Learning from Others’ Pieces Written in the Second Person

A participant in my recent online class,”You: Writing in the Second Person” shared a website with us: Dead Housekeeping: Moody Home Tips, which features a string of short pieces in the second person contributed by writers on subjects as disparate as how to feed the yellow cat, how to have a house guest, and how to keep bread for the birds. Each piece is in 250 or less words, but contains so much more than a mere housekeeping tip.

As they ask on their submissions guidelines page:

Does it let the dead speak? We welcome your presence and perspective in the essay. But the most important person here is the one you lost, and we’d like to meet that person through their voice and presence, how they peeled eggs or folded clothes or played records. Show us what they did, and how they did it.

I decided to try my hand at this strategy of using the how-to form to write a brief flash nonfiction piece. My first draft was 350 words:

How to Grieve Your Father’s Death

Sit on the bench donated in the name of your son, who died in a snowboarding accident six months before your father died of Parkinson’s.

The bench is in your son’s memory but invites all to sit and reflect as the sun rises over the Cascades across the bay.

Your son was a sunrise, your father in sunset. Remember your cousin telling you at your son’s funeral that your father sat beside her and said that it should have been him.

Cry.

Look at dawn lighting the sky with pink and yellow, the colors of long ago dolls clothes.

Remember the way your father taught you to declutter the room you shared as a girl with your sister, who was sloppy then like your mom and you neat as your father.

Do you need this? And this? Where does this belong? It wasn’t about sparking joy. It was about control over what causes some of us anxiety, those things out of place, those things with no place. Like your grief over your father’s passing.

Think of the day at four years of age, you sat on a closed toilet lid watching your father shave when suddenly the apartment building’s sewerage backed up. Remember that he fled to work, telling your mother to rise and find a plumber.

Know that you cannot declutter grief. Know it will feel like you cannot live with its messiness. Because truly, one memory begets other memories, and grief holds them up like the objects you would put in a treasure box if you had one and knew where it belonged. But you don’t.

You may want to walk away from the mess of it.

Remember, your father came home from work, of course. And the plumber had come. And your mother cooked a good dinner.

Cry for the bittersweet mystery and beauty of life and of losing. Cry because your father helped bring you into the world and you are grateful. Cry because he witnessed you losing your precious son. Cry because you lost them both. Cry because you feel safe now in grief’s conundrum.

I set about cutting out one hundred words. It took a few passes and several word count checks (thank goodness for that function under tools in the Microsoft Word navigation bar’s drop-down menu).

How to Grieve Your Father

Sit on the bench donated in your son’s name after he died in a snowboarding accident six months before your father died of Parkinson’s.

The bench invites you to reflect as the sun rises over the bay.

Your son was sunrise, your father sunset. Your cousin told you your father said it should have been him.

Cry.

Look at dawn lighting with pink and yellow, colors of long ago dolls’ clothes.

Remember your father taught you to declutter the room you shared with your sister, who was sloppy then like your mom and you neat as your father.

Do you need this? And this? Where does this belong? It wasn’t about sparking joy. It was about control over what caused him anxiety, those things out of place, those things with no place. Like your grief over your father’s passing.

Think of the day you sat on a toilet lid watching him shave. Suddenly the building’s sewerage backed up. He fled to work, telling your mother to rise and find a plumber.

Know that you cannot declutter grief. Know you may want to walk away from its mess because one memory begets others, and grief holds them up like objects you would put in a treasure box if you had one and knew where it belonged.

Remember, your father came home from work. And the plumber had come. And your mother cooked a good dinner.

Cry because your father witnessed you losing your precious son. Cry because you lost them both.

It took a bit to let the sound of certain phrases go but in the end, I think I like the shorter version better–especially where it ends.

This exercise was valuable:

  • It helped me write what many call the “hermit crab” essay (an essay living inside the borrowed shell of a form we are all used to for other purposes).
  • It helped me think about what bothered me about my unexpressed grief for the loss of my father and realize that I do grieve him every day in my own way.
  • Finally, it helped me do the editing that I might not have done if the word limit were higher. Hurray for tight writing.

****

Your turn:

Read as many of the short how-to pieces on the Dead Housekeeping site as you can.

Then write your own. Go with what pops into your mind about a specific dead person and start writing in the how-to form without wondering why you are writing about what they taught you.

You will evoke much and learn much about why you are writing what you are and how to make that writing strong by cutting the right words. Remember at first to allow yourself too many words so you don’t stifle what it is you have inside to write about.

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