A lot of times something will begin to trouble me. A thought or image of her would rise up in the middle of work or while I was doing something else. Did she ever love me? This haunting began to give me an inkling of where the essay might head. You see, my mother abandoned me in the middle of the night when I was six, a formative incident in my childhood—one that impacted the rest of my life.
So, I knew it was something I wanted to explore further on the page. If you experience such a haunting, welcome it in its unique incantation. Let it keep you up at night; let it speak to you in its own strange language. For me, before the topic of the essay was clear, it spoke to me through my body, and I tried to serve as a tuning fork for its messages. Old wounds, they still haunt— came to me so I wrote that down.
And it was true my body was filled with aches from physical injuries long past, but emotional ones as well. Insomnia had always been an issue for me, since I was a child, since my mother left me , I wrote. This time the insomnia lasted for a while, so I tried to use these waking hours to face down what was really beneath the surface ponderings about my mother, under the sleeplessness, under the pain in my body. Was there something else that needed unraveling?
Then a realization occurred to me. I had a hard time staying asleep, and the hour of night when I usually rose was around the same time when I woke and found my mother gone when I was a little girl.
Maybe in a sense, my unconscious was forcing me to revisit that dark hour for new information. I would get up and write down whatever came to me. I wrote about the quality of the night. I wrote about going to the gym that day, about working out, about exercising out old demons. I wrote about the soreness of my muscles. I wondered why I pushed myself so hard physically— to the point of pain, to the point of fatigue.
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And then I wrote this: it makes me feel close to my mother. Some fragments grew into threads, which I soon realized were related—the pain in my body, the insomnia, my mother leaving me. I added what I could remember of my life around the time she left. I added things I intuited she had done with her body, done with men with her body, and how I had repeated similar behaviors as a woman myself.
I weaved the threads together as best I could. Then one morning, after another night of not much sleep, I was headed to the gym again. I was tired. I was half listening to the radio when a phrase came to me. And if she had done that, could she have loved me? Right there, I had uncovered the structure for my essay, with this consistent refrain in my life.
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Is anyone coming? Now, I just had to put it together. The impetus for getting to the crux of this story was strong—I lost my mother in an unusual way, what I saw as a mental health issue, which led her to commit a crime of passion—kidnapping and attempted murder—which landed her in prison. I was willing to come back to the material again and again to explore every facet of losing her, how it affected me, and why it continued to plague me. It came natural, fingers that grab and dig, fists that hold, then hit.
Do we forgive? For me, when the haunting began, the answer was no. I had not forgiven her. I was recreating the pain of it, so I could be close to her. I wrote into the essay the various ways I was holding on and why. I had started writing fragments of the essay in August , and by January , I had a pretty good draft. I started to submit the piece out to essay and creative nonfiction contests.
Within that first group of 10 submissions, I had received two positive responses. I felt this was a good sign that the material was resonating with readers. Now to discuss a bit of logistics. Every 10 or so submissions, I would bring it back to the re-visioning table. I wanted every word, every sentence to work at its highest level.
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I wanted the voice of love and anguish to track. At the end of my reading, people were quiet at first. And this is the tricky part. Other pieces of feedback may not provide a simple path forward.
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Now, I knew what parts she was alluding to as interesting—the parts about my mother going after that man. I also intuited what they felt was less interesting—the child being left. I also knew about the concept of withholding. Theoretically, I could use what I knew the reader found interesting, eke it out slowly, withholding what they wanted to know until the end.
And in the meantime, I could get across all the information I wanted to convey, which was the pain and grief of losing my mother in this way. They often seemed childish because they were peopled with animals, usually tortoises or hares.
Moreover, my father told stories in English; my mother in Igbo. In a way that I could not understand at the time, the stories sounded better in English. I discovered the reason for all this in my eighth year. My father had not told me a story in a long time. Frustrated, I barged into his room one evening just after he returned from work, and demanded he tell me a story. I had half hidden myself behind the curtain at the threshold of his door, afraid he would be angry at my intrusion.
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Please tell me a story now that I am not sick. He straightened a wrinkled page, tucked in a thread hanging loose from the spine and gave it to me. I remember that night clearly.
I took the book to the front porch and sat down on the floor, a foot from a trail of white ants. I opened the book to what I judged was the first page and read what turned out to be the most fascinating of the stories my father had told me. The story was about a man who lived in a village long ago and who had magical powers.
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For years, the other residents fail to consult him, and, despite having performed wonders in the past, he is almost forgotten. Then, one day, the king of the village knocks on his door.
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