CNF Conversations: Send Me Your Titles and Come by for a Chat

A few months ago, I started a feature on the site called CNF Conversations, where I interview other writers of creative nonfiction. (CNF stands for creative nonfiction.) I was looking for a way to do something of substance, to build community, to meet fellow writers, and to learn more about what was happening in the genre.

Writer interviews seemed like a good way to accomplish all that.

I also wondered if writers talking to writers might not yield more interesting and in-depth conversations about the creative process, research, and our understanding of what we do when we sit down to write nonfiction.

I think it has.

So far, I’ve interviewed Susan Olding about her fantastic book of essays called Pathologies. Susan was a great first interview: she answered my long and numerous questions with grace and clarity, and weathered the technical bumps of my first attempt.

Next came conversations with Myrna Kostash and Daiva Markelis. Each exchange sparked new ideas and questions for me about the first-person voice, about truth in nonfiction, about memory and memorialization, and our responsibilities to those we write about.

The process has also taught me that I really like the interview as a form in and of itself. Dynamic and economical is how I think of it.

In a few days I’ll be posting my conversation with Toronto writer Beth Kaplan, whose book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare tells of her archival hunt for traces of her once-famous great-grandfather, the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin.

Then comes my conversation with Nancy K. Miller, a giant in the field of feminist (auto)biography, about her new book called What They Saved.

Please come back to read both chats.

If you have published a recent book of creative nonfiction you’d like me to consider for the CNF Conversations, please drop me a line via the Contact page here on the site. Thus far, I’ve only interviewed women, but only by accident. Men are welcome too! (Note the photograph I chose, above, as proof.)

Spread the word, send me your titles, and keep writing.

[Photo: Paolo Margari]

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CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading “CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis”

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Myrna Kostash (Part I)

Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.

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Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Myrna Kostash is a fulltime writer, author of All of Baba’s Children (1978); Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980); No Kidding: Inside the World of Teenage Girls (1987); Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993); The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir (1997); The Next Canada: Looking for the Future Nation (2000); Reading the River: A Traveller’s Companion to the North Saskatchewan River (2005); The Frog Lake Reader (2009); and most recently, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey into Byzantium (2010).

In 2008 the Writers’ Guild of Alberta presented Kostash with the Golden Pen Award for lifetime achievement. In 2009 she was inducted into the City of Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame, and in 2010, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded her the Matt Cohen Award for a Life of Writing.

Prodigal Daughter

A deep-seated questioning of her inherited religion resurfaces when Myrna Kostash chances upon the icon of St. Demetrius of Thessalonica. A historical, cultural and spiritual odyssey that begins in Edmonton, ranges around the Balkans, and plunges into a renewed vision of Byzantium in search of the Great Saint of the East delivers the author to an unexpected place—the threshold of her childhood church. An epic work of travel memoir, Prodigal Daughter sings with immediacy and depth, rewarding readers with a profound sense of an adventure they have lived.

Prodigal Daughter has been awarded the 2011 City of Edmonton Book Prize and the 2011 Writers Guild of Alberta Wilfred Eggleston Prize for Nonfiction.

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Julija Šukys: Like all good texts of creative nonfiction, Prodigal Daughter is a hybrid text. It’s part travelogue, part historical exploration, and partly a narrative of a personal and spiritual journey. The unifying thread and the organizing metaphor (if that’s not wrong way to think about him) is Saint Demetrius. He’s a complex figure who is appropriated and venerated by a number of cultures and historical narratives. Can you talk a little bit about how Saint Demetrius came to be at the centre of this book for you?

Myrna Kostash: There are 2 versions of this “origin” narrative:  the one in the book and the one that is the more truthful story, which out of discretion I have not used. But the published version is close enough: in search of an entry point into a book about Byzantium that I had wanted for years to write, I came across the figure of a saint venerated in the Orthodox Church whose story as told by the Church was exactly the perfect “hook” for me. St Demetrius, according to the hagiography, was martyred in the northern Greek city, Thessalonica, in 304, for the crime of professing faith in Jesus Christ. A couple of centuries later, however, he reappeared in the form of a saint working various miracles in defense of his beloved city, Thessalonica, which was under sustained attack and siege by barbarian marauders. Historically, these barbarians were Avars and Slavs from beyond the Danube, and they never did succeed in taking the city, although they settled in the region, Macedonia. It was this coherence of Slavic ethnicity and the Orthodox spirituality of Byzantium (I was baptised into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada as an infant) that inspired me to begin this book’s journey: I had a subject.

What did Saint Demetrius stand for when you began the journey of Prodigal Daughter, and what does he stand for now that you’ve come to the end of this particular chapter of writing and life?

For the first three or four years of the project (it did take ten!), I was obsessed by the ethnic implications of “my” saint, namely that a Greek saint, who performed miracles to defend his people, eventually also became a saint venerated by his enemies, the Slavs, my people, when they became Christians. But, as the book discloses, there were a number of turning points in my journey with Demetrius that complicated this simple ethnic formula, points which rerouted my journey, first into an enfolding within the Byzantine world in the Balkans and Constantinople, and second within the Church herself. Having written the book, I am now a faithful member once again of the church of my childhood, and the travelling icon of St Demetrius still goes with me where I go. What he “stands for” is of neither an ethnic nor historical nor even cultural significance but for what all saints stand for in Orthodoxy: an ideal representation of a human being “who is what he ought to be.”

In part, this book is about your somewhat reluctant return to your childhood roots in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. You’re a feminist, a leftist, and a humanist. All this makes for a fraught relationship with your childhood church, so you naturally moved away from it as a young adult. After what you describe as a number of failures of the core ideologies of your youth (the Left, student radicalism, even feminism), you recently found yourself yearning for something else: new meaning and a sense of the sacred.

Can you talk about this path back to Orthodoxy? How did your journey across greater Macedonia and the history of Byzantium help repave an old path differently for you?

I certainly had no spiritual intention for this journey. As with all my previous books, I was initially motivated by intense curiosity about history, and, in the case of Prodigal Daughter, by all the narratives – stories – that have been told about Byzantium, the Balkans and Eastern Christianity, all of which form a kind of cultural grammar for me (and which for most other people, I imagine, represent a triple whammy of exoticism if not downright weirdness). But even so I admit that on previous travels through the region I was always drawn to Orthodox churches as spaces of genuine repose and reflection. Even socialist feminists need that! Perhaps it was just the familiarity of them that drew me in; I certainly wasn’t very interested at that point in the content as opposed to the form of the life of worship they embodied.

But, when it came time to write the book, I realized that, if I were to understand the Byzantine world in which St Demetrius came to be venerated, I had better reacquaint myself with the closest representation of that world in our own time, namely the Orthodox Church. I was living in Saskatoon at the time, as writer-in-residence at the public library, and so I decided to go to a Ukrainian Orthodox church there, to Sunday services on a regular basis. There was much I had forgotten about the forms of worship and much that I never had known or understood (in my childhood in the 1950s the services were entirely in Ukrainian, a language I barely spoke), so I began to read seriously about the history and theology of the Church. For the first time in my life, I read the New Testament, in the form of the Orthodox Study Bible, had a host of questions about what I was reading, and sought the conversation and counsel of a Ukrainian Catholic, Byzantine rite, priest and theologian at the University. He was absolutely brilliant – a deeply consoling mixture of intellectual erudition and spiritual intuition – through whom I became aware of and was prepared to acknowledge something which I mention only glancingly in my book, a deep yearning for the Divine.

Of course, this journey back into Christianity would not have succeeded had I not been convinced, and remain convinced, that there is no contradiction between the core and enduring values of (socialist feminist) humanism and those of the basic Christian teachings. The elaborate mysticism of Orthodox theology is something else, however. I’m still on that journey.

One of the purposes of this book, it seems to me, is to shed light on an ignored and forgotten era: the 1000-year history of Byzantium. Prodigal Daughter is an attempt to engage seriously with the Balkans, a place that still today is so often dismissed as backward, laughable and even murderous. What was the impetus to fix your attention on that time and place?

When I was travelling around eastern and south-eastern Europe in the 1980s and early 1990s (for my books Bloodlines and The Doomed Bridegroom), I became aware of a persistent mythology about “where Europe ends.” Wherever I was – Athens, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Prague, Cracow, Warsaw – people locally insisted that where they were was precisely where Europe “ends.” Which is to say that, where it ends, “Asia” begins. “Asia” signified Turkey in some cases but mostly it signified the Europe that was Orthodox, used the Cyrillic language, had been included in the Ottoman or Czarist Empires, had fallen within the Soviet bloc of countries, had been inflamed by “ancient communal hatreds” well into the 20th century, or some combination of these.

What struck me most was that, first, my relatives who still live in Ukraine were thus “outside” Europe, apparently, and, second, that a large part of the territory “outside” Europe had fallen historically within the borders of Byzantium or been contiguous with it. I was incensed. How was it possible that such disdain and ignorance could be expressed about a thousand-year Empire of astonishing political, cultural and spiritual achievement? (By the way, Byzantines never called themselves such – the term was first applied by a Renaissance German scholar – but named themselves Romans right to the end, as successors to the Late Roman Empire. The city of Rome “fell” in 476 to a Germanic army but the Roman Empire just kept on going, from its new capital of Constantinople, until its defeat in 1453 to the Ottomans.) So began my project to bring into view through a work of literary nonfiction at least some aspects of this world of European otherness.

It’s interesting (actually, maddening) that the first publisher I approached with a proposal to write under the working title Demetrius: Seduction by a Saint, turned it down on the grounds that “we’ve never heard of St Demetrius and we don’t care; write about St Francis.” Of course this did force me to think about how I would make anyone care about St Demetrius – by making the reader care about the narrator, that is me, as it turned out – but I admit that if I read about one more narrative of a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostello, I’m going to scream.

This is Part one of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: www.myrnakostash.com]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Myrna Kostash (Part II)

Myrna Kostash, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2010.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Myrna Kostash about her book, Prodigal Daughter. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: You are a writer who is very rooted in Western Canada and in the Ukrainian Canadian community, and as such, there’s a sense in which you write from the margins of margins (just as I do). You too write from an Eastern European tradition that largely goes ignored in this country and in the English-speaking world in general. You work in Edmonton, a place that remains on the margins of most Canadians’ imaginations. You write as a Canadian, and we ourselves constitute one big margin in the English-speaking world. Finally, you write as a woman, and if the recent VIDA statistics on women and publishing are accurate, then this last fact too still makes us marginal.

What does this kind of marginal perspective bring to you as a writer? How does your gaze encounter the world differently because of your marginality? And are the margins moving to the centre at all? Do you see more space for stories like yours now than before? For example, you recently won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen lifetime achievement award (congratulations!). Should this award give other marginal writers and writers of nonfiction hope that our work may find a more central place in the world of reading and publishing?

Myrna Kotash: These are big questions I’m not sure I can cover here except in short-hand as it were. To begin with: the Matt Cohen prize for a life of writing came as a huge surprise. Frankly, I didn’t realize anyone at the Trust (jury members are all in Ontario) had noticed that one can have a “writing life” in Edmonton. As Matt had been a friend, this award meant a lot to me. But I cannot say it’s resulted in my work receiving any more attention (any less marginalized): for instance, to date, ten months after publication, Prodigal Daughter, has received only three reviews, two in Alberta and one in Winnipeg.

So as far as this book is concerned, I don’t feel the least that there is “more space” for stories like mine, but it’s a gamble I have to take as these are the stories I want and must write. It’s no good wishing I were on the Globe’s bestseller lists when I’m not willing to make concessions to being there, namely living in Toronto in the thick of things and writing about market-friendly subjects. The only one of my books that was a bestseller was my very first, All of Baba’s Children, which was based on interviews with Ukrainian-Canadians in Two Hills, Alberta, of all places. To this day I cannot tell you why I chose the subject (I was still living in Toronto as a freelancer in 1975 when I returned to Alberta to do the research, and never went back to Toronto) or why it made such an impression. It’s still in print, being read by a new generation. For awhile in the 1970s, being a women’s liberationist or “women’s libber” as feminists were called back then, was a boon for a young writer like me in Toronto when feminism was so new and provocative and creative. A number of us women writers came into our own then thanks to Canadian magazines that were trying to keep up with the movement. But that’s all over and, as the VIDA survey revealed, women are again vastly underrepresented in the magazines.

My second book, about the 1960s in Canada, was an almost complete flop (lots of reviews but mostly negative) as it managed to be celebratory about left-wing radicalism just as the Reagan and Thatcher era was opening. Since then, I’ve written back and forth between what I call my New World and Old World subjects, all of them until Prodigal Daughter receiving the kind of attention that has disappeared from the publishing world for mid-range writers like me: the reviews, the promotion trip, media interest. Add to that the fact that nonfiction even in its literary or “creative” mode is largely neglected at festivals, conferences and writing programs, and no one should be surprised that a Ukrainian-Canadian left-wing feminist nonfiction writer is not at the epicentre of Can Lit.

Finally, I’d like to talk about the writing process of creative nonfiction. I’ve heard you say that the hardest thing about writing CNF is finding (or imposing) structure. In your book, you had to bring together a vast amount of historical data, competing narratives of Demetrius’s life, a travel narrative, and spiritual journey. Talk a bit about your struggle to find structure in this book. Is structure always the key struggle for a writer of nonfiction? If so, why? What, in your view, makes for a successful piece of creative nonfiction?

Creative or literary nonfiction is rightly called a hybrid genre, as you pointed out at the opening of this interview. The problem of structure is central, as the various elements of this hybridity – travelogue, memoir, historical summary, reflection, scene-setting – each demands its own kind of structure. How then to unify them all within an overarching structure?

My first thought was to organize the material chronologically, that is following the historical development of St Demetrius himself, from early Christian martyr to saint in the Byzantine church to his reception among the Slavs. All the other material I had gathered from my travels, interviews, reading and note-taking would be sorted accordingly. This was my first draft. I sent this this to an editor I had worked with on Bloodlines, an editor perfectly in tune with what I try to do with nonfiction. Her suggestion was the single most important intervention into the question of structure: that I organize the material not according to (impersonal) history but according to how it had happened to me. Thus: I had first approached Demetrius from a remembered childhood memory of the Slavic Orthodox church, then I had sought him by travelling around the ancient Byzantine world in the Balkans, and finally had encountered him in his most spiritualized aspect, the young martyr whose story could not in fact be known. The next seven years of writing were simply the effort to order and reorder within that overall structure.

They also involved the arduous process of allowing myself to speak more intimately about myself than I’ve done since The Doomed Bridegroom. In the case of that book, my most experimental work of creative nonfiction, it was merely a question of revealing myself as an erotic subject. It was even harder to reveal myself as a seeker of the sacred within the Orthodox Church. (Somehow I think it would have been less fraught had I been on a spiritual journey with yoga, say.) I’ve taught writing classes in creative nonfiction for years and I always tell participants that we writers of creative nonfiction must always answer two questions before we’re done. One: why am I telling you this? Two: what does it have to do with me? I’ve never had trouble with the first, as my subjects have always been urgent or intriguing; but the second has demanded a closer introspection than I have been prepared to undergo, until St Demetrius made me.

Myrna Kostash
Edmonton
July 3, 2011

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part I)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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Susan Olding’s first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, won the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award, and was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared widely in Canada and the United States, and she is the recipient of several prizes and awards, including the Edna Award from The New Quarterly, the Brenda Ueland Prize for Literary Nonfiction, and the Prairie Fire Creative Nonfiction Contest. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario, where she’s currently working on a novel and a second book of essays.

In these fifteen searingly honest personal essays, Susan Olding takes us on an unforgettable journey into the complex heart of being human. Each essay dissects an aspect of Olding’s life experience—from her vexed relationship with her father to her tricky dealings with her female peers; from her work as a counsellor and teacher to her persistent desire, despite struggles with infertility, to have children of her own. In a suite of essays forming the emotional climax of the book, Olding bravely recounts the adoption of her daughter, Maia, from an orphanage in China, and tells us the story of Maia’s difficult adaptation to the unfamiliar state of being loved.

Written with as much lyricism, detail, and artfulness as the best short stories, the essays in Pathologies provide all the pleasures of fiction combined with the enrichment derived from the careful presentation of fact.

Julija Šukys: Pathologies spans the greater part of your life. We read about your childhood and adolescence, a difficult relationship with your parents, and then the narrative settles into the subjects of mothering and writing. It feels like a life’s work. Is that so?

Susan Olding: It often felt like a life’s work. It took me about a decade to write it! But I hope I have a few more years—and more books—before I die.

I’m not a quick writer, and essays tend to demand steeping time. It’s enormously frustrating at times.

You take the title from your father’s profession. In the epigraph to the book you give two different meanings for the word: one has to do with the study and diagnosis of illness; the other (more surprising) is pathology as the study of passions and emotions. The word “pathology” contains within it the root “logos” (word). I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the links you see between a love for words, illness, and passion.

My love of words is an infectious passion? Well…I hope it’s infectious, at any rate!

Talk a little about the process of how the book came about.

The idea for the book came in a flash of intuition. I work at the Queen’s University Writing Centre. In one of the tutoring rooms there used to be an old copy of the OED. Waiting for a student to appear for her appointment one day, I opened the dictionary on a whim to the definitions you mention above. The metaphorical possibilities immediately struck me, and the idea for the book was born. I would put my own life and experiences under the microscope, as it were, to discover what might result from that experiment.

I had already written the first two essays. The rest came afterwards. But because it took so long to write, and because the essays are tied to life events, by the end I had included pieces that I literally could not have imagined at the project’s start. I also cast aside some of my initial ideas. So ultimately the process felt quite organic.

I later learned that this is how Montaigne’s work came together. It accreted. When he began his project, he knew only that he would use himself as subject, would question himself, would “roll about” in himself. But he didn’t know what shape his thoughts would take until he was finished writing.

By the end, he had invented a new form. I didn’t invent; I’m his lucky inheritor. But it often felt as if I were inventing, because initially, I didn’t have many contemporary models, especially in Canada. I had read and loved Virginia Woolf’s essays, and Orwell’s, and many other classics of the genre. But I hadn’t thought of them as essays, per se—I was just reading anything and everything by authors that I loved, which is what I tended to do back then.

I’d also read, and loved, the work of some contemporary American practitioners of the form—Richard Rodriguez, Adrienne Rich, Gretel Erlich, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Alice Walker. And I’d loved Berger, and Benjamin, and Camus. But when I started to send out my own work, nobody in Canada seemed to be publishing literary essays. Not by unknown writers, at any rate. Since then, there’s been an explosion of creative nonfiction in the literary journals. But in the late 90s, the only place I could think to send my work in Canada was Event, during their annual nonfiction contest. I was lucky enough to be chosen a winner of one of those contests, for the first piece in the book, “Pathology,” and that gave me the encouragement I needed to continue.

There’s an anxiety that I felt traced through the book almost from the very beginning: namely, the right to write. It’s a question that I too struggle with. Indeed, perhaps anyone who writes about real people, especially loved ones, must grapple with a fear of exploitation or overstepping boundaries. At one point you ask if writing lives is “a gift or a lie,” and about the danger of “flattening” characters in nonfiction. I’m interested to know more about these ideas.

In some sense I had to write my way into permission to write. And that was a slow and painstaking process.

One barrier was the fear that writing itself was self-indulgent. Shouldn’t I be doing more important and socially useful things? And writing about myself, which for some peculiar reason I seemed to need to do, seemed even more self-indulgent.

The title of Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? lodged in my brain. Pathologies is my answer, I guess. Writing it has banished that voice, the one that told me I had no right to write at all.

For I discovered something in the process: it’s impossible to write well about anything, including and perhaps especially about the self, without humility. Anyone who aspires to art writes in the service of the work, not the self. So writing well is the best defence.

As for the second issue—the fear of flattening or misrepresenting or hurting or exploiting others—that arose very early in the project.  I remember when I finished the first piece, about my relationship with my dad, I showed it to two friends who happen to be sisters. One is a writer, and one a psychiatrist. The first friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you must publish it.”  The second friend read it and said, “That’s a powerful piece; of course you can’t publish it.”

What a perfect illustration of the different attitudes I’ve since encountered, both in others and within myself!

I don’t think it really matters what genre we choose. People have been just as hurt by fictional portrayals as by their appearance in narrative journalism as by their appearance in memoirs and personal essays and poems. So this question should occur to every writer.

And in the end, I don’t think there are any easy answers. We’re social beings. Our lives intersect with others. So if we write, inevitably we include others in what we write, unless we’re hermits, and even then we would probably include remembered or fantasized others.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to acknowledge the risks. To consider the power we hold, and what it might mean to our subjects to find themselves depicted as we have depicted them. To ask ourselves how we might feel, to find ourselves depicted that way—although that’s tricky, because I think as writers we’re generally sensitive to point of view and to shifting or layered narrative perspectives that might not be apparent to more naïve readers.

In the case of memoir, I think we also need to consider the truth. Naturally, there will be differences in how different people perceive and remember a situation, but if you claim that your mother regularly beat you when in fact she was meeker than a lamb and never raised so much as an apron string, that’s a breach of your reader’s trust as well as your mother’s. An extreme and easy example—but in the last few years, we’ve seen far wilder claims—and they give memoir a bad name.

But here’s the wrinkle: It’s entirely possible for someone to experience a meek mother as a monster. And that is humanly interesting. But the story isn’t about the monster mother, or even about that it is like to have a monster mother. The story is about how it is possible to experience a meek parent as a monster. It should be an exploration, not a melodrama.

The thing is…explorations are never simple. And people are sometimes threatened by complex stories. They want the simple version. The simple version is familiar.

Not only are we threatened by complicated stories, but we also struggle to express them. It’s much easier to tell (and sell) a beginning-middle-and-happily-ever-after narrative about How I Lived with My Monster Mother than it is to tell the story of your evolving feelings and your changing perceptions of your fairly ordinary mother, who turns out not to have been quite the monster that you initially thought.

But it’s literature’s responsibility and privilege and glory to tell these complicated stories and to explore messy truths—the kind that many of us run away from in our day-to-day lives. And ideally, in order to prevent simple narratives from driving out complex narratives, we need to find ways to incorporate our own self-doubts and confusions into the work. The essay is a perfect form for that.

One of the most instructive aspects of this book for me was the story of your daughter’s adoption. This was an international adoption, and you describe travelling to China to meet your child for the first time. But because this book spans such a large segment of your life, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, we follow you and Maia for several years as you struggle and work through the reverberations of what it means to have started life in the way that your daughter did (you describe the neglect and abandonment she was subjected to in the first ten months of life). Perhaps you could talk about the decision (if that’s what it was) to present Maia’s arrival into your life not simply as a happy ending, but, I suppose as a new chapter.

I like that phrase, “a new chapter.”

And you’re right, I did make a decision not to stop at the “happy ending” of adoption. This goes back to my answer to your earlier question. Having lived for a few years with our daughter, I felt the dominant narratives about adoption were overly simple. (Perhaps this applies to all parenting narratives, to some degree, especially narratives about the early years of parenthood.)

Anyway, I didn’t see our family or families like us represented in anything I read in the media or in the children’s books or even in the novels I had seen up until then. Typically, adoption is either sentimentalized as an answer to everyone’s prayers, or it is dismissed as an inferior way to form a family. I wanted to tell one story of what it is really like in all its messy wonder.

The anxiety of writing about others, and especially your daughter Maia, comes to the fore in the essay “Mama’s Voices.” This is such a strong piece of writing for so many reasons.

Thank you! And thanks also to Fiona Tinwei Lam, (http://fionalam.net/) who encouraged me to write this piece. She and her co-editors had already accepted a proposal for a completely different piece to be included in Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood, but when she heard the story about my experience at a writing conference, she urged me to switch tracks and write about that instead.

Click here to read Part II of the interview with Susan Olding.

[Photo: Susan Olding]


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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part II)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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This is Part II of a two-piece interview with author, Susan Olding. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: You describe leaving Maia for the first time– it’s not an easy thing to do, but necessary and desirable for your work. There, after having received positive feedback regarding an essay you’ve written about Maia, you decide to change course and run with the idea of writing a book about your relationship with her. When you workshop this idea, you find yourself harshly criticized by fellow writers and even a revered memoirist and mentor, who compares your project with her own unsavoury idea of writing a book about a pedophile. I recognized so many of my own anxieties and experiences in this piece. Please talk a little about your view and experience of writing and mothering. How did becoming a mother change your relationship to writing?

Susan Olding: In the short term, it made it a lot harder to get any work done!

But over time, it has been the greatest thing possible for my writing life. First, because our daughter brings enormous joy into our lives, and joy begets joy. Also, at times she’s been a muse. And she has taught me so much about myself and my limits, and also about creativity. She’s profluent and spontaneous in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such deep pleasure to share her in her quicksilver spirit. I’m so grateful to be her mother.

You point to how writing about one’s own life is sometimes seen as unseemly, solipsistic, narcissistic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. What, in your view, is the piece that sets successful autobiographical writing apart?

Successful autobiographical writing invites readers to draw comparisons to their own experience; it prompts and provides occasion for a kind of deep reflection that may be increasingly rare in our fragmented lives, and reminds us of where we stand in a historical or cultural context. Somehow, it affirms the possibility of making meaning. So it’s all about the author—and yet not about the author, at all! Strange paradox.

How does this work? Subtext, subtext, subtext. Language and structure create this subtext. Which is why Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” counsels that it is “no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless…you…know how to write.”

Adam Gopnick claims that the memoir and personal essay are actually the least self-indulgent of genres. You can’t get away with flourishes or padding if you are writing about yourself.

You have changed some of the names in the book and have retained others, like Maia’s. How do you decide when to do this? Do you allow the people you write about any veto power?

My decisions about retaining or changing names weren’t terribly systematic. I went with my gut.

I asked the people I’m closest to—my husband and my daughter. Of course I knew there was no way to get anything like “informed consent” from an eight year old, but Maia knew generally that I had written about our struggles, and her decision to go by her own name seemed consistent with her character. Right now she is pre-teen shy, and would probably balk, but in general she is a very open person and always has been.

I also asked several friends. Most chose to go under their own names but a few preferred to remain anonymous. I respected their wishes.

I changed students’ names and a few identifying features so they wouldn’t be recognizable and their privacy would be preserved. These people didn’t know I was writing about them; it didn’t seem fair to identify them by name; nor, for that matter, did it seem necessary.

As for my parents, I felt their privacy was already protected to some degree (among strangers) because I don’t share their surname. For extra protection, I changed their first names.

I gave veto power only once, to my brother, for  “On Separation,” the piece about my sister-in-law, and I also asked him if I should change her name. He generously allowed me to publish and encouraged me to retain her name because he felt she would have liked that.

Do you still worry about hurting those you write about?

Of course! Although “worry” probably isn’t the right word. I hope I won’t hurt those I write about. And I do my best to prevent that. But I have in fact hurt people that I’ve written about, and suspect I may do so again. And ultimately, I’m loyal to the work.

I want to touch on the issues of critique and courage. I found the description of your devastation and confusion in the face of you peers’ criticisms very moving. The workshop participants (fellow writers) told you that it would be unfair to write about your daughter, and that you risked ruining her life by doing so. After sometime, you came to the conclusion that, despite their objections, you had to or wanted to write about her anyway. I think that this essay tells some deep truths about the writing process: both about how vulnerable writers are, but also how fierce. Even when we are racked with self-doubt, every writer who manages to bring a big project like a book to fruition also needs to have a rock-hard belief in the value what she does. How has that moment of doubt, after you received such criticism for your plans to write about your daughter, shaped your subsequent work and way of thinking?

Such a good question.

The simple answer is that I have not written the book that I proposed to write at the conference. Because in a way—and this is the hardest thing to acknowledge—that teacher was right! It wasn’t the right time to write a book about Maia.

Not because I might ruin her life. Not because it would say something awful about me as a person if I chose to write it. But because I wasn’t ready. And on some level, I recognized this at the time, and my recognition made my peers’ objections and the teacher’s objections cut more deeply. For the fact is, if I had been ready, nothing they said would have stopped me.

I may never be ready. Strangely, perhaps, that possibility doesn’t bother me. The need to write that particular book has passed. I have sometimes mourned other “lost” books—the novel that I set aside 100 pages in, the book of poems that I didn’t manage to finish. But I don’t mourn the book about Maia.

Having said all that, although I may not have written a whole book, I did write about my daughter. And I published what I wrote. So in that sense, I ignored what my critics said. I also wrote about the conference itself. Did I say writing well was the best defence? It’s also the best revenge. [Insert evil chuckle.]

Seriously, though—I hope there’s enough irony in “Mama’s Voices” to suggest that while my hurt was real, and to some degree justified, I also see humour in the situation. The essay includes a parallel narrative about Lana Turner, queen of the melodrama. I had my own little melodrama going on in that workshop!

But “fierce” is such a great word; we really do have to be fierce. People will tell us that what we’re doing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or that we’re not good at it, or that it isn’t worth doing. And usually, we’re advised to ignore these critical voices. But I don’t believe we can ignore them. Or at least I can’t ignore them, so I’ve made necessity a virtue.

I say we need to learn to listen, for blanket criticisms can disguise meaningful objections, and we need to cultivate enough humility to recognize when that’s the case. At the same time, we need to hang on to some sense of the worth of what we’re doing. And we need to trust our own inner vision, and constantly measure our work against our felt sense of the beautiful and the true.

“My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,” said Keats— “and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”

But it’s an incredibly delicate balance—to remain open to critique while at the same time holding fast to the essential value of what we are doing. The test I sometimes use: Would I want to read this? If not, then I shouldn’t foist it on others. If yes, then I need to keep working on it until I get it right.

Last question: your form is the essay. Conventional wisdom in the writing/publishing community says that essays don’t sell and that the form is unsexy. Tell me about how you came to be an essayist, and what you think the form has to offer.

Conventional wisdom is right; essays don’t sell! At least they don’t sell when the author is an unknown writer. I was thrilled when Melanie Little at Freehand took a chance on this collection.

But why don’t essays sell? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s even a lie. Because they do sell, in anthologies. Look at how well the Dropped Threads series (and others) have done. Most of the pieces in those anthologies are essays of one kind or another, although typically they are less deeply exploratory than the best writing in the genre. Still, readers love them.  And readers also continue to respond to classic essays by Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and many more. So the form is very much alive, even if writers can’t make a living from it.

Is the essay my form? Actually, I write fiction and poetry, too. It’s just that, in general, I’ve been less satisfied with my work in those genres and haven’t published as much of it (see above). But you’re onto something, because I think I’m an essayist by temperament and inclination. A born questioner and self-questioner.

It’s arguable, but the essay may be our most intimate form. Reading one is a bit like reading a letter from a friend, and in fact, some people believe that Montaigne began writing his essays because he could no longer converse with a dear friend who had succumbed to the plague. Essays can be playful or deeply serious (or both at once); they can be concise or expansive; they can be lyrical or logical. Always, they invite the reader to share in an exploration of some kind. You never know where you’ll end up when you set out, or what you’ll see, but you do know that the author will show and tell, and you will think and feel, that no part of you will be left behind or set aside.

I love the form. I loved it long before I knew its name. That may not sound sexy to publishers, but it sure sounds sexy to me!

Visit Susan Olding’s site here.

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On Fragmentation, Springtime Energy, and Future Plans

I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that.

I got stuck in that place that we all know well: the fragmented, too-many-things-on-my-plate place.

First of all, it’s tax season here in Canada, which for a numerically challenged humanist like me, means it’s the season of hell. So far, it’s robbed me of almost three full days of writing. Second, I’m halfway through editing an issue of an academic journal, and though it’s good, honest work that I do every three months or so, it’s hard to write in a sustained fashion on editing days. Finally, there are the tasks of everyday life that keep us busy and make us tired.

But the garden is coming back to life after a winter that, for me, seemed tougher than most. The last of the snow melted only yesterday, yet brave tendrils have been fighting their way up through the soil. My son and I have been cheering on the tulips and daffodils as they get bigger by the day. He calls them “baby flowers,” exclaiming “I LOVE IT!” each time I point out a new one. “This is our garden, right, Mummy? We take care it.” Few things make me happier than witnessing my son’s love and respect for living things.

Texts are growing too: I finally got an essay off my desk and to the collection’s editor who likes it. Hurray! I’m now moving onto dreaming up a new one. And as soon as my taxes are off my desk, I’ll get back to the Siberia book properly.

I’ve been hearing from readers and colleagues who would like to take part in my new Creative Nonfiction Conversations. I’m working on some plans for chats about essays, books, and maybe even about a documentary film. Keep an eye out for upcoming interviews, and send ideas my way if you want to have a chat too. As soon as I dig myself out and return to the my usual rhythms, the conversations will begin.

I wish you strength if you, like me, are doing taxes. May spring replenish your energies, and may you return to writing, if (like me) your life has pulled you to pieces.

[Photo: Kuzeytac]

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Call for Submissions: “CNF Conversations”

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I’d like to start a new section here called “CNF Conversations.” (CNF stands for Creative Nonfiction). I propose to do post shortish interviews with authors of recently published works of creative nonfiction: biographies, autobiographies, memoir, collections of essays, mixed genre, and whatever else, as long as it’s nonfiction.

I’m looking for fine writing.

To get a better idea of the sorts of texts that might fit the bill, please browse the “Life-blood” category.

If you are a writer of nonfiction and have a recent book about which you’d like me to consider chatting with you (by email), please get in touch through the Contact page.

[Photo: Göran Johansson]

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