Communing With Ghosts
June 22, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Dallas Woodburn
Why do I write nonfiction? To commune with ghosts.
As a young girl through my teen years, I kept a journal. I addressed each entry not “Dear Diary” but “Dear Auden.” Auden was my paternal grandmother who died when I was five. She was the first ghost I attempted to understand and keep close through writing. Spilling out my dreams, frustrations and heartbreak on those lined journal pages felt like I was confiding in her.
The first personal essays I wrote were about her, too. The chocolate truffles she made at Christmastime. The miniature books with cardboard covers she read to me on the plaid couch. The time her refrigerator ice machine jammed and ice cubes splattered down all over the kitchen linoleum, and we both laughed and laughed.
As I captured these half-memories in words, they became both more tangible and less authentic. In the same way a photograph ensnares a moment, and looking back your mind remembers the still-life, frozen photograph rather than the messy blur of the actual memory.
I’m not sure if the memories I have of Auden are actual memories, or photographs I have seen, or stories I wrote down. Are the details dredged up from my subconscious actually true—her red lipstick, yellow apron, delicate floral perfume? Or are they fictional fairy dust supplied by my imagination, trying so desperately to flesh out the memory, make it real?
In my mid-twenties, one of my best friends died suddenly in a car accident. I learned about her death when I awoke one morning, and by that evening I was writing about her. It was a propulsion—not a want, but a need. To try to capture in words who she was and what she meant to me, to distill our shared memories into details, to nail down the specifics of our last visit. What were the final words she had said to me? Why did it feel so important to write it all down?
In the years since her death, I continue to write about her. Sometimes I write letters to her about my life, as I used to write diary entries to my grandma Auden. She drifts into my fiction—not her actual person, but in the themes my stories explore and the journeys my characters take. And when I miss her the most, I turn to nonfiction. I chase her ghost.
As the years pass, I inevitably feel further and further away from her. Seven years since her death, it is harder to grasp who she would be now, had she lived. So much has happened in the world, and in my personal life, since she died. Would she even recognize this world we now live in—a global pandemic, a splintered political system, rights we took for granted as young women on the verge of being revoked? Would she recognize this version of me, a wife and mother, a small business owner, a homeowner in the suburbs?
Writing about her is all I have left of her. I pour through my memories, searching for new glimpses. Her twenty-first birthday when she wore a navy-blue dress she designed and sewed herself. When I visited her in Paris and we sipped mint tea at a mosque in the drizzle. The afternoon we met, when she wore a jaunty cap and offered me a cherry popsicle from her tiny dorm freezer.
Capturing these memories in words feels like trying to trap a butterfly in a net. Pin it down, frozen under glass. Sterile and safe. Unchanging. I can turn back to my words and read them over again and again, so I won’t ever lose it.
But sometimes I wonder if it is better to let the butterfly—let the memory—fly free? Would it live on, more tangled and chaotic, yet somehow more beautiful? Or would it grow hazier and hazier until it vanished completely? Would I eventually forget?
Lately, I’ve begun to consider that perhaps it is not about capturing the memory at all. Perhaps the end result is beside the point. Perhaps it is the act of writing that brings my ghosts close.
Immersed in my words, I can hear my friend’s voice again in my mind. She speaks through the dialogue flowing out onto the page, sometimes surprising me, sometimes making me laugh. Writing diary entries to my grandmother, I would occasionally hear her voice—what I imagined her voice to be—in my mind, offering wisdom or solace. Perhaps the act of writing is what enables my loved ones to come alive again, briefly, while I am communing with the creative spirit.
Shortly after I began writing this piece, I came across an old home movie from my three-year-old birthday party. The camera was focused on me, opening presents and blowing out candles, but in the background, I could hear my grandma Auden talking to my aunt. Her voice sounded different than I remembered. But her laugh—her laugh was the same. And when the camera panned the crowd of guests, red lipstick outlined her smile.
Maybe the tidy details I try to pin down and the messy magic of memory can coexist after all.
Dallas Woodburn’s new short story collection How to Make Paper When the World is Ending (out June 28 from Koehler Books) explores and re-imagines the ghost story. She is also the author of the novels The Best Week That Never Happened and Thanks, Carissa, For Ruining My Life, as well as the linked short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress. A passionate book coach and host of the Thriving Authors Podcast, she lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Connect with her at www.DallasWoodburn.com.