SPEAKING WITH A STUDENT recently, I was dismayed when she claimed that hers was not an “exceptional” story. There was no death, no loss, and so she thought her story of little value. I disagreed. In fact hers is a tale of great gain, though of the spiritual type, and it got me thinking about the difference purely in terms of craft and how to record the various forms of memoir I like to read. Writing about an exceptional experience provides lessons for us all, no matter what our tales include, and to tackle this I have turned to an exceptional author, writer and teacher, John W. Evans. His beautiful new book, Young Widower: A Memoir, is splendid with the thoughtful skill of someone who can teach you what you need to know to write about the big stuff – the exceptional experiences—of life, while also upping your game on the small details of how to write good memoir. Read on.
Writing the Exceptional Experience in Memoir
by John W. Evans
Witness of the exceptional experience is one of the reasons we read memoir—that happened where and how to who? —and it presents two challenges to humble even the best writers. How do we make the exceptional experience vivid to a reader who has not lived it? And, when we succeed in doing so, how do we preserve that sense of exception, so that the experience does not become, in its accessibility, general and banal? Most writers are familiar with the idea of a “clock”: a set period of time in a scene, chapter, or full memoir that can be identified with some outside event. A clock gives structure to exterior time by letting the reader keep track of it while events occur. For example, your clock for a chapter might be that hitchhiking trip you took with a friend from Seattle to Tuscaloosa. When the narrator reaches Kansas City we know we’re 3/4ths of the way through the chapter. Or, your memoir might unfold (as mine does) during an entire year in your life, marked on each end by a particular date, with the major holidays in the middle. The reader senses that when the clock runs out (the state line is crossed, the birthday party begins), the scene, chapter, or memoir ends, too. The clearer and simpler the clock, the easier it will be for the reader to follow as you exit the narrative present (write outside the clock), provide backstory to the reader (pause the clock), and return to the narrative present (run the clock).
The “double clock” is a more sophisticated writing strategy that I encourage my students to use when they write about an exceptional experience. In the “double clock,” exterior time unfolds as the narrative of the experience. That’s the first clock. As much as possible, that narrative should be literal, sparse, direct, and objective. The second clock, however, marks off interior time: the emotional truth of the experience; the relapsing and remitting nature of experience as it persists and repeats in memory; the intuitive sense, however ambiguous, of a feeling the writer just can’t let go. The advantage of running the “double clock” is that the first clock de-amplifies the extraordinary with its familiarity and simplicity, while the second clock shows the reader the complicated gestures of an intellect that cannot clearly make sense or let go. To borrow from Kevin Kling’s wonderful radio essay, “The How and Why of Death,” the first clock asks “how,” but the second clock asks, “why.”
The first chapter of Kate Braestrup’s extraordinary memoir, Here If You Need Me, uses the double clock to great effect. In exterior time, the first clock is a day-long search for a missing girl in the woods of Maine. The game wardens run the search. Braestrup is their chaplain. In the morning, Braestrup is summoned to the woods and arrives there. All day, she talks with her colleagues and friends, meets and counsels the parents, and collects information from the searchers. When the evening turns to late night, the first clock winds down. The missing girl is found, safe. The narrative satisfaction of resolution is twinned with the arrival of night.
The progression of interior time in the chapter—the second clock—is much more complicated. As Braestrup narrates the search, she makes an anxious, internal monologue of best- and worst-case scenarios. That monologue includes prayers for the unthinkable (“Peace.”), faith in hopeful statistics (“Oh, please, Jesus, let this be true. Let the little girl be alive.”), gallows humor (when the father asks, “But wouldn’t she hear us calling to her and answer,” Braestrup thinks to herself, Not if she’s dead.), and as the evening turns to night, seemingly irrational hope for the child (“I want to be right. I try not to want this too much.”) alternated with thoughts of her own kids eating dinner at home (“I dial my house to hear my children’s voices.”). This clock moves in stops and starts, fitfully, even at times irrationally, reacting and anticipating its way through an uncertain situation.
While readers may know very little about Braestrup’s husband’s death (killed, in the line of duty, in a car accident), her grieving process (deeply sincere, but eccentric), or her choice to pursue for herself his dream of becoming a minister, we can sympathize with the exceptional tensions between her two clocks at the start of the book. As the first clock winds down, in exterior time, Braestrup remains publicly unflappable, serene, dedicated, and professional. Privately, according to the second clock, Braestrup battles hopelessness, wariness, resignation, and panic. Joy at discovering the child, at three in the morning, in an Elmo sweatshirt, asleep under a bush, becomes not merely a happy ending, but also an elegant metaphor of revelation and resurrection. It is the parsing out of best and worst situations by someone whose job it is to know them—and who has also lived them. In the excerpt from my memoir below, I use the double clock to articulate the intrusion of an intense and sudden grief reaction into a mundane, everyday experience. In exterior time (first clock), I am baking cookies from scratch with Katie’s nieces and nephew while listening to one of her favorite songs, “Lake Marie” by John Prine. In interior time (second clock), I am alternating, with increasing desperation, between a compulsive desire to clean everything; my fear of the intensity of my emotional reaction; my awareness of Katie’s family in the house; and, a memory of when Katie and I heard that favorite song performed live in Chicago. This sort of thing happened to me quite often during the first weeks after Katie died. I was always at a struggle to explain what I was feeling to the people who loved me. The events in the song make an unexpected parallel to the circumstance of Katie’s death.
Young Widower: A Memoir, an excerpt
A few weeks after the funeral, I stood in the kitchen assigning tasks. Katie’s nephew melted and whipped the butter. His sister packed brown sugar and sifted flour. Her older sister measured the baking soda and salt, cracked the egg. Their cousins chopped the chocolate bars into chunks, crushed the walnuts, tasted the batter. We all took turns measuring teaspoons of batter, and then we waited for the first batch to finish baking. Or, I waited and did dishes, while they watched television.
Judy and Katie’s sister sat on the back porch, talking about divorce. I could hear their voices in the gaps between John Prine songs. Katie had loved John Prine. When we first met as Peace Corps volunteers in Bangladesh, she lent me her John Prine mix tape, which I only grudgingly returned, months later, after we had started dating. In the kitchen I kept restarting “Lake Marie,” self-consciously playing it over and over, eager to telegraph the similarities between the girlfriend’s murder in the song and Katie’s death. I can’t imagine what effect this had on Katie’s mother and sister. I didn’t ask, and I’m not sure they noticed. Ed might understand, I thought, but he was upstairs, putting his boy down for the night.
There was a terrific pile of dishes from dinner. We had made spaghetti together, following a recipe that Katie liked. I loaded soap into the dishwasher and ran it. I washed each of the pans by hand and laid them out on a checkered towel. It was warm out, but not so warm that we had to run the air-conditioning. I propped the front door to get a breeze going through the kitchen. I started “Lake Marie” again and took each of the coils off the burner. I scrubbed down the stove with big piles of Comet until it shined and smelled of bleach. I slid the coils back into place. The cookies were done. The kids came back to scoop them, still warm, and pour glasses of milk. They took a plate out to Katie’s mother and sister. I made two more sheets of batter, ran the disposal, washed the bowl and spoon, dried the pots and pans, stacked everything into the cupboards, checked the cookies, waited.
I needed to keep moving forward. I wanted to slow down. I drank a big glass of whiskey. I went to the bathroom and dug out the anxiety pills a doctor at the embassy had prescribed. I had taken Katie to see John Prine and Iris Dement in concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall for her twenty-seventh birthday. They had closed the show with a sing-along of “Lake Marie.” The chorus is simple, Prine explained; you just sing “Standing by peaceful waters” over and over. At the concert only one person, sitting just up behind the stage, knew to yell out Shadows! during the last verse. You know what blood looks like in a black-and-white video? John Prine asked again, laughing, and we all yelled back, Shadows!
What was I doing in Indiana? These people couldn’t heal me. John Prine couldn’t heal me. Cookies and pasta were making me fat and keeping me awake at night. The pills and liquor felt good, like a heating blanket under the skin. I had a secret now; I was high, and no one else knew it. I would have to explain this to my therapist. I walked back into the kitchen. The kids had disappeared into the neighborhood, so I scooped the last batch of cookies onto a cooling rack, scrubbed the baking tray and poured myself another drink. The stereo sounded tinny now and too loud. I took out the John Prine, put in Lucinda Williams. I walked out onto the back porch and spent the rest of the night talking about the Fourth of July when Katie had beat me in her hometown’s 5k Race for Freedom.
John W. Evans is the author of the memoir, Young Widower (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), winner of the 2013 River Teeth Book Prize, and the poetry collection, The Consolations (Trio House Press, 2014), winner of the 2013 Trio Award. His poems and essays appear in The Missouri Review, Boston Review, ZYZZYVA, Slate, The Rumpus, and Poetry Daily, as well as the chapbooks, No Season (FWQ, 2011) and Zugzwang (RockSaw, 2009). A native of Kansas, John has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, a public school teacher in Chicago, and a college teacher in Romania. You can read more about John Evans on the Stanford University Creative Writing page.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Mary Mullen. Congratulations, Mary! I’ll be in touch to send your book.