Writing for My Life
The night my grandfather died, I went to a revival meeting. I was twelve years old, and, although I had been told of the imminence of his death, I denied it as an adolescent can and will. Death, never far away in a small and intimate community, was nevertheless reserved for the old, the worn and suffering, the useless. I would not let it touch me.
During that evening service of conservative evangelism, I heard no voice in my head, felt no lurch deep inside, no tightening of the heart, no recognition from a line read or sung that told me "this is the moment." I felt no soul floating free. But on the steps outside the church a woman separated me from my friends with a solemn nod. "Go home," she said gently, and I did.
Of course, no one was there. My family was across the yard at grandmother's house and so I stayed at home alone, unwilling to participate but wanting to feel something other than the pressing loneliness of the empty house. I remember hearing my heartbeat, how rapidly it flew. I am still living, I thought suddenly, and he is dead.
The events of my grandfather's passing were pieced together slowly from one-sentence fragments which came periodically from my mother as I grew up. Once out of the blue she listed the people who had been in the room. Another time, she said quite simply: "There was blood on his lips." I was practically grown before the gathered facts lay together like pieces cut for a quilt which would never bring warmth or comfort. "His eyes had a pleading look," Mother said finally. "He was looking straight at me as if there were something I could do. I couldn't bear it so I left the room and walked home."
She heard us singing. Praise spun into the spring air as she crossed the wet new grass. Night lay so softly, so full of scent and music, that it hurt her with its beauty. She had failed him, she thought, while she waited alone for word of his death. She had left him, unable to bear his leaving her.
But he had left her years before. Before I was born he had suffered a stroke that jumbled his mind, slowed his thought, his speech, his step. We children loved him because we were expected to, even though he rarely noticed us and never learned our names. Still he was a gentle presence, providing in the constancy of his place in a rocking chair beside the stove a sort of comfort, a way of being as unperturbed as our own. We were used to the soft striped shirts he wore, the suit vests that made him look dressed-up and awaiting some big event, the worn wing-tipped shoes, the smell of tobacco, as if a wreath of Lucky Strike smoke followed his sluggish steps everywhere.
We used to lose him. When the weather was good, he would sit in a rocker we carried out into the yard, and sometimes the sun striking him through the china berry leaves would remind him of something, alert him to another life when he'd walked to the mill every day, ready to attend to his family's livelihood. Or the pungent smell of sweet dry tobacco being graded next door would invade his head and he would think he should be overseeing the tobacco sales. How could he be so amiss, lounging about in the sunshine when he should be up and at it, making a dollar. And he would be off. His slow, dogged steps took him to the corner, then along Main Street until someone passing took pity on him and he'd find himself in an automobile or a pick-up truck on his way to the tobacco market.
Were we supposed to watch him all day? Was there no respite? How could the world be so full of irresponsible people willing to give a sick old man a lift? These were silent questions, for I knew better than to express even so mild a complaint. To question care was to question the structure of our lives, an unpardonable breach of female etiquette.
We went looking. Even now I can feel the scratchy seat of the Dodge on the backs of my sweaty bare legs as I peered out the window in search of a faltering gait, a bent summer straw hat, a senile old man who never remembered my name and yet to whom I was irrevocably linked.
Mother always saw him first. "Just look at him," she would say with tears in her voice. I always looked at her instead.
I spent my childhood looking at her, listening to her. There is no memory that does not hold her in it. I remember certain events because she was so obviously a part of them, others because of the acuteness of her absence. There was a period of months when I was afraid to be away from her for more than a few minutes. What a burden I must have been! What a baby, I would think, even in my panic, to be so afraid. And of what?
I was grown before I could define that fear. I was not afraid for myself, but for her. I fancied myself as one of the boundaries of her life. If I let down my end, even for a moment, wasn't there the risk of some danger befalling her? Or perhaps, seeing the gap in the fence, would she not bolt herself free? Because I saw how trapped she was, how bound to care, tethered to a life thrust upon her by circumstances, void of choice. What did young rural women know of choice? They knew about reacting, not acting; about salvaging, not creating. Any consideration of self was deemed selfish. The family was everything but within it you were nothing, a non-entity who provided service and sacrifice. My mother held us all so close to her heart that she could not breathe herself. Everything she did for herself, like leaving her father on his deathbed, was construed a failure. No one pointed a literal finger of blame -- no one needed to. She did that herself.
If only we could learn to forgive ourselves, and, if we could, wouldn't that mean a new morality, a new way of making decisions and taking responsibility? For some of us it would mean that for the first time we actually see the choices, that we evaluate the possibilities, that we consider ourselves.
As a writer I feel obligated to follow all the paths available to my characters, to make their decisions with them. Because their setting has, so far at least, been rural, my characters' external lives are frequently limited to ordinary experiences which hardly seem book-worthy. If anything gives them significance, it is the internal decisions they must make, choices which affect their emotional well-being.
In fiction I am not as fearful of those choices and the responsibility choice brings as I am in real life where I find myself with real concerns, both as a woman and as a woman who writes. Because I believe in the power of language, having discovered it first in the oral tradition of my family, then in the Bible, in poetry and finally in fiction, I have chosen to be a writer. I am now coming to grips with the fact that as a writer I have some small but undeniable influence on the quality of life around me. Being a writer moves me beyond the narrow boundaries of my family and community. People, especially young people, read what I write. What am I to do with that responsibility?
I believe that I have theological limits both in my life and in my work. This has nothing to do with my technical ability as a writer; it is not a skill. I'm not talking about how I write, but what I choose to write about and why. My decision to write about people struggling to find meaning in life is a moral choice. It is the same choice millions of women make in their daily lives -- a choice to nurture, to heal, to make decisions that reflect care rather than justice.
My subject matter is only clear to me in the context of the characters themselves, not as a theme to actively advance. Rarely do I even try to search out hidden meanings afterwards. My awareness rests in the development of the characters who people my books. The challenge is to get at their core, to explore their natural attributes, both good and bad, to discover the truth about them. And from that truth, I hope comes a perception of their human condition that expresses what is of value in them, what is hopeful.
While I am living in their created world, characters become real; I laugh and cry with them. I fret about them. I think about them in absolutely human terms, speaking to and of them in my head as if we were in therapy together or at least in consciousness-raising. "What's important to you?" I ask them. "What do you hope for in your life?"
In the process of revealing themselves to me, they profess certain ambitions, confess shortcomings and failures. They speak freely, loosened from the restraints we frequently feel in real life. The stories come out of their voices, from both the pain and the joy they whisper in my ear.
My characters then are more crucial than any other element in my approach to the writing of fiction. Many writers feel that way. As Annie Dillard puts it: "The critic is interested in the novel; the novelist is interested in his neighbors." Once I've found my characters by whatever method that requires -- (it is most often a visual impression, a person appearing in my mind's eye who captures my imagination spontaneously) -- after that imaging of a life outside my own, I begin asking questions, a process that usually takes a year or more. Once I get to know the essential characters, I believe my role is to record their voices, let them tell their stories, to interfere as little as possible.
I try to make myself their tool so the finished product expresses them, not me. I don't think fiction is the place for dogma, but I do believe with John Gardner, that true art is essentially and primarily moral or life-giving. "Art," he said, "celebrates life's potentials, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love."
Since I would be a fool to think that I will ever produce art but equally foolish not to try, I must deal with what my purpose is. Is it to portray life as it is or life as it should be? Should I manipulate my characters to create an affirmation of life where one probably didn't exist? Should I conscientiously re-write Pollyanna with her eternal optimism? Should I investigate the dark side -- murder and other unconscionable acts? Whatever am I to do about the anguish I see around me? Should I avoid the news media, isolate myself, as perhaps I have, in a rural southern mountain community?
What does morality in fiction require? Gardner again: True art "designs visions worth trying to make fact." And so fiction is not necessarily real. It is finer than life. It is both visionary and bound to the resources we have as human beings who rely on a certain amount of concreteness in our lives. The people in my fiction deal with the same problems most human beings face and therefore many of their dilemmas are internal ones. Their external lives are fairly mundane -- they do not leap from one high adventure to another without sleep or meals or moments of reflection. Look at Stella Willis' greatest adventure in Home Before Dark -- a ride in an Impala Chevrolet with a boy on either side. Or at Dwayne's in All Together Now -- winning somebody else's trophy in a fake race. Or any of the small occurrences that marked Wren's friendship with Sam in Notes for Another Life -- dowsing for water, a pig-picking, a graduation celebration. What give these small events importance? It is the feel of them, the intangible swelling of emotional identity that touches us.
Aren't we all looking for words that define us and our experience? I have a friend, now totally blind, who was born with a severe cleft palate. The repair work on her palate required many operations over a period of years, so she was a big girl before they were far enough along for her to learn to talk. She later became a speech therapist. With all the problems associated with her blindness, she still maintains that not being able to speak, not being understood, was worse, was harder. Her other handicaps are lessened by her ability to express herself -- to tell someone what it is like -- and so she has found a vocation in the spoken word and through it gives understanding and hope to many other handicapped people.
But all of us are handicapped in one way or another. All of us stifle ourselves with fear. Some of us are as afraid of success as we are of failure. Where we are is, at least, safe.
I found one of my favorite characters, Sara Will, in a safe place she had created for herself. She was middle-aged, an ornery woman set in her ways, hostile to change and intrusion but frustrated by the life she led. She knew nothing of living for the moment. The present seemed to defeat her.
Katherine Anne Porter once said that only the past was real and so she wrote from memory. That's a writer talking but it fits Sara. She lives on private memories -- it is her soul's meager food. She is full of regrets and always irritated as if she must forever wear a too-tight blouse or pinching shoes. There is something of me in Sara. Like her, I am tempted to hold on to the past, to have regrets, to worry about things done and left undone. With and through her, I grew some. It is not just young people who are in process. We are all involved in the act of becoming.
May Sarton says, "You finally do have to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the work and not care, because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough."
I doubt the writer can ever objectively evaluate the merits of a character's life, but I do know that at the moment of writing, Sara's experiences were crucial to me.
Like all my books, Sara Will was begun because of a scene and a person I envisioned. I saw this woman coming down the road in the twilight, just as years ago I saw Stella Willis and her family in a battered old station wagon. That first image is always spontaneous, an act of discovery that occurs at a moment of heightened sensitivity. Few writers can express that experience adequately but in our struggle we use common language, which proves we must be involved in a similar process.
Dorothy Can field wrote: "I have no idea whence this tide comes, or where it goes, but when it begins to rise in my heart, I know that a story in hovering in the offing."
But where does it come from? The scientist stumbles onto a solution not because he is looking for one thing but because he is looking at everything. The discoverer has spent years making the circumstances right, getting prepared to see what could be revealed, becoming receptive. After that initial vision of scene and character, I spend a long time getting prepared for a continuing time of heightened awareness -- one that can survive interruptions of minutes or weeks.
I open a secret place in myself, a room sensitive to everything I see or hear or think about. The room has a screen door which filters a little. Big blocks of misspent days can't get through but light can and does, music can, poetry can, the expression in a friend's eyes, a phrase of speech, an anecdote can. Gradually this room fills up, the furnishings of a life haphazardly crammed into the corners and against the walls. One day I approach my word processor. There is a yearning that pushes me to that familiar place, a room uniquely mine where I am surrounded by sayings and books and photographs. I wish I could describe what happens there. The only words I have are "discovery" and "revelation" and they fail miserably to define a creative act, a moment secretly longed for and worked for, that suddenly bursts open with tremendous energy. You are suddenly courageous and hopeful but there is fear in it, too, and the risk of failure. You know you are paddling a canoe against an ocean tide; and yet, on the swells you are visionary and honorable and heady with creation. So you write. You write in a form that seems to best capture the emotions you feel, that expresses most clearly the character you must unveil.
Madeleine L'Engle tells us that the writer must serve the work. C.S. Lewis believed that one should write a children's story when it is the best art form for what we have to say. As for me, I attempt to meet the demands of my characters, to tell their stories as they would have them told.
Not long after completing Sara Will, I felt my empty room once again begin to fill. A seventeen-year-old boy was in the act of becoming. I felt myself becoming with him. His physical presence was with me. His emotional life fluttered against my screen door. Gradually I began to hear his voice. We seemed to have chosen each other but I know that really the choice was all mine. By choice, I locked him in my memory. I discovered his ancestry, his infancy, so that he could then reveal to me his present life.
Rob Dickson's story in Permanent Connections was not an easy one to write. His own insecurities frequently bogged us down. His journey into himself was painful. But always I was aware of his potential. His mistakes -- and there are many -- gave him reason to grow, and so I celebrate his struggle and his increasing knowledge and acceptance of himself. Rob's struggle and his potential for survival seem based on two underlying elements: his family, both past and present, and a spiritual life, the seeds of which he would have, on a conscious level, denied. But when he needed courage and comfort, he knew instinctively where to begin his search.
Those of us who include the spiritual lives of our characters in our stories are sometimes cast either as sentimentalists or propagandists. Perhaps some of us are but I am prepared to say unequivocally that I believe spiritual experience is not on the fringes of our existence but is central and that to leave it out of stories that hope to reflect what is true in our lives is a disservice to us all.
The scene in which Rob encounters a minister in Permanent Connections has been criticized as an "easy answer." Well, I can only think the critic hasn't tried to pray lately. Prayer is hard. It's not a quick fix or an easy solution. When we go as deeply into ourselves as we dare and speak openly to the life force that makes us who we are, we are risking painful revelations, challenges we don't want, solutions that may be harder than what we've already got. The comfort we might find there is comfort of the true sort which strengthens us for action. The life that Rob Dickson had when I found him gave him the potential of prayer; I only gave him the time and space for it.
Time and space. Three hours at my word processor becomes three minutes of fictive time and probably even less time will be spent reading it. It is a dilemma for someone who writes more slowly these days or at least with less energy than perhaps I once did. I have just spent two years on a book that takes place between January and June. The space is, of course, a southern place although this is a story that could happen anywhere because much of the action occurs at school and involves a freedom-of-inquiry issue. An English class is forbidden to debate a controversial question -- the identity of Shakespeare -- a subject the students don't care much about until their right to discuss it is denied.
But the emotional issue at the core of the story is the involvement of a teenage girl in the life of a family she befriends, hence the title Keeping Christina. The family Christina invades is a solid, nuclear family -- the kind we writers shy away from because, in fiction at least, nice is boring. Anne, the teenage daughter in this family, is the product of an environment that has taught her that women -- girls -- take care of things. They are expected to be problem solvers (not math problems, of course, but emotional dilemmas). They are the comforting shoulders, the listeners; they are not unduly suspicious and always try to be understanding.
I was that kind of young person -- I imagine many of you were. For two winters during basketball season, a high-school cheerleader spent Tuesday and Friday nights with my family because she didn't have transportation to and from the games. My parents never questioned this situation, even when her stay occasionally spread through the weekend. She was fun to have around and appreciative of our hospitality. We enjoyed sharing our home with her.
In my adult life, in my own family, a situation arose that did not feel comfortable the way the cheerleader's presence in my mother's house once had. We were slowly and assiduously invaded by a delightful, energetic, helpful woman who was chronically ill and whose past, burdened with almost unbearable griefs, made us easy prey. An embarrassing number of years passed from the time I first began to feel uncomfortable in this woman's presence until the day I finally painfully extricated her from our lives.
Why am I not I strong enough to be present with her? I would agonize when her demands on my time and energy began to take their toll. Later, when I was completely worn out, I was asking myself, Why can't I simply say No? But every gentle effort on my part to weaken her hold on us meant a tightening of her grip. Wasn't I helping her overcome the griefs of her tragic childhood, her dead children and husband, her lonely existence as a housemother in a boarding school where she surely smothered unsuspecting gangs of little girls with more love, bread puddings and clean laundry than they could have possibly needed?
Didn't our family have so much to give: warmth, stability, trust? So why did I have this uneasiness? The word gnawing is, of course, a cliché when referring to a growing sense of discomfort but I can vouch for the validity of the phrase. I literally felt gnawed at. When I finally said no to this woman: no more letters, no more calls, no more gifts, no more visits, no more pretense of friendship, I felt a range of emotions almost impossible to describe even years later. There was rage and sadness and guilt and a lifted spirit all at once.
Since this period in our family life, I have tried to sort it all out. I have tried to make sure my daughters understand, to the extent that I understand even to this day, what it is that makes us vulnerable and where to draw the line. I have watched my children struggling, searching out the signal hidden among all the do-good messages, that will encourage them to stop and evaluate whether or not the good we do is really good, whether we are meeting our own needs rather than those of the person we intend to help, whether helping is actually helpful.
All of this affected the writing of Keeping Christina. It is basically a book about friendship and how friendship can be defined. Annie's story is not one of epiphany but of a slow, growing awareness of herself and her own needs and of how one achieves wholeness, not at the expense of other people but with the strength that comes from an honest appraisal of oneself.
It has always been my intention to give every character his due -- never to prosecute or defend but simply to reveal and, in that revelation, to open the way for understanding between character and reader. My assumption is that you are as curious about the workings of the mind next door as I am. Unhampered by any requirements of privacy, in fiction we can probe deeply without wounding; we trail patterns of thought out of infancy and into crucial conflicts of young adult and adult life. We look at the world through eyes not our own. These moments of revelation, of truth exposed, make fiction work. I think they make fiction necessary.
"Tell the truth but tell it slant," wrote Emily Dickinson in the freedom of her room. At a time when creativity in women was seen as aggression, she made her choice, choosing the internal life of a poet, for the most part an unpublished one. The world was not ready for her genius, nor perhaps are we yet. "The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind," she wrote.
Perhaps her truths, couched in metaphor, are still beyond us but there are other more accessible truths; there are stories to be told, images to capture on the page, visions to unfold before our eyes, moments to reach into our hearts and pull us free of worry and dread, words to show us the best in us.
On my way across North Carolina, I used to pass a billboard that seemed to be there just for me. "There is no heavier burden than a great opportunity," it said. I squirmed a little passing because I knew even then what my great opportunity was -- to illuminate the lives of rural people, especially the women of my own family.
Over the years I've written about my great-grandmother and the trials and joys of a Southern woman's life at the turn of the century. Although I am three generations removed from her, I have always felt linked, a bond that resided, I believed, in the stories my grandmother and mother told of her, as familiar as the Bible stories and nursery rhymes in my childhood.
Hearing my grandmother's stories, I noted the embellishments, the slight shifts of time and place, the wanderings of her restless mind, and yet I knew I always heard the truth. The kernel was always there -- the emotional part was accurate, capturing with each retelling separate grains of fear or sadness, of romance and humor. They were ordinary people she spoke of -- hired men, field laborers, planters and thieves, preachers and drunkards, children orphaned before memory, tragic women, vengeful men; and my great-grandmother was always at the core of these stories, demanding center-stage.
I could envision her at every stage of her life, but especially I could see her as very old, tiny among the white bedclothes, her white hair brushed loose on her shoulders and then miraculously, in one motion, swept up onto her head. I saw her from a peculiar angle, at first far away, then gradually closer and closer until I was looking up at her although she was bedridden.
Until a few years ago, I thought I had dreamed this picture of her, this sensation of comfort and perfect contentment in her presence. But while my grandmother lay bedridden in her final illness, the memory of this dream of my great-grandmother became so vivid that I mentioned it to my mother. "It wasn't a dream," Mother said. "What you are describing really happened."
It seems that almost every day Mother had carried me down the hall to my great-grandmother's room where she lay propped among her pillows. Every day I lay on the bed beside her. "You were her greatest pleasure during the last months of her life," my mother said. I was eighteen months old when she died.
What is memory that it finds a niche before speech? What is it that all these years later I am filled with a tearful kind of joy, with such a powerful remnant of love that I am to this day warmed by it? I have been told that a recurrent circumstance can lock itself into early memory -- it is the frequency of the event that latches it to our brains. But no scientific explanation lessens the attachment that memory holds. I am connected to that woman, as to her daughter and granddaughter. Over the past few years I have felt myself becoming their messenger. Slowly I am tuning my ears to hear their voices, knowing that if I can understand them -- three generations of women spanning one hundred years -- then I can come close to understanding the nature of care which has made women so vulnerable, so troubled by choice, so wonderfully human. I can reach deep into our female conflict of self and other. I can think about love in its complexity -- as passionate, obligatory, destructive, nurturing.
This will mean focusing on women in the domestic setting, for none of these women worked for very long outside the home, if at all. My grandmother taught school until her husband's protest pulled her back into the kitchen. In her late years, she reminisced about her brief teaching career more frequently than any other experience of her life, as if it represented her finest hour. She never spoke of the thousands of meals she cooked, the hoards of relatives and friends that descended on her to stay days or weeks, the day-to-day commitments to housekeeping, managing the affairs of an extended family, and child-rearing that left her weary but unfulfilled. I think she probably shared the sentiments of her older sister who wrote of her own isolated, farm existence in 1900: "I do wish I could live where I could be thrown with noble, intelligent people. It would be such an inspiration to one burdened with so many domestic cares."
It was domestic cares that consumed and diminished these women. Their rage was misdirected to fiercely scrubbed pots, bitter confrontations with the washboard, needles that pricked restless, nervous fingers, children punished unreasonably. Their prayers for deliverance went unanswered. Many of them probably went unspoken because these rural women were supposed to be grateful -- helpless, as they believed they were, to make it alone. Although many women hid themselves in domesticity to avoid coping with the outside world for which they felt ill-prepared, just as many fought battles against the insanity that surely came from the frustration of living without choices.
The saddest part is that so much of that frustration, so much bitterness passed from mother to daughter, as if there were no real desire to break the chain of suffering. Mothers punished their daughters by forcing them into the same mold, by heaping expectations and obligations and limitations on them. "You must know what I have suffered," one generation of women said to the next.
How could it be that their whole existence wasn't focused on freeing their daughters? Instead, they treasured their sons, reaffirming again and again the domestic care they should expect and depend on.
My mother broke that particular chain conscientiously, bit by bit, during my young life. "You don't want to live here when you grow up," she would say surreptitiously. "You are going to be a writer." Her commands were as if issued from God herself. And I did as I was told.
I was afraid of many things when I was a child -- the circumstances of my childhood showed me a full array of sorrows -- but I was never afraid of being talented or of pursuing dreams. "Every woman who writes is a survivor," says Tillie Olsen. And so here I am.
I will always remember how my mother took charge during those first days after my grandfather's death. Taking upon herself, as she always had, the emotional burden of whatever crisis befell the family, she made arrangements, was a gracious hostess in her mother's house, comforted relatives, complimented the makers of casseroles and cakes. I watched her efficiency, the quiet loving method of her comfort. From her I can learn how to be, I thought. This is how one behaves. But it has taken me years to learn the lesson of forgiveness, to believe that it is all right to leave the room. Some things, I suppose, must be self-taught; some lessons come from within. Every day, recognizing choices challenges me to think for myself, to take responsibility for my work, to make decisions that reflect concern for other people, but for myself, too.
As a writer I intend to take my characters seriously but myself less so; to try, through language, to "design visions worth trying to make fact"; to work to please myself, not defensively, but for the sheer joy of it. That is what I choose.
Sue Ellen Bridgers is the author of such classics of young adult literature as Home Before Dark, All Together Now, and Notes for Another Life. Her latest novel, Keeping Christina, was published in 1993 by Harper Collins.