Many thanks to Jayne Guertin Schlott who invited me on the Writing Process Blog Tour, and to Maria Mutch who invited Jayne . I am honored and humbled to be joined on this tour by Barrett Warner, Denton Loving, and Susan Pagani.
What are you working on?
I am currently at work on a collection of essays titled, The Guild of the Infant Saviour. The title is taken from the name of the unwed mother’s home in New York City where my birthmother was sent when she got pregnant with me 47 years ago.
The essays explore issues of identity, shame, surrender, memory, motherhood and the tension between nature and nurture, all through the lens of adoption.
There is occasional swearing.
How does the work differ from others of its genre?
Adoptees, like me, wander around a crazy country called “in-between.” I call it the adoption diaspora. I don’t feel I belong anywhere in particular. I can’t rightly place myself among familial faces (even though I’ve found my birthmother) and sometimes I don’t even know what questions to ask because I don’t know what was missing to begin with.
I want to explore this strange country and bring it forward for readers. Most importantly I want to find my self (which seems like a paradox since I’m sitting right here in my own skin.)
I began by retracing the places my birthmother lived as a child and the paths she walked while she was pregnant with me at The Guild. Biological children may take for granted similar places and things, but I found that I had to rediscover and question everything – the hospital where I was born, the unwed mother’s home, my foster parents modest ranch home, my original birth certificate, a linoleum-tiled office at Catholic Charities, my adoptive home, my birth name in a registry at The New York Public Library.
Why do you write what you do?
I write to untangle the stories that have been told to me by my birthmother and my adoptive parents. They are like knots in the chain of a delicate necklace. I need to be careful in the disentangling or the entire chain may break.
My aim is to take the reader along with me in a way that will make them feel invested in the small moments when I do find something out. I hope the reader will care. I hope they will feel I have succeeded in touching on universal issues through the lens of my own experiences.
How does your writing process work?
Early drafts came back with lots of exclamation marks from Susan Cheever, who was my first mentor at Bennington Writing Seminars. “Oh, please!” she wrote, or “Violins!” She even purchased a violin stamp (right) and interspersed my manuscripts with this occasional, lusty flourish . . .
I adored her for that.
My writing process is a process of elimination. It starts by just getting the words on paper.
- Write them down the first day and put them away. Sleep. Bite my fingernails.
- Open a new file and write the words again from memory the next day. Worry. Eat a bag of potato chips. Read.
- Open a new file and write it a third time using a paragraph from deep within the work as the opening paragraph. Keep going. Pick the scabs.
- Watch my idea strengthen or weaken. Try to keep the strongest parts.
Many times I find that an idea can begin to take form without my noticing. Meaning, what I originally thought I was writing about was just throat clearing. It is the consistent act of writing it forward that allows an idea to peek out.
Anyone who has worked with Cheever knows this is a process she recommends. Although it initially made me want to vomit from anxiety, I slowly adapted it for my self and guess what? It’s hard work, but it works.
After I realize what it is I’m trying to say, I start to rearrange the metaphorical furniture of the essay. It’s interesting to begin a piece from a different direction. It made me realize entire pages could go and be replaced with one or two perfect sentences, or a bit of dialogue, or just the right word. The hardest part is figuring out what I want to say and then saying it without pretense, or highfalutin language, or violins.
I feel there is safety and ingenuity in this process. There is also swearing, crying, and doubt. Always doubt.
I wrote to Susan once that I had spent a month “flailing around, swearing and throwing things.”
It was in that same month that she told me I’d found my voice.
The next voices I’d like to introduce you to on this blog tour are: Najah Yasin and Cassie Pruyn.
Najah is an author, activist and MFA candidate at The New School. You can find her work at najahyasin.com.
Cassie is a New Orleans-based poet, born and raised in Portland, Maine, and a recent graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars