“… apparently words are what I hide behind, and create how I consider the world.”
– from “I Could Title This Wavering” in Circadian, by Chelsey Clammer.
An ellipsis is a set of three periods ( . . . ) indicating an omission.
Cancer is not punctual, and it refuses the constraints of punctuation.
It is a six-letter word with six punctuatable opportunities: the exclamation point, the question mark, the em dash, the comma, the period, and the ellipsis, many of which occur all at once in a chaos the ordered rules of grammar would never allow. Cancer is complicated. It doesn’t mean one thing, one outcome, one treatment, one type of cell. It contains multitudes. Drafting a book also contains multitudes—false starts, dead little darlings, forced prose—until finally the work breaks open into what it has been trying to say all along, hidden beneath its multitudes and the rules you think are truth.
Cancer unwove me; its needles taking over a foot of my colon along with the exclamation point of oozing tumor. My colon became, momentarily, an em dash, a bridge from one section to another over a gap of empty space. After the exclaiming tumor message was received, cancer delivered its most potent message: its questions, and one of the loudest questions it asked of me was: Where did I go? The person who I was before and the person recovering from surgery, propped up against a bolster, was separated by an em dash, and I spent weeks in my bed staring at Netflix trying to find the answer. My gray cat rested against my thigh as I tried to rearrange myself on the pillows. I turned off the television and picked up a book of essays a friend had given me—Circadian by Chelsey Clammer. All my life, writing had been my anchor and my true north. After cancer, I couldn’t find it. I didn’t know what I sounded like anymore because I didn’t know who I was. My voice had fallen away, dangling off the end of the em dash, trying to decide if it wanted to pull itself up or let go into the layers of dark colon beneath it.
I had expected physical changes, but I was unprepared for the changes in my writing, and by changes I mean its silence. I had thought I’d pick up right where I left off; cancer having been an ellipsis, a pause for the omission of my tumor, but not a line of demarcation. Not a canyon between who I was and who I became, and for a time I was caught in the disorientation of trying to get back to what was familiar. My words rang hollow, old friends from high school with whom I no longer had anything in common. I should have known my writing was miles ahead of me. It always is.
The heart sloughs off the familiar slowly.
Reading others’ words was useful, though I frequently felt disconnected from their stories. Even my reading lens had shifted. Then I read this line from “I Could Title This Wavering”, in Circadian: “… apparently words are what I hide behind, and create how I consider the world.”
I had never come across this writer’s work before, but I saw myself called out in her essay, and I thought she gets it. And then I thought maybe she could help me. So in true 21st century form, I Googled her and found her website and saw she worked with writers and before I could stop myself, I emailed her.
Reader, she wrote me back.
I didn’t even know what I was asking for. I’d already published numerous books. I was a tenured professor. But I’d lost my words, and the line from Chelsey’s book made me think that maybe I’d lost them because I couldn’t hide anymore, and I needed to find new words for a new way of being in the world.
That’s not entirely true. I still hide. Even now. Let me try again.
The first thing I thought was, this author knows about self-protection, and this author knows about self-protection posing as vulnerability, and this author is brave enough to talk about that. Even as she hides, she reveals.
I asked her to help me find myself again, and we started at the beginning with prompts and reading essays that stretched the form far beyond what I’d been taught it could be. I was relieved to let someone else be in control—another new experience for me—and because I trusted her, I dove into the writing prompts like I was an eager undergrad. I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it, so I could allow anything to happen.
If you want to tell a different story, it’s helpful to find yourself a Chelsey.
We worked together for a year before I knew I was writing a book. I wrote essay after essay that turned the same themes over and over. I was embarrassed at first because my themes were what they’ve always been—unresolved grief over my dad’s death—and I was bored with myself. Bored with saying the same thing over and over again.
“Words are what I hide behind, and create how I consider the world.”
I was also bored with the hiding. I was writing out my own worn grooves over and over until the words were meaningless. I dressed up my former self, but there was no substance to her anymore, so the words fell onto the floor, dust to be swept away.
I couldn’t write into the hiding anymore. I had to write into the hidden.
Chelsey responded to my essays with questions. What’s really going on here? What are you leaving out? Why does this matter? And each question pushed me deeper into my ellipsis—my omissions.
Reader, I should point out that Chelsey profoundly hates the ellipsis. I’m not really sure why. Probably because people misuse it (she’s an editor after all). Using ellipses effectively became a game for me. I would taunt her with them, and she would laugh, change a lot of them to em dashes or commas, and I would push them right back.
It was never about the ellipsis. It was always about what I leave out.
Turned out I always leave out the real. I dress it up in fancy sentences that twist and curl, and people slide into those sentences and are gently pushed out over the periods before they realize that the words said nothing. They were window dressing. A diversion. Look at the letters. Listen to the sounds of the consonants that push up against each other. Look at the shiny things. Don’t, under any circumstances, look at me.
“Words are what I hide behind.”
I spent over a year writing around my book. I didn’t want to write a memoir. I didn’t want to write a cancer story. I didn’t want to write about the abusive man I lived with right after my father died. I didn’t want to write about how much I still missed my father, though he’d been dead thirty years. I didn’t want to share with the world the private ways I still spoke to him; the private griefs that I hadn’t even told my husband about. I didn’t want to admit how lost I had been. How lost I was. How little progress I seemed to have made in five decades on the planet.
But my familiar words wouldn’t stick, and everywhere I turned, a part of me shimmered, new and wet, in the cold air. Eventually, curiosity won out, and I asked questions. Who are you? What do you need? How can I help?
I don’t want to tell you.
I don’t want to tell you.
I don’t want to tell you.
If I don’t tell you, I’ll carry it forever.
If I don’t tell you, I’ll never write again.
And so I started to tell Chelsey, in essay after essay, things I’d never told anyone. I don’t know if she knew that, but she took each piece and asked more questions. She opened more doors into what I kept omitting.
And then I was sitting on my futon, two years past my diagnosis, rereading nearly a dozen essays I’d written ranging in subject matter from going into surgery to taking a trip to New York with my mother, wondering how to put everything into a single manuscript. What am I saying? What is the thread that connects them? Why would anyone care?
I see I see from sea to sea that you and I—
I brushed the voice aside. So long had it been since I’d heard one thunder through my brain. It was unfamiliar, an iambic pentameter from another world.
I see I see from sea to sea
And the voice unspooled with no punctuation at all. No period. No question mark. No ellipses.
“I think my dad just showed up in my book as a ghost-raven,” I texted Chelsey.
“RAD!” she wrote back.
“Can I do that in a memoir?”
“I don’t know. Can you?”
I see I see
I don’t want to tell you…
“Tell me,” said Chelsey.
I don’t want to tell you…
“Tell me,” said ghost-raven.
And so I told Chelsey, in paragraph after paragraph, about my dad, and about his family, and about all the things I didn’t want to tell her. I built a black box stage for our talks in my manuscript, and Raven and Me began our final conversation.
My training is in fiction writing where there is a clear line of demarcation, more of a canyon, really, between fiction and nonfiction.
“I should make this a novel,” I said.
“Should you?” asked Chelsey.
It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a lie.
“Is it?” she texted.
If you can’t see it, is it real?
I couldn’t see my tumor. I saw evidence of it, but my tumor was nestled deep in my bowel. Hidden.
I couldn’t see my father, but every day there is evidence of his having been.
Having been is still a form of being.
It’s a lie.
“Is it?” asked ghost-raven.
I see I see from sea to shining sea that …
Daddy, tell me.
Daughter, tell me.
And in the space of the ellipse, in the underneath of the omission, we brought forth a book that began with, “I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a raven.”
And I shifted from “it’s a lie” to “it is my story.”
I shifted from “I don’t want to tell you…” to “Let me tell you a story.”
Chelsey—hater of the ellipse—is a master of the hidden. The omitted. The ways a person writes around their truth to self-protect. My book would not exist without her. She didn’t turn away from the dark. She didn’t say, “You can’t put a talking raven in a memoir.” She didn’t say, “You have to call your story a novel because it’s a lie.”
She also contains multitudes. She let truth expand. She let story grow into a form of its own, and she didn’t let old patterns and old beliefs of what is acceptable stand in the way of what is possible.
“Words… create how I consider the world.”
In life after cancer, in life after fifty, in life after my father’s death, I am telling new stories. I am pulling things out of the corners and out from under the beds. I am standing, glistening wet and gleaming, held up by the omissions, held together by a faith in words to release, remember, and reconsider a person’s place in this world of fluid boundaries, shifting time, and pauses bridged by dots that connect one life to another, one world to another, and one grieving daughter to her long-dead, dark-feathered father.
Laraine Herring‘s most recent book is The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about. Her memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, will be out in October from Regal House Publishers. laraineherring.com
[Featured Image Credit: Mark Timberlake]