Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently spoke with Sarah Marty-Schlipf, author of Issue #6’s “Shelter”. Here’s what she had to say about the ending to her essay, her writing process, and her teaching and workshop experiences.
What happens after the essay ends? How is Bently today?
Bently died on March 3, a little over two weeks ago. The essay “ends” early last year, though the images in the last section—Bently and me running together at the lake, playing, snuggling, etc.—could have been scenes out of any ordinary, recent day. On days like that, on most days, really, you’d never have known that he was a sick, troubled dog. My husband and I kept working to help Bently overcome what fears he could, and we simply lived with and managed the issues he clearly couldn’t overcome. He continued to have occasional, sometimes unpredictable, increasingly dangerous aggressive episodes.
Then a few weeks ago, during a scary encounter, Bently bit me badly. After a few days of debate, we finally made the excruciating decision to end his life. We spent a sweet, sweet day full of his favorite adventures: a long hike in the park, a walk around the pond, playtime with his companion dog, Willow, cuddling, napping. Our vet came to our house that evening, and we helped Bently die a calm, dignified, peaceful death, surrounded by his favorite people.
Recently, a friend of mine emailed me about the ending of one of her own essays. We’d had the same mentor during grad school, and our mentor had given my friend some good guidance: she said endings “should contain some surprise or twist but, at the same time, take the reader to an inevitable place.”
The night Bently died, while I was sitting, stunned, next to his body in the living room, my mentor’s advice popped unwelcome into my head. This ending—the ending after the ending—is not the one I imagined, and not the one I longed for, and the finality of it still stuns me every morning: I wake up, and in every place I expect to see and feel Bently, he’s not there. He’s nowhere. What an utterly ordinary experience, one almost every person has at some point. And yet. My husband and I chose this ending, so for me at least, this experience is completely foreign: we didn’t lose Bently. We gave him up. As our vet gently reminded us, we could let him go now, on our own terms, rather than be forced by other, possibly tragic circumstances later. Maybe it’s true that the ending you don’t intend sometimes turns out to be the rightest ending there is, the ending your story needs—both surprising and inevitable. I suspect someday I’ll write about that, too. Just not today.
What compelled you to write this essay?
The same thing always compels me to write: an intense need to understand something. In my journal, I often jotted notes about Bently—because I cared about him, because he was this new and important part of my life, because he often baffled me, and because the way I felt about him baffled me. I wrote, and I researched.
About a year after Bently’s adoption, we started to work with our behavioral consultant, who asked us to draw up a detailed timeline of Bently’s year in our home. I went back to my old notes. What I wrote for her became a narrative. That narrative, combined with research and reflection, eventually became the huge, clunky first draft of this essay. And that process was revelatory: I could step back from the experiences, hold them up to the light (and to my research) and see. I could pinpoint cause and effect, for example, and locate meaning in seemingly isolated incidents. I could see the characters—the narrator, Ben, and Bently—develop over time. By the time I realized this was a good story worth telling, I’d already learned what I needed in order to tell it better.
Later, the process of refining the essay was revelatory in its own way, especially because my readers often pushed me to reflect more. In the end, they gently suggested I rely less on the research and trust the narrative to do its job. And it did.
Dog memoirs—or “dog-oirs”—have been a literary tradition going back to the early twentieth century, and have been quite popular of late with titles like Marley & Me and Pack of Two. Did you try to evoke or avoid anything of this genre with “Shelter”?
I have mixed feelings about dog-oirs. On the one hand, I’ve always been a sucker for a good “dog story,” and I discovered some of my new favorites in the process of researching and writing this essay: Merle’s Door (Ted Kerasotes), For the Love of a Dog (Patricia McConnell), Bad Dog: a Love Story (Martin Khin), and yes, Pack of Two (Caroline Knapp). The dog narratives I love best give me new insight into this old, fascinating, complicated interspecies relationship. Those books taught me more about dogs and more about what it means to be human. I tried to bring that insight to my own essay.
On the other hand, I find other stories in this genre deeply unsatisfying, even frustrating, since they seem designed mostly to jerk on my heartstrings or sell lots of copies. It also worries me that some stories seem to perpetuate clichés, myths, and misunderstanding about dogs, particularly the idea that dogs are somehow deep wells of unconditional love. (For more on the question of “unconditional love,” read For the Love of a Dog. Dr. McConnell addresses this subject with enormous grace and intelligence.) I learned a great deal from most of the narratives I read. Still, I tried to avoid doing the things that bug me about this genre, including smacking people over the head with emotion, and I tried to push back against comforting conclusions and clichés about dogs and people, both.
What’s your writing process? When and how do you work?
Er, um, my writing process? Well. It typically goes like this: there’s some idea or experience or problem on my mind, and I obsess over it, returning to it every chance I get. I’m like a skipping record. It’s obnoxious. Sometimes I make forward progress, but often I get totally fed up and put the project away. Later, I’ll comb through that accumulation of pieces—journal entries, paragraphs, scenes—and I’ll finally see the relationships among them, and the larger meaning, and it will give me energy to tackle the project again.
As for when and how I work, I sure wish I could say that I’m one of those writers who writes every day, even just a paragraph. I am not. My writing habits often reflect feast-or-famine cycles of free time, not discipline. I write haphazardly, sometimes in a flurry of activity, other times not for days or (gulp) for weeks. I’m a creature of convenience, not ritual: I write wherever and whenever I feel comfortable and can concentrate best—at my desk in my sunny yellow office, at the cluttered kitchen table, in the recliner with a dog on my lap, at the coffee shop, on the patio. I love to write in the morning, when I’m clear-eyed, focused, and diligent. But I often write late at night, when my internal editor is turned off, so I’m totally inefficient and messy but weirdly free. In the morning (or a week later), I sort out the mayhem.
Frankly, I don’t recommend this strategy. My writing process doesn’t make me the kind of disciplined, productive writer I’d like to be, but I’m getting there. I recently started teaching college composition again, and having a set schedule has helped me bring a little more consistency and intention to my writing life. This semester, for example, Tuesdays are the one day of the week when I don’t have to go anywhere, so I try to spend Tuesday writing, researching, and submitting. And I’m trying to take notes each night before I go to sleep—yes, even just a paragraph.
I’m interested in the structure of your essays, which often take a braided narrative form. What does this structure offer you?
I was just talking about this with another writer today. I sort of stumbled on braided narratives and other non-strictly-chronological forms, like “collage” essays, in grad school. Not that I hadn’t read them before—one of my favorite novels, for example, is The Poisonwood Bible. I just hadn’t paid much attention to what the author was up to. Once I paid attention, I was fascinated. Now I think these forms offer a way to develop an idea or progress through a narrative arc when a straight chronological structure simply doesn’t work. For me, this approach is most useful when I have a collection of scraps—multiple narrative threads, or research sections—that seem to “talk” to each other but don’t necessarily flow smoothly or logically in a straight chronological line. But you can’t just toss a bunch of related, pretty bits of writing together and call them art or expect them to mean something to a reader. Those parts need to say more together than they can say on their own, and you have to put them together in a way that advances the narrative.
In “Stone of Help,” for example, there was the story of my tattoos and the story of my relationship with Ben. The story of my tattoos is really pretty ordinary. The story of my relationship with Ben—nice, on its own, even interesting, but not extraordinary. That moment at the end of the essay, however—when Ben weeps over my new tattoo, then later lotions it—that was a powerful moment. I knew that even before I wrote the essay because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But on the page, that moment only had power because the reader had followed both narrative threads through to the end of the essay, where they finally connect in the image of a husband tenderly applying lotion to his wife’s injured skin. Those narratives, braided, were more effective together than they could have been alone.
In “Shelter” and “The Stone of Help,” you write about your husband, Ben, who comes off as private and reserved. How do you approach writing candidly about loved ones in the same revealing way you write about yourself?
Two things inform my approach. The first is that I’m a pastor’s kid, and my father often used anecdotes about my sister and me in his sermons. (Jen and I still joke that Dad owes us a dollar for every story. We’re still waiting for those royalties.) To his credit, I think he always asked our permission first. Still, I know what it feels like when someone I love, someone who knows me intimately, divulges the details of my life in front of an audience. It feels risky. It’s always easier to be the one talking than the one being talked about.
The second thing that informs my approach: Ben and I are equally private people, if not equally reserved, and so my own desire for privacy guides me too. I know how I would want to be treated in this situation, and I try to keep that in mind.
I can be candid and intimate when I’m writing because I write for myself, first, and for my own understanding. Both of the essays you mention began as journal entries. If what I’m writing feels like it’s becoming something important, however, something I’d like submit one day, then I revise and edit accordingly. I work to be accurate and fair. Sometimes I ask for help, but eventually, I always ask for permission. Ben fact-checked “The Stone of Help,” occasionally questioning my tone or my version of events, and he brought clarity to the essay that I couldn’t have reached on my own. That was great. But I published the piece only when I had his explicit blessing.
My parents both fact-checked the childhood memories included in “Shelter,” and I gave them full vetting rights: if they weren’t comfortable with what I’d written, then I would strike those sections, no questions asked. I have writer friends and colleagues who would passionately disagree with me here, but for me, at least at this point in my life, this is not a complicated issue: I have no problem writing candidly about the people I love. But I won’t publish about the people I love without their support. Those relationships are simply too important to me.
You’ve taught creative writing in correctional facilities, and written about the struggle of some of your students to express themselves in “The Only Woman in the Room.” What have you learned about writing and yourself from teaching in this environment?
Here’s one lesson from my experience in that environment, and it will sound like a cliché: every life is worth remembering. Every person has experiences worth telling, stories someone else needs to hear, but we ought to pay particular attention to the stories of people we’d rather ignore. I believe that with all my heart.
However, I also believe in narrative craft. During my time at the jail and prison, I heard multiple variations on this theme: “My life has been this fucked-up, wild ride. I’ve always thought I should write a book, you know?” Our lives contain narrative material, but stories don’t just happen; they are made. A life full of drama doesn’t necessarily hand you the tools to write, say, a memoir. Likewise, if your life seems pretty quiet and drama-free, you can still coax truth out of one interesting moment. You can polish that moment till it shines.
People are storytellers by nature, so we often aren’t aware that we’re making decisions: choices about pacing and characterization, for example, or what details to include or leave out. When you’re introduced to writing tools and the elements of narrative, then you become aware of your choices, and you can make them intentionally. Suddenly, you have control. Something happened to you, sure, but now you’re “happening” to it. For some of my students, self-expression was enough, but for others, shaping and controlling a story was a truly empowering experience.
Is there a certain lesson or activity that you’ve found brings interesting ideas out of your students?
There are many, but one that comes to mind is the “scars” lesson. My students watch and discuss a clip from the documentary What I Want My Words to Do to You, in which Eve Ensler holds a writing workshop for a group of women incarcerated at Bedford Falls Correctional Facility. Ensler prompts the women to write about a scar. Judith Clark responds with a story about the pockmark on her forehead, a leftover from childhood chicken pox. That scar put Clark in prison: the FBI agent assigned to Clark’s case happened to see her one day, and he recognized her pockmark and arrested her. But Clark’s story isn’t really about her scar: it’s about her relationship with her mother, about a little girl who desperately wants her stressed-out mom to notice her and spend time with her and nurture her. When she gets the chicken pox, she also gets her mom back, briefly.
Clark’s story inspires good discussion among my students, probably because it’s so relatable. But that writing prompt works every time too: where there’s a scar, there was a wound, and where there was a wound, there’s a story. I’ve heard about everything from c-sections to bike accidents to suicide attempts. And I always hear tattoo stories, which I particularly enjoy. Actually, I wrote the first part of “The Stone of Help” at the jail, with my students, in response to that prompt.
You wrote a piece for your alma mater, Ball State University, about the wayward career path you’ve had. In it, you note you that you realized in college that you didn’t want to teach. Now that you are a teacher, what changed for you?
My assumptions and perceptions about teaching, versus the actual experience of teaching. Really, it’s as simple as that. My first teaching gig was a fluke: the community college where I worked as an administrative assistant needed a composition instructor last minute. They remembered I had an English degree and asked me if I could do it. I kind of stuttered a yes and spent the rest of the semester barely—I mean barely—staying afloat. I found that I didn’t particularly enjoy being in the classroom, but I liked working with adults, and I loved helping people learn. Later, when I moved to Illinois and became involved with the YWCA, my program director just kind of set me loose. She gave me near-total freedom to design and facilitate all kinds of classes in different environments with a hugely diverse population of learners. The work was sometimes frustrating and tedious, and I was often clueless or ineffective. But in each setting, my students taught me a little more about how people learn, a little more about how to teach writing and literature, and a little more about myself. Now I’m back in a community college, reacquainting myself with the challenges of these particular students in this particular environment. The learning curve is steep, just not as steep as it used to be.
For me, teaching has been an incredibly humbling experience—a deeply uncomfortable exercise in vulnerability. It’s also enriching, creative work: I’m constantly generating and designing and revising my approach to my subject and to my students. There are a lot of days when I still don’t want to be in the classroom. But I love helping people learn, and I love watching writers develop, and teaching allows me to be part of that process. I don’t think I could have learned any of that without teaching.
You volunteered for three months as an artist at an economic development center in Zambia. What did you take away from that experience?
That’s another wide-open question that deserves its own essay (see below). Here’s just one thing I remember from the painting project itself. The mural was huge—about ten feet high and thirty feet long—and very detailed. It was a scene from the Noah’s Ark story, post-flood. There were parts that were so much fun to paint: Noah’s face and his dreadlocks, the huge dove, the monkeys, the lion. Then there were parts of the mural that were just damn tedious, either totally uninteresting or insanely difficult for me: the grassy sections, the lioness. That waterfall brought me to tears. I’m not kidding. I avoided those things until I had no choice but to face them. They were vital, and I had to give them my full attention and patience and skill set whether I enjoyed it or not. The payoff was stepping back on the last day and seeing that whole lush, weird, gorgeous scene splashed across the classroom wall—literally, the big picture. And any frustration I’d felt was totally redeemed when the neighborhood kids, who had watched the mural come together in pieces, peeked in the doorway, and their jaws dropped. Their delight was so satisfying.
What are you working on now?
I’m bouncing back and forth between two essays. One is about the summer after my college graduation, when I lived with my parents and taught swim lessons. It’s funny. The other is about those three months in Zambia, specifically the time I spent painting at Lifesong School for orphaned and vulnerable kids. Not as funny. Both have been tough to tackle in their own ways.
Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, so I have to ask: What was your worst writing workshop experience?
Easy. During my last grad school residency, I submitted an essay for a workshop led by one of the nonfiction mentors, a brilliant, successful, handsome writer. In the essay, the narrator takes her grandmother, who is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, to the BMV for a new identification card. When the narrator discovers that her grandma can no longer write her own name, can’t even remember her name, she reflects on the way this woman, who has held the family together for so long, is “unraveling”—the various threads of her identity coming loose. It was a nice enough essay, well written but utterly predictable, especially the ending. That was why I’d submitted it.
Anyway, I sat there during the workshop with my mouth shut while my peers said nice things about my nice-enough essay. They were occasionally critical, but mostly they seemed unsure of what to offer in terms of revision. Meanwhile the brilliant, successful, handsome writer at the head of the table was looking increasingly bored and agitated. Finally, when he had a chance to speak, he blurted out, “Look, NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR GRANDMOTHER.”
The room went very still. I’m pretty sure all of the blood drained from my face. And no one seemed sure what to do next, except the writer, who just kept chugging along: can’t you turn this into more than just another “grandma story”? Aren’t you in a car with her at some point in the story? Did you drive with her a lot? You should make this essay about cars…
I understood what he was trying to say: this is a familiar narrative in already worn-out territory. What new approach could you take that might lead us to some fresh insights? Great question. Too bad I had to translate.