ON AUTOBIOGRAPHIA: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS
by Ian Clay Sewall
Writing stories and essays about the people I remember and the people I know requires stretching out moments, staring through a square piece of stained glass that’s purple and blue and orange, soldered a long time ago against strips of silvery-looking zinc. The stained glass is a few feet from my stained desk, and looking at it helps me remember that what I am writing, the colors I use, the tools of creative nonfiction, are many. And they’re both new and old.
At times, when I’ve wanted to explore further inside another person’s interiority, when I’ve wondered what those people wondered, I’ve written in a draft, “I imagine,” or “perhaps,” or “maybe.”
When I write about my memories, I’m a first-person narrator limited to my own experience. But when I speculate in these narratives, “maybe” is a round trampoline of possibility. It allows an excavation of what, for example, my parents, born in 1949, think about everything from the snowy weather to horses on the prairie.
When we, as writers of memoir or personal essay, look back at what someone might have been thinking, where their eyes moved, how their words connected or belied the content of a conversation, how nothing and everything telegraphed meaning—a speculative sentence or two in a story can reveal what could have happened and didn’t, what could have been said but wasn’t, what notes may or may not have been played.
Speculation in creative nonfiction is a moment where we come right up to the line of fiction—though we don’t cross. It’s that experience of being in the creative writing sandbox—a writing portage that picks the readers up and out of bustling narrative rapids, and then sets them down on the banks of the river story. The speculative gesture is an arrow of maybe; one that reveals new angles on the muscles of a story.
And there is a danger, too, in all of that. And that’s the mythopoeic nature of writing about yourself. You become the hero. This certainly wasn’t the case in every remembered event. Many times, there were no heroes. Sometimes, others were heroes.
And yet, the very act of creative nonfiction means you are telling your own story. There is some sort of mythologizing of the moments.
I imagine that the people who love us, those who despise us, and those who are indifferent about us—everyone has myths, in which they are the ones who are seen or distorted or refracted.
My father wrote a book about folklore, and early in the text, he compares storytelling to a cowdog that’s been kenneled—and that cowdog begins to herd the birds he sees on a power cable. The story about the dog begins with the phrase “They say” and that makes me wonder who exactly is they? Who is saying this?
My father created a myth out of that cowdog; to me, the cowdog represents any story that’s told again and again. And there’s the paradox of what my dad is saying about narrative—the notion that it can be exhausting. The notion that telling stories can be fatiguing, on the surface, seems contradictory.
But maybe so. Maybe so.
My goal is to present images, stories, and the human beings I know and knew in a truthful light—a light framed in letters that relives and reimagines and retells. But what truth? Whose truth?
As I write vignettes about rural Canada where I grew up, and stories of Los Angeles, where I live now, I’m often pulled towards the phone, towards my two Dunvegan Hill parents, as they sit at the oak table of their farmhouse overlooking the winding, crystalline Peace River. It sparkles from that table view.
The lively conversation begins with a textual primer. They’ve been given a page or two that I’ve written about our 160 acres or maybe about the farm animals. My parents come to the conversation primed and prepared. They come with insights and memories that might not precisely match mine—though there is plenty of overlap. They are young again in these conversations and now they are living in the topcoat. Often, they’re telling me stories about when they’re the age I am now. The story will last longer, I imagine, because of the primer coat they help provide. The words will stick better.
“Dad, could you tell me about our mule, Red Jenny?” I asked on a recent call. I can’t imagine what his response will be. All I can remember is Jenny’s single blinded pale blue eye, her slow and steady trot, her towering height against my brambly, skinny body.
“Jenny and her brother Jack were separated, son, after we bought her from a Nebraska jail.”
This detail surpasses any sort of textural note I suspected he’d supply—something about her coat or the way she once wintered with a moose during a particularly cold winter. There’s a bifurcation where both their voices begin to meander and split into streams. My mother added, “Jenny was in that prison to work with the prisoners.”
Truly, they are invaluable, these interviews with my parents, who are often the main characters of my collection. One might argue the subjects of a memoir should not be able to see the work as it is written. For me, their stories help deepen my own.
While I write my collection of essays, on the freshly trodden side of my MFA at Antioch University in Los Angeles, I’m also peering into craft books on nonfiction like the lush flash nonfiction The Best of Brevity, edited by Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. The concise and taut essays push their sentences. The essays are full. They are braided, graphic memoir, fragmented, hermit crab, lyric, micro, numbered—like this one—and researched. I feel as though I’m at the Getty, looking at art from all over the world.
In Christine Byl’s braided essay, “Bear Fragments,” she shares several bear stories from different locations, and then one patch of her essay includes fourteen instances of bear as a verb and lists a variety of expressions. How can one not be impressed?
In Jane Alison’s craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode, she writes: “Super-short paragraphs and line breaks can aerate prose, throwing light into density, giving the reader space to think.” The notion that prose is something to be aerated—this gorgeous metaphor—how can a writer not be inspired to experiment in such literary soil?
I’ve gone from writing sentences to appreciating sentences to experimenting with the way sentences move and flow on the page.
And what happens when my hopefully well-aerated vignettes and short essay story bits get published? There’s a family text message in Canada, where all sorts of text moves from Alberta to British Columbia to here in Los Angeles.
I see a thumbs up or a heart and congrats.
And then, back to the drawing board. I’m in need of more stories, I’ve decided, for this collection. I find new stories when I become more sensitive to narrative, more open to the sounds outside my window, more able to listen in a conversation. So, I begin my writing once again.
Coffee helps. Walks are good. Traveling is especially effective. I think back to Utah.
The car I’m driving there, then, is cold. The back window is covered with morning frost. Several inches of airy snow layer up in the parking lot. I remove the ice on the windows with a snow scraper. The plastic end pushes on ice that formed overnight. The ice flies off, scattering to the asphalt and my weathered cowboy boots. I flip the tool around, and the bristle broom feathers and fusses until the glass looks new. A new story idea emerges about rural cars and trucks that need to be warmed for minutes before getting inside and driving. I have to write the idea down before it vanishes. The cold is just the tactile imagery needed for transportation and story mining.
There are thousands of these types of feelings and stories in me from Canada. The stories are in little containers, waiting to become words on a page. Waiting for a juxtaposed layering with Los Angeles.
So, I come to the typewriter. An old Olympia that was repainted locally, in Brentwood. The blue matches the California sky. The clacking sound of the keys makes me aware of each stroke, each moment the metal key collides with the inky ribbon. I study my hands, suddenly new, covered in rings. One ring is textured like the bark of a redwood. Another is silver like moonlight—blue with turquoise from an old mine in New Mexico, the shape of an eye. A gold signet on my pinky, a bear paw engraved.
Perhaps while I sit at my stained desk in Los Angeles, my parents are out on their deck, peering out at the Peace River, wondering what it all means.
A brown dog’s tail wags near my writing desk. Fresh coffee is about twenty feet away, ready to be poured into a worn cup. The stained glass does what it always does: lets the light in, acts as an inspiration, and leads the way to prose.
Ian Clay Sewall is a Canadian based in Los Angeles. He holds an MFA from Antioch University and his stories have appeared in The Malahat Review, Canadian Notes and Queries, Prairie Fire, and elsewhere. His films have won awards in both the US and Canada.