For Margaret Wise Brown In the great green room once known as The Earth, we stretched out in dry grass and stared up at the sky, arms akimbo behind our heads. Elbows for miles. There was a telephone, once…
As a memoirist, I spend a lot of time inspecting my memories and working with writing students who are inspecting their own. Last year around this time (December 2022), as my undergraduate lyric essay class was coming to a close, I found myself particularly inspired by some of the literary ekphrasis I encountered in my students’ final portfolios—the innovative ways they were writing about books that had served as touchstones during their childhood and adolescence. I started thinking about the books that were touchstones for me and gradually pivoted toward one of my favorite prompts: What don’t I remember? Where is there a gap in memory or a memory I expect should be there, but isn’t?
I realized that I had no memory of reading Goodnight Moon as a child or of anyone reading the book to me. A blurry memory surfaces of the book on the shelf in my kindergarten classroom, but I know we didn’t have it in our collection at home. In fact, the first time I could remember reading it myself was when my nibling Evie was a baby, circa 2008.
Spurred on by this omission—and by my enduring love of any text that invokes the moon—I downloaded the book in vibrant PDF form (all the pictures intact!) and read it again.
First, I saw an exercise in specificity, the power of objects and concrete nouns. My students and I talk a lot about objects and how they anchor us (and our readers) to particular places, people, and occasions. I often find myself referencing and reaching back to Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oyster and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy, as well as Dinah Lenney’s The Object Parade, for just this reason. But Goodnight Moon, such a formative primer on the things of this world and the practice of naming them, was missing from my pantheon of foundational texts. It should have been the first one, shouldn’t it?
I took the structure of the children’s book and began—in my office at school, during office hours strangely unoccupied for that time of year—writing new text into each page. The invitations were rife for a zeitgeist update, a cataloguing of the present moment with adult observers and participants in mind.
I encourage my students to look for invitations, permissions, and prompts in every text they encounter. Writing about texts from our lives—the ekphrastic imperative—is another way to give ourselves that wall in the swimming pool, that place to push off from in our own work. But I ended up not writing about Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon so much as writing into it and out of it. Why am I awake so often now at night, worrying, when I used to sleep like a baby when I was, well, a baby? I think this project (flash? hybrid? I’m not sure what genre banner I should raise above it) helped me elucidate many contemporary triggers for insomnia, but also, I hope, some of the beauty in the luminous particulars that endure.
JULIE MARIE WADE is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography, her collections of poetry and prose include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures; Small Fires: Essays; Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems; When I Was Straight; Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems; Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing; and Skirted. Her collaborative titles include The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, written with Denise Duhamel; and Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, written with Brenda Miller. Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats. Her newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History (New Michigan Press, 2023); and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House Press, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize. Forthcoming in 2024 is The Mary Years: A Memoir, selected by Michael Martone as the winner of the 2023 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Find her on Twitter at @manyplums.