NEA Literature Fellowships

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

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Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Photo by Yalda Nikoomanesh

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from "On Nostalgia"

My father built a careful infrastructure around the life that happened before my life. He allowed little to surface. This realization dawned on me when I was 37 and he was dying. Who was my father? Or, more precisely, who was William Joseph Evitts, the man? I knew him as a father. I didn’t know him outside that role, or in the continuum of a family history.

I do know one thing for certain: The birthplace of my father’s secrecy. I even know the date. October 21, 1965. That was the night my grandmother shot herself through the heart with a pistol. She was 48. I don’t know the caliber of the gun that she used to commit suicide, I only know that it belonged to my grandfather and that he was away on a business trip.

There are other details about that night that I’ll never know, like why nobody responded to the gunfire. My grandparents lived on the second floor of an apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia, near D.C., where my grandmother had worked as a secretary for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Department of Labor. A neighbor must have heard the shot or the crack of glass as the bullet sliced a hole through the back window. Maybe someone mistook the pop for a car backfiring, or worse, knew it for what it was and briefly raised a head before bowing back to the remains of dinner.

Whatever the case, no one called the police because it was my father who found her the next morning. He and my mother had driven south from Baltimore, where my father was earning his doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins. He was 23 and a newlywed. He pulled into the parking lot behind his parents' building, and told my mother to wait in the car. He had seen the bullet hole in the window.

He found his mother in a rocking chair, the pistol thrown a good distance from the recoil.

What he did not find was a note.

My father told me this story one time, when I was 26. I had left the East Coast for the foreign terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My father came for a short visit. The two of us sat up one night drinking dark beer and looking out at the silver tip pines. He told the story straight, allowing himself a single narrative embellishment. “Once, she shot seven cents out of a dime with a pistol from a pretty good distance,” he said. “At point blank range she couldn’t miss her own heart.”

Then my father and I rarely spoke of his family again.

Except, of course, that we did. The absence of a topic in conversation doesn’t mean the topic ceases to exist. It is there, always, just below the surface. My father and I discussed many things over our lives. Books, politics, music, writing. When we both returned to live again in Baltimore, we met regularly at a diner near our houses. We shared pots of strong coffee and talked for hours. I can see now that my father and I talked circles around the things that we didn’t talk about.

I often contemplate the enormity of my grandparents’ tragic deaths. I think about what it meant for my father and, by extension, what it has meant for me; what I inherited as a result of that gunshot. Other times, I zoom in on that dime. Who was the woman who could shoot like that?

("On Nostalgia" was first published in Passages North, 2016)

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s short stories, essays, and creative nonfiction have been published widely in places like the New Yorker.com, the Southern ReviewMcSweeney’sPANK, the Little Patuxent Review, and TriQuarterly, among others. Her work has been recognized by Best American Essays, andher essay “On Nostalgia,” part of her memoir-in-progress,won the 2015 Hrushka Nonfiction Prize. In 2017, Elizabeth received Maryland’s prestigious Baker Artist Award in the Literary Arts. A journalist for over twenty years, Elizabeth has written about architecture and the built environment for numerous publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Metropolis. Her work has been supported with fellowships, grants, and residencies from Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ragdale, Cuttyhunk Island Residency, Sustainable Arts Foundation, Maryland State Arts Council, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, The RUBYs Artists Grants, and the Barbara Deming Money For Women Fund. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

After it was announced that I’d been given this fellowship, a friend joked that I should run off with the money and have one hell of a vacation. What he didn’t understand is that being able to spend unfettered time immersed in the creative work that so fuels and feeds me is like a vacation. You see, a person contains many selves. There is the task self, the pragmatic mind that remembers to buy groceries and pay bills. This is the self that has allowed me to survive within the unpredictable gig economy where I juggle writing, editing, teaching, and parenting.

Then, there is the artistic self. The writing mind. Creativity doesn’t follow the pips of a clock. Inspiration comes at 1 a.m.; it comes in the grocery line. This creative mind can wither under the daily commerce of living. To be afforded the time to come to my desk knowing that the rent is paid and the sitter is, too, is invaluable. The pragmatic mind can take the day off and the creative one can play. This fellowship offers the mental freedom to go where my curiosity leads me, and to take risks with the writing.

And it comes at a pivotal moment. I’m writing my first book, a memoir about my grandmother’s mysterious suicide in the 1960s. It took me years to believe I could broach the subject. An NEA Fellowship is a career-altering thing, not just for the financial autonomy, but also for the critical feedback. Being selected by this jury reminds me that I am on the right scent and that I should keep tracking down this story, no matter how challenging it may be at times. I am unspeakably grateful for that vote of confidence.