Outside the Outside

Karen Salyer McElmurray


            Just five years ago, I survived my own ending.  Came through treatment following a diagnosis of stage three colorectal cancer.  This, in itself, is a familiar story. Woman faced with major illness.  Chemo.  Surgeries.  Lymph nodes, potential cell migrations.  But the ending?  The furthest part or point of something.  My synapses came alive.

             A nerve ending.  The point at which I began to reevaluate my life. 

            I had the job writers most want.  Full time faculty member in an MFA Program, complete with editorship for a nationally recognized literary magazine, a reading series, and mentorship for bright, young writers finding their voices.  But I knew that I needed an environment that nurtures the creative—and I had not found that in my workplace.  I wanted community.  Respectful and non-hierarchical thinking.  I wanted to begin again.                                                    




            Where I grew up, education itself can seem like a strange and foreign country.  In the Eastern Kentucky I grew up in, a lot of people quit school as soon as they can or as soon as circumstances make that necessary.  High school boys quit to buy coal rigs.  Girls quit school, becoming mothers.  I almost quit school myself when I became pregnant at fifteen, with a son I relinquished to social services and a state-supported adoption.  I was poor, married to a boy one year older than me who worked at a grocery store and stole steaks and rolls of cookie dough for our suppers.  Once we divorced, my own jobs over the next few years were fast food, maid, checker at a convenience store. 

            My odds weren’t good for higher education.  Lots of fine people, so my father told me once I left home, never went on to college.  He encouraged me to study shorthand and typing.  Nor were the female role models in my family very encouraging.  Only one woman, an aunt by marriage on my father’s side, went to college at all, and she was an elementary school teacher.  My aunts on my mother’s side all finished high school, but then they settled in to becoming wives, then into depression and divorce and fundamentalist religion, one of the main ways I grew up seeing women in my mountain culture having a voice at all—a voice raised in praise of God the Father. 

            Following my son’s relinquishment,  I worked as cook, secretary, landscaper, sporting towel folder, greenhouse worker—but my father, a high school math teacher, had early on instilled in me the hunger for a  college education, even if he didn’t necessarily encourage me to get one for myself and didn’t support my efforts in that direction.  So I attended night school, community college, applied for every grant I could get my hands on so I could finish my undergraduate degree at Berea College, where I was a weaver and a teaching assistant as I studied literature and philosophy.  After graduation, I found myself employed at a child care center.  On the phone one day a friend from college asked me just what I thought I was doing, anyway, surrounded by thirty children and oceans of spilled milk.  Soon I applied for more schooling.  I graduated from an MFA Program, an MA Program, a Doctoral Program.  I became Visiting Assistant Professor, Writer in Residence, Assistant Professor, twice.  Associate Professor, Professor-on-her-way-to-the-stars.  I wrote and published books.  Papers mounted on my kitchen table.  Over the years I have taught everything from World Literature to the Literature of Railroads.  I have traveled between genres, crossed more state lines than I can count.  Climbed an invisible rope that burned my hands.  I became, as one of my best friends has told me, driven.

            In the midst of that drivenness?  Memory.  Sometimes, the sadness of the women I’ve left behind.  The aunt who ran off to be a go-go dancer, leaving behind the daughter who passed from family to family.  The cousin who almost went to college, but ended up weighing in at almost four hundred pounds before she died, her lungs and heart and kidneys and self, given out.  The aunt who almost never leaves her trailer and can see the grave of her son in the family cemetery on the hill beyond her kitchen window.   And my own mother.  For almost forty years she told me she wished she’d done something with herself after high school.  Gone on to business school.  Learned to be a secretary or a nurse or a kindergarten teacher.  Used to be, when I’d go to visit her, she’d have the Kentucky Driver’s License Manual sitting out on the coffee table.  She’d have underlined key phrases about parallel parking, caution signs and turn signals.  She’d wave the manual in my face.  I just might learn how to drive, she’d say.  I ought to

            In this tableau of women’s lives, the memory I return to most often is my Aunt Della.  Aunt Della owned a restaurant and diner called The Black Cat.  She fixed brakes, changed oil, fried eggs, paid the bills.  It was the 1950’s and women didn’t do jobs like that much.  My Aunt, they say, was odd-turned.  Contrary.  I’ve written stories about her, her big hands, black-streaked and strong from hard work.   I imagine her reaching down into some vat of soaking spark plugs, some geography of wires and hoses.  What message did the faulty hearts of engines send back?  Della, I used to think, was the one I most wanted to be. 




            The time I first thought about leaving my job I was in a crowd celebrating thesis defenses and pending graduations, standing next to a woman I'll call Ava.  She was a second year student in nonfiction. Ava had traveled, spent a lot of time in Peru, and she'd traveled emotional realms, too. She was writing about drug addiction and alcoholism, about, at last, her ability to find love.   I was her thesis advisor, but I had been ill and was planning an exit for awhile to get myself on my feet again.  I was worried about where I’d leave her and her work.

            Ava and I were, as we sometimes joked, free range lyricists.  We wrote non-linearly, for the most part.  We were both interested in intimate writing, writing that appealed to a private self, an interior self.  We were both a little older, her as an MFA student, me as a woman getting established in a career.  And we’d both experienced edges.  Me with my cancer, and Ava, too, who had just experienced a series of miscarriages and then a long, difficult pregnancy.   Since that pregnancy, there’d been concern about the impact on her teaching assistantship.  The missed classes.  The incompletes on her record.

            How pretty Ava looked with her newly cut hair, an asymmetrical style that echoed the question she was trying to ask. I sipped my wine and listened.  Could her thesis be part poems and part memoir?  She was struggling to fill pages, to find the time to write. She'd finally had the baby, a beautiful boy I'd gotten to hold while he was swaddled, fresh from the hospital.  

            Before I could answer, the boy-writers began to gather at the bar. Mark. Tom. Randy. And the director of the writing program.  Glass of Jack Daniels in hand, two sheets to the wind like the rest of us.

            My writing program’s director was a poet in a school that, like much of increasingly corporatized academia, doesn't know what to do with its artists. He’s a good enough poet, married to a school administrator, with no children of his own.  He wants awards, publications, for himself and his program.  He was impatient with Ava, the miscarriages that took her out of the classroom, the pregnancy that left her bed ridden, the baby that had to come first.  He wanted her to finish up, pronto, move on out, make room for those more reliable and good for the program than herself. 

I drank white wine while the director finished his Jack Daniels, his plump cheeks flushed.  Anyone here pregnant, he asked. He studied the five of us, his gaze moving across Ava.  Don’t get pregnant, now, he said as he wagged a finger at the boys. 

            I could almost hear it.  Ava’s missed classes, clinking in his brain like ice in a glass. The sound of a joke that wasn’t one.  The quiet, after. 




            I have thought again and again about my Aunt Della and her cars  over my years as a teacher of creative writing.  I can still see her as she came back from the garage and sat at one of the diner booths, after she’d worked out in the garage.  By then, her marriage to my Uncle Russell was on the rocks, and he worked the kitchen while she managed the garage.  They didn’t talk much, hadn’t for a good long while, and he ended up, by the time I was nine, dying in the front seat of his Chevy Impala, radio and heater on, after Della locked him out after he he’d laid out all night, drinking and playing poker. 

            Before that tragedy is what I remember her most.  Her at the table, me underneath that table, staring up at the chewing gum somebody had left behind and listening to Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys on the jukebox.  Where did you come from, where did you go?  Where did you come from, Cotton Eyed Joe?  Later on, she’d order me a grilled cheese with dill pickles and I’d sit with her and study her hands.  Those freckle-backed, leathery brown hands.  How she held her coffee mug with one hand and cradled a cigarette in the other.  You’re a pretty little thing, ain’t you, she’d say.  And she’d talk about her daughter, Rita, who’d moved off up north and become a big lawyer.  

            It is certain that part of my own ambition to leave Kentucky and myself become something big dates from those times.  Della’s hands, with their black-edged nails, thick and misshapen with work, were hands that knew how to do things.  All these years later, in creative writing classes, that knowing is what I have wanted.  Intuitive. Close to the bone.  That kind of knowledge.  In my workshops, I ask writers to talk about “the heart” of a work at hand.  Its intentions.  What it is about, and why, and then how, via craft, can that heart be furthered.  A memory of hands.  The heart.  Heartwood, that botany term for the part of the wood that is hardest of all. 




            It took me over five years to make my decision to leave my academic position.  Two years of radiation and chemo and two major surgeries.  Three years of recovery. The long while after that to agonize over what I could afford, what I couldn’t, in ways practical and philosophical.  Would I be able to find enough work on my own, out of the system, to be self-sufficient?  I’d been living at a distance from my husband for over six years, but would I be turning my life over to him if I left my job?  Never depend on anyone, my program director said, when I tried to discuss my options.  That’s what my wife has always taught me!  I see myself at other strategic moments during that time of confusion and uncertainty.  We were sitting in a conference room, the director and I.  I’d challenged him on whether we should award a fiction prize to a student when I knew the piece from a class in nonfiction.  Is that ethical, I asked.  Do you really care about being ethical, he asked, his voice incredulous, belittling of my question.  The trouble is I cared too much.  I was beset by every angle of my decision, every outcome and option.  I felt angry, voiceless. 

            It would be far too easy to let this short essay devolve into a list of grievances and complaints.  To let it devolve into more scenes from my previous position , ones in which I found myself and the women I worked with devalued, patronized or criticized.  And along with that dynamic, my mounting frustration that what we were teaching was not writing itself, really, but the pursuit of the teaching position, the publisher, the rank and file.  Listing grievances is not my intention here, and it is not useful for that larger subject, the one most important to me these days: the making of art via the written word.  Other writers I’ve met have faced equally hard choices where that subject is concerned.

            One woman wrote me her story of leaving a similar job, her realization that she had to leave behind toxicity in order to remember who she was, a writer first and foremost.  And another friend, a poet who drove me to the airport a few weeks back and also left tenure.  He said this.  “I have realized that I wanted to work in order to support my poetry—not write to support the job.  I seldom wrote any more.  Instead I spent my time lobbying for the next grant, for lines on my vita, for opportunities that would propel me forward.  I had, in the end, forgotten what forward meant.  I came to realize, finally, that forward meant family, happiness, a balanced life—all of which are necessary to my writing life.” 

            The truth is, I am not always certain what exactly is necessary for my life as a writer.  If I drive the miles all the way back to that little town in Eastern Kentucky where I come from, I feel like a stranger in a strange country, one in which I am, these days, a foreigner.  No one reads much, and when I see them, they seldom mention my life as a writer, that weird anomaly, with its undertones of English class and grammar, its high-minded sound, its intimidation factor.  A writer.  Just who do you think you are, anyway?  The truth is I have also felt like a stranger in the halls of academe, its offices and faculty meetings, its politics and intrigues.  Just who was I, anyway?  The first woman in my family to go to college.  As the nine years of my job went by, I feared becoming the director himself.  Or the professor down the hall who never writes, but must, for merit pay, for end-of-year reports, for research credit.  I was a writer of poetic prose, of emotions and memories and light, a writer who didn’t quite know what to make of the colleagues who disdained writing personal stories, who disparaged memoir as a lesser form.  Just who do I think I am?




            Where I used to think I came alive most fully was in the company of other women.  Women friends.  Other women writers and artists.  We all inhabited, I believed, that wild zone Elaine Showalter describes in her essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.”  “We can think of the 'wild zone' of women's culture spatially, experientially, or metaphysically,” Showalter says. “Spatially it stands for an area which is literally no-man's-land, a place forbidden to men….   Experientially it stands for the aspects of the female life-style which are outside of and unlike those of men; again, there is a corresponding zone of male experience alien to women. But if we think of the wild zone metaphysically, or in terms of consciousness, it has no corresponding male space since all of male consciousness is within the circle of the dominant structure and thus accessible to or structured by language. In this sense, the 'wild' is always imaginary.”   But I was forever frustrated that the women I worked with in the academy often didn’t belong in that female space, either.  Butter them up more, said one of my female colleagues.  This was advice I could not tolerate.

            The truth is I clung to the idea of my job longer than I clung to the job itself.  The money, of course.  I’d been poor much of my life before coming to academia.  Had lived on everything from food stamps to jobs cleaning houses.  Security was a very hard thing to surrender.  Still this was not what haunted me the most.  As Patricia Foster, in her essay, “The Intelligent Heart,” writing deeply about the self is “the source, the goods, the first principle from which everything else is made.”     I’d believed that by teaching creative writing I was teaching a way of thinking, a way of diving deeper, understanding the world and one’s place in that world, be it socially or politically or spiritually.  In the growing discussions of enrollment numbers and national rankings, I grew more and more unsure of what I believed or why. 

            I want to return for a moment to that night of the cocktail party and my student.  Her difficult pregnancies.  The sad warnings of the director about pregnancy.   Is anybody pregnant? Don’t get pregnant!  What I think, in the end, is that all writers are pregnant.  We’re pregnant with memories that must be told.  With the summoned memories of hands and coffee cups, of the sad, lined faces of loved ones we will lose to time, as surely as they have lost loved ones, as surely as we will all learn what it is we can hold onto, what we cannot.  As Patricia Hampl says in “Memory and Imagination,” “our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relation with the past.”   What we all must do, I realized in those last weeks before I resigned my position, is tell our stories—nonfiction or poetry, novels or stories.  We’re pregnant with these stories, stories fecund and rich, ripe and necessary.




            I was an outsider.  I belonged outside the outside.    

            It was like this I often tried to teach words.

            I reached outside for them, and inside too.  Outside myself and my neat, clean desk.  Back to the garage where Della worked.  Down into the engine of some old Dodge Dart, its engine block cracked and spewing steam.  I reached down and patched holes with stove cement and grease.  I reached down inside and got hold. 

            I reached inside unsavory places.  The lungs, the gut, the unwilling heart.  Tell me, I said to the words and those who wrote them.  Tell me truths, even if they are not pretty, even if they taste bitter and they hurt.

            Open, I told the words and their makers.  Come alive. 




            These days, I’m living with my partner and doing my best to work for myself in an uncertain job market.  I’m teaching in new ways.  Classes at a women’s shelter, this last summer.  Teaching for conferences, picking up creative writing classes at schools nearby, trying to summon my own words with clarity I haven’t had for a long while.  Twice each year, I teach at low-residency writing programs, where the students are writing while they conduct other, busy professional lives.  I like this work, and I like these voices.  These students with full lives who are trying to make room for creativity.

            Recently, when I was teaching at one of the residencies, I was up in my room for the night.  As I lay there, lights off, trying to relax before the following day of teaching and talking about the writing life, the world was so alive I couldn’t sleep.  It was late, but downstairs, I heard cheering, on screen and off.  There was a football game on television.  I imagined hurrahs from the bar down the street, shouting from the lawn. There was a lot to shout about.  Next day, the score announced would be 42 to 14, Alabama over Notre Dame.  But that night as I lay there, what I was thinking about was the nature of competition itself.  Words from game world.  Goals.  Yards earned.  Points.  Those words circled in my head with similar words and phrases from the previous days at the residency.  Earned a position.  Books snatched up by so and so.  Works meets its goal.   

            What is the goal of the writing life?

            For years, my own goal has been success as much as anything.  I’ve lobbied for jobs, grants, fellowships, agents, publishers, publications.  And those, I still know, are the necessary tools of the trade, the reality of the writing business.  I want those tools of the trade as much as anyone else.

            Since my illness, there are parts of the game I no longer want. The inner critic’s rules.  She thinks we’re more talented than she is.  Or I walk into a big writer’s conference with my husband and he says, “you can feel the force of the egos in the air,” and I want to shrug this off.  But I feel it as much as he does.  Another friend says this.  I’m tired of not being invited to the table in the writing world.  When am I going to get there?  I want to take the high road, tell her that there is only one table, artistry, and that we all eat there.  But secretly, I have the same fears.  The same resentments concerning who is publishing where, how many books so and so has, how fast those books were written and what job at which place those books have earned her.

            Lewis Hyde quotes Joseph Conrad in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.   'The artist appeals...to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition--and, therefore, more permanently enduring.  Art speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation--to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity...which binds together all humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.'"  

            On the night of the big game, I found myself thinking, as I often do, about my Aunt Della.  About her hands.  Hands, I say, that knew how to do things.  Set a spark plug gap just right.  Set an engine purring down the road.  How I want to take these words I write, these words I teach, and set them purring like the engines she knew like the backs of her own hands. That night I lay sleepless a long time, watching the shadows of branches move across the window blinds and listening to the voices downstairs.  I wanted to know how to go there and sit and wait for the real words to find their way. 

iShowalter, Elaine.  “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness:  Pluralism and the Feminist Critique.”  New French Feminisms: An Anthology.  Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron.  University of Massachusetts Press.  1979.

iiFoster, Patricia.  “The Intelligent Heart.”  The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction.  Third Edition.  Pearson Education.  2005.

iiiHampl, Patricia.  “Memory and Imagination.”  The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction.  Third Edition.Pearson Education.  2005. 

ivHyde, Lewis.  The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  Vintage.  2007.

      return to non-fiction

Karen Salyer McElmurray 's Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction.  Her novels are The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American, and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing.  Other stories and essays have appeared in Iron Horse, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Riverteeth, and in the anthologies An Angle of Vision; To Tell the Truth; Fearless Confessions; Listen Here; Dirt; Family Trouble; and Red Holler.  Her writing has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.  Most recently, she was named Distinguished Alumna at Berea College and her essay, “Strange Tongues,” was the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award from The Bellingham Review. In Spring 2014, she will be the Lewis Rubin Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University.