Vignettes and Snippets
In her book, Bird By Bird, about her experiences as a writer,
Anne Lamott comments, “I began to write about what my father was going through, and then began to shape these writings into connected short stories. I wove in all the vignettes and snippets I’d been working on in the year before Dad’s diagnosis, and came up with five chapters that kind of hung together. My father, who was too sick to write his own rendition, loved them, and had me ship them off to Elizabeth, our agent.”
Yes. This is how I write, too. Vignettes and snippets — that, after a while, kind of start to hang together. Like my Summerland stories (a few of which you can read in recent issues of Archivos magazine). And the many words I’ve written about Haida Gwaii. And even my “family stories” here and here. And all the bits and pieces in my “Conversations, Reflections and Meditations” site. Not to mention my penandpapermama.com site and my normajhill.com site. And several other websites, magazines, newspaper columns, anthologies, and dozens and dozens of journals.)
When my dad was battling terminal cancer, he spent his last days on the hide-a-bed in our living room, propped up against the pillows, changing final details of his will and jotting down endless notes about this and that — wrapping up his life, I suppose, leaving it all neatly tied up so us kids wouldn’t have to wonder or worry about it. The only thing that was missing was his typewriter that he’d always used through the years to record his life in diary-form: “A Record of Our Lives for Our Children.” Now he was adding in final small bits and pieces with notepaper, pen and clipboard.
I was sitting nearby at the dining room table, trying to keep him company. Following his lead, I started writing vignettes and snippets of stories from our lives, and as I completed this one or that, I handed some of them to him to read. But the next thing I knew, tears were flowing down his cheeks, and I wondered what it was I had written that could be so upsetting. I tentatively asked him if he was okay, and then the unexpected response came.
He smiled so widely, it was like life and sunshine was suddenly pouring out of his gray, cancer-death-mask wrinkled skin, and he said, “All my life I have written things down, all my life I wanted to tell stories, and I tried and I tried, and it all came out as lists of facts, like a diary. But you just sit down and write a few words, and they’re alive and real — they’re what I always wanted to be able to do.”
What do you say to something like that? I stuttered (with tears in my eyes, too), “Well… if you hadn’t written down all those diary entries over the years, would I have all those memories to draw on? See… these are YOUR stories, too.” And he was happy. Oh, he was so happy. I guess he was “dying happy.”
And maybe that’s what a lot of what writing is for, after all. To help other people (and yourself) to live — and die — happy.