The assignment was to write about a landmark event. “Landmark” was defined by my brilliant professor Susan Lohafer as an event that cannot be repeated. You can’t graduate from high school twice, for example, because the first time renders any subsequent time meaningless. Or “landmark” could be singular in a transformative way, which is how I took it. As soon as I read the assignment—Susan’s assignments were so generous and exquisitely written, and always printed on colored paper—I knew I would write about the experience that’s dramatized in “First.” But it was a busy week. So, for several days while walking my dog up the sidewalk, riding the bus to and from campus and swinging a grocery basket down various aisles, I auditioned sentences in my mind. It felt just like that: one hopeful string of words after another stepping into the light, and smiling at me. I didn’t start actually writing until the night before the assignment was due. I remember sitting at my desk (the dog snoring into her bed nearby) and settling into my chair with my feet on the cushion, my knees sort of in my face as I stretched forward to reach the laptop. I was trying to sit like a kid in the back of a station wagon.
As I began to create real sentences, I wanted as much as possible to focus on what it was like to be in that moment. To keep the essay in the narrator’s body, to keep asking myself to retrieve more and more physical detail. And every time I reached for another sentence, one was there. Sentence after sentence, I wrote myself through the whole experience, start to end. The car ride itself provides a lot of momentum in the essay, and I felt ferried along first by the car, then by memory, by all the words and images I’d already searched through that week and by the inquiry of the assignment itself. Susan had stipulated that though we were to focus on dramatizing our landmark event, we also needed to create some sense of how the event fit into the narrator’s whole life. For me, the essay’s power resides in those few lines and phrases that hint at what will come. “…but will not be the last,” and so on.
RYAN VAN METER is the author of the essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (2011). His work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, The Normal School Magazine, Ninth Letter, and Fourth Genre, among others, and has been selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009. He lives in California and teaches at The University of San Francisco where he is an associate professor.