A writer’s path to discovery – a lot of questions

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Before my mother’s passing and when she would ask me questions, of which I don’t remember specifically what they were—something about how we live our lives, why bad things are happening in the world—I tried to answer in simple terms as I am not one for offering deep philosophical explanations. “You have an answer for everything,” she then told me with a swipe of her hand. I smiled demurely at this, that maybe she saw me as a grown up smart one. But then I second guessed the quip. Sarcasm? A back-handed complement? Perhaps the questions were rhetorical that required her contemplation and my quiet mouth.  

Growing up, I noticed how my mother would try to search for an answer to a clue in her Chicago Tribune daily crossword puzzle, pull out a hardbound Merriam-Webster dictionary to find the definition of an unfamiliar word, or how to braise a particular cut of meat in her Good Housekeeping Cook Book. So, when I would go to her when needing answers for a school assignment, she’d often tell me to “look it up” in our World Book Encyclopedias. I’d continue with the school assignment as my research usually lead to more questions. 

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I think now of those exchanges between my mother and I, back then as a child, and now as an adult. And I realized it wasn’t in reaching an end, the answer, but in the questioning. The nugget of gold was in asking the questions. Because discovery is found through questioning.

And I am reminded how writers are question-seekers, too. They yearn to discover.

As a memoir writer, my questioning is relentless. It’s tedious, it’s cumbersome, it is not seamless. It takes time, asking why those particular memories of experiences. Writing a piece of creative nonfiction is “focusing on the moments, the details, the scene, and not an analysis of it,” explains Dinty Moore, American essayist and writer of fiction and non-fiction. It is through seeking the specific moments and the details that make up the scene that a writer can begin to discover meaning.

When I write a piece of memoir, I start with the scenes and the details of what it is I remembered. A sensory cataloguing of the sights, the sounds, the smells, and perhaps tastes gets me on my way. I don’t know now where the two memories from my now adult and then child-self will take me. I can only ask why I remembered the scenes—sitting opposite my elderly mother, she in her wheelchair with her head resting in one hand with the help of the armrest, and the other punctuating the air as she asked questions of me, sitting opposite her catching impatience from her lack of understanding, and when as a young girl, I would go to her with questions, perhaps with similar annoyance at not knowing an answer and then directing me to look it up. Role reversal? Sure. But there’s much more to discover.

I’ll never know if my mother had her own answers that day, and maybe was looking for my perspective. Or if she truly needed help from me, her perceived smart one, to figure out what she was struggling to understand.  And why my inner dialogue replays “look it up.” But I do know to keep asking the questions, as I had once learned.