scary. I was aware that at any given moment and one false move and I might kill my father.
I don’t want to say that I grew up around firearms because that doesn’t feel entirely true, but it wouldn’t feel entirely false to say it, either. At the cabin, I watched my uncles and cousins leave to hunt and watched them come back early in the afternoon with rifles over their shoulders. At homes I visited as a boy it wasn’t uncommon to see a locked gun cabinet with exquisite shotguns and .303os and .22 rifles with scopes. Filled gun racks in pickups were a sight in town as we drove to Little League or the grocery store. But there was a power in those sights and a power in those weapons I was taught to honor and in honoring that I was taught to be fearful of their power. Thirty years after I learned how to fire a rifle and with a slew of school shootings and mass killings in between all that, often from the hands of disturbed white males of all ages, I’m wondering if my own upbringing is unique this way.
A few years ago a friend of mine was married in Sea Island, Georgia. As part of the wedding party, I traveled there a day early and like a lot of those old Southern resorts your options for recreation are limited to golf, horse back riding, and skeet shooting. The groom wasn’t a golfer or a horseman, but like me he had grown up in southeastern Kentucky, so he had handled a rifle at some point in his childhood. Shooting was a natural choice. There were nine of us shooting that afternoon. We stepped into these outdoor shooting pavilions that overlooked some marshland. The ocean was whooshing into the coast. The instructors showed us where the secret service had set up in the water for the G-8 Summit in 2004 and told us how extensive their scouting trips had been. They handed each of us .12 gauge “over-under” shotguns. This is the gun you’ve seen in the movies or television that collapses at its breech so that you can fill its double barrels with shells. Load them in, pop it back up, and you’re good to go. As we each stepped into our own shooting stall, my father’s old words of safety entered my head and, because I’ve always had an over-active imagination, I thought about tragedy in much the same way I did as a boy. A ruined wedding weekend, a ruined life with just one careless step.
I told the instructor to pull and I fired away. None of us had any ear protection in so each crack of the gun was loud and the punch of a shotgun, if held improperly against the shoulder—as I did—will leave bruises on the skin. There was denying the explosive power of that rifle. I was an athlete growing up and I’m sure in my time on the football field I suffered a half-dozen concussions, moments when the world went black for a second or two and I woozily walked toward the wrong huddle, but nothing compares to the ferocity of those shells leaving the barrels of the shotgun and the way that ferocity clambers through your entire body, shaking your bones, juicing your veins, heightening your senses and quickening your pulse. None of us were very accurate. In six rounds of shooting I only hit seven clays of the ten you got to shoot at in each round. But if I had been given six more turns in the bay I would have taken them because the gun’s force becomes a drug but we are always warned about the dangers of drugs—alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, meth—to honor and respect the power and influence they can have over us.
My father taught us to respect the rifle’s power to understand it wasn’t a tool, as some like to call it, but a weapon designed to kill. The guns I grew up around were for killing deer and squirrels and birds, but they could kill people. I had a great time shooting and comparing my scores with my friends on the afternoon before my friend’s wedding, but what I also understood then and what I had intuited as a child was that I have never felt less safe than when I holding a rifle. NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre can say that the only thing that can take down a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun but this kind of statement comes not just from someone who is drunk on the mythos of Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry, it comes from the mind of someone drunk on the physical sensation of firing a weapon that has given way to mental dependency.
We keep hearing that we must get guns away from the mentally ill, but anyone who decides to use a firearm to take down a defenseless person without cause or reason must be mentally ill in some form. I’m more worried about the sane, the people we work and go to school with, attend church and play softball with, who fire that first round for fun, who don’t have a father or a culture that tells them this is dangerous and to honor its danger. Today the NRA keeps telling us gun ownership is our right under the 2nd Amendment somehow overlooking the full definition of the word amendment. The only aim of the NRA is to put a gun in every home because that will enrich the coffers of gun manufacturers who will then enrich the NRA, who, in turn, enrich spineless politicians.
The firing of that rifle at six never led me to the secrets of manhood that I hoped it might. I went to school on Monday, bragged about my shooting exploits, and never picked up a rifle again for twenty-six years. But I know how to handle one and what to do with one and I know that each time I see one or come across one I have a kinship to its charged energy and I am fearful of it. I don’t have any real answers for how to stop gun violence in this country but I know that there are a lot of confused men walking around our country with easy access to rifles who think like my six-year old self: The power of manhood lies on the other side of pulling a trigger. But all that lies there is physics, action and reaction, a wake of blood and confusion, the whitewashing and faux handwringing of a country too scared to take responsibility for what it has created and the awful misguided attempts to create meaning from chaos. Randall Jarrell writes at the end of his poem, “90 North”: “Pain comes from the/darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” We cannot grow numb to it.
Rather than contemplating what it is we do, I’ve been wondering of late why we’re drawn to do it, why we fracture and rearrange, condense and simplify, align the unlikely, and intimate without claiming. What are we hauling forward that draws us to mess about with brokenness? Which of our experiences make play and rupture so natural? Hallucinogenic moments? A view of kaleidoscoped worlds? The scene of huddled masses seen always from the outside?
Can we even name single moments, when the dis-ordering began?
I think I can, with three that keep repeating on the page—a terrifying kiss, a leap from a window after an arrest, and the years of seeking out coyotes after discovering them as metaphor. The first was, of course, the best, when I wanted nothing else, the river below us winter-swollen, the sun warm enough to be felt. And everything at once soft and round and aching and wet, spring beginning in our bodies, around us the loud cracking of ice swamped by high water. Who would ever want to stop, with yielding and splintering suddenly inseparable?
Within hours the known world had fallen away. All those narratives for my life, written by generations of people before and around me, erased by the meeting of lips. Such joy! Such terror! (In a car, by a lake, on a roof, on a boat.) We navigated on our own terms; we found our own words (she carved what it meant to her, borrowing from one of the greats: And this our life, exempt from public haunt/ finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks…). We stayed just ahead of being caught.
It became second nature to leave holes in sentences, where few knew what abided. Those who did, we trusted. Those who didn’t gave themselves away. While they were assuming a familiar narrative arc—conflict, tension, climax, denouement—ours was taking place off the page (the don’t-ask/don’t-tell bars, the known-to-be-safe streets, the room that relinquished no sound), and were multi-climactic—but to know that required reading between the lines.
The subsequent dodgings—placards, bottles, questions at social gatherings—may be what made implication so alluring. But it’s far more than vague pronouns, vaguer plans, or sex with a same-sex lover that sets one outside the standard narrative frame.
Take scissors, I tell students, cut that essay into pieces, and then begin rearranging the parts.
A second trope arrived with a different kind of outlaw status, when I escaped out a window after an arrest, which is a felony, which has long consequences, and for which the law brooks no mercy for those impulse-driven. I went out a window. I didn’t think about what would happen next or that I’d get away with it. And then I did. And then I walked to safety, casually, as though those newly deputized weren’t nervous, their German shepherds not restless. As though it weren’t at least a quarter mile to the nearest patch of woods. And then I kept walking until I was long out of sight. Only in my nightmares was I shot in the back.
To live outside all those laws! To have earned exclamation points! To know how tough it is to remake what was altered without much thought.
To know, as well, that this fractured form could easily stand on defiance alone, a world refashioned to our arbitrary liking, sections paired because they sound right or because one moment might have led to another. And how reckless to overlook the consequence. (Shots may be fired; damage may be done.) For there it is: Align kiss and breast; add winter and ice; and then slip in something like brother and nighttime and locks on the bedroom doors, and how quick readers are to think, Ah, threat, Ah, injury, Ah, so that explains everything. (Think: John D’Agata’s feckless causality with his boy’s suicide in About a Mountain.) If anything, danger should heighten our care whenever we layer memory with scene with fact with metaphor. And yet, who can really know what happens next?
Prisons could have become my main metaphor, after those years of civil disobedience, though rivers would have been as likely after the hundreds of miles paddled, or even the trail of a longer journey, the 2000-mile walk that became synonymous with the process of becoming and with the kinds of questions any essayist knows to embed (will I survive?, will I reach the end?, will I find a way to reconcile X—divorce, diagnosis, damage, death, as in Cheryl Strayed’s journey through grief in Wild?). To sleep somewhere new every night—a cornfield, a cemetery, below a highway overpass—constituted practice, draft after draft. (I made it; we made it; only one person I knew was killed.)
Instead I found coyotes, the metaphor that felt most apt (coyotes flourishing on the margins, coyotes surviving best-of-kill derbies, coyotes thriving wherever bounties were legislated to rout them). I tracked them for several years; I traveled with people who trapped them or snared them or followed them with radio receivers. Wandering after them in all seasons—finding scat, spoor, hair, bones, the odd things they ate, the places they slept—gave me time to wonder about fear and hate and longing, about ways to feel safe and reasons always to be on guard. I learned how works gain their tension through the clear expression of desire and, in my want for a close coyote encounter, I managed to write myself home, never having been quite sure I’d be wholly welcome after that first kiss launched me out into the world.
Track your nouns, I tell students. Pick one and tell its story.
Kiss. River. Prison. Leap. Brother. Trail. Coyote. We all have a cache of them, the ones that, when laid out, become the stepping-stones, the tile patterns, the blocks of text between white spaces.
I thought I knew mine, all of them fitting into a fairly small sack. I hadn’t expected ring to drop in as well (rose gold to hold us as we each said I do), though, as when first entering any essay, how can we truly prepare for sudden breaks in the storyline? And yet, in this most recent moment, and after wearing it for a decade, I took it off and walked away. To be more truthful: I packed some clothes, rented a place, and drove away. Sure, there were reasons, the trauma that preceded me and which nothing I did seemed to balm, the effects of protracted sorrow upon a body, the nights when I wasn’t sure if her will to live would outlast her desire to be gone, but at some point, as the saying goes, the only life we can save is our own.
It may be, however, that my own tropes were what rescued me. Having wrestled them onto the page for years, recommitting myself each time to the puzzling of sequences, the sounds and rhythms of every scene, may have been what yanked me back to form. The kiss, the leap, the apt metaphor—each of which could anchor a compelling essay—when taken together may have become more of my storyline than I realized, the narrative I didn’t know I was still writing.
Of course, at its heart, this may simply be another version of the old fate v. free will debate. But our belief in the possibility, always the possibility, that rearranging essay pieces creates a sum larger than its parts, highlights the author’s role and the messy pleasure of the journey.
You can write your own storyline, I tell students, the truest one, the one about you. They nod because they’re agreeable and because my prompts often pan out. But perhaps what I mean, and what I ought to start saying soon, is, Begin with the story that wants to write you.
Catherine Reid is the author of Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst, a memoir/natural history, and Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, a collection of essays. A recent recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the North Carolina Arts Council, she directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Warren Wilson College.