Descending into the Darkness
An Interview with Karen Sayler McElmurray
by Pam Kingsbury
Photo credit: Frederick Park
Karen Sayler McElmurray juggles writing and teaching with aplomb. Using the knowledge she's gained from experience, McElmurry shares her wisdom, hoping her students will "go deeper."
In Surrendered Child, she delved into her pain, and her memories of the choices she made as a young woman, with a critic's eye and a mother's heart.
Surrendered Child is unflinchingly honest. How difficult was it for you to write the book? And how do you hope your readers, particularly young women, will react?
I’ve always been fond of that piece called “The Allegory of the Cave,” by Plato. I like the metaphor of descending into the darkness, ascending to light, and the question of which placed is more “real.” To write this memoir, I had to descend into some very dark places in myself. I had to look hard at events that I’d scarcely spoken about with anyone, no less summoned as words on a blank page. I’m a birth mother, and often birth mothers surrender children and then are urged to forget about the past, surrender memory as well as their babies. In writing this memoir, I hope that what I’ve done is reclaim my memories, bring them up into the world of light, make giving birth a reality. And I can’t say that didn’t hurt. A lot. Fortunately, I wrote much of the memoir at an artist’s colony, The Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia—and that made the process easier. I could be alone with the story for ten hours a day (there, you only see other people in the evening, at dinner) and I could sit on the back porch at the cabin I had and be as crazy as I needed to be with the story I was letting myself tell.
How would I hope other women would react? A friend of mine once urged me to imagine women who were heroes, from history, from literature—characters I’d like to emulate to make my vision of my own life more powerful. In writing this memoir, I hope I’ve claimed my OWN story. It isn’t a pretty story, by any means. But I believe writing has the power to translate darkness. I hope that other young women will be encouraged to claim their own voices, to speak with a strong sense of who they are—especially the birth mothers who have remained silent about surrendering parts of their lives and their hearts.
Has it been easier for you to work in fiction or non-fiction?
In some ways, the memoir was far easier for me to write than the novel I
finished in 1999. Memoir, after all, has a “built-in” plot—the story was
inside me already and my task was to transcribe it. The biggest challenge
with that plot was structural. I had to decide at what point I’d begin the
telling—present day? Childhood? I settled on starting the narrative on the
day of my son’s birth, then stepping back, in the second chapter, to my own
childhood. Then the narrative works forward, again, to the day of the birth
and forward from there.
I write because I’ve always written. If I had to pinpoint a time I first wrote, that would be when I was nine and went to visit my paternal grandmother. A girl who lived across the road from her became my best friend—and I wanted to play the guitar like she did, but I’m no musician. So I wrote poems, instead of the songs she wrote. I wrote poems, then later stories, then finally longer works. That’s the biographical answer—the process in a large sense as it has evolved in my life.
The day-to-day answer is, of course, more complicated. In an ideal world, I would write every day, for many hours a day. That’s when I reach the place inside myself I need to go in order to order to truly say what I need to say, to write honestly. The really ideal “place” for me in the past several years has been a writing retreat. I’ve gone to two that I really love—one is the Hambidge Center in North Georgia. The other is The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. At such retreats, I get up every day about 7/7:30. I work until about 2:00 and then I walk or run or swim—hoping to balance the inner world with the physical world. Then I work a bit more until dinner, usually at 6:00. Then back to my room by 7:30/8:00, when I look at what I’ve written during the day, work a bit more, or read. I am an early sleeper, and an early riser.
writing retreats, I like candlelight, even in the daytime. I burn rose
incense. I keep a fan going, just for the sound. At Hambidge Center, I
love having all the windows open, all the time, and being part of the woods
surrounding the cabins at both retreats—deer and fawns, pileated
woodpeckers, indigo buntings, a whippoorwill. At Dairy Hollow, where the
retreat is right in a small town, I love the sounds of children’s voices
from a park across the street, and even the sound of horses hooves when the
tourist carriages pass. I love feeling the early morning cool in the room,
then the midday, heavier warmth. Then the low light of evening, when I have
on only the bedside light and my reading.
And the bigger question of process, for me, is why I write—why I persist when the public life of the writer is often so difficult—the publishing, the necessary persistence. I write because I must, because it is, for me, a spiritual path, a connection to something greater than I am. It gives me power, in terms of voice. It opens my heart. It gives me confidence. It’s what I do best, I hope. The practice of writing makes me say “yes.” I write because I can’t make symphonies, or paint with watercolors. I write because I listen. I write because I want to make art, which as painter Robert Motherwell said, “is one of the few remaining inherent guardians of the human spirit that we have.”
Edmund Wilson, in The Wound and the Bow, uses the image of "a wound that won't heal" as the reason for why writers write. Do you agree with his assessment?
I do believe that certain images, certain concerns, appear in an artist’s work—again and again, perhaps until they are understood. Once, at another writing retreat, I met a painter who, in every painting, depicted a man in a black trench coat who she said was her father. The image was small or large or sometimes concealed in other images, but always present. In my own work, I’ve again and again written about what I’ll called “the missing,” or loss. In my novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, part of the story is about a woman who, during the Great Depression, runs away to be a dance instructor for a traveling road show sponsored by the WPA. She leaves her daughter behind and thus begins the consequences of several generations affected by loss. That mother who relinquishes a child was the real story of my own life, told “slant” in fiction. My memoir takes on this subject directly by telling firsthand the story of a birthmother. And I’ve now written another novel, tentatively called Black Dog, which is in part about the loss of a son to a Marine Helicopter accident during the time of the 1987 Harmonic Convergence.
Will such images persist in my work? I cannot predict this. But I do know
that exploring the unhealed wound, the relinquished child, has meant a great
deal of healing for me. When the memoir was first “ready” to enter the
public eye, my birth son found me on a website that discussed the book. He
contacted me. We talk. We visit. Does this mean healing in the word, or
does that wound remain, part of what made me, and thus made the work?
I was born in Topeka, Kansas, when my father was in the Air Force. But I by NO means consider myself a Mid-Westerner. We moved back to Kentucky, and to Harlan County when I was about three years old, and that place, the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, has become the home I most claim for myself. Harlan County was a place of coal mines and coal miner families, one you might know from a documentary called Harlan County, USA. We lived in a tiny town called Cumberland, and my father taught at Lynch High School and I went to the grade school right next door. What I remember most from that time is driving up a really steep road as we drove across Cumberland Gap. I remember little country stores with signs for Bunny Bread, and I remember sucking on lemon slices and eating Saltines and block cheddar cheese to settle my stomach. And I remember our house, a trailer in Cumberland. my mother, who suffers from a disorder that makes her fear “dirt,” being so distraught over the coal dust she claimed was on our trailer walls.
So. I grew up, until I was nine, in Appalachia and I still think of that as my “home-place.” I later went to Berea College, also in Eastern Kentucky—but I’ve also been away from my home so much. Went to school for an MFA in Virginia, then did more studies at Hollins University, then at UGA. I’ve traveled a lot. Nepal. India. Thailand. Australia. I’ve lived in the South, in Georgia and Virginia. But Eastern Kentucky remains my spiritual home.
How did you wind up teaching? And does teaching have any influence on your writing?
The biographical story is that when I finished an MFA at University of Virginia, and moved to Asheville, North Carolina to live with my then sweetheart, I found that teaching jobs—at least part-time ones—were the most accessible for me. I tried for “instructor” jobs at a local, small college—but they wanted more education, and a more “serious” degree than creative writing. I ended up being an adjunct for about three years, and I earned about 1600.00 per class, supplemented by part-time jobs at everything from a toy store to a greenhouse. Even with all that, the jobs they left me with the most time to work on my own writing. After my relationship ended, my life kind of fell apart for awhile, and I did what I’d thought about, on and off, for the three years of adjunct work—I went for the doctorate. That time was a struggle, purely and simply. It wasn’t JUST a bunch of workshops, but a real and demanding doctoral program. I finished that work with a draft of a novel in hand, and a lot of teaching experience.
I guess I’d say that I ended up teaching by default in some way. I taught part-time and part-time lead to a degree program that opened some doors for more. And now here I am, teaching other MFA students, like I once was.
The benefits, besides the more flexible time for writing, of the teaching life have been less obvious. I’ve learned that after reading hundreds of student manuscripts, I come back to my own work with a careful eye. I a prose writer who struggles with active plots—and working with students makes me study just that technical aspect in the student work. Or it compels me to look harder at voice or character or dialogue. The more I explain the writing world to others, the more I enter it for myself.
More and more, I struggle with what I demand from my students. I tell them,
“go deeper. Feel more. Find more layers of meaning.” I mean, am I forcing
them to go to the same dark places I’ve been, myself? But I continue with
that same way of teaching. I tell them to revise until they discover what a
piece is really “about.” To think of their work as like a monotype, made of
layers and layers materials to achieve the overall concept. How often have
I heard that I’ll want to “ask really deep questions about work?” Yes. I
do want more. An old lover once said I was like the goddess Shiva, that I
asked difficult questions, over and over. I bring the hard questions to my
students and their creative work.
Okay, I’ll be honest. I’ve gotten two “main” reviews so far (since the book comes out, officially, in October). The first was from Publisher’s Weekly, and it said the book is “remarkable, a gift to my son and to my readers.” I glowed for a couple of days. The review from Kirkus was way less flattering. It said the book is “self-indulgent womb-gazing.” After going to bed for a couple of days, I settled down to being angry. Isn’t a memoir a valid exploration of the self—particularly a hard look at “self” by a woman who has not told the story of the birth of her own son, a woman who has kept silent even with herself about that birth? And womb-gazing?? Before I took on the writing of the memoir, and long before I felt I could even begin to imagine someday meeting my son, I used to wake up (on the anniversary dates—the one I knew was true and the ones I’d been told were true, since I honestly couldn’t remember) and my womb would contract. My womb MADE me look, when I was too afraid to do so on the conscious plane. So, yes, I guess the memoir is womb-gazing.
I’m doing a bunch of readings. To name a few: The Kentucky Book Fair.
Southern Kentucky Festival of the Book. Associated Writing Programs
Conference reading. Readings at Vanderbilt and at Hollins University.
My hope is that this memoir provides strength for other young women—the
strength to tell the difficult stories of their lives and the strength to
find healing, once those stories find a voice.
Hmmm. Maybe the question “what would you have been if you couldn’t have been a writer?” A painter. A veterinarian. A flutist. A landscaper. A carpenter.
I come back to the writing, again and again.
Karen Sayler McElmurray Reading on video ( Old Dominion University, 2001)
© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved