for my father

The summer I turned six, I sat on the stinging concrete of our driveway in Lubbock, Texas, with a pair of new roller skates and a book about skating (I don’t remember the title—Amy Learns to Skate?). While my father mowed the backyard, I laced up my white skates and opened the book and studied Amy’s adventure with balance. I set the book down to imitate her determination and wobbled across the concrete before turning back to study the book more, side-step shuffling, the way hikers do when descending steep trails. A few more pages. A few more yards down the drive. I imagined myself as “Amy,” or perhaps one of her friends, in a struggle to master the art of roller-skating. I eventually reached the end of the book, sharing Amy’s triumph as I pushed off, right, then left, right, then left, navigating my way down the drive and beyond the chain-link fence and the mower, my father yelling over the roar, “Look at her go!”

***

While I have been published in Brevity three times, my Submittable queue reports five rejections between 2011 and 2016, though I also remember rejections pre-2011, pre-Submittable. I have one rejection from Dinty that reads, “The piece did not feel complete to us. Is it part of a larger piece?” I had submitted two vignettes, parts from a series of portraits of the people I had met in rehab. In a follow-up email, Dinty asked, “Why are you writing about these people?” My answer to that question, to the idea of how those vignettes fit into a larger picture, became the essay, “Autobiographies,” which appeared (after twenty-four rejections) in Full Grown People and was listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2014.

Confession: When I first read Dinty’s rejection email, I felt ridiculous, so obviously unaware of the flash as a flash and not an excerpt, so I decided to forgo the flash and stick with long form. After all, my only writing strategy at the time had been to send a group of words that didn’t pass the 750 mark—so when I hit the Submit button, it felt like throwing darts at those stubborn, primary-colored balloons at the state fair.

***

Rejection: the best way for me to improve as a writer (beyond writing, beyond reading). I work to figure out why my submission was declined. What do I need to learn in order to be accepted by this journal, to join this particular club? (I am certain that in Lubbock I had watched a group of older girls breeze by on skates.)

So when The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction appeared in 2012, I sat on my front porch in northern New York with my copy and my laptop every afternoon, studying one section at a time, taking notes, and working through the varied and evocative writing prompts the contributors offered. I was six again, working solemnly and deliberately, learning to skate.

“Two Photographs,” the prompt by Robin Hemley following his elucidating craft essay, “The Wound of the Photograph: A Meditation on the Well-Chosen Detail,” challenges writers to take a photograph that exists and describe it; choose another scene (not a photograph) and describe it; and show the two “photographs” to someone and see if that person can distinguish which is the real photograph and which is the fake.

My apologies to Mr. Hemley, but I was more diligent with young Amy back in 1976, because I only wrote about the photograph that doesn’t exist.

***

For years, I had carried a memory of my best friend, Tracy, and me standing alongside Highway 82 in Texas when we were in graduate school, but I could not find my way into the essaying of this scene. Hemley’s prompt pointed toward a new perspective: I imagined myself standing on the other side of the highway from the two of us, snapping a photograph of that moment.

So I began:

Draft 1

(Saved as Hale-Bopp)

Hale-Bopp

            Tracy tells me to hold the gun down by my side, to keep it hidden behind the back of the car where the men won’t see it. I tell her I can’t. “We can’t just stand here and wait for it,” she hisses. So I can either hold the gun or walk into the dark where four strange men have stopped fixing our flat and have gathered behind the bed of their truck. Tracy makes herself larger, the way she’s showed me to do when we’re hiking and there might be mountain lions. I hear her call out, “Hey, thanks anyway. We can handle it. My boyfriend’s on his way—he’ll be here in five minutes.” Tracy doesn’t have a boyfriend. Neither do I. I’ve known Tracy since junior high, fifteen years. We’re on our way back to Lubbock after spending a weekend camping at Bottomless Lakes State Park in New Mexico. We are dusty. Dirty and sun-tired, rested. We got a late start out of the park and have been driving in the dark, something we try to avoid out here because once you cross the Texas border, it’s about forty-four miles of straight flat road with only cotton fields on either side. Tonight, the sky is clear and the moon is waning. Three nights ago, the moon was full, the stars bright. But tonight, the sky appears empty except for one bright flash suspended in the north, the Hale-Bopp Comet.  our khaki shorts, tank tops, and flannel shirts, which we keep unbuttoned.  In high school, we’d hide wine coolers in the trunk of my Cavalier Z-24 for the weekends. On Friday and Saturday nights, we’d drive out to the middle of an undeveloped suburb and sit on the tailgate of Johnny Roark’s truck, smoking Swisher Sweets with a bunch of boys. We’d down wine coolers and pick one of the boys to make out with for a while before I had to drop Tracy off at her house on the corner, two blocks from mine. I’d do a lot more than that until Tracy’d hiss at me through the dark that she was going to miss curfew if I didn’t get out from under whatever boy had a hold of me. In college, we went to a party, and I drove off to the middle of a parking lot with a boy I didn’t know. By the time we got back to the party and to Tracy’s relief, I knew him well enough. I did it often—took off with a boy, a man, a stranger. Eventually, Tracy grew tired of it, and one night during graduate school in a Lubbock sports bar, she told me she had had enough of worrying about me, of waiting for me to drink enough or fuck enough to be ready enough to call it a night. I told her I didn’t want to hold the gun. I never had liked it being in the house that we shared on 24th Street. She kept it in the bottom drawer of her nightstand. She’d try to show me how to unlock the safety, how to fire it, but I didn’t even want to see it and asked her to keep it wrapped in the cloth so that I never had to look at something that could protect me from all the danger I ran toward.

It’s thirty miles from the where US-82 West meets Texas 214 North to Brownsfield, Texas. We were on our way back from a three day weekend at Bottomless Lakes, New Mexico.

In this draft I’m wandering, away from that highway and back, back, back through our history to discover that what I really want to write is not the memory of that moment, but the truth of our friendship. This first draft led me to find what I needed to write: the universal. We’re all either the friend who’s out of control (me), or we’re the friend who’s always chasing after, trying to rein the other in (Tracy).

I realized this highway moment could stand as a metaphor for how Tracy has consistently protected me throughout our friendship. The section break in this draft signals a re-thinking, when I consider a new beginning, my need to establish the where of the essay. After this draft, I called Tracy and asked what she remembered, and true to the competition of memory, she reminded me that no, we were returning from Tucson, not New Mexico.

(Note: The three draft examples here do not reflect all of the revisions of this essay. After the first draft, the “second” draft below had followed many, many revisions. When a draft makes a substantial shift, I’ll save it under a new name. In this next draft, you can see I reminded myself of the prompt, the fake photograph, but I had also landed on the essay’s title. I also removed Tracy’s name from the draft and let the dedication do that work. And I surrendered all of that history, along with some of my favorite lines. So many times, we have to get our of our essay’s way.)

Draft 2

(Saved as Fake Photograph)

Stranded

for Tracy

The two of us are on the side of Highway 82 outside of Brownfield, Texas. Forty miles from Lubbock. It’s been a day-long drive, and my white Nissan is parked on the shoulder. No clouds and the moon is waning. A flash holds steady in the northern sky, the Hale-Bopp Comet. You are standing behind me, a gun in your hand. We’re both wearing our long-sleeved flannel shirts, khaki shorts, flip flops. The truck that pulled up behind us is dark, quiet, and the men who got out of it have disappeared. The back right tire of my car is flat. Flat landscapes like this make it hard to hide, but standing out here in the dark, we understand how we might easily disappear into emptiness. Two states away, I had been reading aloud as you drove us through the red dust of the Tucson Mountains. “A postcard. Neat handwriting fills the rectangle: Half my days I cannot bear not to touch you. The rest of the time I feel it doesn’t matter if I ever see you again. It isn’t the morality, it is how much you can bear. No date, no name attached.” I stopped reading, the lines too close to the things we were doing back in Lubbock. You with that one man. Me with that other. The two of us driving each other out of the state—every chance we get—trying to change our state of mind. But every time, we turn your navy truck or my white car back toward Lubbock and give ourselves over to them, give ourselves away. But this night, the one right here, we’re as still as the stars, trying to hear if the men are moving, if they’re making a plan behind the slats of the truck bed to hurt us, or worse. This night like a photograph neither one of us can make out when I call you fifteen years later to ask if you remember the gun, the men, the comet. Together we scratch down the postcard details of a close call, and I tell you what I remember most is the comet. Even now, I can still see it solitary in the clearing, the lights of a passing mystery suspended, and the two of us, not knowing how long we would be stranded by the miles of choices that defied measure or what we would, years later, be asked to bear.

The most significant revision in this draft, beyond the deletion of history, includes the lines from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which Tracy reminded me we took turns reading aloud on our way back.

In the published version of the essay, which appears below, Hemley’s prompt emerges in the opening line, and I’m glad it does: my initial impulse with his writing prompt eventually found its way to the surface.

Final Draft

(Saved as Stranded)

Stranded

for Tracy

This night like a photograph neither one of us can make out when I call you fifteen years later to ask if you remember the gun, the men, the comet. The two of us are on the side of Highway 82 outside of Brownfield, Texas. Forty miles from Lubbock. It’s been a day-long drive, and my white Nissan is parked on the shoulder. No clouds and the moon is waning. A flash holds steady in the northern sky, the Hale-Bopp Comet. You are standing behind me, a gun in your hand. We’re both wearing our long-sleeved flannel shirts, khaki shorts, flip flops. The truck that pulled up behind us is dark, quiet, and we can’t see the men who got out of it. The back right tire of my car is flat. Flat landscapes like this make it hard to hide, but standing out here in the dark, we understand how we might easily disappear. Two states away, I read aloud as you drove us through the red dust of the Tucson Mountains. “A postcard. Neat handwriting fills the rectangle: Half my days I cannot bear not to touch you. The rest of the time I feel it doesn’t matter if I ever see you again. It isn’t the morality, it is how much you can bear. No date, no name attached.” And then I stopped, the lines too close to the things we were doing back in Lubbock. You with that one man. Me with that other. The two of us taking turns driving out of the state to change our state of mind. But every time, we’d turn your navy truck or my white car back toward Lubbock and give ourselves over to them, give ourselves away. But this night, the one right here, we’re as still as the stars, trying to hear if the men are moving, if they’re making a plan behind the slats of the truck bed to hurt us, or worse. Together we scratch down the postcard details of a close call, and I tell you what I remember most is the comet. Even now, I can still see it solitary in the clearing, the lights of a passing mystery suspended, and the two of us, not knowing how long we would be stranded by the miles of choices that defied measure or what we would, years later, be asked to bear.

So it goes with writing: We lace up. We push off, and we’ll surely wobble. But after enough attempts, we’ll find our balance and steady enough sentences so that someone will read what we’ve written and say, “Look at her go!”

__

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Three of her essays have appeared in Brevity, including “Stranded,” “All or Nothing: Self-Portrait at Twenty-Seven,” and “Are Now All That Remain.”