Writing a book is like setting loose a message in a bottle. No way of knowing if it will reach your intended audience, or any audience at all, for that matter. Literary tides are fickle; the winds of reading whim are unpredictable. Your message could go anywhere, or nowhere. The writer controls the writing, and then nothing after that. It’s the perfect exercise in letting go.
This is even truer, possibly, of writing a memoir, in one’s home state, about real people, most of whom are still living, yet totally unaware they’ve been written about. Shamelessly mixing my metaphors, I'll say that releasing my book on the world this summer also felt like delicately pushing 100 buttons, none of which I was certain were actually wired to anything. What would be worse—if the note curled in my bottle upset someone, or if no one could be bothered to open the smelly old thing in the first place?
“I owe thanks to the real people in these pages, especially my family, for allowing me to unearth our collective past, put my own spin on it and then go on loving me anyway (you will, right?).” This is what I wrote in the acknowledgments pages of my book, Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir.
As I wrote the book, I thought about my family. At least I knew they’d read the book, if only out of duty, or possibly in the case of my father, terror, about what his oldest child had revealed about him, or even herself. Later, as the book was published, I thought about other folks depicted in its pages. How would my first love feel about my depiction of us . . . well . . . having sex? (Again: would he ever even know?) Would my childhood best friend object to me referring to her as “droopy”? How would my stepmother’s cousin feel about being referred to as the “King of Coos Bay”? The person I thought about most, perhaps, was an ex-boyfriend who serves as villain protagonist to my story’s climactic chapter—he of the cocktails, cocaine, cheating and lies I became mired in during time I spent in Portland in my 20s.
As I began book touring around Oregon, it was he who I most expected to turn up in the back of an audience, his lean frame propped against a bookcase, his hollowed cheeks and Cheshire smile as unnerving as they’d been all of those years ago—as haunting as they are depicted in his chapter. It is his chapter, after all, as much as it’s mine. It wouldn’t exist without him, and I kept expecting him to turn up and claim it.
But he never showed. Instead, others did. That first June tour date at Powell’s on Hawthorne, I looked up mid-reading and spotted three souls in the back of the room whose familiarity shot through me in an instant—cousins and an aunt I hadn’t seen in over a decade. So began a parade of
my past into my present. I never knew who would walk into those bookstores. A high school friend I hadn’t seen in twenty-two years. Old friends of my parents who I had no idea lived in my town. My sixth grade teacher, who friended me on Facebook, came to town and took me to lunch. My best friend from Kindergarten, who I’d neither seen nor heard from since 1977. A dear friend I hadn’t seen in thirteen years who emailed, then called, then came to visit from two states away. We drank beer and talked until the middle of the night.
Some of those buttons were wired, apparently.
Even more surprising than rediscovered connections were new connections. People I hadn’t known in school that contacted me to say thanks for writing about our small hometown. The woman who walked up to me after a reading, took my hand, searched my eyes, said, “Your story is my story.” The local professional who I’d not known was a small-town Oregon kid, too, until he messaged me and said, “You put a voice to my experience.” The crowd of nine at a gig in tiny Garibaldi on the coast, half of whom worked at the venue, but who were so friendly and funny I laughed so hard I could barely finish reading. Driving east to Burns, where Maranda, the owner of the Book Parlor, put out chocolate cake and fellow writer Terri sat with me for an hour after the event, talking writing and landscape, and then filled me in on the best pit stops for my drive home. The famous Oregon writer who approached me after a reading and said incredible wonderful things I’ll never forget. Another famous Oregon writer who mailed me a letter of congratulations. Even the elderly woman who came to the front of the room right in the middle of one of my readings to apologize; she loved my story but she had to leave, she needed to go home and make soup.
And it continues like this. Countless small conversations, encounters with dozens of kind, interesting, real people who have shown me that our Oregon stories are more alike than they are different.
Beats the hell out of that old jerk of a boyfriend showing up.
And a reminder of why we let go of control in the first place—to open the doors for whatever may come.
I once said to my sister about my writing, “I want to explain a piece of my life that maybe I can’t otherwise, or else illuminate something about life, and package it up and deliver it to the world in a little lovely parcel that will hopefully make a connection with even one person.”
“That’s an awful lot to ask of your writing,” she replied.
It is, isn’t it? It is an awful lot to ask of my writing. But it’s still why I write.
My first love, you ask? He was flattered. My dad—he cried. In a good way. Then bought 30 copies of my book and sent them to all of his friends. More bottles. I can see them out there, bobbing along on the surf. I wonder who will fish them out of the soupy sea. Could be anybody.
Kim Cooper Findling grew up on the Oregon Coast, spent years in the Willamette Valley and has lived in Central Oregon for sixteen years. Her work has appeared in Travel Oregon, Horizon Air, Hip Mama, Sky West, The Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest, The High Desert Journal and in Oregon Quarterly, where her essay, The Friday's Trilogy, appeared after it won the 2011 Northwest Perspectives essay contest. The essay is included in her book, Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir, which was published this year by Nestucca Spit Books. Findling is also the author of Day Trips from Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler. She lives in Bend with her husband and two daughters.