A Scene of Instruction


The best advice I’ve received as a writer comes down to a single word: relax. Variants of that advice include: “Let the plot breathe.” “Allow digressions.” “Follow your own mind.” But sometimes, being a witness to an actual scene of instruction can be more significant than advice.

I would have been no more than four or five when I heard my mother, sitting at the dining room table, talking to herself. Only she and I were in the house. Her face was contorted and she was whispering. Was she hurt? How could I help her? I put my hand on her arm. She comforted me briefly and then went on whispering. This scene repeated itself in the future.

Only much later would I fully understand that my mother was engaged in a remarkable drama with invisible people. Watching her was compelling and terrifying and ultimately valuable because she was so fully committed to that drama. I don’t think she was replaying a scene as it had happened. I think she was changing reality, making it to her liking. Fictionalizing. Saying the right words and watching the astonished looks on other faces. Turning humiliation into triumph, reworking everything that hurt her—this mild-voiced, sweet-natured woman–so that she could win the day at last.

Sometimes my younger daughter startles me by crying out, “Stop it! Stop it!” and I realize I’m doing what my mother did—whispering under my breath and making weird gestures. At those times, until my daughter alerts me, I don’t even realize what I’m doing. Maybe because I only do this sort of thing when I’m relaxed.

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Lee Upton is the author of The Tao of Humiliation: Stories. She is a professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.


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