On “We Regret to Inform You”
I started “We Regret to Inform You” in a class I taught on the “hermit crab” essay. A hermit crab is a creature that appropriates abandoned shells in order to survive; a “hermit crab essay” also steals an already existing form in order to tell a story. When I teach the Hermit Crab class, we begin by brainstorming the many different forms that exist for us to use for our own purposes. Once we have such a list scribbled on the board, I ask the students to choose one form at random and see what kind of content that form suggests.
This is the essential move: allowing form to dictate content. By doing so, we get out of our own way, and instead become available for unexpected images, themes, and memories. Also, by following the dictates of form, it gives creative nonfiction writers a chance to practice using the imagination, filling in details, and playing with the content to see what kind of effects we can create. In this particular class, I glanced at the board we had filled with dozens of forms, and my eye landed on “rejection notes.” So that is where I began.
Well, once one gets on the subject of rejection, you can imagine how the material simply flows through one’s fingertips. And I’m not really thinking about the content at all; I’m engaged in honing the voice of the rejection note, creating a persona on the page that can speak back to me, in a humorous way, all that went unspoken in real life. I’m having a marvelous time, because this voice is so detached it can say whatever it wants. I’m submitting to the voice of the essay, allowing the form to lead me where it will go.
And then, as the years go by, I find that the essay is leading me somewhere I didn’t expect. I found myself touching upon the memory of two miscarriages I had in my early twenties. I’d written about this material so many times in the past, that I didn’t feel I would ever return to it. But this time I feel a transformation happening, a new perspective, a moment of forgiveness. I call these kinds of moments “Inadvertent Revelations.” It’s when the essay seems to be revealing things to the author, and the audience, that were never consciously intended.
Through several revisions of the draft—which included nearly twice as many letters as represented in the final version—I honed the themes I saw rising in the essay. There was the ostensible theme of children or lack thereof, but more insistently there was the theme of how we find the roles one is suited to play in one’s life. So I kept the letters that had echoes of that theme and deleted the rest. By being contained in a more objective form, this essay seeks to inhabit a shared space between reader and writer, one where a deeper level of communication might transpire.