The Importance of Reframing our Ideas
In this post, GrubStreet Instructor Ben Berman reflects on the importance of flexible thinking during the creative process.
On the very same day that my older daughter was born, my grandmother died. I have always wanted to write about this but for some reason I have never been able to figure out how.
At first, I thought it might lend itself to a philosophical meditation on liminality and what it means to simultaneously navigate birth and death or perhaps some sort of spiritual piece on the deep connections between generations.
The problem, though, was that the ideas behind those essays didn’t quite match the emotional experience of those dizzying weeks.
So I started over and tried, instead, to write about the unsettling sense of dislocation that I felt every time I found myself folding baby blankets and thinking of shrouds, or how giddy I felt at my grandmother’s funeral when I saw some distant cousins and shared my good news.
But it felt irresponsible to write about my daughter’s birth in such a morbid and neurotic way.
I wondered if I was trying to make sense of something that resisted sense and so I attempted a lyric poem, focused on how it felt to talk to my grandmother on the phone as she was dying – each of us in separate hospitals on opposite sides of the state – how I held my newborn on my chest as I listened to my grandmother’s final labored breaths.
I wanted the poem to pivot on the word labor, but there was too much backstory and context to get across in order for the weight of that moment to register.
I decided to zoom out and approach this more thematically, started thinking about how funerals always evoke so many competing and complicated emotions.
That unleashed a flood of memories – the elderly man with severe dementia who groped my wife at her mother’s funeral, my great-aunt slapping me across the face for crying when my grandfather died, not to mention all the funerals from my Peace Corps days that involved butchered goats and whispers of witchcraft.
But this was getting too big, now, too shapeless.
I tried bringing it back to the present moment – how for years I’d spoken to my grandmother every evening at six o’clock, the exact same ritual of questions, and now suddenly there was just this void.
But void was too strong of a word – lost in the joy, exhaustion and sudden onslaught of domestic duties, on most days I barely even registered my grandmother’s death as an absence.
I wondered, then, if I was the wrong narrator and decided to write the story in the voice of my father, who held his newborn granddaughter in the morning and then drove an hour west to hold his mother’s hand as she died.
But it was too personal of a story to play around with perspective, and so I quickly switched to writing about narrative distance, itself, and how a single story changes depending on the lens.
It only took me a couple of sentences to realize that this approach was way too meta.
I couldn’t tell, by now, if the problem was that I didn’t have an angle or if I had too many angles. All I knew was that I couldn’t seem to do anything with material that felt like it should write itself.
Every morning, I’d sit down to write and would look at the picture of my grandmother on one side of my desk and the picture of my daughter on the other side and wish I had a way to connect them.
And yet there was something thrilling, too, about this process of continually shifting my approach, weighing the pros and cons of each conceit, waiting patiently until I found the right frame.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman