I’ve just read the sort of essay that makes me wonder why I even bother to pick up a pen—and immediately after asking “how did she DO that,” I recover, inspired, and I DO pick up my pen to find my way, too.
“Red Sky in Morning” is the opening chapter of Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. I want to memorize the essay for future reference—all of it. Hampl begins her essay with a clear incident, actually an “incidental” incident, just a moment of listening carefully to the world, a brief chat with a nameless stranger. From this tiny beginning she launches into the nature of memoir, the nature of story, how the writer wishes not to embody a simple story but
to tell all—the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself. That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable pattern of existence. Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story. (page 18)
The title of the essay is from a weather rhyme, red sky in morning, sailors take warning, and perhaps the red sky she sees on the morning of her incident wakens her to nuances of her day. The essay itself, however, has a “take warning” feel to a beginning writer. Take warning: this is bigger than you think. Much bigger. Strap yourself in. Hampl goes on to examine the popularity of memoir, the nature of memory, what it feels like to encounter someone whose life seems too big to fit “in the small shrine that a story is.” And what it means to grow into a life too big to fit entirely into any shrine of any story.
It’s a powerful call, story to universe to cosmos and pattern, to tell all, to live while taking warning. I take warning, throw my spiral bound journal into my bag next to the sunglasses and reading glasses and keys, and head out the door for a walk and a good place to write.
I pack Hampl with me. That’s just the first essay. The next is devastating, as well.