Friday, May 18, 2007

Memory and the Loom of Fiction

Below are five isolated strands of my actual memory. In other words, they are true events, unless I am forgetting or misrepresenting details due to the passage of time, etc. In honor of this blog, we’ll call them threads. They seem unrelated, but as we will see below, they are linked, or have recently become linked, in a process I find interesting.

Thread #1: When I was growing up, there was a younger, dynamic priest named Father Frank Delia in the parish I attended with my family who was a very talented homilist, and who used to close out his homilies from time to time by sitting down at a piano and belting out a song before the congregation.

Thread #2: Years ago, maybe 12 or 14 years back, I went on a weekend trip to the beach with some friends. One night we were just goofing around and a group of us decided to go out and take a walk on the boardwalk. While we were out there we saw some young boys with these long, harpoon-like lances standing on the pier. When we got closer we saw that they were actually fishing for miniature sharks. They would wait until they had a ‘shot’, then spear them with the lances and toss them onto a pile on the pier. I remember staring at this pile of bleeding, semi-dead sharks at night near the ocean.

Thread #3: In 1996 as I was closing out my career in the US Army, I was in the process of leaving Fort Benning, Georgia, after 4 years of living in that area. My Dad came down to help me with the transition. While he was there we went for a weekend in a facility in Alabama, a very quiet, isolated Retreat Center in a town that was called Holy Trinity. This was way in the backwoods. One night while we were at this retreat house, I couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night I wandered out from my very Spartan little room into the common area of the facility. There was an indoor grotto with a little pond and a statue of Mary in that area. I remember sitting there in absolute silence in the middle of the night. I wasn’t even praying, I was just sitting there. I guess it was some sort of awareness that my life was in a major transition and that I knew nothing about the road ahead of me. After a while I just went back down the hall and went to bed. Nobody ever knew I had been awake.

Thread #4: My mom always had this very old looking, beat-up breviary, a kind of old-fashioned guidebook that people used to bring to Catholic Mass to follow along with the prayers. It was jacketed in black leather and had an antiquated appearance. Later, I found out that it had once belonged to her father and she kept it as an heirloom and a reminder of him. She still has it.

Thread #5: About two or three years ago I was visiting with some friends of ours who were (still are) married with two children at the time (they have three now). In this marriage the husband was a ‘cradle Catholic’ from Boston and the wife was an evangelical Christian who had gone through the RCIA program so they could get married in the Catholic Church. I always had the sense from her that she did this reluctantly, but it’s hard to say. I do know his family highly encouraged it. He was the quintessential Boston Catholic boy. And yet when the sex abuse scandals hit in 2002, and one must remember they hit worst in the Boston area, he lost his fidelity to Catholicism. It also came out that one of the clergy involved in the scandals had been a part of the RCIA program that the wife had been through when she converted. Because of all these things, they both left the Church; her after a short stint, him after a lifetime. When I talked to him, he had no regrets; in fact, he was adamant that the Church, not him, had changed. ‘It’s just not the Church I grew up in any more,’ he told me. ‘It’s all based on nothing.’ I disagreed then and I still do. But I didn’t go through what he went through, and the words stuck with me like a splinter.

Why do I bring all these unrelated memories up here? Because they have all come together somehow in a short story I’ve just written called “In The Throes”. As I have been revising and re-thinking the story I realized just how many different elements of it – some of which are ancillary and some are crucial to the tale at hand – came from these random memories from very different times in my life.

It’s fascinating how the medium of stories – writing fiction – works with the material that is already there in your life. A lot of writers have argued that one of the keys to writing fiction is going out and living a very full and wide-reaching life, and that experience is the only teacher. Therefore you have to accumulate a lot of it. But this is the counter-argument, that one can also find the elements of (hopefully) good fiction within one’s own experience. Emily Dickinson comes to mind, as well as a host of others.

The point is not to draw comparisons, but to reflect on how interesting it is that by sitting down and attempting to write a short story or a poem or novel, you come into that process with these loose threads of memory and experience hanging around, and it can be like sitting down at a loom. You just start weaving, toss in a few made up threads, and before you know it you have created a tapestry. Whether the pattern or colors or design of the tapestry are any good is another matter. But creative writing – fiction, in my case – is the loom. You need the structure and the form of it to create your art. How well you weave depends on your talent and your effort.

This story I have just written may turn out to be one of my better ones, it may not. But I was surprised to see that it had brought together these unrelated fragments of my memory in a way that I never anticipated it would. I love this about the writing process; it’s why I do it. It gives me a way to mine my own experience, arrange the pieces, see what I can make out of it. It’s a way to mirror God’s ultimate act of creation that was to bring all that we see and know and experience to life out of an empty void. To create something where originally there was nothing is a hardship and a gift, a struggle and a joy, a means and an end.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

Fascinating post, Mutt. Your choice of the "loom" as a metaphor puts you in pretty high company -- Melville, for starters! You may remember that this was a metaphorical device he used several times in the great, great novel Moby Dick... right from the very start in that book as a matter of fact, as the first chapter is called "Loomings." (nice play on the word there too)

I can't do much by way of commentary on what you wrote since you made your point perfectly and succinctly. I can only agree that it is indeed fascinating, how these seemingly unconnected incidents can later be brought together and combined to create an entirely new thing.

I have not finished reading yourt story "In the Throes" yet, but when I am you can be sure I will give you whatever feedback and observations I can come up with!