In Her Own Words
Healing Through Creative Non-Fiction
As anyone who read my stories “Shadow of the Mountain” and “Dog Day Afternoon” in the fall 2009 issue of Mused have learned, my primary strength is humor writing.
Let me rephrase that: My primary interest is humor writing. I have less control over what appears on the computer screen than I would like to admit.
I was born with a Walter Farley paperback in my hand, which must have been extremely uncomfortable for my mother. My entire childhood was spent reading about animals. I read most of Marguerite Henry’s books sitting in a wood bin with a white rooster named Cogburn in my lap. James Herriott made me yearn for Yorkshire, which previously I had known only as a pudding. I started writing my own animal stories while sitting bored in my classes. But by the age of twelve, I realized that fiction was no match for the absurdities of real life. Headed towards bankruptcy with my small Wisconsin family in rural Kentucky as city slickers sucked into the Back to the Land Movement (ah, the Seventies), the initial stages of my life set me up perfectly to become the next Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck.
Convinced from an early age that animals were more worthy of study than humans, I started college with an eye on veterinary school—a view which grew further and further away with each mediocre chemistry class. I only managed to earn my B.S. in Zoology from the UW—Madison by peppering my required classes with language and literature. Finding a serious paucity of laughs in monotonous laboratory work in Seattle, where I found myself employed a short time later, I applied to graduate school, this time to learn the Arabic language. I mean, what is funnier than writing from right to left? That was a no-brainer. I danced in the streets of downtown Seattle the night I got the call to become the new humor columnist for The Daily of the University of Washington. Sure, at the time I was making a living as a parking attendant, but Calvin Trillin, watch out!
As a new professional earning a respectable $16 a week, I started taking the craft more seriously. When not translating classical Arabic poetry, I was devouring the English, French, and American classics. I most wanted to emulate those who both turned the English language into magic and made me laugh out loud; Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy…
Okay, so apparently I had a dark side. The thing is, my life thus far had mostly been a comedy. Perhaps that fueled my fascination with Hardy, James Henry and Edith Wharton. (Man, who pissed in HER Wheaties?!)
Life has a funny way of evening itself out, and by my mid-twenties even Poe was a little too light for my tastes. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce myself to the Third World, which I accomplished by choosing Cairo as my next place to study and write. Oh, there was still plenty of comedy, given my proclivity for getting myself into ridiculous situations, but the region’s naked poverty was more than sobering. It changed the way I viewed the world. I came home with an M.A. in Arabic, a deep appreciation for how rich and privileged my life truly was and, finally, enough humorous, animal-based stories to write My Book. I even brought my muse, an Egyptian Siamese named Cocoa, back to the States with me.
And then I got married. There is nothing wrong with that, if you do it for the right reasons. Marriage to a charming but unstable alcoholic to guarantee that life would never be boring is not one of those reasons. I really can’t emphasize this point enough.
When I started writing so many years ago, I did it because I enjoyed it. I waxed nostalgic over my life stories, shared them from time to time with family and friends, but mostly enjoyed laughing at my own jokes. When I write now, it is because I have to. I am thankful I took up writing so early, because after ten years of a humiliating and dangerous relationship, it is saving my life. Even in the darkest times, I never forgot the feeling of relief one could get by putting emotions onto paper. Unfortunately, during the times I needed most to write, I was too mentally drained or frightened to expose those feelings where they might be discovered and used against me. So I put them all into mental storage somewhere so deep I eventually lost track of where to find them.
In 2003, during a short-lived period of spousal sobriety—a much-needed parting of the clouds—I accepted novelist Chris Baty’s challenge to write a novel in thirty days. He created National Novel Writing Month, as discussed in his humorous, inspiring and practical book, No Plot? No Problem! I was in week three of chronicling my year as a bumbling American in the Middle East when he relapsed again (my ex-husband, not Mr. Baty). But I finished it. It was horrible and, sadder still, not nearly as funny as I had hoped, but it was a book—My Book. I put it somewhere safe until I could do it the justice it deserved.
A few years later, after extricating myself from my marriage, I was free at last to focus again on my writing. Working full-time, I enrolled in a few classes through Writer’s Digest Online. I learned a lot, including the fact that I could be funny if I worked at it. It also reinforced the truth, first discovered through reading Chris Baty’s book, that all I really lacked to write a novel or short story was a deadline. Unless I was supported by structure, I would not write until a story so consumed me that I would burst if I did not sit and let it out. I will never be the disciplined, sit-down-every-morning-at-7-a.m. writer. I have to feel something very strongly to write it down, or have an external force waiting for my work.
But as I struggled to hone the humor essay at Writer’s Digest, black clouds starting moving in. A little over a year after celebrating my divorce, I fell into a depression so deep I saw no way out. Suddenly every night meant violent nightmares and cold sweats. Work became increasingly difficult. My therapist suggested writing, but for the first time in my life, I could not write. Anything. My blog withered, e-mails to friends dropped off, and I took to sleeping during the day because the nightmares never seemed to be as bad when it was light outside. I shut myself down almost completely.
I gradually realized it was not that I could not write, but that I would not. I was a neglected Superfund site that badly needed exhumation, but I feared too much what I would find once I put a spade into the soil. Five years after my first experience with Chris Baty and his NaNoWriMo contest, I turned to him again to help rip the bandage off the infected wounds left by my abusive relationship. I spent thirty days typing the most embarrassing and painful experiences I would let myself remember. It was extremely difficult, I got virtually no sleep, and I even warned my boss that what I was attempting might land me in the hospital, at least for a time.
But it didn’t. I wrote 65,000 words by the time the month came to a close. When it was over I felt as if I were coming up for air from the deepest end of the pool. Looking back over what I wrote, I just scratched the surface of what I experienced, but several of the most difficult episodes were finally out of my head. It took another on-line writing class to force myself to go back, re-read and edit several chapters, but in doing so, I finally started to gain some distance from each episode. And only then could I start to heal.
I haven’t given up on comedy. I am always finding new sources of inspiration; Andy Borowitz, David Sedaris, Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”), Emma Thompson. I still have a whole unfunny humor novel that wants re-writing. But for the genre I’m currently compelled to write, authors like Kaye Gibbons, Anna Quindlen, Frank McCourt and Ivan Doig teach me more each day. And what really drives me to sit back down at my computer to write after working in front of it all day is my desire—my need—to find peace. It isn’t here yet, and the nightmares continue, but it gets a little closer every day. And if that weren’t reason enough, I have a three year-old niece who, sooner rather than later, will enter the world of relationships. And I have something for her to read before she does.