A Story in Letters

In its second iteration, The Burning Light of Two Stars was an epistolary memoir, written in the form of letters. The idea came from a cache of letters I discovered in my mother’s things after she died. Both of us had sent long handwritten letters to each other throughout the years we were estranged. We couldn’t see each other in person, and when we attempted it, we fought bitterly, but despite the fact that I’d moved 3,000 miles away, largely to create distance from her, we managed to keep a thread of connection going through a colorful, vivid, often scathingly honest correspondence. She saved my letters and I saved all of hers. I saved first drafts of letters I composed to her as well as the ones I didn’t send—and after she died, I spent many weeks holed up in my office, going through a huge fat file folder full of those musty, old letters. Why not use them as a basis for the book about our relationship?

Then I thought, why limit myself to the real correspondence? Why not compose a whole new set of letters, written to my mother, from me, after her death? I’d always loved books made up of letters. What a great way to sort through our complex, volatile relationship. Another great idea!

So, for the next year or two, I started weaving the real letters, the ones we actually sent to each other, with letters I composed to her after her death. I decided to call the book, “Dear Mom.”

Here’s a representative letter from that draft, the epistolary version of The Burning Light of Two Stars, one of the made-up letters I drafted after her death:

Dear Mom,

            I want to tell this story, the story of us, but I can’t. I’ve spent too many years sugarcoating the whole damn thing. In the redacted version, I’m always the heroine: the good daughter who took care of my demented mother until the end. The good daughter who went from not speaking to you to inviting you to move across the country—New Jersey to California—when your brain cells started going and you needed me the most. The good daughter who visited you every day.

            Each time I walked into your apartment at Sunshine Villa, you looked at me with that huge smile and said, “You’re the best daughter in the whole world.” But I wasn’t. I wasn’t the best daughter in the whole world. I hated sitting in that room with you. Every time I walked in, I wanted to flee. That smell of old people and antiseptic? I hated it. The way the morning light streamed through the window? I couldn’t stand it: the glory of the light and the horror of your circumstances.

            You sat on the couch, asleep, a raft of newspapers at your feet, head tipped back, jaw slack. Half the time I woke you. The other half, I crawled into your big, fluffy, white bed and took a nap. What else was there to do? Have the same conversation about Lizzy every day? It always went the same way. You’d say: “That granddaughter of mine. She has a la miles. Do you know what that means?”

            “Yes, Mom, ‘all the virtues.’”

            Those visits were excruciating. Is that why I slept?

            Or was your bed the one place in the whole world I felt safest? Where I could lay my busy burden down? I listened to your reassuring snore as you napped on the couch across from me (oh good, she’s still alive), and the rest of the world dropped away. I didn’t have to be Laura Davis in that room. Is that why I slept?

            There’s so much I don’t know. So much left for me to discover. I want to tell this story, but I don’t know if I can, considering my biased point of view and crappy memory. I don’t know if I can dig deep enough. If I can tell the hard parts. If I can face them. If I can write them down.

            But our story is rising up inside me, demanding to be told.

            It’s been three years since you died and, so far, the only way I’ve been able to tell our story is by whitewashing it, sharing the pre-digested version: how you betrayed me (with just a smidgeon about the difficulties I dished out in your direction), how we were horribly estranged for years but ended up forgiving each other, how the water ran clear between us at the end. The redacted version, the one where I keep the lid on, is a snore. Who wants to read another Hallmark card? I make a lousy heroine and you were so much more than a villain. We were both human and that’s the story I want to tell. I want to tell it the messy way. I want to tell it the real way. I want to look bad when I tell it. I want to tell the truth.

And so on. I really went to town on those letters. Eventually, I completed a whole draft of the manuscript, written entirely in letters. And when I sent it out to beta readers—tester readers—the feedback I got was pretty universal. “I felt like I was on the outside looking in.” “I didn’t really feel like I could get into the story.” “I don’t know why, Laura, but it didn’t really resonate with me.”

Maybe it was good therapy for me, a good way to channel my grief. A good way to ferret out more raw material. But it still wasn’t a book. It wasn’t a story that worked. Damn it.

Back to the drawing board.

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