Photo by Jaimie Johnson

I don’t remember the Pences’ pink magnolia tree until I’m looking up at it, pinching a fallen blossom between my thumb and forefinger until the petal bruises a light brown. My childhood home is across the street. I’ve just gone in for the first time in thirteen years, met the new father, the new son in my little brother’s room, the teenager in my bedroom who plays water polo for the public high school. Sitting in my rental car, I beat the steering wheel and yell until my palms and throat ache.

This is one of those universal truths I only briefly indulge before snuffing out: it hurts to go home.

A writer friend once asked me to edit an essay about her family’s farm whose wooden beams and expansive fields provided more stability than the family itself. I underlined the last sentence—a personification of the house’s floor, how she would whisper into the cracks about never leaving again—with jealous awe.

And therein lies the problem: how to write about something so common that meaning seems to crumble before it forms? The devastation of returning home after a long time at once belongs to me and doesn’t. It’s a truth experienced by many, as much theirs as mine.

There are countless literary representations of leaving and returning to one’s home—Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake; Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood; my mother’s ’90s book club choice, The Poisonwood Bible. I won’t even broach Homer’s The Odyssey. There’s even Miranda Lambert’s country hit “The House That Built Me.” I can’t help but recall the first time I watched the movie Garden State and found Andrew Largeman’s typical young adult revelation—“You get homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist”—completely earth-shattering.

I didn’t call upon any of these touchstones as I whaled on the rental car’s steering wheel.

As a reader, I often let books mirror my experiences, serving as street lamps lining dark roads. As a writer, it’s hard for me to acknowledge similar representations of my pain—and occasional joy—because they prove my emotions aren’t unique to me, however sharp they felt at the time. But in fact, it’s this universality that I need to pinpoint and unpack for an essay’s ideas to survive outsides the boundaries of my memory, to succeed. I’ve met many creative nonfiction writers who also adamantly refuse this concept of common experience, insisting that the specificity of their circumstance—each recalled event one in a long line of dominos poised for that fated, stiff breeze to send them all tumbling—is what makes their writing worthy of readers.

I once asked a different friend what she hoped readers gleaned about their lives from her essays. She didn’t think people took anything from them. Though I didn’t ask, I wanted to know: then what’s your motivation? Though many of us believe in writing as others do God, that putting words to an experience will somehow reverse it, absolve what needs absolution—it won’t. The fact that I began this essay admitting I repeatedly hit a steering wheel doesn’t change the fact that I hit a steering wheel; neither does the admission neutralize the reason behind my outburst—my little brother’s chronic diagnosis that didn’t exist, or at least wasn’t noticed yet, when we lived in that house. Those facts remain as they are, written or not, read or not. And for that reason, isn’t my job not to relay the night I sat outside of my old house, but rather to yoke the memory to sentences and paragraphs that capture the universal pain of returning home after many years to find everything—even yourself—changed?

And perhaps that’s the key to writing about what doesn’t belong only to you. Knowing other people have lived iterations of your experience, undergone versions of the same emotions, requires a vulnerability impossible to access in the moment. After the moment passes, when it’s time for reflection, consider letting that knowledge—someone felt this before you, someone will feel this after you, someone else is feeling it now—fill the gap an essay is sometimes believed to close. Then, the writing might come.  

Ask yourself what returning felt like. Know that certain descriptors will surface—sad, angry, nostalgic—but their familiarity doesn’t lessen their impact. Begin the work of pushing those large descriptors into specificity, kneading their elusive borders into shapes. For a sentence or two you’ll see their outlines, and then they’ll disappear again and you’ll resume your search. All the while keep reminding yourself that feelings and experiences are publicly traded, and you own at least a few shares. Ask yourself why ownership is important at all. Write past that impulse. Think instead of the pantry doors, how when you lived in that house your mother would close them behind her as she assembled what you and your brother called “cookie cups”—a surprise combination of Mint Milanos and Chips Ahoy that never lost its magic. Now, the doors have tick marks on both sides, tracking the ages and heights of the two boys who live there instead of you.

Do you remember the Pences’ pink magnolia tree? You were both small when it was planted, and both grew into large, unruly creatures, shedding and shedding all this color.
Haley Swanson’s essays appear in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Entropy, Glamour and elsewhere. Originally from California, she lives in New York and is an associate editor at HarperCollins.