The thing I'm doing is excavating, layer by layer, some things that shaped me from middle and elementary school. I'm smashing them all together for the sake of the story, rather than setting them years apart as they happened, but even fictionalizing them is emotionally exhausting.
As I was writing I remembered the construction of the tables at which I sat in the cafeteria of my middle school - how some of the tables didn't unfold right, and that meant the stool-seats wouldn't touch the ground, so we bounced up and down on them and the whole table shook on its casters. I remembered that the caf shared space with the school's stage - the place where I, as a member of the band, performed on concert nights. It was weird to eat with the stage right there, I think now. It was up, like a normal stage, elevated four or five feet from the cafeteria floor. And most of the time the curtains were open and the stage was empty, a black curtain hung over its cinderblock back wall. I don't remember a theater program of any kind existing at that school, so I don't think the stage was used that often.
It was the same room where we had dances. The same room where I got up the courage to gently poke fun at [name changed] before I asked him out. (That, my friends, was a good love, the one I had with [name changed].) The same room where I grew to goddamn hate early-90s soft R&B hits like "I Will Always Love You" and "End of the Road". Because they were so long and it was always so awkward to "dance" to them, such as dancing was in seventh grade.
Remembering the caf this well is a big deal, because I have forgotten almost all of the day-to-day texture of my childhood. I remember the general shape of things, I remember critical incidents, and I remember people, but, for instance, I don't know at all what the inside of the apartment I lived in from 1992 to 1995 looked like. I'm pretty sure that [name changed 2]'s backyard butted against the hiking trails with trees spray-painted bright fluorescent colors for the old folks' home nearby, but it's possible those hiking trails were next to a neighborhood I lived in during high school.
And there's so much I can't resolve. My friend Delilah lived in a trailer, but she lived on the street I walked across to get to the bus stop, which makes no sense, because it was houses on that road. What kind of bike did I have in those years? I know I had one, but I don't remember it. Was it the gray ten-speed? Could I have been tall enough for that bike when I was 12? I know I was best friends with Jaison, but how was I also best friends with [name changed 3] before she dumped my ass for the popular girls? Jaison and  didn't have a thing to do with each other, socially.
It's baffling, memory work, for someone with a terrible memory.
But I'm rambling through all of the above to avoid the real issue, which is that I'm writing about some of the hardest things that I did and that happened to me as I grew up. And that is fucking difficult. (I am not leaving out the objects. In itself, that is altering the way the writing occurs.) It's like operating on myself with no anesthesia. I'm telling the truth, but I'm telling it with art: I'm writing the truth. That is a whole different matter than babbling about the physical cafeteria tables on which I ate lunch for three years.
I also don't know what it is I'm making. I meant only to tell the story of a rotten thing I did in seventh grade, but instead, today, I ended up writing about the root of why I don't lie, the senseless death of a kid I knew then, and a shitty racist thing that [name changed 3] did which I barely remember and am fictionalizing to fill it out. The resulting story might be too much; it might be just for me; it might be terrible; it might be terrific. I am sans clues. And it's so hard that I wish I could quit.
But I told this story in Ojai, not well, and was encouraged to try and tell it the right way. I told it a second time in a story I handed in to my workshop class in mid-fall. I told it a third time, in a different way, in a revision to that workshop story. And now I'm telling it a fourth time for the final revision for that class. I pulled it to pieces and started over.
I feel like I'm atoning, or purging. Or perhaps I wish I was atoning or purging. As Ian McEwan showed us, things aren't that neat in life. But what I'm doing is almost certainly an attempt to atone or to purge, if not necessarily a successful one.
The above, written on Sunday, describes the most painful day of writing I've ever known. Not painful in terms of this is bad and I should feel bad but painful in terms of excavating. Pulling out needles that have been under my fingernails for years. Decades.
Matt read the finished story and - I hope he is okay with me sharing this - got a little misty at the end, because what happens to the characters is so shitty. A friend read it and offered to publish it in an online magazine that's a personal goal of mine. My co-workshoppers heard me read part of the story and responded well (they wanted me to keep reading after time was up).
So I think it's good.
That painful day of writing was worth it, I guess.