Re-seeing a Story

If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that’s only of interest to yourself, then you can’t express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you’re committed.

–Frank O’Connor


 

I started writing an essay called “Doin’ Time” about nine years before it finally saw the light of day. I don’t have a record of being notified the essay had been published, so I continued to revise it, until one day, I was grading papers in my office, and I started ego-surfing or solo-googling because…why not? Maybe I was curious, searching for remnants of myself on the Internet. Maybe I am some kind of megalomaniac. Or maybe I’m somewhere in-between. I don’t have to confess my true motivation. These opposing poles of motivation are both useful and true.

Curiosity is a necessary trait in a writer (I write mostly to figure things out), yet  some megalomania is also necessary, an outside motivator, like the fantasy I’ll figure everything out, line up the events in my life, and make sense of them. This is an unattainable goal I stubbornly move toward, and yes, it is an illusion, but I fantasize that somehow, I can turn my ideas into something useful because the idea makes me happy (yet sad too). Still there are bursts of light, like when you discover the essay you’ve been toiling over is better than you thought–because someone published it.

After my discovery, I took a deep breath, thought to myself I guess I can stop writing this thing, and went back to grading papers (in all honesty, I did a weird, happy dance, felt conflicted, and then went back to grading papers).

But is a story ever really done being told? Yesterday, I read over the essay again to compare how my time-of-writing voice has changed between the publication of that essay and now, because I continue to write.

For people who aren’t creative nonfiction junkies, a time-of-writing voice is who the writer or protagonist is in a memoir at the time of writing. This is different from the voice a writer develops to illustrate the perspective of the protagonist as the events transpired.

My writing has definitely changed from then to now, though it’s subtle. “Doin’ Time” is the story of visiting my estranged father with my husband a few days after he and I were married. The facts in the story haven’t changed. We will have always driven down to Key West. My little brother will always have said he likes whales and Wheel Smeetch. But one truth has changed–the way I see the story. I am further removed from who I was then, and I feel kinder toward the characters, even to my own persona, who is flawed, and silly, kind of like the person typing these words right now.

The time of writing voice and the protagonist, were she to reflect on the events in “Doin’ Time” today, her characterization and perspective would be smarter and more complex. Does that mean I’m smarter? Maybe. Maybe not. I think it means I pay more attention now, and I write more slowly. I take my time. I worry less. I enjoy the process.

I write to understand. Sometimes my writing feels like my own real-live baby, except the baby will never be satisfied, doesn’t take naps, and will not let me rock it to sleep. So I am linking this story because I never got to tell people, hey this thing I wrote for a long time, it saw the light of day.  This essay shows a picture of one time period, and lucky for me, that time is in the past.

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