The Epistolary: Writing Exercise and Personal Journey

Back in July, I was going through a book of writing exercises and the one I was working on was called an epistolary. You pretend you come upon a stash of letters, or even use a real stash of letters, and write story from that, basically reconstruct the letters into a story.

Such an exercise is actually one of the earliest versions of the novel, or so my professors taught me when I was at Western. Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, was one such novel. Carrie Fisher wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, using an epistolary form for the first part of the book, leading the reader from postcards and letters to journal entries, before finally landing them in the first person narrative of the story.

Well, I thought I would take a stab at it, though it was probably going to take longer than a single night. But I got caught up in creating this thing, and ended up working on it most of that evening before finally winding up to the ending that had been in my head since the beginning of the story.

I feel good about that story, what I did and where I took it. The style reminds me a little of one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino. I hope I haven’t inadvertently copied him. I’ll have to look into that. I’ve gone through the piece once, but it’s still “baking” (Rising? Proofing?) right now before I go through it and do some more tinkering. It’s been a few years since I sent anything out there. Not even sure where I’d send it! But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. It needs a few more drafts before I even think about that.

In the middle of writing that piece, I also realized I had material ready-made for a real epistolary. I had letters and cards I had sent to my dad from the time I was in grade school on up through college.

But let me back up a bit so you get where I’m coming from.

As my friends and I get older, more and more of us are becoming members of the “adult orphan” club. Some people “lose” their parents at a young age (though I hate that term “lose” – as if a person were an earring or a set of keys) and that is a devastating experience I’m thankful I never went through. The rest of us who are lucky enough to have our parents around into our adult lives, usually don’t have to worry about becoming members of the “adult orphan” club until we reach at least our 40s and 50s.

And then we watch and wait as each of us in our cohort becomes a member of the club. Whether suddenly, or as a result of a long illness, eventually our parents die. And even though we are adults, that experience of “losing a parent” crushes the child within all of us. I remember years ago talking with a neighbor about it. She was in her 60s and she talked about how much like an orphan she felt after her mother died some years before. Another friend of mine whose parents had both passed away a few years ago has said it was like losing his champions.

Neither of these people had perfect relationships with their parents. And yet, they still felt overcome with loss when their parents died.

And when that happens, when a parent, or anyone close like that dies, those left behind are left with putting the rest of those lives, the personal belongings that had meaning once upon a time, to rest. Because it’s not over when someone dies. I mean, some people are more prepared, more organized, than others. My grampa had a list with all the information needed for accounts, who to call and notify, the stuff about the will, what to do with his body, etc. Most people aren’t that prepared. Even with all that, it still took time.

After the body and brain have ceased to work and have been cremated or laid to rest or otherwise taken care of, it can take months, or even years, for a person’s entire life to be put to rest.

After all the relatives, friends, agencies, acquaintances and everyone else has finally been notified of your loved one’s passing, after the body has been disposed of, after you have acknowledged your own grief, there’s still all the material possessions to go through, homes to figure out, the online life to slowly shut down, the financial threads to be untangled and released. Jumping through hoops with people over the phone or in person who are trained NOT to believe you when you say, “I’m trying to shut down the email/account because my father/mother/spouse died and no, I do not have the PIN, but I might have the password and I do have the death certificate/social security number….” Or whatever else it will take for them to believe you.

And as much as you think it will be something you will have cleared up maybe a month after the death, that’s just not how the world works. Your body holds your grief as pain, and every task you do in laying your loved one to rest is taxing your body, your brain, your emotions. It is all painful. If you can accomplish one task a week while continuing to carry on with your life, that’s doing okay. If you can do one task a day? Phew! Wow! Make sure to give yourself time to crash and burn, because your body will demand it; laying a loved one to rest is hard work.

After watching other friends of mine who have had to go through this, and now as my family goes through a “laying to rest” of my father’s life, I think a safe guess for how long this takes is 18 months. Yes, after a parent dies it could take 18 months before everything with their lives is finally settled and laid to rest. Maybe more, maybe less.

But when this happens to you, and it will, remember that. Mark it on your calendar and hold it out as a marker to hang onto when it seems like everything is taking so long to sort through and manage: 18 months.

Earlier this year, in the spring (about six months after Dad died), one of the projects I took on to help lay my father’s life to rest was to go through the personal correspondence he had kept over the years and, if possible, mail it back to the people who had written him.

At first I just picked at the pile of correspondence that spilled out of the package. I figured it would be an easy evening in front of the TV. You know, just tossing the cards and letters in piles whilst watching Star Trek or Grimm or something. Right? I might cry, but that would be par for the course.

But it was more difficult than that. I couldn’t seem to approach it head on. I pulled out some folders I could use for keeping them organized. I’d pick a card or letter up, see who had written it and put it in a pile, but then pull another one out and the first one would tumble somewhere and get lost in the pile again as I read the second letter.

And then one day, I just started in. Not just sorting them, but reading them, thinking about these people who loved my father and wrote him, remember the stories he’d told me about these people he loved back.

My dad wasn’t sentimental, most of the time. He was English, which is not quite the same as Nordic, but bordering on it (Viking genes, you know). But he wouldn’t have kept these letters and cards if the people who wrote them hadn’t meant something to him.

I know. I was reading private correspondence, and a part of me felt squeamish at that. But the writer in me was fascinated at the breadth of story that could be mined in this correspondence. The daughter in me, who missed her father so much, just wanted to hang onto one more thing that was part of her daddy.

I could only do a few each night. The more I read, the more I remembered about my own life, what Dad had told me about his life, and the more I learned about these people my dad loved, as well as about him. I cried every night thinking about the love in this family. It was exhausting.

For example, there were cards and letters from my Nana and her mother, “Mrs Edwards.” Nana, or more formally Grandmother Iris (but we just called her Nana) was my dad’s stepmother. I remembered Dad describing a distant relationship with a woman who may or may not have cared for him. For my sister and I, she was the grandmother in England who would send us the occasional nice gifts for Christmas and had the handwriting that was nothing like Dad’s or Mom’s or Grampa’s and Gramma’s. So, I never really knew her. However, these letters were from a woman who really cared about Dad. She encouraged him, asked about him. And her mother, even, really enjoyed my dad, sending him a card or two as well.

There were also cheerful and newsy letters and cards from his brother and brother’s family. Letters from my sister Heather and I that ranged from one-liners from camp to long, rambling missives about our lives and asking him about his. A couple from Mom. Cards from Meeg. More newsy letters from my sister Elizabeth. And then there were a few letters and postcards from friends who must be long gone now. I couldn’t even decipher the names to figure out a proper place to send them back to; those “orphans” are finding a home with my own cards and letters and the ones from Nana (who passed away a few years ago).

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

 

Card I sent to Dad for Father's Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

Card I sent to Dad for Father’s Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

 

So, back to the idea of epistolaries as a writing exercise.

In July, when I was working on the writing exercise, I was also still sorting through those letters and cards. And after writing the faux epistolary, I had what I thought was this brilliant idea. I thought that after I had sorted through all the cards and letters and sent them off to their homes and only had mine left, that I would do a close read of them and write an epistolary based on my real letters.

I KNOW! Great idea, right?

Well…

Not so much. Or at least, not yet. Well, you can try it if you want to, but I can tell you from experience that trying that less than a year after someone’s death is not a good idea.

Beside, real life doesn’t always have a story, an arc, an easy beginning, middle, crisis, and end. And so it was with my letters. There wasn’t an easy arc to follow, no beginning, middle, crisis, and end as I wrote my dad the rambling letters about school and music and sports and boys and moving and jobs. It was messy, like real life.

And that’s the other thing. It was messy, funky, bloody, and too soon, too close to home. The girl that I was, and the woman I have become are completely different and at the same time also exactly the same. But separating out what is story and what is not and how tell a true story out of it all – well…

I have a bumper sticker up in my home office from a publisher as a reminder to be true to the work: “Write Gutsy. Write Lovely. Write Bloody.”

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

 

I’d like that to happen sometime with my letters, sticking close to the bone and writing gutsy, writing bloody lovely, but it’s just not going to happen any time soon.

Breath Stealers: The monsters are real

A friend of mine has hired me to edit their novel — developmental editing. It’s a deep reading of a piece that’s not a simple proofreading or copy editing read through. The editor may read through the work several times looking for consistency, structure, meaning, logic, etc. It can be a long process and requires really thinking about what you’re reading. You can’t just do it on automatic. Fortunately, my friend wrote a novel that’s not only a good story, but also leaves the reader with lots of things to think about.

One of the characters comes to the conclusion, several times, that no matter how hard she tries to do the right thing, the thing that is required of her, it always seems to get her into trouble. She’s chopped away bits and pieces of herself over the years to try to fit into what is required by the many factions in her life, and even then, it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough.

I identified with what that character was going through, so it made me think about that feeling. That feeling that bits and pieces of you have been given away or stolen to accommodate others, and it’s never good enough. It’s a very familiar feeling for me, as I sure it is for others as well.

When I used to go out dancing, there was a bit of a protocol as to how things were done on the dance floor. Just as in walking on the sidewalk or driving along a street, there are “rules of the road” to allow everyone on the dance floor space to dance, express themselves, and have a good time. There was an assumption that everyone was allowed so much of a “bubble” around themselves. Sometimes you’d bump into someone, or they’d bump into you, but for the most part, most people respected the “bubble,” respected the space.

Except for those people. You know who they are. They’d come on the dance floor and it seemed like no matter where you danced, they were there in your space, bumping into you and not apologizing, not moving away, not allowing you your space. So you might move to another part of the dance floor, and there they’d be again. Or you might dance “smaller” so as not to take up all your bubble. This usually meant they just danced “bigger,” taking up what you weren’t using anymore. You could try dancing “bigger” as they did, but that risked some type of altercation.

So, you might leave the dance floor in a huff to get a drink, only to find that you’re now standing next to one of those people, who is pushing you aside to get the bartender’s attention before you. If you’re lucky, you finally find yourself some space outside in the parking lot having a cigarette, where you can swear at the world, swing your arms and kick the curb, getting the encroacher out of your system.

If you’re lucky and they haven’t followed you out to bum your cigarette. If you’re not so lucky, then there they are again. They took your space and your drink and they literally want to take your breath as well.

I don’t go out dancing anymore, but that concept seems to hold true in other parts of my life. There are people out there who don’t seem to want to acknowledge that you are allowed your space, your breath. They walk into a room and take up the entire room with their presence. I’m not talking charismatic people who have a large presence, I’m talking about those people who steal the room. They steal your space and everyone else’s space in the room. They steal their attention, their voice, their breath.

If you are anything like me (and there are a ton like me, I know), you think, “fine, I’ll just manage fine in this little corner.” So you move to that corner, thinking that now the person stealing all that space will be mollified. But they’re not. That they have 75% and you have 25% is not good enough for our breath stealer.  They want more. So you make your space smaller. You cut away at your space, letting them have 80% while you decide 20% is enough for you, if they’d just leave you alone and let you have it.

If we were talking sharing the bed with the cat, the dog and your assorted family members, this might be okay, comforting even, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who want to steal your space. You give up more and more of your space, more and more of your place at the table and that’s still not good enough for them. Your physical, emotional or psychological parts of yourself that you hold space for? They want that. Everything you hold dear to yourself — your ideas, your space, your opinions, your emotions — they want.

Why? I think each breath stealer has his or her own reasons, insecurities. It makes them bigger, more important. Or maybe they’re just absolutely clueless about how they are the big monster in the room stealing everyone else’s life.

dont-let-de-boo-hag-ride-ya
In Gullah culture, there’s a creature called a Boo Hag, a breath stealer. They’re like a vampire in that they steal your life, your energy, but by stealing your breath, not your blood. They creep into your home and float above your body and steal your breath as you sleep. When you wake in the morning, you have no energy. Or if that’s not enough, they might steal your skin (you can read about it here).

Probably everyone plays the part of the Boo Hag at one time or another in their lives. I mean, if things go the way they’re supposed to on any given day, then life is a bit of a give and take, right? You might give of yourself one day and take the next. Like the marketplace, you get paid and go out and spend your money for goods, which pays someone else, who goes out and spends money for goods or services, and so on, etc. You breathe in from someone one day, and breathe back into them the next. And there will be days when, whether or not you’re aware of it, you will be the one playing the part of the Boo Hag. You will be selfishly demanding the space, the breath, the opinions, the energy. They are all yours, dammit! People OWE you! Didn’t they know that?

Then you get over it. The huge bubble you have selfishly built from other people’s space is burst and you are once more a normal person, not a monster. You are once again seeing that, yes, other people deserve their own place at the table, just as you do. They deserve their space, breath, ideas, opinions, etc. This is an exchange.

But some people never “get over it.” The always demand more and more space. Nothing and no one is ever good enough for them. They want it all.

I know other women probably deal with this, maybe other minorities do, too. But you’re with a group of people and you don’t talk much. You know it’s safer to just keep quiet. But then you’re asked to speak up, so you do. And as soon as you start to speak up as much as the others at the table — not more than, just as much as — you’re suddenly labeled the loud-mouthed bitch by the breath stealer at the table (usually just one or two, because they won’t tolerate others like themselves at the same table). After listening to said Boo Hag talk about their work for hours, you finally talk about what you do or what you’re working on or other things in your life, and their eyes glaze over or they decide to interrupt you. “Too much drama” for them to have to listen and pay attention to someone outside of themselves.

I remember sitting at dinner with a couple and they went on and on against immigrants and people with mental health issues, and several other demographics outside themselves. Grand statements that swept millions of people into a corner of “undesirables,” without any thought given to any of those people as individuals at all. And this couple employed immigrants and had family members with physical and mental health issues. They had made a good living doing what they liked to do and instead of turning that good outward to help others, they decided they wanted more, and that the only way to get more was to make sure others had less. (At dinner that attitude made itself known by how often they talked across me or others whenever we tried to make a point or state an opinion.) Making a good living wasn’t good enough. Living in their space was no longer good enough. Now they had to take that space away from others as well. I used to think of them as friends. Did I change? Did they? Will they ever come back to themselves? Or were they always selfish bastards?

I was watching a film with friends one night and it wasn’t the best movie. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t bad. We kept watching. But one of the people there kept heckling it. If you’re at home alone watching a movie and heckling it, fine. Besides, you can turn it off, unless you want to see how truly awful it is. But the movie wasn’t in the heckler’s home, and it wasn’t being turned off. And she kept heckling, not just saying how bad it was, but also using an entire demographic of people (in this case middle-aged women) to disparage it. Why? Why use a whole group of people who have done you no wrong to disparage something? It wasn’t entertaining. It was rude and selfish and so bigoted against an entire group of people. I’m a middle-aged woman, for crying out loud! I was getting offended, but I did what I do, which is kept quiet, made my space smaller. That’s what we’re taught to do with rude people, right?

Was that just a bad, selfish moment for her? Should it have been a learning moment for me? Should I have said something? Will she ever see it on her own? Will she ever come back to herself? Or has she permanently morphed into the selfish monster who wants to claim all the space?

It’s like bullying. When I was a kid I was bullied. Back then, you just put up with it. When Todd and Tom wanted to chase me home and throw rocks at me, I learned to hide until they left school and make my way home a different way. When Robbie and John called me names, I ignored them. I played on another part of the playground with other kids. I tried to make myself as inoffensive as possible. Ignore it and it will stop. And sometimes that works with bullying. But other times?

Other times they decide that it’s no fun when you ignore them, and to run you down with their bicycle is more fun. They want your space. They want to claim the air you breathe.

When I was a kid and that happened, I ran home to my mom and grandparents and they called other kids’ parents. “Things were discussed” and a bulk of the bullying stopped. But when you’re an adult, you don’t have someone to run home to, except maybe your cat. You just have yourself, maybe a trusted friend to talk it over with, to figure out how to deal with it.

So what do you do? Do you keep self-editing pieces of yourself? Stripping things away to become less and less around others who demand more and more? That doesn’t seem right. But then, to go back to the dance floor analogy, trying to constantly dance with your elbows out so you don’t lose what little space you have is exhausting. That’s not right either. To go back to the bullying example, you could try to find another part of the playground to be on, and that will be okay for a while. But these people don’t go away.

My go-to strategy has always been to keep politely silent. Nod and smile until I get home where I can lock the door between them and me. I know that at least this space I can call my own, as long as I can pay the rent. In this space I can write my thoughts and think my thoughts and they are wholly my own.

But I can’t always shut myself away can I? Maybe that’s what we’ve all ended up doing in some way or another? Maybe that’s why some people become shut ins? They just want their space to be theirs without interference from the big, monstrous breath stealers, and that’s the only way they can safely keep their space.

I have no ultimate answer for this. The most I can say is 1) that the Breath Stealer Monsters are real. Watch out for them. And 2) I enjoy developmental editing because it leads me on thoughts like this one.