|Susan Larson starts our program at the Literary Festival.|
Annually in September Carolina Mountains Literary Festival takes over the small town of Burnsville, our county seat and nearest commercial area. For two days there are writing workshops, authors reading from their books, and presentations on many literary topics in shops, galleries, the Town Center and other venues. This past weekend I spoke at the Festival as a part of a program on writing groups and how they contribute to a writer’s life. Our group traces its history back thirty-five years to a writing class which just kept going after the professor retired. Somewhere along the way we picked up the name Scribblers. In addition to sharing how the group helped us, we each read either from the “Toe River Anthology,” (a collection of poems, essays and memoir published in 1979 by the class) or some of our more recent work. Three of the presenters were in that original group. Our youngest presenter is a poet who joined Scribblers twenty years ago, and I have been a member since 1999. What follows is my description of the evolution of my work from journalism to memoir with the help and encouragement of the Scribblers. I was the last speaker so I also did the wrap up. Here are my remarks.
I wished we could call this program Four Golden Girls and a Baby Boomer but I was worried that you’d come expecting a comedy routine. In fact, although we have a lot of fun together, we are serious about our work. I find my greatest personal satisfaction in writing, in choosing words that exactly express what is in my mind.
I was schooled in journalism, first in my high school, where it was an elective, then later in graduate studies. During my years in the work force, I wrote constantly—either press releases and publicity, or grant proposals and program documentation and even personnel policies. With that kind of training and experience I had never thought about joining a group. So when my friend Liz Golibart invited me to join Scribblers, I told her I didn’t do fiction or creative writing. She replied, “Scribblers isn’t like that. I think you should try it.”
I did try it and it changed my writing life.
Briefly, I’ll tell you how. In Scribblers we meet in homes and usually the hostess sends out a writing assignment in advance. (But we always have the option of “Writer’s choice.”) After some refreshments we read our work aloud and there are many distinct takes on any assigned topic. Through that process I explored writing about different subjects and sometimes aspects of myself. I also learned by listening to the different styles and noting my own reactions to the work of others.
The second impetus for change was the feedback both in how they reacted to my writing as I was reading it aloud, and from their comments afterwards. As you might imagine, over many years of sharing together and talking about writing and the work, the Scribblers have developed deep and lasting friendships.
So that leads to the third way it changed my work. After my husband Bill died, I decided to write a book about caregiving and I rather quickly produced a draft of about fifty pages, which I asked several of these good Scribbler friends to read. Their comments might have been ego-crushing if they hadn’t been such good friends. I realized right away the topic I had in mind was of interest, but the style of the writing was killing it. I understood that readers liked my stories but not the structure and formality and everyone said some variation of “Don’t write a how-to book, write a memoir.” I also got the message that I had to share myself—my feelings, what gave me joy, what caused me pain, and how I dealt with both. I needed more description and dialog, and less exposition. I started to read lots of memoirs and used a notebook and pen to explore my feelings with a stream of consciousness technique called Freewrites. Gradually I made a transition to the memoir style.
The challenge in journalism (my old style) is to be interesting, complete, and accurate but not personally present on the page as you pursue the five questions of Who, What, Where, When and How. A good journalistic piece tells a story and can even pull some heartstrings, but it is not about the person who is writing. I soon learned that while you may need the background found in those five questions, in memoir, it is all about the writer and the interaction with the other characters that emerge in your stories. I had to answer other questions: How did I feel? Which of my senses were engaged, and how? What was the long-term effect? How did I change because of what happened?
It had taken me a few months to produce that first draft—the one I threw away. Then it took four years to complete the memoir as published. It was a hard road to my new approach to writing and it was the Scribblers who took me there and gave me the courage and confidence to make the journey. If you have a writing itch, join a writing group or gather up a few like-minded folks and start your own. It might just change your life.
To illustrate the memoir style I developed, I read a short excerpt from my book, “Decrescendo: A Memoir of Love and Caregiving”. To begin a poignant chapter about Bill’s rapid decline called “Losses” I chose a context for my feelings that dated from the beginning of our relationship.
“A small oil painting catches my eye as I move about my kitchen preparing meals. It was given to me in 1952, before I knew I was in love with Bill, although he was already a commanding presence in my life. I had gone to Charleston, Illinois, to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with a DePauw classmate. The artist Paul Sargent had lived near her family’s home until his death in 1946. Thinking it would be a nice outing for me, her parents arranged for us to visit Sargent’s cousin, who had inherited the artist’s homestead.
The old farmhouse had a generous lawn and big trees. The conversation was lively and I was interested to hear all about this Midwestern painter’s life. When it was time to go, our hostess led us to a storage room, formerly her cousin’s studio, where there were dozens of framed paintings of all sizes. For half an hour we studied them, marveling at the color and detail. As we turned to leave, she pointed to a group of smaller canvasses and said that we could each take one. I had already been coveting a small painting that reminded me of Bill, so I chose it. She smiled and said, “I’ve always liked that one, too. I think that man was a hobo.” Maybe so, but I knew it was really Bill.
Although Sargent was primarily a landscape artist, he also did occasional portraits. My painting, dated 1928, depicts a man wearing a soft-brimmed shapeless hat, sitting on the ground with his back resting against a tree, patches of sun all around and a river flowing behind. I consider it a portrait of Bill because the physicality of the seated figure captures him so well. The man’s body is relaxed except for his arms, which are stretched out to his knees, wrists loose and hands dangling in the air. The painting speaks of living in the moment, of being adaptable, of connecting with nature.
Today it brings Bill back to me whole, undiminished. He is relishing the moment, at home in that place, at home in himself, comfortable but with just enough tension in those arms to suggest a readiness to move on when the time is right.”
Next post: 10/01/2013
Next post: 10/01/2013