Marilyn Martin is our featured nonfiction writer for volume 5. We are proud to feature her latest essay in this issue, “Chameleons,” about a road trip her father took her family on in the 1960s. An excerpt from the essay appears below:
We had been driving forever. Outside my window, trees covered in Spanish moss flashed by. The last time I’d walked on solid ground was at a rest stop in South Carolina where a lizard had squeezed under the bathroom door.
But that was hours ago, and now the light was dimming. Through the rear view mirror, I watched Bessie doze with her head in my mother’s lap and her legs sprawled out across Sheila and Johnny’s laps. Every couple of minutes, my brother jiggled his knees until Bessie woke up sobbing, her cheeks stained with red rings.
“John,” my mother said to my father, “we’d better stop for the night soon.”
Bessie’s cries slowed, each sob followed by a rasping snuffle and the accelerating staccato of my dad biting his nails. I handed him a stick of gum; I would have done anything to keep him calm.
We exited the highway and drove down a quiet road to a bright honky-tonk oasis of motels and restaurants. Establishments lined both sides of the street, the lettered signs of the mom and pops competing with garish neon of the chains. Motel Units. Snack Bar included. TV & Pool.
My father didn’t believe in making reservations. He said it would “crimp our style,” so tonight as we cruised down the garish strip, “no vacancy” signs were already lighting up. It was so late. Everyone was hungry. Below the surface of my father’s consciousness, a rage smoldered like a slumbering dragon, and I sensed it blink, recoil and fall back to fitful sleep. All I wanted to do was to get out of the car, before my father’s dragon sprang to life. I knew my father would never harm me. He was a scientist, unconditionally devoted to my mother and us kids. Of this I was certain. His temper was neither malicious nor vindictive, a private sorrow that mocked only him, and if I forgave him every time his dragon sprang to life it was because he’d do the same for me.
Read the rest of the essay here.
Interview with Marilyn Martin
Border Crossing: “Chameleons” is a beautifully detailed piece of memoir. How long did it take you to write and edit this piece to get it where it is now? How did you choose the particular details, of the car ride and back story to create a piece so vivid 50 years after it occurred?
Marilyn Martin: Thank you! The piece started out four years ago as a tiny segment in a much longer essay about motion sickness. The motion sickness essay didn’t work, but I couldn’t let go of the chameleon section. For me, it’s one of those mythic, family stories, but when I tried to write it as a stand-alone piece, my early drafts sounded like nostalgic children’s stories. Then two years ago, I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and there were all these black striped lizards with blue tails. Watching them squeeze under the tiny space at the bottom of the studio door was a Proustian moment, jogging my memory until I actually felt like I was back in the car on a long trip with my father. It’s funny. You know that sensation you get when you try to go to sleep after spending the whole day in a car? The way you close your eyes and it feels like the car is still moving? Well, for the next seven days that’s exactly how I felt when I went to bed even though I’d spent most of the day sitting writing in a chair.
BC: That’s fascinating. How do you know when a moment, or a collection of moments, has enough resonance to become a piece such as “Chameleons?”
MM: At least for me, it’s a process of trial and error. Some people have the notion that memoir is easy to write because the events have already happened, and all you have to do is write them down. But unadulterated life can be pretty boring so the moments you decide to leave out are as crucial as the ones you put in. A while back, I read a craft essay in Creative Nonfiction where Tim Bascom argues that while fiction writers typically need to invent from scratch “adding and adding, the personal essayist usually needs to do the opposite, deleting and deleting.” My first drafts are often unwieldy, sometimes forty pages long, so it really resonated with me the way Bascom describes a personal essay as a “figure locked in a too large lump of personal experience.” It’s as if the nonfiction writer is analogous to the sculptor chiseling away at that lump of marble trying to free the statue trapped inside.
BC: In your opinion, what distinguishes creative nonfiction from a piece of journalistic reporting or other forms of essay?
MM: I think of creative nonfiction as an umbrella term that encompasses autobiographical writing like personal essays, lyric essays and memoir where the writer relies on memory to reconstruct the story. Maybe someone should come up with a better term because many general readers believe the “creative” part implies the writer can make up details and take a lot of liberties with the story.
Actually, creative nonfiction writers should be as committed to portraying the “truth” as a journalist or biographer, just not as literal a truth. The problem is that memory, particularly childhood memory, is terribly unreliable so what the creative nonfiction writer sets out to do is write as faithfully from memory as possible. I know when my siblings read Chameleons, they’re going to say: that’s not exactly how I remember it. We each have our own version of the truth.
The role of the narrator is the other big difference between creative nonfiction and journalism or a more academic essay. Think of all those five-paragraph essays you wrote in high school, and how the teacher forbade you from using the word “I.” Not so in creative nonfiction. As Phillip Lopate says, the personal narrator needs to be able to think “retrospectively on the page” so she can simultaneously remember and interpret an experience for the reader. Sue Williams Silverman calls this double vantage point “the voice of innocence and the voice of experience.” Even though “Chameleons” is told in my teenage voice, I never could have written the piece the way it is at age fifteen. Hopefully, what makes the piece interesting is the way my more experienced voice looks back and interprets the events for the reader.
Marilyn Martin is the author of Helping Children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities to Flourish, a book based on her own experiences. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Gulf Coast, Chautauqua, New Madrid, Southern Indiana Review and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. Born in Montreal, Canada, brought up in New York, she now lives in northern New Jersey after decades of residing in the Chicago area.