Today’s featured writer: Michele Filgate
The featured writing: “Possessed” published at Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.
I’m thrilled to feature Michele Filgate and her gorgeous essay “Possessed” today. This is a bit of a gamble because Michele’s essay is published in the print edition of the literary journal Gulf Coast out of the University of Houston’s English department. While Gulf Coast does publish online exclusives, the content in their biannual print journal (which features 250+ pages of writing from both emerging and established writers and full-page color artwork) is not normally posted online. But for a limited time, you can read selections from issue 28.1 Winter/Spring 2016 at their website. I don’t know how long or short this limited time will be—thus the gamble on my promoting Michele’s essay via an online link—so hurry and read it while you can; you don’t want to miss this essay. It is nothing short of stunning. But if you miss out on the online posting, you can purchase a print edition at Gulf Coast and enjoy the many quality writers they publish.
“Possessed” is a segmented lyric essay in seven parts about a woman who, with her partner, adopts a sensitive dog from a shelter, in what appears to be a stab at saving their troubled relationship, only she has to leave the dog once the relationship comes to an end. It’s also a meditation on possession. About the things we possess and how those things, accumulated throughout life, possess us. Like anxiety. Or depression. Or the way a dog can possess a person’s heart and how that can lead to gluttonous grief. It is also about a writer trying to make sense of her profound loss and seeking a way to process her experience. In the essay, Michele writes:
How many writers have sliced their hearts into confetti and thrown the pieces into the wind? Never sure of where the bits will fall. Hoping that by deconstructing, one can make some kind of sense out of it.
From interviewing Michele, I get a sense that the above quote reflects her process in the writing of “Possessed.” She sliced open her heart and made an attempt, deconstructing towards some sort of answer or resolution. Yet the final product does not reflect this at all; the essay comes together brilliantly, and rather, it reflects essaying at its very best. In addition, there are so many exquisite phrases and achingly beautiful sections of this essay, I had trouble choosing what to quote. Here is a passage to entice you:
Imagine, if you will, that what you possess, what you used to possess, what you will possess possesses you, and you need some kind of emotional exorcist to release you from the burden of carrying so many things around.
A dog is not a possession. It’s a living thing that snuggles up to you on cold winter nights, curled in a ball underneath the blanket, occasionally licking your shin. It’s a creature that looks at you in a way that says, I know you’re sad. I’m sad, too. Let’s be sad together.
Birdie possesses my heart.
Things that possess us weigh just as heavily as the possessions themselves. The absence of the thing that possesses us replaces the actual possession, and that absence grows and grows until it is lodged and stuck. It’s amazing that we’re not crippled by what we’ve had and lost.
Merely quoting from this essay is insufficient to relay the masterful rendering of the whole, and that’s why I implore you to go now, while you have a chance, and read this essay!
Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and VP/Awards for the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Refinery29, Slice, The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Salon, Interview Magazine, Buzzfeed, The Barnes & Noble Review, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, DAME Magazine, Biographile, The Brooklyn Quarterly, Time Out New York, People, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Men’s Journal, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. For seven years she worked as an events coordinator at several different independent bookstores: first at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH; then at McNally Jackson in Manhattan; and finally at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. Michele was the producer of a segment for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric called “Assignment America” and has also produced literary segments for “Word of Mouth” on New Hampshire Public Radio. She teaches creative nonfiction for The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and Catapult.
A few questions for Michele:
Writing and publishing creative nonfiction that has to do with personal loss can have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, it can be healing, on the other, scary and difficult. The subject matter in “Possessed“—to leave a beloved animal friend behind—is heart wrenching. How difficult was it for you to write this piece? Can you speak about your process in writing this essay?
I’ve tried (and failed) to write about this subject many times before. I think this is the most difficult essay I’ve ever written, to be honest. I didn’t know what I wanted to say until I said it. And that required many revisions and lots of time writing and deleting and writing and deleting. Originally, my friend approached me about writing a piece for Gulf Coast that dealt with women and books. That ended up being part of the essay, but not the entire thing. It went in a completely different direction.
Besides your own essays and articles, you actively publish reviews, interviews, and author profiles, as well as teach, participate in readings, and serve as a contributing editor, among other things. How do you balance and integrate all these literary endeavors with your own writing? Do you find that one takes precedence over others?
Balance? What is that? Ha! I go to yoga twice a week and I run three times a week, and I guess part of the reason I do both is because I’m always seeking those moments of either reflection or the ability to turn my brain off. I am probably the worst person at balancing that I know. I take on tons of projects, am always stressed out, and don’t know how to relax. I watch TV when I should be writing. I chat with friends on Facebook when I should be writing. I clean the dishes when I should be writing. Anxiety and guilt loom large in my life, and I’m constantly fighting both by either blatantly ignoring my to-do list or saying “Fuck it” and sitting down and writing. Once I start, I feel so much better. If only I could bottle that productive feeling up and carry it with me during the other moments in my life.
Even though you make your living from your literary skills, your participation in so many endeavors denotes you are an exemplary literary citizen. Can you speak to the notion of literary citizenship? What does it mean to you? How important of a role does it play in your life?
Being a literary citizen means a different thing when you’re also a writer. I know some exemplary literary citizens who aren’t writers. They are generous, passionate readers who spend a lot of their time promoting the work of others. I think being a literary citizen and a writer means that you value other writers’ work just as much as you value your own. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. You can even give the book a bad review in a newspaper. But it means that you take the work seriously, you do what you can to tell the world about books you love and believe in, and you participate in the literary conversation. You attend author readings and write recommendation letters for friends who are applying for fellowships and do what you can to make the literary world inclusive.
Literary Hub recently announced you will be curating Red Ink, a series on women writers in Brooklyn, New York. Can you tell us more about Red Ink? What is your goal for the series, how did it come about, and will it reach beyond the local vicinity of Brooklyn?
I hope it reaches beyond Brooklyn! That’s why I’ve asked Lit Hub to co-sponsor it. They will publish edited transcripts of the events. I ran events at indie bookstores for seven years before leaving to focus on my writing career. But once an events coordinator, always a coordinator, I suppose. I created Red Ink because I love curating and moderating conversations between smart writers, and also because I wanted to focus on women writers, past and present. The reason I chose BookCourt is because it’s my local indie, and they host a ton of great events. The first one is on May 9th at 7pm: “Finding Solitude in a Noisy World” featuring Katherine Towler (The Penny Poet of Portsmouth), Angela Flournoy (The Turner House), Molly Crabapple (Drawing Blood), Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), and Valeria Luiselli (The Story of My Teeth).
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
It’s impossible to list all of them, but some of my very favorite writers include Virginia Woolf, Lidia Yuknavitch, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, Clarice Lispector, Paul Harding, Fernando Pessoa, and George Eliot. I write because their words have helped shape me; they’ve made it possible for me to find my very own shape, if that makes sense.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll paralyze yourself if you do that. You can spend all of your time fretting and finding reasons not to write, or you can get your ass in a chair and open a blank Word document. You can type one word, and then another, and then maybe another. And eventually if you write enough words (and they can be very middling, bad, boring words) something beautiful will emerge in the middle of all of that muck.
Today’s featured writer: Suzanne Farrell Smith
The featured writing: “Listing to Love” published at Pank.
Okay, prepare yourselves. This is going to be a gush-fest. And I’m not sorry about it in the least. In honor of Valentine’s Day and this week’s featured essay “Listing to Love,” I’ve compiled a short list on what I believe about Love:
- Love makes the world go round. (Yes, that’s a cliché. And maybe love doesn’t actually make the world go round—that has something to do with science—but without love there’d be no reason for the world to exist, and likewise none of us, so you get where I’m going with this, right?)
- It’s important and necessary to tell the ones you love that you love them. Often. Shout it, whisper it, show it, act it.
- Love manifests in big and small ways.
- Love is free.
- Love leads to more love.
In this spirit, I intend to spread the love…
I met Suzanne Farrell Smith my first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We were in an all cnf workshop together facilitated by Sue William Silverman and Robert Vivian that was, surprisingly for a writing workshop, quite the lovefest in itself. This workshop was where I met some of my closest friends, brilliant writers all. Suzanne and I bonded, and even though I never see her, because she lives on the east coast and I in the west, I remain steadfastly in awe of this woman. She’s smart. She’s authentic. She’s kind and compassionate. She’s gorgeous. (Just look at the picture below!) And she’s a thoroughly gifted writer. (I told you this was going to be a gush-fest. But, hey, it’s all true.)
As the title suggests, “Listing to Love” is a list essay that chronicles the love of “little things.” Suzanne writes,
“I don’t mean little things like a rainbow or a baby’s smile. Who doesn’t love a rainbow or a baby’s smile? You’d have to be such a jerk. I mean really, really little things.”
There is so much I love about this essay:
- The form, written as an outline.
- The unique details and how they are perfectly wrought from keen observation.
- The way the essay keeps unfolding, going deeper and deeper with each list within the list.
- The way personality and character are revealed through what’s included in the list.
- The connections between details and the circular nature of the essay from the beginning, “I love little things,” to the end.
A Connecticut native, Suzanne Farrell Smith writes from her home on the Byram River border between Connecticut and New York. She spent a decade teaching elementary and middle school students, fascinated by how children both respond to stories and craft their own. With two master’s degrees, one in literature and criticism and the other in creative nonfiction writing, she now teaches undergraduate academic writing and methods of literacy instruction to graduate students. Suzanne is raising three sons, but she is missing a large portion of her own childhood memory; she writes a great deal about memory, trauma, health, parenting, and education. Recent work appears in Ascent, Crab Creek Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Literary Mama, Community Health Narratives, and the anthology Oh, Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. A new piece, written over seven days while her twins were in neonatal intensive care, is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree. Suzanne uses her blog to promote literary markets and publications she admires, explore facets of the writing life, and reflect on personal experiences, most recently in “8 Things I’ve Learned (So Far) as a Parent of a Child with Special Needs.” She lives online at suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com.
A few questions for Suzanne:
How did you come up with the concept for “Listing to Love“? Did you have a particular inspiration, goal, or intention when writing this piece?
I constantly list concepts, but very few of them grow into complete pieces, and most of my writing becomes conceptual only through drafting. This piece started as one list, and I didn’t predict it would bourgeon into an outline of embedded lists. But I liked the single list I created, so I wrote more. The act of listing, especially in outline form, is like writing an essay. You search underneath for the next bit of truth, and the next, and the next, until you’re at the basic elements, the level IA1a)(1)(a)(i). When you pull back again, you’ve found a big idea that you didn’t realize you were looking for. In this piece, once I’d listed from macro to micro, literally hitting the right margin of the page, I pulled out to see what I’d uncovered. Only then did I revise with intention.
You’ve got lists within this list essay, among them one sub-list is “Awkward moments with my in-laws.” You then list three of those awkward moments, which for me, as a reader, incites incredible curiosity. I’m left wondering what happened “That time in the garage” and “That time at the spa,” along with other tidbits listed in the essay such as the misunderstanding between you and your friend about the United Kingdom that “settled over the table.” Have you ever or would you consider writing a companion essay to “Listing to Love” where you would elaborate on some of these things?
A companion essay … hadn’t thought of that! As it happens, my father-in-law died less than a year after I published this essay. I almost told the story of one of those awkward moments (the garage), at his Memorial Service. Almost. My husband knows the stories all too well (and prefers not to relive them!). I suspect a little more time must pass before I share the details.
In the essay, you say “I stuck the paint swatch card that I use as a bookmark into the back of my book and noticed, in the few seconds before the train stopped, that the book’s inside cover was exactly the same color as one of the choices on the card.” What was the title of that book whose inside cover was the color of “First Snowfall”?
My brain is doing gymnastics over this one. I can’t remember! We moved six months ago, and much of our library is packed up and stored, so I can’t check the books (though I’m tempted to brave the labyrinth in our storage unit). I wrote that particular list right after graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts. My husband had coordinated an amazing graduation gift for me—friends and family members sent books for my bookshelf, with notes explaining why they chose those titles. So I likely was reading one of those gifted books. I can see it in my mind—hard cover, in the common 6×9 size, end papers a serene (rather than drab) gray. Benjamin Moore, on its website, says of “First Snowfall”: “Reminiscent of the first sleigh ride through freshly fallen snow, this soft, light blue-gray is as delicate as a snowflake.” Doesn’t that make you wonder about the writer behind descriptions of paint colors? That bookmark was recycled long ago. My current bookmark begins with Benjamin Moore’s “Breath of Fresh Air” and ends on a saturated “Blueberry Hill.”
Who are some of your favorite authors who have influenced your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
I’ve got lists for this one. I have no memory of childhood, so while teaching elementary school, I fell in love with children’s literature as if reading it for the first time. I even thought I might write for children. I still have a list of math-related titles I wanted to make into a series. But in graduate school, I studied dozens of authors who inspired me to become a writer of prose for adults: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank McCourt, Flannery O’Connor, Andrew Lam, David Sedaris, Jessica Mitford, Barbara Ehrenreich, and on and on. I’d copy their sentences and study the structure, listen to the music, wonder at the craft. Other authors taught me directly, so I learned from their work while learning from their feedback on mine—Sue William Silverman, Margo Jefferson, Laurie Alberts, Sascha Feinstein, Randy Fertel, Robert Vivian, Diane Lefer, and Rebecca McClanahan. I open their books when I feel stuck or need a boost, as if they’re still teaching me. I learn a lot about the writing process from writer friends in groups and workshops. And I follow emerging authors who are regularly published in my favorite journals. I still love children’s literature and am inspired by the picture books I read to my kids. Plus, they bring me to places and into situations—let’s crawl up this muddy hill just because!—that influence my writing in some way.
Would you share a bit about your current writing life? What topics or themes are you presently focused on? What forms do you find yourself working in?
I have three sons: a preschooler and twin toddlers. And I’ve just restarted teaching, editing, and publishing, after an extended leave during which I had the twins and my mother died. So time is a bit limited right now. When I have a few minutes to spend inside my writing life, I focus on my favorite form, the personal essay, though it’s always on my mind to develop my poetry and short stories. My first manuscript digs into memory, and I’m working on my second, which explores parenting in the world of genetic differences.
Today’s featured writer: Melissa Matthewson.
The featured writing: “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review.
I live in a small, rural town, so in order to fulfill my literary cravings and needs, I rely upon social media to keep connected. While having that online access is great, interacting with people virtually is definitely a poor substitute to being with people in the flesh. And while there are writers and literary-minded folk in my region of Southern Oregon, obviously the opportunities pale in comparison to more populated areas like Portland, which is five hours north. I was thrilled then to discover (actually she gets credit for discovering me via a fellow VCFA alum) and meet Melissa Matthewson, who lives over the ridge in the next valley from me. When we met, Melissa had just begun the MFA in writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I, too, received my MFA in creative nonfiction. Finally, I had flesh and blood literary connection to share the love of words with over glasses of wine at Peace of Pizza in the Applegate valley or a local-made hard cider or ale at the taco joint in my town of Williams. (And someone to travel with to AWP. Here we are outside Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis last year.)
Since our meeting, Melissa has graduated and gone on to publish many striking essays in very fine publications, the most recent being “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review and recently nominated by them for a pushcart prize. Her lyric essay is a segmented meditation on loss, full of both gorgeous language and thoughtful rumination, that stems from a time when her future husband was caught in the mountains in a sudden snow storm.
I felt the possibility of loss as an exertion of pressure on my chest as I walked, the force overwhelming as if I were to be swallowed into the buried sky. This loss as an interruption to the ordinary. My fiancée had gone to the mountains with two friends hours before. I wondered about them in the woods with the snow. I wondered about the blurry confusion of a quick storm. You could say I was worried. As a couple, we were so new, our love like fresh soap taken from the plastic and sweet like lavender.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA), University of Montana (MS), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). Her essays have appeared in the Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Sweet, Defunct, Numero Cinq, Terrain.org, Pithead Chapel, This Magazine, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Under the Gum Tree, and Cobra Lily Review among other publications. Her essay, “A Gathering of Then & Now” won the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in creative nonfiction. She has been a finalist for the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize and the Orlando Prize for Nonfiction. She serves as an Assistant Essays Editor at The Rumpus, teaches writing workshops and Zumba dance classes, and runs an organic farm. She’s working on a collection of lyric essays. Visit her at melissamatthewson.com or on twitter @melmatthewson.
A few questions for Melissa:
Each section in “As Snow Designs” attempts to open the essay anew with a fresh angle of beginning, while also building upon the previous section(s) until the last two sections shift towards finding the ending. Can you speak to that? How did this structure come about?
The essay’s genesis began in a lecture on juxtaposition in poetry and prose at a Vermont College of Fine Arts residency. Danielle Cadena Deulen gave us a writing prompt in which we were to juxtapose three events. The first prompt was to write about a time when you were in an extreme state of being, using metaphor to explain. I decided on writing about losing my husband to the snow. Then she had us write about a city we had traveled to or lived in. I wrote about Missoula. Then she had us tell a story with a clear narrative. Any story. I wrote about coming upon a performer on the Santa Cruz streets painted all silver. She then had us try to connect the first fragment about the extreme emotion to the other two fragments. I left the lecture loving what the writing prompt generated, so I went home and wrote the essay that is now, “As Snow Designs.” I sort of stumbled upon the structure just through experimentation. I was reading a lot of experimental essays at the time and I was influenced by their playfulness in terms of form. In my own writing, I couldn’t find a way to tell this particular story, so it just came to me as I was writing that I should just try a number of different beginnings with titles for each section. The essay evolved over almost two years of writing and revising.
Do you have a specific writing process? How do your essay ideas come to you?
My writing process is to fit in writing where I can! I try to commit myself to three large chunks of writing time per week, but of course, this is usually interrupted for whatever reason. I don’t have a specific time of day that works. It’s whenever I can sit down. I like to write in bed under my wool blanket. I write a lot while my children are running around the house. Perhaps it’s their craziness that inspires me? Or I need the chaos of their voices to fuel me? I tend to write very short pieces of prose. I can’t seem to just sit down and pour out pages and pages of words. I craft sentences slowly, paying attention to word choice, rhythm, syntax. I resist straight narrative, so I like to experiment with form and play with blurring the lines between poetry and nonfiction. Sometimes ideas come to me very easily. I often think of it as a process of enchantment with an experience or an affection for an idea. For instance, I happened upon an amazing place in northern California recently and had an almost spiritual experience in the woods. I was so compelled by the experience that a short piece of prose immediately poured out of me. Or, a friend died recently, so I tried to make sense of the grief and loss through a short poem. Or recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about scarcity, stability, and the course of nature and its uncertainty and somehow I want to take those ideas and craft them into an essay. Big topics and of course, they’ve been written on before, but I like tackling old ideas in new ways. I guess ideas come to me based on experience, emotion, and thought.
What are you currently reading, and what recent books, essays, poems, or stories do you recommend and why?
I’m currently reading The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson; Find Me, Laura Van Den Berg; and Bright, Dead Things, Ada Limon. I’m slowly reading essays in After Montaigne edited by Patrick Madden and David Lazar and Ander Monson’s new collection, Letter to a Future Lover.
A friend of mine from VCFA, Genevieve Thurtle, just published a stunning essay in the most recent issue of The Sun. The essay, “Twenty Three Weeks,” is a devastatingly beautiful essay about losing her daughter. I also read Ada Limon’s essay on Richard Blanco’s blog “To What Do We Owe This Pleasure: On the Value of Not Writing” that I can’t stop thinking about. I have a secret crush on Ada Limon. Guess it’s not so secret anymore. Eula Biss published an essay in the New York Times “White Debt” that I think was very provocative and important and which I’ve read several times and recommend to everyone. An essay in the 2015 Best American Essay anthology gutted me: Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter & God.” I recently read James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” and it’s just an amazing story in so many ways: plot, character, and sentence construction!
Nonfiction books I read last year that affected me greatly were Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Citizen from Claudia Rankine. Also, I devoured Laura Groff’s novel Fates and Furies. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation too. I’ve been drawn to literature about marriage and desire based on the writing I’m doing. I’ve also been drawn to understanding, learning, and engaging in issues and literature around race so reading Coates and Rankine’s books has been a part of that education.
I’ve got a long to-read list. Books I can’t wait to read in the next few months include: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson; How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes; Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay; Negroland, Margo Jefferson; H is for Hawk; Helen Macdonald; and Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith.
What book do you wish you could have written?
What a good question! I don’t know…maybe anything that Virginia Woolf has ever written. Maybe Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Or Lorrie Moore’s collection of stories, Self-Help. Anything Joan Didion. Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Or Crime and Punishment, only because I loved that book in high school.
What inspires you?
The mountains. Trees. Music. Poetry.
Can you share a bit with us about the essay collection you are working on? Does it have a tentative title?
Sure! Right now, it’s a collection of twenty-five lyric essays, though some of these could be considered prose poems or short flash nonfiction. It’s tentatively titled Home, As It Were: Essays. Together, the essays examine the paradox of limitation versus freedom within a marriage. I like to think they form an intimate inquiry into identity as explored through subjects and themes of desire, farming, marriage, sexuality, polyamory, domesticity (and the rejection thereof), music, and motherhood, all tied and threaded to the landscape. Each essay attempts to build a loose chronological story of a marriage from the middle of a relationship to the break, all told through lyrical narrative and hybrid forms. I hope for the essays to blend and fuse writing that is lyrical, intellectually curious and to provoke and arouse the reader through an artful investigation into desire and marriage. We’ll see. It’s an attempt. As in all essays!
Today’s featured writer: Kelly Thompson
The featured writing: “Hand Me Down Stories” published at Proximity Magazine.
I met Kelly Thompson last year at AWP in Minneapolis when I visited my friend, Christy Bailey, in her highrise Hilton suite. It was late, and the room was full of people because Christy, being very ill with cancer, had come to AWP as a means of seeing as many friends as possible all in one general location and at the same time. The room was loud, and there were lots of new people to meet, but that didn’t hinder Kelly’s effusive greeting. What struck me upon this meeting was her enthusiasm and vivaciousness. And what has struck me since getting to know her the little bit that I do is her unwavering support for the things and people she loves. Kelly promotes art in all forms, advocating with fervor for new journals such as Witch Craft Magazine and books like The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. I love Kelly’s spirit of sharing, generosity, and celebration of other artists’ work; it is something I endeavor towards here in The Sunday Spotlight.
I have read a couple of Kelly’s essays published online and was drawn especially to her most recent publication “Hand Me Down Stories” in Proximity Magazine‘s Issue 9: Home.
She summoned spirits in her stories and called up worlds with just a song. Although we moved away from the farm when I was eight, and she’s long passed now, I raise her up just like I did those first long nights of missing her as I lay homesick in my bed. It was Grandma who taught me how to conjure, her voice like a dove, the sudden clap of wings calling me to listen.
Kelly’s essay “Hand Me Down Stories” is part nostalgic homage to her grandmother and the place and people of her ancestry and part inquiry and investigation into family history and the influences and behaviors that get passed down through the generations. This essay is captivating both in the language of the prose and how Kelly captures the rural Kentucky language of her people. As writer Lia Woodall describes, “Kelly conjures up details and scenes where the information was lost or kept away. She has a gift for the ancient voice of storytelling and for painting characters on the page. I didn’t so much read this essay as hear it and feel it, the sensory explosion of it.”
Kelly Thompson is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. She has writing published or forthcoming in Oh Comely, Proximity, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Witch Craft, The Writing Disorder, 49 Writers, and other literary journals.
A few questions for Kelly:
One of the things that draws me as a reader into “Hand Me Down Stories” is the musicality of the language, especially the voice of your grandma and the voices of the men on Willigan’s porch. Were interviews with relatives or Kentucky locals part of your writing process, or did you merely “conjure” the language from memories?
Both. I didn’t formally interview any relatives, but in 2012 I was involved in putting together a family reunion. In the process, I connected online with a “long-lost cousin” a descendant of my great uncle’s line, who lives in the Louisville, Kentucky area. We got into a conversation about old family stories and the one about Riley and the shooting came up. She then told me there was not only more to the story I’d heard as a child, but that there was a court transcript of his appeal to the state of Kentucky, which I was thrilled to access.
Then, at the actual reunion, I talked with one of my cousins who is actually close to my father’s age – he grew up with her – and she filled in some other details, like how alcoholics were considered to be possessed by demons, and stories about the run-ins my great uncle and great grandmother had over his drinking. I also learned for the first time more about Cheerful and Lonny, my grandmother’s half-brothers.
When I first conceived the memoir project I’m currently working on, I knew there would be a thread involving the ancestors and so, when I sat down to write, I immediately heard my grandmother’s voice, telling stories in my head, just like I had since childhood. Then, when I went to write the scenes, like the one with the men on the porch and with the two boys, Cheerful and Lonnie, it was like I was there, witnessing the events take place. I fell into a kind of trance and, as I watched the scenes unfold, I wrote it down exactly as I saw it. So I’d say they were definitely “conjured.”
From your essay, it is evident that your love of storytelling can be attributed to your grandma’s influence. Were there other influences growing up that inspired your love of books/reading/writing?
When I was four years old, I learned to read over my seven-year-old sister’s shoulder. My father was a reader and he took us to the library almost every week. He mostly read westerns at that time, authors like Louis L’amour. Books opened up the world for me from the very beginning. We never had a television in our home, so reading was my only outlet, that or playing outside.
At around six years old, someone gave me a pack of Authors’ Cards and that was it. I loved them. I decided right then and there that I would be an author (which I pronounced “arther”) when I grew up. My life took a circuitous route, so though I’ve been writing off and on since childhood, I only committed myself to learning the craft in the past decade.
To quote a phrase from the essay: you inherited “the talent for playing music by ear.” What instruments do you play? Do you also sing?
I play the pen. I know that sounds weird, but writing is my instrument. When I write, I hear music. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, as well as music, as she, my father and his siblings all played various instruments and sang. Every week, the family gathered at my grandmother’s farmhouse for dinner, followed by a music jam. On my mother’s side of the family, my uncle was a concert violinist and my maternal grandmother sang and played the piano. She was a backup singer for Peggy Lee in Fargo, North Dakota at one time. In the seventies and eighties I worked as a rock & roll disc jockey and played records; I learned some beginning piano as a child, but I definitely can’t sing! But music is in my blood. For me, words sing.
I know that “Hand Me Down Stories” is from your memoir in progress, Oh Darling Girl, which explores a transgenerational legacy of addiction, violence, and shame. Can you tell us more about it?
In my memoir, Oh Darling Girl, I tell the story of how, just as I got sober at age thirty, one of my two barely adolescent daughters descended into addiction. That began the journey of recovery and learning for me, a journey of exploring and claiming the darkness, as my essay says, that found a home first in me, and then my daughter. Over time, I discovered the thread of addiction, and all that comes with it, didn’t originate in us, but wove its way through the generations like a braid. Not only did it come down to my daughter through my bloodline, but was transmitted to her from her father’s as well.
Even though my parents were teetotalers, they each had grown up with alcoholism and, like everyone in their generation, did not understand the nature of addiction, the genetic component, and the transgenerational nature of trauma, which science and the recovery movement have only begun to uncover. In my book, I explore the topic of legacy, our “lot in life,” as my grandma would have called it. We are born into an ongoing story, begun long before our entrance, our “chapter” of it, if you will. The question that fascinates me is one of agency. Can one small life affect the trajectory of the story, of what comes next? How do our choices affect the outcome, if at all, for the next generation and beyond?
Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Can you summarize your writing process?
What do you mean by logic? I want to ask! So, my answer is–by intuition, mostly. My writing process is very organic and parallels my living process. What I write about is compelled from within and I rarely have any idea what I’m really doing until I’ve done it. That requires faith, which I’m only slowly acquiring, through experience. I’ve learned that the only way the material unfolds for me is to write it. As I write, I discover where it wants to go and this can be a very long process. I often write in fragments, almost never in chronological order, and, at some point, I begin stitching the pieces together, kind of like making a quilt. Lots of “pieces,” then seeing patterns in the pieces, laying them out in various combinations, before finally getting the larger design. But I also sometimes begin with long rambling pages that I think are doing something. Invariably, I set them aside and then, when I come back to them, I pull pieces out, much like cutting squares of fabric for a quilt.
Which authors or books have influenced your work or are some of your favorites?
I have to begin with Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry and Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, including his letters to his brother Theo, because they are the ones whose work, early on, validated everything in me that wanted to make art. Reading Rilke or seeing a Van Gogh is like a spiritual experience for me.
Then, since I committed to this writing life, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (and everything else she’s written) and The Reenactments by Nick Flynn (and everything he’s written) have had a huge influence. I read voraciously, so it would be hard for me to choose favorites, although I will say Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, Lidia’s The Small Backs of Children, Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State, Ben Whitmer’s Cry Father, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Clarice Lispector have been at the top of my list lately. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I read at least three books, if not more, a week.
Last week, I read a snarky article on the Huffington Post on the “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook.” The author dissected nearly every possible type of Facebook post and categorized them into five types: image crafting, narcissism, attention craving, jealousy inducing, and loneliness.
The author’s views were so negative and constraining that I found myself wondering, if every one of my Facebook friends refrained from the type of posts this guy complains about so as not to be “annoying” then what would my feed look like? Pictures of cute baby animals, music videos, and other “interesting/informative” and/or “funny/amusing/entertaining” tidbits, but none of it would be personal. It got me thinking about how we, as people in this digital paradigm, interact with one another and how, often, the nature of the virtual world can be unfriendly.
Then I saw a post in a private writers’ Facebook group that asked people to post links to book reviews they have written and encouraged people to write new book reviews as a means to help support the many writers in the group who have published books and are in need of exposure. I love this idea. It’s supportive, encouraging, and interactive.
I am a slow reader, and I don’t get through a lot of books in a timely fashion. But I do read essays every day on the internet, often finding their links on Facebook. This got me thinking: Maybe I would start a weekly Facebook post where I would share a link to a piece of writing that I love and want to promote. This would be my own form of review on a much smaller scale, but rather than “reviewing” the writing, it would be more of a spotlight of the author and her/his writing. It would be interesting, informative, and entertaining, and it would satisfy those pesky requirements on how to not be insufferable on Facebook! Then I got to thinking, why not do this on my blog and then post a link to the blog on Facebook? Accomplishing two tasks at once, you know that killing two birds with one stone concept, only I love birds and would never throw stones at them.
Which brings me to the birth of this new weekly feature: The Sunday Spotlight. My goal for this weekly spotlight is to introduce readers to a writer and/or piece of writing they are not familiar with. The focus will be on new and emerging writers, but I may occasionally feature an established writer who I love and just can’t hold myself back from showering with praises.
Today’s featured writer: Cathy Bell. The featured writing: “The Sweetest Kidnapping” published at The Sunday Rumpus Essay.
I first became familiar with Cathy because we shared a mutual friend, a fellow writer named Christy Bailey, who passed away June 12, 2015, and I had read Cathy’s essay “Cold Blue,” which was also published as a Sunday Rumpus Essay (and is another highly recommended read). Cathy and I became fast friends when she offered to host me the weekend of Christy’s memorial in Denver, Colorado. Staying with someone you don’t know at such a tender time could be an emotional disaster, but Cathy was gracious and warm and empathetic. We shared many reminiscences of Christy, talked writer’s shop talk at length, and read some of each other’s work.
One of Cathy’s essays I read during that weekend was “The Sweetest Kidnapping.” I was instantly enthralled with the essay and immediately expressed interest in publishing it at Hunger Mountain, the literary journal where I work as assistant creative nonfiction editor, but Cathy was not ready to submit the piece, and ultimately, it was published at The Rumpus.
“The Sweetest Kidnapping” weaves fairy tale lore with Cathy’s personal story from her childhood of being at the center of a custody dispute, revealing and ruminating on the extreme actions taken by some of her family members and their subsequent ramifications.
How long, exactly, does it take for a child to forget her mother?
Cathy Bell is a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, the best literary community out there in her opinion. When Cathy is not writing, taking classes, or working as an IT manager at the University of Colorado Denver, she spends her time volunteering as a submissions reader for Hippocampus Magazine, helping with literary events at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and making mixed-media art. Cathy is a Colorado native and loves to write about her family, family history, and the small Colorado towns where she grew up. She has been published in The Rumpus(twice), Full Grown People, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary publications. Read more of Cathy’s work at cathyaebell.com. Or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine.
A few questions for Cathy:
What were your goals and intentions in writing “The Sweetest Kidnapping?”
For at least seven years, I’ve wanted to tell a story about this one night in my childhood that I thought was so magical, even though I found out later it was a ploy by my grandmother to hide us kids from our mother. I wanted to explore memory and truth and write about how it took me a whole lifetime to learn the parts of this mystery. I had tried for years to write the story as a typical narrative, but it was too complex and hard to understand since it takes place in three towns over almost forty years. Finally, I had a breakthrough when I saw the story from multiple perspectives and knew it needed to be told in fragments with fairy tale elements. Thankfully, it worked out. What a relief.
Which authors or books have influenced your work or are some of your favorites?
I’ve been thinking about this… My biggest influence on my writing today are two writers I met in memoir workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop: Lia Woodall and Jannett Matusiak. They are both working on their books and both write in more experimental ways—mosaic and fragments being my favorite techniques. I had a huge realization in my first class with them that I could tell a story in pieces. It didn’t have to be a typical narrative. I learned that sometimes the white space on a page can have a powerful emotional punch. And our teacher, Richard Froude, has always given us the freedom to explore crazy boundaries and to try to capture what words can’t capture. Jennifer Denrow is another Lighthouse teacher who has broken my head open. It was her Lyric Essay class where I was finally able to get “The Sweetest Kidnapping” right. But before Lia and Jannett, and Richard and Jennifer, came Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. That was the first time I understood you didn’t have to follow all rules in writing and that not following them could create more emotion on the page. Now the authors I gravitate towards are Sarah Manguso, Eula Biss, and Abigail Thomas for example. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Karrie Higgin’s “Strange Flowers” essay on The Manifest-Station. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about an essay or so blown away. There is genius going on in that head of hers.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing come from?
Looking back, I would say the first clue that I liked writing was when I won the father’s day writing contest in sixth grade (My Father is Special…). And then I started writing more in junior high school in my English class. I had a wonderful teacher who bought me a thesaurus and would write my poems and corny sayings on the blackboard sometimes. I always loved writing and minored in writing in college, but I never thought I would be “a writer” because I was so intent on getting my master’s degree in psychology. Now I don’t have those hang ups anymore. I have an MA in Health Psychology, but I do computer support for researchers working with American Indians AND I want to be a writer. Now that I’m older, I’m good with not having a simple and direct career path.
The topic of the Writing Workshop has always intrigued me in a deep way, so much so that for my graduating lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts I prepared and solicited an in-depth survey to my MFA colleagues, which I then compiled the results into a lecture titled “Engaged, Thoughtful, Creative, and Weird: An Examination of the Writing Workshop.”
Here, my friend and MFA colleague, Jenna McGuiggan, who graduated a semester ahead of me and thus wasn’t in attendance for my lecture, shares her brilliant workshop guide covering some of the same topics I addressed in my lecture. Jenna’s guide is geared towards the creative nonfiction workshop, and I highly recommend her sage advice on the topic of staying grounded in critiquing the craft of the writing and not veering off into unhelpful territory.
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the…
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My friend and writing colleague, Jenna McGuiggan of The Word Cellar, recently interviewed me about my essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” for r.kv.r.y quarterly, the online journal that published the essay last month in their “Caregivers” issue. The interview is now live on the r.kv.r.y blog!
Here is the intro to the interview:
“Laurie Easter’s essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” appears in the Winter 2015 CAREGIVERS issue of r.kv.r.y.. Writer Jennifer McGuiggan comments, “I love essays for the way they unearth, explore, and extrapolate meaning from both polarities and incongruities. Laurie’s essay grapples beautifully with the spectrum of joys and pains that punctuate our lives.” Jennifer interviewed Laurie via email.”
Click here, to read the full interview.
Everybody loves a happy ending. Especially when there’s been some hardship or challenge occurring prior. For isn’t that often the recipe for a good story? Overcoming the odds to achieve success? Well, I am happy to report my own little success story.
I wrote an essay titled “Her Body, a Wilderness” that was published this last week in Prime Number Magazine’s Issue 61. That fact, in and of itself, is not anything remarkable. People write and publish stories, essays, and poems all the time, right? But there is this other little fact that is indeed kind of remarkable—at least to me, and from the reaction I have received from other numerous writers who suffer the beast called rejection, it seems if not remarkable then at least inspiring and hopeful. Here is the fact: My essay was rejected 51 times before finally being accepted for publication. And not only was the essay accepted after 51 rejections, it earned its publication status by being chosen as a prize winner.
Let me give you some background.
I first began this essay during my undergraduate years at Southern Oregon University. I was taking my first ever creative nonfiction class, of which the theme was nature writing, when my professor said something in class that stuck with me. He said that he considered his body a wilderness. That phrase (and its contemplative qualities) found its way into an essay a year or so later when I was working on my graduating capstone project, which was to build a portfolio of essays that I could draw from as writing samples when applying to MFA programs. That was five years ago. And as I write this, I realize that a version of this essay is the one I used in my successful application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I earned my MFA in 2012.
It is also the essay I submitted for my first ever workshop at my first residency in Vermont, and that semester I diligently wrote and revised the essay many times. My advisor said during our end of semester conference 1) of all my essays I had worked on during the semester, this one was the closest to being publishable but 2) I shouldn’t be thinking about publishing and just focus on the writing. So I set the essay aside and returned to it towards the end of the program.
After graduation and more revision, I began sending it out. I sent it to a total of 55 places. Not all at once, but in the end that’s the total number of times I submitted it. Of those 55 submissions, one journal never responded (not even after I sent a snail mail letter of inquiry with a second SASE for a response a year after I had originally sent my submission—I have since crossed them off my list of potential prospects), nine editors sent personalized rejections saying the piece came close to being chosen but in the end wasn’t, and 42 sent standard form rejections. Also, fourteen of my submissions had been to contests.
About a week after receiving my 51st rejection, I received an email from one of the last three journals I was waiting on. The editor said that while my piece had not advanced to the finalist stage in the contest, they were moved by the story and would like to publish it; would I be willing to put it through “a couple of rounds of submissions?”
Finally, someone wanted to publish my piece! Hell yeah, I was willing to revise it! I wrote the editor asking what she had in mind. She said she’d reread the essay and get back to me the following week. The essay was still out to two places—one a contest, one not—and I figured I wouldn’t notify the two remaining journals until I knew for sure that I could agree to the type of revisions the editor wanted me to make. Before I heard back from her, I received word that the essay had been chosen as a finalist for Prime Number Magazine’s inaugural creative nonfiction prize. I notified the previously interested editor of the situation and said that if she was willing, I would like to wait on doing the revision until I learned the outcome of the contest, to which she was very supportive and agreeable. I subsequently withdrew the piece from the final 55th place I was waiting to hear from.
After two and a half years of submitting and all those rejections, I found myself in the most fortunate situation of the essay being loved, appreciated, and potentially published by not one, but two different outlets. As it happened, the essay was awarded Third Prize by Ned Stuckey-French and ultimately published at Prime Number.
So how did I do it? How did I stick it out and not give up? Well, I almost did. Many times. As we all know, rejections suck, and they have the ability to wear down the soul and deteriorate motivation. At a certain point, though, I had racked up so many rejections that it almost seemed comical and with my lack of success came an overwhelming commitment to win the battle. In fact, around the time I received rejection #44, a very dear friend and accomplished writer said to me: “Maybe this piece isn’t going to get published [individually]. Maybe it’s just going to be a part of your collection.”
This friend didn’t mean harm. She wasn’t trying to diss my work. She was simply evaluating the situation and drawing what seemed like a plausible conclusion. The effect it had on me, however, was overwhelming. Now I was utterly determined I would get the essay accepted! My fire had been stoked. I continued to plug away at submissions.
So all this is to say…
Don’t give up.
Whatever it is you do, if it is your passion, keep at it. Commit yourself to the long haul. Persevere into Success.
There is so much I love about this, so many gems of insight.
Dancing Elephants by Heinrich Kley
What nobody tells you as an artist is that every project starts at the beginning. Not just the blank page, the empty stage, but that you have to re-establish your credentials and your quality every time. You can coast on reputation a little, but it doesn’t last long if you don’t deliver.
What nobody tells you is that praise—a standing ovation, a good review, your teacher’s approval—makes you feel good for a day, but one line of internet criticism from a stranger reverberates in your skull forever.
Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
(I tried to feel bad when that critic killed himself the next year, but I didn’t.)
What nobody tells your boyfriend is that writing 3000 words in a calm, soothing, supportive environment still leaves you too tired to call home at the end of the day. So does…
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Ah, Paris! The City of Love. Visiting has long sat at the top of my bucket list. A notion both lonely and seemingly unattainable. I’m not quite sure why I have longingly dreamed of Paris. Is it the romantic allure of boat rides along the Seine? The venerable architecture? The exquisite food? The pleasing finesse of the French language? Finally experiencing it, I’d have to say “yes” to all that and more.
My “normal” life centers around a fairly basic existence in a rural environment on the fringes of wild, pristine nature. My water comes from a creek. I have a composting outhouse, no toilet. My bathtub/shower lives permanently outside. The sun furnishes our electricity. I have no cellular service at the house. Sometimes I can be home 7-10 days without leaving. And now for a three-week stint, I find myself (with my family) on a trip to four countries (Belgium, France, England, and Scotland), navigating train and metro lines, a foreign language I studied minimally thirty years ago, sights and sounds unlike any I would find near my humble little hovel in the woods.
From inside and outside the flat where we are staying on the top floor of a five-story building, I can see the Eiffel Tower, the iconic symbol of Paris, standing regally against the sky. As I write this from where I sit on my bed and glance out the wide open window, there she stands so close and beckoning that I can see clearly some of the detail of the wrought iron lattice work. From the moment I arrived and stepped out on the terrace, which wraps around the building of this corner apartment and boasts a 180-degree view that gazes above quintessential Parisian rooftops in the center of the city, it took all my restraint not to yell from the top of my lungs: “I’m in Paris! Oh my god, I’m in fucking Paris!”