I first met Karen Salyer McElmurray in the spring of 2011 when she was teaching in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University. As a visiting writer, I was awed by Karen’s humility and her wisdom, the way she was always teaching out of her own questions as a memoirist and a fiction writer. In Karen’s writing, I find the same impulse to apprentice herself to curiosity, to self-reflection, and to her own enormous capacity for wonder. Karen is a visionary person who embodies Mary Oliver’s dictum: “To pay attention: this is our endless and proper work.”
In October 2015, it was my privilege to bring Karen to meet the MFA students at Florida International University where I now teach. She gave a well-attended, open-to-the-public reading on the Biscayne Bay Campus and answered questions about her three collections of prose as well as her newly released, co-edited anthology of Appalachian writing, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.. It was also during Karen’s visit to Miami that we held this interview.
The Rumpus: As you know, I’m teaching your book, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, this semester in my graduate memoir seminar. One of the questions that we keep coming back to in class is why people choose to write memoir as opposed to autobiographical fiction. Doesn’t calling something nonfiction make the writer feel more vulnerable, more exposed? Since you’re also a novelist, and published a novel (Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven) prior to the memoir, I thought I’d ask you: what can you do in a memoir that you can’t do in a novel?
Karen Salyer McElmurray: I was sitting with a friend at lunch a couple of months back, and we were talking about this very thing. She wanted to know why I “diverge” into fiction—the novel. I know that I grew up with stories in my heritage. Ballads. Country music songs that tell stories about marriages and wild women and hard work. And I come from generations of tall tale tellers—my father first and foremost among them, with tales about a bearded lady from the carnival who was supposedly an ancestor. About the mine explosion he saw when we lived in Harlan County back in Eastern Kentucky. I don’t know if any of these tales are true, but do know that I have the notion deeply embedded in me that I should tell tales about the world, and not necessarily true ones about my own life. Yet plot lies down unwillingly for me. Its connections, conflicts, resolutions, are hard for me. I always seem to come back to the stories of my own life.
I know that the deepest place in me, the womb place, the cave place, the chest cavity, the heart, the belly, the gut, comes when I am writing “true,” the creative nonfiction.
The twists and turns, the taste of real, is my favorite story, the one that fits best in my mouth. And also heading back on a winding road of memory and ending up right there, in the spot that is most vulnerable, the place that can hurt the most. Memoir can take me there. Often does. I believe what Dorothy Allison has said, that until we tell our hardest truths, our writing won’t be worth a damn. I have found both light and dark, sorrow and hope in this telling.
I believe in that vulnerability. I believe in reaching inside to Mnemosyne, memory’s goddess, having her speak. Tell me why, I say to her. Tell me where and how and when. And sometimes the memories collide and come to rest on my pages. I am grateful.
Rumpus: I have encountered students upon occasion who are quite resistant to the idea of memoir. They seem to consider most memoir an act of “oversharing,” the equivalent of reading someone else’s journal. Often, from many sources, I hear the impulse to disparage so-called “therapeutic writing,” particularly when women writers are involved. Yet I can’t help but believe that all writing “worth a damn” must be therapeutic, or potentially therapeutic, for the writer. Why cull the self so deeply if there is no possibility of catharsis, no chance for healing?
McElmurray: Again and again, over my years of teaching and writing memoir, I’ve heard personal writing devalued and, yes, more often that disparagement has involved writing by women. My examples of this devaluing are numerous—hiring committees, the halls of academe, book reviews—and it is one book review that has become the center of this issue for me. When my memoir, Surrendered Child, came out, one reviewer called the work, which is about relinquishment of a child to a state-supported adoption, “labored womb-gazing.” This was, of course, a spin on the notion of personal writing as “navel gazing.” I spent some sleepless nights over that review, some long days hiding out under a blanket or two until I got more and more angry. Womb gazing? We are all from a womb, an amniotic sea, the body, a body. To gaze at the womb, the source, to follow the umbilical cord back to the navel, the origin of ourselves, that, for me, is the deepest work, not only of writing, but of our lives. Of course, writing that is narcissistic, ego-driven, stays at the source. It remains in the realm of gazing at the self. It doesn’t transcend, question, find its voice. Deeply good memoir, dives deeply into the womb and rises into the world, into the lives of others. That is empathy. That, I believe, is true healing.
McElmurray: What I can do is make a sort of tapestry for you of writers that have influenced and continue to influence my work. In that tapestry are memoirs that have long been my favorites. Greg Bottoms’s Angelhead, which is about a brother’s descent into schizophrenia, but also about the fine line between “madness” and the creative spirit. Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, which is about family secrets, loss, alcoholism, and also, in its very last paragraph, about the light of forgiveness. The tapestry would include Terry Tempest Williams, Red: On Patience and Patience in the Desert. Sue William Silverman, Because I Remember Terror, Father. Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain. Jeannette Winterson, Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy? Leslie Jamison. Anne Carson. Julie Marie Wade. So many writers make up that tapestry; it is luminous and rich with stories, the transformations of lives. At each corner of the tapestry, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. “I had never known I was a bell,” Dillard writes, “until the moment I was lifted and struck.” With each of these stories of lives, I am struck again and again. I am healed.
Rumpus: Thank you for mentioning my work, Karen! You know how I feel about yours. I find your prose style immersive, a way of writing that implicates me viscerally in every experience you describe, whether fictional or nonfictional. But I hesitate to say this sometimes because of the old binary that often arises, even unintentionally, to divide male and female writers—as if men “write from the mind” and women “write from the body.” We were talking about this just the other day, you and me. Work written by men is frequently described in reviews as “luminous,” as in generating light, while work written by women is often identified with the muck and goo of feelings, the messy business of the body. Do you write from the body? Is that a ridiculous thing to ask? Put another way, what do you imagine/ hope a reader’s experience of your work will be, both during the act of reading and in terms of what lingers after?
McElmurray: Actually, I’m intrigued to read this spin on light. Not long back (somewhere in the maze of social media) someone commented that work by women is more often categorized as “luminous,” and they found this dismissive—as if the work was thus dismissed as ephemeral in its lightness. It’s a complicated thing, this dismissiveness! But do I write from the body? That, too, is a complicated question. In my first memoir, I wrote the struggle to be in the body at all, since, as a child, imagination, the stories I created, were my escape from the physical world and my mother’s obsession with controlling that world, including my body. The memoir also concerns my relinquishment of a child to adoption, my imagining, over and over, of that child I could not see, touch, remember. The memoir attempts, I hope, to embody both my experience as a birth mother, and the experience of other mothers who have no “body” to hold, no child who will ever be the child lost, desired, recreated. That’s a complicated way of saying that as a birth mother I made up stories to make physical something that did not exist. And, in the process of writing a memoir about that experience, I summoned the body—birth giving, sex, the body’s longing—more and more specifically. I am entering the body more and more as I write a new memoir, one in fragments, short essays. This body? Maybe that is where the light has finally arrived. I want to write the body, full of joy.
Rumpus: In my senior undergraduate seminar, we recently read your essay, “Smart,” and I’m wondering if this piece might be part of the new memoir you mention? I chose the essay because it demonstrates, to my mind, the power of writing in fragments that move by accretion to create a powerful whole. The thirteen sections of the essay are linked by the reappearance of the word “smart” (or a variant of it) in each one. Every important thing a writer can do is here, to my mind: image-making, scene-setting, tension-building, self-reflecting, and formal innovation. By the end, the reader realizes this is also essay as bildungsroman. We share in your coming of age and coming into consciousness as an adult woman of complex identities, all in the space of about 2000 words. Do you consider this essay a lyric essay? Experimental nonfiction? What do terms like “lyric” and “experimental” mean to you in a literary context?
McElmurray: I visited a couple of classes this week for young writers to answer their questions about writing personal stories and they also wanted to know what a lyric essay is and whether that is what I am doing with “Smart.” The best definition I can offer of a lyric essay is something that Virginia Woolf says in Moments of Being: “I attain a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world, achieve in the end some kind of whole made of shivering fragments.” I see these new short pieces of mine as exactly that. Shivering, sometimes fragments. Some of the pieces accumulate to their own narrative whole. Many are about my mother’s experiences with Alzheimer’s. Some are about my particular journey related to class, work, gender. For a while I thought each piece might open to a longer essay, but the more I work, the more I think that they will accumulate to a long work on their own, a bit like making a quilt out of light and water and memory.
Rumpus: Do you see your personal journey, related as you say to “class, work, [and] gender,” documented, in a sense, through your publications? First, you published the novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, then the memoir Surrendered Child, then another novel The Motel of the Stars, and most recently, the co-edited (with Adrian Blevins) anthology, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia. Were the books completed in this order? Were there others in between? And if a reader were to read your published canon in this order, what might she discover about the evolving human being behind them—ways you’ve grown, ways you’ve changed?
McElmurray: My first book, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was a novel about a family in Eastern Kentucky, particularly a woman named Ruth Blue Wallen, a woman who sees the world like the hand of God, palm down. Ruth has a rich and powerful voice, but she is held fast to the earth by that hand of God, by herself, and by the men who surround her—father, husband, and her son, Andrew Wallen. Andrew loves a boy named Henry Ward, and that love is taboo in this particular time and place. Strange Birds is a novel about breaking—breaking away, breaking inside, breaking free and choosing love. My journey in prose after that novel is my own journey toward voice and choice. I’ve chosen to speak via memoir in Surrendered Child as a birth mother about a child I relinquished for adoption when I was fifteen, a story I was told to forget once the adoption occurred. In my later works—Motel of the Stars and a new novel-in-progress called Wanting Inez—I’ve written variously about The Harmonic Convergence, tattoos, fortune telling, and a museum of freaks and wonders. Most recently, I’ve co-edited the essay collection you mentioned, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean. That work is a rich range of voices addressing challenging ideas about Appalachia. Faith and transformation. Memory and longing. A fierce desire to leave home equaled only by a fierce desire to stay put and challenge and grow in that home place. The essays are about sexuality; about gender and transgender; about sexual identity and identities made and remade via memory and language. There is a rich range of voices here. Poets. Nonfiction writers. Novelists. Short story writers. We’re all speaking, claiming our voices, claiming both our heritage and roads forward. Is there a progression in these works? I hope that the evolution is toward strength and voice. Toward a self who can be fearless in the stories she tells, capable of love and true compassion.
Rumpus: In your essay “Outside the Outside,” first published in Drafthorse in Winter 2013, you explore the decision to leave a tenured position in academia after spending years working your way toward that position. You continue to write, and you continue to teach writing in academic settings—as visiting writer, as faculty member at various low-residency MFA programs, etc.—but I’m wondering how you experience your life as a teaching writer differently now, being outside the tenure system. I’m also wondering how the practice of teaching informs your writing life, and vice versa.
McElmurray: As you know from reading the essay about leaving my position, the decision was a difficult one, fraught with complexities, past and present. I am first generation, the first woman in my family, as well, to go to college. I am also from a working class background, and that meant I had to find the ways and means to go to school in the first place. So earning both the degree and the professorship afterwards was a long haul. So there’s that historical complexity. I was also very ill in the last two years in my job, and I struggled with my decision a lot, uncertain if my feelings about my job’s toxicity were an accurate perception or a product of my body’s depletion from cancer treatments. In the end, I chose to make the leap. I miss parts of that former life. Certainly I miss the status at times, and the security. But I also am much happier, much healthier now. And to be very frank, I am no longer certain that the struggle for higher achievement, academically speaking, for me equals the struggle to be the best artist I know how to be. I have grown increasingly weary of the lobbying for position, the hierarchy that is a tenured system, and I am no longer certain that earning success via that tenure system always means an equal measure of excellence on the page. Still, I love the classroom, the relationships with students that I have forged, sometimes lifelong ones. I give an equal measure of dedication to my writing life. I often find the two vocations a difficult balance. That word, vocation, may in itself be the heart of the matter. It is difficult for me to give all to two important worlds.
Rumpus: I’d like to close by asking what advice you have for our new generation of aspiring and emerging writers? What do you wish you had known as a young woman first beginning to write? What do you wish an established writer had told you?
McElmurray: My family on my mother’s side were coal miners and house builders and grocery store clerks, and I don’t remember very much interest in books as a way of life, though my mother introduced me to Sue Barton, Student Nurse, and Peyton Place. My father, on the other hand, took me to the library weekly where I loaded up on books by the spade. I read dog books, horse books, The Odyssey and The Nibelungenlied. I read Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Lawrence—large, male-authored books, all of them way beyond my twelve, then thirteen year-old-self. I was an unhappy child who longed for friends, for her own mother’s love, and I found wonder and possibility in stories I imagined at night as I lay listening to my parent’s quarrel-words. By the time I was sixteen, I’d dreamed big, been a runaway, had a baby I’d given up for adoption. My world crumbled and caved in and I crawled back out via learning. I didn’t go to college right away, but worked—as a hotel maid, at a grocery, finally as a desk clerk—and when I did, it was to night school at Kentucky State University, where I took my first courses to set me on the path of higher learning. That path, for a long time, was a driven one, as if the next degree, the next job, the next town, was the way to achieve a happiness that did not exist in my body’s cellular makeup nor in the inheritance of ghosts and loss that were my family. I was fortunate, along the way, to have powerful voices to teach me, comfort me—all kinds of ancestors. The voice of my grandmother, Fannie Ellen. The voices of so many literary mentors—everyone from Virginia Woolf to Carol Maso to Marilyn Robinson. I have a number of degrees, and at times I wish mightily I could go back and study more. If I could enter a learning community again as a student, I’d study oceans. I’d learn the names of stars. I’d learn to name the plants I see on a walk near my house. Or, as is often my greatest desire, I’d spend time alone, in silence at, perhaps, The Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky, where I could name what I long for most these days. Compassion. Patience. Love.
McElmurray: Just last night I was re-reading a selection from Ursula Le Guin’s collected lectures on writing and imagination, The Wave in the Mind, and I particularly focused on this passage:
…the impossible ideals [of dieters and exercisers]…cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art. Perfection is ‘lean’ and ‘taut’ and ‘hard,’ like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? ‘Perfect?’ What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.
What I wish I’d been told as a young woman is that it is okay to be kind, both to myself and to others. It is okay to accept flaws, both in the body and in the body of the work ahead. There is possibility in the spaces left where we have been hurt, where we have lost or been wounded, both by ourselves and by others. Most of all, revision is truly re-visioning. To reach inside the work, and inside ourselves, is a lifelong process and this takes patience and deep listening, both to wise voices and to our own hearts.