I have found that narrating a new life in my late fifties, however precarious and unsettling, has been a gift. While I was grieving the end of one story, I was quietly building a new one, even when I did not always realize that I was doing so. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to learn, and learn again, that time can be our ally – that days, even years, of apparent silence may turn out to be a necessary time of fertile idleness. I have given myself time to think these past few years and my voice is stronger for it.
The Words on My Back / a memoir in fragments and photographs
What we have in common are the words on our backs.
~ Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
After Shauna Osborn’s Carved Skin
And I have so many words –
~ Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Here, in the high desert, I am finding my way back to language. I will carry these words on my back. So. I.
I keep circling – how to enter? I have decided to write this as a letter to you. Unformed. Still forming.
Four years ago, in 2011, my marriage began to dissolve. My husband announced his unhappiness.
Let me start again.
The image I invited you to “carve” on my back is a photograph of one of my divorce journals in flames. Last winter I fed twenty-three journals to the flames – three years of daily writing during the seemingly sudden but long dissolution of my marriage when my then husband revealed his deep unhappiness, claiming I had excluded him from a writing life, one of many grievances.
I was stunned into silence.
If writing had destroyed my marriage, then I no longer wanted to write. In the absence of clarity or confidence, this was my reasoning. And so my public writing – which had been fruitful and blossoming at that time – came to an abrupt end. The only language I turned to was the stunned voice in my head – and it was this voice that found its way into the pages of twenty-three journals. The only way to get out of bed in the morning was to write my way out. The only way I could find to lie down each night was to write my way down. This private writing sustained me through those days of confusion and anger and grief.
But this language was never meant for anyone else – and eventually I grew tired of the story. There were moments of lyricism, moments of insights, even moments of beauty – but mostly it became a very tiresome story and I grew bored. So I stopped writing and put the journals away.
They sat on the floor by my bedside. Then they sat on my bookshelf. Then they sat in storage, a few miles from my home. And then, last winter, they sat in my car and traveled across the mountains and into a valley where a friend and her husband built me a fire. And I fed my writing – journal by journal, page by page – into the flames.
In a certain way, my divorce was a cliché – the long-married couple whose marriage ends in divorce when a child goes off to college. In a certain way, all divorces are clichés – the end of any marriage, in our times, a common and likely story – and who, in their right minds, after all, would willingly accept such terrible odds? And yet, somehow, still, I am glad for the faith I see in friends who choose – and choose again – to marry. It is possible that I will find my way to such faith again.
Meanwhile, the writing in those journals began to haunt my living. This language was no longer helping me to breathe and words became stones in my mouth. This language belonged somewhere else. It was time for me to find my way to a new story.
And so, like the woman warrior, I will invent a new self out of words.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
~ Emily Dickinson
…the invisible, unwritten last line of every essay should be and nothing was ever the same again.
~ Cheryl Strayed
There is an unexpected shift. The clouds are moving, the trees are moving, the sky is moving. Clouds shift across the sky, cast themselves onto the land below. What does this teach me? I am not a cloud. I am not a hill. I am not a tree. I am not the wind. I am not that bird that just flew past me.
I have calculated how many times I have moved since I was eighteen. The data is sobering.
Stones skip across the surface of the sea. Circles ripple outward, stone-rings in the sea – wider and wider.
I want to be paid in time. Give me time – not money, not possessions. Give me the invisible – the wind – written in the dancing of the land – the trees, the grasses, the fields, the marshes, the wild flowers. The shimmering leaves, the rustle of the earth, the swish of the wind through screens, this air that is moving, moving, on to someplace else.
My ancestors – their restlessness is in my bones. That first year, 1884, it took my great grandparents half a year to travel to their new home in the foothills of the Himalayas in the far reaches of Assam. They did not know then how their lives would unravel.
Moving can appear to be an antidote to grief.
This air that is moving, moving, on to someplace else. This air that I want in my lungs, in my bones, in my fingers, in my hair. This air that is moving through the trees, the marsh, the mountains in the distance. This air that I can only see in the movement of everything in its path: the green that shimmers in the afternoon sun, the stitching in my sandal that is unraveling. The denouement is the unraveling – how things sort out at the end of the story. If it is a good story, we understand that nothing will ever be the same again. My life, then, is a good story.
I am trying hard not to think. And still I unravel. No gorgeous way to keep the threads of my life from unraveling. One person feels wronged, let’s say – as if that person were not part of that story each thread of the way.
Threads. Tatters. Unraveling. The story continues. It is an ancient story. A common story. The only thing that makes this story unique is that it is mine.
A Series of Aphorisms
Do not walk past remarkable things with absolute oblivion: a rusted hand pump
wedged in the embrace of a tree, a snake’s skin, keeled-scaled, floating in a sea
of grass, an old wooden spool with a fragment of thread, a mussel shell, loosely-
There are many ways to be lonely and there are many ways to be free – follow
the sea, the rushes of the salt marsh, the curve of a peregrine’s wings.
When fleeing the city of one’s marriage, do not look back.
Think of the sea star – do not overlook the benefit of regeneration.
Shoal or Shola – the only way through is through.
In the striking of hammer and chisel against stone lies all possibilities.
Remember (re-member) the skin, the bones, the once-pulsing life: breathe,
What do you remember about the earth?
~ Bhanu Kapil, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers
I remember the earth as firm, supple, imperfect, craving.
I remember the roiling seas of yesterday’s near gale storm, the gentleness of the fading light across the marsh this day.
I remember Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva: “I also know a way of life that is slight shadow unfurled in the wind and swaying slightly over the ground: life that is floating shadow, levitation and dreams in the open day: I live the richness of the earth.”
I remember laying my back to the ground, feeling the grass against the flesh of my body, this body that once was all impulse and innocent passion.
I remember licking the salt from my knees, my elbows, my fingers, my hair.
I remember the ocean around my shoulders, around my waist.
I remember the rocks, hot beneath my bare feet.
I remember the ledges, the line of seaweed marking the edges.
I remember the erratic that layers of ice once carried to this particular spot, perfectly positioned.
I remember hauling my body out of the sea, dragging it over the earth, urging that flesh to breathe again.
I remember the earth as red, pulsing, thrumming, brilliant, safe, dangerous, complicated, sweet.
I remember the earth’s deep thirst, this yearning for more – more color, more air.
I remember my heart stirring.
I remember such beauty, such wildness, on this earth.
After Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost
I. Here, Right Here
…we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.
~ Rebecca Solnit
I have come here to lose myself. No, I have come here to let go of my grief. I have come here to the edge of land and sea to remember that what is broken is also cracked open. I wake in the morning and the sea is there – it does not go away. The sea’s constancy startles me. No matter what I do, this strangeness of water is there each morning to greet me. It does not seem to mind that I am human. It does not seem to care about me at all.
I am untethered, unfettered. Here, I am free of someone else’s gaze, someone else’s scrutiny. I have not always been so. I placed my story next to another, and for a long time that seemed right and true. And then it wasn’t. The story changed and I resisted. I did not want the story to end; I wanted the story to go on and on. I fought hard for a revision of that story. But the story had come to its end, and I could not find a way beyond.
There are thousands of stories just like that one; but no matter how common that story was, some days that story simply seemed like the only one. But here, here at the edge of land and sea, here where the sea smoke rises off the surface of the frozen sea, here where my heart stirs day after day with the firmness of the land beneath my feet, here where the water stretches outward to a horizon that is always shifting in the light, here, right here, I devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.
II. The Story
The stories shatter. Or you wear them out or leave them behind. Over time the story or the memory loses its power. Over time you become someone else.
~ Rebecca Solnit
Year after year, we placed our stories together. When the story changed, I wondered which parts were real and which parts were made up. I did not want to believe that both were true.
Outside, the morning light strikes the edge of land and sea.
I wondered, once, what it might be like to be a character in a novel – to enter that story and make it mine.
There is a wildness and a beauty here, I have said.
Sometimes a story just ends.
I have become someone else.
… and beyond them all the sea spreading far and then farther.
~ Rebecca Solnit
The sea smoke is rising from the water into the day.
Rising far and then farther.
So / In August 2015, I was fortunate to have been chosen to join nearly 120 women writers from across the United States to spend time musing and writing in the high desert of New Mexico at the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Writing Against the Current” Retreat for Women Writers. After hearing Shauna Osborn’s talk “Re-interpreting the Carved Revenge on Your Back” at that retreat, I decided that I wanted to participate in her “Carved Skin” project. Shauna layered a photograph of mine (this image of one of twenty-three divorce journals I burned in the winter of 2015 before the retreat) onto her photograph of my back. And so began the reclaiming of my voice after the dissolution of my twenty-five year marriage.
Moving / This segmented essay originated last summer while I sat in a field near a lake in the hill country of western Massachusetts in the company of four other women writers from across New England. For the past five years, we have met on occasion at one another’s homes to write in the presence of each other. This piece was completed this fall when I moved to a small fishing village on Mount Desert Island in Maine.
Loosely-Hinged / This poem first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Smoky Quartz. The aphorisms first appeared individually at my blog One Writer’s Excavation: Narrating a Life, Piece by Piece
The Earth / While at the “Writing Against the Current” Retreat for Women Writers in August 2015, I joined a small group of women as part of Bhanu Kapil’s “Write Yourself Out of One Life and Into Another.” In returning this year to my notes from that pilgrimage in the desert, I was drawn to answer one of Bhanu’s questions from her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
Winter Morning / Each section of this segmented essay begins and ends with a line from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a series of meditations on loss.
All photographs by Martha Andrews Donovan.
off the margins contributors are asked to respond to three questions that will be asked of all featured writers to further articulate a collective response to the question: How do we step off the margins of convention and enter the wild terrain of our writing?
In what way(s) do you identify as a woman writer?
I am a woman (mother/daughter/sister) and I am a writer; each of these identities nourishes the other. Having my work appear in off the margins places me in company with other women writers who have come here before me and those who will follow. This ongoing conversation across time and landscapes, this placing of stories side by side – well, there is an intimacy here, a kind of kinship that deeply sustains me as a woman writer.
Whose voices have you carried with you for creative strength in order to arrive at this point in your writing career?
Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Tillie Olsen, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver, Maxine Hong Kingston, Terry Tempest Williams, Toni Morrison, Mary Johnson, Bhanu Kapil, Diane Gilliam, Rebecca Solnit, and Cynthia Huntington are some of the writers I find myself returning to again and again. I often think of my own work as a conversation with these women who have come before me and who have inspired me to take risks and venture into new territory.
Since 2011, I have also been sustained and inspired by the wide-hearted, generous, spirited, and accomplished women writers I have met in the high desert of New Mexico at the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s biennial Retreat. These women helped me reclaim my voice at a time when I had been stunned into silence.
What do you want our readers to know about your process of becoming a writer that might be helpful in further articulating their own individual process and growth?
My commitment to becoming a writer began nearly forty years ago during my final semester in college when I was first introduced to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Tillie Olsen’s Silences – both of which inspired me to claim something that had been stirring in me for a long time. I am in good company in believing that writing is essential to my being. The sentient life is deeply rooted in language; writing not only helps me to be a better thinker, but it also helps me to be a better human being.
I have recently returned to a sustained public writing life after the unexpected convergence of several major life transitions a few years back: the end of my twenty-five year marriage; my early retirement from the college where I had taught for sixteen years; the sale of my home; and my move away from the small town in New Hampshire where I had lived for two decades. A few months ago, I moved to a small fishing village in Maine and “The Words on My Back” came to fruition. To put this deeply personal work out into the world right now is a bit terrifying, but doing so is an important step for me in reclaiming my identity as a writer.
Here is what I would like to offer other women writers who may experience similarly unexpected shifts in their life: I have found that narrating a new life in my late fifties, however precarious and unsettling, has been a gift. While I was grieving the end of one story, I was quietly building a new one, even when I did not always realize that I was doing so. I am not the most patient person, but I have had to learn, and learn again, that time can be our ally – that days, even years, of apparent silence may turn out to be a necessary time of fertile idleness. I have given myself time to think these past few years and my voice is stronger for it.
In her essay “Staying Alive,” Mary Oliver speaks to the power of nature and language to heal: “And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness – the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books – can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” I came to the edge of Maine to read, to write, to reclaim my heart.
We must use what we have to invent what we desire.
~ Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics
Here, at the edge of land and sea, I am exploring what it means to invent what I desire. In a landscape defined by rocky ledges and intertidal spaces – a place that speaks directly and metaphorically to the beauty and the risks of venturing beyond the edges – I have become a woman who dares to write off the margins.
In my work, I explore the intersections between memory, image, and narrative, and the ways in which photographs, artifacts, ephemera, and other fragmentary evidence can help narrate a life.
Martha Andrews Donovan, author of the chapbook Dress Her in Silk (Finishing Line Press 2009), has been teaching at the secondary and college level for over thirty years. Her poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction have been published in a number of journals and anthologies, including: Green Mountains Review; Harvard Review; Hayden’s Ferry Review; Marlboro Review; Off the Coast; Pilgrimage; Smoky Quartz; The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices From the Robert Frost Place, Volume II (CavanKerry Press 2004); The 2010 Poets’ Guide to New Hampshire: More Places, More Poets (The Poetry Society of New Hampshire 2010); Shadow and Light: A Literary Anthology on Memory (Monadnock Writers’ Group 2011); and Poet Showcase: An Anthology of New Hampshire Poets (Hobblebush Books 2015). Her visual/textual essay “Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – a memoir in fragments” (with photographer Autumn E. Monsees) was named a “Notable Essay” by The Best American Essays 2013. At a transition point in her life, Donovan is heading into new territory, sustained by words, women writers, and writing off the margins.
One Writer’s Excavation: Narrating a Life, Piece by Piece at: https://madonovan.wordpress.com/