I have never felt more appreciated and celebrated and at ease with myself as a writer as I have today. KL and I delivered our critical introductions and creative manuscript readings today to a packed house in Taylor Auditorium. Friends and family traveled far and wide and fellow MFAers were there in total support and love. Although this is much longer than my traditional blog posts, tonight I will post the 10 minute speech I delivered this afternoon as a part of my requirements for earning the MFA degree.
Critical Introduction: Finding My Voice
Because I haven’t quite had an opportunity like this before, the first thing I need to say is thank you to my parents, who believed in me as a writer before I knew what belief was.
And while it’s not quite possible to list all the ways Shelley, Amber, the staff, and interns have been more than accommodating the past few years, I can say that because of the work they do, we get to be here, today, doing what we love.
Much more complicated, is summing up the past two years working with faculty advisors in the Pacific MFA program.
I came determined to write a memoir that told the quiet stories of growing up girl in America. I believed it must be possible to write a memoir that resonated with people, without the prerequisite of abuse, alcoholism, severe trauma or extreme poverty that seemed to dominate the bestseller’s lists. I thought stories like those had endless opportunities for drama, intrigue, and gut-wrenching tension but I had no idea how to achieve a similar effect in my own work. Somehow, what I wanted to write about my first dead pet didn’t measure up, say, to Mary Karr’s rape at age seven (which we read about in The Liar’s Club). And yet—I knew there must be some way to say what I had to say.
My first semester I worked with Pete, whose attention at the line level was so thorough there was, at times, no evidence of margins on my manuscripts. “Relax,” he’d write. “Re-the-hell-lax.” “Relax and think less, it’s worked for me.” “Worry about what word next, and not much else.” “Relax. Have I said that yet?” Oh, did we go back and forth. We talked about scene, dialogue, focus. He directed me to Richard Bausch and Tobias Wolff. He helped me see that I was opening scenes but never finishing them and closing scenes with cop-out summaries rather than a humdinger. “Think of the story,” he wrote, “not the rules. And definitely work on getting over your deletion of fine, creative ideas because they’re not ‘true.’ Who gives a shit? If they’re fine and creative, make them true.”
I was lucky Pete didn’t sprinkle anthrax in his final response to me after I, yes, asked him to “please define what [he] meant by scene development and focus.” His response? “Trust your scenes. If you let them out into full daylight you’ll be amazed by how much work they can do for you. Yes, you’re making sense. Yes, you’re on the right track. Maybe veering in circles, but you seem to do that naturally enough. Crazy for no reason, or all the right reasons? Yes. If you weren’t crazy, would you be doing this? Geez, Katey. Relax.”
By the time I got to Judy, my scenes still needed work but at least I knew what I was aiming for. She helped me work with the anecdotal stories that I had, and start to weave them into a broader arc of narrative through framing and pacing. Most of all, she nailed me for my use of to be verbs. Pummel, snarl, hook, oxidize. Verbs got the job done. Verbs moved things forward. Verbs for life! Verbs for President! All you need is verbs! Boy, did we have fun. Where in my first semester I struggled to get anything over six pages, by the end of my second semester I was breaking twenty. Judy wrote, “Another term for this is ‘reconstructed’ stories or emotions. [These] are taken apart by the writer, who makes meaning of them and puts them back together in such a way that the emotion and drama are available to readers. Quieter stories like yours depend entirely on the journey—not what happens, but how you tell the story of it.”
At my third residency, here, in Forest Grove, I fell in love. It had been another long, fulfilling day. After a walk with friends and a few beers in the courtyard, I wandered back to the dorm, the constant narrative voice in my mind chattering away as usual. Except, wait—not as usual and not my voice. This time, I didn’t ask questions. I sat down. Toosh in chair. Relaxed. And started to write.
I knew enough to know I was writing fiction, really for the first time in my life, but the most redeeming part of it was that I didn’t know where it would end up. In this small act, I started to become comfortable with not knowing, a difficult thing for a nonfiction writer who must, by nature of her very genre, know things. Looking back, this was the beginning of writing, as Claire later said, “through the lens of possibility and into the hand of humility.” After several hours, I emerged from my room to find Beth and Felicity in our kitchen. Marvin Bell had just given his craft talk on staying up all night and we seemed to be taking it to heart.
“Katey?” said Beth. “Are you ok?”
“What are you doing?” said Felicity.
“I’m writing,” I said. “A story.”
Beth and Felicity high-fived across the table and shooed me back to the desk.
After a year of strip mining my mind for memories, obsessing over what happened and what didn’t, and questioning the value of my innocent stories, the experience of writing with abandon still hadn’t occurred for me. By identifying so vehemently with nonfiction, I had unknowingly tethered myself to facts and events, in turn forgetting to imagine a deeper truth in the spaces between. How fitting, then, that I got to work with Claire for my third semester.
I’d broken out and discovered a way to have fun again. Rather than inquire at every turn, I developed faith in my own process. Claire was encouraging: “Yeeha! I’m so excited about this new work and your movement into fiction…I know you’re all woogedy-woo about memoir, but it’s clear that there’s something larger inside that’s struggling to get out…Hah. Onward and upward.”
For months I read and wrote only fiction. “Dear Claire,” I wrote, “ I feel like I’m writing to name truths and in that process I end up unearthing more unknowns. The possibilities seem endless and I’m starting to feel uplifted by that rather than unsure.” Now, Pete’s advice to “think about the story, not the rules,” resonated with me. His challenge to make things true wasn’t so much about fact checking as it was about being true to heart, true to the habit of writing, true in the wildest sense of the word. Judy’s advice about reconstructed stories wasn’t so much about rearranging the same old puzzle pieces as it was about the crafted selection of what to leave in, what to leave out, and how this manipulation opens doors for our work as storytellers.
When I finally let Claire see my nonfiction from the first year, she articulated the problem with precision: “You haven’t told me a thing about this girl that I couldn’t have told you about myself,” she wrote. “Which is quite a quandary, because, of course, that’s the element of universality (which is good), but universality is different than ‘sameness.’ In other words, even as it should strike a universal chord, there must be something that essentially makes it individual. Something that transcends the ordinary, because art is at its heart transcendent.”
Then Claire upped the ante, writing: “Look at the lively voice of narrative in your fiction, the dialogue of your characters. The ambience of the world in general. Much more interesting than the nonfiction, ‘lived’ story. Why is that? Why did it take settling yourself in the skin of another person to loosen up your writing?…Why is the narrative voice in the nonfiction piece so nondescript, when the fiction piece sings?…Okay, so here’s your assignment…No fiction. For now. Yes, you heard me…just give me a short, lyrical essay (5-10 pages tops)…and employ that quirky, lovely voice I’ve so come to enjoy in your fiction. Next packet, send me the ‘New You’ in nonfiction.”
This was the end of October. The way the thesis deadlines worked, I had six months, and Claire wanted the new me? Truth be told, I did too, and because writing fiction provided a gateway for me to imagine deeply, I felt ready to trust my process and dive on in. I ordered copies of three nonfiction anthologies edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones that capture brief, contemporary nonfiction at its best: In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes. These books were priceless as I navigated the terrain of lyrical essays, a place I’d never really been but could see now I was aiming at all along. There was a reason I couldn’t get anything over six pages to Pete that first semester. There was a reason that when I expanded my stories with Judy, although they were noble efforts, they were also “the perfect corpse.” With these books, Claire’s support, and a liberated vision, I was willing to throw out the near 200 pages of nonfiction from my first year and see what might happen next. Leap, and the net will appear, right?
When I met with Judy at the start of my fourth semester, we agreed to start with two packets in six weeks, all new material, all lyrical essays. A near suicide mission during the thesis semester according to the advice I’d been given, but I had the queen of nonfiction backing me up and our second time working together couldn’t have flowed more smoothly.
In later packets, I mined a few of my older stories to experiment with resuscitating them, finally attempting to revise on a deeper level. One example comes to mind: I’d written a nonfiction piece my first semester called “Undeveloped,” all of which took place in the girl’s bathroom during middle school. A conversation happens between the narrator and an impossibly popular girl named Monica Azschtemborski. I pushed and stretched the scene, worked with dialogue and description, framed the piece with back-story and reflection, tried past tense and present, and eventually got it to six pages. Still, no matter how I revised it, I kept the main scene in the bathroom and the focus on those two girls. I think I must have done this primarily because that is how the memory first came back to me in my mind’s eye. I had tied myself to that vision and couldn’t see the blind spots that such loyalty created.
In my thesis, this same piece comes back—with the same title—and Monica even gets her cameo. But you’ll see how I discovered that what mattered most was not the words exchanged in that bathroom or even the bathroom itself, but the feeling of being trapped in a pubescent mind and body with social turmoil raging all around, and no clear exit signs to get me out. The details and facts in the thesis version of “Undeveloped” are of course true, but the trump is not the facts themselves, rather, the emotion carried by the narrator’s voice and choice of details. I finally started to get it: Relax and you’ll be able to re-envision. Re-envision and you’ll discover “the truth” in its most organic form.
Lyrical essays gave me poetic flexibility and demanded that I get to the point. The voice I discovered enabled me to write stories whose subject matter is dangerously cliché: first crush, first period, first physical trauma, first pet, first dead pet, first dead family member, first fight, etc. As one workshop student said, “I really didn’t want to like these stories.” But he did—at least a little—and I can only hope for as much from others.
Compiling the thesis, which I’ve titled Voice in Progress, helped me see that these lyrical essays required a specific, rhythmic, heart-driven voice. My voice. A voice that felt more honest than anything I’d written to date. A voice I could trust to direct me toward deeper truths. A voice that seemed perfect for telling the quiet stories of growing up.