November 2, 2009


Today I read some contest entries who wanted feedback. I just have to say, in general, the feeling that I have after reading personal essays is: it is amazing what people survive. Really. Brain aneurysms, abusive parents, molesters, crazy marriages, electrocution. Then there are the people who seem to witness everything. What happens to them is that no one can keep from telling them anything. They always seem to be the third wheel along on the awkward camp-out or stuck between the bathroom and the outer door when the boss is firing someone or doing something inappropriate in the hallway. Then there are people who write about the bushes over their back fence.

I must say, I will read anything if it is well written. I happened to like the story about the bushes quite a lot. And I can handle stories about molesters and abusive parents, but most people who are writing a big story like that are too raw and close to it to understand that is through understatement that readers will feel it deepest. I think that the best way to learn about this is through poetry.

I can think of a million examples, but not one perfect one. But here is one from Linda Pastan:

To a Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

It is only the last line and the title that let us know that this is about a more serious and sad moment of seeing a daughter go. But Pastan chooses to tell the whole big tale in a small moment from long ago.

Another poem I am reading now by Raymond Carver is about missing a person who died of cancer, but he focuses on the face he is making in a photograph to tell the whole story. It is lovely and sad and nagging and all without being sentimental.

More on this another time.

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