Facing the Fear: On “Wide Open Spaces”
October 4, 2013 § 6 Comments
Kathryn Miller discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay, Wide Open Spaces:
I was in Chicago for the summer, supposedly to work on my book about getting shot as a kid in an affluent Chicago suburb. But I wasn’t writing much, if at all. I also wasn’t doing any of the things I said I’d do while there, like go to the police station. Instead I went to street festivals and concerts and rode my bike across the city and spent money that I shouldn’t on fancy dinners with old friends.
Two years earlier, I’d decided to confront the shooting, take in as much as possible about it, to hopefully attain further healing or closure or something else good. In that time, I’d immersed myself in it. I’d read the two books written about the woman who shot us, looked at my hospital records, talked to my mom for the first time about her experience. I’d endured the strangeness of workshop, listening to fellow MFA students debate things like where placing the shooting scene in my book would garner the most narrative tension and hearing my description of the boy who died the day of the shooting read aloud, making his death happen again, right there, in class, so I’d almost embarrassingly yelled, Please stop. But even after all that, I still avoided reminders of that day. Thus, while I’d resolved at the beginning of that summer to go to look at the records, days and weeks passed, my guilt mounted, but I didn’t go to the station, nor did I even call to find out if accessing the records was possible.
It took the man I was involved with at the time to make me finally call. Just do it, he said one morning, crawling back into bed next to me, where I was lying far too late, especially for a Wednesday. Maybe we can even drive up there today. I didn’t look convinced. All you’re doing is calling and getting some information, he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. It was the reasonable, casual terms I needed the task to be put in—I was capable of doing something simple like “calling and getting some information.”
And like that, a couple phone calls later, I had an appointment to look at the files the following week.
When I told my good friend about the police station plan, we were drinking beers in a dive bar with mismatched, disintegrating stools, the metal legs rusting, the black vinyl peeling back from the seats, exposing yellow foam cushions. There was handwriting all over the bathroom walls saying things like, Imagine Charlie Sheen fucking a centaur on Mars. We were watching open-mic stand-up comics. He said: Jesus, dude. Don’t go by yourself.
When I told my dad at dinner in a crowded suburban restaurant, trying and failing to mimic a Wisconsin lodge: his eyes got red and misty.
What my stepmom did at that same dinner: clasped my hands across the table, across my bread plate with a piece of half eaten onion bread on it and said, We’re so proud of you. You’re so brave.
But I didn’t feel brave.
The morning I went to the station, I was in a foul mood, irritated by everything, even the blue, cloudless sky—will it ever rain again—until I realized driving to the station that no one was making me go. What I was about to do wasn’t such a big deal anyway—it was paper, words, photographs. The hard part, the trauma, was long passed. No matter what I saw, I was okay and nothing in those files could change that.
When I sat down to write about the experience, it was the first time all summer that I was able to write almost effortlessly. The words flowed with ease (though I still wrote, rewrote and edited the hell out of it, like I do everything). It was getting myself to the police station, to that moment, that was the work.