As my mother’s 90th birthday approaches, my husband and I have sorted through photographs from nine decades of her life. He is making a photo essay book to be given to her this Sunday and shared with guests at the party we are making.
As we sorted, I reached into a manila envelope and to my surprise, it wasn’t a photo inside but a record, the size of a 45 rpm, with a note, “Bert and Arline, March 1945” handwritten on the label. I soon went to see a DJ at KPTZ FM, the station for which I produce my program “In Conversation: Discussions on Writing and the Writing Life.” The DJ kindly used the equipment the station has to play what turned out to be a 78 record.
Everyone there at the studio stood in the soundproof room waiting to hear what my parents, who were 18 at the time, said to one another in a recording booth they must have dropped into in NY six months before they eloped and probably just as my dad prepared to leave for Oklahoma having enlisted in the Navy. It’s a short recording. One of the most endearing moments for me is when my father says, “I love you so much” and then asks, “Do you love me?” My mother says, “Yes, I do.” My dad asks, “Why?” And she laughs, “God only knows.”
So, I am thinking of my dad a lot as we prepare for this weekend’s celebration. I have gone into my files to find the eulogy I wrote for his funeral services. I see that I employed anaphora, the craft form I wrote about last week. I am sharing the writing I read at my father’s funeral in the hopes that it may help you if are tasked with writing a eulogy or want to write one, even long after a person has died.
As you will see, repeating a specific phrase helped me keep writing and conjuring moments infused with meaning for me.
At My Father’s Funeral, 2001, The Words I Shared
When I think of my father, I think of the words he taught me: presentable as in his morning question those years he was climbing the corporate ladder, “Do I look presentable;” indispensable as in the mantra that kept him motivated toward excellence, “No man is indispensable;” and the one he taught us using the British pronunciation because the company he worked for had had research done there, “laboratory.”
When I think of my father, I think of the way he taught me to be conscientious, honest, forthright, and disciplined. Homework was to get done, goals were to be set and reached, and mistakes were to be noted and fixed.
I think of the gifts he most cherished giving my sister and me—copies of books like Treasure Island, a white football he tried to teach us to throw, a chemistry set we could only use with him as our proctor, money for college saved each week in the blue envelopes we brought to school.
I think of the things we took as gifts—riding his shoulders to play at great height in a swimming pool, his hand on the back of our two wheeler seats as we pedaled down the sidewalk learning to balance, his driving lessons and the degree of attention and seriousness he gave the task and his bravery sitting with us as we pressed the accelerator and learned to steer. He concentrated on helping us learn to make our way as well as helping our way be joyous. When I had my first job as an administrator and found the nonprofit I worked for was in the red, my father came to visit and sat for hours teaching me how to create, monitor, and control an organization’s budget. When my teenage son designed my husband and I a house, he donated the financing for skylights, an extra that would make all the difference to his grandson project. When I had a collection of poems that needed presales for the small press to make a print run, my father ordered about 50 copies and eventually gave them out like cigars when a baby is born.
When my dad’s health declined these past few years, I began writing poems incorporating my memories of his fathering. I would like to share one today because I think it best evokes his nature and what I will always treasure.
Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me
For my father
I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
he’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
and kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.
I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
at our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
he took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
on a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.
I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
when gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
with a scissors, showing my sister and me that chores get done.
I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water
underfoot, he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess;
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.
I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control.
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.
As a writer, repeating phrases helps me occupy and contain my abstraction-making mind so my image-making mind can deliver the details that bring my subject alive without me worrying about how to fit them into a narrative.
One of the beautiful things about a eulogy, in prose or in poetry, is the way that in honoring the dead with details and images, both writer and listener resurrect a life.
I do not know what memories my mom will find flooding in as we share my young father’s and young mother’s voices and the decades of photos with her and family members this Sunday. But I do know that whatever that reaction, it will usher in an occasion from which I will write. I know that the technique of anaphora will help me include more than I might otherwise be able to comfortably gather into one piece of writing.
Often, we feel we can’t start writing because we are not inspired. Or we feel that we have become “flat” as writers when we look at what we have written. Here are 10 writing prompts inspired by the opening lines of novels, films and a short story. I believe that working from any of these prompts will allow you to blast off into writing that will surprise you. You might even find that some of the openings and prompt ideas encourage you to take a second look at the way you have opened the essays and stories you’ve already begun.
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith begins, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Start a piece of writing today with a unique perspective: I write this crouched below the cafeteria tables of my junior high school; I think this suspended mid-air before my parachute opens; I say these words riding a wooden horse on a carousal. Place yourself (or your character) somewhere and write what comes.
- The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley begins, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” What apt metaphor might you use to start a piece of writing or a chapter? Try one of these: Compare a time period to a geographical area or compare a friend, relative or co-worker of yours or your character to an institution like McDonald’s, a library, multiplex cinema or church.
- Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga begins, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” Saying the “unsayable” or the not likeable or the socially unacceptable can lead to good writing. Write about a time that you (or a character) were not sorry when you should have been or were sorry when others would not have been sorry.
- In Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, at dawn, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding commands his town to wake up: “Everyone yawn. Everyone up.” He goes on to imagine he is directing the symphony of morning, “Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!” “Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!” “Cough, get up, take pills, move around!” Think of a location you are familiar with and write directions for everyone or thing there: are you camping, getting ready for a church dinner, fishing at a lake, driving to work, leaving on a remembered family vacation?
- After Life by Rhian Ellis begins: “First I had to get his body into the boat.” Think of a step that must be done, one that seems a bit outrageous, before you (or your character) can do anything else: First, I had to open my wings and fly; first I had to retrieve the letter I’d already put in the mailbox slot; first, I had to call the head of security at the airport. Make it something that is unexpected or not easy to accomplish. Why must you do this? What circumstance has gotten you to this point?
- The Paperboy by Pete Dexter begins: “My brother Ward was once a famous man.” What were you (or your character) once: Once I was first chair violin, once I was the tallest in my class, once I had a sister, once I was the best hop scotch player on my street, once I climbed trees. Write some “once” statements and see which ones bring back memories and life changes worth writing about.
- A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky begins: “I joined the baboon troop during my twenty-first year. I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.” Whose point of view might you begin a story from? Your title might be “My Cat’s Memoir,” “Memoir of My Grandmother’s Silver Fork,” or “The Bath Towel’s Memoir,” for instance. Choose an age that the real story of the life begins — at 3 months, 21 years, a half a century. What happened then? The fork might say, “I wasn’t sure where we’d all come from or how long we’d lay useless, but I figured I was about 80 when she took us out of the wooden box and soaked us in warm water and Tide detergent, and I knew I’d be busy once again.” Find out where the “memoir” takes you.
- The film Lawrence of Arabia begins, “He was the most extraordinary man I ever knew.” Make a statement about someone (or have your character do it). Make it extremely negative or superlative. Now support it with a story that illustrates this characteristic.
- The film I Never Sang for My Father begins, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.” Think of someone who has left you because of death, divorce, or moving. Begin by asking a question, “What in me struggles toward resolution now that you have left?” Write about that.
- A recent short story by Dianne Belfrey in The New Yorker magazine, begins, “Every love story has to start somewhere, and I’m blaming this one on a boat. What kind of story do you want to tell? What tangible object or what place can you “blame” it one? Here is an example, “Every story of loss has to start somewhere. I blame this one on a maple tree in fall.” And other example, “Every story of riches has to start somewhere. I blame this one on an apple tree in October.” Once you have your image you have a place to begin and a story to run with.
I hope you have fun with these. I’d love to see some of your openings if you’d like to paste them into the comment box below this article.
The late poet Richard Hugo was for many years head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missoula in Montana. In 1977, during a time of insecurity and writer’s block, he published a small volume of poems entitled 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, in which he addressed his poems to contemporary poets and to people of importance to him. He wrote what mattered to his heart and soul and broke out of his writer’s block. The letters are always to someone in particular and written from a particular town or city in which Hugo thinks of that person. Usually, he launches his poem in letter from what his senses experience where he is. Then he makes associations to information about his state of being or to his past that he feels emotionally inspired to tell the person he is writing to. The poems are filled with authenticity, appreciation, vulnerability, love and strong bonds.
The volume of poetry is still available. You can also read these two letter poems online (you have to scroll down a bit to find the poems):
When I was teaching one a writers’ conference in Istanbul, I made an assignment to write a letter from Istanbul to someone you care about letting them know your feelings via the use of images from the city, what your feelings are. The outcome could look like a poem or prose or a prose poem. What mattered is that it had images of the city and associations filled with emotions that would affect the recipient, someone who you would like to allow to know your feelings of connection or of sadness or of guilt–the letter form is a great one to use for making an apology for something larger than yourself.
It was one of my favorite of Hugo’s letter poems, “Letter from Port Townsend to Wagoner,” that inspired me to do the exercise by writing to my daughter from Istanbul.
Here’s the poem I wrote while I was unable to sleep because of lingering jet lag:
Letter To My Daughter Emily from Istanbul on Mother’s Day
by Sheila Bender
I write in a circle of women, my feet on an antique kilim
covering a concrete floor in a refurbished building, thinking
of the Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, how on one wall
they are partly revealed beneath Islamic frescos painted to cover
them when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans.
Amidst our arrivals and our departures, between lire coins and tram
passes and the food we order with names new to our tongues,
I remember that in life all of us are both hidden and revealed,
both essence and clutter, at times hungry, at other times sated.
We visited the nearby Underground Cistern for what was once
New Rome; there two marble blocks with carvings of Medusa’s
head are the bases of pillars because in his time the Emperor Justinian
did not want pagan reminders; still the stone made good blocks
for construction and one Medusa’s head is installed sideways
under the column she holds up; the other one is upside down.
There is a story that this was intentional to break Medusa’s power.
I think the stonemasons were looking for the most stable
stone platform for the pillars to stand on.
We walked back to the entrance and saw the Weeping Pillar,
a marble column with a worry hole in one place. Visitors are
invited to put their thumb inside and rotate it to wipe the smooth
marble and, of course, make a wish. And I did.
I thought of a good luck place you and I visited, Kiyomizu Temple,
the ladles of three waters we splashed over ourselves when you
were in Japan at university and the same ladles years later
when we returned years with your young son.
Tonight when I cannot sleep among the city’s motorcycles
and calls to prayer, I will pretend Medusa is winking at me,
standing on her head, never tired even after centuries holding
up pillars, the snakes of her hair but yarn for spinning the wool
of a strong and double-knotted rug, like the one I bought today.
It comes from Kayseri, 10 hours by bus from this city.
A traveler like you, the rug holds a girl’s story of wishes and love.
Medusa had the power to turn those she loved into stone,
but she winks in my thoughts because she knows, Emily,
when it comes to my love for you, I have always been
revealed and always sated, your life so full of fruit.
You know that I am going to suggest you try your hand at this sort of epistolary writing. Before you start, here is a quick excerpt from the book Getting the Knack by co-authors William Stafford and Stephen Dunning on writing poems:
From their introduction:
What do you already know about letter poems? Plenty. You know how they begin. Like letters themselves. Letter poems can start with a greeting. “Dear Somebody.” You know how the usually end–with some way of signing off “Yours truly” or Sincerely” or “Hang by your thumbs.”
So in a sense, knowing about the letter poem’s beginning and end, all you need worry about is the middle. Right? Wrong. Probably the main qualities of letter poems come from who the letter is addressed to and who signs it. In ordinary letters written to real people, there’s usually a known relationship, the writer (you) are writing a friend, a relative, an insurance agent. You and friend, relative, or insurance agent have a history, and that history shapes how the letter goes. “Dear Cousin Malcolm,” it might begin, if it’s to a cousin you’ve never met. “Malco-mio” if you’ve known him all your life.
To start they suggest:
Draft a letter to that name. One page max. It will begin:
In your letter, tell_______ who you are and what’s on your mind. Do you want advice? To ask a question about his her its life or situation? Straighten her/him/it out on a few matters? Serious or silly? Distanced or intimate? It’s up to you.
In this draft, when you talk about yourself, the real you is talking. Reveal some things, if you dare. Get close to real feeling. Sign your real name at the bottom.
And a they offer a delightful sample outcome:
I write Personal on the envelope.
Someone else opens and reads
The letter I meant only for you.
First time in a month we take
Time for wine in a bar. Your
Briefcase sits between us, you
Touch papers in your pockets,
Scrunch your eyes, look around,
At work, the operator won’t put
Me through to you. You are in
Conference, in Cleveland, in-
Communicado. You never call
Back. Dear distracted executive
Husband of mine, your doors are
Closed. You’re hiding. Come out.
Your Very Worried Wife.
by Dorothy Schieber Miller and Stephen Dunning
Okay, now it’s your turn!