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.