Sheila talks with the heads of The Rainier Writers’ Workshop about low-residency MFA programs.
Applying her method of reading as a writer reads to Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted, Judith Kitchen asks, “So is this memoir, masked as novel? Or novel, masked as memoir? That’s one of the first questions that a reader of this book asks. “What does it matter?” you might venture. Here is our guest author’s explanation. Reading … Continue reading
For our community read this past March 2013, the librarians in Port Townsend, where I live, chose Pam Houston’s novel Contents May Have Shifted, a story, they felt to be about love and freedom in middle age, something dear to the hearts of many in this community. At the top of the month the library … Continue reading
Creative nonfiction writer and novelist, Judith Kitchen shares with us a fruitful exercise she created for those of us searching for new ways to use photographs to inspire our writing. A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. . . — Susan Sontag, On Photography Traditionally, photographs have been used in nonfiction … Continue reading
After reading In Short and In Brief, two anthologies of short personal essays co-edited by author Judith Kitchen, I re-read her collected essays in Only the Dance and Distance and Direction, and then her novel The House on Eccles Road.
As I went to my bookshelf, I plucked Distance and Direction down first and returned to a long two-part essay entitled, “Out of Place: Reading O’Brien and O’Brien I. Past Tense.” In the essay, after an epilogue from contemporary Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, Kitchen remembers a stay at Kate Kearney’s Cottage in Ireland with her husband and her visiting son and his wife:
But in the mornings, fog still rising and a faint breeze coming through open windows reeled out into the coming day, the sound of hooves on pavement is a happy sound. There’s new energy in their steps. If my mind conjures the brown and white spotted horse that’s become my favorite, the horse is smiling slightly as though lost in thoughts of its own. It seems to float up the hill on layers of fog with its empty cart clattering: yes, jaunty. And in the evening, when we’re all walking the half mile up to the pub at the top for a night of song, the horses are coming back down again in moonlight, tired and heavy and more solidly there on the road to remind us what hours they’ve worked, and will work again. In moonlight, they might be coming home with the peat, pensive and utilitarian.
In the essay, she reveals that before she went to Ireland, she knew the country from the pages of Edna O’Brien novels. But now:
Life lifts from the pages of books, becomes full present tense. We’ve already found our favorite bakery. And Ken, the brother-in-law of the man who owns our cottage, has asked us to stop by his new tearoom in Castlemaine–the one he plans to open next Friday, he thinks, if he’s finished painting. He’s still deciding what to call it. Already discarded: The Wild Colonial Boy, Jack Duggan’s Cottage. This morning we’re looking out at Macgillycuddy’s Reeks–the range of mountains lifting out of early-morning fog like black paper cutouts. In sunlight, my son and his wife look as though they belong: fixed in memory farmed by oak and hawthorne or setting off in hiking shoes with a lunch of brown bread and cheese. This the age I would have them forever, if I could write them down and leave them here. Their wedding day was rainy.
The rhythms of Kitchen’s sentences and her images had me forgetting that now I was getting what I was getting from the pages of a book. I felt like I was walking the road, dazzled with the unfamiliar but growing more familiar with the part of the world I had landed in. “And Ken, the brother-in-law of the man who owns our cottage, has asked us to stop by his new tearoom in Castlemaine–the one he plans to open next Friday, he thinks, if he’s finished painting” is one of those places. Reading it, I feel my feet traveling on a road, perhaps slightly downhill. I am “walking along” suddenly realizing that I feel both myself and someone new, someone looking forward to evenings of song and to the repetition of days and nights in an Irish village.
I read on. Kitchen discusses in more depth her admiration for and interest in the work of Edna O’Brien. Seeing the country where the novelist set her characters has Kitchen realizing that for her, home is quite different than it is to O’Brien. Perhaps she is addressing the novelist when she writes:
But you are not Irish, you say, and you have made the word “home” a fluid state–a state of mind–wedded to feeling but not to lineament or detail, not caught in a change of season, a slant of light, or blackberries ripening at the side of the lane lit like globes of darkness. ….Your history…releases you, sends you spinning out your country’s story westward toward the Pacific.
Later in this first part of the essay, Kitchen leaps from thoughts of the contemporary violence Ireland experienced to the violence in Oklahoma City. She remembers what she witnessed on television, and returns to passages and sentences from O’Brien’s novels that offer the universal experience of writers describing humanity’s grief: “To go right into the heart of the hate and the wrong and to sup from it and be supped.” “It weeps, the land does, and small wonder.”
Kitchen reminds us that we sing and paint our shops and keep our bakeries stocked with goodies, but all of us everywhere have horrific memories. As writers, we preserve both the light and the dark for ourselves and others. “Wasn’t it words that opened in me the gaping windows and sheared walls and smoke of crumbled debris?” Kitchen asks. As I finish part one of the essay, I am invited to think about the power of awful memories and how we try in writing to contain them. How far I’ve come emotionally, I think, from the early-morning jaunt Kitchen set out on. How tired, like the workhorses, I’ve become, carrying the weight of human cruelty.
In “Part II Present Tense,” Kitchen begins with an epilogue from one of contemporary American novelist Tim O’Brien’s novels. As promised by the essay’s subtitle, the essayist has read both O’Briens. I am eager to see what Kitchen makes of this in the second part of her essay. In a moment, I am reading a childhood memory of her brother George in cornfields where another child threatens to cut off George’s ears with a pocketknife. Then I read a meditation on how well she knew or knows George and how nonetheless, she thanks him for making decisions concerning their ailing farther when her son was getting married.
After her journey in thought from the past to the present, Kitchen writes:
Present tense: memory smeared over the surface of the day like oil on water. Something so present it is instantly there at the whim of a song, the smell of tar, the long hard heat of August. Present as the past is always present: warp through which the shuttle moves, like someone pacing. The past performing its miracles of knowing, but the knowing is singular, aimed at the self.
And then, breaking out of her meditation on the nature of time and memory for a moment, she returns to images of George’s past and present before leaping via personal associations to images of the Vietnam war on television and what she knows from reading Tim O’Brien on the war and what she remembers of a high school classmate who served in the army. Kitchen reflects, “If I look back, there is so much we didn’t know as our stories were shaping themselves to fill the present.” She writes about riots in Chicago in 1968 and the images in Tim O’Brien’s books. She decides that, “History turns its back to the mirror and walks away. Even if we sit still, it recedes, and we don’t sit still. We press against the future like so many moths at the screen.”
Still envisioning myself as one of those pressed to the screen, I pick up Kitchen’s earlier essay collection, Only the Dance. The epigraph she uses for “Picnic at Paradise” is from the late William Stafford’s poem “Chicory,” and it catches my eye:
Every night under my pillow the earth ticks
While somewhere in distant country tomorrow
Wanders looking for me…
How perfectly tuned Stafford’s words seem to the way Kitchen investigates past and present. Where will I find the speaker seated now, I wonder, as I begin reading the essay. She is on an airplane observing the title of her seatmate’s book as they travel west. She is flying to visit her sons in their new lives:
How easily we slip from there to here in our thinking. Already, even before we’ve landed, the West Coast has become my reference point. I’ll speak of my home in Upstate New York as there as in contrast to. Because the now creates the here. For three weeks, here will refer to our rented house on a tiny island, joined to the peninsula by a concrete one-lane bridge. Here will mean the gradual flux of tides, the water lapping briefly at the foot of our deck or pulling back revealing a spit off and where gulls line up single file for the sea’s pickings. Here will also mean now…
When she ends her essay, she recognizes herself for a moment unclaimed by time:
…without fixed coordinates, tomorrow wanders. Looking for me, all future tense…Soon in an ordinary moment that is mirrored at gate after gate in airport after airport, I’ll walk through the door and William will wave.
I am free along with her and see glimpses of what we are allowed if we pay attention. I turn to her novel, The House on Eccles Road. Here, like in Joyce’s Ulysses, the narration covers only the hours in one day. How ordinary and non-philosophical this idea of time at first appears. Kitchen’s Molly Bloom is a married woman in Dublin, Ohio, captured during a day’s activities and thoughts concerning her re-connection with a supportive friend and her own desire to do theater work. The backdrop for all of her thoughts is whether her husband Leo, an overly absorbed professor afraid of his mortality, will remember it is their anniversary. Kitchen’s by now to me trademark investigation into the way we experience time appears everywhere in the novel’s prose.
Here is one of my favorite passages. It is composed of Molly’s thoughts as she is stuck in traffic:
The maroon car had made it now to six car lengths ahead of her. It wasn’t fair. Shouldn’t the policeman she imagined at the other end of all this direct things evenly? If he let two or three go, then should stop them and let her lane go, too. And the left lane still hadn’t moved at all, as far as she could tell. If she removed herself and thought of it all as one large organism, it seemed like a powerful animal just waking from sleep. Flexing its muscles, flicking a tail, blinking an eye or two, maybe licking its paws. Tensing as its eyes moved over the savanna. Tensing as it waited for something to come into sight when it might spring into motion, using all of its power and skill, or else settle back for an instant uninterested. Was all of life an either/or? As though every moment divided itself into the happening and not happening, the is and the what might have been. So that a ghost life followed you, branching off at every minute, replicas of the self dividing and dividing like cells, so that somewhere, in the not-so-distance past, a what-might -have-been of a what-might-have-been is going on leading a completely other life, lost in the choices you yourself could not even imagine making, but might have imagined if, at some past turn, you’d opted for or over either.
And then, still waiting in her car, Molly is plunked by her thinking into the divide in her life: “She’d have to get moving soon or her brain would divide, one at Ted’s apartment and one at Leo’s office and who knew if ever the twain should meet again?” Embarrassed about thinking of infidelity, she watches “the maroon car as it neared the bend and was lost in the welter of traffic, swallowed in the silvery sheen of sun on the metallic river of her thoughts.”
When the character entertains metaphors for time, time takes on consistency and vigor. As they do for Judith Kitchen the essayist, concepts of time float in and out of Molly’s mind. These concepts do not seem at all intangible because they spring from the objects and people Molly observes. Feeling the strength of her metaphorical thinking, I am carried away on the “river of her thoughts.” I re-read the passage to see how I became swept away and see that Kitchen has woven throughout her writing what she has told us she admires in other essayists’ endings: retrospection, intrusion of comments and thoughts, meditation, introspection and imagination.
Armed with my observations, I go back into the writing and look more closely. I notice, as with rhythm and images, these techniques aid me in feeling present to experience and to thinking about experience.
For instance, in the House on Eccles Road, Molly thinks:
What was the blood she brought to this marriage? Her father’s heritage so strong, her mother’s so much weaker…Still, her mother’s family had been here for so many years, since the early 1800s when they came as indentured servants, transplanted from the cities of Europe to the farms of North America, ending up in small German-speaking enclaves, Springerle for Christmas, sausage, not much else in the way of tradition. And certainly not the longing for the homeland, the looking back. No, they’d looked so continuously forward that they’d moved west, then farther west, settling in Ohio. Farmers, from a bunch of tailor’s apprentices. From the city’s underclass. But such bright farms, sturdy and dependable, the regular rows of corn and the cows tight in their sheds….
I read the passage over and I think, “retrospection.” Molly is being retrospective, filling me in. How interesting it is that her retrospection includes a “not looking back.” I enjoy the joke, the way Molly (and Kitchen) seem to joke with me as I try to dissect technique. I am eager to continue looking through Kitchen’s writing and label for myself all five techniques wherever I see them, noticing how Kitchen plays with them. I am happy thinking that some trait of writing bravery will transmit itself from Kitchen’s work to my own when next I tackle an essay.
I am reading and rereading Kitchen’s essays, observing her use of techniques and experimenting with them in my own work. I thought it would be a treat to hear what Kitchen has to say about her writing, so I emailed her to see if she would answer questions for Writing It Real subscribers who might be intrigued about her process and thoughts on essay and fiction writing.
I am struck with the expansive quality of your essays, how much ground they cover, geographically as well as interpersonally and imaginatively. For instance, in “Out of Place,” a two-part essay in Distance and Direction, (oh, yes, I see the first word in the title takes note of this quality) the reader travels in your thoughts from a stay in Ireland to memories of Oklahoma City to a mediation on Tim O’Brien’s reports of Vietnam. How long have you been an essayist, and when you write essays, how do you imagine your reader?
I began writing essays around twenty years ago. I don’t think I even considered an audience at that time because I was so busy experimenting with the form, seeing what I could do in an essay that I could not do in a poem. And my process was exploration–just what did some of the events of my life mean to me? How had I incorporated them into my way of thinking? What had I learned from my experiences? How did that connect to anything larger? Those were my concerns at the time, and to a large extent they have remained so. If I consider an audience today, it’s more in that I’ve learned a lot more about how and when information is processed, so I think a bit more about how to orchestrate an essay in order to keep the reader interested or to force the reader to make certain connections. In other words, I still do not conceive of any particular audience, but if there happens to be one, I want to make the reading experience an interesting one.
When you wrote the novel, did you imagine the reader differently? Did you reach into yourself in a different way? Or was writing a novel similar to you to your usual process?
When I was writing the novel, I think I thought of the audience as being myself. That is, I think I imagined how I would respond if I were the one reading the novel. In many ways, the writing process felt like reading–as though I were watching characters unfold for the first time, and I was. I was often surprised by what my characters did, or rather, surprised by the fact that I understood that I was the one that was making them act. They felt quite apart from me in many ways, and yet many of Molly’s (the central character) experiences were quite similar to my own.
In many ways, the novel was quite like my essays–enough so that I ‘borrowed’ sections from my essays and used them in the novel, just changing from first to third person. In other ways, it was a completely different experience. I felt liberated from needing to explore the ‘truth’ of a situation, and so I realized I was building a whole other kind of truth for the novel. If anything, it convinced me even more that creative nonfiction should have an allegiance to the events as they were rendered (to the best of our subjective ability). A novelist is mining a whole set of experiences in order to create an entirely new one. If the writer does not differentiate between the two, how can the reader understand what it is to be ‘true’ to oneself?
What sparks writing essays for you? What sparked the desire for writing the novel?
For me, essays are often sparked by a convergence of some kind. Usually it’s something happening in the present (often just something I’m reading) that causes me to remember something in the past. The two seem to have some reason to be suddenly in my mind at the same time–either because there are similarities, or because one seems to inform the other, or through differences. So I want to explore the connective tissue, see why my mind felt that the two belonged together. Sometimes I want to explore the ways in which something matters to me, and I do so by allowing my mind to roam rather freely. I trust that the associations will eventually make a kind of elliptical sense, and they often do. I realize that this answer seems somewhat abstract, and that’s probably because the process still feels a bit mysterious to me. I doubt that any two essays came to me in the same way. But I’ll give you an explicit example: one of my longest and most complex essays came from the fact that I had two books with red covers on my shelf, one by Tim O’Brien and one by Edna O’Brien. Whenever I wanted one, I would seem to pull out the other. So I thought to myself that those two books really did have more than their authors’ last names in common–both were about war and complicity and guilt. Well, I realized that although I know very little about war, I know enough about complicity and guilt to make my connections, and thus it became an exploration of violence that included my own experience of working with survivors of the bombing at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
The novel was written because of an idea I read in an essay. I was reading J.M. Coetzee’s essay entitled ‘What is Realism?’ and there was a fictional character–an Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello who had written a book from Molly Bloom’s point of view. That was in one paragraph and his essay went on to do other things, but it seemed like too good an idea to let it go. So I thought I’d give it a try, see what would happen. And what happened was that, since I knew little about Dublin and almost nothing about 1904, I decided to set it in contemporary suburban America (about which I knew a fair amount) and my Molly just took off running. I decided not to reread Ulysses, but instead to rely on what I remembered from reading it thirty-five years earlier. I figured that if I still remembered something after all that time, it was probably significant–at least for me–and so it would spark my imagination.
You have edited anthologies and selected work for The Georgia Review. Why do you do like putting together collections of others’ work? What do you look for in a piece of work?
Editing is, for me, an extension of my reading. I like to discover new voices and see what others are doing in the field, so it made a kind of sense to collect examples of short essays. I knew that they might be useful to teachers, but I made selections that interested me for one reason or another rather than simply look for something that might be of interest to what I imagine a student to be like. So it’s simple: I look for something short and interesting. What makes it interesting to me is often what I refer to as the length/depth ratio. That is, for something so short, it goes deep. Or for something that ordinary, it’s been given extraordinary treatment. Something like that.
And I know you do a lot of teaching, too. What are your thoughts on teaching writing? What do you think are the most important craft issues for new writers to learn? For more experienced writers to deal with?
I spent years teaching creative nonfiction and I still don’t know what I think is important. Each piece we looked at seemed to present different problems and have different possibilities. For new writers, I think it’s sometimes difficult to realize just how much readers need to be told; there’s often a tendency to skip the details just because you feel that they won’t be interesting, when interest resides in the details. More experienced writers need to work on structuring and ordering those details, giving information when it is needed so that everything flows smoothly and still retains a bit of the mystery it had for the writer.
I agree that as writers, new and more experienced, at first we skip details at important junctures. If it isn’t because we think the details will bore readers or because we feel shy about revealing just how the world looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds to us, it’s because we feel the experience is hard to capture and we don’t think the details alone will do it or it can be because we don’t want to relive an experience that is painful. I believe that by reading your essays and novel, writers will observe the way you allow association and subtitles as well as first-person and second-person choices to help portray your thought process about writing about your experience as well as living it.
How is your newer work evolving, such as the picture essays, one of which you shared with us last week in Writing It Real’s Gallery?
My own work is going in too many directions. I’ve completed another novel and am looking for a publisher for it. It’s enough different from my first one that my agent would like to wait for me to write and publish yet another, then issue it as a ‘departure.’ And I am working on a third novel, but I honestly don’t think that anything I’m writing is departing from anything else. I’m also writing some new essays, and these are challenging me in new ways. Because I’ve mined my own life for two books, I don’t think I have that many more personal essays in me at the moment. But I recently moved to the Northwest, and the moving process uncovered my mother’s photograph albums and her scrapbooks and other memorabilia. I began to write a series of essays using some of the photographs–some family members, but mostly ones of people I do not recognize and have no one to ask about. So I spend some time speculating and inventing (employing what I’ve learned from writing fiction). The result is not fiction, however. These are essays in which I use fictional techniques to delve into nonfictional material. The focus is mainly on my mother, as though I could get to know her better through my own imagination and looking at what she left behind than I could ever know her while she was alive. Of course it’s a made-up version, but it may be more true than anything else I could have said about her. The project is still in its beginning stages, so I’ll know a whole lot more about what I did or didn’t discover when I’ve done more.
One thing that is fascinating me is the idea of when to use the photograph as part of the text. I have not yet caught up with the technology, but it’s clear to me that it’s available and that I can insert the photograph in place of the thousand words I’d otherwise need to write. So I can depart from description and indulge in response and speculation and interrogation. How does the essay change if the reader has already seen it? Or what happens if it is introduced part way through? How does the reader revise what has already been ‘seen,’ when a photograph presents its actual image? So you can see that I am far more aware of the reader as an entity that completes the process in this endeavor than I have been before. There’s a kind of riddle–and did you ever try telling a riddle to yourself? It needs an audience. Now my challenge is to figure out what all this means to me, and to keep myself guessing at the same time!
It is inspiring to listen to an accomplished writer talk about her process and the way she sees what she is doing. As Kitchen says, she doesn’t feel that anything she is “writing is departing from anything else.” Rather, I would think to a writer, writing is always arriving. If it isn’t, we coax it and coax it, seeing it to its destination.
I recommend reading Distance and Direction, Only the Dance and The House on Eccles Road. The author’s voice will transport you as you enjoy its music proclaiming love of literature, of traveling, of people and settings. You will be enriched by Kitchen’s understanding that the quotidian world is the substrate for all our thoughts and for our depth of being.
by Judith Kitchen
(Reprinted by permission of the author from Distance and Direction, Coffee House Press, 2001, this essay first appeared in the Great River Review.)
Lately the rush hour traffic begins before you have to put your headlights on. The season’s turned. I’m thinking back to summer solstice, thirty-five years ago, in Denmark. Hard to picture the elderly couple, by now most probably dead, who took us up the coast to where we could look across water and see the coast of Sweden–lined with a thousand small fires–holding darkness at bay. So why do I, now, picture the folding table they pulled from their trunk, the starched white tablecloth, the pure white porcelain cups of steaming coffee as we stirred the night away? Why do I hear the clink of spoon on saucer and the silence between us, not awkward, but the companionable silence of people who do not speak each other’s language, so smile and gesture, turning inward to where words find their isolated echoes? Who could have known then that we should memorize that couple’s name, their faces, the wrinkled backs of their hands, the man’s slight limp as he set up the folding chairs, the woman’s white hair, her pride in the silver coffee pot into which she poured the coffee from the thermos before she poured it onto our cups. The next night there would be another family, another country. Soon we’d be eating fresh cherries overlooking the Rhine. And later we’d have the thrill of crossing the wall into East Berlin where two guards with machine guns would take our passports and make us spill the contents of our pockets and handbags onto the table until everyone laughed. Even that did not seem all that unusual. We were young, and summer was wearing on. I had a wedding to go to–my own–and summer school in London. Barbara Hepworth and Benjamin Britten were still in my future. Everything stretched before me, like a clean linen cloth. There was nothing to recapture then, the longest day of the year. The slow sun sinking into the sea was just another distant bonfire.
The Separation of Work and Thought
by Judith Kitchen
Never ask a man a question when he’s cooking. Not if you want to eat, that is. He’ll stop whatever it is that he’s doing, turn to you and begin to talk. He will talk it through, maybe even digress a bit, but never mind, because you won’t be listening. You’ll be looking at what is happening on the stove–the boiling over, the burning up–or you’ll wonder if he notices that the tip of the knife he was holding is coming dangerously close to his eye as he talks. Or you’ll simply start to get hungry again.
Men, I’ve decided, cannot think and work. Which is, perhaps, their genius. Women have learned to think and work; or perhaps we don’t have to learn this because, long ago, it was evolutionary. We ponder as we wash the dishes. We contemplate as we peel the potatoes. We meditate over the laundry. Still, even though we pretend that separating light from dark comes as second nature, there is the moment when we stop, pull one blouse out of the washer, saving it for a lighter batch. The train of thought stops too, though we may pick it up again. But what has been lost in those few seconds when the mind switched gear, rescued the blouse from certain ruin? I like to think that my best thoughts would have occurred right then–if only I had been allowed to have them.
My husband stops work in order to think, and still the colors run or the cotton shirts shrink, so maybe he stops thinking in order to work as well. Besides, his job is thinking.
All this thinking (while not working) comes from the photograph I’ve rescued from whatever obscurity it was enjoying between the green leather bindings of my mother’s album. It’s almost impossible to describe, but I rise to that challenge. Dead center, a young woman wearing a dark hat, in shirtsleeves, is sitting on what, under very close examination, appears to be a sled. If you look hard, you’ll see the runners, almost lost in what she has piled around her. They’re difficult to see because there is no snow, or almost no snow, underneath the sled, though snow appears to be melting in patches on either side, the ground dappled as though with shadow. Behind her, three small trees (well, really their trunks and a smattering of leaves) cut the vertical plane.
Leaves? Snow? An early snowfall, I would guess. Surprise snowfall, though behind her an expanse of white and then a line of tiny houses at its far edge suggests a small lake, or a very large pond. If so, the frozen expanse has welcomed the snow, so maybe it’s late spring–again, a surprise. All I know is that she’s wearing shirtsleeves, and she doesn’t appear to be shivering.
All this comes later, though. At first the eye is drawn to the objects she is holding, the odd assortment of items: the pure thingyness of it all. Quickly recognized: cooking tins with lids and round wire handles–large tins, the twelve to twenty quart variety, and behind them what looks like more old buckets. A shovel: the blunt-ended shovel you can’t quite call a spade, more like the kind to shovel coal. Not a snow shovel. The kind that looks a bit like a hoe. And behind her, angling up like a fourth tree, a broom: a sturdy collection of twigs bundled tightly at the bottom. Rough and ready–a broom for the ground, not for a floor. She’s holding something that looks like a bellows, but isn’t. There’s more I can’t identify, plenty more.
But that comes later, too. Because, on her lap, a phonograph. Yes, the old-fashioned kind with a handle to wind it, and a large round needle to place on the record when the winding is done. It’s open on its hinges, so you can see the needle on the middle of the platter, tipped a little on her lap. Or maybe not tipped, since the whole scene tips, and to straighten the lake is to nearly topple her over, so you realize the camera itself must be at an angle. Or something.
The questions abound. Who is she, her hair hidden in her hat? Is it short, or just tucked in, and under? Who is she, this warm, snow-struck day? What is she listening to? Her mouth is pursed and her eyes are slits. She closes her eyes in order to hear. Or squints into the sun.
But the music? It crosses the snow-covered pond, carried through icebound air. It picks its way through the long-lost elms, a tenor from Italy settling in the tops of the trees, swooping in, like starlings, then sticking around. She winds the handle, and it rises again, lifting raucous from branches to fill the sky. The snow recedes under its onslaught. It is summer in Italy. Summer in his voice.
If she is working, what is she doing? If she is thinking, what are her thoughts? There is no context. I cannot separate work from thought. Maple sugar, I speculate, but then why the shovel? the broom? Why, for heaven’s sake, the phonograph? You can’t quite call it a victrola. Were they fooling around, fooling us, caught in the twenty-first century? Did they posit our presence? And who is this “they”?
Clearly she is not alone. No one in any photograph is alone. There is someone there, at the other side, receiving the image. Someone who winds the film. Who can ask her to move her foot, lift the handle, tip to her left so her head is caught between two trees–they lift from her shoulders like wings. Someone who squints back, in turn, thinking of us. Did they pile on everything they could find that had a handle, seat her on the sled, and wait for seventy years?
You think these are the thoughts I might have had between water and air? Between blouse and not-blouse-any-longer? What I would conjure if I didn’t think as I worked? You think I am fooling you, fashioning a photo of words, my own jar in Tennessee, so to speak? Though surely, this would be its opposite. Disorderly. Preposterous. You think I could make snow litter the ground like a large flock of pigeons? Put yourself in my place: just look.
Think of the time it took to amass the objects, to lug (or drag) them here, to the edge of a lake, one day in late October (or early May). Who has time for such an elaborate ruse? But it can’t have been planned, because who could plan this snow? Or else, who could have foreseen its melting? Spontaneity. In the end, that’s what this photograph is about. About two people with enough time on their hands to respond to the snow in some original way. People who make that kind of time. They go about gathering everything they can find to make a visual riddle. Two women, I suspect, willing to go on a lark. Two women who have suspended their work for this one afternoon of pure, unadulterated thought: this puzzlement to provoke the brain.
Historians or dealers in collectibles might be able to tell the year with pinpoint precision, but I’m going to guess 1929–the year that my mother’s work was teaching high school in a small town in Michigan. The year after she had left the farm for good, and years before her work included husband, children, household chores. My mother is free–maybe it’s Halloween, maybe Spring vacation, Easter Sunday looming and now all this snow to contend with. Hurry, while it lasts. At any rate, they’re giddy with freedom. And mischievous. The camera is new, something her new job allows her. Or it’s borrowed, and before they return it, they think of one last shot, one that will take some organizing, but still, bound to be worth it. They’ll show the photograph to their colleagues, see how long it takes them to figure it out. They’ll watch the men especially, watch their minds make a beeline for the facts. This is their conjecture: the women will spiral around the image, burrow toward solution, but the men–they will either get it quickly, or not at all.
Or maybe they are simply acting, alive in the moment, full of the visual fun of the moment. Something to remember long after it’s over. Something to retrieve from lives that have filled with what can only seem like women’s duties.
My father once told me he had had to decide which of two friends he would ask to marry him. They were both young schoolteachers, both attractive, both just a little too old to still be unmarried. He liked each of them. On thinking, though, he had finally decided on the one with the greater sense of play. The story disturbed me, mostly because I did not recognize my mother in his final choice. I knew the other one–my mother’s first best friend, my Aunt Peggy as I was allowed to call her, my “maiden” aunt–and she always seemed so carefree, so quick to laugh. Surely he meant it the other way around: he’d chosen the one who seemed more serious, more instantly responsible.
I remember my mother at the sink, my mother running the vacuum, my mother ironing the shirts. Where is my father? Safely outdoors, doing what men do, which seems to be puttering in his garden–an inordinate amount of time spent for the asparagus and corn produced. How much time does asparagus take? It pushes out of the ground each morning, phallic and ferocious. The next day you cut it–a clean, diagonal cut with the knife, near to the ground. When you’re tired of asparagus, you simply don’t cut it one day, and in a week it will reach out its feathery arms, a froth of green over the forgotten bed. And how much for corn? After the initial nursing under inverted glass bowls, there’s little to do. You hardly need to hoe once the stalks have grown above the height of the weeds. Corn is simply a lesson in waiting. A lesson in sunlight and rainfall and fear of an early frost. Corn measures out the summer, and when it is finally there–tassels bending in the breeze, yellow ear hidden inside its green jacket–summer is gone.
My sense is that my father was thinking. That he took himself outdoors in order to have the luxury of his own mind. Not the mind–the physicist’s mind–that the company bought and paid for. But his own sweet time to meander through what it was he thought of the world, and his own life within it. I understand that need. He always looked as though he were working and thinking, but I suspect he rather carefully chose the vegetables that take little thought. Fruit, as well. Just how hard is it to watch the raspberries move from green to red, to let apples suddenly appear, like finches, in the high branches? His biggest harvest, he always joked, was rocks–and he would appear with two pails full to dump at the garden’s edge. It just may be possible to pick up rocks and think at the same time.
If my mother was thinking as she ironed, she did not seem to be, though my own experience would prove otherwise. I have no idea what her thoughts might have been. When I was older, she was adamant about why to iron the collar first, though I have yet to see the sense in those instructions. If there were secret compartments in my mother, they were far too deep for us to penetrate.
You’ve seen it, though. You’ve seen the photograph, its amazing contrivance, its seventy years of secrecy. So tell me, why am I so certain she was there? Is it because I recognize the results of her prodigious energy? Sense someone I never knew, but half suspected? The phonograph winds down, the tenor’s voice slurs to distortion. Her sudden laughter fills the scene. She squints her nameless friend into focus. In her invisibility, she is everything at once: ringleader, instigator, hidden director of the play. Offstage, she snaps one answer to her mystery.
After reading essayist and editor Judith Kitchen’s observations about effective essay endings for last week’s article, I turned to In Brief, the second of two creative nonfiction anthologies Kitchen co-edited with Mary Paumier Jones and published with W.W. Norton. In the introduction to this 1999 volume, Kitchen and Jones write that in addition to an essay’s brevity, they were going for “quality of personal reflection and speculation,” in their selections, something they described as “the power of the personal–a single voice conveying individual experience.”
According to Kitchen and Jones:
The personal goes beyond the simple first-person retelling of a story or anecdote. The personal is a way of seeing the world, of examining its meanings, of exploring and expressing an interior life. It is intimate without being maudlin. It is private without being secret. It allows the reader into the heart and mind of the writer, connecting us to each other.
With Kitchen’s thoughts on endings in mind, when I opened the collection, I wondered: In what ways did the endings of the included essays enhance a “quality of reflection and speculation” and in what ways did they help the essays connect me to the writer? How did they accomplish this by utilizing the techniques Kitchen labels retrospection, introspection, meditation, intrusion and imagination and by completing a “pattern of thinking and reflection?”
As I read through the essays, I stopped after each and thought about which techniques I saw put to use in the ending. Then I thought about how the endings affected me emotionally, how they made me feel connected to the writer of the essay by bringing up similar experiences in my life. Next, I considered how a completion of a pattern of thought and reflection helped in the essay’s discovery and evocation.
Here’s some of what I found and considered as I read the 73 excellent selections in In Brief:
In “Low Tide at Four,” an essay by Harriet Doerr, the author announces, “What I remember of those summers at the beach is that every afternoon there was a low tide at four.” She then immediately writes that of course she is wrong, that it is memory outstripping reality that makes her believe this. But she goes on to describe those afternoons when her children were young and the family lived in California and she sat on the beach watching her children at play or reading and talking to others as well as observing them. Her penultimate paragraph contains the memory she thinks back to:
It is four o’clock. We are standing in shallow water at low tide. The children dig with their toes and let the waves wash in and out over their feet. They are sinking deeper and deeper. During the summer, their skins have turned every shade of honey: wildflower, orange, buckwheat, clover. Now they are sage. I look into my husband’s face. He reaches over their heads to touch my arm.
And she goes to her final paragraph:
At this time on this August day in 1939, I call up my interior reserves and gather strength from my blood and bones. Exerting the full force of my will, I command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the sun, hold back the wave. Long enough for me to paint and frame low tide.
“Aha,” I said to myself. “Here we have the kind of ending Kitchen named retrospection–‘a looking back, an assessment.'” First, the author looks back in time and realizes that all those years ago, she froze this moment with the memories of a day inside it. Although this required an act of imagination–stopping the circling of the earth at the moment of low tide at four–remembering that she did this is what the ending is about.
When I think about the effect of Doerr’s retrospection and imagination on my sense of connectedness to her and to life, I see that by ending her essay with these two techniques, she exposes a pattern of actually wanting to figure out why she has the memory of every beach day having low tide at four. She writes her memory until it is not only fully evoked but until it is spotlighted. With the consciousness of willing a memory to be born and live, she unites past, present and future. We have been reading memory and then we read about the day she made her memory. We go back, then further back and when her pattern of thought is realized, we are in two simultaneous presents–the one when she made the memory and the one when she is writing.
“Isn’t life like that?” I think to myself. When I think of my children’s young years, their arms are always chubby and they are always lovingly and playfully around my neck. Now I “command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the rising moon, hold back” the coming midnight. “Long enough for me to paint and frame” the lighted room.
When I insert my images into Doerr’s syntax, her song of retrospection and imagination allows me to associate young motherhood with a fragile sense that all is well, a sense that I know is washed away and returns, only to be washed away and to return.
In an essay called “Good Workers,” John T. Price writes about his grandfather’s work with trucks and about the fact that the “belief that a man who works hard can erase all his sins runs deep into the folds” of his family. He says that three months before his high school graduation when he believed his future would hold nothing but failure and sin, he called up the owner of the local truck line and asked if he could have a job washing trucks. He shows up and fills the buckets and begins the washing. He washes the trucks, a high school senior sure he will come to no good as so many men in his family had and asks:
Did I recall at that quiet moment, all those men, all those workers that haunted the winters of my childhood? Did the soapsuds in the buckets smell like so many old lemon rinds, sucked dry and scattered on the front seat of my grandfather’s truck? However it really was then, I see this now: I am scrubbing the trucks furiously, washing the grime from the white metal, pausing to watch it slide down, slowly in a gray stream over the tires, along the cement, and finally, into the drain as if it carries along with it all my future transgressions.
I read this ending and I am sad and inspired at the same time by the speaker’s introspection (self-examination, honest appraisal and discovery, as Kitchen defines the introspection ending style). I feel ancestral bonds and chains. I understand that coming of age includes the risk of behaving badly. I feel the poignancy of doing the penance before the sin, of admitting human frailty, of saying one will be conscious of oneself.
Written by the adult remembering, the essay connects the past to the future, with an image of a line and with the idea that we may know exactly when we stepped in. I understand the writer’s articulation of how that worked in his life because of his introspective questions at the end. The pattern is one of retrieval of the first moment that he was aware that he would have to take his place in line. I feel close to the speaker in his adult life as well as his teenage life. This feeling of closeness makes me aware of the richness of elements of my younger self as well as of my older self.
In Cecile Goding’s “How to Tell One Bird from the Next,” the author remembers her neighbor, who was a postman, talking throughout her childhood about the habits of birds that distinguish one kind from another. She wonders when she started to write, to particularize what she saw and heard. Doing so, she reports much about birds that she observed and much about images she imagined. In the end she writes:
When you throw out your mist nets, you start with what flies in first. So I start with a man in a field, with what a person can teach a child to whom he is not any way, shape or form related. I might begin with the shapes of the head, the mouth, the throat. And with the single spot of red which can only be seen upside-down, so that the name might descend from the man who first noted down that single spot of red. I might begin with the definition of a body against the sky, at day-break, in a blackwater swamp for example, glimpsed through the cypress, through a pair of inexpensive binoculars.
The act of throwing “out your mist nets” is a way to begin a meditation (to find a perspective as Kitchen says is the function of this kind of ending). She allows a man in a field into her thoughts. And then an image of a bird in need of a name and then an image of how she is seeing that bird, standing there holding binoculars.
Goding meditates her way to seeing herself in the quiet inner actions of her life as a writer. I am fulfilled as the reader, and I am eager to throw out my own mist nets and to pay attention to the images that swim in. I am grateful to the author for this notion of a mist net, for this model of how to use it and I feel connected to a long tradition of writing as she feels connected to the neighbor and his tradition that influenced her. I see a pattern of orbits. The postman is in the center, and the speaker is orbiting around his meticulous sharing of observation. As a reader, I in turn orbit around the speaker’s observational ability.
In search of endings that used the technique Kitchen calls intrusion (“a stepping in, a commentary”), I found some included in the book that are only one sentence long and sum up the author’s gained insight. These essayists recount family events or stories and end with a view of how they impacted them. For instance, Brady Udall writes in “One Liar’s Beginnings” about being three and lying to his mother. He had eaten all the cinnamon red-hots his mother was about to use to decorate cupcakes for a funeral luncheon. When she asks all of her children, and Udall the youngest, he realizes that saying no will save him from being banished to his room and left out of eating the left-over cupcakes with his family. When she thinks he is cute, she offers him a cupcake. He realized that this simple “no” asserted, “it’s not me who deserves a swat on the butt or no cartoons for the rest of the afternoon. What I deserve is a cupcake.”
And the speaker goes on to end his essay with this one sentence paragraph, “It’s a wonderful epiphany: with a lie I can change reality; with a lie I can change the world.” He has intruded with a commentary that articulates his insight and fulfills the mission of his essay. He had announced he is a liar in his first paragraph and he is writing to figure out how he came to be this way. I feel connected to the author, not only because his memories of his three-year-old self are entertaining and well-drawn, but because he sets himself a task and accomplishes it. To discover a truth about himself, he confesses first, as he says any clergyman tells you must. Lying was a tool the speaker’s psyche forged and carried handily for years. He illustrates the way we carry with us ways of coping to keep ourselves from the dangers our impulsive behaviors open before us.
“Dream Houses,” by Tenaya Darlington, is an essay that ends with imagination (which Kitchen proposes allows for projections that make a larger frame). From the beginning of the essay, the author relates growing up hearing her parents refrain: “we’re waiting for our dream house, we’ll probably move next year.” After “twenty temporary years,” the author’s parents moved into the “perfect house in the woods.” Darlington describes visiting her parents in the beautiful new house and then she recounts the starter home she grew up in with her brother, what memories and feelings the dents and marks and peculiar spaces held.
At the essay’s end, the author imagines her parents “rattling around in a house as empty as it is beautiful.” She sees them “spread out in distant corners, my father downstairs in his office, my mother upstairs at her desk, both of them looking out through binoculars at a pheasant or a grouse and seeing only snowflakes magnified many times to look like moths. And beyond that, nothing….”
In her imaginings, the author is telling us that to relate fully to her parents’ pleasure in their dream house in the woods would diminish the pleasure she took in her happy childhood, crowded with her parents and brother into a tiny house. She must imagine what she imagines about her parents in their new house to explore the divide that realized dreams create. Darlington’s act of imagination raises the notion that children cannot hold on to their parents as life continues.
I leave the essay aware that in speaking of the change in houses (a pattern of contrasts), Darlington is speaking in some way of the future when her parents move on again, beyond what she knows, beyond what they ever spoke of (an even larger contrast). In the moment that the essay ends, I am made to glimpse through binoculars and see despite the snowflakes, which are blocking the view, that I am aware of the transitory nature of lives.
As essayists, we rely on our words to lead us to the emotional and spiritual places that lie just over the edges of our consciousness. Reading the exquisite collection of essays in In Brief and studying ending forms in the way Judith Kitchen distinguishes them will help you gain the dexterity you need for such travel.
In “Endings,” an instructional essay for the literary journal Fourth Genre, Fall, 2001, Judith Kitchen asserts that in a piece of creative nonfiction, “the building of thought is what interests the reader.” “We look as much for how an author approaches a subject,” she writes, “as for the subject itself.” In reading and writing essays, it is understood that “the end of the story (or the narrative line) is not necessarily the end of an essay. Rather, essay endings “reveal…a pattern of thought and reflection… [They are] the place where the pattern is fully disclosed.”
Kitchen lists and illustrates five ending techniques that she has observed authors employ to “deepen a piece, add complexity, open an issue to further examination, [or] surprise with the unexpected.” Kitchen adds that her “remarks…reveal that patterns were emerging long before the author reached the final sentence,” but the end “is the place where the pattern is fully disclosed.”
Here are excerpts from “Endings,” which Judith Kitchen has given me permission to reprint for Writing It Real subscribers:
Retrospection — a looking back, an assessment
In “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean from A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, University of Chicago Press, Maclean writes:
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
Of course, now I am too old to much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. . . .
Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.
“Here we see how something very real–the river, in this case the Big Blackfoot River — reaches metaphorical proportions,” Kitchen says. “Metaphor works very differently in nonfiction from fiction: it emerges from within the material; it cannot be imposed on the material. It does not so much shape or affect the action as rise from it, recognizing its own significance. The river has been working toward metaphor. Now, at the end of the story, the author allows himself to realize what everything has meant. In the newly metaphorical river, such words as ‘timeless’ are possible.”
Intrusion — a stepping in, a commentary
In “A Snapping Turtle in June” by Franklin Burroughs, from Bill Watson’s Croker Sack, W.W. Norton the essay “begins with the narrator seeing a snapping turtle on a dirt road in Maine and calling his five-year-old daughter out to see it. At the end of an essay that moves back and forth from New England to South Carolina, from idyllic childhood to the hint of Vietnam, from innocence to violence, from story to myth to memoir to mystery,” Burroughs “circles back to the originating turtle” and comments about what he thinks concerning memory:
I found myself wishing that Hannah had stumbled upon this morning’s turtle herself and had confronted the potent oddity of the beast without having it all explained away for her. It might have stood a better chance then that it did now of becoming a fact in her imagination: something she would eventually remember and think about and think with from her days as a country girl. But what any child will think or remember is beyond anybody’s knowing, including its own. The turtle had disappeared down the ditch; its hole had been filled. Meanwhile, Hannah let us know that we had on our hands a Tuesday morning in June, which was, with kindergarten over, a problem to be solved. Could she have a friend over? Could we go to town?
Meditation — a thinking through and around, finding a perspective
In “A Wind from the North” by Bill Capossere, from In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction, W.W. Norton, the author, as Kitchen points out, “begins with the end of the ‘story.’ His uncle has died, a death that went unnoticed for three days as snow accumulated on the roof of the car and the doorstep. What kind of a life led to this kind of a death? In thinking back on the relationship, the writer discovers that the uncle is more alive to him as he thinks of his death than he ever was in ‘real life.’ Because the essay begins with one ending, Capossere is forced to find a new ending, a conclusion to the thoughts that the death has engendered. At the end of three short pages, he takes the essay into new territory, redeems both the life and the death.”
Here is Capossere’s mediation on snow:
The Eskimo, it is said, have many words for snow, different words for snow falling and snow already fallen. They use muruaneq for soft deep snow, natquik for the snow which covers the ground and clings to the feet, kanevvluk for fine snow, and quaniisqineq for snow floating on water. But, as far as I can find, they have no word for the snow that covers a man’s death so that even the wake of his passage is obliterated. Unless it be natquigte, snow that drifts perpetually along the ground, resting nowhere, holding to nothing, ever-moving particles aloft on the wind.
“By giving us the specific words and their translations,” he forces us, Kitchen asserts, “to contemplate not only the underlying question of his uncle’s life, but the larger question of how we speak about such things.”
Introspection — a self-examination, honest appraisal and discovery
In “Hose,” by Emily Hiestand, from Angela the Upside-Down Girl, Beacon Press, the author, Kitchen says, “pushes past closure, allowing herself more than one ending, trying out possibilities, building on their cumulative effects. In this way, she gives herself time to savor several alternatives,” the last of which employs introspection.
“The story is simple,” according to Kitchen, “as a child, she and a friend squirted a woman with a hose–not once, but three separate times–as she tried to go downtown shopping. Of course, the child was made to apologize. The story ends:
The only lesson that I learned at the time, if you can call it a lesson, was that for an exquisite joy, for the ineffable feeling of surety, of being perfectly in tune with nature and the gods, there will be a price to pay, and it will be worth it.
But the essay reaches further, goes beyond the moment of the story. Hiestand gives us the pleasure of yet another round in her imaginative thinking–and a corrective view supplied by another of the protagonists:
Recently I asked my mother, now seventy-five, about this long-ago event and what her point of view was at the time. “My point of view,” she replied, the incident coming rather easily to mind, “was the point of view of a mother who wants to crawl under the foundation of the house and never show her face again.” My mother also claims that Mrs. Bayliss was neither old nor frail at the time of her soaking. In fact she was not much older than my mother herself, which would have put Mrs. Bayliss in her early forties (younger than I am now). Nor was she a widow–there was a Mr. Bayliss! “And,” my mother continues, the ripples of corrective memory sweeping her on, “the dress”–she means dresses–“could not have been silk. In summer, dear Mrs. Bayliss would have been wearing voile.”
About these variances, I doubt neither my mother’s memory nor her greater apperception of the victim’s character. I can only say that the person she describes is simply not the person I squirted, though I grant that the dresses were very likely voile.”
“And, then,” Kitchen says, the author inserts “a further coda” (the ending that employs introspection):
The savage glee of that afternoon lodged firmly in mind and body, where it seems to contrast completely with my present moral life. I am often these days trusted not only with hoses, but with several hearts, sharp knives, and jumper cables. Recently I traveled from my home in New England to Gordon Road, and the woman who answered the door let me wander a while in a yard where the hemlock planted for my birth has grown taller than her house. I stood under the maple where Kevin and I liked to open wing-like seeds, stick the cases over our noses, walk around like that. Mrs. Bayliss, I was sorry to learn, had died, only the year before. How I would like to have visited her once more, or taken our chances on a walk down the hill to Jackson Square. Could I have found a way to thank her? It would have been a delicate undertaking, involving the risk of appearing completely unreconstructed. But I might have tried, for by her person, by her profoundly misplaced trust, the lady Mrs. Bayliss provided me a singular and pristine happiness, undimmed across four decades.
Imagination — allows for alternatives, projections, juxtapositions
In “Tommy Two” by Mark Spragg, from Where Rivers Change Directions, University of Utah Press, the author uses “imaginative closure,” according to Kitchen, to find “aesthetic closure.” This works because of “the unfinished nature of the material in nonfiction,” Kitchen writes. “The story goes on, even after the writing has ended. There is a temptation to try out alternatives.”
Here “a cat has gone missing in circumstances so peculiar that the logical conclusion can only be that it has been eaten by coyotes. Spragg re-enacts his adolescent imagination”:
Before I sleep I see him hitching to the Gulf of Mexico. The picture is clear. There is no mistake. He lounges in the well of a convertible’s downed top, the wind catching in the cup of his one good ear. I see him signed aboard a cargo ship, respected by its crew, mousing out its hold for work. On moonlit nights I see him sleeping on the open deck. He’s nestled in the lap of a drunken sailor. An old man and an old cat. They rise and fall against the sea. The cat bows his neck and grinds the scarred fist of his forehead into the heel of the old man’s hand. I smile with my eyes still closed. I can see the hand. It is calloused, and broad, and smells of fish and sun and rum and salt.
Kitchen points out, “This is a fictional gesture–and it is recognized as such. Spragg moves to imagination only after both writer and reader know the stark reality. It remains in the realm of wishful thinking–not a movement away into fantasy, but an imaginative alternative to a fact we’ve already accepted.”
Another essay Kitchen discusses to illustrate the use of imagination in endings is Albert Goldbarth’s “The Lake” from Dark Waves and Light Matter, University of Georgia Press. The essay utilizes “the posture of imagination” for its ending. The essay is “built around a fictional meeting between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Harriet Monroe on the shores of Lake Michigan in the year 1913–the year of the Armory Show that changed our way of thinking about art.”
Kitchen emphasizes that Goldbarth “sets this imaginary dialogue against a plethora of facts from 1913: Joyce, Freud, Duchamp, Chaplin, tornadoes in Omaha, the invention of the paper clip, the US income tax law, the first crossword puzzle, the first appearance of Krazy Kat, all in service of an idea–how a year can be life-changing, can alter our perceptions.” She quotes the essay, “Show me a year, and I’ll show you a human need to systematize its contents. Show me eternity, and I’ll show you a human need for ‘years.’ Show me a year . . . ”
“In one nearly-buried sentence, the essay reveals its origins: ‘The year the call came saying the cancer had spread from my mother’s lungs to her shoulder and back, I saw the world in terms of cancer: that was my template.’”
“In this case, the purpose of the imagination is twofold: it opens up avenues of thought and, at the same time, it acts as a deflection. If we go into our heads, we can escape our hearts. Or can we? For all its twenty pages of seemingly-indiscriminate ‘facts,’ for all its playful teasing, for all its deflections, ‘The Lake’ is struggling to find a pattern: It’s what we always, always do, it’s what our brains are wired to do from even before our natal push down the chute: take welter, and force enabling order into its details. From out of its welter of words, one paragraph out of all its fact-filled paragraphs rises to the surface. At the core of the essay is something so serious it must be downplayed; the essay pivots on its unstated emotions:
You see? “Breath,” “lung.” My mother is coughing herself away in respiratory units. And I’ll sleep in the basement under that sound, and I’ll visit her chemotherapist on Wednesday, and I’ll wake from my sleep with my heart like a fist at my sternum, and I’ll smile reassuringly for her as the burn of pain takes over another inch she abdicates, and I’ll utter the usual pieties, and I’ll see the year this way, this only way, I’ll force everything into that seeing.
The essay should end there–does end there emotionally. But then the deflection would not have been given its due, and it served a significant purpose. Because of the need to deflect, we understand more about how 1913 is representative–a year when everyone had to make an equivalent adjustment in order to go on into the future. So the essay moves away from its essence to its playful pretext:
Snapping pennants! Vendors waving sugar-wafers and wursts!
At Griffith Field in Los Angeles, Georgia “Tiny” Thompson Broadwicke makes her final inspection of every last buckle and strap.
The year is 1912. She’s about to become the first woman ever to parachute from an airplane.
The excitement tongues her skin. Her name is going to live forever.
The irony is not lost on us. The reader’s imagination expands. Nothing will be remembered forever, not even the death of our parents. No, not even our own.”
After reading Judith Kitchen’s take on endings, look at your own endings. If they don’t feel satisfying, take the time to try one or more of the five techniques Judith Kitchen points out. Is there a sudden richness a new ending brings to the essay? If not, try another of the techniques or a blend of two or more. When we skillfully accomplish the disclosure of a pattern of thinking, we create an essay that leaves an impression, both in our readers and ourselves.