A cane prods me to conjure Dad’s ranch days in a memoir essay.
All summer I’ve been writing about cattle. My father’s bull Atoka Gold is a character, one of the purebred Herefords Dad raised during the early 1950s in California. What got me drafting a memoir essay was that in early June, when I brought my wife home from having surgery on her foot, I found a stockman’s cane among the umbrellas in our foyer.
Essays and stories and poems are built from leaps in thought and emotion and incident. They must unfold like a dream in which anything is possible.—Lee Martin, in his recent post on revision
And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it.—Grace Paley, Just as I Thought
I dimly recalled receiving the cane when I was four. This was about 1959. We had resettled by then in southwestern Georgia, and Dad bought a bull from a nearby farmer, R.W. Jones Jr. Walter Jones was a prominent breeder of polled (naturally hornless) Herefords who has since become legendary. He gave me the cane. Finding it again sent me into our basement, where I found Dad’s framed color photograph of Atoka Gold.I wove my memories of what surrounded the cane, me, Dad, and Atoka Gold together with my research into Mr. Jones and polled Herefords. I braided in my wife’s recuperation this summer. There’s always so much to explain, but good writing concerns more than one thing—so, great. Except my essay grew at one point to 27 pages. Rather long!
In my mind from the start, the piece really illuminated the nature of memory, imagination, and story. But early readers wanted more about my relationship with my father. I resisted, having written so much before.
Here’s a few typical passages from Shepherd: A Memoir:
I’d never written about the cane or our day at the Jones’s farm. Getting the first and subsequent drafts was an intense experience of trying to find the deeper story. Meanwhile in researching my essay I read a thick history of polled Herefords in America, talked to librarians in Georgia, questioned cattle experts. I learned what became of Mr. Jones, his son, and their famous linebred herd. I was shocked to see a photo of Walter Jones in a wheelchair—he’d been disabled by muscular dystrophy only a year after our visit.
I wished I could tell Dad, gone ten years now, about all I was learning, about the advances in grass farming—new theories, forage species, tools—since he’d been a pioneer in pastoral agriculture in California and Georgia. He’d used weak, clunky electrical fences that constantly shorted out. Hence his desire to feed his cows efficiently on silage he made. His vision of paradise became vast hay and forage fields that surrounded a feedlot where his cattle awaited his deliveries. . . .
Growing up in Satellite Beach I watched him charm outsiders, clients he had to entertain for work or distant relatives, unaware of his solitary nature, who were passing through. His blue eyes sparkled with humor and a smile lit his face. The current of warmth that flowed from him at such times was palpable, the way the Gulf Stream off our beach coursed in a warm vein through the Atlantic’s murky coastal chop. Always he commanded respect, a natural leader, and when he dropped his sober mask he could be as charismatic as a movie star.
As always, I was schooled in the joys and pains of writing. Managing the herky-jerky composition process challenges me. There’s the excitement of the first draft, a blend of anxiety and pleasure as you break ground and turn up glittering arrowheads amid the clay gumbo. Then there’s seeing something in a present-day scene, and working in a new thread to realize its promise. Then there are second thoughts and additions. Then there’s a whole new version. Then someone points out the essay’s true organizing principle—hello latest new version. And finally you cut that whole present-day thread that took weeks of work.
Always I re-learn truisms. You do improve, yet writing isn’t easier. Maybe harder in all respects. What a paradox. What a struggle. I think you must enjoy making sentences—and in my case, complaining about it. My new essay, labored over for three months, still isn’t fit for the front pasture. But I see its potential. And it won’t be long before I look back and realize yet again that the process was the gift.