by Cynthia Huntington
What follows here is an edited portion of a letter to a former student in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program where I teach. I have changed some references to scenes and several details to avoid breaching confidentiality.
I’m glad my letter and comments worked for you. I think you’re doing important work and confronting a lot of natural obstacles; you might find it interesting to keep track of your difficulties in writing this—in every case so far, when you run into an obstacle in the writing, that obstacle is an illustration of your situation in some way. When you can’t find language, there is also an issue in the story about people’s ability to find language. When your structure breaks down and the stories go in all directions, that’s also a mirror of your family trying to pull everything into one necessity of caring for your injured brother, while each person has a different challenge in his/her own life. It’s as if the writing takes on the symptoms of the family you are writing about, and particularly it takes the symptoms of your own story within that.
You are in some way forbidden to write this. It is in some way a betrayal of the family’s conspiracy of silence around your brother’s “accident.” You are positioned as the truth teller, and because it is repressed it comes out in awkward, self-shaming ways, like fighting with your uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, crying, yelling, and blurting out more than people want to hear. The truth teller is always in some ways marginal. She must be deeply enough within the story to know it all, but also in a position to see it obliquely, to change the lens. She is often shunned. In your case, you are the youngest, and the one who went away so you are situated on the cusp. It’s easier to deny what the truth teller says if the ones on the inside focus on the speaker’s “difference.”
And the truth teller isn’t always right. Everyone has a slant on their own story, and no one sees it all completely. You constantly question whether what you are saying is actually true, while you feel in your heart that it must be. And being forbidden to write and speak can further distort the speaker’s understanding of the story. That’s why I suggested keeping track of the difficulties you encounter in this writing; they are quite telling. If you feel you must override the difficulties, create clarity where none exists, you will do the story a disservice. This family story, which you are forbidden to tell, because you are forbidden to know a single, ultimate version of it, is shifting, a story of discovery and reimagining. The obstacles this story raises shape the story, so I can’t guide you through them, only encourage you to go forward and have your understanding changed at every turn.
The scenes are the key. When you render a scene you can give more than one point of view, letting characters disagree, giving their words and actions space to exist apart from your interpretation. Not entirely; you can’t be entirely free of interpretation, but you can step back and allow the questions to expand. Is the angry uncle 100% wrong, as the “you” who is the character feels, or can “you the writer” feel the 10% uncertainty of his emotion alongside your 90% distaste for his words? Are your sisters lying to you when you return from college in order to keep you quiet, or is there a 2% “other” in their words and attitude?
Look for these places where the story you are trying to tell defeats you and lean into them; you are diverted for a purpose perhaps, to look again, to see even greater complexity in this tangled family saga of betrayal and love. You are diverted in order to look again.
Cynthia Huntington’s fifth book of poetry, Terra Nova, will be published in February 2017 by the Crab Orchard Poetry Series, Southern Illinois University Press. A chapbook, Fire Muse, is forthcoming in October 2016 from The University Press of New England. Her latest book, Heavenly Bodies, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in Poetry. Presently a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry she teaches at Dartmouth College where she holds the Frederick Sessions Beebe Chair in Writing, and in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing Program. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.