Words as Image: How “Thank You” Originated

January 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

girl w cameraSejal Shah discusses the origin of her recent Brevity essay “Thank You” and offers up an intriguing writing prompt.

I have often relied on objects and images to help convey meaning in my stories, poems, and essays.  Perhaps over-relied.  However, I also felt that I had found a way in to a telling a story that worked.  In “Street Scene,” a lyric essay about a close friend who took her life, I found the image with resonance that knitted the essay together was that of the now-filled-in swimming pool of my childhood in my parents’ backyard.  “Street Scene” is about remembering and grieving this friend, whom I met when she was in her thirties; the present tense of the essay is a week-long trip to Paris some years later, and the childhood pool initially seemed like a random out-of-place image.  (She had never even seen the pool and we might never even have talked about it.)

My writing group pointed out that the pool and the associative memory of it that followed didn’t have anything to do with LeeAnne or the present-day of the narrator, who is walking around in Paris, but I felt stubborn about the pool, and refused to give it up.  I worked on this essay for over two years (I have a patient and kind writing group), and with the wise suggestions of the editor of the literary journal that published it, the image emerged and quietly grew to be the central image of childhood, the past, and my longing for LeeAnne’s return.  The image of the pool was the right one, but I had had to trust it and also, to learn to trust myself.  Writing and completing “Street Scene” gave me the confidence to trust myself.

My essay in the September 2013 issue of Brevity, “Thank You,” is unlike anything else I’ve ever written in that the two words themselves become what is usually an image in my writing—a touchstone, a repeated phrase, a symbol, a talisman, a warning, an entreaty, an objective correlative, a prayer, a plea, a longing, a wish.  Voice and imagery have traditionally driven my writing.  In both the fiction and nonfiction I’ve written, I have never used a lot of dialogue.  I think of writing assignments that ask students to overhear and record bits of dialogue in restaurants, in coffee shops, on trains, in line at stores, in line anywhere. As a teacher, I’ve given these assignments myself, but often haven’t taken the advice to listen closely, myself, and to write down what I hear.

When writing “Thank You,” (the whole first draft came out in one rush—it was a gift), I mused on how often the man in the essay and I said “thank you” to each other, but when I expected and wanted to hear thank you the most, the words never came.  The title of the essay and the essay itself would not have worked without the sentence from the young daughter.  The little girl’s father and I both thought it was an odd and funny thing for his daughter to say:  I love this book so much I’m not going to say thank you.  I am intrigued by the gap between what we say and what we feel or think we feel. When I showed an early draft to a few other writers, at least one was puzzled by the title.  Who is saying thank you?, she asked.  And what is she (the narrator/me) thankful about?   He is gone, I never met the daughter, but the words and story stayed with me.  I am thankful for that.

Writing Prompt:  Many essays, stories, and poems I’ve written are letters to people I have loved or people who haunt me—these are letters I am unable or unwilling to send.  “Thank You,” is one of those letters.  Write a letter that you can never send or will never send—to someone with whom you are not in touch, or who has passed, or to whom the ability to speak at a certain level or pitch has faded.  Who are the people who haunt you and what would you say that you never had a chance to say, if you could say it?  A brief essay in the form of a letter, a direct address, a wish.

Sejal Shah’s writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review Online, The Literary Review, Web Conjunctions, and AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. She lives and teaches in Upstate New York. Find her online at www.sejal-shah.com.

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