Around the time our daughter turned four, she started making what seemed like odd requests. “Tell me about the sad parts of your life,” she would say at the dinner table. Or, “Tell me about the scary parts of your life.”
This phase went on for a while. I played along, telling her about my appendectomy in Africa, the time I almost fell off a cliff, the time I got a fishhook through my finger. We talked about deaths in the family, and she would sit with her eyes wide, not saying a word, listening as if her life depended on it.
It wasn’t until I’d gone through a whole list of broken bones and broken hearts that I realized what she was really asking: How can I deal with sadness? What should happen when I’m afraid? She was looking for scenarios out of which to build her own. She was looking for directions about which way to turn when she reached those crossroads herself.
After thinking about this for some time, it occurred to me that I had done a similar thing. It was in college, when I discovered that I loved to write. I wondered if I could do it. I wondered, “How do you do it?”
In search of answers, like many beginners, I approached other writers and bombarded them with questions to learn their secrets and to find out how they got where they were. As it happened, there was just such a writer in the town where I went to college, south of Minneapolis. His name was Paul Gruchow, and one day he came to speak to one of my classes.
Gruchow owned a small bookstore in town, occasionally taught writing courses at our school, and had written several books of essays, one of which we’d read in our class. It was called The Necessity of Empty Places (St. Martin’s Press, 1988), and I loved it for both the writing and the sentiment. I had no idea at the time that he had studied under poet John Berryman, or that for years he worked at newspapers and radio stations across the state before the University of Minnesota Press published his first book, Journal of a Prairie Year, in 1985 (it was reissued in 2009 by Milkweed Editions). All I knew was that his thoughtful, eloquent style had earned him comparisons to Thoreau and that somehow he had arrived at a place much like the one where I wanted to be.
After the class, I asked Gruchow if I could talk to him about writing. A few days later, he welcomed me into his home, told me to sit down, and offered me a cup of coffee. He was bald and portly and kind. His beard made him seem like the professor he sometimes was. He had a quick laugh and a look in his eye like his mind was always elsewhere.
We sat, and I started asking him how he’d done it, how it all went, what had been his first big break, and on and on. Patiently he told me about his work at the Worthington Daily Globe, about his first book, and about his many struggles along the way.
When I asked for advice, he tried to wave me off. He warned me that the writing life was full of hardship and disappointment and that there were seven times as many people who wanted to be writers as could be.
“Don’t do it,” he said, “unless there’s nothing else you can do.”
We sat for a long while, and I listened as he talked about his own writing life, hearing mostly the parts that I needed to hear. By the time I got up to leave, much of what he’d said had lodged itself deep into my mind. Before he’d even finished telling me his stories, I’d already begun to imagine my own.
I did not grow up in a storytelling family. My father tells what he likes to think are stories, but are more like sequential chains of loosely connected factual events. My mother keeps a three-line diary in which she catalogues the day’s events, which is more like the raw material from which stories are made.
My wife’s family, however, are easy raconteurs who tell stories loosely based on things that happened, but with deep feelings at their core. Her father, for example, likes to tell a story about how my wife’s first car was a huge Lincoln Continental that was so big she could barely see over the dashboard—he could only see her little head in it. He got her that car, he says, because he wanted to make sure she was surrounded by as much steel as possible.
Except that wasn’t it exactly. The Lincoln was just one of several cars her family owned and that she drove. Another was a tiny Datsun that would have been smashed like a tin can if it had hit another vehicle. Her first car was actually a crappy Ford Tempo.
For a long time I puzzled over this discrepancy. It took me years to finally understand that this wasn’t really a story about her first car. It was a story about how much he loved his daughter and wanted her to be protected from the world. All that steel was love.
Why do we misremember things in certain ways? It’s a fascinating question. Looking back, we do not recall a steady, seamless flow of events in time. Instead our mind breaks the flow of time into related chunks and stores them as scenes and anecdotes and episodes.