For the past six years my writing life has been project oriented. Creative, sure. But also neat and tidy. Each themed essay folded into a larger book project. I wrote my memories of life in Syria and Jordan, and when the essays were strung together, they became Through the Veil. I found the next project, writing somewhat therapeutically of the complex relationship between me and my mother-in-law, Jeanne, in our extended family household. I wrote our relationship as we lived it, and soon my writing became an exploration of Jeanne’s rapid health decline and my new role as her primary caregiver.
I wrote through Jeanne’s last month of life, sitting at her bedside, laptop open, typing as she dozed in a morphine haze. When Jeanne died in November, 2008, I had so much raw material drafted that I wrote and refined all through the spring, through a move to Oregon, and on into our new life here this past year. Sure, I blogged about life in Oregon, but my more concentrated, polished and thoughtful writing, has been the project-oriented work on caregiving and end-of-life issues.
For six years now I have written about women who will never read my writing, separated from me by years and by geography. Even while Jeanne was alive, I knew I would never show her my essays and that I wouldn’t publish a book about her until she was gone. I do strive to write truthfully, but there is a certain freedom in writing from memory.
Just a few weeks ago—during our Spring Break at the Oregon coast—I drafted a new essay. A long one. Not a single Syrian or Jordanian. No mother-in-law.
In this newest essay, I write of people in Newberg—a fellow adjunct at the university, the woman who pumps my gas, even my boss. I see these folks often—they’re part of my daily life. I’m not close to any of them. I haven’t asked their permission for this writing. And they have no idea that I’m spending my early morning hours with them, recording our conversations, painting portraits of them on my pages.
After writing from memory for over a year now, this feels very strange. Once again I am writing life as I live it. At some point before publication I will change names, ask permission of my acquaintances to use their veiled identities in my writing. But for now I say good morning to my literary characters when I pass them in the halls at work, I smile and look each one straight in the eye. I bought gas from my protagonist this morning; she has no idea at all that even as we chat, I am adding brush strokes, covering over mistakes, mixing just the right colors to paint her a hero.
As a child I imagined myself one of the Bobbsey twins. I read Flossie’s dialog aloud and tossed my imaginary curls. I wanted to be a writer, or maybe an actor. I loved entering into another world and dwelling there. I still do.
But I don’t write fiction. I don’t create an imaginary world. I am wrestling to take my own real world, past and present, and make it into literature.