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Water Out of Sunlight: On articulating a story through a mind that can’t

by Laura Pritchett

Rick Bass on Laura’s novel: “The deep territory mapped here in the triangular boundary between regret and endurance and hope is well illuminated and finely wrought.”

We were near the Tattered Cover in LoDo that day. My father, my brother, and me—all helping my brother move out of his nice apartment by the bridge. Boxes, furniture, books—all of it was being lugged out to my dad’s old pickup truck, and I remember being hot and tired and wanting to finish so that I could go over and browse the books. Then something strange happened: My father stood in front of the elevator with me and asked me what it was. Refused to get in. I was confused at his confusion—we had been using it all day! Perhaps he’d been out of the city for so long, being a Colorado rancher and all? But no, he had also been a college professor, a geneticist, a world-traveler famous for his research.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

That was 11 or so years ago. Since then, it’s been a strange and often difficult path for the whole gaggle of my family—a path that has become increasingly trodden as more families are affected by this disease. As for me, these last ten years have been marked by my walks with him across the family ranch in northern Colorado, and, as a writer, to better understand him, the disease, the man he was becoming.

The irony struck me on many occasions: As he increasingly lost words, I increasingly used them to try to understand him, understand this disease, understand the ways in which we were bound together through changing identities and roles. As he struggled to form words, they poured out of me. For many years, this writing was (unsurprisingly) from my point of view, my take on the whole thing. Writing was, first and foremost, my way of loving him more during this time of saying goodbye.

In that vein, I started playing around with the idea of writing the world from his point of view, not mine. Thus as we walked, I also did what we writers do: I played the “What If” game. What if one of my fictional characters had dementia? How would this affect him? What if he needed to tell one last story? How could he do it with a diminishing vocabulary and understanding of the world? How limiting or challenging would that be? Could it be done?

And so it came to be that Ben, a character in my first book who is loosely based on my dad, became the primary character in my next novel. The new novel, Stars Go Blue, is told half from his point of view, half from the point of view of his caregiver (I decided early on that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell in only his point of view; I needed a character with a healthy brain to reveal the story as well).

In the end, after years of writing and revising, finally what felt like the right voice of Ben broke through. Ben became a bit of a poet – inventing words, for example, for the words he couldn’t recall, or putting them together in unusual sequences. In the end, he became a brave and courageous speaker; he became a sage and a poet; he became someone with diminished intellectual capabilities and speech but with important things to say.

All writing has particular challenges, and the particular challenge of this book was writing about Ben’s confusion without confusing the reader. Also, I struggled with how to write about his semi-wife Renny and her exhaustive caregiving without making readers exhausted and annoyed as well. Ben’s voice, I decided, would be like music, like singing, like bringing water out of sunlight, an old phrase from a TS Eliot poem. Renny’s voice would be the opposite: solid and direct and more like the earth itself.

On metaphor: I listened to him talk about water – always a topic of interest to ranchers in the West – how it’s so varied, versatile, ubiquitous, necessary, and ordinary. Then I took that and tried to use it as metaphor, simile, and actuality. What he said often resonated with me as a metaphor to what was happening to his memories and his mind; they floated by like water, evaporated like water.  Similar titles: When I started this book, there were no other titles from the POV of a person with Alzheimers. Then I came across Still Alice, which I think it’s a lovely book, but rather different than what I wanted to write.

Pritchett on metaphor: “I listened to him talk about water – always a topic of interest to ranchers in the West – how it’s so varied, versatile, ubiquitous, necessary, and ordinary. Then I took that and tried to use it as metaphor, simile, and actuality. What he said often resonated with me as a metaphor to what was happening to his memories and his mind; they floated by like water, evaporated like water.
Pritchett on similar titles: When I started this book, there were no other titles from the POV of a person with Alzheimers. Then I came across Still Alice, which I think it’s a lovely book, but rather different than what I wanted to write.

At one point, I met with author Kent Haruf, who has been (to my great fortune and honor) a bit of a mentor. The gist of our discussion was the need to keep the book short and powerful, because, yes, you can only have a character like Ben narrate for so long. I remember Kent saying something like, “Never describe it as a short or quiet novel. It’s not quiet. It’s a huge and solid. Make sure you make it that way.” Others helped too, and I took to studying short (sometimes lyrical) powerful novels I deeply admire: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Atticus by Ron Hanson, The Tie that Binds by Kent Haruf. These are all short in terms of page count, but long in terms of impact. That is what I wanted.

In this way, the novel came to be: First, an exploration of the disease; second, an exploration from the point of view of someone with the disease; third, an exploration of form and technique and shape that would support such a narrative. Whether it is reviewed or read or a success in the traditional sense is of less import than the greatest gift it gave me: Although a fictional account, it gave me the real-life chance to understand and know my father in ways I never could have done had I not tried to imagine the world from his perspective. And ditto my mother, his primary caregiver. It helped me love them better, to see them anew and with renewed clarity, to write what ended up being, to my mind, more or less a love letter to the both of them.

Recently, when I went to walk with my father, he said, “Hello young lady. When did we get to know each other? You’re do that thing—where you—?”

I told him that I had known him for a very long time and that I loved him very much and that yes, I am a writer (which is what he was trying to say). I never did tell him, though, that I’d been working on a novel that tried to capture his spirit. It would confuse him and put too many words into the air for him to sort through. He does not remember what “a novel” is–that has left along with elevators and everything in between. But the love part: that, I think he felt.


Laura Pritchett’s newest novel Stars Go Blue is being released by Counterpoint in June. Besides being at the Lighthouse Lit Fest (where she will read on Saturday, June 7, 9PM), she has several Colorado readings:

Wednesday, June 4
7:30pm               Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl Street, Boulder, CO 90027

Thursday, June 5
7:00pm               Tattered Cover — 2526 E. Colfax Avenue, Denver, CO 80206

Saturday, June 7
2:00pm               Book Bar, 4280 Tennyson St, Denver, CO 80212

Saturday, June 7
8:00pm                 Let’s Talk About Sex 
@ Lighthouse Lit Fest, 1515 Race Street, Denver, CO  followed by reading with Steve Almond, Joanna Ruocco, Eric Sasson, and Mario Acevedo

2 comments on “Water Out of Sunlight: On articulating a story through a mind that can’t

  1. Pingback: Water Out of Sunlight: On articulating a story through a mind that can’t | Essays about Family, Writing, Humor, and Travel

  2. Anonymous
    May 24, 2014

    Oh my gosh, Laura, I am in tears having just read the above about your new book.
    Loving both of your parents it is difficult for me to see you all go through this. I am
    thankful that you have been able to put this in words, it will be healing for you and
    your whole family, and us. I can’t wait to read it. Blessings as you share your
    readings in June. Hope you can share a reading here in Ft. Collins. Cynthia’s new
    book store is open (Drake and Shields) and would be a nice place for a reading….
    I would help promote it.
    Love and Sunshine, Judy

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This entry was posted on May 20, 2014 by in Good Books, LitFest, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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