Exploring the art of prose


Author: Jane Marcellus

Kept by Jane Marcellus

alt text: image is a color photograph of white church doors; title card for Jane Marcellus's flash nonfiction piece "Kept"

  Moores lived next door. He worked construction; she stayed home. I don’t know how old he was, but I remember that on her birthday, she turned twenty-two. It seemed old. I was twelve. Moores had a baby, Sidney. Their…

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Author’s Note

This incident haunted me for decades. One day when I was working on another writing project, the first lines presented themselves. I wrote them down to get them out of my head but didn’t develop the essay right away. It was such a dark little memory that I didn’t want to go there, but it kept knocking—wanting to be written.

I like memoir written from the perspective of childhood. I think children are still trying to articulate raw experience, unencumbered by adult language, so their perceptions can offer insight into what is otherwise unsayable. The trick is to get out of the way and let the childhood voice emerge on its own terms. If you’re writing about something that happened when you were twelve, it’s important to let the diction be that of a twelve-year-old. For example, I would not have said “domestic violence” because I had never heard that term. A Google search tells me that the phrase wasn’t even around yet, but even if it had been, using it would have taken away from the twelve-year-old’s perceptions.

I also like metaphors and have noticed that they have a way of arising organically in memoir. Our memories give us the details we need to give a story meaning. An object can be both literal and metaphoric, which I find fascinating. The bookless bookshelf, the scent of the diaper pail, the teddy bear safety pins, the ice, and the cake function as metaphors, I realize now, but I didn’t think about that when I was writing.

It was in revising that the word “kept” became more meaningful. In my childhood it was a synonym for babysitting, but of course it also refers to women’s economic powerlessness. When I started trying to reflect on what this experience meant to me, the word (as “keep”) emerged again in the long paragraph near the end. (Thank you, subconscious!)

Finally, I like the idea that we writers are multiple selves—the ordinary self, the writer self, the narrator self, the character self. In my case, this morning, my ordinary self feeds the cat and runs the vacuum, while my writer self makes sure the printer has paper, my narrator self directs the story as it unfolds, and my character self emerges on the page. While writing this note, my ordinary self was curious about that house. The Zillow real estate website showed me interior photos, and I spent some time admiring vintage details—gorgeous hardwood floors, kitchen cabinets we would now call retro, and of course, that built-in bookshelf. Wow, I could live there, I thought. But then I remembered that for character-me, that house would always be haunted.


JANE MARCELLUS’s work includes literary nonfiction, critical analysis, and journalism. Her essays have appeared in journals including Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, and Sycamore Review and were listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2018, 2019, and 2020. She can be found on Twitter @janemarcellus.