Writing Hard Stories

What's_Your_Story_Image

 

“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

Strangers on a Plane

Strangers-One-A-Plane

I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.