Larry says I came back from Iowa with a twang. Saturday morning, no need to rush, so I’ve made him read my favorite essay, “You have too many prepositions here!” “What’s this ‘oiled up’ Why don’t you just say ‘oiled?’ And do you really need ‘out on the lawn?’ Just say ‘on the lawn.’ It sounds more like you.” I know this is my husband being helpful, but part of me likes the twang. Is it me? I’m not sure. Maybe I am just copying my classmates. Still, I argue back: “I grew up in the country. Lots of rural people have twangs. My dad does.” So what happened to my twang? Did I get rid of it to fit in at that fancy college? Academia is no place for twang.
Last year I was invited to a dinner for university professors in Dunedin. I drove down to the restaurant, arriving early in my anxiety about getting lost. I tried chatting up the staff, “Big do tonight, eh?” The bus boy wasn’t having any. He put me in my place with a crisp, “Yes, ma’am.” and bustled away. Next stop: the women’s room, where I passed time messing with face and hair until filtered voices signaled the arrival of more guests.
After a few encounters I settled at a circular table with eight other professors. No twangs here. An American import spoke with a vaguely French accent about her work in postmodernism. Everyone else used lilting kiwi tones. “At least there are two other women.” I reassured myself, glancing at other tables with even fewer. After a little too much wine, my companions began to reminisce about childhood. Theirs was the childhood I should have had –visitors from abroad gracing the dinner table, evenings reading with father by the fire, favorite books and musicians, high expectations with everyone watching.
I listened, absorbed, until a pause in the action. New Zealand is a culture of inclusion, so one kind soul was uncomfortable with my silence. “What about you, Amanda? What was it like growing up in…California?” Now I can think of the clever things I could have said, but then I blurted out, “My father hauled fertilizer. So it was …pungent.” Strictly speaking, this was true. “Hauling fert” wasn’t the only thing he did for a living, but it was the most pungent. Conversation swirled around me until I left early. I had given my colleagues something to talk about in less public venues. Maybe they would say, “That explains it!” Maybe they would say, “Who would have known?” Maybe they could care less what my father did.
My dad loves to chat on the phone, and Alzheimer’s has not diminished his fascination with place. Name any coastal city and he’ll dredge up an impression from his merchant marine days. Seattle: “Man that place is dark and the rain is much colder than you’d expect.” New York: “Pretty girls, but way too many people.” His loyalty to California never wavers. “60 degrees and sunny!” he’ll chortle, knowing full well that it’s snowing on me in Salt Lake. He may not be sure what city he’s in, but he never forgets that he settled in California.
I stumped him today, “I spent last week in Iowa City.” “Iowa City! I don’t think I’ve ever been there. How was the weather?” When I told him about tornado warnings and canceled planes, he channeled Brigham Young “I guess it’s not the place!” My dad is not Mormon, and has never visited the “This is the Place” monument, where Parley’s Canyon opens into the Great Salt Lake Valley. Rumor has it that after his long trek across the plains, Young gazed at the valley and declared, “This is the place.” Now this valley is the place for over a million people, less than half of us members of his church. When he was young my dad searched long and hard before he returned home to the state he was born in and declared of California, “This is the Place.”
This March in Dunedin I invited doctoral students working in narrative to join me for lunch in the staff club on Thursdays. Eager to impress, a young man from Ghana had looked up my resume. “My goodness! You have been publishing for such a long time! You started so young! Your parents must have been academics!” This set me back. Why did I feel insulted? “Oh, no.” I corrected him, “My father was a farmer!” He didn’t believe me, and tried to draw in the other students to persuade me that my parents must have been academics. “Maybe they should have been academics, but I assure you they were not.” It was a strange lunch.
So here’s what I brought home from the Iowa Writer’s Festival:
- Creative non-fiction is about what you leave out;
- Keep track of your ideas because you never know when the well will run dry;
- Write first thing in the morning;
- Revise, revise, revise; and
- Narrative structures make cool pictures.
This past week I’ve been writing first thing in the morning – mostly cutting the crap out of my textbook. (Chapter 3 is 1,000 words shorter!) Carol’s voice in my head says, “That’s a cliché. Do you really want to use someone else’s words?” or “Can you be a little more specific here?” I narrate my life: “She stepped into the shower.” No, “She jumped into the shower.” No, “She eased into the shower.” No.