The Story Behind “Here There Be Snakes” by Rebecca Fremo

RFremo_HeadshotToday’s post is written by Rebecca Taylor Fremo. We published her nonfiction piece “Here There Be Snakes” in our Spring 2015 issue. 

I replayed that experience at Minneopa Falls in my head more times than I can count, stunned that something so seemingly innocent could transform itself into something so treacherous in the blink of an eye. I wish my memories could transform themselves into stories half so quickly. But like many writers who don’t quit their day jobs and stop taking care of their families, I produce material at a glacial pace. It took me eight years to finish writing “Here There Be Snakes.”

This essay started as an exercise. I was teaching an undergraduate course called Writing Creative Nonfiction back in 2006, the same year that my family and I trekked to Minneopa Falls. My class was using Bill Roorbach’s wonderful textbook Writing Life Stories, and that semester I decided to complete my own writing assignments along with my students in an effort to reinvigorate my writing life. I had never published creative nonfiction, and I felt like a poser teaching the class. Determined to produce something that semester, I carried Roorbach’s book around with me the way my son Ellet used to tote his Buzz Lightyear action figure. I worked my way through the textbook, and a very embryonic draft of “Snakes” emerged.

My favorite chapter in Roorbach’s book is titled “Scenemaking.” In it Roorbach describes writing an essay that frustrated him terribly until he realized that the piece should open with a scene rather than with exposition. I decided to begin my own essay in a similar way, allowing the scene with the snakes to help me communicate one of my greatest fears: that I won’t always be able to keep my children safe. But as soon as I wrote that first scene, I realized that the essay wasn’t entirely about this fear. Instead, as my (then) new husband, Brian, nudged his way into the story, I recognized that the essay was about learning to trust others, not just with my kids’ lives but also with my own.

Brian and I had a child together in 2007, and for a little while I resisted working on the essay because one of my main characters—our son Cyrus—was absent from the piece. It felt a little like a betrayal of our current life to leave him out. Once he turned up in a few poems, though, I felt satisfied. He would at least have a presence somewhere in my work! I returned again to the essay.

This time, I reread Roorbach’s chapter on the importance of research. I googled “Minneopa Creek” and learned about the history of Mankato, Minnesota. I studied up on rock formations. I returned to Minneopa Falls three or four more times between 2009 and 2011, retracing my steps, trying to identify different types of rock, determined to reframe the essay with metaphors from the natural world.

But this time the essay resisted. It knew that I wasn’t actually that interested in sandstone formations. I needed to write about my family and about fear. Go back to the scene, it suggested. I listened.

About Rebecca Taylor Fremo

Rebecca Fremo writes poems and essays. Her work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Lake Region Review, Tidal Basin Review, Poetica, and Naugatuck River Review. Her chapbook of poems, Chasing Northern Lights, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. A Virginia native, she now lives in St. Peter, Minnesota, with her husband and three sons.

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