Essay by Wm. Anthony Connolly
Conserving What I Know—and Don’t Know
Indelible blue ink furrows into sheets of white, lined foolscap. On every line, I write a story of such importance that it surprises Mum.
“What? You want to do what?” she asks, tying a thin veil over her freshly curled, brunette-dyed hair. She runs the knot under her small, round chin. A smoke, Player’s Plain, is wedged in the side of her mouth; the cigarette bobs as she speaks.
“I need to take this to the publishers in Winnipeg.” I hold a sheaf of white paper in my sticky six-year-old hands.
Dad is waiting for us in the car. We are heading into the Big City for the day. Mum takes the paper from me and reads its titled first page.
“’The Golden Monster’?” She looks down at me patiently. “Okay. What’s it about, Sonny?”
Here, things begin to fade, a succession of dissolves. I can’t recall with any certainty what the story was about. It seems important that I do, but I can’t. I prod the then-me with words of encouragement from the now-me, to no avail.
I was a stubborn child. I recall sitting in my bedroom writing it all down in blue; I remember scampering up the stairs and handing the whole three pages to Mum. Then…nothing but particles and waves—motes in the vitreous humor. The light shines through this tremulous prism and disperses.
• • •
If remembrance goes out the window, are we tossed with the bathwater? If so, memory is an act of conservation, a hope of establishing some fixity or a regular pattern of the self.
I’ve always prided myself on being consistent, hobgoblins be damned. Writing—I think—helps me to get it down as close as possible to right. It’s the old journalist in me. Anything of importance should be written down. Not everything has a flashpoint, a crater, a flag planted, a voice in the incessant chorus of history. Chatter dies; syllables on the page last. So much is lost if there are no attempts at conservation.
I am a conservationist, and writing is my husbandry. But what am I preserving beyond a record that speaks to me in a tug or a whisper, beyond language? Perhaps I simply yearn to make sense of time.
“What do I know?” serves as the unofficial motto of Montaigne’s essayistic travail through his life. He had it engraved on a medallion that he wore around his neck while writing. The motto serves me, too: self, truth, memory, and my faith are parts of an unseen order from which I live my life and give it meaning.
I don’t know a lot. Writing it down helps. It assists with banishing the darkness, with shedding just a little light on myself and the geography I inhabit in this world. Writing brings back moments of being that help me to understand who I am now. Writing brings me golden monsters described with urgency on foolscap in the aqueous-light-filled den of a basement bedroom when I was six and my mum was upstairs calling me. Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony. I scribbled madly. I had to get it down. What, exactly, was I wrestling with then; what am I wrestling with now?
What? Maybe nothing at all, but perhaps Montaigne, composing in sixteenth-century France, had it right:
I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without pose or artifice; for it is myself that I portray.
In writing nonfiction, I seek such an unvarnished self on the page. Yet, in many ways, remembering is a leap of faith, just as writing is. I write to create myself, then, to assemble myself from my past or, at least, from what I remember of my past.
I write because memory is an act of faith.
• • •
In 1989, Mum called me about a short story I’d written and published in a magazine. The story, “Leaves of the Abyss,” was about two boys playing on the rooftop of an abandoned building and how one fell off the roof to his death.
Mum called because she wanted to know who died. I proceeded to tell her that no one real had died, and that I’d made the whole thing up—which was a half-truth. She wasn’t convinced.
Maybe she still saw me in the pages of my first composition, the flinty one thrust on her as we headed into the Big City, and so forevermore could discern in my writings the same blood and bone and basis in reality that I’d conveyed in my golden monster. Indeed, my short story was about the death of a friend, but only metaphorically.
• • •
Recently, a lyric essay of mine was published. A combination of poetry and prose, this piece originated as a creative writing workshop assignment, one that was ostensibly designed for writers to puzzle over the nature of memory.
For the assignment, I chose to examine a memory of going on vacation with my family when I was three years old. I remembered that my brother Kevin and my sister Denise came along on the trip, while my other brother Michael and my eldest sister Elizabeth Anne were not with us. I had in mind a photograph taken during the trip, although I didn’t have the picture with me as I wrote. This is how I recalled the scene:
We stopped near a stream. Trees, undulating hill, glade, sunshine. To this day I can recall my sense of fright; perhaps it was the rushing mountain waters, its gurgle, sibilant and syllabic, and its cool sheering power. I remember being scared as my family drew nearer to the rushing stream, and to stave off my crying, my father, noticing my quivering, moistened bottom lip, hoisted me up on his side and into the bend of his arm. In the crook of my father’s steady embrace, I was perched over the mountain stream. He consoled me; he might have even jiggled me the way fathers used to as if this stimulation would somehow shake loose my worry. My brother and sister, unafraid and smiling in the dappled light for the camera, were on their hands and knees leaning into the water. Mum took the picture.
The photograph, the one I used to reply to the prompt, became the cornerstone of the composition. When my sister, Elizabeth Anne, read the piece online, she sent me an email praising it. She had the picture I’d mentioned; did I want a copy?
When the picture arrived in my email inbox, I opened it, and, much to my surprise, had direct evidence that my memory is faulty: Elizabeth Anne, the sister I thought hadn’t been there, was in the picture near the banks of the river with Kevin, Denise, and me.
I half expected her to be upset about the fact that I’d removed her from this childhood experience, but my sister never called me on it. Perhaps, being the oldest of the siblings and viewed as the family’s archivist, she understood more about childhood recollection than I ever had.
• • •
I cannot count on myself to recall accurately. I am an unreliable narrator of my own story. And knowing this casts a shadow on the whole endeavor, as if the writer I am now looms over the person I was then to such a degree that the act of faithfully recollecting myself and my own history loses all texture and context in the attending darkness.
But I conserve—because not everything leaves its mark—a trail of dicta, of paper or bone. Traces are easily erased. In the end game of creeping normalcy, we often unexpectedly find ourselves a part of something entirely different than what we’d planned (if we planned at all), and by the time we know this, our trail has disappeared. It’s overgrown with weeds, smothered in shadow, dim and viscous. Unless there is some accounting, some record brought down on the constancy of history over time, we find all is gone.
Only by shining a light through writing do the rough edges of mystery come into relief; absence bleeds into presence. Faulty, to be sure, but it’s all we have. Admitting so much is what Montaigne was getting at with his compositions. Centuries ago, he wrote:
I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose.
We are broken vessels. Only where the light shines through does the beauty of knowing reveal itself—we are imperfect and limited. Only in working with the pieces, the assistance of others, our inexact remembering, does a creature emerge, particle by particle, wave by wave, before finally settling into something recognizable.
• • •
My memory of going to Winnipeg, a budding author, my fresh manuscript ready for the book publishers, is blank. The only image I can conjure is of me in the backseat of my parents’ car, playing with a plastic dinosaur. The sun is warm; something fantastic is happening to the T-Rex in my slimy grip. But the rest of the day—the journey in, returning home, the foolscap pages—flutters away from me in the dappled light.
As I write this, my mum has been dead just a week. She was 77 years old. One night, lying in her hospital bed, her veins sluiced with pain medication and she in a stupor, Mum called out my name four times, as if she were calling me in for dinner. I never got to ask her about my memory, about monsters golden or otherwise.
The golden monster could be anything. Yet, I’ve begun to comprehend the possibilities of this ineffable presence. Only by writing then, as now, could one piece be joined with another in my cartography, lines illuminated in the darkness, sprouting, growing, and reaching, before entangling with another in powerful connection: electricity, a form rimmed in electricity, of golden light.
At six years old, the burgeoning consciousness is a soup burbling with fantastical creatures, talking horses, slime-green aliens with penetrating eyes, and ragged-toothed monsters, all having leapt and crept from Saturday matinee screams. A friend at school brought in for show-and-tell one day a scroll of monsters he’d drawn after each had entered his nightmares, getting them down, he said, in order to banish them.
Maybe my monster on the page was like my friend’s: out of the darkness, into the light, be gone, frightening thing, be gone.
Or I can picture myself today, in luminous black and white, a driven madman in a lab coat. I am Dr. Frankenstein, and I have created out of detritus and dross a form to follow me wherever I go, begging, asking what it means to be human.
To remember, I might retort, to hold in memory what lingers of what has been created.
Mum tugs her scarf in place and takes the foolscap pages from my hands. Then…nothing but particles and waves—motes in the vitreous humor. The light shines through this tremulous prism and disperses.
And that’s enough, enough for me. Mum stands there forever, looking patiently at her Sonny, my art in her hands. We are both odd creatures, beautifully breaking up in a fading shine.
This much is true: Regarding the golden monster, writing helps with the indelible haunting.
- Michel de Montaigne's quotes are from "To the Reader” in from The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958).
- "Leaves of the Abyss" by Wm. Anthony Connolly, Dateline Arts: Manitoba, Winter 1989.
- The excerpted essay by Wm. Anthony Connolly is “Tír na nÓg” in Persuasion, June 2012.
- “Spiral” and “Zig Zag” by Jeff Shelden; used by permission
- “The Mechanical Aviary” and “Gallery” by Lois Shelden; used by permission
Wm. Anthony Connolly is a Canadian writer who now lives in the United States. The author of three novels, he teaches writing and literature at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, and St. Louis Community College in St. Louis. He is married to career coach Dyan Connolly.
For more information about his work, see Wm. Anthony Connolly's website.