A Lot to Digest in a Week

Sarah, Kathy, Susan

The picture shows me with Sarah Einstein (L) and Susan Cushman (R) a week ago at a reception at Pearl Street Pasta in Oxford after the Thacker Mountain Radio Show. It was taken the first day of the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference. We look like old pals, don’t we? But we’d just met that same morning. Actually, Susan was in Lee Gutkind’s “The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction” workshop last September in Oxford, as was I, but I didn’t really meet her then.

No, it wasn’t the wine that loosened us up. The three of us got to know each other that day during Dinty W. Moore’s Manuscript Workshop.

What better way is there to get to know someone than by reading their essays, their experiences turned into words and poured on the page? I know these women in ways their best friends in high school, in college, never knew them. In ways their neighbors, colleagues, even cousins don’t know them. Sarah’s essay is titled “Mot” and it chronicles her friendship with a homeless, mentally ill man. It shows her character, as well as his. Susan’s essay is titled “Watching” and it describes the end of life moments she spent at the bedside of a dear friend, with a flashback to “watching” her father’s final moments. Two years ago this month, I was “watching,” so I could relate.

A question the writer should ask when putting an experience on the page — a question the reader asks when reading someone’s personal story is “WHO CARES?” As a reader, I want to care. I want to know what people did, how they felt about it, how it changed them. I want to experience their struggles, their hurts, their Eureka moments. I want to see the narrator vulnerable, splayed, opened, purged, and I want to be part of the process that brings growth and change. I want honesty from the narrator. I want discovery for the narrator and for myself.

As a writer, I want to share my stories and take the reader along with me, providing some point of commonality. To offer a story with meaning, I must be honest. I must go deep. I must discover my own hidden treasures, mine for gold. It reminds me of a junior high parents’ meeting at my son’s school, when the teacher said, “We are mining for gold in your child.” Just as she was looking to bring out the treasured gifts hidden in my son and help him discover a path to brilliance and meaning by learning to use those gifts, I also must dig down deep and uncover the nuggets that lie at the core of who I am, what made me the way I am, what I can put into words that others may see as truth for them.

In my Early Period of writing, I showed everything in the best light, made myself and everybody else look good, concluded with hope or humor. In my Second Phase, I’d just drop the ending with an ambiguous last sentence or two, letting the reader draw his own conclusion or discovery. Now in my Modern Period, I am trying to go deep and dig for that nugget of gold, to be honest about it as I hold it in my hand in all its pristine purity — oh goodness, that is scary! — and to make discoveries about myself and my world.

During this first week after the conference, I’ve edited and expanded the essay I wrote in Characterization in Memoir class. I’ve written a new essay, in line with my Modern Period goals, and I’m ready to release it to my Nonfictionistas critique group for comments. I’ve critiqued Sarah’s essay targeted to a specific publication. So I feel like my feet are on the right path — going down deep to find my own personal truths and going higher with my own writing and editing.

But I have NOT yet unpacked my suitcases from my trip to Oxford!

NOTE: Susan is wrestling with the same writing issues and wrote a beautiful blog entry [3/06/08] about “uncovering.”

The above photo is from Susan’s collection.

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3 Comments on “A Lot to Digest in a Week”

  1. John says:

    Kathy-

    Thanks for this post. I like reading your description of the phases of your writing life. I think it’s always interesting to read the ways that writers mature, and to read about their interpretations of those changes.

    Thanks.

    John

  2. sarahemc2 says:

    You write: Now in my Modern Period, I am trying to go deep and dig for that nugget of gold, to be honest about it as I hold it in my hand in all its pristine purity — oh goodness, that is scary! — and to make discoveries about myself and my world.

    I struggle with this every time I sit down to write. It’s so tempting to turn the stories I focus on into “teaching moments” about homelessness, mental illness, social justice… everything. But to do that, I’d have to hide a lot of awful truths, mostly about myself.

    I think you write wonderfully balanced, beautifully realized essays. You’ve found a great balance.

    peace!
    Sarah

  3. inktarsia says:

    We should note that Sarah’s piece on “Mot” won a Pushcart…can we call ’em or WHAT?


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