Writing Despite the Odds
January 4, 2023 § 3 Comments
By Sarah Fawn Montgomery
We write nonfiction to witness the world. We write nonfiction because we believe in its power to reflect reality, and so we hold up our observations to readers like an offering. But chronicling contemporary culture is difficult when the world no longer makes sense.
I began writing my latest book, Halfway from Home, at the start of what seemed like the end of the world. When the pandemic began, time stretched on but also seemed to be running out. The environment was on the verge of collapse, as was my emotional state. Like the climate, my family back on the West Coast was in crisis, but I could not help them from my place on the East Coast. Existing in my real life—to say nothing of writing about it!—sometimes seemed hopeless.
I wrote memoir to replace harsh reality with sweet nostalgia. I wrote about the many places I’d called home—California coasts where tidepools were full of starfish, Nebraska prairies with roots so deep they could survive fires—because I could not go back to visit. I wrote about a natural world that was full of abundance—monarchs gathering together for warmth each winter near my childhood home, my family fed on fields full of tart berries—because everything was on the verge of extinction. I wrote about my many adventures with my father—digging in my childhood treasure hole, polishing ordinary rocks to shine like gems—because I did not know when I would see him again, or, after he was diagnosed with cancer, if I would at all.
The memories of the past soothed me, but they also supported me. The fears and frustrations I felt during my daily doomscroll were augmented with memories of kindness, compassion, and community. The anger I felt over humanity’s apathy was replaced with agency as I chose what stories I wanted to share. As I crafted the narrative of my life, my feelings of hopelessness were replaced with a deep appreciation.
Soon I felt strong enough to reflect on the present. I wrote about the collective grief Americans faced watching our natural and national landscapes under attack. I wrote about how to build a home when human connection is disappearing, and how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. This writing helped me to process the pain and understand my anger, but it also helped me to develop compassion. Much of my grief came from feeling alone, but nonfiction requires us to broaden beyond the personal to create something akin to universal meaning, and by doing so, I regained the kinship I’d been missing.
Writing memoir about the past and present also prepared me for the future. This is not to say that writing prevented painful realities. The pandemic continues, along with new threats. National and natural landscapes grow increasingly hostile, and we collectively ache for what is lost. Human connection is disappearing even as our yearning for it increases, and we bear the burdens of so much grief. We have lost our sense of safety, our ability to pay bills, our hope that things will get better. Many of us have lost the ones we love.
Now when I feel helpless, I sit down to write because this gives me the power to shape the world on the page. Nonfiction puts us in the role of the observer and this practice invites us to not only witness and record, but to acquire agency through the act of writing. As humans, we often feel whittled down by the world, but as writers, we are the ones who shape creation with our stories.
When I feel lonely and afraid and full of grief for the things I cannot control, I turn to witness. I watch a red fox find sustenance in the dead of a winter that seems like it will never end. As the spring bursts forth in fragrant bloom, I watch bees busy at the clover and a million shoots unfurling themselves from the frozen ground. In summer, I spy deer wandering through the yard with their wobbly fawns. By fall, they are grown, another year almost gone.
Noticing this way inspires the wonder of my childhood and takes me back to a time before the world changed and the chaotic news cycle began. A time before so many of us were separated from our families and even our country seemed a stranger. A time before we were on the edge of environmental and emotional collapse.
If I can observe beauty and joy in the world, I can share this with others through my craft. No longer is memoir a means to escape, but instead a moment to memorialize.
So even as the earth aches, I notice a great blue heron swooping low through my Massachusetts yard on its way to roost. This takes me back many years and a lifetime ago to when I lived in Nebraska and the sandhill cranes that did the same, returning to the same nesting ground for thousands of years to hatch their young, to ensure their survival despite the world’s many dangers.
And I recall the robins my father showed me during my California childhood, back when he was still alive. The creatures were open-mouthed and wailing, determined to fly even though they did not seem ready for what the world would offer. Their shells were blue jewels, small as a thimble, as a whispered prayer. It was easy to miss the cracked halves, if you weren’t careful. If you didn’t pay attention. Witness requires guidance, and my father taught me to watch.
How the birds flew, took to the sky despite the odds.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery