The online class I’m taking through Creative Nonfiction calls on participants to write a minimum 300 word piece each day (Monday – Friday) and a 1,000-word piece that can be separate and new or culled and compiled from the week’s work. It’s a 10-week course: 2 down, 8 to go. Worth it, in case you’re interested. Excellent instructor and the finest group of writer-classmates I’ve run into yet in an online course. Lots of feedback and discussion. It’s called “Bootcamp for Writers.” Here’s a piece I submitted today. The prompt was: “Why I Write.”
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. ”
~ Joan Didion, The White Album
I know everything about my own narrative until I know nothing. I can answer all the questions anyone might ask until I can’t answer any of them.
Before seven this morning, I could tell you with certainty, verve and passion, why I write. By ten, I don’t have a clue. By Noon, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.
It was the photographs that did it. And the old letters. The newspaper stories didn’t help, either. By one o’clock I was a teary mess, and it took two hours of walking alone in the woods with the sun on my back and a northeast wind in my face to regain some semblance of equilibrium and perspective.
I was mostly looking at pictures of dead people. Oh, they were alive and seemingly immortal when the camera caught the moment. The baby, James Clyde Pelfrey, wore a lacy white christening dress and shoes that looked like brown combat boots. He was born in 1908 and died in a house fire on Pensacola Beach in 1974. His wife, Anne, my husband’s aunt, survived. Their new candy apple red Cadillac melted in the garage. The only intact papers that weren’t burned up were a Western Union Telegram notifying Anne and Clyde of Buck’s birth on December 11, 1937 and a stunning love letter sent from Clyde to Anne while he was serving overseas during World War II.
The last photos of me with my mother, from 1989, catch me off-guard. I look like I am posing with my arm around a total stranger, smiling an insincere smile as though everything is fine and dandy. Mother, who hated to be touched even before Alzheimer’s, draws away, her pinched face showing she wants to get away from this pushy person.
Almost done. And almost undone. The last photo is an arty black and white of my three step-children when they were toddlers. Two boys and a girl. I didn’t meet them until they were 18, 21 and 22, more than 32 years ago. The middle child’s white blond hair, bright eyes, and smile full of a little boy’s mischief, takes my breath. Who could ever have put a finger on this angel and said: Darryl will die of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 45 and his death will nearly kill his dad?
Some of the photos don’t cut me. They are several generations removed. My husband’s people. Ones I never met. I interleave their stiff dressed-up black and white photos with acid-free tissue paper, put the lid on the box and stagger down the stairs, feeling like I’ve been run over by a truck.
Maybe I write out of fear, out of a belief that a fit brain that can juggle, retrieve and play with words cannot succumb to a nightmare organic brain disease that destroys memory and personality. Maybe I write so I can go back to last week or last year or ten years ago and recognize the writer as myself — the same “me” I see in the mirror every day. Maybe I write to add my voice to the infinite line of pilgrims scrawling on the cave wall “We were here.”
Maybe I tell myself stories in order to live.