I edit a fair number of memoirs, and I’ve read some great stories in them. My own family’s story is crazy enough that people tell me I should write about it. But for a long time, I couldn’t imagine taking the layered, messy, contradictory matter of my life–the stuff I’ve blocked out and the stuff I wish I could, and even the sweet or triumphant but private moments of which I am proud–and squeezing it into the form of a story. The blessed thing about novels is that they give shape to the confusion of living. For example, characters change; they grow internally, in one direction.
Do people change? (Remind me to ask this question again, when I have built up more readers, because this is a real question, and if you have answers and examples, especially affirmative examples, I would love to hear them.) One of the strangest things that happened when my father died was that I realized that the story of our relationship was over–or so I thought–and the finale never happened. There was an end, all right, long, drawn-out and dramatic, even. But the change, the perfect reconciliation, and–most important–his flash of insight that would somehow repair all the hurt: none of that ever came. Instead, there were quiet moments. Literary fiction moments:
When I arrived at the hospital, my father was groaning. I could hear him through the gray curtain that sheathed his room from the busy hallway. He begged the attendants to leave him alone. Each jostle caused him pain, and he let them know it. I came in and tried to get him to eat. He wanted applause for fake bites, and wouldn’t ingest anything. In short, it was a bad day. He couldn’t get comfortable, and his thin arm and long fingers kept reaching back to shove his flat pillow under his head in a different way. Finally, I pulled out the old poetry textbook I’d brought, something I’d used in teaching literature in a different year, and I began to read him poems. I read Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” and “One Art.” Every poem I came across seemed to be about death, and I think anyone reading this textbook at their father’s deathbed would have had a distinct advantage in parsing the poems’ meaning. At the same time, the dense purity of the language, the close-up focus on imagery seemed the only way to use language when time is ticking by so mercilessly. I read many poems to him that day, until he began to grow tired and closed his eyes. A smile settled on his face, and he sighed. “What a wonderful day!” he exclaimed before he slept.
There are two points I want to make in today’s blog. One is that I’ve just read a great little book called Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, and Carlson’s respect for those quiet little moments, for the inventory of the world that makes up the evidence that builds a short story, is inspiring. His key piece of advice–stay in your seat and resist the temptation to go for coffee or a dictionary definition–is probably the best there is. It reminded me of what I’ve learned from watching others about the secret to a life-long relationship, which is this: don’t leave. There may be things that make the time spent more pleasant, but really nothing achieves the success of longevity like staying put.
The other point–and I think they are related–is that my perspective has shifted, and my own story seems more coherent to me. I credit, in no particular order, time, my therapist, and facebook. Just as some chunks have fallen away with time, others have pressed to the surface. And in therapy, I am coming, at long last, to begin to understand that this particular set of experiences I am having and have had are, in fact, my life. I think that as a voracious reader all my life, I’ve sort of shelved my own experiences side-by-side with those of the protagonists and heroes (male and female and other) of my favorite books. Then, as a writer, I have come to imagine that I can go back and fiddle around, change point of view, collapse a couple of characters into one, make different choices. It’s funny, because I resist revision (though I spend a lot of time on it, in fact), but in life, I seem to have counted on it. And as Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there is no rehearsal
Shame, really, because what I learned from the sliver of my twenty-year high school reunion that I attended, and from the online materials that accompanied it, and from facebook, is that I could have a lot more fun in high school (the right kind of fun, sustaining fun) now than I ever did then. As they approach forty, all those people look so decent, kind and funny and interesting. Not scary at all
On round two, I’d keep in better touch with those people in college by whose sides I was prepared to fight and live, garden and foment revolution. Instead, I am finding them on facebook, scattered across the state and the country, teaching, doctoring, making art . . . And knowing that I can drop a line to the guy I dated when I was seventeen to say, How would you feel about revising your high school ambition and being the second black president of the United States? or that I can get a status update every few days from the first woman I ever kissed (or, you know, something . . .)–this makes my life seem a lot less scattered. It’s as if what looked like a mass of yarn got rehooked to a big ol’ loom, and now, taut, reveals a pattern, amazing colors, and a patch over in the corner where I can turn my attention and labor a while. Like Carlson’s writing advice, I’ve found a way to stay put in this life, not so much in one place, but just day after day in one life, and just like Carlson’s writers, the story is starting to come to me.