Primary Source

by | Sep 17, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

The essay “I Know I’ll Go” by Terese Marie Mailhot begins with a reference to an official document:

My father died at the Thunderbird Motel on Flood Hope Road. According to documents, he was beaten over a cigarette or a prostitute. I prefer the cigarette. I considered it an Indian death myself, while walking along the country roads of my reservation. His death intruded, and I could not fathom being a good person when I came from such misery.

By starting this way, the author creates distance, from the start, between the highly charged subject matter and the writing of it. She has done some research. “According to documents.” And then she further distances herself by editorializing, “I prefer the cigarette.” Wry, honest, but a little distant, right? The author’s subjectivity begins to take shape in the way she offers, before introducing any emotion, this official account of her father’s death. 

This is a good rule of thumb in nonfiction, and probably in other genres as well: hot topic, cool words. Like, the hotter, more heightened, more emotional the subject, the more cool and laconic the prose should be. Otherwise you’re writing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or something.

Nothing is cooler than the archives. It’s as close as we can get to the laboratory or the clinic in the humanities.

Throughout Mailhot’s essay, there is a tension between what’s on paper and what comes from her subjectivity, her experience of being her father’s child and her lens on who he is, as “a woman wielding narrative.” Toward the end, she writes, “I don’t write this to put him to rest but to resurrect him as a man when public record portrays him as a drunk, a monster, and a transient.”

In this moment, instead of using an official account to establish her own distance, she’s creating distance between the official account and who she believes her father really was. 

She ends the essay back in the archives, but the more personal archives of family photographs:

If rock is permeable in water, I wonder what that makes me in all of this? There is a picture of my brother and me next to Dad’s van. My chin is turned up, and at the bottom of my irises there is a brightness. My brother has his hand on his hip, and he looks protective, standing over me. I know, without remembering clearly, that my father took this picture, and that not all our times were bad.

This flips the relationship between document and subject. Here, the photograph is invoked as a means of evidence, of supporting her version of who her father was, and what her childhood was. She wields the photograph as she wields the narrative.

Prompt

Go to the archives (or imagine an archive, if you are writing fiction). Find a photograph or news article about your subject matter (or maybe more than one). 

What does the photograph or official document say? Give it a close read. What do you see when you look at it or read it? What are its nuances? What are its secrets? Does the document tell a different story than you could or would tell about the subject matter? Or does it support something you believe to be true?

The prompt is to describe the photo or the document in your writing, not just to look at it and contemplate it in preparation for writing. Invoke it. Use it to create distance from a hot topic, or use it to contrast with your version of the story, or use it as evidence to support your subjective understanding of something. 

This is a common trope in personal nonfiction, but it would work in other genres, as well. You could drop a police report into a short story. If you are writing about a historical figure, you could look at one of their diary entries or a photograph of them and interpret it with some rigor.