My essay “A Dry Year,” about reconstructing a pond on our land with a legendary local contractor, during a season of drought, flood, heat, and locusts, appears in the new issue of the literary annual Chautauqua. The man, whom I call William, had killed a woman in an accident when he was young and wild. An excerpt:
“He knew our land. As a boy, he’d dragged raccoons pelts in a burlap sack behind his pony all around our farm, leaving scent for hound trials. We walked through the pastures and our pants got soaked past our knees by dew—the grasses were that tall, despite the drought. When we came to a metal gate, overgrown and rusted shut, we paused—I thought. It was a natural break at the top of a rise, a place to catch our breath. William was beside me and I was looking dreamily across the farm, when from the corner of my eye I saw him melt over the gate. His movement was quick but unhurried, fluid and silent. He’d shown me a rural skill I hadn’t even known existed. He must have defeated many such hurdles during his days and nights roving these hills. It was as if he’d entered another dimension before my eyes. I wanted to see it again. I knew how I climbed the farm’s arthritic gates: slowly, precariously, and with flailing, middle-aged effort.
“And incompetently, I now saw.
“William was older than me by almost thirty years. I mounted the barrier after him with earthbound clumsiness, which now seemed a deeper flaw.”
I adapted this essay from a chapter in a memoir, and I learned in the process. The most compelling stories to tell may be the ones we can’t stop thinking about because we can’t figure them out. I’m haunted by William’s story, slender as my information is, and he’s connected to my memory of that extreme summer of biblical plagues, which was itself puzzling and humbling. “A Dry Year” is my attempt to leave readers with the same questions that devil me. Here was a good man, hard-working and competent, who had lived for maybe five decades in the wake of what his younger, stupid self had done in one moment one night, driving drunk on a curvy road. Who was he then and who is he now? How does he go on? And is an unusual thing he did regarding his work for me a partial answer?
While polishing the essay I read and reread three essays in last year’s Chautauqua that helped me: Diana Hume George’s “White Girl,” which is a beautifully colloquial memoir with a classic three-part structure that influenced the directness of my language; Dinty W. Moore’s “A Good Man is Still Hard to Find,” for his light touch in capturing a brief moment; and Leslie Rubinkowski’s powerful “Message,” about the death of her father, for the sheer poetic beauty of its sentences. I’d read their essays and then go to mine and see where there should be line breaks, cuts, rewordings.
I’ve heard writers say they can’t do such things, that great writing can be overwhelming and lead to bad imitation. It does not work that way for me: under the influence of some stories my clumsy work gains clarity and power and grace.