by Tara Campbell
This piece began in two different places. One part was a prompt in a Kathy Fish class to write about a dream, quickly, without thinking about it too much and without trying to make it “mean” something. The telephone dreams in the piece represent a real recurring dream I used to have about needing to call someone right away but screwing up the number or getting disconnected again and again. It seems clear that the dreams were about anxieties over communication, but I wouldn’t have known how to make a story or essay about this alone.
The other thread of this essay began with the death of my mother. As a writer, of course, one way to cope with grief is to write, but the closer you are to the loss, the more difficult it is to write anything coherent. Writing the telephone dream sequences made me think about how my communication with my siblings changed as Mom aged, and then changed again once she passed on. I found that I was able to write about grief indirectly, using the thread of communication to tie it together.
The plant imagery snuck in there, as plants do, without my really planning it. I noticed during one of our video calls that we were all talking about plants and gardening, and in this unspoken way, Mom was still part of the conversation.
The thing I love about the modular essay is how the format can replicate the way things happen in life: we experience moments seemingly at random, and it’s up to us to piece them together in a manner that makes some kind of sense. The way a writer juxtaposes the pieces lets the reader have a similar experience, which might bring them even closer than a straight-up narrative would have.
Aging, death, and grief are common, yet surreal, and I feel like the fragmented approach of a modular essay can approximate a time that feels broken. The timeless aspect of death—the ability of readers to relate emotionally—is what knits the fractured pieces back into something forever altered, but still beautiful.
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University’s MFA. Publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Strange Horizons, and CRAFT Literary. She’s the author of a novel and four multi-genre collections including her newest, Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Connect with her on Twitter at @TaraCampbellCom