By Jane Eaton Hamilton
I wish I had something exciting to tell beginning writers about my writing life, or an opinion about recent events to shout, but if you set an apple on a countertop and walk away, returning seven hours later to find it undisturbed, you’ll see the excitement of my life. Until you chop it and you find the worm, twining its brown head from its secret pulp burrow, tasting the change in its plans.
Like many writers, I write about the worm while safely burrowed inside a writing career inside a life that includes the ease of my apartment.
I write often about trauma. People ask if it’s hard to share these pieces with, say, family members. I don’t have many family members left now, but there was a time when I did, and it can be frightening; I worried about alienation, I wondered if I’d committed libel; I fretted that I or my publisher might be sued, even frivolously.
But while I can imagine a malicious ex, a freaked-out family member, I can’t imagine a writer who writes to incur the wrath of loved ones. Being shunned after spending grueling hours—maybe as many as five thousand hours—on a book that you’ve made precious and intensely felt is crushing. Being sued would suck.
We pour everything into our essays and poems and books. We pour memory, context, vulnerability, pain, hurt and weakness. We pour the fragility of the human body and spirit, and also its strength.
We may tell a fierce truth when we write, or we may make every single thing up. But even with creative non-fiction, authors mold reality. I’m not going to get into whether memory at base is reliable or a construct or both, because the neurochemical science of things is irrelevant to our task as writers. Memory, however it comes to us, whatever its flaws, is evocative, and the evocation is what matters.
Here is something that I believe about authors: We aren’t venal or small or bitter. Our writing selves are wide and encompassing; they open an experience, bringing to the reader a fullness of its complexities, rather than closing it down. Authors in composition are, I believe, hospitable and unselfish and questing to understand. Rather than remark on revenge, we are usually exploring a bigger picture that whispers about life’s sorrows, its grief and the ways people can find to move forward.
When I was finished writing my memoir about child abuse, I felt done with the material—and in fact I soon shredded the boxes of source material that took up so much space. But I didn’t feel “done” with the emotions the events provoked; still today they can bring me to instant tears. I don’t look to non-fiction writing to function as catharsis, but rather to explicate the tangle that is my life, that is my traumas, to make of that mess artifacts, comprehensible and clear.
Imagine putting out the tools of any trade. Leather and awls and punching tools don’t make shoes without a cobbler interceding. So it is with the writer’s job. We have to take the nails, the thread, the shoe anvil, the pliers, the mold. We have to bang and hammer and knit and sew and melt the raw ingredients. The shoe in the end may not fit the foot, so we fiddle it around on the form and lo, now the customer can walk away wearing it.
This is what I will be able to say at the end of a writing life: I saw something. I made note of something. I knocked the side of the flashlight to get the beam to hold steady and I crawled alone on achy knees coughing through cobwebs (hung with dead flies and gorging spiders) and finally I dug through the secrets in the hidden places, the places made opaque by fear and shame and time and deference and fear and circumstance.
Secrets, exposed, lead all sorts of unexpected directions. Show them the light and they warp or shatter or refract light. That’s our job as writers, to dig out the unseen, to expose the reluctant. To say, “This is how it was for me; what was it like for you?”
How it is all done, though? How? How? How did I hold the tiny skeletal thing on my palm, the dirty smudge I brought out clutched in my fist, and transpose it to story or essay or poem?
Let’s say you’re writing a short story. What if you don’t have any ideas? Or you’ve tried your idea about Aunt Marge raising ostriches in Australia and it’s inert on the page?
Sit. Write. Maybe for hours. Don’t write paragraphs, necessarily, unless they flow for you and you’ve found your topic, just write sentences or snippets of dialogue. Write, I should write something. I could be dead soon and I’d be mad if I didn’t. Do I have any last words? Yeah, I was a loser.
Don’t stop here. Let yourself keep going. Eventually, you’ll write a phrase, at least, that has energy. Always look for the energy.
Okay, that’s stupid. But I was a loser when I was ten—I walked in on my mother and another man. Oh yeah? Who? My mother, I just said. I got sent home from school with the flu and there were all these rose petals on the stairs and I stood in my parents’ doorway crushing roses under my brown socks while my stomach heaved. What did she say? She said, Bobby, get out of here! It’s not what you think!
And later she said, in her bathrobe squeezing oranges at the counter, with the screen door slapped behind the man, her back to me, That was just something I was practicing. Like playing a flute, sort of, honey. Don’t tell your dad.
And I thought: Before I die, I am going to find myself a woman who will play my flute that way.
You’ve got the start of a great story. It’s got energy. Just follow it. Let it take you along.
But maybe the next thing that spits out, though, confuses you. It’s not related. It is: Matt can’t get the girdle off.
Okay, so who is Matt and why is he in a girdle and what’s going to happen next?
You might be thinking about now that you didn’t ever mean to write about a guy named Matt wearing a girdle. But here he is.
Writing is the process of rejecting. Of waiting for a paragraph, or a scenario, that doesn’t trickle out to nothing, that has force to go forward. You can feel your heart bump. Keep following fragments like that, that excite you or scare you, or are mysterious to you. You’re not in school anymore, working to an outline. Nobody says you have to write deliberately, linearly. You could go back and write about your mom—and maybe you will, next month. But you can write anything. Anything. Matt showed up. So maybe honour him.
Who is Matt and why is he in a girdle?
Weren’t you going to write about Aunt Marge on the sheep farm in Australia in 1965?
Marge lives on the next farm over from Steve and Mathilda?
Matt is Mathilda?
You really squashed poor Mathilda into that girdle, didn’t you?
Why does she even wear a girdle? What year is this?
You watch Mathilda in the bathroom, cutting the legs out of her girdle, and pulling it up around her breasts, and looking at herself sideways in the mirror, and running her hands up and down her new sleek chest and liking what she sees.
What? What? Can we get back to Marge? Back to your mom and that man and those oranges?
Nope. Stay with the energy here.
What if Mathilda pulls herself up to her full five feet four inches and squares her shoulders? I am a man, she thinks. I am finally a man.
I am a man, he thought with an emphatic nod. Now what if he goes in Mathilda’s makeup bag and gets an eyebrow pencil and draws on an exploratory mustache? What if he flattens his curls back with Steve’s Aqua Velva?
Yes, yes, that.
But what if Steve’s due home, and Steve, soused, having just staggered in from the bar, throws open the bathroom door before Matt can get the girdle down, and it ends up in a sausage at his waist, and he’s topless, crying, his tears going right through the eyebrow pencil mustache and landing in the slit of his lips. And he gasps out something about the Bobby and Sue dress up dance where he’s supposed to go as a man and what’s he planning to wear and then he rattles on about that pineapple Jello mode and it better not collapse when he turns it out on the plate this year and he hopes Marge is going to bring that German potato salad, the one made with vinegar, does Steve remember it? There is no such dance, no such food, but Steve is too drunk to get it, and anyway he always tunes Matt out, doesn’t he? Meantime, Matt’s frantically using makeup remover to get the mustache off, scowling into the mirror, and he kicks the girdle legs behind the toilet where, hopefully, Steve won’t notice them as he pees. Matt knows he sounds breathless, because he is—it’s hard to breathe in the girdle, plus he is a man HE IS A MAN—but he hopes Steve has been disoriented enough by his babble. Steve forgets to put the seat down—Matt thinks about how not putting the seat down could be in his own future—and stumbles away. Matt sweats profusely, and when, straining and twisting, he gets the girdle off and, wearily, pulls his bra and panties, skirt and blouse back on, and as he goes out into the TV room as Mathilda, he sees Steve’s already passed out on the couch, and he wonders what’s coming for them, how he’s going to say what he has to say, and why he smells roses.
So you meant to tell about Aunt Marge raising ostriches but here you are with a couple you’ve never imagined before and obviously, obviously, your mother screwing around is on your mind, and it’s sort of, in a far-off way, based on your childhood, what you wrote, maybe, but, more, it isn’t.
More it’s just like: Whoa. Where the heck did that come from?
If this were my actual attempts to find a story out of thin air and free writing, I would probably toss Aunt Marge and keep the childhood anecdote. Maybe start the story with that. Maybe that woman was Matt’s mother? Maybe the next line was that young Matt didn’t have a flute, but, yeah, hell’s bells, he suddenly realized he wanted one.
And that’s writing.
And why it works is this: Nobody else currently writing, in the past, or in the future, has or will share this noble, grotty, true, infuriating, painful, miserly, snorting story only you can tell us. The things that happened to you and your mother and your Aunt Marge are wholly unique. When you stir them up and add your unrestrained imagination, you get unexpected, exciting results. You are fresh and alive–the only person who can be you. We need that.
Come on. Put your apple on my counter. Show me your worm.