As promised, I present to you guest commentary from Lisa Romeo on the craft decisions that went into “43 Lies About My Child,” a recent winner in Masha Hamilton’s 31 Hours Parents’ Intuition Contest. Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing this with us.
I actually still don’t know what to properly call this piece. It’s definitely creative nonfiction, and in my mind, a type of personal essay, though the form is unusual. It requires some visual assistance via the regular and italics fonts to distinguish the two voices on the page. Some have called it “fragmented memoir,” others a prose poem, and that’s fine with me.
About three years ago, an essay I wrote about having a child who clearly had developmental difficulties but for which there was no specific diagnosis, was included in an essay collection and, in an adapted shorter form, in The New York Times.
I had a lot of left over material, including a list of things people had said to me over the years, beginning when my son was a baby and continuing until he was an adolescent. It was, I suppose, “advice” offered in a well-meaning way, but which struck me as judgmental, and infuriated me because I couldn’t at the time summon the confidence to reply.
I knew I wanted to write something that addressed these voices that were still in my head, but it didn’t seem to fit in to the form of a traditional personal essay. I didn’t want to be whiny on the page either. So I played with it as a prose poem for a while, and then as a humor piece; neither really worked, so I put it aside.
Meanwhile, Ann Hood referred me to a nonfiction piece she’d written for Tin House‘s special issue about lies and is now part of her memoir, Comfort. In the essay, she addressed all the trite and generic things people said to her about grief, in the period after she had lost her young daughter.
I realized something similar could work for me, with some changes. In Ann’s piece, she lays out the standard lines, such as, “time heals,” and then through short narratives, shows them to all be lies — how passing time has not eased her pain when she sees spring dresses in Target even a year after the girl’s death. She doesn’t really talk back to the crowd so much as takes the reader inside the narrator’s experience with each “lie.”
I wanted to do something less narrative, more satirically “prescriptive” and I began to play with the idea of a parody of the type of articles in parenting magazines – 12 ways to help your shy child. I knew whatever I did had to be voice-driven, really all about three distinct voices: The annoying voice of the nosy outsider; the narrator’s I’m-the-Mama-Bear-Don’t-Cross-Me voice I knew was inside me somewhere, but had never been in evidence when I needed it; and a third voice which lurks behind – that voice inside every mother’s head telling her she knows what’s true about her child. Eventually, I put the first two voices directly on the page in opposition to one another, and the third exists more or less in the background.
Originally, there were 81 “lies,” then 76, but one of my writing friends pointed out that the piece loses its urgency over the long stretch in such a contrived format. So I trimmed down to 50, but I was still trying to cover every base, every facet of his and my journey over about 12 years.
I submitted it for an essay collection, and the editor rejected it, but gave me excellent advice about improving the pacing, and cutting to the bone so that the piece would really bleed on the page, instead of just hinting at distress. I stopped trying to cover it all, and got more selective about which “lies” to include.
That took me to 43 lies and by then the “advice” proffered, and the narrator’s responses – were all shorter and more sharply focused, and much less tactful. I had been trying to protect even the people who had said awful things to me, and was still trying to make the narrator seem nice! Another writer friend who I asked to read it noticed that the best lines were the ones where I was allowing the mother’s voice to really lash out.
Finally I gave myself permission to “answer” in the way I never would have in my own skin back then. That’s when the piece began to have an edge; it was no longer tentative. I allowed my narrator to be someone who doesn’t give a fig what anyone else thinks, which is not necessarily how I am in life. In that sense, maybe there’s a bit of fiction at play – the narrator as she wishes she could have been; then again, I suppose that’s the creative part of the nonfiction.