Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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Whose Story, Whose Skin

In elementary school I already felt as though I should write my grandmother’s life story. Most likely the feeling came from listening to her as she told anecdotes—some from her childhood, some from having children of her own during World War II. But whenever I’d try to write her life, I’d stall on everything I didn’t know: What did the stairwell that led to her childhood apartment smell like? How many steps up? What kind of steps?

When, forty years later, I took my first creative writing class, I learned that some nonfiction writers barge right ahead and make stuff up. We do our best, of course, to ground our imagination in research. We strive for truth, not only in emotion, but in detail. But—wow—as long as I tell my readers what I’m doing, I can give myself permission to slip into someone else’s skin! Which was where I’d needed to go all this time: under my grandmother’s, grandfather’s, father’s, mother’s skin. Into muscle. Into bone.

Most of my essays grow from family anecdotes, a few sentences my mother, father, or grandmother told on repeat. I write them down because they call me, even though I have no idea if or how they might become an essay. I steep the sentences I heard in my body, water them with weeks and months of research. Which hospital? What year? How many steps across the street to the cemetery? Gravel or stone on the paths? The sentences bloom, like tea, like sun-parched moss in rain. Then they—the hydrated anecdotes, the relived stories, the scenes—incubate in a drawer. Often for years. Until I can figure out if or how they belong to me, what they might mean inside my life. Until something happens, ringing the old story inside my body like a gong: My mother shows me a photograph. Someone says something. Or my stomach hurts.  

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