Writing About Loss: A Review of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
My favorite non-fiction genre is memoir and since the Janes’ theme this month is memory, I thought I’d share one of the most powerful memoirs I’ve ever read, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.
I keep returning to this book to figure out it’s craft secrets. Most memoirs can be viewed as dealing with some kind of loss. The loss of weight, the loss of abuse, the loss of the person the author used to be. McCracken’s book is a memoir about death, the ultimate loss. It obviously have a sad and known ending, so what are the tools this author use to keep people reading? How does she move the story forward without overwhelming the reader by the weight of the topic? The methods she uses in her memoir, works well in fiction too.
The book is about McCracken’s first child being stillborn. Her very first line lets her readers know what to expect. “Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)” That first chapter is very short (2 pages)–maybe to make sure she doesn’t lose her readers–it ends on “It seemed like the saddest thing I’d ever heard, back before I knew how sad things could get.” The next chapter begins with “A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is still born.” Then a few sentences later, “A baby is born in this book, too.”
With these few sentences, McCracken sets up the expectations for her readers. They now know this is story about grieving for a dead child, but amongst the darkness of this topic, there might be hope because “A baby is born in this book, too.” McCracken then widens the topic and thereby the readership that the book might appeal to. She says, “…lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband’s sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband’s shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.” The book is not just about losing a child, it’s about living with and surviving tragedy and grief.
McCracken’s timeline is not linear, but she keeps the narrative frame focused on how she learned to process her grief. The story starts at the end, we already know that her baby will die, she touches briefly on the difficulties of dealing with birth when you know that your baby is dead. McCracken and her husband lived in France at the time. She describes what it was like to return to their house without the baby they expected. Throughout this narrative, she drops in details showing the long term effects of grief as when she describes no longer remembering any French words because they were “…removed with the blunt-force trauma of those days.”
She then takes a giant step back in the timeline and describes meeting her husband, why they ended up moving to France, and discovering (in France) that she was pregnant. And then she skips forward and lists how her second pregnancy was different from her first. “Here’s what else we didn’t do when I was pregnant the second time. Knock on wood. Light candles. Tell ninety percent of the people we knew that I was pregnant. Have an amniocentesis. Pick up pennies….Pick names. Find out the babies gender. Come up with an in utero name: the kid was ‘the kid’ or ‘who ever it is.’” This is in stark contrast to her first child being referred to as “Pudding” throughout the story. To McCracken and her husband, the first baby was very much a person.
How does an author characterize someone that’s never born? There can’t be any descriptions of what they look like, what they say, or their mannerisms. McCracken makes her readers care about Pudding not only sharing his name, but also showing the progression of her pregnancy and how he became a person to her and her husband. And she describes the place they lived in France and the people they socialized with. Both the place and the people are characterized by showing how they relate to Pudding, thus enforcing the readers impression of him as a person.
Just over half way through the book, McCracken skips back in time to describe the moment when she and her husband scattered the baby’s ashes and observes, “It probably sounds ridiculous to observe that I was at that moment already a day or two pregnant….If this moment appeared in a movie, I would spit on it for its nauseating symbolism, the author taking liberties with probability to Give Hope to the Audience. I’m a cynic.” That same chapter ends with “Closure is bullshit.” and at the beginning of the next chapter, the timeline is back to the moment of discovering the second pregnancy. From here on in the book, the two pregnancies are compared and contrasted with each other. As “the kid” becomes a reality to the McCrackens, Pudding is remembered and grieved, becoming more and more of a person because he’s thought of as an older brother, not a dead baby. McCracken shows what she promised her readers on a page in the beginning of the book, “The love of the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa.”
The length of the chapters of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination are altered and heighten the emotional punch. There are longer chapters with emotional scenes like having to move to another hospital when the doctors discover that Pudding is dead, because the maternity ward is only for “live babies.” In between these longer chapter, McCracken pauses the story for a few paragraphs—the short chapters are usually only a page and a half to two pages—and offers reflection of what she described in the preceding chapter. They work as breather moments before the readers embark on another emotionally charged passage.
Only forty pages from the end of the book, right before she writes about the successful delivery of her second child, McCracken describes the details and the shock of finding out that her baby had died and then the horror of having to go through labor anyway. By now, Pudding and the McCrackens are well known to the readers and the impact of this scene therefore much stronger. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is some of the most brilliant and powerful emotional story telling I’ve ever read.
Confession: this month’s topic was my idea – cultural memories many of us share. From our first expereince behind the wheel of a car, to where we were when Lady Diana died, there are touchstones that almost all of us relate to in one way or another. I decided I would share my first memory of money. And I will.
In a minute.
Right after I share some cheesy tourist photos from last week.
Strangely enough, my trip back east ties in to my cultural memories of money. Sure, I saw Niagara Falls (*again*) – though the real highlight was watching my husband take in the Falls for the first time ever. We also checked out monuments, museums, and historic sites.
For me, what makes travel worth the effort is discovering architectural treasures. Hello, Martin Complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright! Plus Willowbank, a stately home built in 1833 – yet to be restored to glory! Finally, The Layfayette Hotel – a French Renaissance-style building designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, America’s first female architect.
But, in my opinion, there is no better architectural treasure than the family homestead. Built in the 1930s by my grandparents, brick by brick, it is a testament to hard work and craftsmanship. It has three levels, and from the top of the staircase, there is a wide open view of orchards, the lake, and the Toronto skyline.
Yet it’s the bottom of the staircase, where the steps meet the first floor alcove, where a leaded glass door closed off the pink telephone table… that’s where I discovered money! My earliest memory of money was spending hours with my Didi (grandfather) in a game of penny toss. We’d take turns tossing pennies into his worn leather boot.
It was the best game in the world!
So what’s your first memory of money?
In my notes, I see that this month’s topic at See Jane Publish is “Where were you when?” Honestly, I’m not sure what that was supposed to inspire in me. Sometimes I don’t take such good notes. Hopefully the other Janes are more organizationally inclined or at least have better handwriting.
So instead I’m going to share where I am now. This has a couple advantages. One being that I know the answer to this question. And two, where I am is quite lovely.
This is the Oregon coast in May. I’m here to write a book and a half in four days. Admittedly, they are not long books, but they are still keeping me busy with my morning, afternoon, and evening word counts.
Still, I can’t visit the coast without a daily walk on the beach. Because writing a book — even a short book — can feel long, and life is short. Since I need the reminder to enjoy what’s in front of me, not just what’s in my head, here are my rules for walking on the beach:
Sometimes I get caught up in minutia and forget to appreciate the big picture. The big, pretty, golden (if slightly out of focus) picture.
Sometimes minutia is really interesting! Bird tracks and scuttling sand fleas and rocks leaving arrows in the water, but only for a moment before it’s gone.
Actually this one is not a “do” but a “don’t”. Seagulls, you know.
Things change depending on the point of view and the color of the mood. If I squint just right, sometimes I can change them to what I want them to be.
Always keep an eye out for treasures that the ocean keeps bringing to your feet. (And always look out for the sneaker waves that’ll take you back with them.)
If words were sand, my shoes would be full, but I still have miles to go. Looking at your week ahead, what are you most looking forward to?
Recently I made a commitment to improving my health through diet (gag) and exercise (ouch). Unexpectedly, I have become a FitBit pedometer addict and there is no 12 Step Program (pun intended) to alleviate my suffering. I must reach my 10,000 steps a day.
- I obsessively check my stats all day long.
- I have sniffed out every co-worker with a FitBit wristband and I send them pedometer challenges.
- I take advantage of every opportunity to gain another step. I have resorted to walking in circles while waiting for elevators, pacing at the bus station, and parking my car far away from my destination. Strangers must think I’m a crazy person but it’s all FitBit’s fault.
On Friday, I reached the goal of walking 25,000 steps in a single day. It was a pivotal moment and I should have felt euphoria but part of me realized that as soon as I closed my eyes for the night, I would wake up with the score of ZERO. Every day, no matter how far I reached, I would always start the next day over at ZERO. I am suffering from a Sisyphus complex.
Because my wristband can be a cruel at the stroke of midnight, I decided to shift my definition of what it means to be a successful walker. Now I want to create memories associated with those significant statistics. I must get off the treadmill and step outside into life.
I decided to try to conquer my Sisyphus complex by literally climbing an actual mountain. This past Sunday I survived my first hike in the Colombia Gorge with my friend Nicole. It was amazing to go with an experienced hiker and just enjoy the views. But after many hours, I had only reached 17,000 steps, nowhere near my weekend goal. Sisyphus urged me to go on but my legs of Jell-O were done. I had one of the most enjoyable walking days (as seen by my photos below) and yet my FitBit mocks me.
I had an epiphany on the drive home. The habits I exhibit with my Fitbit obsession are the same tendencies I deploy with my writing:
- I obsessively check my daily word counts.
- I have a strong social group of writers who encourage each other to make time for writing.
- I go to every conference and workshop I can afford in order to learn the latest writing technique and publishing gossip.
Yet, once again, when I’m done writing a story, I have to start over with a blank page and a ZERO word count. To me, it always comes back to ZERO. Does anyone else feel like Sisyphus is your sidekick? How do you keep pushing the rock up the mountain?