by Jennifer on February 4, 2008

The seed of my novel-in-progress was just one word. I was in the shower one morning, and the word popped inside my head, like a soap bubble: monogram. It’s a stretch, I know, to imagine a whole story growing from just one word. But that’s how it was. From that one word came two sisters, twins, whose lives never really follow parallel lines, instead crossing and diverging at many points and yet never moving very far from one another. One has a daughter, and the other lives a life free of any real responsibility. They are tied together by a house and the loss of their mother when they were very young. The daughter of one of these women, when she is a grown woman herself, finds some items in a trunk, and they are monogrammed with initials she does not recognize within the context of her family. Or does she? Within a few hours, this was what I had for my story, and it came from almost nothing. Eight letters.

One word.

This has never happened to me at any other time, ever. Maybe that’s all I will ever receive, this one bit of creative grace. (Turns out, the idea is the easy part. Backing up that idea with 90,000 or so words is a little harder and, apparently, my work process takes a few years. Sigh.)

I wish all of life were that easy, though, with one thought or maybe two pointing the way toward a point I should be trying to reach. There, go there. You can’t miss it.

Over time, the story began to hinge less and less on the idea of a literal monogram, but I still use the idea of things–memories–that are embroidered inside us. A monogram, or a tapestry. A quilt, maybe. I feel it as something almost tangible, with texture, that feels either smooth or rough when I run my hand over it, depending on which part I focus my attention.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been sorting through a whole mess of memories, in the last year or so. Before that, it was a here-and-there endeavor, but because of two significant and very different losses within my family, and the interactions among family members, an array of memories has muddied the waters a bit. I have found myself wanting, after all this time, an accounting from a few people in my family. Why now, when it can matter so little? Why now, when time has sanded away at the edges of things? Maybe it’s my own sense of time passing and knowing that there may be a time, not so far off, when that reckoning (such a weighty word) becomes impossible. People pass on. People forget, or pretend to, or offer up an enormous Shush, it doesn’t matter any more.

More than anything I don’t want to think about any of it. I want it not to matter. I want to put these thoughts and memories into a boat and push it away from shore. Away from me.

Yes, all of these memories are inside me, tiny stitches holding each of them in place. But, indelible as they are, can I not pull at these threads and unravel the memories a bit, make the patterns smaller? Or, at the very least, hide them, the way a hostess turns over a sofa pillow to hide a stain? Why do they have to be the thing I look at? Can I not stitch over them with new patterns until the old ones are less clear? The old stitches giving body and weight to the new memories, yet staying beneath them, like a pillowcase folded and yellowing at the bottom of a chest, holding up all the others.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Brenda February 4, 2008 at 9:08 pm

This is so well-written that I’m sure many, many who read will think you wrote it about their own feelings. I don’t think the only reason I can relate to it is because of shared experience with you.

I’m with you on wanting to put it all in a boat and push it away, but haven’t you tried? I don’t think it’s you that keeps bringing these things into the forefront. You don’t hang on to the past and the difficult memories. You were not the seamstress. Someone else made the stitches, and though you can’t rip them out (not for lack of trying), you try to put them at the bottom of the trunk (and have succeeded for a long time), but the seamstress(es) love to sew, and they tirelessly create more and more that is built upon the old, forcing you to look at it all up close again. No, it shouldn’t matter any more, but it apparently does to them. You could forget, but you are not allowed.

On a nicer note, can’t wait for more book!

Kellan February 4, 2008 at 9:18 pm

I think you are describing the trials of life. This is what life is all about – reconciling the past with the present – the good with the bad – the sad with the lovely. It is the “test” – the challenge. How to do it and how to do it well and gracefully. I think we all are in this boat – have this boat! Each of us has our own stories – our own pasts – our own burdens that either weigh us down or how we somehow learn to confront or lay down. I hope you find your balance – if not – I hope the burdens you carry make you strong and wise, even if they never leave you. I have only recently learnt how to lay my burdens down – some of them – the heaviest of them. It has taken me these many years and it is not to say that I won’t feel the need to pick them up again – I very well may.

Have a good day Jennifer – I very much enjoyed reading this post – it was very well written and it was a honor. Take care – Kellan

liv February 4, 2008 at 10:13 pm


What a fab post. And I really would love to read that story. Maybe the idea that we southerners monogram anything that doesn’t move appeals to me. Also, I think that mystery in a family is just incredibly evocative.

Thanks for stopping by my place. Looking forward to reading more!


Slow Panic February 4, 2008 at 11:02 pm

it’s official. i am to stupid to be your friend.

suburbancorrespondent February 4, 2008 at 11:43 pm

What is it about the shower? All my best ideas come to me then.

flutter February 4, 2008 at 11:46 pm

You certainly do have a way with words

HRH February 5, 2008 at 2:42 am

I can’t believe that you can take one word and spin it into 90,000. That is baffling. I can’t wait to read the 90,000 because I enjoyed the introduction to the first.

slouching mom February 5, 2008 at 4:41 am

i love the notion that one word can be the starting point for an entire book.

very interesting.

JCK February 5, 2008 at 7:28 am

I think that now, you are the weaver -the seamstress of the quilt. Those memories will be a part of you, make up you, but don’t total who you are.

I am very excited for you. You are a gorgeous writer and I love that idea of one word starting a whole process that generates a book…

Emily February 5, 2008 at 10:20 am

In my experience, they will be there, be the thing you look at, until you allow them to matter. Once you let them come out, face them, deal with them (for me, it took a year of writing), and ignore the people who tell you it is over and doesn’t matter, then you will find a place for them that makes them much less important.

Angela February 5, 2008 at 9:30 pm

In my experience, it’s as if the stitches begin to embed themselves deeper into the cloth, and while the pattern is still there, it is less noticeable. When I run my hand over the surface of my life, those stitches feel smoother with time and with a willingness to acknowledge their existence. And every once in a while, one will pop up and rub me the wrong way. But they matter…’s important to attend to them I think.

cce February 6, 2008 at 1:31 pm

They say that writers must write what they know…so maybe to tackle this book you need to know a little more about these tricky feelings. Sometimes turning over rocks reveals a few slugs but sometimes there’s something more brilliant and astounding there, tiny flowers trying to push there way through the muck and the shadows. Happy writing and happy soul searching.

Ducky February 20, 2008 at 2:41 pm

I’m reminded of something I heard in an interview on Speaking of Faith with Rachel Naomi Remen:

Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe over time becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life. It’s possible to live a good life even though it isn’t an easy life.

The ugly stitches are still there, but as we grow older, they continue to be transformed into something else.

They could have done that, too, but they didn’t.

Not related (well, maybe a little), but my favorite moment from the interview is when Remen says that “Perfection is the booby prize of life.”

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