On a beautiful July morning in 2004, my husband, three kids, and I headed down the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook in Glacier National Park. The skies were clear, the air warm with a gentle breeze. About a mile down the meandering trail, however, thick clouds rolled in. The temperature plummeted, and we became ensconced in a mist so thick we couldn’t see more than a foot in front of us. Turning back toward the trailhead, we held onto one another as we inched along.

Then, in the distance, the mist began to take shape and form. As we drew closer, two figures grew more and more solid until we almost slammed into a pair of bighorn sheep standing in the trail. They rose from the mist like spirits. In our panic, our eyes wide, our hair soaked from the condensation of the fog, we must have appeared rather shocking to the sheep. Still, they calmly watched us watching them until, finally, the clouds began to part, revealing blue sky, and we navigated around them.

Writing memoir, for me, is like this: a backwoods stroll that, with one sudden shift, becomes an adventure.

“Writing is an act of discovery,” Brenda Ueland says in her craft book If You Want to Write. And so it has been for me. I am not an outliner, a diagrammer, a Scrivenerer. I do not begin writing knowing where I will end up or even what I will discover along the way. I simply sit down and eventually, if I sit there long enough, something will come to me. Maybe I will write about the mouse I found in the goats’ water bucket in the barn that morning, or maybe I will write about cheesemaking or training a new puppy. In any case, I rarely have clear ideas about where my writing will go.

This happened to me often while I was working on my memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats, about losing my home to foreclosure. When I began writing the book I was still in my MFA program, and that semester I was working with Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean among other books. During that semester I wrote a scene about a snake that fell from the overhang of our house.

In the scene, our family had just finished a picnic dinner on our patio. When the snake fell, it dragged with it an entire nest of baby birds, and as the snake brushed my daughter’s lap, the dead birds rolled across the stones between her legs. I thought I had rendered this scene well; it was complete and entertaining in its own right. Jackie felt differently.

“Go deeper,” she said several times in several different ways. Which, in retrospect, was just what one should expect from someone who wrote a book with the word “deep” in the title.

Anyway, I went back and went deeper. I wrote about how my young-adult daughter, who was terrified of snakes, cried so hard she could barely breathe and how she said to my mother, who was trying to comfort her, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

“No, honey. No, it’s not,” my mother had responded.

There. I had gone deeper. Satisfied with this revised scene, I returned it to Jackie who returned it to me.

“Go deeper,” she said again.

And for a moment or maybe a week I thought she was being unreasonable, that she was asking me to squeeze blood from a turnip. There was nothing else there. It was what it was. And then, suddenly, sitting at my computer, trying a million variations of that scene, it came to me: What my mother said was full of all the things she did not say, all the things she could not say, all the things that were brimming just below the surface of that moment.

I added this paragraph:

She meant to be comforting, I suppose, but her meaning was unclear. Was it a lesson in relativity? Did she mean having a black snake and a nest of doomed baby birds fall on you wasn’t that bad compared to, say, being stung by a swarm of bees or accosted by a mother bear? Did she mean worse things had happened and that someday, this incident would take its rightful place behind other unfortunate happenings? Or perhaps, was she looking ahead to all the shocking, painful things that were bound to happen in the future, things we had no control of, things we could not even see coming?

This line of reasoning then led me to consider how relatively minor the whole episode of losing our home had been, something that I needed to consider both as a person and as a writer. Even before Jackie gave me the thumbs up on this version of the story, I knew this was it, the excavation that revealed the true story, the heart of what had happened in that moment, or, as Vivian Gornick put it in her wildly popular craft book, the “story” beneath the “situation.” In the mist of going deeper I had discovered something amazing, or it had discovered me, but in any case a particular joy arose from that discovery that stays with me to this day.

You can write without discovery, of course. You can write to a scripted conclusion, and it will be easier. Maybe no one will even notice. But why on earth would you? Why, with as hard as it is to write anything, with all the time and love and grit you put into the creation of your art, would you settle for anything less than two stunning bighorn rams rising out of the mist?  

Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, pack of dogs, herd of dairy goats, and flock of chickens in the North Carolina mountains. Her work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Huffington Post, Appalachian Heritage, New Pioneer, Bitter Southerner, and many other publications. She is also the author of the memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats.