Writers on Writing #122: Verity Sayles
Grief in Fragments
Much of my nonfiction work is about grief. I used to try and disentangle myself from it by writing about dating or science. But how can I write about dating a medical student without nodding to my own experience lingering the halls of the oncology ward? How can I write about visiting a boyfriend biochemistry major in his lab, without relating my own interest in how the glial cells in the brain are able to both coalesce and corrupt? How can I write about myself without writing about the loss of my father?
Neuroscience research tells us that memory is pliable and plastic. When I introduce memoir to my high school students, it’s inevitable one will ask, with arms-crossed defiance, “But how could she actually remember all this?” Some students think the truth of experience is more important than fact, but I have some students, especially those would rather be looking through a microscope, who resist memoir. I’ve seen the fickleness of my father’s brain as the tumor grew. I’ve seen the fickleness of my own brain, as it pieces together fragments after a long night of drinking. Truth in nonfiction is not an argument I want to rehash here. I follow the course of my memory’s truth and seek to write it dutifully, but, in writing about someone who has died, I find myself stalled by recollection more than when writing about those who are alive.
Since I defended my MFA thesis, I’ve been turning over a committee member’s comment. She gestured to the series of essays and said, “Your father feels like a shadow here.” In life, my father wasn’t a shadow. He was a robust, healthy man with a big laugh. He rode his motorcycle across the country, ran marathons, and taught me how to use a hammer, identify trees, and swim in the ocean. On the page, he appears fragmented. One of my biggest challenges is dialogue. My writing group this year noted that I never use direct quotes for my father. He rarely speaks in my pieces. Is this because he died a quiet, unlikely death? Or because memory fails me? I don’t remember the last thing he said to me. I had been away for the weekend and when I returned, he was in a sleep he’d never wake from. I can’t even precisely remember what I said when I had my turn alone with him, though it was just me speaking. When writing conversations of the past, I load with phrases like, “I think I remember,” but this phrase can’t be tacked onto every sentence.
On the page, my father serves a nebulous catalyst for my own grief. Greif, to me, feels more truthful. I can write about how it felt, how it feels, and how it’s changed over nine years because it’s a living fact. It’s undeniable. I can write scenes where people ask me about my dad and I have to fumble to tell them I don’t have one. I can write about the time I cried so hard and so drunk that I threw up a dinner of lobster and white wine and spent the night on my bathroom floor. I can write about the heaviness of the weight, how it feels like I’m carrying organs encased in lead. It seems to me, attending to a corporeal reality is more truthful than reanimating the dead. It worries me though, my memory is already pitted (I’m always losing my keys), so if I don’t try work to shape my father on the page, what else will I lose?
Verity Sayles is an essayist from New England. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Proximity, Crab Creek Review, Under the Gum Tree, and others. She earned an MFA in nonfiction from Oregon State University in 2016, served on the board of 45th Parallel, and fell in love with pine trees. She now lives in Seattle, where she teaches English and creative writing at an independent high school. She can be reached at veritysayles.com or @saylesteam.