So many things have me revisiting my musical past as of late. It’s really kind of odd how so many things converged at once. Sometimes I feel like, for whatever reason, I just really let music slip away for awhile, and over the last month, a switch has flipped and all of a sudden, I’m back.
I think I’m a little too embarrassed to admit one of the things that started all this. I’ll just say this: it was a TV show. And it wasn’t that I loved the music on the show so much as one of the characters reminded me of how I used to feel about music, and that got me listening to CDs again, and trying to rebuild my old music collection by buying a bunch of used CDs, and looking into concerts and shows again. Okay, I’ll give a hint, since it sort of relates to the remainder of the post, this TV show I don’t quite want to name is named after a song.
This spring I submitted several pieces of writing to a handful of contests and had almost forgotten about it. But last night I got an email that my essay “Seeing and Not Seeing” won third place in the Willamette WritersKay Snow Writing Contest for non-fiction!
Everywhere you walk, you “get caned”—hit by several canes from all different directions. There are just so many people navigating their way around that it’s impossible to avoid. From the moment you emerge from your room to the time you reenter it, you get caned. There are dogs everywhere too. They are also getting caned at every turn, and surrounded by so many other dogs. I think they are more overwhelmed than the people. The hotel has set aside a place outside for people to relieve their guide dogs but I keep hearing that some of them, especially the ones that have never been to a convention before, are having some bladder issues.
“We’re not literally going to die,” I reminded Natalie as I gathered up my things to leave her apartment and walk back across the street to mine. “I mean, no one’s going to shoot us or anything. The worst that will happen is that we fail–”
“I kinda feel like I might actually fail,” Natalie said, sort of laughing the way people laugh when they’re trying not to cry. I knew that laugh so well by now, had laughed it myself so many times.
I grabbed my huge eight-pound book with the fluorescent green cover and shoved it into my backpack. “Me too,” I admitted. I looked around her living room, to all of our practice tests and answer keys scattered over her couch, chair and coffee table; the erasers bloody with pencil shavings, my pink and purple mechanical pencils and Natalie’s straight-up golden #2s; our notecards in several haphazard piles; our identical molecular models of cyclohexane with their carbons and hydrogens in the most stable chair conformations. Natalie sat on her couch, pulling a plush brown blanket around her shoulders. Her apartment looked like a warzone. “That practice test was brutal,” I said. “I’m the one who couldn’t even finish it.” I had given up early into the second practice test, as per usual, feeling I just didn’t know enough to go forward, every question making me feel more like a failure than the last.
I am albino, which means my skin and hair are paler than pale, and though I have partial vision, I’m legally blind. I grew up in a town where it seemed everyone worshiped at the same handful of churches and was white and voted Republican and wore the same clothes. I was white, but I was too white. I was an agnostic atheist, a bleeding heart, and I dressed like the grunge-rock musicians I admired. I didn’t even fit in with the delinquent kids, because my parents were too strict and my grades too good. I felt like the town freak.
Nothing emphasized my feelings of alienation like a school dance, where I’d sit at the back of the cafeteria and eat chips to numb myself. One time I tried to mingle, but a girl I’d ridden to the dance with told me to stop following her around like a puppy. I went back to the food table and tried to disappear.
I have tried many times to explain who I am, at all different points in my life. I have used up pages and pages trying to convey all the different and conflicting attributes of my personality. I have used my interests, my reactions to situations, the way I think, what I believe in, some significant experiences, my aspirations, my fears, and my deepest innermost emotions to try to define what makes me who I am and separates me from the rest of the world. I have tried to find what makes me an individual, unique in my own way. Each time I have tried I always have come away feeling that I am too complex to explain, or maybe that I am no different from anyone else.
Then, over the course of eighth and ninth grade I read the six-part series by Christopher Pike called The Last Vampire series. They sound like books that are just simple thrillers for young readers, and for someone at a younger age, that is really all they are. However, I read the series earlier this year at a much deeper level and was amazed at what I found. There is really significant material within the lines of the books.
After the first reading, I finished the last book feeling different, but I could not easily put my finger on the reason why. I felt a sense of tranquility that I was unaccustomed to.
Sometimes memoir writing transforms your memory. The summer that I was fifteen, my friend Hope, who I’d known for a few years, ran away from blind camp with three guy friends during an overnight camping trip in the woods. They had planned this escape for a year and once they were found, they were all kicked out of camp. I thought I’d never see Hope again. Years later, writing about my summers at blind camp, I wanted to write about this incident but I couldn’t remember how I found out that Hope ran away. I talked with other friends from blind camp but nothing jarred my memory. I started writing about that summer, starting from arriving at Fox Cabin with its blue vinyl couches and orange, white and yellow checked curtains.
As I got closer in the writing to Monday, the night Hope went missing, I decided to just make it up. How I found out wasn’t that important to the overall story, I reasoned. I remembered that our cabin had shucked corn early that afternoon for a cookout we were having that night and I was just going to write in someone coming up to us while we were in the back of the dining hall complaining about the corn. But then, as I wrote into the scene, felt the New Jersey early August heat, remembered the bales of corn, recalled my friend Robyn doing Beavis and Butthead impressions, it suddenly came to me. It was later that afternoon, after we were done with the corn. We were having free swim, frolicking in the L-shaped, cyan-colored pool when Molly, the arts and crafts instructor, called me over to the side of the pool and asked if I knew where Hope might go if she was upset and wanted to get away. That’s how I found out she was missing. Nothing I had tried had helped me remember except writing right into it.
Here’s another little excerpt from “Blue Alchemy.” Read a previous excerpt here. This is an essay that’s about memoir writing, and how memory and writing both get transformed in the process. And this little snippet is about how the act of writing can help us remember.