Tailored Congruence: the details essay
Erin Pesut on writing the details without getting stuck in them.
This essay is part of The Paddle, our series of personal essays about the ups and downs of the creative life.
My husband came home from the field and the first thing he wanted to do was take a hot shower. It was winter in North Carolina, maybe December, and there wasn't any snow on the ground, but it was cold, the kind of cold you don't want to be out in for four days straight, but he had been. The Army had said so. Gabriel came in with camo paint still all over his face. The way the olive greens and blacks had dried made his whole face look like a bruise. We kissed; a reunion, one of many. He was home again. He wanted to shower. Of course he did. Go shower, I said. Off he went. A few minutes later I heard something shatter in the bathroom.
"Everything OK?" I called out from the kitchen.
He opened the door a crack. His shirt was off. "Don't freak out," he said.
I saw pieces of his tungsten wedding ring all over the floor. The ring had been too cold for too long. It rolled off the counter and broke. Gabriel knows full well how fast my mind can move. Give me two strands of anything and I'll knit them into a story. A shattered ring? A broken marriage! Divorce! A tell-tale sign! Something worse...someone else?
"Stop," he said. He had caught me red-handed. "It doesn't mean anything."
As a lover of narrative, as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, I'm lightning quick to want to match up metaphor with meaning. Synchronicity with story. I see life as art. I see art as life; it's this tailored congruency. I translate one into the other and back again.
Safe to say, Gabriel and I see the world quite differently. When I get into one of my "loops," overlaying a narrative lens onto our everyday living, Gabriel will say, "A rock is just a rock." But I have a rock in my desk, this piece of frankincense, rough-cut and xanthous, I kept from a writing exercise in grad school. I remember our teacher, Elissa Schappell, passing them out. Amber, Susan, Lillian, Miranda, Melanie, and Katrine were around the table, too. I remember the square layout of our classroom, the type of chair (jet black with a bendy back), and where I sat (in the seat furthest from the door with my back to a pair of radius windows looking out onto a Columbia quad). Details are everything to me. They animate. They color. They light the fuse of art. They make any story "go."
My desk drawer is full of Post-it notes with ideas that I'm still working on, neon pencil erasers, recipes for elderberry syrup, a poem I wrote about my mom but never showed her or even typed up, a deck of tarot cards, and a quotable card that says, "calm down." To me, everything contains a story, a history, be it a sweater, a bookshelf, a plant, a muffin tin. I save voicemails, letters from friends, screenshots, college transcripts. Right now, I have 32,209 photos on my phone and 1,269 videos. I never considered myself to be an archivist; I consider myself a writer. I want to capture every detail. I want to remember it all. But how do I make sense of my love of detail? How do I make art from my overwhelm?
Before I graduated from my MFA program, I submitted my completed thesis and met with two fiction writers. We had moved to North Carolina, so my meeting was virtual, on Zoom. Gabriel and I had planned to see family at the lake, and I considered our drive out there, after my final conference, my "finish line," the end to my MFA experience. I imagined driving west on I-40 with a powerful royal feeling emanating from my body. I'd now be a Writer with nothing but potential before me. But that was not the case. The meeting did not go well. I was in low spirits. I was depressed. Maybe, I thought, I was "too sensitive" to do this writing thing. Maybe my love of details would never line up "right." I couldn't see my path forward, and to me this was the same thing as saying there was no path. For months, honestly, even years after that conference, before I got too far in a creative project, I convinced myself I was blessed with foresight: I could see every possible roadblock in sight. Oh wasn't it wonderful to save myself from even having to try?
But how do I make sense of my love of detail? How do I make art from my overwhelm? And, how do I step over my self-pity and fear? I look to the masters. I think of Natalie Goldberg, the best-selling author of Writing Down the Bones, and how she found her own way to build a writing practice. "Every time I thought of a topic or idea, any flash at all, even if it seemed to have no connection to writing—the apples in fall at Nora Zimmerman's orchard in Talpa or the story I'd heard about the man who ate a car in India—I jotted it down at the back of my notebook." When she sat to write, she picked a few topics, listed them at the top of her page, and wrote for two hours. Structure is what saves her. Structure is what gives her a boundary to play within. What does my structure look like? What is yours?
I, too, find calm with the structure of time. I, too, use a marker of two hours (I set a timer) to make progress and cover some ground. I try to write from seven to nine AM. I don't beat myself up when I can't. And if I want to keep going, if I can keep going, I do.
In my life, I continue to play with connection and context. I can't not. I love writing. I love making stories. When the details do all match up, as Richard Hugo says in his essay “The Triggering Town,” "There's [...] an exhilaration that can't be explained to anyone who has not experienced it." It's electric. My work is not in pleasing others with what I write. My work is not even in fully understanding what manifests through me. My work is in the details, of gathering them as I go, collecting them in my basket, and showing up at the page with all of them to see what shines. My work is the writing. Making the edits and moving sections around. It's like quilt making, seeing which pieces fit and how all the elements come together. Needless to say, while I'm working, if I stay focused, I am nothing but my absolute happiest.
And what about the wedding ring? Gabriel got another one. In fact, there have been many. None of them the same ring I put on his finger at our small wedding ceremony near the rowboats in Central Park, but the ring is not the marriage. The marriage is the marriage. I see that all so clearly now.
Erin Pesut studied writing at Warren Wilson College and earned her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Chautauqua, Whale Road Review, West Trestle Review, Poetry South, Camas, and HeartWood Literary Magazine, among others. She was a finalist for CRAFT's inaugural Creative Nonfiction Award. Born in South Carolina, she now lives in Vermont. www.erinpesut.com