Creativity Lesson: Perspective
Eight years ago, my Aunt Lucy died of cancer. She was 56 years old. I was living in DC at the time, and Lucy lived in Rockford, Michigan, and the morning she died—it was a Wednesday—I had an OB/GYN appointment. I was nine months pregnant with my youngest daughter, Harper.
I walked down the stairs of my condo building and down the sidewalk to my car, and my thinking went like this:
First, it was one of those picturesque fall days—the kind where the sky is brilliant blue, the leaves are the colors of fire, and the day is crisp. The weather made me cheerful and it was strange to feel thankful or joyful when I was also feeling sorrow, and I think this combination of emotions made me a little crazy because on the way to my appointment I decided I would tell my doctor that she needed to induce me that day. I would have the baby, and fly to the funeral two days later. I was utterly hopeful, and I can remember gripping the steering wheel in excitement. I can still feel that October 29th sun. I can remember thinking: My first baby was born 10 days late and was 10 pounds, so this one will be born a tad early but will probably be around seven pounds, so that’ll be just fine. I remember thinking I bet they sell plane tickets cheap for funerals. They’re probably free. I can remember brushing away tears—probably signs that my body knew something my brain refused to acknowledge—and repeating over and over, “Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad. Don’t be sad.”
My baby, who recently turned eight, showed no signs of being ready to be born that morning. Our bodies were still very much intertwined and as I lay on that examination table looking at the ridiculous cartoons on the ceiling the office put up there to take our minds off of our setting, I realized with a sting that I cannot manage life and death the way I was planning. I cannot force life to begin just as I cannot make it rainy and dreary on the day my lovely Aunt Lucy died. Anticipation and shock, joy and sorrow, thankfulness and disappointment are mixed throughout all our days and this is not an easy lesson for me to learn. It’s a mess to try to feel, and it’s a mess to write.
It seems though, that this pairing of extremes is where the good stories come from, and I’m interested in looking at and exploring conflict, sadness, pain, anger, embarrassment, etc. on the page.
I try to write about Lucy every year but I can’t seem to do it without unraveling. A couple of years ago around this time, I was driving home from an errand when I remembered having dinner with my cousin Tara and my Aunt Lucy at Pietro’s in Grand Rapids. A few months prior I’d given her a lavender scrub for her birthday, and she told me that night that she loved it. It was the only thing that helped her eczema. I was ridiculously happy to know this because I loved knowing I’d done something helpful for Lucy.
Remembering this made me so sad, but I didn’t want that sadness to go away because it also felt like Lucy was close to me. So I went to the grocery store and bought a jug of Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Lavender wash, brought it home, and scrubbed my floors with it. I cried more than I’d ever cried while I washed the floors, and for days my home smelled like lavender. For days Lucy felt near.
Sometimes we write the messy just so we can feel and be close to that memory.
For this month, we are focusing on the word, “perspective,” and I think that when it comes to looking at, and dealing with, what haunts us, we need some perspective. That is, we need to walk around the event a bit, maybe walk away from the event, come at that memory from behind or sideways, or maybe in the voice of another person. I once took a memory that I was terribly ashamed of and wrote a story completely in the third person so that I could distance myself from the main character (me). This freed me up to really make her as nasty or ridiculous as I wanted; to tell the truth without fear or worry of judgement. What I found was a dear adoration for this person, and while I still made her look pretty ridiculous, I also was able to write a layer of endearment onto her, and in turn, find another layer of myself within the story I wrote.
So this month, take the events that you are afraid of, and put them on the page. Write what makes you sad, what makes you angry. Write what makes you tremble when you pick up a pen or put your fingers to the keyboard. I will give you different ways to perceive these memories, in the hopes you will find all sorts of details from the messy parts of your life, and while you might not find a “happy ending” to these messes, you’ll get closer to the memory, and probably learn something new about yourself in the process.
“Atticus said that Jem was trying hard to forget something, but what he was really doing was storing it away for a while, until enough time passed. Then he would be able to think about it and sort things out. When he was able to think about it, Jem would be himself again.”—To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.
1. Writing helps us become more ourselves. Write about a memory, and trust that it will help you become more yourself again.
Now write the memory again, but this time change the point of view: If a memory is overwhelming to write from first person, consider writing in second or third person. Sometimes the story opens up when we change the perspective.
“And do you think I complained about this? Do you think I complained about picking up old lunches that had fungus growing on them and sweeping asbestos tiles and straightening Thorndike dictionaries? No, I didn’t. Not even when I looked out the clean lower windows at the afternoon light of autumn changed to mellow and full yellows, and the air turned so sweet and cool that you wanted to drink it, and as people began to burn leaves on the sides of the streets and the lovely smoke came into the back of your nose and told you it was autumn, and what were you doing smelling chalk dust and old liverwurst sandwiches instead?”—The Wednesday Wars, Gary Schmidt
2. Write about something that, at first, you think is an awful memory. After you write it, underline or highlight the beauty in your words. It might not be a happy ending. It might be that you were able to find words to portrayed the painful memory so that it reads beautifully.
“It’s necessary to transform pain into art. To give a form to suffering.” “In this time of anxiety and searching, one should write something, shape something. Whatever it might be, it could lead to proposing some kind of sense and order. Any situation can become a starting point.”—Anna Kamienska, her notebooks
3. From what pain can you create?