Earlier this week I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water. Normally I don’t feel compelled to own a book—I’m usually content with borrowing a copy from a friend or the library, but this is one I want to buy. As Sugar at The Rumpus would say, Lidia writes with humility and surrender, with resilience and faith, in other words she “writes like a motherfucker.” Lidia’s story is interesting, heartbreaking at times and filled with drama, but it’s her writing that pulls me in—her ability to cut right to the point, her ability to turn the story of a life into a piece of artwork. I want to own her book so I can refer to it when I need some inspiration—which is often.
I was telling my daughter about this book. She’s sixteen and her love of books kicked in later than many of her friends, but to my immense satisfaction she’s now an avid reader. Two summer’s ago she was hooked by The Hunger Games series. Now she’s reading The Virgin Suicides. When I was telling her about The Chronology of Water (don’t worry—I left out the sexy parts) I made a comment that my life has been too boring to ever write a memoir as interesting as Lidia Yuknovich’s. She told me that from what she’s heard of my childhood, I have plenty of material.
It’s true I suppose. My parents divorced when I was very young, which meant that I had to deal with stepparents and the dichotomy of being raised in two separate households. And there’s the whole religion business. My daughter has been to church only a few times in her life but I spent a good portion of my childhood in Sunday school, sitting through sermons and crying at the altar—pleading for forgiveness for the sins I’d committed. (And aren’t all elementary-aged children terrible sinners?) It’s true that living in a non-stop Pentecostal fear-fest certainly makes for some interesting stories.
Most of the hours spent at church—the First Assemblies of God Church on 4th and Grand Avenue in Grand Junction, Colorado, to be specific—blur together. I couldn’t tell you the specifics of any one sermon. The church itself though, with its long white-tiled hallway, its labyrinth of classrooms, its red carpeted sanctuary and its dimly lit balcony will forever be associated with a whole host of mixed up emotions in my memory.
One of the things I do remember—with horrifying distinction—from the church of my childhood, is a movie that was made in the early 1970s called A Thief in the Night. It was the story of a woman who had been left behind after the rapture. She realized early on that although she was a good person she’d made a terrible mistake by not taking Jesus Christ as her personal savior. Without taking the time to tell you the entire plot line, (I’d need to refresh my own memory,) I can say in all honesty that nothing in my life has scared me as much as that movie. I’m talking nightmare, wet the bed kind of fear. I’m talking crying and screaming upon coming home to an empty house kind of fear. One scene depicted a child being sent away to a guillotine. (Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have an actual video of the scene that traumatized me for years to come. To understand my terror please see the attached YouTube video.) Other scenes involved torture and executioners.
Ironically, at the time they showed those films during the evening services, I wasn’t allowed to go to movies because they were “against our religion.” Somehow though, the church officials thought it was okay to show A Thief in the Night to children. The graphic, disturbing images were justified because they would hopefully lead to conversions. And let me tell you, the altars were busy on those nights. Jesus became the personal savior of many a kid after those showings. It was a strange combination of Jesus loves you unconditionally and if you do not accept him as your personal savior you will burn in hell.
This is how I was raised. It was the backdrop to all of the other mixed up stuff that was going on with my two-part family and my adolescent body. I guess my daughter is right. I do have a few stories to tell. So does everyone.
As much as I wish I could remember more specific details of my childhood, most of my memories come in the form of emotions. The last time I visited the 4th and Grand church was for my father’s funeral. My emotions were already out of whack before I walked through the doors, but being back inside that building, seeing so many of my relatives that I hadn’t seen in years, being around the Jesus lingo again, using the same bathroom I used to retreat into as a kid when the pressure of the place became too much—it all reminded me of how I felt throughout the majority of my childhood. Inadequate. Small. Fearful.
So, as usual, (forgive me) all of this comes back to writing. When I applied to the MFA program over a year ago I chose fiction as my genre to study. But I’m questioning that choice lately. When I sit down at my computer it’s the true stories I want to tell—they seem easier to come by because my memory and my experience limit where I can go. But I believe in fiction. I believe that some truths are best expressed when we’re forced to step outside of our own lives. It’s just that when I sit down to write fiction I feel inadequate, small, fearful all over again. It’s not as fear-inducing as A Thief in the Night—nothing is as terrifying as that, but it’s scary just the same. The good news is that if I got over my fear of the rapture I can get over my fear of writing fiction. It takes practice though—a lot of it—and faith in the process. I may not know where I’m going with a story, but worst-case scenario is that I have to scrap an idea or start over. That’s not nearly as bad as thinking you’ll be sent to hell if you screw up.