Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently spoke with Shuly Cawood, author of Issue #4’s “An Unexpected Light.” Here’s what she had to say about the piece’s inspiration, her writing process, and the inherent challenges in writing nonfiction.
What happens after “An Unexpected Light” ends? What happens to Tsafi?
The piece ends in early October last year, and in the weeks that followed, Tsafi become more frail and struggled to even talk on the phone. Fortunately, she was surrounded by her family. I was used to our chatting every few days, at minimum weekly, and I hungered for our conversations. Then she phoned one afternoon, and the call was probably all of two minutes long—that’s how difficult it was for her. When we hung up, I knew that might be the last time we would speak. I set the phone on my coffee table and bawled into my hands. Up to that point her death had been more theoretical for me, but I didn’t know it until that moment. I was beginning to really grasp what it would mean to live without her.
We never did speak again. She died the weekend of Thanksgiving. I cried for a day and a half, and then I had a moment: I was standing in my front hallway, about to go in or out the front door, I don’t remember now which, and I felt so sad. It was a dreary and cold day, very grey—totally fitting for how I felt inside—and I was once more on the verge of tears, and all of a sudden I pictured her. I’m not saying she appeared to me or that I sensed her presence, just that all of a sudden I thought of her chiding me, with a smile (as was her way) and saying, “Seriously, Shuly? You of all people should know I’m fine.” And I thought, She’s right. I do know.
I think of her just about every day, and once in a while, I play some of her old voicemails. They always start out with, “Hey, Shul. It’s me.” And though I trust that she is fine, I still to this day keep asking her to turn on the darned pink lamp.
Was Tsafi’s death the impetus for “An Unexpected Light?” Or did her sickness give you a narrative framework for dealing with the other deaths and divorce you confront in the essay?
My uncle died a year before Tsafi. He was my father’s baby’s brother, and my father’s only sibling still alive besides him. This event prompted a renewed contemplation/worry around the idea of mortality. I had an idea to write something that dealt with death and my feelings around it, but for a while that idea was really just bits and pieces, more like a list and some paragraphs here and there, and it didn’t contain Tsafi at all because her cancer had not yet returned. Eventually Tsafi became part of those really rough drafts as she, and I, faced her mortality. Which makes sense because she always, even at the end, was teaching me how to live. The last few months of her life I became much more focused on writing this essay, and I completed the initial draft a month after she died. Even at the time, I was aware that the writing allowed me to grapple with my emotions and worry, and helped me calm down.
Your website describes you as a “communications professional who has worked for state and private universities as well as nonprofit organizations.” You’ve been a career counselor, admissions counselor, an editor at an international nonprofit organization, among other positions. What have you learned about writing from these positions? And how have these experiences influenced your approach to writing creative nonfiction?
I was lucky to write and edit for all those jobs, and the experience—even for such different organizations—reinforced to me that what draws people in most is a story.
I can tell you that an organization has a career counseling service, but you would probably care a lot more if I told you that a 38-year-old woman named Judy used the service because she was divorcing, she and her soon-to-be-ex-husband were fighting over custody, and he was emotionally abusive. You might care a tad more if you knew Judy had been a stay-at-home mom for five years and was scared because she didn’t think anyone would ever hire her. You might then want to know that Judy worked with the career counseling service to create a résumé that showed off her skills and volunteer work running fundraisers for her kids’ pre-school and de-emphasized her time out of the workforce. You might want to know Judy sat down with a career counselor and practiced interviewing over and over until she stopped wringing her hands and stumbling over her words.
You might be invested more then in knowing that the career counselor sent Judy to an employment agency and that Judy got a temp job with a university’s development office, and though the pay was not enough to support herself long-term and the work was clerical, her counselor told her to hang in there for just a few weeks: “Show them what a great worker you are. Never complain that you’re bored.” Then you might really want to know that after four weeks of showing up early and saying “yes” to any small task asked of her, even when below her skill level, Judy was, finally, hired permanently—not as a clerical worker but as an event coordinator. And that she loved it.
I find that more interesting than “the organization does career counseling.”
(And Judy is not a real person, though her back story is almost identical to one of my real clients.)
When I approach creative nonfiction, I try to figure out the details that matter, and to focus on pivotal moments, where something shifted, or when something could have gone one way, but didn’t, because of the main character. Please keep in mind I only started writing creative nonfiction a few years ago. For most of my adult life, I considered myself a poet only. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say I considered myself someone who only wrote poems. Being “a poet,” to me, implied greatness, and my poems were, and are, more decent than great.)
Talk about contra dancing, which we find you doing in the opening scene of “Light.” You write on your blog, “I owe my heart to contra. The dance mended me at a time when I felt most broken. I found pure joy in the dance, and felt most whole when spinning on the dance floor. That lasted for weeks, then months, then years.” How specifically did it help you?
Contra dancing brought me a community of friends, a place where I belonged. It gave me a place to make mistakes and be at peace with them, which was something I can assure you was not in my toolbox. I flubbed up steps and learned to laugh them off, to keep on going.
Contra dancing also allowed me to live in the moment, to stop all the constant thinking and be in my body and focus on steps and twirls and spins instead of heartaches, loss, grief. Especially in the first few years after my divorce, contra dancing gave me a place to both forget (all that happened) and to remember (my strength and resilience). Which all sounds hokey, maybe, but to this day, when I am fully engaged in a contra dance, it feels like pure joy. When you are sad or grieving, and you experience a joyful moment—or joy for the length of a whole song, and those contra songs are long!—that’s a gift.
I’m interested in how you structure your essays. Most of the work you’ve published takes a braided approach—that is, you thread several past and present narrative lines into a cohesive whole. What draws you to this choice?
I think humans are messy. Therefore, most of our stories are messy and complicated. As my friend, Stephanie, used to say, “It’s never about what it’s about.” To really understand why X makes me sad (or angry, or happy), you have to understand what happened to me eight years ago (or two weeks ago, or when I was five or fifteen). This kind of essay sometimes allows those complications and connections to be communicated in an easier way than a strictly chronological essay might.
Braided essays are also hard for me to write, and I like the challenge. I took an earlier draft of “An Unexpected Light” to my first MFA workshop a year ago, and it got ripped apart, and I mean shredded—respectfully shredded, but still, I had not realized the piece had so many flaws. I thought it was close to being done! It was painful to hear how confused people were when they read it, but my professor, the wonderful Rebecca McClanahan, advised me to (among other things) print it out and cut it into pieces and consider rearranging the sections, and consider a different beginning and ending. She told me to ask myself if each section was integral and necessary.
The next week, I took out my scissors and chopped up the essay. I had papers of varying sizes scattered across my den floor, and they seemed like pieces to a puzzle. I moved things around for days, maybe even a week, and ultimately took out one huge section and added in some new ones, including the opening and the very end. Since then, I’ve done the whole chop-and-rearrange thing with other essays. Such good advice.
As we edited this piece, you and the editors had several back-and-forths about the accuracy of quotes. You were adamant that quotes and punctuation be presented exactly as they were said or written. There are different schools of thought in nonfiction about maintaining such a strict journalistic approach to these things. Can you talk about your feelings about absolute truth and nonfiction?
I have had teachers at each end of the spectrum. One teacher said she never wrote something as a quote unless she had recorded it. Another teacher said, well, you couldn’t make up whole events, but you could make up details and shift “the truth” as long as it was generally in line with the story.
I also had a teacher, Dinty Moore, who said that you should write nonfiction to the best of your memory. (I hope I didn’t misunderstand his lesson—if so, apologies to Mr. Moore!) What I understood was you can’t write that you screamed “I hate you!” if you don’t remember saying that. He said the reader trusts that if you are writing nonfiction, then you are being honest in relaying your memories. He said readers understand that you didn’t walk around with a notebook and/or recorder every day of your life, so if you are telling a story from ten years ago, or even one month ago, you are telling it the way you remember it. A savvy reader realizes that of course a quote might not be the exact way something was actually said (because if it wasn’t recorded, no one can know how it was said), but the quote is how you remember it.
And you might unknowingly get facts wrong—the room might have been green even though you are sure it was blue. Readers will forgive those things, but what they generally won’t forgive is a writer knowingly making things up, knowingly changing the facts. I agree with that. You should do your best to verify what you write, if it’s verifiable, and if it isn’t, then it’s especially important to be honest about your memory. That’s the contract between nonfiction writer and reader.
I try to point out in my pieces where I am not sure, to tell the reader that I don’t recall something, but that what they’re getting is my best guess. Sometimes I just flat out say, “I don’t remember X, but I do remember this…”
And believe me, there are times when I wish I had written things down or that my memory was better. I have one story I want so badly to write into an essay, but I can’t remember it well enough, and I didn’t journal about it. Maybe one day I will write it as fiction.
You mentioned in our correspondence during the editing process that you returned to your journals to verify quotes. Can you talk about how you record stories in your life? Do you journal every day? Do you take notes on events that you think you might later write about?
I was an avid journal writer from third grade until just before I married my husband a few years ago. Of course, as a little kid, I wrote down just the facts, like when I had a slumber party and who attended, or what each of my family members got for Christmas. I know—very exciting stuff. Only as a young adult did I begin to dissect my thoughts and feelings in my journals. I never had a rule about journaling every day. I did it when I felt moved to. Fortunately, throughout my dating years, my first marriage and subsequent divorce, and then through the dating years part two, I journaled often because it was a way to cope. Sometimes I didn’t realize things until I put pen to paper. I sorted myself out on the page.
I don’t really know why I stopped. Because I only wrote in a journal when compelled to, the end of that era happened without my knowing until weeks then months passed, and now over five years. I guess I found other ways to sort myself out. Who knows? Maybe I’ll need it again one day.
I do keep a little notebook with me at all times, and I will jot down quotes and notes or record them into my phone if I think I will need them for a piece.
Talking about truth, you don’t seem to hold much back in your work. In an essay “The Curious Thing About Doubt and Faith,” you write about rejecting the marriage proposal of a long-time boyfriend a few months before marrying another man. In your essay “Brave,” you discuss how the marriage to that man crumbled—he also makes an appearance in “An Unexpected Light.”
Indeed, several essays and entries published on your blog detail your divorce as well as events others might not consider fodder for public consumption via revealing personal essays. Given that you admit to wanting to control so much of your life in “Light,” is it hard for you to be so open, given that the reader could judge you or those in your life—effectively exert some control over the privacy of your life?
It’s very hard, and I am shocked sometimes that I have written these pieces for public consumption. People who are around me in my various communities know that I am pretty tight-lipped about my life—I’ve been told many, many, MANY times in my life how private I am. I suppose my hope is someone will read my writing and relate to it and feel comforted or moved or less alone in the world.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seriously consider pulling one or two of those pieces after they were accepted but not published yet. With one especially, I was freaked out. Eventually, that feeling passed. It helps just a little that I am fairly certain that the people I wrote about in those pieces do not ever Google me, so they will never see my writing. Here’s to being forgotten! But more importantly, I recognized that not publishing the piece wouldn’t make what happened not true.
But what about the people in the essays you’ve written—your ex, Bill, your new husband, Preston. Is it hard to write about them, to in some way expose them?
My biggest concern is whether people will think I portrayed them fairly. I ask myself, “If I were the person being written about, would I be okay with this?” I know, I know: My poor ex-husband! He should never have married a writer.
I try to focus on the “facts” (or my memory of the “facts”) and then talk about how they affected me rather than criticize the person. But I am sure I have not done this perfectly or, at times, even well.
Writing about people in my life has helped me understand them and their point of view, and I hope that comes through in some of those pieces, where I try to imagine how people in my life must have felt about my failures and my mistakes and the things I did then that I now regret.
While you explore conflict in your nonfiction, one of your former college professors told you your fiction lacked conflict, feedback that turned you off from the craft. You recently wrote that you attempted a NaNoWriMo novel. How did it go? Do you plan to focus more on fiction?
Well, I did reach my NaNoWriMo goal, which was to write at least 50,000 words. I actually ended up with 65,000 words, but read on before you whoop it up for me. The real question is, was it a coherent novel? Um, no, not exactly. Okay, not at all. I had no clue how to write a novel, which, admittedly, I knew when I signed up for NaNoWriMo. But I will be starting to study fiction in my MFA program this coming semester, so maybe some bits and pieces of that hunk of 65,000 words will get put to use.
You mentioned earlier that you used to write poetry as well. I’ve been thinking recently about how some of my favorite writers used to move between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—some even painted or directed films. While you’re new to fiction, I’m curious to know how writing in each genre has helped you develop and find a voice as a writer.
I write poetry when I’m stuck in the other genres, which I suppose means it’s my go-to genre. I think and can write in images, but I struggle with creating a plot and narrative arc in fiction. (Which is probably why my college professor kept telling me in fiction class, “You don’t have conflict.”) I think my poetry writing definitely influences how my story sentences are structured—for example, I leave out words that I realize later are needed or the sentence will just sound wrong. But sometimes—I hope, at least—all those poems I wrote are helping my story writing by grounding the reader in details.
My MFA peer, Laurie Hertzel, urged me to start a blog, and I can honestly say that blog writing has helped me more than anything else the last six months. Just using that muscle over and over to tell a story, however small, has been a wonderful teaching tool.
Do you have any other upcoming projects? What are you working on now?
I’m trying to learn how to write fiction, which means I am technically sitting at my desk every day and writing fiction, but it sure ain’t pretty. I’m hoping to move my stories from the See Spot Run variety to something aspiring to be literary.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I have to ask: what was your worst workshop or editing experience? What did you take from it?
I took a workshop, once, in which the teacher was brilliant but delivered her feedback in a way that made many students feel like they’d been kicked. It was a good reminder to give negative feedback in a way that is more neutral, to say things like, “In this section, I found some information that was repeated a few times” rather than “This section was so overwritten.” But, to her credit, she did basically tell all of us that we weren’t good enough writers yet to be writing book-length memoir. She said, “You should be writing essays right now.” And guess what I started doing a few months later? Taking my idea for a memoir and breaking it up into essays. To this day, I am grateful for that advice.