What Can We Steal From Pamela Ramos Langley’s “Stitching the Womb”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Stitching the Womb,” creative nonfiction
Author: Pamela Ramos Langley
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece made its debut in Hippocampus Magazine and can be found right here.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Brevity
The piece begins as Ms. Langley is undergoing infertility treatments. The kind nurse in the gynecologist’s office gives her good news: her hormone levels are high and she may be pregnant. By the end of the vignette, reality sets in and Ms. Langley suffers a miscarriage while driving a rental car. The rest of the piece centers upon the emotions that surround the author and her friends in relation to pregnancy and parenthood. A friend who is also having difficulties getting pregnant laments that some women have children, even though they really don’t “deserve” them. In a sweet vignette, Ms. Langley spends time with Jenna, a little girl whose single mother spends some of her time clubbing. The last of the seven sections finds Ms. Langley spending $650 for a telephone session with a psychic healer. There is no happy ending; Ms. Langley ends the piece in the same state of limbo in which she began it.
Ms. Langley chooses a felicitous structure for the piece. There are plenty of narratives out there in which men and women discuss their problems conceiving children. Instead of opting for a chronological recap of the medical ins and outs of infertility, she instead chooses to zoom in on seven moments that mean something important in her journey to become a parent. (And what powerful moments they are!) Condensing the narrative allows author and reader to get past the mundane parts of this kind of story. When we’re reading creative nonfiction, we really don’t want to know the general feelings of a person who deeply wants a child; we want the specific experiences and feelings of an author. I’m guessing that many men and women who have these kinds of problems find themselves in a park talking to a parent whose child is running around; Ms. Langley omits the exposition we could probably supply for ourselves and makes the shrewd choice of casting the scene in a single paragraph that is told very much from her standpoint. In this way, the focus remains on Ms. Langley’s experience.
While I’m very sad that she had the experience in the first place, I love the way Ms. Langley describes the miscarriage. Instead of TELLING us what happened, she SHOWED us. Even a childless bachelor such as myself can figure out what it means that a pregnant woman with a history of fertility problems experiences “vicious” cramps. Ms. Langley uses imagery to serve as description; the “lurid red stain” on the front seat of the rental car punches us in the gut and we appreciate being treated like adults who paid attention in ninth-grade Health class.
I’m not sure who chose the image that accompanies the story on the Hippocampus web site, but the image of the broken egg upon the sand is as powerful as it is simple. The title of the piece gives you the idea that you’ll be reading about something related to pregnancy; the smashed egg prepares you for the unhappiness that runs through Ms. Langley’s account. What’s the lesson? If you’re an editor, simple images can have a big effect on the perception of the work you’re curating. If you’re the author, perhaps you make a polite suggestion to the editor as to what kind of photograph should be coupled with your work.
What Should We Steal?
- Omit needless scenes and description. We all remember what the first day of school was like. What made YOUR first day of school special? We’ve all experienced the grief of losing a loved one. How does YOUR grief manifest itself in a unique and meaningful manner?
- Avoid strict definitions of what is happening when the reader can figure it out for themselves. Remember “The Contest,” the Seinfeld episode in which the four main characters decided to see who could resist masturbating the longest? None of the characters actually uses the word, “masturbation” or any of its variants. While I’m guessing the restriction was a Standards and Practices thing, the episode is all the better because the characters were treating us like grownups. What else could it mean when George laments that his mother caught him when he was “alone” with a Glamour magazine?
- Contrast emotionally powerful and complicated work with simple illustrations. It’s really not necessary to tell people they should be sad when they read about a person who wants a child, but can’t have one. Showing the reader an unopened crib in a half-painted nursery can be much more powerful.