I have a terrible memory. My sister remembers much more than I do. Sometimes, she remembers things that I think she must have made up. She’s always had a tendency of trying to start drama, so her stories like, “Remember how mom used to pinch us when she was mad?” seem only to be figments of her imagination. In my own memory, Mom never pinched us. My sister and I used to pinch each other, but never Mom. I wrack my brain trying to remember this event, but I cannot recall a single pinch. Therefore, I don’t really believe my sister. On the other hand, I know I have a terrible memory.
To make up for what my memory lacks, I journal. I have always journaled, from the pink, lock-included diary I wrote in during first grade, to my current, spiral note-books, or, if I can find one for cheap at a thrift store, a fancy, hard-covered blank book that I feel a little guilty writing in. I journal because I don’t want to lose experiences. Memory will lose or distort events, but writing holds them true — at least that was the reason behind my original impulse to write.
I used to think writing was an accurate form of keeping. It was real, as real as a photograph, as real as a video-tape, as real as the actual event. I would write such things as:
The weirdest thing happened. I mean I never thought something like this would happen to me. Ok, Hil’s teacher had baby rabbits, and was trying to give them away, and Hil, and a boy, and another girl wanted the last one left. Her teacher said since she always played with it, if she got permission she could have it.
There is no denying that this happened; there are pictures of our little black bunny with the white star on her nose. My sister has a memory of the event, and I, too, can still recall the plastic, fake-wood, blue-legged table that we covered with a cloth to hide the cage before we confessed our new bunny to Mom and Dad (because my sister hadn’t in fact gotten permission to take her). But no, that detail of the table may or may not be true. I did not write that detail down; perhaps I am only inserting it now, in my recollection of the event. Thus it turns out, writing about an event can’t possibly be as true as the event itself.
My certainty that writing was a sure-fire way to keep the experience safe eventually faltered. At 15, something happened that made the act of recording events less satisfying: I fell in love. He was an older boy who spent time with me by default; I would hang out with my sister, and he was friends with her boyfriend. Suddenly, simply writing down an event did nothing to portray what felt like the reality of this emotion.
Events were no longer important. The event of “I saw him again today” couldn’t possibly describe how seeing him made me feel. I was left awake at night with so much to say that I couldn’t articulate. That’s when I tried to write a poem.
Yes, I’m sure you do, climb the mountain every night
after dinner just to see down the other side.
I ask why you want to know,
want to see down the other side.
I’m sure that side is just like this one.
But you claim it’s more
so much more to look down
on a valley
to a sky.
But every night?
I ask again,
Does it change every night
like the moon?
Even the moon’s just the same
month after month after month…
You don’t respond,
just look at me
kind of blankly and soon say
“you’re the moon.”
I say “tried” to write a poem because I am embarrassed to share these words and to take ownership of them. None-the-less, they demonstrate something new in my psyche and writing process. The events in this poem had nothing to do with any event that happened in real life between myself and the object of my unrequited love. Here, the “I” doesn’t know why the “you” has to climb a mountain every day, but “you” did it, and “I” waited.
I could psychoanalyze the meaning behind the events in the writing, try to understand how my first experience of love came to be represented by a mountain-climber and the moon. Because this boy didn’t love me back, perhaps I needed to describe the feeling of rejection, of being left behind for a grand adventure I didn’t understand. Perhaps I wanted to see myself as romanticized as the moon, despite this boy not having shown signs of romanticizing me. Whatever the reason, rereading this now allows me to remember just a little bit more than I might have otherwise. I remember how I felt and I remember that reality had become much more complex, and that recording it had become a challenge. I had moved past simple recording and into the beginning of an awareness that recording something exactly isn’t always possible.
In college, I began to consider myself a poet, not because I had written many more poems since the mountain-climbing, moon-romancer one, but because I didn’t write fiction. I wrote “reality” and I was able to put line-breaks into the text and call it a poem.
In my first poetry class, we were assigned to write a free-style poem about a fear. I responded to this prompt by writing about being trapped — a fear I had modeled after my mother’s, and have been able to label as “claustrophobia” from a young age. However, what I ended up writing emerged on the page as something that felt only somewhat connected to claustrophobia.
Arms, legs tied; weighted by cement
but can’t writhe, tied, pushed, forced
he is larger than I, stronger and I’m just
a tiny creature, a finch
one hand and everything
legs can’t move.
Eyes can’t see
Lungs can’t breathe.
And my head is tied too
my neck strains, so weak!
but it is pinned down too.
Black spots save me, fill my eyelids
cover me please
Cover me wet sand water wear away
hopelessness, strange noises from within
croak in my gasping
black spots please save me, fill my eyelids, so I can fly away
breathe in the water sooner
sun darkened sky
airplanes louder than any pierced cry
punch. him I think later
fuck, I couldn’t have
shove me down to come inside
put in me a seed, a disease, to grow or to die
to leave from me with birth or knives
and this is finally enough.
The poem begins with a description of the worst way I could imagine being trapped: underneath solid cement. But as the poem continues, it develops in a much more violent and sexual direction. I remember writing the piece in parts, the words ruminating in my head throughout the day, turning over and repeating themselves until I was able to sit down and put them on paper. The writing, not any particular event, took over.
When I finished the piece, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what the poem meant. This piece was not assigned for workshop, and this allowed me to feel safer exploring new territory. It was the final poem of the term, and I put it away knowing that it was bigger than myself, and bigger than one event or feeling. This was the first time my writing had turned around to look at me and teach me something.
I continued taking poetry classes, and became more aware of this idea that writing has power to teach. It has power to be, in the words of my professor, Nick Regiacorte, “smarter than you are.”
Nick was a serious, Italian man with chest hair that grew out of the top of his shirt, and a very focused manner that students sometimes mimicked, along with his accent. He made writing feel like a true endeavor, as worthy as any.
I had a meeting with him at some point during the semester about a piece students had turned in earlier. I sat across from him at his desk and watched as he drew a two-by-two inch box around a few words within my several-page long document. He said to me, “Here is your poem.” The rest of the writing was negated. Those few lines achieved what my long, wordy attempt to “tell the reality of”, failed miserably at, the reality being a fight I’d had with my boyfriend. These few lines were significantly more real, despite not articulating the events of the fight at all.
Lying here: the right white wing of a band-aid strip,
peeled off to make the band aid stick;
a circle of something sticky, fallen from holding
a poster or flower to the wall; a strand of hair.
I can’t reach my friends who laugh in another room,
I can’t go to you, and I can’t get home without a ride.
Later, I dared turn in a poem to workshop for Nick’s class that was nothing but a short description of the events of a dream. Writing about dreams was a definite no-no in my college experience. Others had done it in workshops and were chastised for it. It didn’t “do any work.” It was boring and confusing and just too easy. Still, I liked this piece and it felt like the poem Nick had told me “was my poem.” So I took the chance — without admitting it was a dream, of course.
The class tried, but failed, to critique it. No one drew a box around part of it and said, “there’s your poem.” Some people who attempted to suggest changes, such as “tell us who the you is,” fell silent as others argued, “it doesn’t matter.” Finally, in his serious, certain way, Nick said, “Perhaps there is nothing to be done. This poem is finished.”
My foot has been sawed off and my sister
spends the night sewing it back on with tan thread.
Half-sewn-on and bloody, bone showing, possible
it could fall off again, my feet can only carry me
hobbling across the lawn to the cafeteria.
If I forget my foot is not completely on, I can walk
even run or dance. So I have to remind myself
not to. I have to remember instead
to hold your arm and ask for your help
to get there.
It began to be that my “reality” was taking a new shape. It took focusing on peripheral events or ideas (fear, for example), dreams or something seemingly unrelated to reach the heart of a matter. This process would create a piece that was smarter than any attempt I’d make to depict a moment, situation or idea exactly.
I began to accept that reality was, in fact, much too big to ever record in a journal, but that these “smarter than myself” pieces were, at least, scratching the surface. They were creating a new reality, inspired by a reality that was not always actual, but often dream, or the revamped result of memory. The very thing I had always written to make-up for the lack of, I was now using to give me my material.
~ ~ ~
While living in Paris for a year in 2008 however, I returned to my original purpose of writing, but with a slight adjustment. I wrote moments. I wouldn’t say these writings were about moments (what happened first, second and third throughout a day), but rather the moments themselves. I wrote quickly and without time for thought and analyzation. I wrote in the moment about the moment. I didn’t give context unless it was part of the impulse.
Three girls walk slowly through the fogged subway window
could be ghosts. I think maybe now they were ghosts.
In these lines, I simply write the thing that caught my attention, three girls walking past the train window.
In all honesty, I don’t believe I could have done differently. I was living in a foreign country, the language of which I was only beginning to learn, and the culture shock or homesickness caused me to feel just outside myself. In order to reconnect with my self, I wrote in this way, this diary-like, moment-to-moment way.
I meant to swim indoors today but the sun is out. I meant to swim indoors
today to use every last muscle, but the sun is out. I need to swim; it must
be indoors, I must feel the water touch and hold all parts of my body.
Through this process, I articulated events to store for memory, perhaps afraid that without this writing, I would lose the experiences of the entire year.
~ ~ ~
My most recent process came from creating something with such small moments. I took a class in graduate school called “Miniatures” with Janet Desaulniars. We were given an assignment to simply list some lines in a document. I went through the pages of my most recent journal and took out small sections which, despite being taught by Nick could potentially “be my poem,” I had not noticed, had instead intended to leave to their fate of being words on a page in a journal in a box in the closet. In taking sections out, combining them with other sections from different pages, I found there were in fact stories there:
Sometimes I wear two right foot slippers because I can’t find the lefts. I’m not sure if I have any lefts left. They’re those white sandal-slippers from hotels that my dad gives me from his trips.
He told me we’d go to California together, but I feel I’ve missed my chance — he’s met a woman. I’m happy for him. I hope he won’t call her crazy. All women are crazy, he claims. Watch out, it will happen to you. Something happens when you get older, you get crazy.
They all like me, he says of women from Match.com. I’m really popular.
When I express what might seem like surprise but is only my attempt to show appropriate interest, he demands, Why are you surprised, I’m the best.
I don’t think he’s entirely joking, though, I do know he doesn’t really think that, at least, not always, or often. Unless his suicidal moments and thoughts go something like: The best things don’t belong in this world. Which is, of course, entirely possible.
Reading this piece to my class was the first time I received laughter for my writing. Piecing these chunks together in such a way had allowed them to speak and create a dissonant humor. I hadn’t thought of this as funny, but began to realize the potential that individual events had to create meaning when connected to others.
My process in writing Peripheral Vision, which became published in South Dakota Review and then as an art-book by Meekling Press, was similar to the process I developed in France and in Miniatures class. I wrote an initial impulse: the events of a dream immediately upon awaking. This time, I took it a step further and wrote a secondary impulse, responding to the first impulse. This second impulse generally offered a possible meaning behind that particular moment in the dream. In writing that secondary impulse, I inevitably felt a third impulse, which was sometimes a backstory to the second impulse.
Each page of Peripheral Vision is one impulse, and one layer of thought. With each new layer, there is a new layer of semi-transparent, vellum paper, and the text shifts down and to the right.
This loyalty to the layer — the initial impulse, the secondary impulse, the third impulse — this felt “real,” and more importantly, “honest.”
In trying various methods of writing and building on processes that have worked, I no longer believe writing has a video-recording ability to keep memories exactly as they happened — there are always other layers beneath the one that was written, layers that a reader can only guess at.
Despite the fact the events are all real in some form or another (dream or waking events, or things I thought and felt), Peripheral Vision is not an attempt to write a reality, but rather an attempt to show that it is impossible to do-so. Instead, writing creates an entirely new reality. Perhaps memory works as it does for a reason, holding a reality true for each rememberer. Each time you remember something — regardless of the thing’s initial form — you re-member it, thus rewriting reality.
Image Credit: David Scheier
Miranda Steffens is a poet and essayist living in Chicago. She is the author of lyric essay book, Peripheral Vision, published by Meekling Press. Her poetry and prose have appeared in South Dakota Review, Hoot Magazine, Apple Valley Review and Upstairs at Duroc. She received her BA in Creative Writing from Knox College and her MFA in Writing from The School of the Art institute of Chicago. She currently teaches college English and ESL.