Considered in this essay: "First Jody," from Waccamaw No. 3, Spring 2009
My partner Jennifer sometimes compares me to Snow White, saying that what Snow White is to woodland creatures, I am to eccentric people and weird situations. Perhaps it’s gravitons embedded in my DNA, nurtured and cultivated during my childhood—being raised by con-artists and years spent following my father to bars he frequented, where random people often sidled into my dark corner booth to unload their stories while I drank Cokes, or from selling shrimp out of a van along the highway, where anyone could walk up and hang out in the open doorway and talk to me for hours—that brings to me these instances. With bizarre frequency, even now, people like Sara drift through my life, sometimes for a moment and sometimes for months. People who shimmer with hunger and ache, but at the same time are idiosyncratically beautiful. At times I feel like George Willard, the central character in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, who yearns for experiences most normal people have—for example, in my case with “First Jody,” a one night stand—that then turn into what Anderson calls an “adventure,” as was the case with me: nineteen, sitting at a Formica table at two a.m. drinking vodka from a coffee mug with a girl, sifting through her cottony-edged shoebox of enveloped letters from her incarcerated boyfriend, waking up to the fact that I’m part of an experiment of the soul, going awry.
“First Jody” was the first memoir piece I ever wrote, pulled from a journal I kept my freshman year of college. I never particularly wanted to write nonfiction, but after finishing a draft of my novel Hustle a few years ago, I got the idea to work on a book-length memoir about a time in my life when, successively within six months, a pipe flew off a flatbed truck and into my windshield, my house burned down, and my younger brother died. I knew if I was going to write about that period and the messy two years that followed, I would have to do it with resolute honesty. To give myself a gut check, I decided to first write a small piece, apart from that time period. My rules: It needed to be embarrassing and it needed to include someone else; it could be neither too ugly nor too pretty; and it couldn’t be self-congratulatory or self-eviscerating. If I couldn’t handle this, there was no sense in writing a book. So I selected this story about this night with this girl.
The difficulty, I found, was being able to revise. I mainly write fiction, and this is how much of my fiction goes: a person steps into another person’s life and the experience proves to be life-altering, however subtlety. This is of course how many published stories go. As a writer, and as a person, I am most interested in moments where quiet people collide and in the delicacy of their quiet collisions, how they impact the characters’ lives in resonant ways. I draw much of my fiction from personal experience, in part because I come across so many people like Sara; then in the drafting process verisimilitude slips away: an image pops up that wasn’t in the real story; another character steps in; something happens that didn’t happen, and we detour into fiction. I expected “First Jody” to go that way. I even kind of wanted it, because the story is so embarrassing. Let’s face it, I went home with a girl and continued to have sex with her after she threw up, and I still wanted to be with her after that night, despite her having a boyfriend in prison that she didn’t intend to let go of. I tried to veer the story in different directions, but anything other than what happened felt false, and what I had stuck, down to the last moment when I reach for her hand. It only hit me later, that maybe the reason I couldn’t switch this to fiction is the same reason I knew not to touch her hand, because this story wasn’t mine to control, but Sara’s. Her hands were in control from beginning to end: on the staircase when she took mine, on the bed when she placed her hand on my chest, reaching up to pull the box of letters from the top shelf of her closet, when she opened the letters and traced the map, and when she pointed to the picture on the refrigerator. This is what you get, her hands indicated. In terms of characterization, she even stamped me with an identity. To take her story would have been incorrect. Ultimately, in this case, the embarrassment slipped away, once I realized this is not me in the essay, but a character, and as of that point it was like spending time with two old friends I care a lot about.
I typically go through a zillion drafts, and I thought (naively, naively): Memoir. This should be a snap. All I have to do is remember and write it down. But of course there is more to it than that: You pick, you frame, you do not fudge. Mainly for me it meant focusing on an image that I could evolve. Hence, the hands. And I had to consider what to keep in and cut. Some things I cut because they didn’t work, and some because I still hold a bit sacred. For instance, that night when I asked why she always looks away, she mentioned a guy who said she reminded him of the Rolling Stones’ “Girl With the Faraway Eyes,” a song that to this day I’ve never listened to. Also, Sara and I became friends after this, and I later moved into the house where we met that night of the party, which is the same house I mentioned earlier, the one that burned down. Among the many things I lost in the fire were journals I’d kept since I was eight years old, except a few that miraculously survived. Among them was the one I kept my freshman year of college, from which I pulled this story about Sara. Without that entry I would not have remembered her saying she hated sunrises, which is my favorite moment in this piece. Mainly because it’s a sentiment we share, but more so because it’s one I’d never heard anyone say aloud. I hadn’t remembered, until reading the entry, being afraid to say it before I met her—because it’s kind of weird—and that I’ve had no problem saying it out loud since. It took re-reading it to realize where I got the words from; before I would have said that that was just me.