September 29, 2009 § 7 Comments
Brenda Miller reveals the roots of her Brevity essay “Swerve,” and offers us a writing prompt along the way:
This little essay is a testament to many things: to the power of friendship, the efficacy of assignments, the resonance of small detail, and trust in one’s own intuition.
Friendship: It’s mid-autumn, and I go to a bookstore café to meet with two women I don’t know very well yet. We’d met through a service-learning program at the university, discovered we all want more writing time, more excuses for writing. So Kim, Marion, and I gather in this café—where the service is surly and spotty—at the table next to the poetry bookshelf. This lone bookshelf is hidden away here on the top floor, almost as an afterthought, poetry relegated to the corner where it takes some effort to find it.
We’re not sure how to begin. We sip our lattes, gossip about school. My eyes wander toward the poetry bookshelf, and my hand reaches out to grab a book, Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson. I’ve heard about this book, I say. Do you want to read it together?
Assignment: So we do. And we come back together the following week, excited by her “Divorce Epistles,” by the way Emerson is able to return to the past, to pain, to loss, through directly addressing the ex-husband. We all have something in our past to address, some complexity that hasn’t been easily resolved, perhaps never will be. So we give each other an assignment. Write an apology, we say, to someone in your past. An “apology epistle.” I’m not sure why we come up with apology. It’s just the first thing to come to mind.
Detail: I sit down at home and write the first words, I’m sorry… And immediately the image of that piece of wood in the road comes into my mind. It doesn’t arrive with a blare and a bang; it just emerges there in my brain, crystal clear, as if it had been waiting all this time for me to blink it into focus. I’m sorry about that time I ran over a piece of wood in the road. I haven’t been thinking about my ex-boyfriend, a man I knew thirty years ago, a relationship that had been fraught with alcoholism and emotional abuse. I had been a young woman, very young, still a child. And so, with the image of this small piece of wood, this roadside debris, the entire relationship comes back full force, everything that had transpired between us distilled into the essence of that road trip across the desert. The essay comes out of me in one piece, in about thirty minutes, one image leading to the next.
Intuition: I bring the piece, three copies, to our meeting the following week. We’re all a little nervous, so we spend most of our time gossiping before turning to the pages in our hands. I read “Swerve” aloud, and as I’m reading I see what I’ve really written. I didn’t know it until I shared it with them; I had just been following that piece of wood. But now I see that while I truly was sorry about running over it, I was really sorry for subjecting my young self to such a harsh and terrifying experience. And behind it all was the fact that I had gotten into the relationship in the first place out of a kind of penance: guilt over something that had happened to me just before I met him. So the entire time was tied up with apology, with truly being sorry for so many things.
I could never have written the essay deliberately, trying to work with all those complex emotions head-on. I simply had to trust in that piece of wood. The second paragraph came out in one long line, because I couldn’t risk stopping: I had to keep going to see where we would all end up. I had to let my intuition guide me to that dangerous place, knowing I’d be safe in the company of newfound friends.