Nonfiction reader Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #40 featured nonfiction writer Melissa Goodnight. Here’s what Melissa had to say about how she approached revealing intimate moments in her own life, and how writing helped to process her grief in service to others.
What do you hope people take away from your essay, “Doll”?
When I was first writing “Doll” I wanted to invite readers into the very real, emotionally charged side of late-term abortion in order to show them that it isn’t always what they see on TV. If I’m being honest, I wanted “Doll” to change some minds. As of late, I just want it to resonate with readers. I want them to use it as a stepping stone for dealing with a similar experience of grief, or for opening up about their own lives. The good parts and the bad. I just want it to help someone, in its own small way, however it can.
Did you know that you’d write about this experience someday as you were living it? How did that make the writing more challenging? Easier?
It never occurred to me, while I was pregnant with Lydia, that I would share our story publicly. When we first found out that we were pregnant, my husband and I shared our good news with friends and family on social media, so I felt compelled to share our bad news months later. I realized that sharing my pain made me feel better. It raised some questions for them too, questions I felt called to answer.
Several people told me they didn’t know what I had done was considered abortion. I was surprised by the misinformation out there. That’s when I started to feel pressure to share the whole story. I suddenly felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I felt like I needed to stand up for all the women, in all the circumstances. Then, as the experience flowed out of me, I realized that Lydia’s story didn’t have to do all of that, but it does have the capacity to help some, and that is more than I could ask for.
How did you navigate revealing the intimate moments of your own life?
I’ve always been an open and honest person—it’s who I am at my core. In fact, sometimes I overshare, because I think it is important to connect on a deeper level with others. (Read: Small talk makes me nervous, so I avoid it at all costs.) But, I’ve learned that sharing truth isn’t easy for everyone, so I’ve been working on reeling it back. Sometimes I have to remind myself that, like when I’m standing in line at Dunkin Donuts and the woman in front of me looks like she’s been crying. I have to remind myself not to ask her what is wrong. But secretly I want to know. And I want to hug her and cry along.
How did this essay evolve as you worked on it?
The first drafts of this essay were sentimental and chaotic, because I just sat down and let the story pour out of me. Luckily, I had help getting all the ideas in place, and deciding how best it could impact others; what to leave out, what to include, that sort of thing.
Eventually, I found my stride by focusing more on the characters in the essay, those very real people that helped me get through. The nurse who helped me feel comfortable. My doctor, the one to hold my daughter for the first time. It was helpful to take some weight off the abstract emotions and shift my focus to the tangible.
How long did this essay take to complete from start to finish?
It took about a year, if I don’t count all of the prior iterations of it. I wrote it as part of my thesis in grad school, with a couple other creative nonfiction essays. The whole process took about a year.
How do you stay connected to other writers and readers? Do you participate in any writing groups in your area or have friends or colleagues who are dedicated readers for you?
I recently joined a short story critique group in Charlotte. I knew after I graduated that I would fall right back into my own little world if I didn’t stay connected to other writers, so I forced myself to go to the first meeting and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Still, I am struggling to crawl out of this vacuum. I don’t have a dedicated reader or group for my creative nonfiction, though my husband is always eager to read my work. (But he isn’t a writer, so it is harder for him to give feedback). It is difficult for me to feel comfortable sharing my work-in-progress with others. I have to build up a little trust first.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
The first time I was in a short story workshop there were about thirty of us. It was in community college, and the instructor was fairly young and inexperienced. He tried to have us do a whole group workshop. That failed miserably, as most of us were too afraid to share our stories or critique others. All those eyes looking at you! Mix that apprehension with believing that you don’t add value and things go nowhere quickly. A lot of uncomfortable silence.
It wasn’t until the next cycle, when he split us up into small groups, that we were all comfortable enough to really dig in and share. Luckily, most of my workshops since then have been small groups. Though, those anxious feelings that showed up in the first one never went away.
In your bio you mention enjoying other genres besides nonfiction. How does reading/writing poetry and fiction affect nonfiction?
Reading poetry is something I do to relax. I’ll pour a glass of wine and dig into Emily Dickinson or Edna St. Vincent Millay. There is a recording of Millay reading “Recuerdo” that I can listen to over and over again. I am amazed how poets manipulate language. The right word can fill up my day, just thinking and dreaming about how they settled on that word. Oh, I wish I’d been born a poet! It does help me remember to go way down, past the scene, past the sentence, down to the word. I’m embarrassed to say I have agonized over a single word for much longer than I should have.
The fiction I read is like the fiction that I write. Slice of life stuff, the Raymond Carvers of the world. I’m no sci-fi buff. I don’t like fantasy. I still can’t make it through a whole Harry Potter book. I want to like Harry Potter, I really do! Just too many potions and magic wands for me. I like to read stories about real people, doing real things, in worlds that feel familiar. It helps me remember that all of life is important, and different people have different stories to tell. I think all the stories are valuable. Reading and writing about life helps me feel less alone. Knowing there are people out there like me. It’s like therapy, but less expensive and less judgy.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to branch out a bit. I’ve been writing flash fiction and trying my hand at the lyric essay. I may even have enough courage now to start sending more of my work out for consideration. I’m also working with former classmates at UNC Charlotte on an anthology of poetry and short stories that should be finished next year.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
Because I am interested in the “real” of life, I am easily affected by what is happening in the world at any given time. Lately, I’ve been thinking and writing about the people stuck in the middle of polarizing political debates: immigrants, minorities, children, the marginalized populations in our country. Most of it veers to dark places: grief, mental illness, isolation, and poverty. But I’m always trying to keep a balance. I rely on humor to help most of the time. I want to make readers laugh at unexpected moments. Because grief and humor do go together. Laughter gives us hope, and I think we all need more of that, especially in dark times.