Hello from the Dogpatch! It’s dogfight time again, and this time we’re duking it out over an essay by Laurel Leigh, slated for a collection called Home Is a Handstand.
His familiar voice on the phone takes me backward in time, and I want his speech to be the language of Coach, those reassuring tones that let me know I can jump and fly oh so high, only now he’s just this regular guy, sounding baffled and hurt at being snubbed by a gal, and as yet unused to the garb of the newly divorced. And looking to me as someone who’s been there (twice) and seems to have it all figured out, and asking me for advice on ways to cope. Advice I can and do give, from that adult part of myself, the older, wiser me whom the other versions grew into. — from Home Is a Handstand.
Wes sez: Let me say, first off, I found this essay deeply moving. The manner in which you expose yourself and lay bare your deepest feelings for two of the most important men in your life — your father and your former gymnastics coach — is both brave and, in its way, awe-inspiring. I might even have cried while reading this piece; but, being a man, I cannot possibly admit to that. So I’m going to punt on this one and say I ‘might’ have cried.
The essay starts off with a terrific opening line about deciding to get fit again at the (comically specific) age of fifty-one and three quarters. This opening line establishes the tone of the piece from the outset: funny and self-deprecating and cutting-to-the-bone in its honesty. The notion of losing weight and getting fit again also serves as a nice framing device for the piece; but the real heart of your essay — for me — is about learning, through time and experience and pain-staking trial-and-error, to heal one’s self.
The narrator (or protagonist) of the essay has reached a point in her life where she yearns for the company of another person, specifically a man. More specifically, the old male friend with whom she shares long phone conversations about his recent divorce and his lurching attempts to get back into the dating game.
There is a nice informality to the tone of the essay, which serves to undercut (in a good way) the anguish and loneliness that permeates the entire piece. If the piece didn’t have this informal, self-deprecating tone it would be almost too painful to read. But as it is now, the essay is both funny and entertaining. The reader is not entertained at the expense of the narrator’s unhappiness; the reader is instead drawn in by the brave and funny voice of the narrator, and in this way the reader can both sympathize and empathize with her. We have all been there, longing for someone who can’t see our longing, even though it’s written all over our face.
There is also an overarching feeling of loss running throughout the essay; the sense of time passing, and the feeling that there’s nothing we can do to slow or stem the flow. We can only sit back, stunned, and marvel at how quickly the years have slipped by. But to leaven this sense of loss, in your essay there is also a buoyant sense of not giving up, of continuing the fight. There is the funny, uplifting sense of not going gentle into that good night, of raging — hilariously — against the dying of the light.
This is where the idea of losing weight and getting fit again serves to both frame the piece and provide the through-line to the finish. The narrator meditates on what it was like, in her youth, to be an elite athlete. The technical details about the sport of gymnastics that crop up throughout the work provide a pleasing heft to the piece; these parts were among my favorite in the essay.
I also like those moments when you address the reader directly, particularly when you are delving into some of the more arcane or technical aspects of the sport of gymnastics.
I am not as enamored of those moments when you lapse into second person to directly address some of the characters in the essay. These passages feel heartfelt and real, but I think they break down the sense of time in the piece and put the reader outside the narrative. I know you were concerned whether the reader had a consistent sense of time within the framework of the essay; I feel like these passages where you directly address the characters, instead of the reader, only serve to increase that sense of dislocation.
The manner in which you close the piece, the order in which the last few sections of the essay occur, also adds a little to this sense of dislocation. You end on a very funny note, with the narrator looking ahead to a future time when she will be reaping the benefits of getting fit and enjoying her newfound hotitude. The present ending, however, occurs outside the present-day framework of the essay; so while I like this ending, I think you can improve the piece by re-ordering your final few sections to end on a more bittersweet note, with the narrator and her old friend sharing a nice moment together.
I recently read a long article in the New York Times about tangerines (they called them ‘mandarins’ in the article) and how some of the best fruit is coming out of a few neighboring orchards in the Ojai Valley in Southern California. They talk to several growers who go on to describe the particular flavors of the tangerines they grow, and one of the growers said something that stuck with me. She said that while some tangerines are noteworthy for their sweetness, and others stand out because of their pleasing tartness, she said it is those fruits that managed to balance both a sense of sweetness with a pleasing tartness that haunt you long after you finished eating them.
And so, again, while I like the ending you currently have, I vote you end with the bittersweet scene where Coach applies a healing massage to the creaky, damaged knees of his former pupil, knowing all the while that he can’t possibly heal her ruined knees, but he can be present and mindful of her suffering — and in this way provide the only real, lasting healing any of us truly can provide one another.
My turn! Wes, please stop to take a breath.
Whoa, Nellie! Honest, raw, intense, moving, couldn’t-stop-reading, essay. Laurel, you’ve taken the stuff of memoir and turned it into a moving essay about aging, fathers and father figures, self acceptance, and resilience. I love the yearning for your father and the conflation of father with your coach, something that can happen so easily to a father figure early in our lives. I also love the way you put together sentences that can bring me to tears. You’re not afraid of truth, or if you are, you’re brave because you write it, anyway. Well done!
But one of the tricky things about writing any piece that contains elements from the past, present, and potential future, is making sure your reader understands the chronology without having to think much about it. They are pulled along by your words and never ask themselves about the order in which events occurred. For the most part, I think your essay succeeds in keeping readers grounded in time, but there are a handful of sections that make us guess. And that pulls us out of the moment in your story. Wes and I identified those instances, and I think you’ll be able to clear those up without too much difficulty.
Wes and I disagreed a bit on the ending, but we managed to keep it civil. No black eyes, in other words. Your current ending is an empowering, defiant, snappy, and funny comeback to the initial hurt that left you reeling. As a woman, I LOVED it! I think women are so often slighted by casual comments that we crave the powerful comeback that is the final note to the essay.
However, and that’s a big however, Wes is right when he says there’s potential for a more poignant ending that alludes to the transformation that is to come, while allowing your relationship with your coach to arrive at a satisfying realization (on your part). This one is going to be your call. How do YOU want to write the piece? What do YOU want the reader to take away at the end? All questions that only you can answer.
Next, I am failing to see the full bridge from pain and hurt to strength. For me, what’s on the page right now doesn’t get me there. And I think that involves the chronology of events as they’re currently laid out. I think we also need to see you start your training again instead of getting so much summary toward the end. (I little summary would be fine, but right now, it feels like too much.) I think that allows us to see the transformation rather than being told about it.
Another note: Earlier in the essay, you use an extended metaphor involving horses. Although it’s an apt comparison, I think it pulls me away from the actual image of the moment. I think I’d like you to stay in scene and give us the details as you experienced them rather than the metaphor. I want to be in the moment with the girl whose knee is betraying her, not in the head of the writer who has come up with a beautiful metaphor for that moment. But again, your call.
The language surrounding gymnastics is so precise that the reader feels confident in your knowledge. You are who you say you are. It also makes the piece that much more fascinating because the reader is invited into a space where so few people have been; insight into competition at an elite level is rare. And you do this by giving us key details.
I have other small suggestions, but I’ll send you those on the document. Thanks for giving us another powerful read! xo, Jil