On Emergence and Transformation: A Timeline Essay

June 1, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Patrice Gopo

2010

At my husband’s grandmother’s home in rural Zimbabwe, I watch my toddler marvel at chickens scampering through the yard. The drizzle on our skin, the aromas in the air, the color of the foliage, the bed in the back room, together these images return me to a moment in my history. My mind reaches for hazy memories of a single childhood visit to my grandmother’s home in rural Jamaica.

2011

Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish.

Two years into my journey as a writer, I am puzzling through an essay. My daughter in rural Zimbabwe. Myself so long ago in rural Jamaica. I have rich scenes of being in Zimbabwe and Jamaica. I also have paragraphs of endless reflection, a desperation to explain why these experiences matter. There are essay attempts falling short, essay attempts I struggle to finish. Still, the story lingers, waiting for a pathway to emerge.

2012

My daughter sits near a map hung at the eye level of a three-year-old. She points to South Africa and says, “That’s where I was born.” She points to Zimbabwe, her father’s birthplace, and Alaska, my birthplace. Finally, her index finger rests on Jamaica, my parents’ homeland. An essay begins to take shape, an expansive essay covering continents and countries, reaching across decades, weaving together generations past and future. An essay that speaks of love overcoming borders. An essay portraying the loss that exists when people leave their places of origin.

When I submit that essay, I receive a polite rejection. When I ask a friend for feedback, she tells me, “Patrice, this is five essays and not one.” I shelve that project because I think my friend is correct. However, I’m not ready to start over and see what I’ve written as a launching place for something more. An image remains, though: my daughter’s index finger touching a map of the world.

2014

A writing teacher asks the class to write about a memory associated with a bed. I choose my grandmother’s bed where I napped long ago in rural Jamaica. Later I write about my husband’s grandmother’s bed where my daughter napped in rural Zimbabwe. I structure the words in a braided fashion, moving back and forth between each moment. 

The final paragraphs of reflection arrive when I sit in the balcony of my church. Words tumble into me, the connective tissue for the essay arriving when, in theory, I should be singing the song lyrics and listening to the sermon. Instead, I listen to the words filling my mind, capturing them as if they were a divine message.

2014-2017

The essay “Before” is not my first piece of flash and certainly not my last. However, writing “Before” unlocks something within me, and I find a writing flow I’ve never experienced in the past. Essay after essay after essay, each encompassing similar themes about race and immigration, place and home. The themes are golden threads linking the work into a much larger story. My friend was correct when she told me my one essay was five essays. Or perhaps she was wrong. My one essay was actually a book of essays.

2018

With my essay collection in the world, “Before” accompanies me to nearly every reading. “My favorite essay,” I explain to each audience as I begin or conclude with images of my daughter napping in rural Zimbabwe and me napping in rural Jamaica.

2019

During a conversation with a few fellow writers, one mentions her forthcoming children’s book. An idea skirts around the edge of my mind, a seed wanting to grow. Could “Before” become a picture book?

2019

A flash essay is not the same as a picture book. Surely, though, they aren’t strangers. Perhaps distant cousins of some sort. Both rely on compression and the weight of each word. Still, there is much for me to learn. This story, though, is asking that I study the craft of writing picture books. This story is asking that I continue to tell it in this new form.

2020

I’m struggling to translate “Before” into a fictional picture book. I’ve already changed the perspective from the mother’s to the child’s. I’ve shed the braided structure. But I need a reason this little girl’s mother talks of naps in other countries. This need is a puzzle without a solution. Until a day arrives when I remember my daughter’s index finger pointing to a map of the world. I give a version of this feature to the little girl in my manuscript. Once, I thought that detail meant for an essay. Instead, it was meant to be reimagined in a picture book.

2022

A UPS envelope arrives on my doorstep. For days, it waits in my office because I know the contents I will find. A book. A picture book. My picture book. An early copy my editor mails to me. And so I wait for a day when the frantic activities slow to calm, and I can sit with my family and unwrap this story of us. Because that is what this book is: moments captured in my memory, emerging into an essay and later transformed into a picture book.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon with my daughters (now plural) near, I slide the book from its package, open the front cover, and read them a story as familiar as a map of the world.   
___       

Patrice Gopo is an award-winning essayist. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Creative Nonfiction, and Charlotte Magazine. She is the author of All the Colors We Will See, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her debut picture book, All the Places We Call Home, will release in June 2022. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina. Please visit www.patricegopo.com/subscribe to learn more and subscribe to her newsletter.

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§ 17 Responses to On Emergence and Transformation: A Timeline Essay

  • melspencer22 says:

    From one North Carolina writer to another – becoming is how we move through our writing, through our world, capturing each moment we have been. Your words resonate and stick to my soul.

    • Patrice Gopo says:

      Thank you so much for these kind words! And I’m delighted to connect with another writer in North Carolina! I agree with you that becoming is how we move through our writing and our world.

  • mizlatea says:

    This is such lovely, rich writing that reminds me of the processes our minds move through before stories emerge! Thank you for sharing it!

  • The flow of your words took me on a journey filled with disappointments, perseverance, hope, and the insight that every story and every piece of writing has a journey. Thank you.

  • Judy Reeves says:

    How lovely this “timeline” essay. I see a little girl’s finger on a place on a map and remember a story I want to tell. Isn’t this what our writing does…or the best writing does—connect us as human beings, that little girl’s finger on a map to my own finger, decades ago, on a map. Thank you for this essay. Just the inspiration I need as I commit to “1000 words of summer.”

    • Patrice Gopo says:

      Oh, how lovely to know that these words might inspire you in your own writing journey. It’s so true how writing can connect us with others, and it often astounds me to learn which moments or images serve as those connection points. Thank you for reading, Judy!

  • Karen says:

    So beautiful, tracing the birth and growth and morphing of your essays and picture book and family. Images give birth to the essay-s and circle back and rejoin to give birth to the picture book you share with your children. A beautiful map! And yes also, as others have said, inspiring me to write from my wisps of images that stick.

    • Patrice Gopo says:

      Thank you so much, Karen, for these generous words. I love what you say about the journey being a beautiful map! So delighted to know that this might inspire you to write from the wisps of images that stick. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cathy says:

    This is such a wonderful reminder that there is no expiration or “use by” dates for great ideas! So happy you have found the way to bring them all to life on the page. Good for you for sticking with it, something I grapple with mightily. Very best wishes!

    • Patrice Gopo says:

      Yes!!! No expiration or “use by” dates. But I think the internal critic often wants us to believe the opposite. Thank you so much, Cathy, for the good wishes and kind words.

  • Polly Hansen says:

    I love hearing the evolution of this journey. I’m always inspired by writers’ personal stories and the map of yours. I’m also in NC!

  • I was wondering when your next book would arrive – now I know! Cannot wait to read and share.

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