When Everything Is Too Big, Write Small: Grounding in Micro Memoir
By Deirdre Danklin •
In the morning, the cat puts her nose on my nose and meows. My husband gets up, feeds her, and makes oatmeal. I stare at the ceiling and don’t think anything. Then it’s: Get up, brush hair, brush teeth, put on pants that no one will see. I carry my Chromebook with me to the breakfast table. My husband’s phone plays NPR. The news is fires and disease and rising authoritarianism. I have seventy-eight new emails.
Instead of answering students and supervisors, I click on a link (Twitter) and read “Olfactory” by Caroline Bock in Brevity. “These days, she is furious about his smell; men’s deodorant, she says, and doesn’t want her clothes washed with his. He is offended. He once held her against his bare chest. She furrowed into his freckles, into his chest hairs, now spindly like worms out in the sun too long. They breathed into one another’s mouths.” In the present tense, immediate, and true. It’s over in a few minutes: 400 words.
Then it’s: Meditate for ten minutes while the cat watches us like we’re crazy. Why do we need to practice sitting still? My husband wears his best blue button-down. He works in a family homeless shelter that houses 150 people. He wears a blue mask. The meditation app asks us to bring this sense of awareness with us into the rest of our day. I kiss him and stand in front of the closed door for a moment. Caroline Bock’s 400 words bring me back to myself. Back to my writing desk. She, briefly, reached out a hand and told me about her husband and daughter and laundry. When things are too big, focus on something small. Look at families. The father in the story is sick, but instead of saying sick, the daughter says he smells.
At my writing desk, the news pours in from my laptop’s glowing screen. It’s: Wildfires eating up the forests of the west; 100,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus; 200,000; Ruth Bader Ginsberg; and conspiracy theories about all of it, empty narratives heaving under the weight of plot holes. On this particular day, while I’m writing at my desk, Donald Trump gets diagnosed with the coronavirus. I scroll, scroll, scroll. Meme. Tweet. New York Times update. I’m supposed to be writing, but how can I focus? Something short. I go to 100 Word Story, click on “essays” for something true. The news quiets when I read “Immediate Family Only” by Laurie Ann Doyle. “The very least he owes me is a body. A thumb, a wrist bone, the big barrel of his chest. But there my father sits: gray soot in a gold cube.” Here’s another death, but a small one. One father. The whole father is too much to take in, so instead, we get his thumb and his wrist bone. We see the gold cube in which his ashes sit. I let out a breath. This story is only 100 words long. It’s true. Limited by wordcount, fighting for attention among the longest news stories of my life, it elbows its way in with detail. Details that work on more than one level and that mean more than one thing. I can see Laurie Ann Doyle’s father: a big, barrel-chested man. I can feel the injustice of this one vital life shrinking down to fit inside a gold cube. Instead of screaming at the injustice of grief, Doyle shows us that cube, the unbearable smallness of her father’s cremated body.
I feel better after reading this story. Though sad, it’s concrete and contained. Doyle’s economy and emotional restraint make grief bearable by bringing it back to a human scale. I take a deep breath. Instead of reading more news, I answer student emails. My students are overwhelmed. They need extensions. Yes, of course, I grant them. I don’t think twice. I can’t imagine what it would be like to face this moment at the precarious precipice of my early twenties. If I didn’t have my husband, my cat, and my own apartment. If I had just signed my student loan papers. My students are having a hard time writing, and I understand. I’m having a hard time with my flash fiction. It only takes 200 words for things to get dark and fantastical. I usually write about impossible things: talking tattoos, reincarnated tortoises, brunching covens. But now, everything fantastical falls flat in the face of this moment. It’s too big. I need small, smaller, and true. The smallest, truest story right now would be the word FEAR handwritten on a piece of paper.
Then, I have Zoom meetings. On any given day, the meetings could be a sonnet symposium, office hours, or classes. On this day, I am explaining commas to a ten-year-old who lives on the other side of the world. This is my other job. The coordinating conjunctions are “and, or, nor, yet, for, but, so.” I spend the entire Zoom call staring at my own face with a terrible sense of dislocation. Is that what I look like? Is that the face everyone else sees? When the call is over, I’m not sure if the child understands how to use commas properly. And, I want to tell her that it doesn’t matter, really. That following the rules doesn’t guarantee your success within systems, but she’s too young and that’s not my job. Instead, I personify the coordinating conjunctions. “They’re the comma’s friends,” I say. “They help the comma hold up things that are too heavy for it to carry alone.”
In “Have You Eaten Rice” by Jin Su Joo, published in The Cincinnati Review, food is the detail that holds up the heavy things. She says:
Rice gets sweet if you chew it long enough. If you cry while eating it, the sweetness mixes with the briny saliva and chokes the throat. Home for lunch after botched exams in middle school, I would swallow sweet, salty, sticky rice, mulling over the mistakes made. Rice was sweet and salty the morning after the drunken night when my ex and I broke up too. I couldn’t remember how and why we argued, and I was hungry. While he went out for a walk, I mixed a soft-boiled egg and a dollop of soy sauce into a bowl of rice, just the way my mom used to when I was little. The slimy yolk helped push it all down. We had broken up several times before, and I was sure this was the last time.
The grief, the anxiety, the fear of failure, all of the emotions and experiences that would fall flat—too big—if written out plainly, are carried to my heart through rice, through soft-boiled eggs and soy sauce. I can eat this food with Jin Su Joo. I have eaten a lunch salted with fear of the future before. Today, I make pasta and vegetables and think of how I need to sit down and write. My mind, ping-ponging between fear and despair and flickers of hope, looks for a place to land. I’m looking for a pile of laundry or chest freckles, a wrist bone or gold cube, a bowl of rice, and a slimy yolk. There must be something small that can help carry the heavy things.
After lunch, I teach a class online. I’m having a hard time getting my students to use specific details in their writing. They’re afraid that if they’re too specific, they won’t appeal to a broad audience. I tell them that it’s the opposite: the more specific they are about the objects in their lives, the food they eat, and the clothes they wear, the more relatable they will be. Your reader might not see themselves in the surface meaning of your detail, I tell them, but they will see themselves in its deeper meaning. I can tell that they sort of believe me. Next week, I will get stories that say “the purple lamp” instead of “the lamp” and I’ll consider that progress.
When my husband comes home, the cat rubs her orange face against his legs. My body suddenly realizes that I’ve been sitting still all day. My lower back hurts because I hunch over my laptop, peering at tweets and updates, worrying. I stand and stretch. My husband takes his mask off to kiss me. “How was your day?” he asks. Instead of telling him about the things I read on Twitter or about commas or about the importance of using specific detail to appeal to the deeper sensibilities shared by all readers, I’ll tell him about the late afternoon light hitting the crystal animals I have lined up on the windowsill above my desk. There’s a kiwi bird, a rocking horse, a bear, a sheep, a squirrel, and a koala. In the afternoon, I tell my husband, the light hits their clear bodies at the right angle and sprays rainbows all over the walls. Tiny flecks of color, bright and fleeting.