Our nonfiction co-editor, Katie Stromme, recently had this exchange with Elizabeth Gaucher, our Issue #15 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what Gaucher had to say about the difficulty of writing “Where it Ends,” her thoughts on the representation of childhood and reconstructing memories, and her evolution as a writer.
In a post you wrote for the Brevity Blog, you discuss how readers sometimes create boundaries for themselves to avoid reading work they know could involve a confrontation with difficult and unpleasant subject matter. Your piece “Where it Ends” strikes me as containing threads of that idea of establishing boundaries that guard sanity and safety—or as you say, putting “distance between myself and the raw reality of other people.” Do you find that you have an easier time confronting difficult subjects in your own writing than in what you choose to spend time reading? Do you find that writing about difficult subjects can help support the reading of them?
I find it more difficult to confront my own experiences. Creative nonfiction writers need to find and reveal truth. I like to think about honoring truth over facts. I know that bothers some people, but it really doesn’t bother me at all because I never for a minute believed any of us can write about experiences and get it all factually correct. I can’t tell you exactly what I ate for breakfast two days ago, how on earth can I tell you exactly what happened thirty years ago? Don’t trust anyone who tells you they can remember and relay like that.
The process of digging out truth in your own life is hard work. I can find myself in a confrontation with that reality in every sentence I write sometimes. It’s exhausting!
Is there anything you see as a pattern, on a craft or structural level, in writing that effectively taps into childhood experiences?
I think a lot of us have a natural desire to remember and idealize childhood as a safe, happy place. There is also a tendency to hold the self out there as a child and say, “That’s me when I was a kid.” Then we define our adult selves. My philosophy has always been that we can’t really do this and be honest. I don’t think we magically become someone else just because we get older.
I’ve worked as an editor and advisor to other writers around essays on childhood, and there is almost always a pattern of writing about something warm and fuzzy and sweet. I think those things can be real, but they mask a fully realized version of life. I look for places in the narrative where–and I don’t know how else to explain this–I can sense avoidance. The narrative will feel like it’s trying to jump over something. I like to poke that place. I find if I can identify that spot and really double down, good things happen.
How do you see the relationship between memory and narrative?
Every time we recall a memory, we change it. We don’t know we are doing it, but researchers have studied this and it is a very real thing. We don’t do it on purpose, we just can’t help ourselves. It’s a bit like putting a pristine image in a copy machine. If you copy the copy next, and then copy that, and so on and so forth, your tenth image looks a bit ragged compared to your original.
Again, some people want to argue about that and can get really worked up over it in creative nonfiction. I believe no matter what genre we choose, there are dynamics that are immutable and debating them wastes valuable writing time. It’s not that it’s not interesting, it is simply not going to be resolved.
But back to that tenth image. Keeping with the metaphor, it may be a more beautiful version of the picture, more a piece of art than the first version. And you may suddenly see something about the first image in the tenth that gives you a new appreciation for what you are seeing. I think writers benefit from this understanding, that our work is better and richer and closer to the truth.
Do you think of yourself as an Appalachian writer? If so, what does that identity mean to you and your work?
We are all unavoidably influenced by where we spend our lives. I was born and raised in West Virginia, and that will always show itself in my work, at least I think it will.
But no, I don’t think of myself as an Appalachian writer. There are many fine writers from the region, I think first of novelist Silas House, poet Irene McKinney, short story writer Breece D’J Pancake, essayist Jessie van Eerden. Such writers make it seem almost effortless to weave this strange place into the truth they want to share. It’s incredibly difficult for me. When I write about Appalachia, all of my conflict about the place shows up. I feel an agenda that gets in the way of what I want to say. So far, I haven’t been able to find a way to bring Appalachia into my writing on a regular basis that works well for me. Maybe someday. I’d rather just be a writer, though, and not be defined by region.
What was your experience in your MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College like? How do you think going through that program affected your writing life?
The quality of teaching at WVWC is very high. The core faculty is at the top of their writing game and represent a wide range of genres and styles. The program also invites visiting writers to serve as teachers and advisors. It’s a tight community.
I needed two things when I entered the program. Well, actually I am sure I needed a lot more than that, but there were two things on my mind. I needed help shifting my writing away from exposition and argument and into art. I was a solid writer, but I wrote opinion pieces and profiles and case studies or academic papers. It was all a long way from what I wanted to do, which is to craft stories and essays that revealed something about life. I was, and am, very interested in how writing can connect people.
I learned in short order that I’m sort of grossed out by the gratuitous overshare, and I spent a lot of my time in the MFA program thinking about ways to create literary intimacy with the reader without violating my own standards. I love Brian Doyle’s line about personal essays: The bad ones are about the writer, the good ones are about the rest of us. I’d say that awareness, more than anything else, as had a positive impact on my work. I never tell a story or recount a memory I ask others to share without purposely trying to find the element of human experience that I hope will connect readers to the work.
That was a big thing about “Where It Ends.” People who read early drafts connected deeply to the story, but they also felt I was not disclosing something. Some people thought I was attracted to Conor and couldn’t admit it. Some thought I felt responsible for my friend’s death. They were bringing their own lives to the piece, which was exciting for me as a writer. I kept digging into myself and eventually realized what I was not saying was that I grieve for Sandy, to this day.
Are you still working on the Essays on Childhood project? What has the trajectory of that effort been like?
I managed that project for about 5 years and it seemed to run its course. I loved doing it, and I keep the site up just in case anyone wants to send me something. But when I completed my MFA I realized I wanted to do something a bit more sophisticated. I invited writing and editing friends to join me in transitioning Essays on Childhood into an online literary journal called Longridge Review.
While Essays on Childhood tended to focus on the writers, Longridge Review is all about the writing. We feature visual art as well as words, but the words are my passion.
Did you do much writing when you were growing up or is that something you came to as an adult? How do you think your perspective on writing has been affected by the timing of your entry into the world of writing?
I don’t really know what “much” is. I’ve always liked writing and been more into it than most of my peers. I think probably like a lot of women my age, who grew up when male accomplishment seemed to be the standard of anything anyone appreciated, I kept my interest to myself. Then in my thirties I discovered Caroline Knapp and my life changed. I first read Appetites: Why Women Want, then Drinking: A Love Story. All of the sudden it was game on. I found Anne Lamott. In fact, I credit Lamott with the love story I have with my husband, but that’s another story. There might be an essay there.
There’s a post you wrote on your blog in November of 2014 where you say, “I like to accept the mystery that I may have no real understanding of what something means and trust that because I can’t forget it, there is something there to be revealed even to myself.” You also note that the process can be long. Do you tend to feel like you have the process down at this point–a system that works for you in terms of essay-writing–or do you find that it’s different for each piece you write? I’m also curious, since you mention that you employ the strategy of taking some time between drafts, what are some things you’ve realized or noticed about your writing when you return to drafts after a period of being away from them?
It would be great if there was a process one could employ at will to make writing work. I used to try to figure that out, but I had a professor at WVWC who basically said, look, the creative process is not like riding a bike. You can’t pull the bike out and just go. You have to learn how to ride the bike over again. Every. Single. Time. I think that’s true.
The only “system” I have is to listen to the piece and back off trying to bend it to my will. When you write creative nonfiction, there are things hiding in your work and you have to be patient. When I come back to something I’m working on it seems easier to let go of what I may have been trying to make it do. “Where It Ends” wasn’t about the pain of grief, for years, but it was always there. I just couldn’t see it. The grief was almost too big to see, too invasive. That was a difficult essay for me. But I am proud of how it turned out.
Looking at your Twitter account, you strike me as someone who has found a near-perfect balance among sharing your own life, sharing opportunities for writers, and sharing advice and feedback. Did you come to the world of writers-on-social-media reluctantly or was that something you embraced early on? What do you think the benefits of having an online social network can be for writers?
I’ve been a big fan of social media for writers from the beginning. I’ve never resisted it. But I know plenty of people, writers of all genres, who despise it and just want to be left alone. I get that, too. I like the opportunity social media give me to build a community of like-minded people I can access any time. I can’t just strike up conversations about essays anywhere, but I can on Twitter.
The benefit for me has been feeling connected and supported all the time in my writing. I can find workshops, or craft techniques, or new writing prompts. I live in a small town, so social media also bring the world to me and me to the world. That’s fantastic.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on finding forever homes for all of the pieces in my MFA thesis. I love going back into essays I’ve spent so much time with and thinking about them all over again, still tweaking and improving. I’m also devoted to wrapping up year one of Longridge Review. We have a spring issue to fill before the summer break. Know any interested writers?