Today’s blog post comes from Eric Scott.
A newspaper article from 1984. This really shouldn’t be that hard to find. And yet I’m on my fourth day in the state archives, looking for words whose existence I now doubt exist. They should – I’ve had a half-dozen people tell me this story happened, that it was printed, that they talked about it at parties. It should have been a sensational story: arson, the occult, rumors of animal sacrifice. It should have been the biggest story in Greene County.
I unroll another year’s worth of microfilm: The Buffalo Reflex, this time for 1983. There was nothing to find in ’84. I loop the film beneath one white plastic post, pull it across a pane of glass, wind it into another reel, and pray. Fast forward past ten months of R1 school district lunch menus and installments of Trooper Talk. I get to November and read every headline.
Maybe somebody got the year wrong. It was a long time ago, after all. Memories fail.
Maybe it never happened at all.
I pull another year and keep reading.
This is the job:
You know something happened, once. It comes from your memory, quickly fading, or a story from your relatives. An article you once read about a woman who attended your alma mater. Something on the radio about the Manhattan Project. And for some reason – no justifiable one – you decide this occurrence deserves to live in the forefront of your mind for an indeterminate amount of time.
So you research. You go looking for newspaper articles, for birth certificates, for death notices. You ask questions, listen to stories, get into arguments. You broach subjects that will cause people pain, make them remember periods of their lives that they’ve tried to forget. You stumble into decades-old disagreements. Somebody may call you a monster, because only a monster could ask about this.
You look for objects – anything physical, anything that was there. Pictures are good; so are notebooks, and paintings, and graffiti. You visit unfamiliar graveyards and uninviting neighborhoods. You take photographs, even though you’re no better a photographer than the average Instagrammer. Like a detective or an archeologist, you collect these traces of life and reconstruct the scene.
The clues you gather will always be too much and not enough. Nobody’s facts match up. Details in one account don’t appear in the others. (Did the kids really ride in on four-wheelers, or is that just a trick of the memory, a dramatic flourish?) There will always be missing pieces, crucial pieces that nobody bothered to save, perhaps because nobody bothered to think a person like you would care about a thing like this. The central character in your narrative, the one who changed everyone’s life? Nobody knows where she went. She didn’t leave a forwarding address. Nobody thought to get her phone number. You will watch CSI and complain that you’ve never seen evidence line up so neatly in your life.
Still. You persist, because nobody ever explained the sunk cost fallacy in a way that convinced you. You pry, and you dig, and you hunt. You find more than you can take. It’s not that you find a lot of dross in your search for iron; it’s that you find copper and tin and silver down there too. Good material, but you can only carry so much.
And then, after too long, you sit, and you write. Maybe at a desk with a computer, or at a typewriter, the older the better. Maybe at a table with a notebook and a pen. You take what you have and write it down, putting words against words for as long as it takes. Once you have that down, you go back. You kill sentences. You strike out words. You start a second Word document just for the bits you love but can’t keep, the ones that have to go but you can’t bear to delete forever. Someday you will find that document, open it, and stare at your own work with no sense of recognition.
If you’re lucky, you are writing on a deadline, and an editor is waiting for you to finish. If not, you send your story off into the dark, hoping some kind soul out there will read it and like it enough to give you a by-line and two contributor’s copies. Sometimes nobody will. Sometimes you will have spent hundreds of dollars, will have wasted multiple weeks, will have broken your alternator on a country highway 250 miles from home in order to write this story, and your story will be rejected because it just wasn’t good enough.
You will be bitter, but you will accept it, because it is the truth.
Sometimes you will write the good one, the great one, the one with upwards of 63 Facebook Likes. You will be proud of that one, sure. But you will also know all the flaws, all the holes, all the things you looked so hard to find and never did.
And then something else will catch your eye, and you’ll do it all over again.
If you are like me – a hell of an assumption, I’ll grant you, but play along – if you are like me, you find that writing this stuff, this “fact,” this “creative nonfiction,” this “mutant journalism” – is hard. It is so hard. It is like fiction without the freedom, like journalism without the strictures. We agonize over the language like poets and the ethics like philosophers. We trudge through the archives, hoping to find bits of the past that might not exist at all. And we write anyway, in spite of the difficulty, doing our best in service to the facts and the art.
We do it because we live in this world, and it deserves the effort.
We do it because that’s the job.
Eric Scott writes creative nonfiction and fiction from the unique perspective of a second-generation Wiccan. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Media Arts from the University of Missouri – Kansas City in 2010 and is a current PHD student at the University of MIssouri – Columbia. He serves as a Contributing Editor at Killing the Buddha and a columnist at The Wild Hunt. He was named Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 by Moon Books, who published his first book, The Lives of the Apostates, in 2013. He once played guitar in a Taoist glam rock band.