Guest post by: George Estreich
Author of The Shape of the Eye, George Estreich appears at the Wordstock Festival on Sunday, October 9 at 5pm on the Wieden+Kennedy Stage and will be leading the workshop Imagination and Diagnosis: A Workshop on Writing and Medicine on Sunday, October 9 at 1:30pm.
About ten years ago, I gave up writing poetry. I was thirty-six years old then, and since college, and then my M.F.A., I’d basically organized my life around writing poems. I had poems in little journals, a completed manuscript that had come painfully close in contests, and drafts in progress. But after my daughter Laura was born, then diagnosed with Down syndrome, I stopped altogether.
I write I stopped, using the active voice. In fact, it seemed less a decision than something already decided. Though Laura is a healthy, happy fifth grader now, and her extra chromosome is more asterisk than black hole, her early days were difficult for us. We could not imagine the fact of Down syndrome, or the subsidiary facts of heart surgery or intellectual disability, and with these things on my mind the world of line-breaks seemed distant at best. The old life, it seemed, was a hub, not a destination. I felt if I’d fallen asleep on the tarmac, and awoken to find the plane already in the air.
When we touched down again, when Laura’s medical problems had faded and the shock had worn off and we had begun the long, happy, difficult work of helping a disabled child succeed–her abilities increasing, our minds slowly changing, opening to the true problem, which is not Laura, per se, but the riven contradictions with which the world greets the disabled–I found I was writing prose, a memoir about raising Laura. At some point that memoir became The Shape of the Eye, and this spring it was finally published, by SMU Press.
Writing that book, I soon came to see that giving up poetry was neither as decisive nor complete a change as it had seemed. Apart from the lines being right-justified, the memoir is a lot more like my book of poems than unlike: the voice is the same, concerned with family and inheritance, reliant on metaphor, devoted to questions more than answers. Much is different, of course: narrative, research, larger structures. But writing, word by word, felt much the same.
In time, I came to see that the abrupt-seeming break between writing poems and prose actually disguised a continuity. Poetry, as I write in the memoir, furnished the tools for prose. It is as if I had been a cabinetmaker, and had moved on to building houses. I had to scale up. That realization about writing paralleled a realization about Laura: that despite her chromosome count, she was not radically different from our older daughter Ellie, and so what we had learned with parents with Ellie did in fact apply to Laura. We had thought we were starting over, and we weren’t. What wisdom we had was both available to us and relevant. Our experience, our story, still counted, and Laura was a part of that story.
Writing that story was at once a way for me to imagine Down syndrome, and to help others imagine it too. The happiness of people with Down syndrome depends on their being accurately imagined, and telling Laura’s story was a way both to illuminate her individuality and bear witness to her value. It also offered room to critique the mistaken stories, the tragedies and saccharine feel-good stories and lists of woe, by which people with Down syndrome are too often misunderstood.
Can these goals be accomplished in poetry? Of course. But for me, and because I came to see my book as a work of both advocacy and imagination, a memoir was the way forward. It may not be right, but prose is normative in our culture, and people who wouldn’t touch a book of poems will at least think about reading a memoir. My goal was and is to reach the diverse audiences vested in the issues my book brings up–doctors, parents, specialists, people interested in our genetic future–and prose offers me the best chance of doing so.
Now that the book actually exists in print, a tangible, two-hundred-and-eighty-four-page physical object, I find myself with a larger challenge than switching genres from poetry to prose: I’m trying to publicize a book when the future of physical books is up in the air. We are crossing the border now, between what books were and what they will be. But that, as they say, is another story.
More information about George Estreich and his writings can be found at www.georgeestreich.com