Slow Down: Interrogating the Past Takes Time
March 16, 2016 § 27 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