|by James B. Thompson|
In both cases I'll start with the inroad, the fissure, the spark, the aha!
Case 1, being Mom. Last night I re-edited a short story I've been submitting to journals for a while (I thought it was completed and it was). One publisher I'm interested in specified submissions be 3,000 words, so I decided to scrape off 150 words, or at least explore the possibility, and that meant a careful close read.
The story is odd, no doubt about that. I posted a long rejection note here a few months ago concerning that very story and have received similar comments. As I reread I realized how dense and perhaps troubling the story is, and in my chipping away the 150 words, chose to at least slightly modify the story's Flannery O'Connor-like desire for expiation and mystery. The protagonist, an adult woman, witnessed her mother's violent death and since then coped, lived a life of coping, was frozen, scrambling, searching.
And it so it hit, last night, me that while my own mother was inflicting herself with a slow Christian Science death, twenty years in the development phase and then another ten years once she (finally) allowed herself to be operated on, I would occasionally wonder, What is the effect on me?
There was no answer I could see, never an answer, all those years, although I never doubted the impact was huge. So as Jean Maria Schwartz (the character) seeks to set the world in order, she reveals an eerie religiosity, a desire to be like St. Peter, deciding who goes where. She has never forgotten what she saw and neither have I. There is no end to the past's effect but once some understanding is attained the possibility of healing, which is transformation, appears. When I wrote the story I was so pleased it wasn't about me but more than most of my fiction it was.
Case 2. I'd mentioned my favorite high school English teacher to a high school friend (now on Facebook, of course), and soon thereafter wrote a poem which starts with an imagined death from extreme circumstances, with a slight perspective on the afterlife as it relates to "my" family. And I ambled in my poeming to talk of this English teacher who once scribbled, "But what if I say I love you" on an essay. I didn't begin writing the poem with any thought of him.
Cynical as I was I never once considered his comment strange or "improper"--and it wasn't. What I realized, finally, in creating the poem was that my teacher saw something amiss. He'd met my parents more than once (I was in his class when I was a Freshman and then in his honors class Senior year). He knew. He knew there was weirdness and some meanness at home. He saw me five days a week . And he was trying to help.
The story in question and the poem in question are far from being sentimental. Far far far. But that I should understand so much about myself in so short a time--and this is what I do, think--is significant and, I hope, a signal of various events and actions and friends now in my life.
Writing isn't therapy and therapy is just a word and a fairly stupid one. But for those of us in the ultimate self-realization fellowship (no play on wonderful Paramahansa Yogananda and his Fellowship). This kind of understanding is worth the price of admission (to life, being human). At least it is for me.
p.s. I am going to write a note to that editor who rejected the story. I may owe him an apology.