“You’ve got to make me care about these people, whether they’re fictional or real. If I don’t have a reason to care four pages into the story, I’m not going to keep reading.”
That’s the gist of one of Barry Hannah’s comments that I heard more than once during Thursday afternoon’s writing “class” in Oxford, Mississippi. The four students (I’m still amazed that there isn’t a room full!) brought writing samples for the group to read and critique, with Oxford writer-in-residence, Barry Hannah, at the helm. One of his MFA students, Elizabeth, was there again this week to add her wisdom to the mix. The other three writers had brought fiction samples—a novel chapter or a short story. After Barry saw my feeble attempt at fiction at the class two weeks ago, he agreed to let me bring an essay this week. And although he wrote on the first page of my work, “Excellently written,” he also said that my characters—in this case my eighty-year-old mother and myself—didn’t instill enough interest or empathy, at least not for him as the reader. At one point he was struggling for words to explain what he felt was missing from the essay, and he said, “It’s in a zone of dramatized information (about Alzheimer’s)…. Does it add anything to what we already know?”
The essay I took to the class is called “The Glasses,” which I expanded from a blog post about one of my visits to my mother when she was still in assisted living. Several readers (of my blog) had commented that they really liked these stories about Mom and me and thought they might be interesting and helpful to others who are caring for aging parents, especially those with Alzheimer’s like my mother. But Barry said that, as traumatic and personal as the situation is to me, most readers won’t be interested unless it’s more than just poignant and reflective.
While there’s a definable difference in a short story, which has a recognizable beginning, middle, and end, and a personal essay, which can be more reflective, the characters still have to grab the reader from the beginning and not let them go ‘til the end. They need to change and grow, gaining power in the reader’s mind, so that by the end of the story, book, or essay there’s a point that sticks in your mind. The reader needs to care about what happens.
Some of the other students suggested that the essay needed to show more of me—as a character in the story. More of my own emotional response to what was happening with my mother. Maybe I treated the encounter too lightly? Or maybe I stuff my own emotions sometimes because of how painful the situation is. Since I’m considering doing a book of essays that would include a section about Mom, these are good things to consider. I explained that some of the other essays in the book will deal with various aspects of my relationship with my mother—her controlling, judgmental, abusive ways, always telling me I’m fat, not to eat so much, etc. But the Elizabeth said that each essay needs to stand alone, that the reader shouldn’t have to glean information from one essay in order to understand another… in order to care about the “characters” in each story. Hmmmmm.
What a great class! A little “unusual,” since we met at Ajax for the first half of the class and then moved over to the upstairs bar at City Grocery for the second half… kind of a pub-crawl writing class. But hey—the price was right and, like Barry, I’m kind of a “café person.” (as opposed to some in our group who prefer to live and work in more rural or secluded places) I only wish I could participate in all 5 classes, but I’m grateful for the two I was able to make.
So, I got home from the class last night and saw this email from another Oxford author and mentor, Jere Hoar:
“Here's a fine essay about family life, about looking back. It's well worth reading for pleasure, and for those writing essays, study.”
The email was followed by this link to an essay in Wednesday’s New York Times called “Once Upon a Time in the Bronx” by Richard Conniff. So I read the essay, and although I’m not especially interested in the time (1920s) or setting (the Bronx) of the essay, the stories were told in a compelling way, and from the very first paragraph I found myself caring about the people in the essay. So I “critiqued” the essay to try to learn how the author made me care about the characters.
His character descriptions are vivid and each little “mini-story” within the essay is interesting, but these alone wouldn’t make me care. Finally I realized that it’s the writer’s voice that’s so compelling. Especially when he steps back from the action to address the reader directly:
“The purpose of family stories is to tell us who we are and how to live, in good times and bad…. I suspect these stories were not politically correct. But happiness sometimes depends on what you are able to forget, or overlook.”
I’m not sure we see Richard Conniff’s soul very fully in this essay, the way that the folks in Barry Hannah’s class yesterday seemed to want me to bare my own in response to a difficult and complicated relationship with my mother. But we do care.
So I’m back at my computer today with five copies of my essay on the desk in front of me, each marked with various colored pens and pencils by my classmates and instructors. Can I revise the story so that my readers will care enough to keep reading? I look at Barry’s words on the first page—right after he wrote, “Excellently written”—he continued, “As we discussed, we need more drama—more to watch on stage.”
Maybe I’m using all my emotional energy in writing my memoir, which doesn’t leave enough pluck for these essays. Or maybe that’s just an excuse for laziness. Or exhaustion. Barry said that fatigue is often why endings are bad. That the writers just runs out of juice and gets sloppy near the end of a story. He said that Hemingway used to have a practice of always leaving something for the next day, rather than trying to finish something when he was tired. So I’m wondering when I won’t be tired. Maybe another workout on my new elliptical machine will help. Five days in a row—a good start. (There was a machine in the fitness room at my hotel in Jackson, so I didn’t have to miss a workout when I went to visit Mom.) But as I write these words I find myself reading them through Barry Hannah’s eyes and I wonder if my readers are thinking, “who cares?”
For the two or three of you who might care, here’s the essay in question. You might or might not see a revised version at some point in the future, but I’m heading upstairs to the elliptical now to watch Wimbledon on TV while I work out. Have a great everyone! Here's a picture of one of the floats from the Fourth of July weekend "lake parade" in Arkansas where I was this time last year! If you missed my post last year (with more floats) it's here.
by Susan Cushman
“I just can’t get my glasses clean.” My eighty-year-old mother was riding with me to do some shopping when she pulled her glasses off and held them up to the windshield for a better view of the smudges.
“Here, I’ve got a special cloth for cleaning lenses,” I offered.
She fumbled with the cloth for a few minutes, but her hands wouldn’t cooperate. We stopped at a traffic light and I took the glasses and tried to clean them for her.
“Mom, these are all scratched up. In fact, these are your old glasses. Where are the new ones I got you?”
“Oh, I think they fell under my bed.”
“Well, when we get back to your apartment, I’ll look for them.”
“Oh, no! You couldn’t possibly fit under the bed. There’s only a tiny space there and you are much too big.”
Ignoring her usual comment about my size, I pressed on. “But I could at least see if they’re there, and maybe fish them out with a yardstick or something.”
“No, there just isn’t room under that bed, I promise you.”
“Well, I’ll still look for them when we get back.”
Mom was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease when I moved her into an assisted living apartment in February of 2006. About once a month I would drive down for a visit, and usually Mom would want to go out for the day. We often started at her favorite department store at a nearby mall.
“I need some new blouses, but I can never remember what I already have.”
“Look at this one, Mom. It’s purple—your favorite color. It would look nice with your black slacks.”
“What size is it?” She squinted at the tag. “I can barely read the tag. Can you clean my glasses for me?” She started to take off her glasses.
“I already cleaned them for you, in the car on the way to the mall, Mom.”
“Well, you didn’t do a very good job. Clean them again.”
“It won’t help, Mom. Those are your old glasses and they’re just too scratched up. We’ll find your new ones when we get back to your apartment later. Why don’t you try on this blouse now?”
“Oh, I’m not in the mood to shop. Let’s go to lunch.”
“But we just got here. It will only take a few minutes to try on one blouse.”
Mom was already making her way through the crowded aisles of clothing towards the exit. I hung the blouse back on the rack and followed her out the door, through the parking lot and back to the car.
We ate lunch at McAllister’s Deli. As we stood in line looking at the menu board on the wall, she squinted again, and then took off her glasses and began to try to clean them with the edge of her blouse.
“These glasses are so dirty I can’t read the menu!”
“They’re scratched, Mom. We’re going to look for your new ones when we get back to your apartment later, remember?”
“Oh, these are fine.” She put the glasses back on and stared at the wall again. “What are you having?”
“I was thinking about the bacon and cheese spud. Would you like to share one? You know they really use two potatoes for each order.”
“But I only want one!”
“Yes, Mom, that’s why we’re going to share an order. That way we’ll each have one potato.”
“That’ll be fine. Oh, and I want one of these cookies.” She fingered the large Macadamia nut cookies next to the cash register. “We can share it—it’s big enough for an army.”
After lunch, I took her to get a manicure and pedicure. Sitting across from her and reading fashion magazines while a Vietnamese guy did her nails, I held my breath, hoping she wouldn’t embarrass me. And then she started up.
“This is my little girl.” She pointed to me. “She lives in Memphis. She took my car away and sold my house. She comes to visit me about once a year.”
I smiled at the young women in the chairs next to her, fighting back the urge to defend myself. One of them of gave me a knowing wink, and I nodded my gratitude. And then the young man doing Mom’s nails said, “Now, Mrs. Johnson, your daughter brought you in here just a few weeks ago to get your nails done, didn’t she?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She lives in Memphis. Ouch!”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize your toe was tender.”
“Well, it is. Something’s wrong with it. I’ve been meaning to get someone to look at it.”
The nail on the big toe of her right foot was thick and green with fungus. I got up from my chair and walked over to the recliner where Mom sat.
“Mom, I took you to the doctor last month and she told us what to do about it. Remember? I got you some Vicks Vapo-Rub to put on it twice a day. I wrote you a note and taped it to the Vicks bottle by your bed. Have you been putting it on your toe?”
The giggles the other customers had been trying to stifle just couldn’t be held in any longer. So I said to the room, “I know it sounds ridiculous, but Mom’s internist told us that several of her patients have had success using Vicks on toe fungus.”
The pedicure guy adjusted his surgical gloves and finished working on Mom’s toenails. A few minutes later, as we were leaving the nail place, with Mom wearing a pair of disposable flip-flops, she looked at her feet and said, “What’s wrong with the nail on that big toe?”
“You’ve got a fungus, Mom.”
“Oh, dear! Is there anything we can do about it?”
“We can try putting Vicks Vapo-Rub on it. I’ve got some for you back at your apartment.”
“Vicks? Really? Well, I'll try anything once.”
Back in the car, we drove through a neighborhood that had been hit by tornadoes a couple of weeks ago. Mom said, “I think I saw this on the news, but I didn’t realize how bad it was.”
“Me, either. Wow—look at that huge tree completely uprooted over there. And all those houses with blue tarps on the roofs where trees fell on them. My goodness.”
At this Mother took off her glasses and held them up to the window. “I can’t really see them well. My glasses are so dirty. Do you have something I can clean them with?”
“We already cleaned them, Mom. They’re scratched. Those are your old glasses. We need to find your new ones when we get back to your apartment.”
“What new ones?”
“The ones you think might have fallen under your bed.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, these are fine.”
Back at Mom’s assisted living facility, we made our way through the lobby, where she introduced me to all her friends. Again. Finally, back in her apartment, I dropped to my knees to look under her bed for the glasses, ignoring Mother’s protests.
“You can’t see anything under there, Susan.”
“I can see fine, Mom, but there’s nothing under here.” I began to search her bedside table, and finally the bookcase headboard behind her pillows.
“Here they are, Mom!”
I offered her the glasses and waited for her to share my excitement.
She looked at the shiny glasses, then at me, and said, “Oh—that’s okay. I like my old ones better.” Then she turned and walked away.
I exhaled loudly, placed her new glasses on her bedside table, and followed her into her living room, where we both sat down to watch the birds on the feeder I had installed outside her window.
“Look, Mom! There’s a red bird!”
“Where?” She strained to see the cardinal, took off her glasses and began wiping them with a Kleenex. “I can’t see anything—these glasses are so dirty!”
Biting my tongue, I picked up the remote control and turned on her television. The Braves were playing. The TV was only a few feet from her chair, so she could see the fans waving their tomahawks in the air and hear them cheering. John Smoltz was on the pitcher’s mound, but Greg Maddux was Mom’s favorite.
“Strike him out, Greg!” Mom smiled at me through her scratched-up glasses.
I thought about correcting her and trying to get her to wear her new glasses. But as I watched her joyfully waving her imaginary tomahawk in the air, I just smiled back, looked at the TV, and cheered, “Get ’em Greg!”