I fish for the knife in the pocket of my dirty overalls and slice at Barbie’s pretty blue eyes, so they open. I sit and poke little holes where her pupils are, and then I saw at her ratty hair. I lick my bottom lip, almost got it. A pleasure fills me.
“Amy!” Nikki dashes out of the white hamper of a farmhouse, the screen door slamming shut. I throw the doll, stash the knife in my pocket, and leap out of the lilacs in time to see her break across the dirt driveway for the grass. I know she is heading for the apple trees. The swing.
Lunch must be over because Gramma Helen walks out after, pressing her wrist to her lower back, her heavy arms tan against the white apron she always wears.
“Amy Jo, I know you was out here in them flowers again,” but I have no time for her, it’s my turn for the swing.
“Daddy John says he’ll push you now!” Nikki squeaks with excitement. I can hear the zip-zip of her corduroy pant legs racing ahead of me, but I know she’ll save it for me even if she wins.
The swing is made out of a splintered, soft wood with thinning yellowed ropes knotted beneath it, reaching up to the boughs of the crab apple tree. It creeks when I swing and the pink apple blossoms shake down like snow to the green grass my bare feet dangle over. I pick at the unraveling cords and notice the fresh grass stains on my knees around a medium-sized hole I had managed to make in the pant leg. I want to pretend it’s not there, that it will go unnoticed at home.
“I built you’s this swing,” I hear his muffled voice behind me now, but coming from high above so I know he is looking up, talking into his beer. I run my cupped palms up and down the rotting ropes. I think of how it feels oily, and it looks like the texture of Barbie’s wiry eyelashes. I start picking apart the rope, trying not to look down at the hole mom and my new stepdad will see.
Maybe my dad had strong hands when he built this because my efforts at its unraveling are making my hands sweaty. I pick and pick the cord, my movements getting faster. I ask for his knife, forgetting I had it in my breast pocket. My stomach drops out and all my anxious efforts with it—at first I have no thoughts at all but by instinct to want to curl up into a ball or protect my face because I had stolen it; then I realize I’m only with my Daddy John, so the reaction ends but I start to feel funny in my stomach again. I try not to cry because that isn’t good either.
“No now you’s girls don’t belong with knives,” the familiar slugging of his Adam’s Apple as he tips the can back again. My stomach settles. It’s just him, and we still have a whole day left here plus tomorrow. His eyes are large like Nikki’s but blue-gray like Jodie’s.
Somewhere a time ago, beneath a kitchen table in a yellow warm room, my aunt leaned over to say just to me under a tablecloth, “You have your daddy’s dark eyes,” and I watched her eyeliner disappear into the smile’s wrinkle.
We’re moving away, I know. To a big city. My things at mom’s are packed, and yesterday mom showed us how to write the loopy cursive “S” to our new last name. This is our last weekend with him.
I notice he has stopped pushing because the swing is still.
“Hey,” I hear his knees crack beneath the faded denim covering his long legs as he gets down and asks me what’s wrong. I can smell the familiar Old Style on his breath.
I begin to pick at the hole in my pants, and then I focus really hard and start ripping it open even wider, that strange pleasure filling me again.
“Hey you, what’s the matter?”
I look at the dandelions beneath my feet, transparent as ghosts.
“You want one of these? You blow on this, see? And then you make a wish, and when they fly away your wish will come true!” His goggle-thick glasses magnify his long lashes as he grins.
How can you believe in something you can’t hold onto?
All I know about safety is here, on this farm. My stepdad takes up all space; he is massive, looming over me every time I stop running from him. The skin on his hands…his smell, his anger—I forget I am on the swing under the tree. My world there is exposure-his threats to keep the secret presses up like a blade against the thread that connects me to my dad. And my dad’s hands aren’t strong; my dad isn’t stronger than him, and my dad’s letting me go.
I wish I knew how to tell him “I won’t ask for anything; I will be a good girl for you if you keep me.”
He hands me the dandelion after he blows away the seeds-an ugly, bald stem in my chubby hand. I notice a seed left. I don’t make a wish; I already know somehow: he is too small to save us. Small like us.
Then I feel the sting of the rope scratch against my forearm and thigh, and I am jerked backward a little as he drops his beer can and attempts to stand—pulling on the swing for leverage, and begins to push me into the pink fragrance overhead.
Every time a professor asked me or my peers what my poems meant–I never quite knew how to answer. They’re comments led me around and around the center of how I always felt about it but couldn’t word, I just acted like I already knew. That’s why it was written–those were the words to what it was, what the truth to me was. It’s not that I didn’t know but that my body or mind seems to piece things together with words and images before I can catch up. My first poem I ever wrote was Vapor in 2005. And I’ve held onto it. It’s even been published. That poem still holds true–it’s some kind of core belief I have but I didn’t have a rope down into that well to truly grasp it. I am writing to you guys tonight because this is happening again in a way–I don’t know what I am thinking until I write it down; I have to write to a someone, and I hold you guys with affection, because I am not willing to write to just myself. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my honest attempt to stop escaping myself. Because I try to be as honest as I can on nights like these. I’m so tired, but I can’t stop feeling words that are coming that I am trying to prepare for. I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. This is what happens every time before something real is written, and I don’t know what it is but I know my fingers will type it out for me.
Everything I have written so far–planning my grand, tragic memoir–is/was really, I am realizing, a desperately structured narrative so I could validate it the events, find order in the chaos, and so I could actually feel for the girl in the story because I have a hard time doing that for myself. Or I did. That’s changing. I am changing, and everything I’ve written–none of it is going into whatever it is that I am compelled and pulled to write. What pulls at me has been pulling for almost a decade, but it’s even stronger now, the words waiting, because I have been watching it unfold and the words only gradually come. Call those vignettes, that attempted narrative structure, a healing process, call it a coping mechanism, call it a perceived truth (as all truths seem to really be), it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because how I write it and how I remember it has been two different worlds. The memories and images, feelings (mostly physical, body feelings, frozen emotional states of the past, etc.) and events of course are as true to myself as I can be. But my life is not a linear, chronological tale-it is a history of flashes out of order. And the flashes are what I look to when I write, involving my one fail-safe–my senses and body memories. I’m more tied to the smell of lilacs, tractor oil, Old Spice, the weeds along the path to the baseball games I went to all summer when I was a girl, the milkweed, trains, the iron ore at the dock, old books, the perfume I wore when I was being abused, the feel of water and wet skin on me, physical alarms and instinct, than I am tied to actual happenings or events. And that is a blunt truth: dissociating your whole life–you live in fragments, just like how I remember it. And I have changed and do so constantly into something that makes me feel alive–and I never really felt alive before, not for this long of a period. I am in love with the simplest things like blue, deaf mornings in the winter, the way the telephone wires reflect in puddles, the smell of a storm coming, white seagulls on dark clouds–I actually stopped my bike on my way down to the shore to watch them-and all of these are very simple and right in front of me. The colors and sounds and smells and sights don’t have intentions. They just are. And I can relax my mind around things like that; nature is like a fact, an unwordable cause and effect that has rhythm even in its own chaotic events-it’s all one thing sliding into and around the other. Motion. Repetition. Change. Recycle. Like music.
As humans we try to master outcome. We try to master choice and effort and even failure to make sense of the things we cannot hold, of the things that happen to us. “Events don’t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did,” Lidia Yuknavitch writes. And that’s true right through my gut–life is fragments and patterns and repetitions that do not hold true to the words we use, to the scenarios we build, words are just metaphor; we are of an imperfect nature-we don’t have natural disasters, we have trauma and loss and all those kinds of events at random, no one is picked out and chosen, and we’ve spent millennia trying to prepare our reactions and behaviors for these things. And it isn’t possible. What is inevitable though is that we will come out of it changed–“to something new, something strange,” (Longfellow? Not sure). But before we understand and are aware of that change though, somehow our natural systems undergo a small microscopic atomic evolution–or what I think of as the nightmares during the sleep of adaptation. Also called, in a flimsy, whimsical word, “healing.” And that is the perfect part of our ourselves–we’re part adaptation and evolution, but the rest is a blank slate.
I believe I am becoming who I am because I scribbled on a blank page my words and crossing-outs of what others had scripted on that slate-who I used to be, and becoming anything but her, for me, is a gigantic relief and forward motion–not towards anything, there is no goal, but into something I can’t describe yet. Into what–myself? Is it predestined that I would find this? Is this who I was before I hid away in my mind as a girl? Or did she all together vanish, and that’s why I had the breakdown and it took seven years to repair–because as an entirely naked being I had to start over? I don’t believe in destiny. I used to with a sort of romantic twist on it. I believe I am almost atheist in my perceptions. Or views. Or…something. Scientific facts, math, denominators, constellations, physics–these are things with solidity. They cannot be moved. And maybe people are afraid to be moved; people are afraid that what they base themselves on in the private parts of their minds is illusion, and it can be terrifying-even if you are used to a lot of change inside. We find religion. We find atheism. We find addiction. We find facts. We find knowledge. We are constantly looking. We seek other people, looking for strands of ourselves to keep aligned inside–a shared bit of the stars we come from–so as not to feel alone. Connection. Gravity. We think we need it. That it is necessity. Maybe it is, but going without it opens up a world’s worth of information. Gravity, connection–losing that is to study yourself as a microbe. When all connection is cut, when you lose your belief system so ingrained in you, when you find yourself no longer cursing a god for damning you but beholding something much scarier-that seemingly factual, unmoving reflection in the mirror of you dead inside–these are the facts, these are the equivocations of what you’ve totaled into, of who damaged you–all you felt, all you did, all you endured and you just weren’t able or built to survive that way at that age. You see yourself as just another product of a common tragedy all over the world–and it is not a pretty thing to see. Being out there, weightless in space and only time will help you get used to, it’s fucking terrifying, losing that person. That illusion. It’s Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” —…pinned against the sweating wall/a man goes far to find out what he is/Death of the self in the tearless night/Dark, dark my light …It is, as he says, a death of the self. I never forgot that poem. But after the terror, after time-the only thing that keeps you-you gain so much more.
Maybe I poetisized the stars all along, because I no longer believe things happen for a reason. I was not destined for this, I was not, as so many people say “becoming the person I was meant to be.” I no longer believe that my dead father is the middle star in Orion’s Belt. He is gone. His body is part of the elements now, back to where it came from-into the patterns and rhythm of nature. But his essence is inside me, I have, from him, his voice telling me I’ll be okay. I remember many times looking up into the night and trying to rationalize with my brain what Catholic school had been teaching me, but at that age all I got out of it was an old man up there watching me to make sure I didn’t fuck up, and to make sure I loved. The contradiction was as easy to believe as it was believing all the other contradictions that were around me. What isn’t contradictory to me is that death, be it of the self or of the body, does what nature tends to do–breaks down the matter, recycling parts and pieces into different directions, different things, new things, and each finding a way.
I was afraid of suicide-of the actual act itself. I believed with all I had that my body would commit the crime against me. So they tranquilized me on Seroquel for a year and a half so my body wouldn’t die. But it’s not how it sounds. A sort of mental or more-so a spiritual death is not specific, it’s not a quarantined moment. It’s sort of like the way dammed water floods. That time is a fragment to me now, but it’s quite concrete compared to other memories but it only has a linear order for a brief period of time. So. It is, after the frightening adventure of losing everything, including faith in religion, it’s an awakening. It’s a cold, cruel way to get to it, but it is an awakening.
I am not going to force my words into a frame anymore. My mind certainly doesn’t work that way.
I’ve known that Roethke poem almost by heart for years. Once you experience it, it is only understood by others that have. And their are easier ways I’m sure. But I’m going to addthat poem, so that you can see. He describes it better than I can.
Theodore Roethke: IN A DARK TIME
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
and here is my poem, VAPOR:
This body’s breath
caught sharp and held
I hold it and like water
it escapes my fingers and spills
over my toes
when I am thirsty
asking too much from my body
when I am not enough
I give it tea and fruit and poisons
I exhale the fumes of the vices
herbal or smoky and fine
licking at these wet fingers
that let a pen scratch
let a word be plucked
from a curl of steam
this body’s breath
will learn it can’t hold what is borrowed
and maybe then stop
cupping and drinking
hold and take nothing
it’s enough just to breathe
let the vices unthread from the seams
of the spine into origami wings
taking flight in paper vees
and leave me in the water
I’m buckling down now that I have found all the information I wanted to boost me into actually sitting my ass down in the chair and outlining and piecing and writing the memoir bits that will, so help me God, come together someday. I spent the day researching basically, and then I got caught up in writing tips and advice and blunt honesty from author blogs, editor blogs and sites, writers, memoir writers, professors and teachers and other bloggers alike, and I, for now, have come up with a delightful collection I am going to print out and keep on my desk with me for motivation and, well, common sense. And this delightful collection I am sharing with you.
Ass. In. Chair. These words are coming from these people along with notes I took from writing podcasts, such as Debra Gwartney‘s podcast over at Tin House called “When the Action is Hot, Write Cool.” Here are just some of the things she said in my notes that hit home, that inspire me and turn me in the right direction. Writing a memoir is fucking overwhelming. There’s just so much.
So here’s some of Debra Gwartney’s words to inspire you right in the gut:
Pull them in don’t force them to see how bad the trauma was
No over emotion
Convey emotion w/ a matter of fact tone and highly controlled language
Let readers feel for themselves not be instructed by you
Can’t be just about what happened
You have to focus on recitation of events but use EVENT AS PRY BAR TO OPEN UP AND ILLUMINATE THE DYNAMIC–REWRITE IT THAT WAY, FIGURE IT OUT
How you engage the reader, not just what happened
Something else has to happen to resonate
Don’t shove trauma into readers face to say how bad it was
Don’t demand they recognize the horror
–admirable elemtent –matter of fact in worst part, take breath away images, perfect verbs, no excess; pacing slows down, open up w/ great precision and care, avoid chaos you were feeling I the moment, you want the control of the narrator; CURIOSITY NOT DEFENSIVENESS; not contrived but taut, stretched, few images, careful verbs/words (when action is hot write cool)
Trust language and images you pick, let readre feel for herself
FLATTEN IT OUT, IT’S NOT THIS OH MY GOD, IT’S MATTER OF FACT
-here it is, go, don’t embellish what day it is blah blah blah
Those images, very sparse
Don’t overload w/ images, be selective
SLOWER PACE, let them be in the moment
Avoid overwrought description–STAY OUT OF SENTIMENTALITY CAMP
POWER OF MOMENT COMES UP FROM UNDERNEATH SOMEWHERE
Indicate to reader –experience-not what the essay is about, essay is about …..
By writing this way, they know something even larger is happening–the point of the essay
“I FRANTICALLY did this….”
No bodily functions******
NO NO NO CRYING–everyone will assume, you don’t have to tell that
“YOU HAVE TO NORMALIZE THE INCREDIBLE”
Take the emotion out, don’t add to
in essays–could use second person to distance self
RECORD THE PANIC BUT DON’T ALLOW THE WRITING TO BECOME PANICKED
So that’s a bit on memoir/creative writing that I can’t stop listening to on podcast. It just says everything I need to hear because I’m so worried about my sentimentality in my writing. And the speed I used to write with in the painful parts. I have to slow down, and I really have been, because there is now a lot of distance between me and what happened. Another great podcast on that page is what I’m listening to again right now–“Building the Emotional Image” with Natalie Diaz. It’s fantastic. There’s also one about writing and suicide by Matthew Dickman that is beautiful (he’s in my top ten favorite poets of all time).
I came across this incredibly helpful instruction (I know, don’t be put off by that word, it helps when you start and are lost in a sea of vignettes and clips and snippets and ideas, all the words in your head) on starting your creative nonfiction. It’s from the Huffington Post–Writing a Memoir: Balancing Craft & Vulnerability on Your Journey to “The End” by Linda Joy Myers. Here is a few lines from her:
TIPS FOR BALANCING YOUR SKILLS:
1. sketch out the outline-this becomes a map for you to follow
2. decide what your themes are for your book—knowing your themes helps you to focus. A memoir is a piece of your life, NOT YOUR WHOLE LIFE
3. list the important scenes in your life, but preferably the important scenes that CONNECT with the themes in your book; this helps you to focus on starting to WEAVE your memoir
4. find out how to connect scenes w/ reflection; you weave narration and reflection with your scenes
5. learn what the narrator does to help keep your book flowing—your narrator guides the reader thru the book, through thoughts and reflections, and offers a message or takeaway for the reader.
1. Find your important moments of meaning—your TRUE NORTH of your memoir—by listing turning points or moments that are important to you. Make a list, keep it up for a while, and then you’ll HAVE THE SPINE OF YOUR MEMOIR. Choose to write your scene from this list, and you can write in any order. Making an outline is helpful too though, because at some pint you’ll want to put those scenes in some kind of order
Thanks to writer, editor, professor Lisa Romeo’s awesome blog, I was directed to (along with given many, many writing/literary links) another writing/editor’s blog–Colette Sartor. Sartor has a TON of resources and she workshops/edits for a fee. I’d love to work with her. And Lisa Romeo, too. These resources led me on a strange search on the internet today and I came across the funniest blog I have ever read, and it’s about writing–it’s called Terrible Minds by Chuck Wendig. This particular post (he’s an author as well) was about motivating yourself to write. And he’s fucking honest, and sickly hilarious. I saved one of his sentences to share with you, hoping you’ll go over there and enjoy it as much as I do. He says:
At Terrible Minds: “It’s completely self-reflective and self-driven. Wanna know what it feels like? It feels like this:
You write a paragraph on little slip of paper, then whisper to yourself: “Is it any good?” Then you respond, also in a whisper: “I have no fucking idea.” “Oh, okay. Should I keep writing it?” “I really don’t know, please stop talking to me.” “Okay.” “Okay.” Then you use your manuscript to soak up the tears, and discover it’s not even good at doing that.”
and that’s the gentle part. I was giggling my ass off, go check it out.
I think another one that really stood out to me was Evan Porter’s blog. He posted on “Writing Tips from Famous Writers” and he applies the actual value of these tips, and there are many. Here’s a quote from his post:
Here’s “Show, Don’t Tell” again. Only this time we’re talking about theme.
Theme is quite a beast. Use too heavy of a hand and you’ll make people vomit. Too light, and they’ll miss it completely.
Where theme really shines is in specific imagery, actions, and moments in your writing. It’s not so much about breathless pontification so much as exploring many different angles of your theme through powerful details.
Do you have spots in your writing where you openly spell out the theme, moral, or lesson? Think about showing us, instead.
Faulkner’s Kill all your darlings:
How to Use It: This has to be one of the most brutal truths about writing that there is. What Faulkner’s talking about here is the unavoidable moment in which you have to cut your favorite line, or joke, or description, or plot point from whatever you’re writing.
It’s bound to happen. Because, ultimately, writing isn’t there to look pretty and appease your ego. Every word you write has to serve the goals of the larger piece. If it doesn’t, you have to let it go.
Hard as it may be.
He strikes me as quite brilliant and he knows what the hell he’s talking about–no slacking, get to it, but encourage yourself, you know. Yeah.
I read other sites and articles and blogs but these were my favorites. For a list of my old time favorite advice, quotes, and tips, here’s my post/page from last year on writing: Memoir Tips, Quotes, Books, and Advice.
One more thing–Charles D’Ambrosio over at Tin House blog:
I’ve known Charlie for nearly a decade: he has been a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. I’m grateful for what he’s shown me about how writing can make a mess—and how this mess can move us deeper into the quivering nerve endings of a subject. In workshop, he was hard on our stories because he believed in what they could be. In these essays he is hard on easy answers and false resolution because he believes in what lies beyond them. With this book, I felt like shaking strangers in the street and saying, Read these essays; they will move you.
Lady Day’s voice dips and drones and flattens the back of my throat as we open the summer together. I’ve waited a whole year for this. My car coasts so easily on the black road that climbs up and swoops down green hills, as if I’m not even driving but simply along for the ride. The heat comes in from all directions; it radiates through the glass and wilts the lilacs on the dashboard; it blows in the front windows and weaves out the back. I’m sweating but I welcome it as much as I welcome this annual tradition. Somewhere deep within the miles of trees, our cabins await us (along with about two dozen other family members) on clean, clear lakes just beyond Delta in Bayfield County.
White clouds and treetops scroll across the silver hood and up the window. Shadows dance across my arm as I steer the wheel.Through muffled static, the notes from the piano lightly dance up and down scales, and the trumpet sounds miles away –backdrop rhythm. The bass clarinet’s riff sways and blunts my spine, taps my sandal on the pedal.
…like a summer with a thousand Julys…you intoxicate my soul with your eyes…
Her voice is the long, velvety cord that laces all the different sounds together in a lovely, melancholy song. I reach to turn her up.
County E slopes into County H and disappears behind a wall of oaks around a bend. This is where the road begins to wind and zigzag throughout the countryside, taking its sweet time to reach Delta. A series of sharp angles skims us past Benson’s Horse Ranch, where horses graze fearlessly close to the fence, barely looking up at the flash of chrome and blaring trumpets. Another turn and we ease parallel with a grove of maples and pines behind the familiar old fence that is becoming less and less visible in the overgrowth of bramble and daisies. I wonder if it all looked the same sixty years ago. I wonder if someone drove through here in a shiny black 1940s Coupe –my dream car –listening to Billie Holiday crooning out of the radio. I imagine the reflection of leaves rolling over its rounded surfaces, the quiet whir of the white-walled tires, my fingers curled around the slender wheel.
…all of me…
Everything is alive and bursting green. I drive well below the speed limit; I am in no rush to get there. I have carried the same thought every year since childhood –the faster we get there, the faster the long-awaited week of camping will be over. But now that I’m older, the drive has become one of my favorite parts.
Pavement gives way to fine rocks and ruts, and we are swallowed up by the national forest, hidden from the sun beneath the canopy. I look in the rear-view mirror and see my toddler sound asleep. Her plump cheeks are pink from the sun, and the gentle breeze that floats through the open windows cools her skin. Strands of golden hair wisp this way and that around her face, which has lolled to the side of her car seat. Life is good. If I could choose my heaven, it would be this drive, unending through this country on a bright summer day, just Emma and me.
…I see your face in every flower…
We reach the sun-bleached “Fresh Farm Eggs 4 Sale” sign, and I know we are almost there. The car rambles across the rickety bridge over a shallow creek and into cylindrical beams of sunlight pouring through the leafy ceiling. Burning campfires waft in through the windows, and there is a blinding flicker through the leaves –sun on the open water. The road again bridges a small river and then skirts the very edge of Delta Lake. I gently brake and look around: everything is just as I remember it. The few cabins here have been dusted out and families are unpacking coolers or resting in their lawn chairs. Pink flamingos and windmills line their private lanes and encircle their summer homes. We nod and smile at each other as I roll by. On the other side of us, the lake gradually opens wide to the sky. Just a few yards out, a boat sits still on the glaring ripples with two men, black against the sun, puffy in their fishing vests. It’s time to turn off my music.
We drive on, and the music comes from outside now. There are birds singing high above us somewhere, and gravel spits from beneath the dusty tires. I hear the echoes of branches breaking and laughter from hidden campsites. I suddenly remember the frogs and become more cautious of the little bodies that love to hurl themselves across the road. The water ends and we are bordered by Birch trees that hide yet another campsite–Scenic Drive Resort. I take us further in, left up the hill, where the pines grow thickly. The welcoming sign to Flying Eagle Resort comes into view. I’m almost reluctant to turn, but I take us down the bumpy drive that will wind its way around the wooded resort and bring us to our cabin.
“‘…It’s just the thought of you…the very thought of you, my love…’” –I look back to see her cheeks jiggling with the bumps. She stirs.