Seeing an Essay and My Father Anew
April 4, 2017 § 3 Comments
By Richard Gilbert
Almost three years ago, I began writing about accompanying my father to buy a Hereford bull when I was four. What provoked reliving the trip was fetching a cane for my wife, who was recovering from foot surgery. I remembered a stockman’s cane the bull’s breeder gave me. I still have it, 58 years later. Why?
Trying to answer just that, the essay explores reflexive story-making and the complex relationship among memory, imagination, and inner narratives. I found out late last week that “The Founder Effect” made the 2017 long list for the Notting Hill Essay Prize, a British biennial competition. It pays £20,000 to the winner, and they also publish five runners up. Two writer friends made the long list too: Jill Christman, who teaches for Ball State University, and Pat Madden, who teaches for Brigham Young University.
Competition is steep, so I’m counting the long list as my award. The 2015 winner was David Bradley’s provocative essay “A Eulogy for Nigger.” For some further great reading, go to the 2015 long list and pick an author and title and google it—those essays were first published or have since appeared in an array of journals. They are diverse in length and approach. Starting with the current competition, Notting Hill entries cannot have been previously published.
After a year of working on “The Founder Effect,” I tried to get it published. When it didn’t get anywhere, I sent it to a thoughtful friend who hadn’t seen it. He said he couldn’t understand its point. I suspected that, in my effort to make the most of the essay, I’d screwed it up. Two other friends had fretted that I was overworking it. Finally I hired a developmental editor, the talented novelist Joan Dempsey, up in Maine, to read it and advise me.
Joan pointed out that I started telling the story by alternating between my trip and related aspects, but then went into apparently unrelated stories about my father. After that, I let it sit a long time. Then I cut a ton. The trick was, I wanted to keep some of the memoir stuff. I write about the bull breeder’s life going on after we moved to Florida, so some of my father’s and my post-ranching life seemed relevant too.
And I restored something neither my friend nor Joan had seen. This was an initial foreground thread about my wife Kathy’s recovery from foot surgery. That thread grounds the essay in the here and now. It echoes the essay’s notion that in life, as in stories, the little things can be the big things. For example, the lone step at our house’s side door and a low tile lip on our shower loomed like Everest to someone with only one useable foot. And a friend bringing us a casserole dish? Huge. These lively segments make the essay kind of amusing, too, because while Kathy was recovering, and I was tending her, I was also lost down the internet rabbit hole, learning about Herfords and our bull’s breeder.
I learned a couple of things in this essay’s long writing and revision process. Per writing, I saw that the bullheaded drafting mind, the mind trying really hard to do something, isn’t the mind that can see immediately when a strategy doesn’t work. You need time, probably help from a writing posse, and maybe a professional’s eye. Of course ultimately the writer must decide alone.
Per life, the essay’s illumination of how I form narratives, often from mere scraps, helped me see my mind’s operating system. And pondering such reflexive story-making—amid my existing inner stew of memory, imagination, and previous stories—I finally saw my father’s narrative arc apart from its effect on me. That shift felt, and feels, big.
All this from exploring, for almost three years now, the memory of going with Dad to buy a bull in remote southwestern Georgia over half a century ago. I worked for 15 years in journalism, which teaches you to make the most of what you’ve got and to move on. To apply to essaying, those maxims must address a different dimension. “Literature,” Cyril Connolly said, “is the art of writing something that will be read twice.”
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads as one of its “Best of 2016.” He is working on a collection of essays about animals and landscapes.