As a lifelong writing student, I’ve resisted writing prompts—a lazy doubting stubbornness that’s fading as I see repeatedly in my classes their utility and power. Spurred by an exercise, my “Writing Life Stories” students have just produced some of their best work of the semester.
I can’t go into the stories my students told. But suffice it to say that their essays’ opening lies—in their yearning and often-iconic specifics—take on such power, resonance, and frequently sadness as we learn the truth. Yet the retrospective wisdom fostered by the nature and placement of the truth-telling narrator makes it all moving, bearable, and a gift.
A former neighbor and hired helper of mine, whom I portray as Sam in my book Shepherd: A Memoir, used to call daffodils “Easter flowers.” I doubt Sam knew their “real” name, and his folk-poetry label for the Narcissus species spoke volumes.
Right now, in a perennial bed paces from where I write, my daffodils ordered last Fall are up and blooming for the first time. I’d planted them in the root system of a massive silver maple, and feared I hadn’t gotten them deep enough. Maybe they didn’t all make it. Yet now, at least some are blooming and some will replicate, Spring’s very essence. Their white and yellow faces form a luminous statement of hope and joy—indeed of rebirth—in this weary world. There they’ll endure, annually remaking what’s so old into news that’s forever so new.
Illness is a theme of my “Writing Life Stories” class this semester. The students noticed it, not me. But then, four are nursing majors. In one of our texts, Lee Martin’s collection of memoir essays Such a Life, his father’s traumatic accident that cost him his hands casts a shadow across every line; and Martin explores his own boyhood bout with thyroid illness and his middle-age health crisis, an ordeal of corneal abrasion. Running through another of our main texts, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, is her mother’s illness and death from cancer.
Then Thomas Larson visited last week.
He’s got a new book out, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (my review and interview), and my students had read its powerful first quarter, which depicts Larson’s first heart attack and its aftermath. They also read his essay “The Woman on the Corner,” about his grandfather’s suffering and death from cancer and their effect on his grandmother. In introducing Larson, I also prepped the class by mentioning his book The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” (reviewed), and I played part of a YouTube performance of “Adagio for Strings” with 5.8 million hits: a concert three days after the 9/11 attacks.
My students really wanted to know how Larson can write so personally about himself, his family, his body. Last year, this was also among the first questions for Lee Martin during his visit. Every non-writer wonders about this, I think. And most memoirists. “No one tells everything,” a writer once told me. But writers tend to view their experiences as material, as something to make art from, whether fiction or nonfiction.