I have written in a journal almost every morning since the day I graduated from college. But it was only recently that it occurred to me that all that writing was…well, writing. I guess I thought of it as something between therapy and record keeping, certainly not as a source for anything I might publish. (I’ve kept many separate writing notebooks over the years as well, as well as countless notebooks and records for assigned stories.)
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was a winner of an essay contest sponsored by the Rubin Museum of Art, and the literary magazines Killing the Buddha and Obit. “Is He Dead?” is the first time I’ve written an essay drawn mainly from my daily journal.
The piece is about my stepfather’s suicide five years ago, a section of a journal that I kept cordoned off with a binder clip, so I wouldn’t haplessly stumble across my notes from that (obviously) difficult time when I was flipping through looking for something else entirely. When I got ready to write the essay, I unfastened the clip.
I’ve written before about the perils of memory, yet I was still surprised by how many details I’d either forgotten or misremembered. I didn’t have the big things wrong — the major facts of that day and what followed I remembered well enough. I also didn’t have trouble recalling how I felt. But if I hadn’t written it down the next day, I wouldn’t have remembered what movie I was watching on TV when my mother called. I also thought that the police sticker that sealed the apartment door was yellow — but my journal said it was fluorescent green.
These seems like small things, but to me, accurate details are life rafts. In my life, I cope with confusion by focusing on small details. In my writing, I hope to avoid confusing a reader by making use of the details that will seem familiar. You may not know what it is like to learn that a person in your life jumped out a window, but you will likely know what the color fluorescent green looks like, and that it’s different from yellow.
From a writer’s perspective, it was great to discover that my journal had a great many details to choose from — but the next challenge was not to drown in them. I left out plenty on the first draft, and in revision, cut out still more. I wanted to avoid distraction.
I didn’t mention that it all happened on Mother’s Day, for instance. This was not an accident of the calendar, it’s a fact that matters. But fundamentally, this was not a story about mothers — not about my mother, or my stepfather’s relationship with her, or his relationship with his mother. It’s a story about my relationship with my ex-stepfather, and how death isn’t necessarily conclusive. Here it is.