It’s the end of the year, a time when most of us cannot help but pause to take stock of where and who we’ve been. In July of this year, I spent two weeks at Mineral School, a unique creative residency program that offers literary (and other) artists the opportunity to give undivided attention to their art—while living in a former elementary school. It was an extremely productive time for me: I completed four works, several of which I had been wrestling with for over two years. (Did I mention that having a classroom as a live/work space was also super cool?)
I can’t say enough how valuable the focus afforded by this residency was to my work. Early fruits of this labor came with an acceptance from Stoneboat Literary Journal for “Dissolving,” an essay whose working title was “Lime Jell-O Mold.” The piece chronicles the bond my mother and I shared, and the existential questions that have arisen from her life being cut short, through the sugary, jiggly, wiggly lens of her recipe for a certain dessert treat. (Dissolving appears in Stoneboat 7.1 (Fall 2016) if you would like to purchase a copy.) This piece was a major rework from its initial draft, which my writing group had commented on extensively; despite several attempts, I couldn’t manage to nail this piece until Mineral School.
The second acceptance I received blew me away. Like Dissolving, my essay, “Muzzled,” went through several iterations. I first wrote it three years ago as a standard essay, but I was too emotionally close to the work; I could not complete the piece. The following year, I tried to transform the roots of the story into fiction. A few pages in, I knew it was a dismal failure, and again, I could not complete the work. At Mineral School, I took a different tack. I forced myself to go slow, to work in bits, to break down the plot into a heartbeat of small, distinct sections: this happened. Then this happened. Then this happened.
Then, I began to experiment by layering other elements in the spaces between my first-person accounts. I drew on journalism, media, literature and psychology, and that’s when things got interesting. By keeping the parts separate, I tapped into an infrastructure of tension that could be dialed to rise—it was the effect I could never quite pull off by telling the story in unbroken narrative. I worked on the essay for four days straight, writing and editing in four-hour chunks between meals and after dinner until it was finished.
Each piece that I worked on at Mineral School came out in similar fashion. I worked back and forth to create a palimpsest of layers until, finally, I had achieved enough distance from the subject matter that I could stand to get very, very close in places. These works, all of which I had wrestled with unsuccessfully in multiple forms, began to breathe; they turned out far more rich and cohesive than if I had continued to force them into straight-form narratives. It was the best learning that I did all year.
A month later, when I received the acceptance from Creative Nonfiction, I hit the roof. I loved the irony that the team came with: they had intentionally slated Muzzled for publication in December, a month when most stories tend to be about love, family and reconciliation. In fact, that’s exactly what it’s about, just not in the way you might expect.
When I look back on the past three years in which I tried to write this essay—and the past 25 in which I’ve attempted to process its effects on my life—December is the perfect time for its release. This moment, between one year and the next, is a fitting transition in the most positive of senses. Each time I complete an essay like this, an old demon is exorcised; over time, I notice the lightness. Whatever I had been wrestling with has blown away. If I’m able to write it out, I can achieve catharsis, and when I can’t, it’s a sign that my work off the page isn’t done. After re-reading the essay, I see how old and deep this particular hurt went, and I am happy to close this particular chapter of my life with a bang. It turns out that Muzzled is actually the perfect note on which to end 2016 and look forward, with hope and newfound energy, to a bright new year.
I could not be more grateful for all the people who helped me make this piece better than I could have ever done on my own: my friends and family, especially Michael; Jane, Jess, Genny and Elisabeth, the tremendous board members of Mineral School; and the amazing staff of Creative Nonfiction, particularly Hattie Fletcher and Anne Horowitz, who gave such great editorial direction, and Seth Clark, who designed the pitch-perfect cover illustration.
True Story, Issue #3: “Muzzled” by Gabriela Denise Frank
On her eighteenth birthday, Gabriela Denise Frank asks her father to take her shooting in the desert—a father-daughter bonding day. But are there other motives behind her request? This far-ranging discussion of guns, ballistics, mass shootings, and the psychology of abuse ends in a simple question: Will she, or won’t she?
True Story is a new home for longform nonfiction narratives. Published monthly by the editors of Creative Nonfiction, each pocket-size issue of True Story showcases one exceptional essay by one exceptional writer. From issue to issue, this new mini-magazine features the widest possible variety of voices and styles and subjects.
Offering vivid, immersive reports from real life, every issue of True Story is a small celebration of the larger-than-life stories and experiences that make us think differently about what it means to be human.