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Assumed Identities

March 1, 2013

Sometimes when I worked in the garden down by the road, Tony would saunter over from across the street to chat while I weeded. Strange plants that appeared to be chrysanthemums had come up in the spring, spread rapidly, and grown all summer—eventually becoming covered in tight buds that would not open to reveal their identity. I allowed the plants to grow a long time, waiting for them to bloom, but they never did.

By late August I was suspicious. I broke off some leaves, crushed them in my fingers. They even smelled like chrysanthemums, but they weren’t. So I had to spend hours digging them out, following their roots, which ran long and moist, to where they mingled with the roots of real flowers in underground conspiracies.

Tony usually had a golf club with him when he stopped by. He’d pose near the blue catmint border, swinging his club at an imaginary ball and squinting after it—his posture as erect at 70 as it must have been at 25.

“You’re doing a great job here, Anna,” he’d say.

“Thanks, coach.”

Retired now, Tony had been the athletic director at the U. S. Naval Academy for thirty years. I had married one of his students.

Tony’s wife, Ruth, was a retired nurse and devout Catholic. When not volunteering at St .Timothy’s, she ministered to injured pets, abandoned birds—all presented to her with reverent solemnity by the neighborhood children. My sons had once brought her a rabbit which hopped only in circles, and, on another occasion, a hamster each claimed the other had stepped upon. When successful, and she usually was, Ruth told Tony it was faith that prevailed. He may not have believed her, but he responded to her kindness as if it were beauty, using her name often when he spoke.

One early summer morning Tony strolled over with a flower stuck rakishly behind one ear. It seemed so out of place I thought perhaps it had gotten caught there by accident—as if a locust blossom had fallen in his hair while he was practicing his swing.

Garden’s looking good, Anna,” he said, slicing the shimmering air with his club. I stood up from my pursuit of the non-chrysanthemums and smiled at him, wondering if I should mention his odd accessory.

“Sing out if you need a hand,” he said, taking one last swing at a dandelion.

As he turned, I reached out to remove the strange blossom but he drew back sharply saying, “Ruth put that there!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, and returned, pink with trespass, to my pursuit of the garden’s impostors.

Do you struggle with the line between fiction and non-fiction? It’s a common area of insecurity for new writers. We can feel like imposters writing fiction that begins in or contains fact. This, vignette, for instance, is the beginning of a short story, a piece of fiction, but in my first draft every word was true.

I find real people and real relationships so fascinating that I often have to make “real” my point of entry into fiction. You can too if this serves you.  But you begin to turn the story outward, away from yourself, by changing names and simple facts while staying true to the emotional content.  I do not have sons, I have one son and two daughters. They have never had a rabbit or hamster. There is no such place as St. Timothy’s.My name is not Anna.

But I did once make a gesture of unwarranted intimacy by mistake and felt shamed at the realization.

Think about a time you have embarrassed yourself with an impulsive gesture, a wrong guess. Write a page that is true to your experience then go back and fictionalize three things.   Now ask yourself not “what happened next” but “what happens next?” Turn the story outward, away from yourself and into the world. Turn your memoir into a short story.

THIS BLOG WAS FIRST POSTED ON PENGUIN BOOKS BLOG

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