Ever since I started writing in earnest and working with other writers, I’ve been curious about why one chooses fiction for one story and non-fiction for another. Most of what I write is drawn from personal experience so for me it’s pretty simple—some stories need to be served straight up. That’s non-fiction. Others need more architecture, that’s fiction. It’s a decision best left to the gut. It has been a long time since I wrote fiction, I can’t decide if I miss it or not so I try to remember what it felt like. It felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything; it was great fun to go chasing some bright scrap of cloth, or a pregnant Dalmatian, or a wild goose, but sooner or later, once you’d had your fun, you’d have to put a roof over its head, give it a place to live and a reason for existing. All that damned craft. All those damned arcs. Non-fiction is simpler. All I have to do is get it down and get it right.
Writing is the way I ground myself, what keeps me sane. Writing is the way I try and make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens-even though I know that why is a distraction, and meaning you have to cobble together yourself. Sometimes just holding a pen in my hand and writing milk butter eggs sugar calms me. Truth is what I’m ultimately after, truth or clarity. I think that’s what we’re all after, truth, although I’d never have said such a thing when I was young. And I write non-fiction because you can’t get away with anything when it’s just you and the page. What would be the point? Who would you be kidding? Why bother writing at all? Once in a while you come too close to an uncomfortable truth, and your writing goes flat, and your instinct might be to change the subject. But this is the most interesting of moments. There is so much to be found out. You can either stare at the page and realize hot dog, this is a safe to be cracked, or you can crawl under the covers and take a nice nap.
I wrote an essay about not feeling guilty anymore—about having had the guilt burnt out of me. It was a proud piece, and rather strident in its claims, but when I read it aloud I felt as if I was being embalmed. I showed it to a friend. “What’s wrong with this?” I asked. “Why isn’t this working?”
“Because it’s not about not feeling guilty,” he said, “It’s about feeling guilty as hell.” Bingo. I went back to it, and learned a few things.
When I first started writing, my subject was (naturally) myself. I was the only thing I knew anything about, and it wasn’t much. I had been kicked out of college my freshman year for being pregnant. It was l959. I married my boyfriend (who didn’t get kicked out) and we spent a miserable eight years together. We were too young to be married to anybody—he was nineteen and I was eighteen, but we were a particularly bad match. Looking back I think I married my mother and he married his. Anyway, we were horribly self-conscious about our new roles—husband ,wife, father, mother and we were either ridiculously polite or we were fighting. It was awful, but it was what I wanted to write about. I started with an evening I remembered pretty well—I was in the kitchen, stirring the beginnings of baked Indian pudding and my husband came in and said something and we had a big fight. The scene was easily reduced to I did this and he said that and I threw this and he threw that. It all mattered to me, but when I’d written four pages and read it over, I realized that this wasn’t writing, this was tattling. Worse, what had been stored in my memory as a vivid scene was whiny and boring when exposed to light. And I realized that if I wrote it the way I remembered it that it wouldn’t be true. It would only be truth for the girl I no longer was.
I saw that those terrible years had contained a lot more hope and humor than I’d been aware of at the time, and if I wanted to keep at it, I’d have to throw myself a curve. So I made my young wife in love with her husband—which I didn’t remember being—and then, after a moment, I made him in love with someone else. That did the trick. The story picked itself up and headed off on its own two legs. I was just along for the ride, interested now that I didn’t know the ending. The characters were different, but they were living a version of what my life had been. I’d learned the truth is not contained in facts, or a perfect memory. I was going to get up and out of there. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I’ve written nothing but non-fiction for years now in spite of my poor memory. I can remember moments, and scenes, but not what happened when or what came after. Most of my memories are free-standing. That such and such happened when I was thirty-two and the Dutch boyfriend arrived after I got my third job the second Christmas after my fourth child was born—no can do. I just can’t remember. My sister would, I’d have to call her and ask when did this happen? When did that? What year did I get divorced the second time again? And then endure the scorn of one with total recall. But if I could remember everything in its proper sequence, there’s a lot of life that’s interesting to live but not so interesting to write about, let alone read. And frankly, I’m bored by chronology. I don’t even believe in chronology. Time is too weird. It contracts, then it shoots forward (or back), it dawdles, stops still, and then suddenly we’re twenty years down the road. Whole decades evaporate. For me connecting the dots is not as absorbing as the dots themselves. I’m more interested in why certain memories stand out. Why these and not others?
When I began writing Safekeeping, which is, for lack of a better word, a sort of memoir, I had no idea in hell what I was doing, all I knew was I couldn’t stop. What were these little pieces I was feverishly scribbling? They had started coming a few weeks after an old friend died, a man I’d been married to once upon a time, someone I’d known half my life. The pages piled up. Memories, moments, scenes, nothing longer than a few pages, some were only a line or two. There was no narrative flow. There was no narrative at all. But these bits and pieces kept flying out of me, and I kept writing them down. I didn’t know if what I was doing would amount to anything, but I never cross-examine the muse. It pisses her off. I left out long boring patches of life I could barely recall. I left out jobs, shrink appointments, lousy boyfriends. I left out a scene that contained two naked people and a scimitar. But I still found plenty to write. I changed voices from first to third when it felt right. I mixed up past and present. There was no chronological sense to it, no order. It was popcorn. The only thing I was sure of was that I would stop with my friend’s death. Grief had been the catalyst, grief would be the end.
But I hadn’t died. Everywhere around me life went on. My eldest daughter had a daughter, and she named her after me, an honor I didn’t feel worthy of. My grandmotherly visit was painful, guilt-ridden, but it contained a miracle, and when I realized that this was where I wanted to end, I began to see a kind of emotional chronology. The pieces tumbled back and forth, but something was evolving.
My editor turned it down. She wanted me to write a novel about that marriage, what went wrong, what went right, then friendship, illness and death. But life doesn’t arrange itself conveniently into chapters, not mine anyway. You can’t just slice it neatly into segments. And I didn’t want to write a novel. My life didn’t feel like a novel. It felt like a million moments. I didn’t want to make anything fit together. I didn’t want to make anything up. I didn’t want it to make sense the way I understand a novel to make a kind of sense. I didn’t want anywhere to hide. I didn’t want to be able to duck. I wanted the shock of truth. I wanted moments that felt like body blows. I wanted moments of pure hilarity, connected to nothing that came before or after. I wanted it to feel like the way I’ve lived my life. And I wanted to tell the truth. My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.
My sister and I drank a lot of coffee and I would show her what I was writing and when she thought there was more going on than I’d gotten at, she insisted I look harder. She was pitiless. She knew me, she knew about my life. She knew the people I was writing about, and she knew how to corner me. She taught me that too much self-criticism makes for a narrow mind. She could put me in context, seeing me as part of the times we’d lived through, a perspective I didn’t have. I used our conversations verbatim. They provide a running commentary on the process of writing. My sister is smart and very funny. She still makes me laugh my head off.
Here is an assignment I’ve given my students for years. Take any ten years of your life, reduce them to two pages, and every sentence has to be three words long. I’m strict about this—not four words, not two. Three words long. These can be sentence fragments, but you can’t do stuff like “I went out/to the store.” It’s a terrific assignment, if I do say so myself. Among other things, it forces you to choose. It forces you to leave things out. Learning what to leave out is not the same thing as putting in only what’s important. Sometimes it’s what you’re not saying that gives a piece its shape. And it’s surprising what people include. Marriage, divorce, love, sex, all that can fall away and what you take up precious space with is sleeping on grass, or an ancient memory of blue Popsicle juice running down your sticky chin.
There is a wonderful interview with Bruce Springsteen that the BBC recorded and a friend sent me part of the transcript. He is talking about song writing, but he’s talking about all writing. I’m going to end with part of it:
“…First of all, everybody has a memory when you were eleven years old and you were walking down a particular street on a certain day, and the trees—there was a certain wind blowing through the trees and the way that the sound of your feet made on the stones as you came up the drive and the way the light hit a particular house. Everyone has memories they carry with them for no particular reason and these things live within you—you had some moment of pure experience that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what it means to be alive, what the stakes are, the wind on a given day, how important it is, or what you can do with your life. That’s the writer’s job…to present that experience to an audience who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their own life and their moral life…and there’s a connection made. That’s what keeps you writing, that’s what keeps you wanting to write that next song, because you can do that, and because if I do it for you, I do it for me.”
—from a talk given at the University of Iowa
When I was a little girl I kept a notebook of my favorite poems which included, of course, Joyce Kilmer’s Trees, and a short poem that goes: Little drops of water/little grains of sand/make the mighty ocean/and the pleasant land/ under which I had written reverently in flowery script, How true. I kept diaries too and they were filled almost entirely with what we had had for supper: “Tonight we had lambchops and baked potatoes it was so good” and then when I got older I wrote “Oh I love him so much” more times about more boys than I can bear to remember. These were not the diaries of a writer in the making. But ever since fourth grade when I’d written a story entitled “I am a loaf of bread,” I longed to be a writer. Then I grew up.
Fiction? Impossible. How did anybody do it? Who was I? I thought a real writer was different, part of a club nobody had asked me to join, someone who knew a secret I didn’t know. A real writer had something to say, something important, and I didn’t know anything that mattered. Worse, I couldn’t make a story come together in my head. Where to start? How to finish? My problem was I was trying too hard and giving up too quickly. My problem was I thought you had to know what you were doing.
Nonsense. You just have to start.
I give assignments in my writing classes because it’s hard to make something up out of a clear blue sky. Two pages is all I ask, and it doesn’t have to be a story. It doesn’t have to be an anything. It can contain a character who shows up out of breath. It can contain a lake and a bunch of swans. There can be conversation or silence. It can take place entirely in the dark. I have learned we do better when we’re not trying too hard-there is nothing more deadening to creativity than the grim determination to write a story. At the very least, assignments can provide a writer with a nicely stocked larder, and some notion of where the mind goes when it’s off its leash. And once in a while, if we’re lucky, an assignment helps you find the side door into a story you’ve been staring too directly in the eye.
Ideas for assignments come from everywhere. I sit down on the train and all around me people are whipping out their cell phones.
“Bob? Bob? Bob? Bob?”
“Alan? Alan? Alan? Alan?”
And then once we clear the tunnel I hear everybody saying, “I’m on the train.”
Well, I’m on the train too, but so what? (Two pages in which someone keeps her temper in check).
I do a lot of involuntary eavesdropping on the train. Last week I overheard a young woman who talked all the way from Poughkeepsie to Penn Station on her cell phone. She had an emergency, she said. She needed three platters delivered in the next two hours to a party her boss was throwing. Somebody has forgotten to order food. “I’ll pay any amount of money,” she said. “Yes, such a rush, I understand…it’s like ten people…I need three platters…do you have tapas? No? chorizo?… you know, those Mexican sausages? Oh. …how about Greek with stuffed…oh …I understand…” The negotiations went badly in one deli after another and she kept getting cut off, and then she finally found someone who would do it. “Oh thank you so…okay, thank you very…” Then silence. Then, “I’m just jumping in the shower, I’m still downtown…yes, better today…”
But that wasn’t the end. She called the deli back with one last request. Don’t send it until she called. She needed to be the person to open the door and receive the food because her boss had wanted it delivered from Food Emporium and she wanted to get it out of the boxes before her boss arrived. So after an hour and ten minutes of negotiations she was going to get off at Penn Station, call the deli, and race three platters of cheese to East 68th street.
Write two pages in which someone obsesses over something meaningless
Write two pages that contain three platters of cheese
Write two pages of boring dialogue (you’ll be surprised how hard it is to be boring on purpose)
Here are a few assignments. They come in groups of three, I don’t know why, it’s sort of like a spell. From time to time, I’ll add more.
Two pages that contain a kitchen table, a slammed door, a dead cat.
Two pages that take place in water
Two pages of apologies
Two pages in which someone is inappropriately dressed for the occasion
Two pages looking for something lost in the bedroom
Two pages in which you run into someone you hoped never to see again
Two pages of instructions to the child
Two pages of the moment after which everything changed
Two pages that contain a dog a car and a banana
Write two pages the second sentence of which is “It’s not funny.”
Write two pages that end with the sentence “I’m out of here.”
Write two pages that contain two bee stings and a candle
Two pages of a tirade
Two pages in which someone keeps her temper in check
Two pages in which someone overhears plans for a murder
Two pages that contain all seven deadly sins
Two pages that take place a funeral
Two pages in which someone can’t make up his mind
Two pages of lies
Two pages of uncomfortable truths
Two pages that contain three hard boiled eggs
© Abigail Thomas
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