The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?


Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015



9 thoughts on “The Quest for the Question

  1. Oddly enough, I’ve known my central question all my life but I didn’t know it was the central question in the memoir until I was about 3/4 of the way through: how do I find love?
    I’ve been reading Vivian Gornick’s “The Situation and the Story.” I recommend it. Studying, alone, writing, journaling, I finally figured out the opening line which was, essentially, the search. My memoir is a love story, as trite as that may sound. But it’s taken me years to understand that although I knew it.
    Keep writing; keep working. Keep looking. You’ll find it. I have great confidence in you. J.

    • Janet, that was my quest for most of my life. And I’m wondering if it’s not a universal quest.

      And yes to Gornick -she’s great.

    • Vivian Gornick’s book is one of my favorites, too. Thanks, Janet, for reminding me to look at it again as I work on my memoir. Up until now, I’ve been thinking my book was really a collection of shorter pieces (not a memoir), but now I’m trying to see a clearer connection among them to make them hang within “memoir” genre. I wrote this blog to illustrate the struggle. It isn’t easy doing what we do. Thanks for the support!

  2. Remember me, I embraced the “dark side” in your classes on Sanibel.

    • Hello, Robert, yes…of course I remember you, and I’m glad to hear from you. I hope your writing is going well as you continue to explore the “dark side” in your thrillers.

  3. What BIG questions. As I come to the last (I hope) revision of the short story collection, I realize that the theme that runs through all the stories, and the collection itself, is identity. And that that will probably be the theme of the memoir when I get to it. Who am I? Who have I been?

    • Hi, Carol. Yes, these are BIG questions. Maybe too big. But they have given me some new ideas about how to organize my material. I’m looking forward to seeing your short story collection (and eventual memoir) and tracing the way you explore the question of identity–one that always resonates with me too.

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