Moments of Dislocation

Ok, writers, let’s start with a writing exercise.

Think of a moment when something did not go as planned. Be specific—this won’t work if you think too broadly, like, “My 20s,” or “all of 2016.” Think of a surprise party you tried to plan, or the honeymoon interrupted by a hurricane. Summon the details for a moment. Now, write about it. Just a couple of paragraphs. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Take a look at what you’ve written. I’m betting you spent a lot of words on the aftermath, and far fewer words on what, exactly, you had expected before it. And even fewer on why you expected it.

We spend a lot of time in our lives and in our writing ruminating on such moments, trying to make them turn out differently. These are what writer Lee Martin calls a moment of dislocation—when people are “lifted out of one life and set down in another.” The one that preoccupies Martin came when his father lost both hands in a farming accident, something he’s written about, directly and indirectly, in memoir, essays, and novels. He says:

I don’t want to accept the fact that the accident happened and threw my parents and me into a different life, one more challenging and difficult. I keep trying to write my way back to a better place.

These moments of dislocation are a rich source for our stories. Steven Spielberg is said to have made many movies about his father leaving the family. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye returns again and again to the life of her grandmother, who was forced from her home in Palestine in 1948.

We often focus on that “better place” we long to return to, or restore. When we do, we overlook other, equally important components: What is the expectation that the dislocation thwarted? Where did it come from? Why would that other life have been better? Why do we believe it’s possible to return to it?

Sometimes, crucial elements of our stories, or even the truest version of them, are found not in the dislocation, but in the hopes, dreams, or unexamined assumptions we carried around with us before it. Each one is a nugget that can reveal a part of where we or our characters come from, and who we/they are.

We started with a writing exercise, so why not close with it? Take a moment now, and look more closely at what you wrote about the moment that didn’t go as planned. Write about it again, and this time, describe what you expected, in detail. Was it realistic? Did you fight against the inevitable, trying to make it turn out differently? Are you still trying? Why?

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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