Communing With Ghosts

June 22, 2022 § 11 Comments

By Dallas Woodburn

Why do I write nonfiction? To commune with ghosts.

As a young girl through my teen years, I kept a journal. I addressed each entry not “Dear Diary” but “Dear Auden.” Auden was my paternal grandmother who died when I was five. She was the first ghost I attempted to understand and keep close through writing. Spilling out my dreams, frustrations and heartbreak on those lined journal pages felt like I was confiding in her.

The first personal essays I wrote were about her, too. The chocolate truffles she made at Christmastime. The miniature books with cardboard covers she read to me on the plaid couch. The time her refrigerator ice machine jammed and ice cubes splattered down all over the kitchen linoleum, and we both laughed and laughed.

As I captured these half-memories in words, they became both more tangible and less authentic. In the same way a photograph ensnares a moment, and looking back your mind remembers the still-life, frozen photograph rather than the messy blur of the actual memory.

I’m not sure if the memories I have of Auden are actual memories, or photographs I have seen, or stories I wrote down. Are the details dredged up from my subconscious actually true—her red lipstick, yellow apron, delicate floral perfume? Or are they fictional fairy dust supplied by my imagination, trying so desperately to flesh out the memory, make it real?

In my mid-twenties, one of my best friends died suddenly in a car accident. I learned about her death when I awoke one morning, and by that evening I was writing about her. It was a propulsion—not a want, but a need. To try to capture in words who she was and what she meant to me, to distill our shared memories into details, to nail down the specifics of our last visit. What were the final words she had said to me? Why did it feel so important to write it all down?

In the years since her death, I continue to write about her. Sometimes I write letters to her about my life, as I used to write diary entries to my grandma Auden. She drifts into my fiction—not her actual person, but in the themes my stories explore and the journeys my characters take. And when I miss her the most, I turn to nonfiction. I chase her ghost.

As the years pass, I inevitably feel further and further away from her. Seven years since her death, it is harder to grasp who she would be now, had she lived. So much has happened in the world, and in my personal life, since she died. Would she even recognize this world we now live in—a global pandemic, a splintered political system, rights we took for granted as young women on the verge of being revoked? Would she recognize this version of me, a wife and mother, a small business owner, a homeowner in the suburbs?  

Writing about her is all I have left of her. I pour through my memories, searching for new glimpses. Her twenty-first birthday when she wore a navy-blue dress she designed and sewed herself. When I visited her in Paris and we sipped mint tea at a mosque in the drizzle. The afternoon we met, when she wore a jaunty cap and offered me a cherry popsicle from her tiny dorm freezer.

Capturing these memories in words feels like trying to trap a butterfly in a net. Pin it down, frozen under glass. Sterile and safe. Unchanging. I can turn back to my words and read them over again and again, so I won’t ever lose it. 

But sometimes I wonder if it is better to let the butterfly—let the memory—fly free? Would it live on, more tangled and chaotic, yet somehow more beautiful? Or would it grow hazier and hazier until it vanished completely? Would I eventually forget?

Lately, I’ve begun to consider that perhaps it is not about capturing the memory at all. Perhaps the end result is beside the point. Perhaps it is the act of writing that brings my ghosts close.

Immersed in my words, I can hear my friend’s voice again in my mind. She speaks through the dialogue flowing out onto the page, sometimes surprising me, sometimes making me laugh. Writing diary entries to my grandmother, I would occasionally hear her voice—what I imagined her voice to be—in my mind, offering wisdom or solace. Perhaps the act of writing is what enables my loved ones to come alive again, briefly, while I am communing with the creative spirit.

Shortly after I began writing this piece, I came across an old home movie from my three-year-old birthday party. The camera was focused on me, opening presents and blowing out candles, but in the background, I could hear my grandma Auden talking to my aunt. Her voice sounded different than I remembered. But her laugh—her laugh was the same. And when the camera panned the crowd of guests, red lipstick outlined her smile.

Maybe the tidy details I try to pin down and the messy magic of memory can coexist after all.
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Dallas Woodburn’s new short story collection How to Make Paper When the World is Ending (out June 28 from Koehler Books) explores and re-imagines the ghost story. She is also the author of the novels The Best Week That Never Happened and Thanks, Carissa, For Ruining My Life, as well as the linked short story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress. A passionate book coach and host of the Thriving Authors Podcast, she lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Connect with her at www.DallasWoodburn.com

Writing The Moth from Memory

February 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Rebecca Fish Ewan blogs about her essay The Moth in Brevity 35 and the complex ways in which brief flashes of memory work in her writing:

I have a recurring dream, like a haunting. For me, there is always a house, a big echo-filled, sparsely furnished house in varying stages of disrepair. The other night it was a Spanish Revival hacienda tucked on a hillside, sold to me by gypsies who, I discovered in the last breath before waking, had never owned the property. I awoke empty-handed. Dreams like that have been with me for years, have become like an old friend, still mysterious and ever-changing, yet familiar as my own skin and sometimes as disappointing.

I have memories like this as well and the one that I wrote about in The Moth is one of those kinds of memories. The night the moth flew onto our porch, I was too little to recognize a moment worth squirreling away, recording details, textures, and sounds with precision. Yet my own mind somehow knew better. It peered out from my eye windows and said: “I must store this moment carefully. She will need to come back to this time and again. Someday, it may even prove useful.”

My mind and my being often behave like this, as distinct individuals with different agendas, ambitions, and priorities. In writing childhood memories, over the years, we’ve worked in collaboration. My mind presents a memory and I write. The memories it offers me, like the recurring houses that haunt my dreams, repeat. “Here take this moth memory,” it says and I scribble as the images reel by. It can take many tries before we make a piece that works. I have a ladybug memory that I’ve written many times, but it’s not right yet. Or one with dying pollywogs. These memories involve my mother, which may be why they need more time to evolve into something complete.

I think that memories need to be taken out and gone through, like a box of old letters or photographs grown dusty in the attic, before one can understand what the mind knew long ago: this one is more than a memory… it’s alive … it still breathes.

When a friend of mine read The Moth, she wanted to know if the moth flew away, if it lived beyond that moment. I can’t remember if it did or didn’t, so saying it did or it didn’t in the piece, no matter how nicely this extension of the story would have wrapped things up, would have made me a liar. I had to work with what my mind could offer and the memory ended in reality where I left it in the piece.

Maybe this is why I am drawn to brief memoir. I have a very spotty memory or a mind not yet willing to share much with the rest of me. As a photographer and poet, I am learning to be contented with these flashes, because they are so saturated and dense, an ample compensation for their brevity.

The Accidental Plagiarist

January 12, 2009 § 2 Comments

An interesting take on accidental memory-stealing, offered for those still puzzled by the confounding Neale Donald Walsch “Christ Was Love” scandal, via VQR:

The Accidental Plagiarist

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User Error: On Memory and Nonfiction

September 21, 2008 § 3 Comments

From Brian Oliu, author of  “Virus 1″ in Brevity 28:

This essay came as a result of an “end-user error” on my part; I had originally written an essay reflecting on my birth and what I had ascertained to be the truth around the medical complexity of the situation.  Upon hearing a reading of the piece, my mother explained that this is not how it happened at all; there was no C-section.  I felt terrible about getting the story wrong all of these years, and especially relaying something that is considered to be non-fiction whereas it turned out I had gotten perhaps the most important fact incorrect.  As a result of this, I began to question all of these “made-up” memories about my childhood that had been passed down to me.

Naturally, I don’t remember being born or getting injured as a small child, but through stories and recounted information it is as if I created that memory, and therefore it was as valid as the experience itself.  I equated this idea to the computer virus; how these viruses fill in gaps left by human error in order to create new things and make programs do specific actions or simply overload the file with too much information.  These installed concepts “infect” us, causing our ideas to become more erratic, finally spitting out an amalgamation of truth, ideal, and excess coding.

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