Slow Down: Interrogating the Past Takes Time
March 16, 2016 § 28 Comments
By Julie Riddle
In spring 2009 I completed the final year of a low-residency MFA program. I had just turned thirty-nine years old, had no publishing credits to my name, and years of work lay ahead of me, developing my creative-nonfiction thesis into a book-length memoir that, I hoped, someone might one-day want to publish.
One May afternoon an email appeared in my in-box. A faculty member from my graduate program had invited me to contribute an essay from my thesis to an anthology on domestic violence in the West that would be used in college and university classrooms. The essay, “Frontier Girl,” explored my fraught relationship with a boy I had dated for two years in high school. A respected university press had expressed interest in publishing the anthology. I was thrilled!
Over the next six weeks I revised the essay for the anthology, pleased to be concurrently polishing it as a chapter for my manuscript. After submitting the completed essay to the faculty member I began working on other elements of my memoir and daydreamed about seeing my essay in print. Months passed. Half a year, at least. And then one day I received an email bearing the news that the anthology project had been scrapped. My disappointment verged on despair. Here I was, hurtling toward forty and mired in the early, opaque mess of a book manuscript, with little likelihood that I’d publish anything anytime soon, if ever.
A few years into working on the manuscript I dusted off “Frontier Girl” to assess what sprucing up it needed, if any, to pull its weight in the memoir. As I read the essay and mulled it over during the next few days, unease sprouted in my gut. I realized that I hadn’t been fully honest with myself – or with my hoped-for readers – in a section of the essay. In the following excerpt from the original version of “Frontier Girl,” I recount my by-then ex-boyfriend’s dogged pursuit after I had graduated from high school and moved away from my hometown of Troy, Montana:
“He would follow me through college: one below-zero New Year’s Eve night when I was home for Christmas break, he would creep up my parents’ driveway and throw ice shards at my bedroom window in a vain attempt to wake me and draw me outside to talk. He moved to Spokane and rented an apartment with my brother, and would knock on my dorm door unexpectedly one evening, my roommate saying I was on campus somewhere, studying. He would call my dorm room—my brother had given him my number—and invite me to a movie; he would offer to give me a ride to Troy for spring break. He would appear at my college graduation, a surprise guest of my brother, and stand beside me and smile as my parents snapped photos. He would materialize that autumn at my apartment, again with my brother, to help install carpet on my patio. Throughout Brad’s unexpected visitations I was polite, gracious, even; just held my breath and waited for the minutes to pass, the moment to end. The final end came six months later, when I took a teaching job in Japan and Brad married some other Troy girl instead of me.”
I remember how, back in grad school, this passage had been pleasing to write. My memories of the events surfaced and spilled in swift, tidy order, the cadence and easy detail lulling me into a sense of satisfaction that I had captured the past and excavated its meaning. But, in my later, more clear-eyed reading, I realized that I had omitted three telling details. I had forgotten about them, or I had scooched right over them, dismissing them with the excuse that the information would needlessly muddle the narrative.
What the omissions boiled down to is that I hadn’t allowed enough time in my thinking and writing to let important details present themselves and demand an accounting. Details that would point me to a deeper explication and understanding of the past and my culpability.
Confession: I had said yes to Brad’s invitation to the movie and I said yes to his offer to give me a ride home for spring break. As I sat with these uncomfortable facts, the inevitable question arose: Why? Why did I put myself back in the path of someone who had been abusive in high school and who, as he pursued me through college, I found repellent?
The revised and final version of that section now includes the following: “I accepted both invitations, in a bid to exert power and to make Brad suffer—allowing him to draw near, close enough to touch, but maintaining a rigid distance, denying his want and then walking away.”
Aha. Power. So that’s what this essay is about.
And when I allowed myself to admit that I had accepted his invitation to drive me to Troy, a forgotten memory surfaced: “During the long ride to Montana Brad stammered regret for how he had treated me in high school, and I, still, could not locate courage or words.”
Brad had expressed recognition of and remorse for how he had treated me when we dated. He wasn’t a one-dimensional bully in my essay, or in reality, after all. And I, nearing twenty back then, still had a long way to go in finding my voice and speaking up.
In my daily writing practice during the early years of working on the manuscript that would eventually become The Solace of Stones, revising existing chapters and writing new material, I had come to learn what it takes to craft a fully realized essay, one that matters beyond my own story, one that explores and questions the human condition and taps into universal truths.
The excavated details that I incorporated into “Frontier Girl” provided an entryway for me to transform the essay from a recounting of my personal struggles in an abusive relationship to an exploration of how and why my classmates and I, living in an isolated, economically depressed mountain community, sought to define and assert ourselves through grasping whatever power we could:
“Children often inherited their parents’ lot. Education and expectations were low, drinking was heavy, the speed limit high, and opportunities few. Winter hit early, pinning the valley in its bitter grip, the long months dark, cold, and hard. We turned to each other for companionship and comfort and to carve for ourselves some sense of worth and control. And when the precarious balance of power tipped—into manipulation, perversion, violence—we coped as best we could on our own.”
Stephen Corey, editor of The Georgia Review, has stated that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is submitting their work too soon. “If you are truly serious about doing distinctive work that will make its mark,” he said, “slow down” (Poets & Writers, May/June 2008).
I am grateful now that the original version of “Frontier Girl” didn’t see daylight and my publishing opportunities were delayed. I needed time – those months and years of writing nearly every day, drafting and revising chapters for a book – to learn and gain more experience, to exhume and interrogate uncomfortable pieces of my past, to acquire objectivity, and to develop the mental and emotional strength required to be honest with myself and on the page.
Julie Riddle is the author of the new memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press/American Lives Series). Her essay, “Shadow Animals,” which later became a chapter in her memoir, was published in The Georgia Review; the essay received a Special Mention in the 2015 Pushcart Prize anthology and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. She is the craft-essay editor for Brevity and the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling, published out of Whitworth University, where she works as senior writer for marketing
Julie: What a perfect revelation – for me – right now. I am just struggling into a second draft on a memoir and those “me” truths keep niggling at me – my part in it all. My need to look pure and unaccountable. I’m storing your piece next to the chapter I’m writing. Thanks for your honesty. Kaye Curren http://www.writethatthang.com
Hi Kaye – I’d say you’re well on your way, what with being on your second draft and already recognizing a need to appear pure and unaccountable. That awareness is key to writing your way toward a more meaningful and objective perspective. Thanks so much for your message!
Julie, this is a terrific piece holding so much useful wisdom and expressed in such evocative language.
Thank you, Judith. I really appreciate your response to the essay.
Julie, this was so timely for me. Thank you. We’re so often in a rush, these days; it is good to remind us to slow down. @sheilagood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
Hi Sheila – Our culture is all about speed and volume. Writing that “makes its mark” requires just the opposite. I used to criticize myself for being such a slow writer, but I’m learning that it has its benefits.
Absolutely Julie, I realized just today a story I had been working on sat untouched since Aug 2015! What I realized an accept is I’m 62 y/o, OI enjoy my blog and stories because I do, plain and simple. Not in it to make money or a name for myself. Although I have a few aspirations, I’m okay with writing for the joy of it and taking my time. Thanks so much for stopping by the Cow Pasture and taking part in the conversation.
So true! I’m on draft 19 and I’m nodding along with you. I’m learning new things all the time about myself, my work, and the world around me.
Thank you for your affirmation, Ellen. And thank you for sharing that you’re on draft 19. Writing well sure requires time and patience, doesn’t it? It’s the hardest but most rewarding work I’ve done.
I very much struggle with the truth of certain relationships in my writing, I am only writing my side of it. I gloss over it, because to try to dissect it I would really need to try to get inside someone else’s head to infer their truth and that seems so presumptuous, yet I feel it means there is a whole chunk of my story that lacks depth.
I know you didn’t ask me, but if you can get to your own truth as to why you can’t figure out their truth or to find outside confirmation of one of your interpretations, that might help. If you are clear about the fact that you don’t know for sure, that can go along way.
Thank you for your reply to Kiri, Ellen. I think you nailed it on your response. I find that using words and phrases such as “perhaps” or “it could have been” provide opportunities to explore what I don’t know for sure but could be true based on what I do know, and to cue the reader that I’m departing from my own truth into murkier territory. Thanks to you both for continuing the conversation!
I kind of feel it’s not my place to figure out their truth, everything I come up with is conjecture, but yes, I guess if I’m clear that’s what it is it’s ok. Also having come to some peace with it, I’m not sure how much I should rake over old coals (sorry this is all a bit elliptical!).
I totally understand elliptical. We all have it and it is different for everyone. In some ways I have found I can push memoir to place of honesty where it is no more damning to me than it is to others. But of course there are other things, due to change and family ties, that I don’t talk about at all. It’s so nuanced for each person/situation. Some of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is write about it first, then decide whether or not it needs to see the light of day.
Thank you for writing this. I love that Maya Angelou quote “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” – but she didn’t tell us that giving birth to that story can be a long and arduous path. Draft 16 and counting. I’m looking forward to your reading your book. 🙂
That is a lovely quote, Angela. Thank you for sharing it. Maya Angelou is one of my all-time favorite authors and human beings. Writing our stories is definitely a long and arduous path, but ultimately rewarding, I believe. I applaud your 16th draft and cheer you on toward #17! You’ll get there. And thank you so much for reading my book!
Thank you. It is an effective reminder. As I write my own memories, I wonder if I will have time to acquire sufficient distance to achieve that necessary perspective.
Thanks so much for your message, Jan. I think the important thing is that you’re writing your own memories now and not delaying it for “someday.” I find that perspective, growth and understanding occur during the process, not when I’ve reached the end. So any time we spend writing provides a valuable and immediate (and accumulating) return on our investment.
I like that, that it’s an accumulating return. Our lives are so layered, a later experience can change or add depth and perspective to our earlier interpretations.
Hey Julie, I loved this piece. It is wonderful the way you found a way to turn Frontier Girl into something bigger than you. I’m 29 now and working on a memoir about the past 5 years. One thing I worry about is how many memories I’ve lost, especially important memories. I’ve read that if my heart is in the right place and I want to bring back my memories for the right reasons, I’ll be able to. Have you found that the process of creating a memoir has helped to bring you back to the place and time you are writing about, and even helped you remember new things that you thought you’d forgotten?
Thanks so much for your message – I’m really glad you liked the piece! Some good advice I was given early on when I began working on my memoir was to (metaphorically) hold my hand over the ashes and see where the warm spots are. Those are the areas – the memories and past experiences – that have stayed with me, that matter, and that will resonate in my writing. As a former wildfire fighter in Montana, that advice made excellent sense to me, and it proved to be valuable to my writing. I paid attention to the memories and experiences that kept resurfacing, not just as I was writing, but at other times throughout the day, or in my dreams at night. The things that niggled at me and seemed to demand further exploration. As I wrote the memoir, it definitely took me back to the place and time I was writing about, and accompanying memories and experiences returned to me. What was most helpful in filling the gaps, though, was interviewing my parents at length over a period of interviews, reading my childhood diaries and journals (though I drafted the book first without looking at those journals – I didn’t want them to influence my gut instincts), I visited and photographed my childhood home, and I conducted research on my hometown and the region of northwestern Montana where we lived. All of those steps were important in allowing me to write my story. I hope this helps – I wish you the best in your writing endeavors!
Your writing process is an inspiring. With so many classes aimed at writing your novel in six months, this year, or 30 days, I start thinking I’m incapable of finishing “on time.” Thanks for the reminder to slow down and aim for quality. Waiting for The Solace of Stones to come out on Kindle.
Thank you, Marjorie. I remember Stephen Corey saying in a workshop that with as long as it takes to write a high-quality essay, we should be glad to produce one really good essay per year. That was comforting to me. I take a long time to process, synthesize and articulate ideas, memories, sensations and reflections, so producing one good essay per year (or longer?) sounds right!
This post has jumped started me to explore my early years and my need to be accepted, and what it means today to be satisfied alone. Thanks.
I’m so glad! Thank you for letting me know. I wish you the best on your journey of discovery!
Reblogged this on Philosofishal and commented:
Our imperfect memories, emotional blind spots, and need for a heroic quality to our memoir’s protagonist can muddle the truth as well as the facts of autobiography. This author provides an example of how taking the time to process and re-process our writing before putting it in readers’ hands can be as important as telling our story.
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