For me, the first step in learning to write was to gather the courage and the energy to look at the facts of my own life and then, to record them, and I have done that diligently for the past year.
Now, I am working on the next step in my writing journey: I want to learn how to look at the facts of my life and to learn to tell those facts in a fresh, exciting, and original way. Great creative nonfiction [and the best memoirs are creative nonfiction] is more than just the facts.
While you are reading the first chapter of Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood, it is not immediately obvious what the author is doing. Clearly, she is describing an area of lush vegetation, and if you have been to the area near Lake Chautauqua and Lake Erie, you might realize that she is talking about that part of western Pennsylvania. But then, she talks about Ben Franklin and George Washington, and after that, Dillard’s purpose might become vague, and it might take a bit more reading for you to realize that this highly skilled author is creating the setting that she needs to tell the story of her chidhood. But instead of simply saying, “My name is Annie Dillard, and I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, which once was a vast woodland inhabited only by Native Americans, Annie Dillard takes a more original approach:
creating the setting that she needs to tell the story of her chidhood. But instead of simply saying, “My name is Annie Dillard, and I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, which once was a vast woodland inhabited only by Native Americans, Annie Dillard takes a more original approach:
“When everything else has gone from my brain–thePresident’st name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and wat it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family–when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: The dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.
“I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like housefires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals.
“The three wide rivers divide and cool the mountains. Calm old bridges span the banks and link the hills. The Allegheny River flows in brawling from the north, from near the shore of Lake Erie, and from Lake Chautauqua in New York and eastward. The Monongahela meet and form the westward-wending Ohio.
“Where the two rivers join lies an acute point of flat land from which rises the city. The tall buildings rise lighted to their tips. Their lights illumine other buildings’ clean sides, and illumine the narrow city canyons below, where people move, and shine reflected red and white at night from the black waters. [p. 3]
“When the shining city, too, fades, I will see only those forested mountains and hills, and the way the rivers lie flat and moving among them, and the way the low land lies wooded among them, and the blunt mountains rise in darkness from the rivers’ banks, steep from the rugged south and rolling from the north, and from farther, from the inclined eastward plateau where the high ridges begin to run so long north and south unbroken that to get around them you practically have to navigate Cape Horn.
“In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oaks and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. The pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountains’ lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest.
“The wilderness was uncanny, unknown, unknown. Benjamin Franklin had already invented his stove in Philadelphia by 1753, and Thomas Jefferson was a schoolboy in Virginia; French soldiers had been living in forts along Lake Erie for two generations. But west of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania, there was not even a settlement, not even a cabin. No Indians lived there, or even near there.
“Wild grapevines tangled the treetops and shut out the sun. Few songbird lived in the deep woods. Bright Carolina parakeets–red, green, and yellow–nested in the dark forest. There were ravens then, too. Woodpeckers rattled the big trees’ trunks, ruffed grouse whirred their tail feathers in the fall, and every long once in a while a nervous gang of empty-headed turkeys came hustling and kicking through the leaves–but no one heard any of this, no one at all.
“In 1753, young George Washington surveyed for the English this point of land where rivers met. To see the forest-blurred lay of the land, he rode his horse to a ridgetop and climbed a tree. He judged it would make a good spot for a fort. And an English fort it became, and a depot for Indian traders to the Ohio country, and later a French fort and way station to New Orleans.
“But it would be another ten years before any settlers lived [p.e 4] there on that land where the rivers met, lived to draw in the flowery scent of June rhododendrons with every breath. It would be another ten years before, for the first time on earth , tall men and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn.” Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood, pgs. 3-5.
When I read the first chapter of An American Childhood, I felt the same way that I did after I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. Poisonwood is fiction and Dillard’s book is nonfiction; yet, the quality of the writing for both pieces is the same. I realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I understand that I have only been writing a year, but I am eager for the day that I will be able to nudge into the company of great writers, like Annie Dillard, who has learned how to tell her story and in doing so to share more than just the fact.
©Jacki Kellum October 11, 2016