Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as an easy metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly turn and face the past head on or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us a little sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson
My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

So maybe my friend is right. Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?

Writers Tell All—Blog Hop

Thanks to Jennifer Chow for tagging me in the Writers Tell All Blog Hop challenge, where writers talk about their process! Please visit Jennifer and the other writers I’ll tag below the post.

Question 1: What are you working on?

Does nail-biting over query responses count as work? It should. There’s a novel “out there,” being read.

I’m writing short stories right now; three drafts in various stages need to be finished and sent out. My most recently published story, “Book of Lies,” is here, in Prime Number Magazine.

There’s also that pesky novel start that won’t cooperate but won’t leave me alone, either.

I’m dreaming. A lot. When I wake and remember a dream, I’m pretty sure it has something to do with story.

Question 2: How does your writing process work?

Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson
Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson

So maybe what I said about dreaming should go here instead. But fiction ideas can come from anywhere; often, for me, they come from memory, but the memory has to be altered  to work as fiction. Sometimes it’s a remembered incident or a place or a person, or even one particular characteristic of that person. No “real” truth, but story. Stories also come from people-watching, accidental encounters (like a guy who came to our house the other day to do some work–what a story there!), images.

I’m a pantser, no doubt about it. I don’t outline, although I realize I could probably save myself a lot of work if I did. The closest I’ve come to outlining is a rubric Ann Hood shared in a workshop back in January; it’s not an outline, exactly, but I did have to address plot points, create a one-sentence summary/pitch, that sort of thing—helpful exercises for me. I’ve been known to use index cards to plot out story lines and character development, but only after I have a draft. Sometimes I know the end of the story; often, I don’t. I have to go there.

Once I have a decent draft of a story (or a chapter), I ask my husband to read it. He’s usually my first reader, and he’s a great one. I also send it to a few other writer-friends I trust. These readers are my lifeline to the reality of the work; they often provide the “aha” moments I need to revise and polish.

Then I rewrite, as many times as it takes. Sometimes, my readers read again. This goes for novel drafts as well as short pieces.

I send the manuscript out, wait, and hope. And once in a while, there’s that affirmation: “Yes, we love your story, and we’d like to publish it.”

Question 3: Who are the authors you most admire?

As far as classics go, I’m a fan of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, all great Southern writers on whose work I “cut my teeth.” As for contemporary writers–I’d have to say Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jane Hamilton . . . There are many others, of course. In addition to the pure pleasure of reading, I never fail to learn from what I read.

Now it’s my turn to tag three writers. Please visit their blogs and see what they say when Writers Tell All!

Jane Ann McLachlan

Jeannine Everett

Elissa Field

Polio Summer

In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, and is credited with heightening parents’ fears of the disease and focusing public awareness on the need for a vaccine.[20] Of the 57,628 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. — Wikipedia

Most of those polio victims were children. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these numbers, although they are documented. But I can attest to the fear.

I was reminded of it when I read an article the other day about Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at age six and confined to an iron lung for the rest of his life. He died at 49. (His story inspired the movie, The Sessions.) As I read, the memory of a particular summer in our small town came flooding back. I’m not sure it was 1952. It may have been a different year, but it was our personal summer of terror and dread.

It was probably a typical Mississippi summer–the smothering heat, the mimosas in bloom, the late afternoon thunderstorms that didn’t cool things off but made steam rise from the pavement, the attic fan that barely stirred the hot air inside the house.

Ordinary, until children started becoming ill at an alarming rate.

As panic spread, my parents kept me out of crowds and away from swimming pools. My best friend’s younger sister and brother came down with severe cases. My friend did not. Her sister was transferred to a Vicksburg hospital, designated a regional pediatric polio center, where she would receive more treatment and therapy. Just as many other children did, that little girl spent weeks there, far from home. She would have been about five years old. What must that have been like for her? What was it like for her mother and dad, to be separated from her?

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of
Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of

I had other sick friends, too, and there was little anyone could do to help. My mother suggested I share some books with a friend who had a fairly mild case of polio but still faced a long recovery. So I gathered books, and one of my parents delivered them (whoever took them would not have entered the house). I didn’t know my books wouldn’t be returned. They were burned.

The worst case, the one that affected all of us more than any other, was a young boy so severely ill that he required an iron lung. I remember our prayers for him at school and in church. I remember the day the teacher told us he had died. In my memory, it was September; we were back in school, and I was sitting in art class. Dead? My reaction was selfish. I was terrified. A child could die? Old people died, not children.

I didn’t get sick that summer. My friends got well, eventually. My best friend’s sister was left with scoliosis that would plague her for the rest of her life. None of us would ever be the same. Whether we were directly touched by polio or not, we learned some hard lessons: that our parents, no matter how good they were or how strong or how faithful, no matter how much they loved us and cared for us, couldn’t always protect us from harm. That our bodies were frail. That disease and death were real and close, lurking in the innocence of a shared sip, a touch, the water in a swimming pool.

In 1955 the Salk vaccine was introduced. A godsend, but it was too late for many.

Thinking about that long summer has been interesting. I’m surprised by the details I remember, like the burned books. The memory of the fear is so real it’s almost visceral. I’m surprised, too, by the things I feel I’m recalling incorrectly. (Was the child who died a boy, or was it really a girl? I can’t say for sure.)

Memory is a slippery thing. It warps our stories and makes liars of us, even when we’re trying our best to tell the truth.

Do you have a memory that eludes you, that’s difficult to recall truthfully? How do you feel about the fictions our minds create about the past?