February 26, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Nathan Strobel
Exactly three months after my wife told me that she wanted a divorce, I sat on the floor of what used to be our bedroom and watched the dull flash of Roanoke’s Fifth of July fireworks through the window. The show had been rained out the night before. Our four-year-old daughter was asleep across the hall and my wife, who by that time was paying me rent to live in the basement, was, I could only presume, out with someone else. A thick volume containing all of Jane Austen’s novels was on my bedside table. I was halfway through Sense and Sensibility.
The day after our separation that April, I did only what had to be done, which seemed outsized in its cruelty: listen for the morning rustlings of my daughter; brush her hair and teeth and give her a waffle and strawberries for breakfast; tell her that we were going to visit her grandma, my mother, for a week but that she would see mommy when we got back. My efforts at normalcy felt like a lie that would widen into a chasm and swallow everything I thought my life had been. Words like “custody,” “visitation,” and “attorneys” were already rising out of this breach and choking me with anxiety as I shoved my daughter’s Elsa suitcase into the back of the minivan.
We left for the four-hour drive across Virginia to my hometown. During a stop at Bojangles’, I texted my brother that it seemed like I should be taking notes on this day for posterity. If one is lucky enough to live the fairly insulated middle-class life that I do, there are only a handful of such ruptures in a lifetime. So, I remember the man in the blue shirt in the restaurant who handed me a straw when he saw me standing behind him, and the minimum-wage cashier who carried our tray to a table for us because she saw that I had my daughter on my hip. They were kindnesses that would normally be noticed in the moment but quickly forgotten. But in the darkness of personal tragedy, they felt like pricks of light, and I wanted to ask, “Do you know?” But they couldn’t have.
When I finally reached my family and hugged my mother on the doorstep of my childhood home, the kindnesses widened: offers for dinner or coffee from old friends, unsolicited nuggets of calming wisdom, phone numbers of divorce lawyers. But most of the advice consisted of encouragement to pursue what I loved and from which I’d been restricted by the toxicity of the relationship that had been the dominant feature of my entire adult life to that point.
I decided that I needed to start reading again, really reading. In the preceding months, as I had felt my marriage dying, my books had become nothing more than a frame around the IKEA shelf on which the TV sat. They gathered dust as my wife and I sat down for another desultory night of Netflix surfing.
In what was now my bedroom, I started Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. I was embarrassed to be reading it because it had a sunrise on the cover and looked like a self-help book. But she described the last stage of post-divorce grief not as “acceptance” but as “lifting,” a sense that one deserves better than a plain peace with the facts, that life after loss can be a work of art rather than a newspaper article.
So, I picked up Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which, when I read it as a college student, had filled me with a sense of inestimable possibility. Now I was picking it up as a 32-year-old soon-to-be divorcee looking back on a decade crisscrossed with decisions and events that served as a mesh preventing me from going back and recapturing that fire for the written word with which I had been so wholly consumed. When I’d first read Dillard, it was like a lightning strike, and I’d spent the months afterward devouring Dostoevsky, Henry James, George Eliot, and dozens more that I can’t even recall. This time it would need to be more of a slow burn.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that college student to choose a different path, to pursue his PhD in literature instead of moving to New York in the depths of the Great Recession with his then-girlfriend on the fantastical notion of either becoming a big-time editor or a fiction writer. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, until my dad died and we found ourselves back in my hometown with my pursuit of an MFA aborted. I know what I love: I love reading words, analyzing them, discussing them. But no one particularly cares about your reflections on Jane Austen and her exigency in modern life unless you hold a doctorate.
That takes me back to Annie Dillard, who went into the woods just a few miles from where I live now and wrote about what she saw. It was as simple as that. The result of her observations opened my heart to a beauty with which it’s still being filled today, even as I sit in the midst of a failed marriage wondering what could have been. But what if she’d said to herself, “No one will care about my musings on elm trees and muskrats and hoop snakes,” and put her manuscript away? What if she had been terrified by her awe instead of inspired? In my new life, I want to be like Annie Dillard: so filled with love and wonder that it can’t help but overflow into creation.
Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.
July 2, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Brittany R. Collins
Four years ago, I performed a poem in the back room of a bar for a patchwork audience drinking beer from plastic cups. At the end of the evening, an older man in a grey fedora pulled me aside to say: “There are some things in this world that only children, animals, and poets understand.”
“Children, animals, and poets.” I hear him in my mind when I read, even now. I reach a clause or the white space after a period—for it is never the period itself that catches me, that bobber in the water, but the placid, smooth stream of the in-between. It is there that he is waiting, wading, whispering this line about audience.
Today, I am reading Annie Dillard by the peony garden when thunder rumbles. Ants scurry into the folds of the flower petals, tucking themselves into each crevice (each crevice a magenta duvet, a tortoise shell, a home) and I imagine them screeching tiny screams, sensing the atmospheric shift in their bellies.
They are always there, these ants, and sometimes a nuisance. When I clip the flower stems with sharp orange scissors, intending to bring the outer in, their bodies—glistening and black—remind me that the outer will always evade. They cling and grasp, immovable.
Watching their determination, I remember my clean kitchen counters, the aroma of Lemon Pledge, and I drop my scissors. I lay the blades down in the depths of my picnic basket and recede. You’re right, I think, watching the ants rush, frantic and frenetic (with glee? with fear? how similar the two feel, embodied). You’re right. This is where you belong.
There will always be unity and schism between the earth and me.
Sometimes the ants are welcome company. I whisper hello to them as I tread the tender earth, and they scurry. I have never seen a still ant. An ant of stasis. I relate to their urgency, their exigency. “Busy” is a guise for brimming—with glee, with fear. With both.
The ant-filled peony in the flower garden stands in contrast to the curated, cinched bouquet on the shelf. Both are beautiful and necessary. There is a time and place for them. Just as the worn arrangement at the supermarket serves its neon purpose, so does the untouched flower bush embody a sense of intent.
The Dillard book is The Writing Life. The writing life is also brimming, is also a confluence of fear and glee, doubt and surprise. It is defined by imminence and felt in the belly. The heart, head, and viscera.
Intent centers Dillard’s text, and all creative endeavors. “You adapt yourself, Paul Klee said, to the contents of the paintbox,” she tells us. “Adapting yourself to the contents of the paintbox is more important than nature and its study. The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”
The contents of my paintbox are rumble, rain, and soil. Sitting in my verdant corner, reading these words, I am reawakened to the meditative side of writing: not deadlines, not comma splices, no. Just me and the page as a container; a mirror; a canvas for this fleeting world. How vivid words seem when I return to this frame of mind. Surely the transcendentalists zoomed in on matters of heart and soul—interiority and cyclicality—before they fretted over fragments, and it is this attunement to the particular, the real, that grounds me when I lose the meat and purpose of my work—when I prize the scintillating (if frayed) grocery store bouquet over the messy elegance of an unweeded garden.
“A week later,” Dillard writes, “I had a visit so instructive that when it was over, and I had fully absorbed its lesson, I considered never opening my door again. This was a visit from children.” I reach this line, and there again is my audience member, wearing his grey fedora and a wise and witty grin. Playing in the sandbox, its own expansive paintbox, where creation and erasure meet at such a fluid line, the child knows something of articulation and attention. I can’t help but feel that all creativity is a seeking for return—for the restoration of this perceptual attunement to the granularity of the everyday.
So how do we capture such specificity in our work? How do we “paint” the particulars of experience as if we still carry a toy magnifying glass? I look down at my foot, feeling a small tickle, to see the picnic ants from the peonies crawling across my skin. I am Birkenstocked and sticky with humidity, the sky clotted with clouds. I smell predictive petrichor; I taste alfalfa, freshly mown. And I realize, clutching Dillard, that it will always be concrete nouns that root me—first in the world, and then in my writing.
To paint a scene on canvas, one needs color, texture, and a subject. So it is with words.
For why tell you it was moving, when I can instead show you the mountains?
Brittany R. Collins has written for English Journal and Literacy & NCTE, of the National Council of Teachers of English; Insight, of Dana Farber Cancer Institute; and The Mighty, among others. She is a Reader for the Harvard Review and New England Review and enjoys coaching other writers as a Group Manager at Write the World LLC. Her anthology, Learning from Loss: How Teachers Tackle Mortality in the Classroom, is in preparation– author-educators interested in contributing should contact her at email@example.com for more information.
November 4, 2016 § 4 Comments
By Alexis Paige
About half-way through Barbara Hurd’s latest essay collection, Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies, I find myself splayed across a granite boulder in the middle of the small river that runs through my backyard in rural Vermont. Obviously, I am listening for crayfish. An avid river watcher, I confess that until reading this beautiful, brilliant book, I had not considered the role of river listener, or river monitor as Hurd calls herself, pointing out that monitor derives from the Latin monere, which means to warn or advise—even to remind or teach, according to my old Latin dictionary. From my back porch, I often eye the river’s movements, its patterns, its shimmer and light; I watch for deer, wild turkeys, ospreys, foxes, bald eagles, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. Recently, in the shallows near the yard, a few kids appeared, pants hiked up over their knees and buckets swinging from their elbows. “What are you guys looking for?” I hollered from the porch. “Mudbugs,” one called back; “ten so far.” At fourteen, I was a budding scientist who won a National Science Foundation scholarship to the University of New Hampshire’s month-long Mathematics and Marine Science Program, but I’m a long way from fourteen, and content now to marvel at nature through my camera lens or binoculars. And yet, with stirring pathos, Listening to the Savage, has called me back to the river; more urgently, the book has summoned me to listen, “to turn my ear, that lonely hunter, and put it closer to the ground.”
Listening, Hurd suggests, goes beyond observation and places the listener within the world: “If, as the ancients say, careful seeing can deepen the world, then careful listening might draw it more nigh. The eyes, after all, can close at will; we can avert a glance, lower the gaze, look elsewhere. But the ears, those entrances high on our bodies, doubled, corniced, aimed in opposite directions, can do nothing but remain helplessly open.” If Listening to the Savage is a call to listen—to reclaim a sense perhaps atrophied by a culture of distraction and ubiquity—it is more siren call than polemic, for the author implores herself, as much as the reader, to do the difficult work of fully inhabiting the world, the mind, and the body. In the essay, “Practicing,” Hurd describes her efforts at such presence—whether monitoring the river or practicing the piano:
I’m trying to see what it’s like, in other words, not just to practice, but to have a practice. I’d like to reach a point where the choice to sit at the piano or go for a walk is less and less a choice and more and more simply what I do. Progress is gratifying, of course: a permanent ban on drilling matters, and a decent piano performance might be fun. But until then spending a little time every day with music and wandering the watershed with an ear to the river might eventually become a habit, like something one wears, not so much a garment, but skin, part of the body. Habit then might deepen to inhabit, to dwell in a place, maybe even a life. I’d like that.
Hurd’s seeking is a kind of devotion to listen to the world as it is, not for harmony or for discord—but for both. “Here’s my prayer,” she writes in “The Ear Is a Lonely Hunter,” the book’s rousing opening essay:
Help us to listen to the sounds—fragmented, atonal, melodic, diminished, augmented—of our own lives and of the myriad lives among us: cricket trill, beaver whack, birdsong, snake hiss, donkey bray. Give me the voiced morsels of this child [her granddaughter, Samantha] (‘Meemi, sometimes I get dark messages from my eyes’), unconducted love songs begun in the cattailly edges of a pond and the bellowy burp of bullfrogs. For this is the grounding, the sounding, things as they are, for now and for now. Amen.
At the end of the essay, Hurd explains how vision “is deepened by listening, especially if the ear has turned from any wishful music of the spheres and heard, as if for the first time, the whoosh of wind in the trees or the cry of a red-tailed hawk.” It calls to mind Susan Sontag’s entreaty in her essay, “Against Interpretation,” in which she argues that the overproduction of art has blunted a kind of collective, cultural sensory awareness. Sontag writes, “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”
Barbara Hurd has been awarded three Pushcart Prizes, the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, an NEA Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship; this new book marks a stunning achievement in an already remarkable oeuvre. The essays in Listening to the Savage offer up rich explorations of literature, epistemology, love and family, science and place, and even of attentiveness itself. The meanderings of the author’s mind—whether quibbling with Thoreau or poring over her father’s letters from his 17-month internment in a German POW camp—often wend along those of the book’s titular river, the Savage in Western Maryland. In prose that is stunning, searching, precise, querulous, and revelatory, Hurd demonstrates how attentiveness can be the writer’s best instrument. Such is perhaps the larger hypothesis of the book, which calls upon the reader to listen deeply, whether for its own sake or that of art or the planet.
This was how I came to commune with the crayfish who seemed to be sunbathing on the rocks exposed by an unusually-parched riverbed this summer, as New England experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. Listening to the Savage prompted me to attune my hearing in much the same way that Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek made me see the act of seeing itself. You know that old saw that goes something like fish can’t see the water they swim in? I had no awareness of my own hearing, no clarity of sense I realized, as I sat on the rock waiting for the crayfish to speak. I didn’t know how to listen to crayfish, of course, so I listened intensely for many minutes, pleading with my ears to work, and for my auditory senses to tune into some deeper source. I could hear the river, the cows across the way, cars buzzing by, but no crayfish. Perhaps they were soundless creatures, like arthropodal mimes, I thought, climbing up the riverbank and back toward the house, but no, I had read about the clicking sound—had listened to a recording online of a stridulating crayfish clicking furiously around an underwater rock cave that made me imagine crustacean pinball. I had been bitten by a kind of mudbug fever, but more than that, I was mimicking the exquisite listening that Hurd performs in the book; I was seeking connection. I began to comb maps of the White River Watershed, looking for mile markers, like those that mark certain chapters in the book. If I found mile 11, for example, of my own river, perhaps I might locate the heady vibrations of Hurd’s prose: “Want to deepen your nostalgia? Imagine you’re a river that believes in once upon a place.” Possessed with an idea that the waters of my river might somehow mingle with Hurd’s Savage, in some forgeable intersection, I began to trace the two rivers on separate maps. Alas, our rivers don’t meet, at least not on the watershed maps. The Savage runs into the North Branch of the Potomac, then into the Potomac, then into Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, while the White River runs into the Connecticut, then into Long Island Sound and the Atlantic some three-hundred miles northeast. When I began looking at maps of ocean currents and the path of the Gulf Stream, I realized I had gone too far; I didn’t need a map to tell me that I was connected to this book.
In essays that weave modes of lyricism, narrative, research, and social commentary, Hurd takes the reader on a sublime listening journey. Whether recording her granddaughter’s quirky wisdom (“Some dreams you tell and some you don’t”), or raindrops while channeling a spadefoot toad, or the dehiscence of fern annulses when they “all start snapping like a legion of catapults,” or the interior alert that called the author out of an early marriage, Barbara Hurd’s voice sings. “I don’t know why certain sounds—wind chimes on the back porch, loon calls, that big owl’s silence—can open an ache in me,” she writes. “I only know—at least for the moment—that today’s steady hiss of snow on snow works like a psst in my ear, making the mundane both more mundane and less: mundus, after all, means the world.” In the essay, “To Keep an Ear to the Ground,” Hurd writes, “Sometimes when I put my ear to the ground, I make my own arbitrary rules: No listening for anything I might expect. No listening for anything that has a plan for me. No listening to anything that knows I’m listening. No pretending to listen to what bores me utterly.” I realize that my efforts to listen to the basking crayfish were hampered by two things. First, I was pretending. Second, I should have been listening and watching, for if I had taken a closer look, I would have seen that the brittle, desiccated creatures were not sunbathing at all, but dead. Next time, I’ll turn away from wishful music, put my ear to the ground, and listen for whatever the world brings. To hear things as they are, I’d like that.
Alexis Paige‘s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay,”The Right to Remain,” was named a notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book, Not A Place on Any Map, a collection of lyric essays about the emotional terrain of trauma, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in early December. She writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. Visit Alexis online at alexispaigewrites.com.
September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments
Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:
So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch
When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.
My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.
I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.
Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”
I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:
“The impossibility that she is dead.”
“How impossible it is that she is dead.”
“It is impossible that she is dead.”
“The impossibility of her dead.”
I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.
Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.
In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:
…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.
In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?
Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.
September 25, 2012 § 29 Comments
“Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…
Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still”
—Thoreau, as quoted in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life
A GUEST POST FROM ALEXIS PAIGE:
I am a writer first, but once I become a teacher, I will use smoke and mirrors to get my students unstuck, to get them gnawing on their own bones. We do rapid-fire writing drills. I play keen illusionist to their bored bravado, ratcheting the intensity with cliché—C’mon, guys! Time’s a-wasting! There’s money on the line! (Who says such things?) In fact, our whole selves are on the line, and we all know this, hence, the magic show. As writers, we sometimes have to trick ourselves into going there: we have to dodge our conscious minds with sporting maneuvers.
I do, anyway. Each time I write (or teach) I stand at this conscious edge, with my mind’s cartoonish miasma at my back—all of its limitations and lost points and monkeys and awful fucking chatter. Still, going there and beyond is the point, the singular, impossible point, and sometimes it is also the reward. The point is to hold my breath and throw my whole body into the deep that others may do the same—whether in writing or life. The point is to do it because others have done it before, and their doing it mattered.
So I find prompts in writing books or online, and I save them in my teacher’s Rolodex. My students sniff corny from a mile off; corny doesn’t get you there. The good prompts mimic the jumping off point, that feeling of running headlong at the abyss until your breath is ragged, your steps loose engines of wholeness, and your rhythm your own little rain dance. I remember. I don’t remember. I think. I don’t think. I fear. I don’t fear. I love. I don’t love. I am. I am not. Good stuff comes from the litotes; some higher force comes to bear in the negations, and tamps the language into shiny coins. My students fear the surprises that emerge here; they don’t want to share them. “That’s good,” I tell them, “go on…” And here again, I am convincing myself.
“What’s your larger theme?” my writing buddy Sarah asks about my current memoir project. I don’t want it, but I need her to ask this, to prompt me in this way. She says, “I think it’s: Why Alcoholism?” I have to stop for a few days and ask the question until it becomes a koan. What is the theme? What is the theme? Why? Where am I going? What do I want people to do or feel? The questions seem aimless, rising dust motes in my ears. And then I have it: it is not Why alcoholism? Not exactly. It is so simple, it seems silly to write it down, but I do anyway–on a sticky note with the closest available marker:
WHO AM I?
“What am I to myself/ that must be remembered,/ insisted upon/ so often?” Robert Creeley writes in his poem “The Rain.” Ultimately, we keep writing and prompting and asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.
Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.
January 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
1st Prize: $1,000
Final Judge: Sheila Bender
Deadline: Submissions must be entered between December 1, 2011, and March 15, 2012.
All manuscripts will be read blindly; readers and editors will not see a contestant’s name or cover letter. The author’s name must not appear anywhere on the manuscript.
Maximum length for prose is 6,000 words. No previously published works, or works accepted for publication, are eligible. Work may be under consideration elsewhere, but MUST be withdrawn from the competition if accepted for publication. Current students, faculty or staff of WWU are not eligible to enter the contests. If you know the contest judge personally, please refrain from entering the contest.
Winners will be announced by July, 2012.
September 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
Joe Bonomo meditates on memory, experience, and the uncertain impulse behind his Brevity 37 essay “Into the Fable.”
“We store in memory only images of value,” Patricia Hampl writes in I Could Tell You Stories. “The value may be lost over the passage of time…but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling: This, we say somewhere within us, is something I’m hanging on to.”
Like many smart observations about the nature of autobiography, Hampl’s has as much to do with what it means to be a human as with what it means to be a writer. Like all provocations, it invites argument and skepticism. I’ve been silently quarreling with Hampl for years; I want to believe that she’s correct, that when I scroll the mental files and land on that one image repeatedly, it’s meaningful beyond me, that it’s personal, not merely private. But I can’t be sure. Even images that have lived in me for decades — a sibling’s facial expression, a friend’s walk, a girl’s eyes, that tree stump, those buildings in a row — may be, from the writer’s perspective, meaningless.
But part of me needs to believe Hampl’s assertion. Writing “Into The Fable,” I trusted an instinct very close to hers: this must be valuable because it lingered. Is John D.’s image saying something to me, in a language that I don’t know, or have lost? And is that something valuable, or inessential? I like to believe that when an image tattoos us, the ink stain is a kind of Rorschach test: its mystery may at first be untranslatable, but with time and curiosity, and plenty of side-glances away, it’s articulated, saying something that, if I’m lucky, broaches epiphany. Have I successfully translated John D. in “Into The Fable”? An image sometimes struggles with MSL issues: Memory as a Second Language. I think I get the gist of him. But Walter Benjamin writes, “Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information — hence, something inessential.” When you’re converting a memory-image — that soundless .gif file — you’re working at an even greater disadvantage, paraphrasing music, interpreting moving but noiseless mouths, the transmitted information received as intuition, or as guesses. You stake your belief on the value of the image when it may be memory’s equivalent of a found photo: intriguing, mysterious, ghostly-narrative, vaguely urgent, but ultimately pointless.
Annie Dillard says, “Fiction makes sense of imagined experience; nonfiction makes sense of actual experience.” But of course actual experience is reimagined every second, even, arguably, as it’s happening. Why distinguish between imagined and actual experience? (Charles Lamb’s “Dream Children: A Reverie” is maybe ninety-eight percent fiction — that is, imagined — and all the more wrenching because of that.) Plagued by a recurring image of a school friend, I’m tempted to fill in the blanks, to imagine, as a fiction writer might, the surrounding narrative details and context, the back story that brought John D. to that trivial spot in time. Instead I write about what isn’t there, trusting in actual experience, however limited and partially-known. The image says, if I’m hearing it right through the static, this is all you need.