This is a lesson in contrasts.
A few years ago my high school class back home in Indiana celebrated its 25th reunion. I live a long ways away now, and I am not a high school reunion person. Not interested in who went bald (that would be me) or any of the other gossip disguised as “catching up.” Or that’s not exactly true—I was interested but didn’t want to have to talk to anyone.
My ex-wife, however, was going. In a Facebook chat she offered to fill me in on any especially scandalous details.
We had been great friends in high school and got married right out of college. But it ended badly. We didn’t talk for 13 years. It was the deepest wound of my young adult life—easy. Then I published a book that got mentioned in our college alumni magazine and she reached out with a note of congratulations. We became Facebook friends, learned about each other’s new lives and families, and spoke on the phone once. Healing isn’t a word I use lightly but it was healing. A pain that had settled deep in my chest suddenly lifted.
Besides gossip, the other part of my high school reunion that interested me was that my older brother’s band was playing the after party. He’d been telling me about their set list for weeks: Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Guns-n-Roses. I’d have liked to have been there for that (I used to play bass in his band.)
Our dad was the band’s biggest fan—he never missed a gig. I should have known he’d be there. Obviously. But it still came as a surprise when the night of the reunion, my ex-wife sent me a picture from the party that quietly stunned me. It was a selfie she’d taken with my dad. They were both smiling, 20 years older than the last time they’d seen each other. My dad, ironically, was wearing a shirt that I’d worn in high school. I could hardly believe what I was seeing—a glimpse of the future that 20 years ago I had abandoned.
What that made my heart feel…I don’t know. And the not knowing was fascinating. Did I want that old life? No. But it threw my current life into stark relief by showing me how different things might have been. The contrast revealed me to me.
In fiction and nonfiction, contrasts work the same way—they reveal truths about us that hide in plain sight. They trace out our edges. Imagine some big upheaval in your life: a divorce, a death, our current experiment in social distancing through the Covid 19 pandemic. How does the before contrast with the after? How does the difference manifest itself in your life? What are the tiny details, like pieces of broken glass, that cut you open? Do you still catch sight of a dead loved-one in a crowd? Accidentally set their place at the dinner table? Do you find yourself getting ready to hit the coffee shop, have your keys in hand even, before remembering that everything has changed? Without explaining or contextualizing it, write the moment of the realization. Write the recognition of loss. Write the sensory experience of the wound that is the contrast.
And once you’ve done that, maybe try another angle. Write what life would be like for you (or a character) if things hadn’t changed, if loss hadn’t speared you. Write what might have been. What does it feel like? What perspective does it lend you and your writing to stand outside of yourself a moment and acknowledge the contrast?
Steve Edwards is the author of the memoir BREAKING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY. He lives in Massachusetts.
Artwork by: Spencer Backman