Writing Joy

Karen McElmurray


In one of my long-time favorite essays, “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl says that memoir is travel writing. The memoirist, she says, “is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey…moving through it all faithfully, not so much as a survivor with a harrowing tale to tell but as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering.” For me, good memoir is a little bit like the ending of a short story I love by Doris Betts. At the moment of giving birth a woman looks down into the eyes of her newborn child—and in one eye she sees sorrow, and in the other joy.

My own journey toward writing nonfiction (and ultimately toward writing joy) began in about 1980, when I was part of a Modern Poetry Class at a small Kentucky college. My classmates and I met at the home of Dr. Bobby Fong, sipped soft drinks and juice and ate snacks on his screened porch. It was that semester I fell in love again and again with poems. The notes in the margins of my textbooks are rife with wonder. Here’s a pastiche of words I circled, recopied, marked with hearts and stars in the margins of my book. Inebriate of air. An agony of flame. Downward to darkness on extended wings. Night’s moonlight lake…neither water nor air. As a twenty-one year old would-be poet, I was drawn to anything involving the elements. I loved fire and water and air, and I loved them transfiguring my world. I also loved telling the stories of ordinary women in my poems, most of these stand-in’s for myself. I wrote about lone women in fire towers or on long, solitary walks during wind storms beside lakes. I wrote poems about my experiences as a birth mother, but I was careful, as Emily Dickinson said, to tell my story slant.

It wasn’t until one of the last three days of Dr. Fong’s class that I fell in love the most intensely of all with one particular poem. Here are some paraphrased lines from the first stanza of “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” by Anne Sexton.

“Child, the current of your breath is six days long. Moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong. But this is an institution bed. You will not know me long.”

The truth is I was that girl, or I had been her, about six years earlier, when I’d surrendered my son to state-supported adoption. I knew in my gut that sense of touch between mother and child, the ultimate sorrow when, at the poem, the speaker describes “handing her baby off…trembling the selves lost.”

And yet my memories of the night on the screened porch at Bobby Fong’s when we discussed Anne Sexton are clouded by a kind of shame. Myself and two other young women in that class were greatly moved by the Sexton poem, and by other poems by Marge Piercy and June Jordan. Why, my friend Neylan wanted to know, were we only spending one night on these poets, and weeks on all the others. I remember being told that these poets were merely confessional, and thus not worthy of intensive study. They were self-indulgent, a kind of vomiting on the page. Afterwards I was so embarrassed by my love of such poems that I felt as if I’d somehow boasted an errant bloodstain on the back of my skirt. I renewed my efforts toward understanding serious poems. In the margins of my textbook I can still find this phrase underlined several times: true poetry is essence.

Let’s spin forward a few years in my journey toward memoir, and here I offer you some summary of times and places. There’s was a summer course in poetry at the University of Virginia, where I learned (and this is true) that my poems were way too narrative, focused too intensely on the personal story, and not enough on the transformation of that experience. At another writing workshop at University of Virginia I was told that the short stories I’d begun to write were not yet fiction, but merely a prefabricating of my life experiences. And later? Other there were other workshops. I gave up poetry. I wrote a story about a young woman who had lost a child at birth and couldn’t stop dreaming about dolls without heads and unpleasant birth-giving from the back of her neck. Don’t, I was told, write dreams. Don’t write autobiography and pretend it is fiction. Like Hawthorne’s gaggle of women, I was, it seems, scribbling. What I was writing was somewhere between fact and fiction, somewhere between story and confession, between mere truth and some other essence I wanted to write, and write with authority. Just whose authority, I didn’t know.

Flash forward some more years. By the late 1990’s I was teaching fiction and comp in a small college in south-central Virginia. I’d written and published a novel by then (a suspiciously autobiographical one, one review said) and I had also begun to write small snippets of “something or other” in a journal I often shared with one or two other women friends. In one such snippet, I told the story of sleeping out at night on a beach in Greece and dreaming about my long-lost son. What you need, my friend Wendy told me, is tell your truths. She gave me my first ever copy of the Fourth Genre, Writers of and on Creative Nonfiction. She even wrote a poem for me. Let your voice blossom, she wrote. Let it become a wicked and terrible bloom.

And so I began to write my first nonfiction, a work that eventually became a memoir about my relinquishment of a child to an adoption. And here’s where I come back, more specifically, to the subject of writing joyfully. My history as a writer, to this point, was one of truth-telling often suspiciously received. Thus the writing of my first memoir, over a period of about two years, concerned itself with all things grave. If I was going to write the truth, I told myself, my truth had to be more than scribbling. It had to be more than mere confession. It had to be full of shadows and dark truth. Here I come back to that line of poetry I’d copied in recopied in my college textbook. Downward to darkness on extended wings. If I was going to write truth, and if my truth was to be taken seriously, then, by god, the darker the better. Here’s my equation for that book: Truth = confession. Serious writing = essence. Essence = darkness. Something like that. Joy in my consciousness had retained the aura of frivolity. I wanted to write the real goods.

And that’s just the kind of memoir I wrote, one that left many people gasping for air, privy to so much pain the reading itself is a trial by fire. I’m not here to tell you I’m sorry I summoned darkness, because I’m not. I believe writing must go to the bottom of the self so that one may reach understanding, no less joy. As Patricia Hampl says in “Memory and Imagination,” “if we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us—we are doing the work of memoir.”

I fancy that I have at least to some extent made the journey through the dark woods, through my wounds and my capacity to wound others. I fancy that, by writing darkness, I have earned the right to understand a little more about the true nature of joy. These days, I believe that my writing allows more air in the dark spaces, more true flame, more of the fluidity of water. I trust that the beauty and the power of language itself can and must fill the most difficult experience with light and the possibility of transcendence. And I write joy in other ways. I experience it through the lens of memory, through the power of retrospect, joy of the variety that says, “I experienced this journey, I have sat with this experience, I have attempted an understanding of it and this is what I now know.” Creative nonfiction, far from a mere recitation of events, has the power to question truth and impart to it the magic of possibility, even if we must return to the reality of what and when and where.

Once, years ago, I met a man on a path in Nepal with whom I traded a backpack I’d been carrying for months for a singing bowl. You take a wooden wand and circle the edges of that bowl over and over and over and over and it sings to you. If you’re lucky, you hear the song in your heart and in the palms of your hands. You live it, this presence. This is the place I want to go, the truly joyful place, in my writing. It is darkness and light, it is confession in the best sense. How I get there, I hope, is via a way of life. For me, writing joy is just this—the movement through darkness and out the other side to a truer kind wonder.

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Karen Salyer McElmurray is author of the novels Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven and The Motel of the Stars, as well as a memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey. “Elixir” was a Notable Essay in 2016 Best American Essays and “Hand-Me-Down” was winner of the James Baker Hall Prize for Creative Nonfiction from New Southerner. She teaches creative writing at Gettysburg College and at WV Wesleyan College’s Low Residency MFA. Most recently, she with poet Adrian Blevins co-edited Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.