Vicky Mlyniec on “This I am Allowed” and an Abundance of Heartbreak

January 24, 2013 § 13 Comments


V. MLYNIEC PHOTOWe regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Vicky Mlyniec tells us how she came to write “This I am Allowed.”

This essay about the loss of my son is the first piece of writing I have produced from a paralyzing abundance of heartbreaking material.  I try to write, and turn away.  I wait and try again.  My husband gently tries to dissuade me; I am slow out of the abyss.  But for me, writing is the way.  Meanwhile, my mind, flooded, creates more material, making connections that surprise and interest me, some that offer solace, some that deepen horror, others that open new doors.

Where even to begin?  How would I convey my son’s rare spirit?  A teenage boy who stops to tap water from a rain-drenched flower to release it from the water’s weight.  How from his youngest days I worried that he was too good to be true, that our family was perhaps too happy?  Or begin with the origin of my long-standing sense of doom — family tales of firing squads and flights across Siberia during the Russian Revolution and Civil War. And just when I set aside my expectation of apocalypse I am shown that horror doesn’t have to arrive in jackboots.  Or start with the early morning dark of the accident?  How we clipped a deer ourselves just a quarter-mile before we came across the flares and emergency vehicles, the man wearing a windbreaker lettered CORONER?  Or maybe the gashed tree — the young tree that we surely drove by thousands of times coming and going to Scout meetings, Little League games, and high school during Nate’s 18-year life.  The tree there all the time, silently growing along with my son, as he graduated from infant carrier to car seat, to front seat, to driver’s seat.

Complicate matters with a Russian saga: the story of my long dead grandfather, Nikolaj Konstantinovich Gins, a captain in the White Russian Army, who died in China long ago.  There are common features here and as more occur to me I decide to conjoin the stories.  In the year after Nate’s death I submerged myself in a translation project, finally bringing to English the contents of fifty brittle love letters Nikolaj wrote to his bride, first from the front as he fought the Bolsheviks, and then, after a year’s silence, from where he lived in hiding for two years after the war was lost.  I “met” my young grandfather through his words; and through his words I saw my old Baba afresh as an abandoned bride and a bereaved young wife.  These lost kin and others whose lives I came to know, provided untold comfort.

Left to me, examine, compare and contrast:  Family lost; family regained.  The nature of tragedy: Global, historical – war, famine, act of nature.  Everyday – a lab report, a drowning, a deer in the road.  Put all of these thoughts, memories, feelings, facts, images, letters, questions and tears into what I picture as a huge funnel.  Add the pressure of a writer not writing.

A fellowship at the Hambidge Center for the Arts in Georgia gives me three weeks alone in a remote cabin.  Yes!  I imagine index cards, a list of chapters, some alternate beginnings written.  Flying home with a big start.  None of that happens.  I arrive with notes from my journals, disordered notebooks, letters to translate, my Russian-English dictionary and Tell It Slant.  End result: aside from hours of hiking alone in the woods, I accomplish just two things.  On five large sheets of newsprint tacked to the walls, I list every topic, issue and image I can think of to include, from skid marks to Petrograd, and then live in view of them.  On the last day, the essay.  I think Brevity.  The limitation of 750 words is a warm invitation, the restriction a mercy.  I start small, begin with myself. I focus on a puzzle, my out-of-character behavior. And trust the essay to explain.

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§ 13 Responses to Vicky Mlyniec on “This I am Allowed” and an Abundance of Heartbreak

  • [...] Vicky Mlyniec lives and writes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  She is the 2005 winner of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction and a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. “This I am Allowed” is from her current project, Nate and Nikolaj, a cross-generational memoir. (The author discusses the genesis of this essay here on the Brevity blog.) [...]

  • Adrienne Pilon says:

    I am impressed with this, the genesis, as much as the essay itself. As for the essay–what was caught, so effectively with the author’s interaction on the airplane, was the sense that this is the piece of information that matters, this is what is essential, this loss.Thank you for sharing this.

  • Diann dlmar says:

    This is a very moving piece and it gets to the heart of why we write. We simply must tell our stories. Thanks to the author for sharing this difficult time of life and her way through it. I value the intimacy from an author.

  • Oh, this background, this attempt at justification, clarification, acknowledgement of impossible grief grabbed me by the throat and held me fast. I can just barely conceive how you’ve come to this place after such loss. That you are willing – that you must – share it with us is an astonishing gift.

  • [...] just came across this post about the death of a child on the Brevity Blog and wanted to share it here. Read the essay too. Notice in the essay (“This I Am [...]

  • Nancy Szyjewicz says:

    Vicky, you are allowed whatever you can find in this world, inadequate though it may be. My heart is also broken both for myself for loss of my “second son” and for the wonderful family left to try to deal with life.

  • Julene Bair says:

    Vicky, I have always wondered if I could write through “that,” and just wondering terrified me–not only for superstitious reasons, but because, for a writer, asking that question is no different from asking if I could live through it. Thank you for showing that as long as there are words, there is hope and for this powerful and moving work of art. Deepest condolences.

  • Marsha McGregor says:

    Both the essay and its genesis are profoundly moving. Thank you.

  • megscottharris says:

    Vicky Mlyniec, Amazing. Devastating. Beautiful. If you can write this; perhaps I can write my way out, as well. Thank you.

  • Cyndy F says:

    Beautiful and heartbreaking. Thanks for sharing a way, your way, out of such grief.

  • Vicky, the image of those newsprint sheets on the wall at Hambidge: perfect in so many ways, surface and depth, weight and freedom.

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