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Memoirs and personal essays

The Things I Cannot Write (1994)

Very rarely, a piece of writing comes all at once in an unexpected rush that cannot be repeated. This is one of those. Perhaps it could only come into being that way, because the title is close to true.

How could it have begun? How could it possibly have begun? He such a loner, Chinese, foreign not just to the U.S., but after so many years in the U.S. to China too, man without a place who had spent years on the move, living in hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, changing jobs, the railroads that were his profession forever carrying him on to yet another town so that he finally could say he’d been nearly everywhere in the northern half of the U.S. from coast to coast, a man of few and obscure relationships with women, who had sex with prostitutes at least sometimes, who spoke with a difficult accent and also stuttered, who became furious easily, who worried constantly about money, who willed himself never to get sick, never to miss work, never to need anyone else’s help for anything, to count on himself alone not only in the moment but for all imaginable future, not even to accept help unless forced by overwhelming emergency…

Impediments to Speaking (1998)

My father was a Chinese immigrant with a heavy accent, and a stutterer; I’m none of those things but I am audibly his son.

I have never known if my father stutters in Chinese.

When my father came to the U.S. from China at age 21 to go to graduate school in engineering, he came knowing English. I think he learned it in some sort of missionary school. And of course he’s been here speaking English for the past 77 years. But he has always had, and still has, an accent so difficult that most Americans can’t entirely understand what he says when they first meet him. It doesn’t help that he stutters, sometimes badly. His spoken English has been difficult to say—and to hear—for 77 years.

Country Places (1993)

In this piece I found an indirect enough way of writing about my mother: to write about houses she lived in. Not all of them are included, of course, but enough to give a sense of her life as having been rooted in a kind of place that seems distant to me now, in time as well as space. (Published in Southwest Review, 1993)

In the late 1960’s or early 70’s, my mother bought a country place in rural Missouri, the first of three she was to own. She had grown up in Columbus, Kansas, a town of 3500 souls in the southeastern corner of the state, and surely some dream of returning to the country from St. Louis, where she and my father had lived since 1949, and where she still lived after their divorce and her remarriage, lay behind her purchase of a remote property in the Ozarks, a mile from the nearest house on a road of mud and rocks—even though those back woods were nothing like the flat, exposed Kansas town in which she had been born.

On Love and Space (1987)

An exploration of the proposition that love is a property of the space between two people, and what follows from that about love’s absence. This piece appeared in The Missouri Review in 1987.

“Love is a property of the space between two people”: I find this sentence in a copy of a letter I wrote to a friend. I don’t know whether I thought it up myself, but now it seems like a good starting point for seeing more than my private world.

Five Objects (2001)

My students in a non-fiction writing class gave me this assignment; I wrote it shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. It’s about writing, being a teacher, and being me, but it’s also about the repercussions of that day.

“Write us something that shows us your day,” my students say to me. “Show us in five objects.”

These are some good students.

Fox on the Shore (2007)

In 1997, while I was working on For Adam, my half-brother Landis died unexpectedly, and his death triggered this contemplation of the human and natural worlds I oscillate between. It was published in Ecotone in the fall of 2007.

July 31, 1997

A couple of days ago I became completely fed up with the novel I’ve been trying to write and decided to cut trees instead. This I have been doing, with much greater satisfaction. Landscaping on the large scale. I do like and need physical labor, more than I get at home by far. When I am crawling into a thicket on Prince Edward Island with loppers and saw in hand, and twigs are scratching my face and spruce needles are going down my neck and mosquitoes are whining in my ears, I remind myself that this is fun, this is the kind of situation I get my characters into, and then it is fun. It reminds me of childhood, the sorts of games I would play with myself, about exploration, secret places, and so on. Have done a good deal of clearing (creating view of the Northumberland Strait in a direction NOT facing the damn nine-mile-long bridge to New Brunswick) and have thrown a very respectable quantity of brush over the bank into a giant pile on the shore where we will burn it when the wind is right. Spruce trees, green or not, make a hell of a bonfire.