Trapping the Ephemeral: Meg Rains

March 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

bat shoesMeg Rains,  author of “The Memory of My Disappearance in the March 2013 issue of Brevity, reflects on the origin of her essay and the need to sometimes drop the story line:

It was my first date with J., and I talked for over three hours. About my mother. I was desperate and excited to explain myself. Or maybe I was just nervous. In any case, he finally swooped in for a kiss just to shut me up. You don’t have to tell me everything tonight, he said.

I’ve always been clumsy telling the tale: She was my best friend; had a psychotic break; disappeared for more than a decade; left me heartsick and grief-struck. For years I was tangled in nothing but story. Then she reappeared—this very familiar stranger—with only six months to live. I brought her to me; bore witness; knew that those moments in the nursing home made me the luckiest girl in the world.

J. may well have been The Little Dutch Boy; dam(n) this narrative, please.

Plenty of writers focus on getting the first draft down, and then going back in to comb and craft. But that makes me anxious. As if confronting reams of familial footage in some darkened theatre with a burned-out exit sign. (Whoa, that was melodramatic—which would likely be the outcome if I tried to work that way.)

For a long time, I didn’t know how to work with the material at all. So I didn’t. I read. I stared out every available window. Took lots of walks. And naps. I collected sentence fragments and word lists; made collages with paper and paint and glue. I decided to be gentle on myself; consider it all processing.

Finally, two things got my momentum going. The first was an art exhibit where everything was 5” x 5”—paintings, sculptures, framed flash fictions. It all seemed so manageable, you know, emotionally. It was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in action.

The second was something my friend Joshua Poteat once said about his writing process: “Collect notes on most anything… amass a large amount of random items… try to cram a bunch of it into a piece by removing its context and make it work all together.”

Those sentence fragments started to come in handy. So I’d pick out a few at a time and, rather than building the narrative, I’d attempt to frame up a feeling, which I soon realized was akin to trapping the ephemeral.

In Start Where You Are, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests that we “… begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like.” She’s referring to ways of living, of course. Though, I love this idea in the context of writing.

What use is a storyteller who drops the story line? I use this question as a kōan to consider each time I sit down to work. These days, I’m finding comfort in the process, which generally looks like this: slouch back / lean forward / slide out / rearrange. Whether this refers to my writing or my posture depends upon the day.

Meg Rains grew up in Little Rock, Ark.; dropped out of music school; graduated from Emerson College; worked in advertising, the arts, psychiatry, philanthropy, et al.; took an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts; and nowadays lives in Richmond, Va., where she nine-to-fives in an office park.

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