June 13, 2018 § 15 Comments
By Julie Vick
Interrupting bird wh–
Tweet. You really must read this Tweet.
What do you get when you cross a writer with a deadline?
A really clean house.
What did the writer who was told they have no platform do?
Buy much, much higher shoes.
Writers go who?
No, writers go, “Why did this seem like such a brilliant idea last night?”
Where would a writer never want to live?
A writer’s block.
A writer walks into a bar. The bartenders says, “Have you written 1000 words today? You told me to not sell you a drink until you hit your word count goal for the day.”
A writer walks out of a bar.
What is black and white and red all over?
A writer’s latest draft that ended up in the trash with some V8 juice.
Why did the writer cross the road?
She was supposed to be revising an essay, so she crossed the road to run some errands, and go for a quick walk, and maybe buy a new toaster.
Orange you supposed to be finishing your current draft instead of reading jokes for writers?
Julie Vick’s writing has appeared in New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus. She teaches writing at the University of Colorado Denver.
June 5, 2018 § 7 Comments
“What does it mean when your body cannot be one simple thing?” Gabrielle Bellot asks, in her essay “Volcano Dreams,” published recently in Unruly Bodies (a web anthology curated by Roxane Gay).
“Volcano Dreams” opens with an anecdote about a sexual encounter in which the author is pursued by an old acquaintance. Though the acquaintance is clearly flirting, the author questions his seriousness, explaining that her identity as a trans woman often renders her sexually invisible.
I was disinterested and yet vaguely, stupidly desired his desire, as if that would validate something of my womanhood—no but yes, an in-between uncertainty, like the grey smoky nightmares of a slumbering volcano.
This connection between yearning body and volcano, is an image that drives the rest of the essay. In fact, once the encounter ends with the acquaintance’s abrupt rejection of the author’s body—only halfway through the essay—Bellot sets aside the tools of scene and story. The rest of the essay is grounded solely in image and metaphor, in volcano and sea. She develops and balances these images:
My body, I sometimes think, like many bodies, is like Dominica’s. Waitukubuli, the Caribs declared our island before the colonists came, a mountainous world named corporeally: Tall is her body. An unruly island, rainforest one moment, melancholy ramshackle zinc roofs rattling under the metallic drums of rain the next… beaches of nothing but gray stones a hurricane hurled with its roiling rolling arms like a furious crazed cricket bowler, a rough Atlantic beyond the fins of sharks or whales where fishermen in bright-painted dinghies occasionally venture under the spells of their insomniac mermaid dreams and never return. Dominica’s body changes grandly, wider in potential than a Sargasso Sea, yet she is also one defined and whole.
When I left this essay, I found myself haunted by these landscapes, as if I had dreamt them, and as if that dream had lodged itself somewhere between my conscious and subconscious.
I can’t quite explain the meaning of these images because, as Bellot says about the body, they “cannot be one simple thing.” I can tell you that the volcano conjures both anger and desire, that the sea evokes both fluidity and grief. But I can also tell you that these landscapes hold more than that.
Bellot told me these images came to her in a conversation with a friend:
We began talking about volcanoes, and then the conversation shifted, but when I went home, I began to think again of volcanoes as a metaphor for the body, and, in particular, the special, uncomfortable uncertainty and false sense of security a sleeping volcano can present. A body can seem calm and quiet, yet be roiling on the inside, ready to burst. Volcanoes destroy and rebuild. I realised that my experience of the body was connected to that sort of unstable, unpredictable imagery. (I also grew up in sight of one of Dominica’s many dormant volcanoes, and the apocalyptic tales of Mount Pelee’s eruption in nearby Martinique at the start of the twentieth century was one I thought of often as a young adult.) I’ve also long been drawn to the ocean and to the colour blue. Both have long histories for me. A family member was swept by a riptide into the ocean and drowned before I was born, a story my mother repeated to me many times when we drove past a certain white estuary that had become known for its fatal pull. And ‘the sea is history,’ as Derek Walcott put it, a place as much of life as uncountable deaths from the horrors of the transatlantic trade. So the ocean was inevitable as an image for the body as a site of contradiction and open-ended possibility.
Somehow, all of the associations that Bellot describes here reached me as a reader. In one short essay, I absorbed pieces of histories and landscapes, and connected those pieces to the author’s experience of body, of moving between conflict and fluidity.
What makes these images work? It’s not their simplicity but rather their expansiveness. Bellot does not offer simple correlations, such as heart = love or bird = freedom. At the same time, the images aren’t arbitrary or random. As Bellot makes clear in her commentary, they are carefully, lovingly chosen and rendered, and interact with the essay’s topic in meaningful ways. Like the body, these landscapes contain multitudes.
The lesson I glean from Bellot’s work is to fully commit to the images that choose me. If an image truly belongs in a work, then it deserves some oxygen. When given room to grow, the right set of images can do more than enhance a piece; they can drive it.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. Connect with her on Twitter or her personal blog, Goodnight Already.
June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments
Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:
Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?
Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch. I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.
Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?
Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.
Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?
Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what? Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.
Guisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?
Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.
Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.
Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?
Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.
Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.
Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.
Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?
Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.
Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?
Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world? I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.
Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?
Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference. Truly bucolic location. And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot. I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. It’s so smart. I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!
Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.
Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.
April 30, 2018 § 46 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Karen Karbo spends twenty minutes each morning ranting on yellow pads of paper before she begins her real writing for the day. William Stafford famously began his days by writing an aphorism and then the draft of a poem. In his book of writing advice, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, erasing a mark, and that we should use lined paper with green lines. He also writes that he hopes he doesn’t teach others to write, “but how to teach yourself to write.”
My first creative writing teacher, Sandra Dorr, described being stranded in Europe and completely blocked from writing by her interior nay-saying voice. We all hear that voice. It tells us that our writing is hopeless, clunky, too specific or too general, without purpose or meaning even to ourselves. Personify the critical voice the way Jamaica Kincaid does briefly in “Girl” and allow it to have its say, and that nay-sayer will shut every one of us down.
We should not let that happen.
Freewriting, the deliberate writing of whatever pops into our heads, is one way to shut down the nay-saying voice. There is no editor allowed in freewriting. Words spill onto the page without judgement. Accident and mess are welcomed onto our pages. Random, weird, confused, repetitive—sometimes it is the only way to sneak past our critical sentinel who consistently, insistently demands that we write better than we are able to write.
We speak about 125 words per minute, but we think words at least four times this pace. Our observations of visual images and sound and touch and taste are vastly more complex. All of this happens much faster than we can write about it.
When I write as fast as I can, even with a word processor, my thinking obviously outstrips my word recording. In order to stay on my topic on the page or screen, I notice inconsequential details. I see and hear and think about the words I type in order to prevent my mind from wandering off the page. I once hand-wrote the word “oatmeal” a dozen times in a freewrite until I found the word “cookies” and could advance to “chocolate chips.” I hear my own voice saying each word I type. I do not allow the naysayer to have any voice at all.
When we are afraid of doing a bad job, we can hardly get started.
When I was trying and failing to write about my father after his death, I finally set the timer on my watch for thirty minutes, sat before my computer, and typed for all I was worth. Most of what I typed was trash, but about a third of the way into my time, I began to remember and describe the visuals and sounds and smells of my father’s tobacco pipes, his expansive answers to my questions, and the salmon-colored 3×5 cards he kept in his breast pocket and his fountain pen always filled with blue-black ink. The drawings of a medieval boat and of a nineteenth century clipper. The pink shell he stole from a hermit crab in Fortuna Bay. The terrible distortion of his fingers from arthritis.
In a half hour, I did not have a draft, but I had a start.
Karen Karbo says she does not reread her yellow pads, but keeps them just the same. William Stafford did not publish 365 poems a year, but writing that many drafts gave him material for what he did during the remainder of his day: revision.
Everything that is to become must first find a start. I do not believe in writer’s block, but I do believe in fear of bad writing. William Stafford didn’t believe in writer’s block either. He insisted the only way to keep going when the ideas did not seem “good enough” was to “just lower your standards and keep going.”
Richard Hugo warns against writing with a pen, and that we should use lined paper with green lines.
I like green ink and I never use lined pages. I usually write with a fountain pen on the plain square pages of a journal. Most of what I write is drivel. The greatest skill of any good writer is a willingness to write badly.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned fellowships, awards, and publication. Aside from nonfiction, her last project is a novel about recovery from grief, and her current work is science fiction short stories. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, She lives and teaches writing in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com.
April 27, 2018 § 16 Comments
By Jennifer Cramer-Miller
My daughter and I are both writers, and David Sedaris is one of our favorites. He’s a master. So when he booked a tour in my daughter’s college town, we jumped at the chance to see him. We expected to love his writing performance; we didn’t expect to learn lessons from that performance about writing.
This is what I learned from an evening with David Sedaris.
As he walked onstage, the theater filled with hoots, hollers, and applause. There was a waddle to his walk, likely explained by his clown shoes. Yes, I said clown shoes. He pointed out the oddly shaped, clomping footwear with pride. The shoes were tame, however, compared to his shirt—a white collared button down, traditional on top, yet the length reached his ankles like a tailored toga. I think it looks great, he exclaimed.
Lesson: Just be you. No apologies.
The art of revision requires persistence
Mr. Sedaris stood at a podium and read an essay. He made jots with a pencil while he spoke. My daughter elbowed me and whispered. He makes a note when people laugh. During the question/answer portion of the evening to follow, a woman inquired about the notes. He explained he makes a mark if a section seems to sag or sing, if he wonders who cares, or tighten this up. Even during a polished performance, David Sedaris perfects his craft.
Lesson: Revision is as necessary to vibrant composition as water is to flowers.
Take the pulse of a piece
I was impressed at how genuinely Mr. Sedaris embraced his audience. His pieces live beyond the page, and the audience response informs his writing. A theater full of fans offered feedback, and he heard it.
Lesson: Take your pieces for a test run. Feedback makes your work better.
Know your audience
Mr. Sedaris prefaced one of his essays with a disclaimer prompted by his partner. “Hugh told me to take this one out of my recent book. He thought it brought the whole book down. With that, I knew I was on to something good.”
He read a summary of varied international drivers’ expressions of frustration to other drivers on the road—the multinational equivalents of the American middle finger.
His recounts started with a humorous dissection of the Netherlands “cancer whore” taunt and progressed to Romania, where he discovered a graphic and inventive phrase that is too much for me to repeat. The audience howled all the way through his piece.
After the lingering laughter settled, he punctuated the end with Hugh’s commentary, “People don’t want to hear that filth.” Apparently, we did, and the laughter erupted once more.
Lesson: Not everyone will like what you write. That’s okay. Write for those who do.
Observation makes your writing rich.
The latest book published by David Sedaris, Theft by Finding, is an edited compilation of diary entries from 1977-2002. In the second half of his performance, Mr. Sedaris read a series of short, funny journal entries prompted by the question, what made me feel most alive yesterday? His recitals of everyday encounters comprised a humor-filled glimpse at being open to life.
Lesson: Pay attention at the dentist’s office, the grocery store, and at the airport. Don’t let the constant swirl of mundane moments go unnoticed.
Writers are readers
To finish the evening, Mr. Sedaris gushed over a little-known author and highly recommended we buy her book (available in the lobby) before we considered any of his. He read from her work and relished her character development and finessed writing style. In doing so, he underscored the dual joys of writing and reading.
Lesson: Enjoying the written word is an equal opportunity endeavor. How refreshing it is that even the one-of-a-kind talent of David Sedaris can inspire the process of writing for the wannabe, emerging, and most seasoned amongst us.
April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.
[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]
This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.
In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:
J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.
This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.
The revelation arrives in section eight:
I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.
J. fuit hic.
I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.
If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.
This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.
I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:
Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.
I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.
Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.
Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.
April 25, 2018 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Witz
In Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose says to, “put every word on trial for its life.”
Writers of nonfiction have an obligation to tell the truth; this includes the facts, of course, but also the spirit of the story. Our job is to not just to make sure the craft is tightly strung, but to also make sure that the words, once threaded together like pearls on a string, hold up to the challenge of readers, especially those who are characters in or witnesses of the story. This is delicate, because everyone’s memories of a single incident differ slightly. No one remembers the same. Yet there’s some line, some place of substantial truth that can’t be questioned, and as a memoirist it’s a basic requisite for me to delineate where this line is.
I treaded near that line recently. I wrote a story called “Cutting Tails” about a typical farming chore my father asked me to do as a kid; that day my friend Julie was over at my house, so she accompanied me and shows up in the story. In a nutshell, my Dad asked us to load up some lambs in the back of the pale blue pickup and take them to the butcher. I shared the story with my writing group and they gave me all sorts of comments and constructive ideas on how to tighten the story, to craft a more polished piece. But they had no reason to question my facts, or my recollection of how the events unfolded that day. They did ask, however, about the friend, and if I am still in touch with her, and how she is doing today.
My heart started beating right there at the table in writing class. I know, as soon as someone suggested it, I knew I needed to run the story by her. Julie is a dear friend of mine; she’s read other writing of mine before, and she’s an ardent supporter. She is one of the few people that knows a substantial history of my life. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known my husband. Her family knew my family before we knew each other. That’s how it is in small towns; and both of us got out, but the memories of our childhood haunt us equally. And this story, this small snippet that I wrote, is a place where our histories intersect.
So, I should have felt safe sending off a piece of writing to her. Yet because I put words to the page about this day, something shifted. I became author of a shared memory in our lives, and not just friend; I became a tiny bit more responsible because it was my version of the truth that took to the page. I crafted an email and attached the essay, and pressed send.
I waited, in anticipation, for her response.
A week passed before her reply. And it was gut-wrenching waiting because instead of sharing writing that was mine, this writing had her as a character in the story. I was on pins and needles worried with how she would feel about how I characterized her. As soon as her response landed in my inbox I could tell she took time to craft her reaction. She diplomatically and poetically explained her experience, revisiting this moment, this day that affected her deeply. She awakened me to the fact that we are still living the story, still engaged in a relationship where our actions may influence/enlighten/hurt/ one another. She is a college English professor, and she’s excellent at communicating the bare truth even when it is a difficult truth to share. Sharing this story with her was complicated, on many levels.
It turns out I had several facts wrong. I remembered us being in high school, but she correctly pointed out that we were in college, because she left my farm that day, after seeing two lambs shot to their death at the butchers, to her waitressing job where she carried steak oozing with its red, thick juice to patrons in the restaurant. She was repulsed. She also pointed out that when we drove the lambs to the butcher, as my dad asked me to do, and as happened frequently on the sheep and cattle farm where I grew up, we carried three lambs in the back of the pickup. Not two. The butcher, as Julie recalls, had room for only two so he quickly and decisively terminated the lives of those two and spared one. Julie told me that a lamb was missing from my story, one whose life was spared, for no apparent reason, and how “seemingly random” (her words) it was that it witnessed the horror and then went on to live.
Her words propelled me deeper into the story, deeper into the memory, to a place where my heart pounded not only more quickly but much more profoundly. Why did I place this story in high school, when we were in in college? Is it because I had often driven to the butchers, and the memories of going there become jumbled? Or was I remembering a more innocent girl, a younger version of myself who couldn’t be responsible for turning her friend vegetarian?
I had to put the essay aside for several weeks. Julie’s response frightened me. It made me want to write fiction because my own truth feels more far-fetched than fiction, at times, and because I started to doubt my memories. They are difficult to open and examine; they are difficult, at times, to remember.
Julie thanked me for writing about that day; “It’s all kind of strangely haunting and beautiful all at the same time.” She went on to say, “It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life, and in many ways altered the entire course of my life.”
At times I feel like my memory is on trial for life. Is my version of the truth true? If it isn’t, or if it misses some facts, why did I leave them out? The eyes of the lamb who was saved, the one who drove back to the farm in the pickup truck with me, the one who witnessed the silence between Julie and I that shifted our relationship, that lamb haunts me. Why did I forget the third lamb when I wrote the original story?
Lisa Witz grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Japan, Spain and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego with her husband and three children, and they often visit the farm to hike the trails of her childhood. Visit http://www.lisareginawitz.com/ for more of her writing.