Nonfiction: Helena Writes #54_On shifts and fragments

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 54th post, Helena shares some fragments of stories from her works-in-progress binder. Enjoy!


I will have to pick up on Ruthie Pincus, her two science fair projects, and their destiny, another month. We need to know what happens, whose projects are awarded prizes. I do understand we need to know that. But change is knocking on my door, again. 

I have observed this about myself before—I can go along a track for a time, then need to shift. It must have to do with my temperament; I have always been that way. But perhaps this is true of many people, if not all of us. I do come back, sooner or later, to a thing I’ve set out to do. I paint for months, then have to write. I write for months, then have to paint.  This winter, I sewed while I watched “news.” Except on movie nights—I subscribe to DVD Netflix and am in mourning to learn that DVD delivery into my mailbox ends at the end of September. A terrible loss. Opening my mailbox to find the DVDs I’ve ordered is a ritual I have come to cherish. There is magic in opening that red envelope with one of the movies I researched to add to my list, getting lost in the mazes of ranks and line-ups of movies on the website. I love movie nights here in the woods. And when I watch a movie, I cannot sew. My search for good films is like a search for nourishing food. Good films, I mean films that rise to the level of art, take devotion. And my eyes never leave the screen.

But this month, I reached into my stories-in-process and fragments-of-stories box and found a blue, transparent, plastic three-ring binder I’d completely forgotten. I paged through it tonight and discovered pieces I’d forgotten I’d written. They are fragments. Poignant fragments, small memoirs. And, since we had a substantial discussion during April’s Center community Zoom about this very thing—putting together fragments—and because I was swept away, again, by the memories I’d written and stored in that three-ring binder; brought back, to my parents and my young self, and have been struggling, as I usually do, with the monthly column deadline, I decided to write those fragments here, as my April offering.


Nonfiction fragment 1: Kindergarten

There is a crowd of children around me. We are all small—even Mrs. Shimberg, the teacher is small, delicate. But she is bigger than we are. She has blond hair. Her face is creased in a way that opens my heart to her, they paint who she is, they pull me close in to this wonderful presence sitting on a plain, school, oak wood chair. This aura called Mrs. Shimberg. She radiates kindness. I want to be there, in that new place.

Something makes me turn my head. I look behind me toward the door of the classroom just as my mother is stealing past the wooden door frame, out into the hall. She has not told me she is leaving. The weight of that juxtaposition records itself in me. Here is what I saw: 

My mother slipped away. I want to be where I am. I don’t mind that my mother has left—not yet. I do register the way she has left. I have noticed the untruth of the moment, felt the full shock of violation. That’s what I have taken in. I intuit the shattering of trust, the abandonment of the possibility, as it will turn out, of a fair communication that would have changed everything. That would not have allowed for the consequences of such subtle catastrophe.  

I hear the noise of many voices. They sound excited. There is laughter, enthusiasm. Questions are flying. The narrow, high, bright classroom windows are in my peripheral vision. I see Mrs. Shimberg laughing, besieged by us all. She is grounded and present, and emotionally available.

“I’m your school mother,” I hear her say.        


Nonfiction fragment 2: Jewel Josephs

Jewel Josephs was the head counselor at the summer camp we went to. Jewel was tall and slim and statuesque. I thought her beautiful. Her blue eyes sparkled when she spoke to my mother, her voice musical over my head. Her face was creased into laugh lines, and though she was tall, taller than my mother, and I was up to my mother’s shoulder, I did not feel excluded by Jewel’s conversation. Her eyes flashed and swept me in warmly as she and my mother spoke. We stood on the coarse, wooden floorboards of Jewel’s cabin, the Head Counselor cabin. Jewel was unselfconsciously changing her clothes, pulling off her wet, dark bathing suit to slip on her dress. I watched her with keen interest. Her comfort and familiarity must have jogged me awake. I felt under a spell, fascinated with her ease and grace. A stranger, and me just a child. My mother, who I experienced in a more formal way, was also swept into this moment of intimacy between women. That was plain to me.

I was inchoately aware that my mother must have somehow been overriding her own awkwardness with such a moment. I decipher it now, in the atmosphere of that room. Jewel was charming, beguiling, thoroughly confident. Her grace took care of the three of us, filled that wooden cabin, caught me and my mother up into something sweet and easy, different than the customary uncertainty that hung between us.


Nonfiction fragment 3: Self-portrait

I don’t know why I was asked to sing on Holiday Night. It may have been because my parents were counselors at our camp, so I had a certain status. And I could sing.  

I could also perform, get up onto a stage without embarrassment and in some naked way, sing and speak lines I had rehearsed. I didn’t take on a character—that came later, when I began writing, many years after that summer in camp.

I had a kind of seriousness about me. Something simple. Something in my nature. That night, Holiday Night, I remember standing up, not on stage, but with my group, my division—The Intermediate Girls. Mimi Kosak, the music counselor, played the piano, and I began the solemn performance of that beautiful song with its slow, haunting notes, its fractured scale. The whole camp was assembled in the Rec Hall. The hall was silent while I made my way through the song.  

I remember the way my face felt; I have an image now of how it looked. That strong impression of myself that has to do with my face and the sensation of its skin.  

The camp applauded for this serious child. The song, “My Funny Valentine,” became part of me. It became a portrait of me.


Nonfiction fragment 4: Lines and Grounds

At camp doing Lines and Grounds outside Bunk 11 or 12, I’m picking up bathing suits, towels that had dropped to the patchy, trodden grass that tried to grow in the ring of cabins on Girls’ Campus. Lines and Grounds was my job that day on the white, mimeographed schedule hung with a thumbtack on our bunk wall. My name was penciled into that square.  

The P. A. system comes on. I hear the dull thudding, a finger tapping the microphone in the Head Counselor’s cabin. Eileen, Head Counselor that year, announces the end of the Korean War. Pandemonium. Shouts, cheering. Counselors and campers pouring out of bunks. Adults running. Male voices rumbling over from Boys’ Campus. I stop and turn, look toward Eileen’s cabin, HC on the screen door. I’m frozen in the memory. I have to be eight years old; that war ended in ’53. This happiness must be so deeply rooted in the human spirit. An end to a war.  

I don’t understand, and that must be the thing that awakens me. I still see myself turning toward the center of campus. Raised and muffled voices coming from inside the cabins—cleaning for inspection—the first activity after breakfast, interrupted. That voice singing out over Girls’ Campus: “The Korean War has ended!”


What do these fragments say together? They begin to paint my mother, for one thing. And they paint me, alone before the world. 

I have a fair number of such fragments, vivid memories. Together, they begin to tell a story about the atmosphere of who I am. I am pondering: Maybe this is the only way I really can know myself, by such sharp impressions.


Do you ever write in fragments, and if so, do you keep them or discard them if they don’t become part of a bigger story? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

When stuck, write in scenes

Writing in pieces: In defense of fragments over finished products

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