I wrote most of "Blizzard" today, August 16, 2010. I thought it might be helpful or interesting if I explained some of what went into it, some of what I was thinking, some of my writing problems and solutions.
The first thing to know is that the story is true and real, but perhaps not quite in a straightforward way. I'll get to that in a moment.
The next thing is that I didn't compose it all today. I made a few changes for "Blizzard" but Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4 were written many years ago as part of a five-graf example essay I wrote for my ENG 101 classes. (If anyone is interested in the complete example essay, let me know and I will post it.)
Graf 1 in a slightly different form came from my school blog. When I write "The other day...," that was true enough when I wrote it, but that other day was actually several years ago.
Why don't I tell the reader that? Why fib? Sometimes it's good to slow a reader down and drop a few questions in his mind as he reads so he can't quite get comfortable (ENG 162 veterans: alienation watch!) But if I'd written "Several years ago..." or "In 2007..." I thought it would leave the reader asking why I was writing about it now or whether the precision of the year was important, and, especially at the beginning, those weren't the sorts of doubts and questions I wanted to introduce. So, I intentionally started bland.
Graf 5 I wrote yesterday. It was a bridge between the little sketch of Mr Licht and the story I wanted to tell. As soon as I wrote it, I relaxed. It was simple and I knew it worked, but it was very hard to get the tone right, because I was trying to hook two old pieces of writing into something new that didn't exist yet. I sensed that if I could get graf 5 right, the tone would be good for the rest of the piece.
When I was satisfied with graf 5, I stopped. I knew my material but I knew I had to sleep on it, even though I'd been sleeping on it already--since 1957.
I had to sleep on it to build some confidence.
All I really had to say was this: "One winter day in a bad blizzard, Mr Licht dropped my brother and me at a bus stop and told us to wait for a bus. Eventually we got cold and went to my aunt's nearby."
That bald, two-sentence, factual account was not really mining my memory. What I needed confidence in was my ability to do more than that.
When I sat down this morning, I could see that the Ford wagon was part of the story. I described that and even checked out a few pictures and facts on google. I realized that the safety material, the lack of seatbelts, the overcrowding all were also worth mentioning since they tied in with the general casualness about safety that led to Mr Licht's dropping us off.
I included descriptions of driving in the 50's for the same reason. It tied in. In fact, this whole piece belongs to a different era, and I did what I could to point that out. I hadn't known the night before that this sort of material was going to come my way, but there it was!
At a certain point, I had to push the material beyond strict fact or even strict memory. I needed confidence for that too. I give conversations as if I had had a tape recorder, but of course I am only guessing and imagining what was said, based on my memory (very fallible) and my knowledge of the people involved.
Sometimes it's hard to know what is actually remembered and what is 'confabulated.' 'Confabulation' means convincing yourself that something probably not true actually is true memory.
For example, I know we sat on that shelter bench, and I think I remember watching for the bus, getting ready to run out if the driver didn't turn in, but--I'm not sure. Given who I was, it makes sense. A good educated guess, not a confabulation.
On the other hand, my writer's soul told me that I did not say, "Shut up" to Seth so relentlessly, that for once in my life I was kind to him and tried bucking him up. I wish very much that it was true that I had said, "Don't worry, Seth, it will be okay. I'm going to take care of you, and you don't have to worry."
I'm nearly convinced today that I really did say that then! I want very much to have said it. But, you know, that quotation doesn't fit the John Goldfine profile. It feels almost as right to me as watching for the bus, but I'm skeptical, so you will not find that brotherly remark in 'Blizzard.' I made a judgment call, denied myself the thrill of being a good guy, and did my best to keep my memoir as close to likelihood as I could. Throughout, I tried to draw a clear line between what probably happened and what only possibly might have happened. The only-possible stuff never found its way onto the page.
So, sorting out memories, figuring out what definitely happened, what probably happened, and what only possibly happened but probably didn't is the burden on all memoirists, on all witnesses, on all testifiers.
Memory is not history. History is fact, history is "Mr Licht dropped us off in the blizzard.' Memory and memoir are more demanding, complicated.
Voice is the theme of this week's work, and I think my voice comes through loudest in the last sentence of graf 4; in the graf where I imagine the nice warm bus; in the graf where I describe the walk to Aunt Blanche's; and in the last sentence of the whole piece.
"Even now, I'd rather be his idea of a fag than his idea of a man." I've read that sentence aloud to my classes many times. Sometimes people gasp a little at the idea and at the anger I allow my voice. I have no trouble reading it. It sounds like me, it is me.
Reread those sections, try to hear a person. See what you think.
Maybe adult memoir next week will be easier because the memories are fresher. Or maybe the depth of memories will make difficulties with dealing with an audience.