Yesterday, I published a memory from my first grade year — “The Day My Teacher Died.”
Today I am writing a piece that is a snapshot of my thinking as I crafted it. However, before I begin unfolding my thinking, lest my narration of the crafting make the writing seem easy and sequential, a single day accomplishment, I must assure you it was not. That is to say, I drafted, threw away, and drafted again many times. My last draft was over a year ago. Early this month, I pulled it out and began working on it again, hoping I would complete it and publish it during SOL16. Having shared that, here are my thoughts as I crafted the story.
Off and on, over the years, I have attempted to write this memory. My recall of details and sequence of events is vivid. I remember names and what people said and did. I can see their faces; I can see the room. But that was not enough. There were always three problems that I couldn’t seem to solve. First, I didn’t know how to begin. No words would work. Second, I couldn’t decide when in the story to tell that my teacher died. The tone was all wrong no matter what I tried. And finally, I needed an ending that would pull it together, bring closure. So until I could solve those three problems, the story would remain tucked away. Perhaps I will never write it, I thought.
Then, in an airport bookstore, I picked up Henning Mankell’s Bridge to the Stars. On the first page I saw what I was looking for.
I could begin with an animal, adding something that was not in the real story, something that would help me tell it. (Remember in the prologue I wrote that the story was true, the account accurate, except for one detail in it?) I could begin tersely, with a fragment. And maybe I could use juxtaposition* to achieve the tone I wanted. I could imitate Mankell.
So, I chose a cat because my second grade teacher had a cat. And with two words, The cat, my story begins. My first problem was solved.
With the phrase “the cat” punctuated as if it were a sentence, I move into a simple sentence construction with descriptive details about the cat — useless details (big, marmalade) as far as the events in story are concerned. However, important to the story tone. I didn’t want the cat to make the mood dark, which a black cat might have done. So I choose a marmalade cat; the color has warmth in it. The idea of a big cat suggests that it is well-cared for, someone’s pet. So, I use the big marmalade cat to create a juxtaposition–the warm image of a pet just before I introduce the stark image of death.
Also, I use the grammatical structure of my sentences to further support the juxtaposition–a simple sentence about the cat, a complex sentence about death. And starting each sentence flush at the left margin much like a new paragraph helps accentuate the increasing importance of information. All in all, this sets my tone. And so my second problem was solved. Here is my final copy of those three sentences.
It was a big marmalade cat.
When I see a marmalade cat, I always remember the day my first grade teacher, Miss. Rogers, died.
Telling the story was not difficult because it is woven into the fabric of my life.
At the end of the piece, I use the cat again to create a juxtaposition with multiple facets. The cat, warm and friendly, contrasts with the cold and fear we feel as we wait. The cat, soft and inviting, contrasts with the harsh reality of the sirens and flashing lights. The cat, moving and rubbing against our legs, contrasts with our motionless waiting. The cat, meowing to us, contrasts with our silence. I also use the cat to create object placement–a technique of placing an object that is not a critical element of the story plot at the beginning and again at the end, using it to pull the story together. I had solved the third problem.
Whether I have done well or not, you will have to decide. But I am satisfied that I have at last written and published my memory. One day, perhaps, I will add more, but not right now.
© 2016 Alice Nine All rights reserved.
*Juxtaposition is a literary technique in which two or more ideas, places, characters and their actions are placed side by side in a narrative or a poem for the purpose of developing comparisons and contrast.
A special thanks to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, Beth, Kathleen, and Deb
for a place at Two Writing Teachers where teachers and others can share their stories
each Tuesday throughout the year and every day during the month of March.