Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog # 56 On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again by Ana Maria Spagna, Guest Blogger
January 17, 2017
Note: This month’s guest, Ana Maria Spagna, is a wonderful writer and teacher of literary nonfiction.
At the River Teeth Writer’s Conference last spring, Ana Maria, myself, Pat Madden, and Hope Edelman were on a panel entitled “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?” Several months ago, I posted my panel talk-turned-essay ( Archives, June 2016) on this blog. And this month, I wanted to run Ana Maria’s piece--also from that same panel.
In one way or another, the notion of repeating ourselves is something that most writers-- especially we autobiographical writers—must contend with. When, for example, are we recycling old materials and when are we re-seeing with fresh eyes? When are we self-plagiarizing and when are we digging more deeply into issues and ideas we’ve covered but haven’t yet fully explored?
In her essay, Ana Maria writes about how, in the process of working on what she calls “a kid’s novel,” she discovered that she was writing about the same material she’d already covered in her previous book Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus--a work of literary journalism/personal-cultural criticism.
Once you’ve read the piece, you’ll understand why Ana Maria says that she was initially embarrassed by that discovery; and why, by the end of her essay, she is able to write: “So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it.”
On Secret Engines, Cross-pollination, and Repeating Ourselves Again
Essayist Steven Church likes to say that each of us has a “secret engine” in our writing, the burning question or experience that pops up again and again in our work. Even when we think we’ll never write about it, we do. Even when we think we’re done writing about it, we’re not.
My dad died when I was 11 years-old. The event shattered my world, of course, but I very rarely spoke of it. By the time I turned thirty I’ll bet I’d only told a handful of people, and I’d told even fewer how he died: he went out jogging one night, had a heart attack, and fell on the sidewalk. I certainly had no intention of writing about it.
Then, one day, I did. Without knowing it. I started writing about a crush I had on a running coach when I was a very little girl. The opening of the piece—one of the few I’ve ever written that kept its original opening from first draft on—has a playful near-fictional feel. Only it wasn’t fiction, and as I wrote, my dad kept creeping in: how he quit smoking to start jogging with me, how when I quit running, he built me a high jump pit. Each time he appeared on the page, I’d get freaked out and put the essay back in the proverbial drawer, so it took me over a year before I was able to let to the story unfold. Here’s a passage from the near the end. During the medal ceremony at the high jump state championship for fifth grade girls, I’m once again thinking about my old running coach.
"There, I thought, I did it without you. See! See! I did all by myself. I thought this even though it was patently untrue. And while I was thinking this, right in the middle of it, my dad jumped over the railing. He vaulted actually, like a younger more agile version of himself, and he sprinted across the track nearly interrupting a race in progress. He lifted me in his arms and spun me around as if I’d scored the winning touchdown I remember it clearly and I remember it with something like regret, something like shame, for the way that memory, like love, sometimes clings to all the wrong things."
In the end, of all the essays in my first book, Now Go Home, “Long Distance” is the one that holds up best, and after writing it, I had this self-satisfied feeling like: Well, I never need to write about that again.
I didn’t understand how secret engines work.
Fast forward a few years. I stumbled upon a short blurb online about my dad’s involvement in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, a little-known event in the early civil rights movement. He’d never spoken about it, so if I wanted to learn more, I’d have to find people who knew him. Now, the important part of the story at this point is that I could never have started this research if I hadn’t written “Long Distance.” I had crafted the experience and my feelings about it into something that felt whole and right, and doing so freed me up to think about him in new ways. As, for instance, a young activist, maybe even a hero.
I had no intention of including myself in what eventually became Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus. I wanted to write history, or maybe biography, but the more I researched, the more my own skepticism got in the way. For one thing, when my dad was arrested, he jumped bail. Even though blacks from the movement told me over and over that as a white guy in the white jail he’d have been killed as a so-called “nigger lover,” I refused to believe. I was too angry at him. Why? Clearly not because of what happened in 1957, but because of what happened in 1979. So I’d have to go there. Again. I’d have to meld my story with his story, memoir with history, and this time I’d have to include more details from the night he died. We were home alone together, and he told me he was going running against doctor’s orders, and I tried to stop him but could not. He said, “Don’t tell Mom.” So I didn’t. I hadn’t. For thirty years, I carried a staggering burden of guilt. Writing it down alleviated it, healed me in a way. And here’s the thing: I couldn’t have done it without the research. Doing the historical research opened up the possibility of writing the personal scene, and writing the personal scene offered new understanding of the history. Neither would be half as good without the other. I told myself I had learned the value of cross-pollination.
But even that is not the end.
Writing Test Ride was hard, excruciating at times. So sometimes, when I needed a break, I worked on a novel about a 14 year-old girl snowboarder. I told everyone the novel was a fun diversion, something completely different. I’d work on Test Ride, then work on the kid’s book, then go back to Test Ride. After Test Ride was published, I pulled out the novel to polish it up and to my utter shock—how had I not seen this?—it was all about a girl and her activist father. In other words this was the exact same story. Again. I was mortified. I shoved the manuscript back in the proverbial drawer. People asked about it, and I said just didn’t work out.
Last winter I started missing those characters, so I went looking for permission to repeat myself. Again. It didn’t take long perusing the bookshelf to find Cheryl Strayed writing about her mother’s death in the fine novel Torch (2006) a decade before writing about it again in Wild (2013) or to reread Mary Karr’s poetry collection Viper Rum (1998) and see that it covered much the same ground—finding sobriety and religious faith—as her memoir Lit (2009). If writers that good could do it, I decided, I could, too.
So I went back to the kids’ novel, and here’s what I found. First, the fictional father is a surprisingly rich and three-dimensional character, flaky but funny, obsessed but also loving, someone a reader can care about. Why? Because in fiction, I wasn’t mired in the myopic “I”—the real scarred-up me—I had to give him a back story and motivation, which unlocked a door to imagination, and as a result, to empathy. But there was an even bigger discovery. The novel’s climactic scene finds the main character out snowboarding with her dad when he falls and has a heart attack (honest to god, how had I believed I was writing a different story?) but – spoiler alert! – she saves him. She drags him off the mountain and he lives.
Any amateur psychologist can explain the value of writing that scene. I rewrote my past! For a long time, I believed writing the real scene (“Don’t tell Mom”) is what freed me to write Test Ride, but maybe writing this fictional scene did. Certainly the opposite is true, writing Test Ride gave me the burning motivation that drives the rescue scene in the novel. And “burning” is the key. The energy of that scene, the energy of the entire book—The Luckiest Scar on Earth to be published by Torrey House Press on February 14—comes from the deepest place in me.
I’m still not entirely over the embarrassing fact that, all these years later, I still apparently need to write about my father’s death again and again, but I’m in awe of the writing process, the healing it spurs in all of us, writers and readers alike. So what have I learned? In a nutshell: Repeating ourselves? I’m for it. Writing the same material in different forms or genres? I’m for it. Allegiance to the secret engine? I don’t think we have a choice.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of five award-winning nonfiction books including Now Go Home, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, and Reclaimers. She lives and writes in the North Cascades and teaches in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. www.anamaliaspagna.com.