Since March I’ve been trying to get a grasp on writing in a very new genre for me. For years I wrote poetry because I was drawn to a form I could get in and out of quickly. By nature I’m impatient, and once I became a mom (nearly 8 years ago now!) poetry was the most practical option.
But ever since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide In Tucson” in 1999 I knew the personal essay was the form I was made for. Telling stories, personal stories, based on my life experience, was what inspired me to write poetry in the first place. Timing is everything, and over the past few years I’ve been biding my time, knowing the moment would arrive when I’d finally take a swan dive into creative non-fiction.
This summer I took a ten week online course on the Lyric Essay — a kind of hybrid form which I’ve come to think of as the place where poetry and the personal essay meet. Over ten weeks I drafted ten essays. Nowhere near enough experience to claim mastery over the form. But I’ve been able to tell some of the stories I’ve been dying to tell in a more expansive form. And I’ve learned some things about storytelling, and also, the human heart.
I’m not the first person to say that we all have stories to tell. But what was a major discovery for me was just how many. I’ve carried around with me a few stories that I thought of as the major ones — the ones I use to trace some loose narrative arc over my life, and draw some kind of meaning from.
Once I pushed past the major stories I’d been saving up, there were more stories. Interesting stories! And then there were more. Now I know I will never run out of stories. There’s no way we can ever exhaust them all. The experience of digging deep, back in time, can itself be exhausting, though.
Creative non-fiction, my friends, is not for the faint of heart. In travelling back through time, reading old diaries, listing to music from other eras, revisiting photos of different “me’s” over the past four decades, I found myself sleepwalking through my life until the story was done. My heart was scraped raw with trying to dig out the honest story, the true feelings, the real impact. But I always came back so much wiser, with the gift of the long view to make sense of things.
One more thing I learned in all this time travel. The heart is strong, and very, very resilient. Way more resilient than any of us may think. Every stop I made back in time was at a point of heartbreak. Love and loss are where the power lie for me. And those stories are the ones that intrigue me and always have the most to teach me. As strong and resilient the heart is, I will admit that as I relived old times I felt immersed in a lingering malaise which only let up once I felt the story was done.
Some stories took a long time to get there; one took six months. For six months I wandered around thinking of the person I missed, wishing I could be the girl I was then with the guy he was then. And then the story was finished. The feelings dissipated and were replaced with a feeling of peace. The story made sense. It was right to have ended where it did. Writing it, and only writing it, helped me see that.
The story I just finished writing — a lyric essay in the form of a screenplay — is the most heartbreaking story I have to tell. It took me 24 years to approach it, and four or five attempts before I even hit on the right form. I’m still in it, but I’m looking forward to the peace that will come when I can finally call it done and let it go. Writing it was painful. I felt real sorrow and resisted writing the ending until I felt strong enough to do it, with a lot of encouragement from my instructor (the wonderful Gretchen Clark). But completing it gave me back something invaluable — someone I lost. It was worth revisiting the heartache so boldly.
I can’t wait to do it again.