Writing in Retrospect by Dana Mich

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I am in the middle of writing an essay that spans a full twenty-nine of my thirty-two years of life. It hinges on an event that happened three Thanksgivings ago, but reaches as far back as my third birthday and as far forward as—well—now. And it is here, half-way through the writing of this essay (which is as heavy in terms of my emotional investment as it is long in word count), that I pause, close my laptop, and momentarily step away.

Last week, I read a piece of the essay to my beloved writing group–a handful of soul-sisters who have been meeting monthly, if not at times more frequently, for the past two years. I skipped over the beginning, which contained the most recent pivotal event in my life, and dove into the second section instead: my happy childhood years, my teenage struggle, my young-adult reckoning. This part was the most solid and well-crafted.

“Where does it go from here?” A member of the group asked once I finished.

I smiled. These women know me inside out—my daily life, my aspirations, my past and the way it has molded me into the woman (mother, daughter, wife, sister) and writer I am today. I knew it was a question about narrative flow and thematic resolution more than one of particular events and details. Still, I struggled to find the words that might shed some light on the essay’s conclusion. Eventually, I was able to stammer out an answer. But it was so vague that a stranger could have hijacked my vocal cords spoken the words for me. “It ends with my life as it is now,” I said.

In an attempt to be forthcoming, authors often begin their memoirs by defending their memories, by placing a big disclaimer on them, or both. “In writing this book I referenced journal entries, photographs, and travel itineraries” . . . “The events portrayed in this book are written as closely as possible to the way I remember them unfolding”. This exercise in admitting the fallibility of our memories and our resulting need for supplementation fascinates me. Lowering ourselves into the depths of our earlier lives is certainly no easy task. The human mind is limited in its ability to extricate perfectly intact scenes and information from the murky waters of our past. Yet, the creation of effective first-person narratives most often requires retrospection. It requires writers to be standing somewhere further along in the storyline than the beginning. It requires a newly realized perspective—a feat that is usually achieved once an ending is reached, or is at least in view.

Often, the earliest point at which a writer will even realize the potential for story is at the onset of the climactic event, as it transpires for them in real life. Many times, the full narrative arc can only be grasped after the story’s resolution. And perhaps this is the case for good reason: constructing story while still searching for its outcome can be a disingenuous exercise compared to writing about an un-tampered-with past. So while we want the vivid, precise kind of reportage born of writing that is immediate, what we really need is the cohesion and meaning writers imbue when they look back and tease out the pertinent memories (however blurred and misshapen) from the superfluous ones. What we need is writers’ hindsight.

All this goes to say: I’m stuck in the middle of my essay, but at the end of my lived experience, because I can’t seem to do the thing that many might think to be the easiest, the clearest, or the most straight-forward. The thing that doesn’t require defense or disclaimers. The thing that seems to only need my five senses and a pencil. I. can’t. write. the. now.

I meditate on my problem during moments in which I feel most present: while watching my toddler pull clean fork tongs out from between her teeth and smile back at me with a mouthful of peas, while walking my dog and stopping to watch a white-flecked fawn romp in a neighbor’s yard, while tuning into my binaural beats tracks on YouTube and watching the neon ribbons of pixels spin and wave. Inevitably, I open my laptop to my essay-in-progress, scroll to the bottom, revisit my garbled notes and type a list of marginally improved bullet points. But what I find myself begging into the ether is: What will I remember, later on, out of all that I’m experiencing now? And how will I know when I’ve arrived at the right “later on”—when I’ve metamorphosed into the woman with the best perspective—to finish the piece?

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’m asking for communion with my own Future Me so that I can tap into her hindsight—her remembrance of the present moment. It’s like I’m trying to escape myself in order to re-arrive in my body.

This, I realize, makes me a total lunatic—not only because my time-hop plan is impossible, but because what I can access now is infinitely more precise than what I will be able to later on. The glint of sunlight off my neighbor’s waxen magnolia leaves, the cracks in the sidewalk that the weeds shoot through, the crinkle in my toddler’s nose when she laughs—these are details I may not catch if I wait.

On second thought, though, maybe I’m not that crazy. Retrospective writing deserves real credit. In many ways, memories are so much stronger than our observations in media res. Even if flawed or incomplete, memories leave lasting impressions on us, meaning that they influence our inner realities to a much greater extent (and for a much longer period of time) than the tidbits of information we gather in the moment. Memories answer the question: What pieces of my lived experience will (for so many curious and interesting reasons) become essential to me while the rest fall away?

So here I sit, with my cursor blinking in the space where my fully lived experience and my unfinished essay meet. I turn up my palms to my future self offering her the heaps of minutiae that I’ve gathered. But it’s no use right now. Only she can tease out what matters from what doesn’t, and she has made it clear that she won’t be meeting me half-way.

Where does my essay go from here?

It’s a good question. I think I may just need to wait and see.

This post originally appeared on the Moving Forewords blog on June 26, 2019.

Dana Mich
Dana Mich is a writer and mom to two young children where she lives in Charlottesville, Va. She writes essays, memoir and (newly!) children’s books. Aside from writing, her main loves include her wonderfully supportive husband, her adorable rescue dog, spending time outdoors, and cooking.

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