Evidence: A Creative Writing Prompt in the Composition Classroom

October 16, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz nglishTwitterAvatarOver the next few months, author Stacy Murison will occasionally explore how she uses basic principles of creative nonfiction with students in her first-year composition classes. This is the first in the series.

We regularly ask our students for more supporting evidence in their essays, whether they are writing a rhetorical analysis, an argumentation paper, or a research paper. But it’s often challenging for students to understand what kind of evidence will support their ideas. Even with evidence, they don’t always feel confident making a hypothesis or developing a research question that may challenge them.

As their beginning research project for the semester, my students write an I-Search, which is a student-directed inquiry project. The main paper component is a 1,200-1,500 word narrative describing how they develop their question and conduct research. For this project, it’s the story of their research process that is important, not necessarily the results of their research. I spend most of the unit stressing the development of the best question they can ask rather than finding an answer to their question. This concept is often challenging as it is not a traditional research paper where students can expect to find at least the beginning of an answer to their question. The other challenge is getting students to write narratively about their research and question development, something beyond “And then, I went to Google Scholar.”

I decided to develop a creative writing exercise to help students understand how to craft a research question, how to gather evidence, and how to write their search narratives. While doing my own research for a young adult story I was writing, I had an idea for a group of teenagers who discover a well-preserved abandoned home to make their own. I spent weeks searching for “perfect” abandoned house photographs, which eventually became more interesting than my story. I was fascinated by the condition of some of these places, and was surprised to see that many of the articles that accompanied the photograph listed the contents of the houses, but the reporters often didn’t go the extra step of finding the family, interviewing neighbors, or sharing an educated guess with readers about what may have happened to the homeowner.

To guide students with both research and storytelling, I share my fascination with the abandoned house stories and photographs. I then show them a photo of this abandoned living room that also appeared to have functioned as a music room:

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The prompt involves opening with the question: What Happened Here? I ask students: what was this room used for? and what time period was this room “frozen” in? The first is often answered quickly: a living and music room (guitar case, multiple record players, and chairs possibly arranged for “listening”). This helps students develop their “research question.” The next step involves some actual research—usually we look at the furnishings and the stereos/record players, but also the books, using image searches on the internet. I might give them some hints, such as stereos from the 60s and 70s and furniture from the 40s and 50s. I even allow them to use their cell phones to search the internet.

Instead of asking them to write an essay with supporting evidence, I then ask them to write a story about what happened to the family using the evidence as descriptors of the space—the molded guitar case, the water-damaged bay window, even the fake flowers looking like just picked from a garden, etc. After they complete the exercise, we spend time reading and talking through some of the stories and what led each writer to their story of the place and the homeowners.

The challenge with this example is that we all want to know what happened to the homeowners from the photograph. I then share the full article with the class. Although personal papers were found on the premises, the reporter doesn’t reveal the homeowner’s name, nor does it appear that she attempted to find the homeowner. Each piece of photographic “evidence” presented—vacant, fully furnished rooms, silverware, beauty products—only adds to the question of “what happened.” The questions become more refined as we discuss the images and the article, such as “Why would someone leave all of that expensive audio equipment behind?” and “a guitar in a case is easy to carry—why didn’t someone take it?”

When the students get more excited about the types of questions they can ask based on the evidence, then I know it’s time to introduce the full prompt for the project. As they prepare their research questions and start to find some evidence, they can discern what makes a more complex research question and how to tell the story of their search. I see students take more risks with the questions they ask, and also in refining their question through ongoing research. One student is at the point now where each new piece of evidence she discovers helps her reframe her question. She is not going to settle on one question for this paper—instead, as she garners more evidence, her question continues to evolve. What she’s writing about now is how to craft the “right” question. And she’s still excited about the project, rather than being frustrated at not finding an easy answer.

Resources:

Filkins, Scott. “Promoting Student Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Accessed 30 September 2017

Rahman, Khaleda. “Untouched for decades: Photographer captures perfectly preserved home that was abandoned for years.” Daily Mail Online. Accessed 15 September 2017
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Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

Letting Your Neighbors Inspire Your Writing

October 13, 2017 § 10 Comments

zz Caren-TakenByRobTBy Caren Lissner

Each year around this time, as the temperature gets colder and the nights grow longer, I spend more time sequestered in my small fifth-story apartment, writing. Luckily, the neighbors always provide extra inspiration. It’s not that they stop up to visit or that I see them more often in the streets now that they’re back from their summers away. Rather, this is the time of year when they remove the air conditioners and fans from the narrow windows of their apartments and brownstones, and my view changes dramatically.

At night, I start to notice a beautiful contrast: rows and rows of glowing windows juxtaposed against a cobalt sky. But I notice something else: more clues to the occupants’ personalities, the decorations that were obscured by their hardware — the jaunty sports pennants, flags from other countries, swirling suncatchers.

I also notice much more, a glimpse of their daily routines, providing both a distraction from my solitude and a reminder of the types of quirks I need to include to deeply shade the characters in my work.

For instance, take the guy directly across the street, who lives on the fifth floor of a beige row-home. From January through April, I spy him up into the wee hours, hunched over a desk beneath a small metal lamp. He takes breaks to head to the kitchen, and then it’s back to work. Since he’s only up so late during tax season, I have a pretty good idea what he does for a living. When we’re both at our desks at 2 or 3 a.m., I feel a camaraderie with him, another soul who understands the value of being productive during the most quiet time of night.

I’ve seen neighbors go through family changes. A new pet appears, an orange kitten who climbs onto the sill to stretch in the sunshine, its eyes turning to contented slits. Or the side of a crib suddenly presses against the window like a temporary safety gate against the world.

A week ago, I noticed that all the shades and curtains disappeared from a window on the fourth floor of the building across the street, affording me a view of a cavernous room with shiny wood floors. Days later, a regiment of cleaning products lined the sill, and a young man moved in. I caught glimpses of him in his t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s probably one of the young people who flood this area to start their first job in Manhattan after college graduation, as I did two decades ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone in this town yet, or maybe he has many friends who will fill his apartment this weekend for his first party. Perhaps he expects, as I once did, to be here only a few years before leaving for the suburbs. I may cross paths with him tomorrow when he’s dashing for the bus in suit and tie, and not even recognize him. But will he recognize me?

In the last few years, I’ve found out, through conversations on social media, that various childhood friends of mine lived in this town right after college, but moved to the suburbs before either of us realized that we were around the corner from each other. There was no social media to connect us then. It’s too bad that we didn’t at least meet up for a drink before our paths diverged. In fact, right now, there may be people all around me who have something deep inside that would amaze me, but we’re looking at each other’s glowing window and neither of us knows it. Perhaps we will never know.

As a writer, I often use my imagination to fill in the blanks of people’s lives, to make more sense of the world. But perhaps I should forsake imagination for a little initiative. Because I really don’t know enough of my neighbors. As the cold weather settles in, it’s tempting to hole up all weekend. The next time I go out, I’m going to say hello to a few more people I pass, perhaps ask questions about their dogs. If they don’t find it too much of a trespass in these isolated times, perhaps they’ll smile back. It might make autumn feel a bit warmer – that, and taking the fans out of the windows.
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Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist who’s been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, LitHub, and McSweeney’s. Her humorous first book, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie that premiered on Netflix in September. She’s presently finishing up a new novel and a funny memoir.

My Affair with the Sentence

October 11, 2017 § 8 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)By Beth Ann Fennelly 

After many years of a fairly monogamous relationship with poetry, I began a flirtation with prose. Now it’s a full-blown affair. My newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is a collection of little bite-sized stories about my life. Some of them are a sentence, some a paragraph, or a few. At times, when I was trying to publish them, my husband (also a writer) would call my attention to a prose poem contest, asking, “Why not send in your new pieces?”  My refusal was knee-jerk: my pieces weren’t poetry. “Does it matter?” he’d ask, genuinely curious.  It mattered, curiously. Memoir had allowed me access to material previously unavailable through poetry, and I wanted to credit the genre. Why, though, did writing in sentences as opposed to lines make a difference?

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The line versus the sentence: this distinction would seem twee to those who aren’t obsessed with words, who assume lines are chopped-up sentences. But those of us who are obsessed with words know the distinction changes not only how but what we write. After all, if lines were merely chopped-up sentences, and line breaks merely visual, we could delete them with no change to the material. But when losing the line break, we lose the white space that shapes the way we process meaning. Line breaks provide a rest, so the words on either side of the rest can require more effort in the processing of lyricism, tropes, syntax, and sound. These resting places—like stair landings in a walk-up—interrupt the exertion with a breather (literally), and so give us the strength to keep climbing. Without them, too much is demanded of us, so our absorption is hindered.

The poetic line also affects the reader because it highlights the artfulness and artifice of the experience of reading, as opposed to the sentence, which distracts us from it. The line, followed by its white space, metes out comprehension, followed by its disruption. The power play of the line break is that of withholding. We’re never unaware that our experience is being modulated by another as we follow the choreographer’s orders to leap and rest, leap and rest. This is fundamentally different than how prose pours itself into the vase of the page. Here, says the line, Now we are here. Now we are here. But everywhere, says the sentence. You are everywhere and nowhere. The sentence is always pointing outside of itself. This is what Cole Swenson means, I believe, when she writes “Prose exists somewhere other than the page.”

And, lastly, the line’s tension is different from the sentence’s tension. Tension in the line occurs as the unfurling sentence is interrupted by caesura and line breaks. These two forces, the force that pushes and the one that retards, become the warp and weft on which the skilled poet manipulates rhythm. Let’s compare this to how the engine of the sentence moves us. With prose, the rhythms are steadier, the goal accumulation. Chris Forhan, another poet-turned-memoirist, says on LitHub that “When writing prose, I can often afford to work at a lower idle.”  Indeed, the locomotive and the long distance car trip are frequent comparisons for prose, which feels horizontal, not vertical.

And all this influences the “what” we write. Without the push-and-pull of line breaks, the act of reading becomes less conscious. The physicality of reading–the eyes yanking back to the left margin, while the ear and brain rush toward comprehension–is lessened. As a result we’re less bolted to the moment, which is to say, the lyric impulse. The tension of prose takes place on a wider tapestry, the warp and weft tightening not over the course of a single line but as momentum builds toward and is delayed from its destination. Prose is more interested with the future, and sometimes the past, connected to the present, which is to say, plot. Prose is less about relating shifting parts of a sentence into a coherent now, and more about relating the shifting now to a coherent then, and then, and then, which better accommodates the narrative impulse.
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So, how did the rhythm of the sentence allow me access to experiences I hadn’t accessed with poetry?  I made that long-distance road trip into the past and stayed there longer than I would have with the line’s leaping insistence. By idling there, the past revealed its intricacies, fleshed out in a way that let me see how rich and detailed those memories were. The unfolding energy of the “and then” construction demanded these moments link up with a future, thus providing prospective. The person who lived those past moments, the “I of the then,” as Sven Birkerts terms it in The Art of Time in Memoir, intersected with “the I of the now.”  For example, my whole life I’ve heard how, when I was two, my four-year-old sister cut off my curls and eyelashes with safety scissors. This oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote was not one I ever explored in poetry. But the fishing line of the sentence, cast back into the pool of 1973, lingering there, allowed me to sound the depths of that memory. As it turned out, there was something troubling about how that experience links up to our current relationship. There was a genuine question I needed to answer that the anecdote elided and the poetic line might have yanked me out of. The sentence got me there, inviting me to linger until I’d made the connection.

So I’m grateful to the sentence and all I’ve learned from it, all I continue to learn. Don’t tell poetry, but, at least for now, my love affair with the sentence shows no signs of fizzling.

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Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi.  Her book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is out this month from W.W. Norton.

Attaining Brevity

October 10, 2017 § 29 Comments

I’m all about brevity, and not just for Brevity. I’m ruthless with my editing clients’ work. In the big picture, asking if a scene is needed or a subplot is serving the story as a whole. Line by line, chopping words and phrases:

Driving in a car

That night I fell asleep in my bed and dreamed

He got out of his car, walked across the lot, and through the front door of the apartment building, where he pressed the elevator button for the tenth floor.

Not all editors have this near-ridiculous focus on using the fewest possible words to tell the story. And I have to be careful to curb this instinct when working with a writer whose natural style is wordier, or who’s writing in a more-descriptive cultural tradition. But usually, cutting every possible extraneous word benefits an essay or a book. Sharpens the focus. Keeps the reader on what matters instead of losing them in a thicket of less-important language.

The subject of vigorous trimming came up a few weeks ago when I was teaching. I advised a group of memoirists to print their current draft, edit it on paper as much as possible, including scissoring pages apart and moving scenes or paragraphs if needed. Then retype the entire draft into a new document, “Not cutting and pasting, and not adding the edits into the previous document. Retyping.”

I hadn’t realized this was, shall we say, unusual until I caught the looks of horror. Retype an entire manuscript? Every word? When there’s a perfectly good Save As New File option?

But retyping lights up a new part of the brain. Reading words on a paper page and copying them is different than agonizing in one’s head and putting the results on screen. Physically snipping a manuscript into scenes points out repetition in a way that encountering the same scenes while scrolling doesn’t. Retype the entire thing and you’ll know what words to leave out because you won’t want to type them. If you feel resistance at the keyboard to a paragraph or a moment, ask if the book really needs it. Retyping instead of copy-pasting also re-immerses the writer in the flow of the story–sometimes new memories or scenes show up as you go. And it doesn’t take nearly as long as writing the story the first time. For me, the wordcount-per-hour is about four times faster, and a solid two hours of retyping feels like an honest day’s work.

A student asked, “When did you start doing that?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question. Wasn’t vicious trimming part of everyone’s process? (Nope.) I thought back to seventh grade. When I first started exploring the themes of being misunderstood by parents and peers and the loneliness of the true artist writing terrible middle-school poetry. My grandmother gave me a pretty hardback journal, dark blue with a unicorn–of course it was a unicorn!–stamped in silver. I didn’t want to waste a page. Only final drafts belonged in this book, because only finished pieces deserved a hard cover, thought tween-me. Every poem was first written on looseleaf paper, kept in a manila folder in my Trapper Keeper, because manila felt more grown-up than snapping them into the three-ring section. Every poem was rewritten five, six, ten times, each time removing any word that could be left out. I don’t know why I thought stripping away the excess made better poems, but I was sure it did.

Seventh-grade me was right. Strip away the excess to reveal the heart of the work. Yes, there are voices and styles that require more words–make sure that’s the strongest choice, and even then ask of every word, do you belong here? Are you doing a job no other word can do? Are you earning your place in this line?

Physically rewriting is just enough effort to truly question every line. To find the brevity in your natural voice. When you’re ready, print your draft. Mark it up. Cut it apart. And then retype–your fingers will tell you what belongs.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her latest webinar, Write Better With Social Media, is available through her website.

Writing as Laborious Play

October 6, 2017 § 4 Comments

zz3 copy(2)By Mary Volmer

The obsessions of writers and athletes begin the same way, as play.  In his memoir, Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman explains that his basketball obsession began, “as messing around…throw a ball through a hoop, a fun silly kind of trick at first, until you decide you want to do it better.” He might as well have been speaking about storytelling and writing.

Writing starts as novelty, as messing around, until you decide you want to do it better, and become willing, as Wideman says, to “learn the game’s ABC’s.  Learn what it costs to play.” What follows is a period of joyful mimicry. Not yet aware of the limits of your ability, you are burdened only by your own evolving expectations.  Try and fail and try again, until the ball begins to fall through the hoop with regularity–until the writing, once derivative, takes on its own life, and you become capable of original expression.

Because ultimately, expression is what athletes and authors crave. They live for those moments when body, soul, and mind operate in perfect unity, a kind of spiritual transcendence. Sports psychologists have named this transcendent experience “the Zone,” or, “The Zone of Optimal Performance.” Their perspective alters, so that nothing of consequence exists outside of the immediate action. Awareness expands to fill the moment. The game seems to slow, the goal grows wider and the body responds with uncalculated inventiveness to each unpredictable event.

Writers share similar experiences of altered time and heightened awareness. They, too, understand that discipline precedes transcendence. They, too, must be willing to show up and endure discomfort and labor every day, even on bad days. They, too, must find satisfaction in small daily victories, adapt to setbacks as the season or story progresses, and maintain faith in their purpose even when they have cause to doubt their abilities.

Writers and athletes recognize their pursuits to be, as Chad Hubbach writes so elegantly, an “apparently pointless affair…which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Although at times marred by ego and that false god, glory, the desire to observe beauty and to have a hand in its creation, remains the noble center of both pursuits.

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Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust (Soho Press, 2010) and Reliance, Illinois (Soho Press, 2016). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Mutha Magazine, Women’s Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Historical Novel Society Review, and Ploughshares. She has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College (CA) where she now teaches.

Teaching Brevity: Nicole Walker’s “Fish”

October 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

hcBy Heidi Czerwiec

Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop.  In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, and a Brevity essay as well, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.

“Fish” is a nonfiction piece that complicates students’ ideas of what an essay is and how it should behave.  A triptych, each part is only ¾–1 page long.  The first part resembles nature or environmental writing and describes, in a zoomed-in empathetic third-person point of view, a salmon fighting to climb a man-made fish ladder: “The fish jumped a ladder built of electricity and concrete.  Swimming up the Columbia teachers her a lesson about progress.” The second section, written in first person (but with an awareness that shifts between a child’s and an adult’s perspective), is a vivid memory of deep-sea fishing with her father and his friends, and struggling to reel in a huge barracuda: “I am eleven years old and holding onto a fishing pole, trolling for big fish in the deep water off Florida’s coast.  I must have been beautiful then.” The third part, written in second person, reads like food writing – in this case, how to prepare fish: “Cooking filets of fish is not complicated….  It’s the sauce that’s difficult.”

“Fish” represents three different kinds of nonfiction writing – nature documentary, memoir, and food writing – with which students are already familiar.  But how do they work (or not work) together as a triptych of styles seemingly linked only by topic?  Each section presents only a brief, image-based moment addressing some aspect of fish – only the recipe-like third section offers us much closure, and none gives that satisfying moral or meaning that students long for.  Their reaction to “Fish” is complicated further by unexpected lyric elements: “This isn’t an essay; it’s a poem,” they complain.  While each section has its distinct voice, images and words echo across the essay: the straining of the salmon upstream becomes the straining of the young girl and barracuda against each other, and returns as directions for making a sauce: “Strain through a chinois.  Strain through cheese cloth.  Strain one more time for good measure.”  Words like “circling,” “hold,” and “flesh” recur, accruing meaning.  And Walker breaks her prose into short paragraphs sometimes only a line long, which visually resembles poetry and affects the pacing of how we read her essay.  How can all of these elements co-exist in the same piece of writing?

As all of you are well aware, the verb “essay” or “assay” means to attempt.  Walker’s “Fish” makes explicit the many approaches we may take to our topics.  What is interesting is the way she tries to do several at once – create three distinct styles and voices and points of view, and yet tie them together not only through topic, but more subtly through recurrent words and images.  As a result, “Fish” offers much for discussion about the choices she’s made and the effects they have on readers, both in the individual sections and across the whole piece.

After discussing “Fish,” I like to lead students through a guided free-write imitation: I have them start by writing about a vivid memory involving a single-ingredient food item – an animal, a fruit or vegetable, a spice, etc.  Then, I have them try to write a brief scene from the sensory perspective of that food item.  Finally, they write directions for their favorite recipe for that item.  For their assignment, they can develop these sections, but I encourage them to explore other ways of considering that food item (its history, its cultural associations, etc.), so long as they end up with at least a three-part essay.  As they refine their piece, they should also experiment with creating distinct voices, styles, and points of view for each section, as well as finding ways to tie the sections together via language, imagery, or other elements.  This piece often is one of the strongest my students produce, and encourages them to play with a number of writing techniques in a short piece.

reprinted with permission, previously published in Assay

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‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
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Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, the forthcoming collection Conjoining, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she works with various literary organizations, including Motionpoems, ROAR: Literature and Revolution from Feminist People, and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Season of Forgiveness

September 30, 2017 § 21 Comments

Irene Hoge Smith for AWP copyBy Irene Hoge Smith

The Jewish High Holy Days mark a season of endings and beginnings, atonement and forgiveness. Alongside my Jewish husband and with our interfaith community, I am able to partake in this precious opportunity for contemplation. One of my endings (and perhaps a new beginning) is that, after more than five years, I seem finally to have finished writing about my mother. This month I sent Snaggletooth’s Daughter: A Memoir out to find its way in the world.  (I’d thought it finished this time last year, but in the way of these things it needed one more rewrite to be the best I could make it.)

The book is about my lost-and-found mother. She was a poet, my father an engineer, and their marriage was chaotic and destructive. When they finally split up, my father got custody of me and my three sisters (aged six to sixteen) and my mother moved to California, where she picked up the life of poetry she’d set aside for the decade and a half she was with us. She became Charles Bukowski’s Snaggletooth, mother of his only child, and francEyE, a respected poet in her own right.

From fourteen to thirty, I did my best to pretend I’d never had a mother. When that coping strategy inevitably outlived its usefulness, I took up the task of trying to form some kind of relationship with the woman who had been, but no longer was, my mother. She was a writer, and I respected that, but was still shocked when I discovered she’d left out of her own memoir anything about me and my sisters or her marriage to our father. When I received an invitation to her book launch party, I wrote what became my first published essay, instead of an RSVP. Then I decided to make another visit, to ask her directly to talk about the years she’d been our mother, and begin to understand more completely what her life had been. By the time she died, I was able to speak at her funeral, filling in the missing parts of her life story in words that were, I hoped, not untrue and not unkind.

Yet when a fellow writer asks me after a group reading—well-meaning, insistent, and in obvious distress—if I have forgiven my mother, I feel put on the spot. I want to say, “Forgive her? Interesting question. You know, she never asked!”  Or, since tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner, I might point out that I’ve spent most of a decade (or my whole life) on the work of understanding my mother. My defensiveness makes me wonder if there’s something I’ve neglected. Have I not forgiven her?

I think my friend, pained by the sad litany of loss, hoped that “forgiveness” would be the thing that could wrap the story up with a happy bow, so that I could stop writing about the things that happened and their long-lasting effects. Maybe the problem is that I’d so much love to be able to do something like that—to say the magic word “forgive,” and thus bring into being a sweet, uncomplicated, mother-daughter love, and make everything all okay. I wish I could do that, but that’s not what forgiveness is.

In order to forgive, we must give up the desire for revenge, any claim to get something back in compensation for having been hurt, and in that regard I feel on solid ground. I don’t recall ever trying to make my mother suffer, or even wishing that she would. I wanted to tell my own story, but I didn’t do it to hurt her or anyone else.

Forgiveness also requires that we acknowledge the humanity of the person who has caused hurt. I might easily have written my mother as a caricature—a foolish, self-involved woman, more attached to her writing and political beliefs than to her children, whose abandonment of those children defined her. I knew from the perspective of writing, emotional health, and maybe even the good of my soul, whatever that might be, how important it was not to fall into that trap.

Finally, to forgive someone we have to be able to wish them well despite our own pain.   My mother’s gone now, but I’m glad she got to publish her poems, (even if there are still a few I don’t get) and that she felt loved by the one daughter she was able to mother. I’m sad that I was not a beneficiary of that late-developed capacity, but if it were up to me I’d want that relationship to have existed rather than not. I’m glad she died free of pain and fear, and that she was not wracked by guilt. I hope that, if she is somewhere now, she is at peace.

For our own sake, and perhaps for the sake of the world, we are enjoined to give up thoughts of revenge, relinquish enduring resentment, grant to the person who has hurt us their own essential humanity, and practice compassion to them and to ourselves.

We are not required to write a book about them. I did that for myself.

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Irene Hoge Smith lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington D.C. Her essays have appeared in New Directions JournalAmsterdam Quarterly,  Prick of the Spindle, and Vine Leaves Literary Review, and she was a 2016 AWP Writer-to Writer Mentee. (One of the founding mothers of IFFP, she is observing Yom Kippur today with her interfaith community.)

 

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