You Always Remember Your First

April 5, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

I woke at 4 a.m. to catch an unreasonably early flight. Once in the air (and after a snooze) I pulled out the book I’d set aside for the journey—A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays edited by Randon Billings Noble. I already knew Noble’s essay in the collection, “The Heart is a Torn Muscle.” I’ve taught it many times. Excited, I dug in and immersed myself in flash, segmented, fragmented, collage, mosaic, and hermit crab essays—lyric in performance on every page. I marked my favorites with yellow post-it notes, like Angie Chuang’s “Scars, Silence and Dian Fossey,” combining her experience of ovarian tumor surgery, her trip to see the gorillas in Rwanda. and her take on the enigmatic life of the primatologist Dian Fossey, the essay a brilliant braid that connects and spins on the metaphor of a scar.

I landed on the East Coast seven hours later, the first time I’d been away from my husband since his work life moved into the spare bedroom at the start of the pandemic (I missed him already). The first time I’d see my brother and extended family in real life, in over three years. And by a fortuitous coincidence (my family lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia), the first time I’d attend AWP.

I boarded the train to center city the next day in typical spring weather, wet and gray. Outside the window, old two-story homes with steep pitched roofs made with the tan, gold, and gray fieldstone that I only see when I come back to Pennsylvania, dotted wide green lawns as the conductor called out the towns along the stretch known as the Main Line. Malvern. Paoli. Bryn Mawr. As we expressed to 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia skyline came into view. Everything felt familiar.

I started each day with coffee and a sticky cinnamon bun (a Philly specialty) and mapped out the sessions I’d attend, my focus creative nonfiction and memoir. Thousands of writers and the constant buzz of conversation filled the convention halls. I sat before panels of great writers who I’ve read, admired, and emulated. I’d heard much of what they said before, but here, in person, in real life, voices and thoughts amplified, they sounded clearer and resonated deeper.

The first draft is the place to put it all on the page. Be transparent. Don’t edit.

It’s easier to cut than add. As writers, we are always making choices.

Constraints lead to discovery. What you don’t remember presents opportunity.

What’s left off the page speaks volumes.

There is no truth. Memory changes with each recollection.

Write both the light and the shadow. We are all flawed.

I wandered the Book Fair. Aisles and aisles of booths for journals and publishers. Despite the masks covering half of our faces, eyes smiled. Everyone was anxious to engage. At least eight journal editors told me that they receive significantly fewer, quality creative nonfiction submissions. I’ve heard this before. Now it was clearer. Note to self: Submit more. Make sure it’s your best.

I ended each day with dinner, a glass of white wine, and my brother and his wife, talking and talking as if we hadn’t talked in years.

I attended the last session on the last day, pleasantly surprised to find Randon Billings Noble moderating a panel of contributors to her anthology. Another fortuitous coincidence. Before the session started, I approached Randon and told her how much I’d liked the collection, how I’d read it on the flight. As she autographed my book, the panelist sitting adjacent asked “Where are you are from?” pointing to my conference badge with my name and Diablo Writers’ Workshop, where I teach. Diablo, the mountain anchoring the skyline in my part of northern California, was the clue. She was originally from the same small town where I now live. We chatted. I settled into my seat to listen. And when this writer discussed her essay about a tumor, gorillas, Rwanda, and Fossey, she was Angie Chuang. Another fortuitous coincidence? No—this was connection. This is what good writing does.

I gathered with family on Sunday, my brother, sister-in-law, nephews, niece, great niece, aunt, and uncle. We ate brunch and talked and talked, telling the same funny family stories we’ve told over and over for years whenever we get together.

I woke the next morning at 4 a.m. to catch another unreasonably early flight. In the air (and after a snooze) I finished reading the last couple essays in the anthology and made a list:

Most everything has already been said but always sounds better in real life.

What makes home memorable is the familiar.

Stories are worth repeating.

As the lyric essay does, we connect in myriad ways.

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Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching the personal essay class, Your Story, exploring craft, genre and writing technique in the contemporary essay and how to use it in your own work, in April and May. Details and register here.

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