Before you jump in, a note on timing: You can read this note and do the exercises and readings whenever you like, before or after our first Zoom session. We won’t be discussing the readings from this craft note until the Saturday session. Okay, let’s go!
If you’re in North America, where were you for the solar eclipse of 2017? Here in Toronto, I wasn’t in the line of totality, but even so, I sat on my building’s front steps with cardboard glasses from some science faculty at the university. I had my doubts—I’d heard of scammers selling fake glasses to schools, happy to make a quick buck, never mind the risk of blindness—but I decided to trust the flimsy things. The guys at the auto shop across the street shouted over the traffic, asking if they could use the glasses; they weren’t having much luck with their welding shields and whatever else they had macgyvered in the shop. I know I was in the middle of an intensive teaching program. I know I had stuff to do. But I sat there on those steps, with those mechanics and other random passersby who decided to trust a stranger’s flimsy cardboard glasses, and together we gaped awestruck at the blacked-out sun.
If you’ve ever seen an eclipse, hold that memory in your mind as you read Jack Gilbert’s “Marrried.”
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment crying hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came
there was no way to be sure which were
hers and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find
this long black hair tangled in the dirt.
Once a week or so, I find myself crouching in the shower, pulling hair from the drain so the water will run through. Pulling my husband’s hair from the drain does not have much resonance when I can smell the bacon he’s frying in our small apartment. The reason “Married” is so powerful is its opposition; his wife is dead, but here is her hair. That’s what makes a small thing huge.
There is nothing more certain, perhaps, than the sun and moon rising in turns. And sure, writers and poets have plenty to say about the certainty of these phenomena. But mechanics and strangers have never borrowed glasses to stare at the moon when I’ve been sitting on my steps. Even when I’ve gone camping and stared at the moon through binoculars, my heart hasn’t pounded like it did when the moon appeared where it seemingly shouldn’t, when it slid in front of the sun—something so much larger than it—and blocked it, but also made me see that sun in a new way, made me appreciate that glow, how much light gets cast into the sky around it.
My sister was working in downtown Nashville at the time and was in the path of totality. She told me a crowd had gathered in Nissan Stadium, and when the sky turned dark, they cheered. When the cheering died down, crickets chirped, confused by the sudden night. My sister, who works nights, said she’d never heard crickets chirping in downtown Nashville.
In Megan Pillow’s “In the New World,” Sarah tells Gina she can’t keep the beads she found “at some rotted-out boutique.” Gina responds, “Sarah, they’re light, she said. I’ll tuck them in my shirt. See?“
They’re light. They’re small. What makes them heavy, what gives them weight within the story, is the context, the opposition. The beads are a strange thing to hold onto when you’re walking a dozen miles a day for months, when the daily rations consist of “one slice beef jerky, one sliver dried mango.” This is an apocalypse, but the beads are a link to tenderness, to memory. They are the brightness bleeding out around the moon in an eclipse. They are the hair in the soil when repotting your dead wife’s avocado plant.
Creating space in your writing for misfits—for deliberately building space for opposition—can open your work up and let a small word count encompass so much more than the words on the page. Try this exercise from Aimee Bender:
A darkly hilarious recent example of this is Liz Breazeale’s “Today’s Modern Woman Is Destroying This Country” Take this vignette, for instance: “The Vector for All Cruelty in the Universe doesn’t shave her legs for three weeks and a mining town in Pennsylvania is swallowed by the earth.”
Another way of thinking about opposition is in bringing together disparate sensations and experiences. I’m taking a course with Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal Writing currently, and my homework for the week is to write a scene that brings together intense oppositions in lived physical experience: sex and death, pain and pleasure, rage and joy, comedy and tragedy. Yuknavitch notes that “drama comes from the tension between the things you hold opposite.”
Not shaving your legs for three weeks? Mundane. A mining town in Pennsylvania swallowed by the earth? Anything but. The way these two events have been pushed together is what gives them power. That’s where the drama happens.
Breazeale’s piece is humorous, but opposition can also be almost unbearably poignant. If you’ve seen UP, you probably teared up (or full-out bawled, let’s be real) in the first few minutes because a montage entitled “Married Life” compresses that enormity into roughly four minutes of emotional highs and lows, joy followed swiftly by loss, comedy by tragedy, pleasure by pain.
In this Script to Screen video, you can see just how many oppositions were packed into this visual flash piece. Instead of a polite kiss at the altar, Ellie “jumps at [Carl] and gives him a big kiss.” Ellie’s and Carl’s families could not be more different. “Still in their wedding clothes, she saws as he hammers.” After Ellie finishes carefully painting their names on the mailbox, Carl leaves a purple handprint on it. Instead of getting angry, Ellie adds her handprint, too.
There are all these major life moments, and the small details give us space to wonder what will happen next. There are misfit details—the fact that they’re still wearing their wedding clothes as they fix up the house. They read books in separate chairs, but they hold hands; they are together. This goes on and on and on, until we get a quick cut from the couple decorating the baby’s nursery to a dark doctor’s office, Ellie’s head in her hands, Carl’s hands on her shoulders. Quick, quick, quick. A succession of emotions, of oppositions.
Breazeale’s piece works similarly in that it builds momentum by cutting out large swaths of time, to skip to the emotional highs and lows (though in this case, the highs belong to Satan, and the lows belong to…every other thing on earth).
While Gilbert’s poem and Pillow’s story linger on the moon that only gains our attention because it’s blocking the sun, Breazeale’s story and the UP montage tell us the story of solar eclipses by jumping year to year, crossing space and time to build a tale around these seemingly disparate points of resonance.
Both methods mirror how memory works. We remember tiny details because of the context in which they were embedded. We forget full years except the highs and lows.
In the stage notes to The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams explains, “The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. The interior is therefore rather dim and poetic.”
(Big!) Guiding Questions
In our first meeting, and throughout the weekend, we’ll discuss the questions below. We are in a fraught moment, so while we think about expanding and contracting moments on the page, we will also consider how outside forces affect our work as writers.
- How can writing accurately convey the way that memory warps time?
- How do you decide whether to make a small moment big or a big moment small? When do you minimize or shrink moments, and when do you allow them to fully take up space on the page? How do you know if this is a moment that needs to burn like a firework or burn like a pillar candle?
- How can we effectively linger in a moment rather than rushing onward, without derailing the momentum of the piece?
- How can we bring our readers with us as we expand/contract space and time?
- How can we immerse ourselves in deep time when the outside world has accelerated, particularly in terms of risk? How can we keep writing small moments when the world is on fire? How can we write love poems when the world has so much pressing on it?
- How can we express the true scale of our individual lives (minuscule) and still retain meaning? The present is a state of tension between past and future—how do we convey this sensation?
- The Memory Field: Musings on the Diné Perspective of Time, Memory, and Land by Jake Skeets
- Footnotes on a Love Story by K-Ming Chang
- Refrigerator Elegy by Lindsey Harding
- After Leaving My Father at the Hospital on Christmas Day, by Donna Vorreyer