The “writing process” — a topic of endless conversation amongst writers and the topic of this post. I hope you non-writers will stick around too. It all began when a wickedly talented poet and dear friend, Jacquelyn Grant Brown, invited me to join in on a blog tour, responding to four questions about the writing process. First, she answered the questions and then she passed the baton onto me. At the end of my post I, too, will pass along the baton.
You can find Jacquelyn’s blog on her writing process here: http://44sense.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/my-writing-process-a-blog-tour/
And now here I go. Welcome to my writer’s world.
#1 What are you working on?
The story that won’t leave me alone is the story about giving my baby up for adoption. I was 19 years old, a college student, single and without the means to keep him. Still, I tried. I quickly realized I just couldn’t do it. This was back in the days when you handed your baby over to the adoption worker who then took him away. All you knew was that at some point in the future she was going to hand him over to some stranger he would grow up calling, “Mommy.” This is a story about love. Loss. Grief. Discovery. Joy. It’s about being a girl who is scared, angry, and confused. It’s also about being a mother who is childless. And it’s about a woman who is trying to make sense of it all. This has been a long-term project and it was the main manuscript I focused on while working on my MFA.
I’m always dabbling in poetry, either in my head or on paper. I love the paradox of poetry: there is freedom within form. I find that very comforting. When I’m stuck with my prose I will rewrite what I’ve written as a poem. Invariably I discover new things about what I’m trying to say. I take this new perspective and return to my beloved prose.
I always have a sketch pad close by. (A favorite book is Danny Gregory’s An Illustrated Life: Drawing inspiration from the private sketchbooks of artists, illustrators and designers.) For me, at this point it’s more about having the sketch pad than actually sketching in it. I allow myself to use it to write in when creating visual images intimidates me.
Ekphrasis: I love it. I love writing in response to visual images. One of my writing joys in the last couple of years has been participating in our local art league’s show, Interpretations. Writers submit one piece of less than 100 words. Visual artists submit one piece of work. Writers and visual artists are then paired and given each other’s work to respond to. Last year my task was to respond to a portrait of Hunter S. Thompson. What does one say about Hunter S. Thompson in 100 words or less? That painting lead me to places I never would have dreamed of going if I was just staring at a blank page thinking, “Hhhmmm… let’s write about Hunter today.”
I also write about aging, especially here in this blog. My fascination with aging—both my own and other womens’—is a natural outgrowth of my dissertation. (Okay, now… please don’t start yawning! I promise you this is going to be interesting.) For my dissertation I wanted to study about alternative medicine. That interest evolved into wondering about menopause and hormone replacement therapy (it had just been discovered to cause cancer), which then lead me to a community of kick-ass women in the Ozarks who refuse to let their aging bodies be seen as pathological or deficient simply because their hormone levels are changing and they are no longer ovulating or bleeding. These are some mighty women! They taught me that aging can be an adventure. I try to capture that here.
#2 How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
One thing I’ve learned from reading several birthmother memoirs is that even though we all write adoption stories, each story is different, and each voice is unique. One way in which my memoir differs somewhat from the others I’ve read is that I incorporate other texts—adoption agency case notes, medical records, letters to and from my ex-boyfriend, the prayers I wrote in my journal—in an effort to add layers and texture to the narrative. This also allows for an element of social criticism about the institution of adoption, especially the practice of closed adoptions, and the stigma foisted upon unwed mothers.
I must acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to those writers who have gone before me and bravely unearthed the landmines left behind by our nation’s past adoption practices. I am especially grateful to two particular authors:
Ann Fessler for her groundbreaking book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade. http://thegirlswhowentaway.com/
Karen Salyer McElmurray for her courageous and beautifully written memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birthmother’s Journey http://www.karenmcelmurray.com/
Through their unflinching examination of the deeply personal and often painful birthmother stories, I found the courage and inspiration to tell my own.
#3 Why do you write what you do?
I’m constantly asking myself this question and I imagine it plagues most, if not all, writers. Why do we write what we write?
I just returned from a 5 day writing workshop lead by the wildly talented Cheryl Strayed. Even in the stunning environs of Big Sur where we gathered, this question haunted me. When meeting new writers the question is often asked, “What do you write?” Sometimes I provide the generic, “Oh, creative nonfiction.” But then there are times when I sense that the generic answer won’t do. Either the other person is going to probe, or I sense the potential for a deeper connection if I share a bit more than my genre and take the risk of getting down to the nitty gritty of what I’m writing about. But that is answering the “What?” and not the “Why?” Behind the question, “What are you writing?” always lurks the question, “Why are you writing it?” The first is often much easier to answer than the second. But I’ll try…
Why do I write what I do? Why have I devoted years to writing this story that happened over three decades ago? Why do I, time and time again, return to that moment when I first held my newborn in my arms? And then I push myself to re-experience, re-examine, and re-create the dark heaviness of my empty arms after I give him up? Why do I write what I do?
Well, an answer appeared before me during the writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed. It was a gift—a gift of compassion, understanding, and validation. She said simply, “Write what you must….Tell your truth.”
I’ve never fully told my story of giving my baby up for adoption. Those closest to me have heard snippets over the years. The adoption agency case notes tell one particular version of the story. But my version—the birthmother’s version—like many birthmother stories, went largely untold. Finally, three decades later, I can tell that story, my story.
Even though it’s taken me so many years to get to this point, I have apparently had a long-standing impulse to tell the story. I recently discovered what I think is probably my earliest attempt to capture an element of this story in writing. It was in the Spring of 1984, less than two years after I gave my baby up. I was taking a writing class and we had to keep a journal of assigned writings and self-directed creative pieces. When going through that journal recently I discovered an untitled fictionalized piece about a reunion between an eighteen year old young man who had been given up for adoption and his birth mother. I wrote it in the close third person, from the son’s point of view. It began,
“He sat at the table across from his Mother. He doesn’t really know this woman, he thought. What to say? How to act? What to call her—Mom or Michelle? Eighteen years of having called someone else ‘Mother” makes it extremely difficult to now look your real Mother in the eyes and regard her as such.”
This story went on for just over a page. It ended with these words:
“In her, he saw himself as he never had before. Now the picture was complete. And so was his soul.”
As I revisit this story, my first impulse is to ache for the broken heart of my almost twenty-two year old self that was behind the words. But then, I wonder at my choice to tell the story from the/my son’s point of view. I wonder if that was as close as I could get to the story at that point in time–less than two years after giving my son up. An imagined, close third person? Where was the birthmother voice in this story? Where was the “I”? Looking back, I can only surmise that I just couldn’t go there yet. It would have been too painful. There was no “I” yet. (Frankly, I think that is how many birthmothers feel — the “I,” or the birthmother doesn’t exist in the adoption story once the baby is brought into his new family.) Thankfully, now, over thirty years later, I am more than ready to claim the story from the point of view of the “I”. This is the story that I must tell.
An aside: I struggled greatly in this class and it showed in my journal writings. The professor was aware of this and worked with me to help me finish the class. Before handing the journal in to be graded at the end of the semester, I wrote a note of thanks to her for her understanding. She replied, “You’ll be fine, Ann—Carry on and you are a writer.”
#4 How does your writing process work?
I’m in constant search of a routine. Yet, I seem to thrive in an environment of disruptions. However, there do seem to be some constants—coffee, for starters. I also have a favorite mouse pad—a gift from a photographer dog-walking friend who claimed it was a replica of the rug in Freud’s office. I’m also an avid note jotter, outliner, and textual traveler, traveling from the text I create on my laptop to that I handwrite on the blank sheet of 3-hole-punch bright white paper to the current book I’m reading, and back again.
I often start with a prompt of some sort, something to respond to, an “assignment” (such as a blog tour), a visual image, an observation, or something I’ve read. I may imagine or outline where I think the piece is going to go, but ultimately the piece woos me into following its lead. If I give myself up to the writing it becomes an organic process of discovery and I learn something new from my own writing.
A mentor once described me as a “meticulous” writer, which I’ve chosen to believe can mean many things: exacting; perfectionistic; and most likely and sorrowfully, slow. Rarely do I dazzle with what I initially produce from a prompt. I’m the tortoise, not the hare. Ann Patchett described herself as the tortoise to Lucy Grealy’s hare. I’m okay with being the tortoise.
Thanks for reading… Would love to hear comments about others’ writing process!
It is with great enthusiasm and respect that I pass the baton along to two more writers:
Kat Fitzpatrick is a long-time journalist earning an MFA in creative writing. One of the few American children to be evacuated out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, her quest now is to capture memories, vignettes, and reflections of that time. Her new blog, StoriesOfVietnam.com, will launch in August 2014. Her reflective essays can be found at www.katadventures.wordpress.com
Christine Kiefer is an attorney by day, writer by night- smack dab in the middle of the woods, in the middle of Missouri, in the middle of the USA. Her completed works include a collection of poetry, “Birch Trees at the Old House,” and the novel, “Light in Darkest Days.” www.beaspokesperson.wordpress.com