“What’s the narrator trying to accomplish in this piece?”
“She isn’t connecting the dots back to herself.”
“There’s a lot of meaning on the page, but the narrator’s not making it. I am.”
“I like the story, but why is he telling it?”
Time and again in my creative nonfiction MFA workshops, I’ve heard critiques like these about student work (sometimes my own). While varied in their approach, they all hint at a similar problem: a missed connection on the page, an arm’s length gap between the narrator and material. Eventually these observations began to form a sequence in my mind, though I couldn’t decipher the pattern behind them. I knew that sometimes, even a gripping story couldn’t save an essay if its narrator neglected to forge a deeper connection to the material. Yet in my own writing, I couldn’t always figure out how to bridge the gap.
Then in the beginning of my third semester, my advisor Douglas Glover asked me to consider the motivating question of my memoir-in-progress, or as he defined it, “the emotional charge, or the gut reason” for putting pen to page. Not all personal narratives explicitly announce this question, though many do. But it is a technique which can raise a narrative’s stakes, giving it a sense of urgency, especially if the author carries the question throughout the text. When I tried the technique, I found it focused my writing mind and aimed my book in a clearer direction, perhaps because it adheres to what I believe is an essential truth: that at the heart of any good writing, fiction or nonfiction, lies inquiry—what Vivian Gornick calls “a voyage of discovery.”
For creative nonfiction is a meaning-making endeavor, and implicit in the genre is that meaning is formed in the act of writing. Thus, it is essential that CNF writers connect the two: the act of writing to the meaning the writing creates. Gornick explains the importance of this connection in her nonfiction craft book, The Situation and the Story: “When writers remain ignorant of who they are at the moment of writing—that is, when they are pulled around in the essay by motives they can neither identify accurately nor struggle to resolve—the work, more often than not, will prove either false or severely limited.”
The motivating question can be traced to 400 A.D., when Aurelius Augustinus, best known as St. Augustine, wrote what is largely considered the first Western memoir, The Confessions of St. Augustine. Early in Book One, he writes:
Hear my prayer, O Lord; let not my soul faint under thy discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto thee thy mercies, whereby thou hast saved me from all my most wicked ways … O Lord, my King and my God, may all things useful that I learned as a boy now be offered in thy service—let it be that for thy service I now speak and write and reckon.
For centuries scholars have speculated on St. Augustine’s political motivations for writing his autobiography, but he clearly states his spiritual ones here at the outset: to confess his sins to God in order to achieve redemption. In his book Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda writes that after Confessions, autobiography in Christian Europe “took on a religious rationale: a means of public conversion, apology, redemption, confession, or justification.” A glance through the memoir shelf of any bookstore today shows how this redemption-through-confession model lives on.
Thanks in part to St. Augustine, many motivating questions still aim in the vicinity of redemption. For memoirs of healing, ones that deal with abuse or loss of some grand scale, the question is often overt, some variant of: “How do I express what it is like to live through this?” John Gregory Dunne drops dead of a heart attack as he sits down to eat a salad with his wife, Joan Didion. In her resulting memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, she articulates the motivating question early on: “This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed [his death], weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, and good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” And for the remainder of the book, Didion does just that, describes what it was like letting go of her husband, as well as her preconceived notions about mortality. In the first chapter she serves as a literary cartographer, providing her readers with a map, which I appreciate. When I pick up a memoir, I like to know what kind of journey I’m undertaking, and I like to know before I venture into the dark forest.
One memoir that maps out the journey beautifully is Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanso for My Father, a lyrical rumination on loss, identity, race, and inheritance. The book opens with a question (though not the motivating question), as Fletcher observes his son, just shy of two—the same age he was when he lost his own father to cancer. “If I died at this moment, would he remember me?” he wonders. What follows is a journey woven through space and time, as Fletcher grapples with the complicated legacy of the father he never knew.
Poet Denise Levertov wrote, “Form is never more than a revelation of content,” and I can think of few better examples of this theory than Descanso for My Father, subtitled Fragments of a Life. “Fragments” is the key word here. Soon after Fletcher’s father died, his mother erased all evidence of him from the house, packing his belongings in a box she stored deep in a hallway closet. This “man in a box” became an unmentioned ghost in their household, the father influencing Fletcher and his siblings only through his absence. Fletcher aims to capture this man he never knew through family lore, dreams, photos, and artifacts: fragments. A Hispanic artist, Fletcher’s mother frequently scoured second-hand shops and roadside memorials for found treasures to add to her descansos, the Spanish term for resting place. Composed of brief vignettes, Descanso for My Father is thus Fletcher’s literary version of his mother’s descansos.
I chose Fletcher’s memoir because he states his motivating question so explicitly at the outset; in fact, he crafts the entire prologue around it. Directly following the opening passage about his son, he flashes back to his own boyhood, and the moment when his mother first shows him a descanso by the side of the road. She explains how the spot marks a death, and that it is a Spanish tradition to honor the dead with objects—in this case, a wooden cross and a pile of stones. Fletcher imagines a spirit “wandering the roadside like a hitchhiker … waiting for someone to notice. I see a man, always a man.”
A few vignettes later, Fletcher’s mother creates her own self-portrait inside a four-pane window. In three of the panes she includes something to represent herself, but in one pane, she places a photo of her grandmother. “Can you see what I’m saying?” she asks Fletcher, hinting that our identities are entwined with our ancestors’. To fully know ourselves, her artwork suggests, we must also know them.
Her question leads to Fletcher’s motivating question, which he articulates on the last page of the prologue, bringing the essay to its climax. “In middle age, a father, few things frighten me more than the notion of being forgotten or remaining a mystery to my son and daughter. It is my hope with this collection to write a descanso for the father I never knew, each essay an offering on the path to find him, and find myself.” “To find him, and find myself”: this is the book’s motivating question, one which Fletcher weaves through to the end.
In line with this question, the memoir has a searching tone. Most essays end with Fletcher looking for something he cannot quite place. In “Monster,” he recalls losing a beloved set of monster toys as a boy. Though he suspects his mother threw them away, he still looks for them as a grown man. “Years later … I’d visit my mother’s house and catch myself peeking behind chairs or running my hand over the top shelf in the hall closet, hopeful.” The image of the hall closet evokes the memory of Fletcher’s father, the elusive “man in the box” Fletcher also seeks to find.
The book is heavily imagistic, and one image Fletcher repeatedly associates with his father is wood. In the essay “Hardwood,” he describes how pine from his father’s family timber mill in Arkansas was so meaningful to his father, he customized his first home in New Mexico with flooring from the mill. As a child, Fletcher remembers his mother spending Sundays lovingly smoothing floor wax over their hardwood planks “as gently as face cream … hour after hour, every inch of the room, as my father instructed before he died.”
When Fletcher becomes a father with his own family house to care for, he, too, devotes hours to sanding his pine floors by hand and polishing them in tight circles, as if these acts will bring him closer to finding his father. The essay ends with Fletcher once again turning his search inward, just as he set out to do in the motivating question. “On hands and knees, leaning close to the glossy surface, I can see my face.”
Fletcher comes closest to discovery in the four-part essay “Man in the Box,” a journalistic quest to trace his father’s life from rural Arkansas to Des Moines to Albuquerque. Digging through divorce court records in Iowa, he finds evidence that his father might have physically abused his first wife. The discovery sickens him, “and yet, for the first time, I see [my father] as a man, not a myth—wounded, flawed, running.”
Evoking the book’s central image, his mother’s descansos, Fletcher writes, “I assemble my father. Bit by bit a composite forms.” But as he articulated in the motivating question, he seeks himself as well. To this end, he concludes “Man in the Box” with personal reflection. Note how he uses the word “purgatory” to describe his present state, the same word he used for his father earlier: “My father was not a phantom, a myth, or a mystery. He was just a man, haunted by his own ghosts … By focusing so intently on what I lost, I overlooked all that I truly have. I made my own purgatory of silence. I became the man in the box.”
It is fitting that Fletcher concludes the book with a circular image. In the essay “Wreath,” he brings a sense of closure to his motivating question. Consider how he moves from his father to himself to his daughter in the last two vignettes. First, he recalls his grandmother watching him play as a boy:
“He moves like Mr. Fletcher,” she says in Spanish. “Like his father.”
Squaring my shoulders, I glance up from my toy knights.
My mother kisses my cheek.
Later, in the mirror, I trace the lipstick rose.
In the last vignette, Fletcher turns the journey back to himself, echoing the rose imagery to describe a flower “brought by the wind” that blooms outside his daughter’s bedroom window. “Look, Daddy. An angel,” she says. “All summer, through broken stone, it blooms.”
Just as beauty (the wildflower) blooms through hardship (cracked stone), Fletcher’s presence as a father has thrived through his journey to confront his own father’s absence. In seeking his father, he has located himself, just as he set out to do in the prologue. The ending satisfies because he has fully realized his motivating question.
Augustine,of Hippo. The Confessions. Translated by Albert Cook Outler, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage Books, 2007.
Fletcher, Harrison Candelaria. Descanso For My Father: Fragments of a Life. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.
Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History. Riverhead Books, 2010.
Sarah Curtis’s writing has been noted in 2018 Best American Essays, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Salon, River Teeth journal and “Beautiful Things” blog, The American Literary Review, Literary Mama, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. An MFA candidate at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she lives in Michigan with her family, where she is at work on a biographical memoir.