It’s Okay to Make a Scene



from “Your Story Matters”
by Leslie Leyland Fields


Sometimes it’s hard to write about something we know well. We all have pieces of our lives that are so familiar to us, we don’t even know what we know. And then we assume our readers know what we don’t know we know. We skip some of the pieces they need to see, hear, taste, touch to be there with us. And our knowledge and experience is not always verbal. It may be a body knowledge. It might be a vocabulary of muscle and tendons. So it was for me. I had to stop, engage my body in the composition of those pages. How did I stand in the skiff? How did I first step into those hip-high rubber boots? How did I lean over to catch the net?

So I started. I started writing scenes of my first time actually working with my husband in the skiff. I was writing fifteen years later from that first day, but I had journals, and those early memories were sharp. I remembered the process of getting dressed, with layer upon layer of sweat shirts, hip boots, rain pants, finally layered so thick and heavy, I could hardly walk. Kind of a backwards Pygmalion story, the real person submerged under inches of fishing gear.

Then I thought of my first snack and bathroom break on the water, on an eighteen-foot open boat. There’s no latrine, of course, on a boat that size. We worked all morning until it was nearly lunchtime. Duncan and his father, DeWitt, brought out the snacks from under the seat—candy bars and pop. For their bathroom break in the skiff, they asked me to turn around. For mine, I was dropped off on a rocky ledge. But it wasn’t quite that simple.

But you don’t care about any of that, right? I don’t either. I just gave you information. I told you what you needed to know, but you weren’t with me. I just gave you words about a time and a place far from wherever you live. So let me try again, this time as a scene:

It’s almost noon now. We’ve been fishing for four hours. I sit wearily on the wooden seat, looking at the fish on the floor of the skiff. There must be five hundred of them, all fat and shiny. The waves slap and slosh our skiff from side to side. I’m hungry. And I need a bathroom break, but how does this happen in an eighteen-foot boat? There is no cabin on our little wooden peapod. It’s just a glorified rowboat afloat on a great Alaska sea.

DeWitt sits heavily in the bow, his black-green raincoat mirroring the dark water below. “Well, I guess I’ve gotta shake the dew off my lily,” DeWitt intones in a gravelly voice. I can hear his Oklahoma accent, though he left forty years before, during the dust bowl. He grew up poor, picking cotton and working the land. Now he works the seas, but he moves awkwardly in the boats and never seems at home on moving water. Except now.

I smile at Duncan and DeWitt and turn around. When they’re done, it’s my turn.

“Let me off on that rock over there, Duncan.” I point to a cove with a shelf of rock jutting out. In a moment we are there, the skiff rising and plunging in the waters swirling around the rocks. I’m nervously perched in the bow, ready to spring overboard at just the right second. My hands twitch as they grip the rail. I’m motionless but breathing hard.

“Jump!” Duncan yells as the nose of the skiff rises in the foaming surge.

“You’re not close enough!” I shoot behind me. I see DeWitt sitting calmly beside Duncan as if we’ve done this a hundred times.

“I can’t get any closer! Jump!” he shouts as the boat gurgles and sinks now in the trough.

I can’t leap that distance in all this fishing gear. And if I miss? How did a simple bathroom break become a life-and-death endeavor?