Steven Lausier interviews Issue #54 Creative Nonfiction writer Rhiannon Catherwood, regarding her piece “Mr. Sick.”
“I was the very quiet kid who spent recess huddled in a little alcove writing and writing. I still remember the day I got so wrapped up I forgot to come inside for a couple of hours.”
One of the beautiful things about “Mr. Sick” is that it finds a way to incorporate what was once a stand alone essay, while wrapping it beautifully with the introspection of the “December, 2019” section. Were there any other strategies you considered when you decided to revisit “2014?” If so, what made you finally decide on this follow-up format?
When I finally figured out what the story was about, my first instinct was to just try to develop it as a single flowing piece that would circle back to the opening, as though that was my intention all along. But in doing so, I would’ve lost a big part of what made it interesting to me. What I enjoyed so much in looking back on it was realizing that this story (about health symptoms that indicated different problems than they seemed to) was itself a symptom of something different than it seemed to be. It was different than I was aware of, even when I wrote it. At one point I drafted a brief “December 2019” opening that included a statement like “this story isn’t about what it seems to be about, it’s about something else.” That felt a little too much like throat clearing, so I cut it. Ultimately, I decided to give the reader the same experience I had in exploring these events. This includes the lack of awareness I had when writing in July of 2014, so I maintained it as an artifact to be looked at first. Hopefully that makes it intriguing enough for a second read.
How did you decide “Mr. Sick” was finished? And if it was different than your usual process, how do you normally decide?
This essay had a different process from anything else I’ve ever written. George R.R. Martin once said there are two kinds of writers – the “architects” who plan and outline and figure their work out in advance, and the “gardeners” who just start with a seed of an idea and grow it and see how it develops along the way (though sometimes apparently it grows into a knot). While I’ve certainly found myself changing and adapting as the prose leads me in the course of writing, I would generally say I’m more of an architect. I almost always have a pretty clear sense of where I’m going with a story before I start it. “Mr. Sick” is one of the only times I’ve started with nothing but a general idea to explore and written almost in a stream of consciousness to see where it went. As you can tell, I wound up unsatisfied with it because it was incomplete, and I couldn’t figure out why. I also don’t tend to revisit old work that I dropped for whatever reason. But this one fascinated me because of the realization that I wrote something that I didn’t consciously understand. I discovered that my subconscious offered clues – the bit about the bacon, eggs, and toast essay – about what was really going on. With some years of distance and the understanding of what this story was actually about, once I decided on maintaining the original piece as an artifact and crafting the final section as a retrospective, finishing it was a pretty straightforward process (creatively, at least, if not emotionally).
You describe “Mr. Sick” as “ultimately a meditation on the ways in which our bodies and subconscious minds can scream at us in languages we don’t always understand.” Outside of what you present in the story, do you know of any tangible strategies for bridging that language gap that you wish more folks knew about?
I assume it must be different for every person, learning to recognize your own body’s responses to stress. For me, if I ever again get a flu that lasts a month, I think I’ll know what it means, but obviously, this was a long learning process for me. Even in 2014, when I’d fully recognized that I had experienced psychosomatic illness in the past, I wasn’t ready to accept that I was experiencing it at that moment. It’s a matter of knowing ourselves and learning the language of our bodies, which may take us a lifetime.
Again, outside of what you present in “Mr. Sick,” do you have any advice for other writers, artists, and/or folks in general struggling with hardships similar to what you experienced?
If you mean with psychosomatic illness, the advice would have to depend on what was causing it – seek therapy, I suppose? If you mean about being a semi-closeted trans person or being in an abusive relationship, I have loads of advice, but on both counts the first step is knowing that there is something outside of this. It took me so long to fully transition because I couldn’t imagine a life outside of the constraints I was living in, because I thought that I would lose too much by trying – family, career, love. Being in an abusive relationship was similar in a sense. I stayed for so long and refused to recognize it for what it was because I had become convinced that if I weren’t in this relationship with this person who claimed to love me, then I wouldn’t find anyone else. I would be alone forever. But there was a better life waiting for me outside of the closet, and there was better love waiting for me outside of that relationship. I wish I could have seen both of those things much earlier, and I hope others reach those understandings faster than I did.
How do you feel your teaching life has augmented your writing life? Have they been boons for one another?
Absolutely, teaching and writing are interconnected for me in many ways. I tend to look at teaching itself as crafting a narrative of development with students as protagonists – a little like planning a D&D game with the experiences necessary to level up. I teach that storytelling is a fundamental part of what makes us human, and one of the biggest joys of my life is helping people realize the value of their own stories and the impact they can have by sharing them. In those periods of my life where I experience a bit of creative drought, helping others doing their own creative work at least keeps my mind in a narrative mode. On occasion, just creating assignments and exercises has given me ideas that have enhanced my own practice by doing those exercises myself.
Where and when did writing come into your life?
Story came into my life before writing – pre-kindergarten, I used to draw (horribly) sketches of moments from stories on index cards; some of my earliest memories are sitting on my parents’ laps and flipping through the stack of drawings and talking them through the narrative. Once I learned to write words, I would fill up spiral notebooks with fantasy stories, usually amounting to thinly veiled fan fiction of whatever video games or cartoons I was into at the time. I was the very quiet kid who spent recess huddled in a little alcove writing and writing. I still remember the day I got so wrapped up I forgot to come inside for a couple of hours. I was so sure I would get in trouble, but it turned out the teacher hadn’t noticed I disappeared.
If a reader connects with your writing, what other author(s) would you hope they discover next?
If they’re interested in transgender experiences, try something like Jennifer Finney Boylan’s She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. If they’re into the psychology of sickness and our struggle to comprehend our own bodily experience, I recommend Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir.
How many hours do you reckon you spent on “Mr. Sick?” How many drafts did you go through?
It’s difficult to say how many hours between the section written seven years ago and what I wrote just a couple years ago. I can say that the initial writing was faster than typical for me because I worked without a plan. Later puzzling over it was probably longer, again because I worked without a plan. It’s difficult for me to identify a number of drafts because I tend to write and revise recursively along the way. While I definitely spend a lot of hours rereading and endlessly tweaking anything I’ve written, I rarely wind up doing a substantial rewrite, though every paragraph has probably been reworked a dozen times. So how many drafts – one? A hundred? Somewhere in between I suppose. I will say that this was an unusual essay for me in terms of the feeling of revising the July 2014 section. Normally I’m very inclined to chop, add, rearrange, and mess around with the pieces of anything I’ve written. But in this case, the perspective I had seven years ago was important to preserve. It felt like handling a delicate antique artifact. I didn’t want my current perspective to change or alter it, so I worked cautiously to ensure any adjustments were only to enhance what it was, rather than change it.
Who are some of your favorite authors/genres to read for pleasure? How about for craft?
There are, of course, brilliant writers whose writing on the craft I’ve given to my students: Patricia Hampl, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, etc. I would definitely say John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s Lifespan of a Fact should be mandatory reading for every aspiring CNF author.
When I write about transgender or queer experience, it’s possible my voice has a little of Jennifer Finney Boylan, Jamison Green, or Alison Bechdel in it, or for other memoir pieces, maybe Nick Flynn or Lauren Slater. When I write literary fiction, there might be a little Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, A.S. Byatt, or even Mark Z. Danielewski in there. If I’m not careful my dialogue can definitely get a little Aaron Sorkin meets Amy Sherman-Palladino – though all those voices are so different, to mash them together I’m not sure a reader would necessarily notice their traces. As for authors whose genres I don’t really work in, but whose work I’ve gotten hung up on – Neil Gaiman, Emil Ferris, Alan Moore – for all I know they’re in there someplace, too.
Are there any pieces you’re working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?
I have a few things on the table right now. In nonfiction, I’m working on a travel essay called “In Deseret” about road tripping through Utah and almost getting myself killed a couple of times. I spend a good chunk of my summers sleeping in my car and wheeling around the country. The essay explores the history of the area, Mormon cosmology, and the division and othering that occurs among different regional cultures in the U.S. and in the urban/rural divide.
In fiction, I’m working on a piece called “Mnemocin” which follows a woman with the telepathic ability to step into and observe others’ memories, including ones repressed, lost, or locked away. It explores how memory works, how we interact with it, and the way our relationship with our past shapes our understanding of ourselves.
You can find more of Rhiannon’s work at www.rhiannoncatherwood.net.