During the last winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Patrick Madden and I co-led a creative nonfiction workshop. Besides the usual group discussion of a student manuscripts, we found time to do some teaching as well, focusing on trying to nudge the class away from the general student obsession with narrative, with just getting the true story down. We tried to get them to think about something else while they were writing, things like technique, genre, and tradition. In the first (of six) workshops, we talked briefly about the use of lists in composition (lists in sentences, lists in paragraphs, and list as structural devices). Then we directed the class to read Leonard Michaels’s short story “In the Fifties,” an autobiographical story (might as well have been called an essay), plotless, apparently, a list of events and characters he met. Then we invited the students to write an imitation, or at least use the idea of a list and the Michaels story as a springboard for launching themselves into their own material.
After a week, in the last workshop, the students read out their essays, cobbled together in a few days interrupted by workshops, lectures, readings and revelery. The results were spectacular, beyond expectation (it was an unusual class to begin with). Two seemed eminently publishable. Today I am publishing the first (the second, Kay Henry’s “In Dubai,” is here), “Ten Ways to Leave” by Melissa Matthewson, a lovely, poignant evocation of a relationship in the leaving of it, charmingly written, rich with detail (in so brief a piece), startling and profound in its emotional honesty. And, of course, you can barely see the influence. Such is the nature of influence; good writers take an influence and make it their very own thing.
She could go out the back door and down through the yard marked about in roses with hips and the overgrown grass, the juniper slope, the limestone soil and past the jungle gym where the children play out their dreams of kings and queens and kingdoms ruled with swords, fire, dragons, and sometimes happy endings.
She hears a story one afternoon and can’t forget the image of a woman walking the highway at night, alone, having left her husband standing in the parking lot of a store where he has chosen smoke instead of love and so she thinks she could leave with that same kind of drama: treading the turnpike while he watches her from a convenient store window, the road spread out before him like a long strung out piece of thread that will unravel the more you fuss with it, the more you tear at it with your fingers.
She could go while he is sleeping, but she thinks that would be unfair and doesn’t he deserve just a little bit of reason? If she did leave that way, she could sit on the bed first, the children sleeping in the other room, and watch his chest swell to the night, put her hand on his mouth, see every part of him move in dreams or nightmares, something she’s never done, never even been curious about, which makes her wonder. So maybe when the ice thaws, she’ll sneak from the bed tiptoeing through the house to the door and exit into a landscape of disquiet, apprehensive of the choice to go, but surely confident in the fantasy she holds in her mind.
She left him once for Montana, driving up the north highway and over the mountains into the snow and that was it for awhile. She lived alone in a new place and she thought this was life chosen well, but she missed him remembering when they drank beer on porches while watching cars and bicycles and stars heavy with sky. From there, she went on talking to her sheets at night, grabbing the pillow for his absence.
Maybe they could go for a hike, climb to the top of a mountain and look out from there, the way they did with their children once, the spread of all that grass and rock and peak, the wildflowers just then a new thing. They ate lunch: cheese, chocolate, salami, crackers. On top of that mountain, the wind picked up and it blew their children’s hair and they pointed their fingers to their house in its blue painted wood, just over the three ridges to the west where they could barely make out its slant and hold in the distance. They picked ticks from their hair because they lay in the grass laughing at the sky and it was spring remember. Yes, she thinks they could go for a hike and she could leave him there with the children on the mountain. She could remember him cutting cheese into slices on his knee listening for any movement in the manzanita.
Or maybe that’s too dramatic. Maybe they should just be straight about it—sit on the couch together over coffee, or more likely, a drink: bourbon, ginger, bitters, a little lemon, the kind she always makes for him in a small glass with ice. She might sit with him and look out the window and over all that they’ve done together, everything they’ve created, and still know it is all lost to the past anyway. Maybe she would cry. Maybe he would too. Or maybe there would be no tears. Maybe they would have used up everything they had in the build-up to that moment, so that at that point, the fatigue of a relationship overcomes them and they are quiet in their chairs in that room when the shadows take over the floors and the walls and all that is heard is the empty burden of what is absolute then: the love having gone a long time ago slipped from them when they weren’t paying attention.
She could remember how they never did take a honeymoon. She could remember how they watched a sunset over the water in Baja one time when they thought they knew love. She could go like a butterfly. Or the coyote they saw in a field, trotting in from a distance and surely the postman would stop in his wagon if he came along. They watched from the car, the animal poised in dangerous pursuit of its prey, all of it in the last flicker of day until the coyote ran up into the frustrated hills without dinner, without anything to take his hunger away.
Or she could remember how they left Homer’s tomb one morning in Greece, the Aegean spread out behind them like a blue map made up of what they couldn’t know. She could remember how they brushed their teeth on his grave. She could remember how they spit. She could remember how they held hands. She guesses that staying is a probability because of just these memories, that story, those moments. She considers their weighted history over and over again and really, she thinks the complicated details of leaving are the only things that keep her there still. It’s the mechanics, she’ll say.
She thinks then about the train she once took through France, through Switzerland, through Spain. She rode the early rail and left him in Brussels, though she lingered in the entry to the hostel before she left, sat down on the couch, pulled him to her, let his head fall into her lap, their cheeks flushed from pints of beer. He walked her to the station through a storm and when he left, she sat on the depot floor wishing for coffee and one last night next to him in bed naked and in love. She can’t recall that feeling now. She can’t conjure it in this tired, cold place of leaving.
She could leave by writing the departure. Maybe that’s the best way. Like here. There could be any number of scenes: stomping out of the restaurant throwing her napkin on the floor; sneaking out through the window too late when another man waits in an idling car; running away as if in pursuit chased by children or thieves or…; in the car early in the morning with just the sprinklers and newspaper man; or a surprise retreat when he returns from an errand, the house packed up, or just her things packed up, the door slightly ajar, her coat waiting on the couch, hands fumbling with the zipper of her sweater or her earrings and she thinks perhaps this is the most obvious choice, the most conventional and unoriginal of all departures, the one and only way she can retreat and leave behind the safest thing she’s ever had, this story that was never supposed to end in this way, at this point, in this now.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in Terrain, Under the Gum Tree, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Hothouse, and Camas, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Doug, Can you give us some notes from your talk in that workshop on lists in narrative prose? I’m having my students read some lyric essays and I’d love to hear your thinking. We’ve just read an essay from Jessica Hendry Nelson’s memoir called In New York which is built in this list form, each section beginning In New York.
Dawn, If I had time to turn around, I’d put together some notes. 🙂 But there are plenty of thoughts on lists and list essays in the craft book, NC’s Holy Book of Literary Craft (see Special Features in the nav bar at the top or the button in the right hand column). Also online at the National Post there is a short essay I wrote about lists. This is also linked in the Holy Book of Literary Craft.
p.s. Great to hear from you.
p.p.s. Also check out Kay Henry’s version of the list essay coming tomorrow.
Endings, yes. I love how this cuts right into the emotions — and we don’t need the whole narrative setup. Very nice, Melissa Matthewson!
Right. It’s a great lesson on what you don’t need to make a piece of nonfiction work.
This is extraordinary and evocative. So lovely.
Yes, quite terrific.
this is so beautiful and moving. In its cutting right into emotions, it reminds me of lydia davis’s ‘story’, another extraordinary piece that I read recently.
though the davis piece has moments of devastating emotional reveal amid a surfeit of plain, seemingly mundane narrative exposition.
A moving piece, written in a way no other can write of such. It’s exceptionally written with great joy of a moving pen, or perhaps the clicking clicks of types from the computer. In either way, it a fantastic piece And I truly enjoyed reading it. Great writing Melissa Matthewson, I loved it.
This is so tragic and so beautiful. What an inspiring example of this technique. Thank you for the introductory comments too. Get away from your obsession with narrative and get the true story down. A note to pin above the writing desk.