Donna L. Marsh on Creative Nonfiction:
A Spiritual Journey
Interviewed by Matt Staley
Photo: Donna L. Marsh
Donna L. Marsh teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University and lives in central New York with her husband, Robert O’Connor. Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in numerous journals and magazines including Arrive Magazine, Rose Red Review, Refinery29.com, Weirderary (forthcoming), WraparoundSouth.org (2016), Stone Canoe Journal and AwayJournal.org. She has been publishing on Huffington Post and the Guardian UK as Donna Marsh O’Connor for the better part of the last ten years.
Many of our readers know you because of the wonderful and deeply touching Creative Non-Fiction pieces you’ve published with us. Is creative non-fiction your preferred genre, and if so, why?
DONNA L. MARSH
For me, creative nonfiction (CNF) is a spiritual journey. Most times we think of spiritual journeys as a way to arrive at the heavenly, the “what blankets us”–to places above. But for me, it’s about digging through what is in my literal house, in my neighborhood, on the floor of my car. Imagine a cluttered attic or (to be less romantic) a junk drawer. You find in these metaphoric spaces, things that have names, things that matter to you. But in this naming of things lies the most dimensional of the material, the space where matter (read: purposes, uses, existence) meets matters (read: need, desire, meanings). The more the writer unpacks the metonyms, the more they find.
I was a fiction writer. I am married to a fiction writer. A fiction writer takes characters and things from the realm of the attic/junk drawer and places them in worlds/plots imagined. For me, writing fiction was a way to hide. It felt dishonest. And, frankly, I think that much of the critique of my fiction was a critique of my experience. In contrast, I trust that in the world of the actual, I will find that which I could never have imagine. And that “that which I could never have imagined” is also true or perhaps a better word is fact, cannot be separated from the story. And isn’t that cool? To think that in what is, one finds the eternal? Or even something buried? I am always stunned at the utter beauty in metaphors that capture my imagination. That that which is embedded in language is both obvious and hidden.
If I could never again write in this genre, the only other one I would write in would be poetry or song lyrics. Poets and lyricists have influenced my writing much more than writers of prose. The sound of the sentence, or the music added to word moves ideas like water moves matter. Water finds the air encased.
One of the aspects of creative non-fiction that I enjoy is the glimpse we get into the vulnerability of the writer. I have always seen CNF as a moment in time told through the eyes and experiences of the writer, which I believe, exposes him or her more than through fiction or poetry. You cannot hide behind a character or prose with CNF. What does creative non-fiction mean to you?
DONNA L. MARSH
I loved The World According to Garp. In fact, my husband sort of first proposed to me after I told him that I wanted to be Garp. He said, “You can’t. I want to be Garp.” But I heard John Irving on a PBS interview, I think, and he said (not verbatim) after being asked about the autobiographical overlap of his fiction, I can make the reader feel more in fiction than anything that happens in reality. Again, the gist, not a direct quote. It stuck with me. And I thought over the course of my life: Yeah, you can. But that’s not, for me, the point of CNF. For me the point is to find, in what actually happened, the synchronic, the metaphoric, the patterns of what and how actual lives unfold. Not to make the reader feel, but to express experiences to the point of deepest feeling and understanding, to call upon empathic touching. So, of course, the writer is vulnerable, and so is everyone around the writer whose stories are also told. And I wrestle with this. More about the importance to an essay of experiences not my own. Privacy issues. But, more importantly vulnerability issues. But that is necessary. Because we write to discover the paths we are expected to take, despite the fact that almost every one of us diverges from paths, brings their own obstacles.
Vulnerability is the cost of writing to connect. But it’s not only the cost, it’s the goal. It is in that transaction with the reader that the reader discovers something along with the writer. Like a dog submitting, the writer, too, submits. The world has us each by the throat. Reader and writer submit simultaneously.
Now I think, back to the question of genre: the difference between fiction and creative nonfiction is like the difference between the sailor and the oceanographer. We are interested in words and sentences and stories, but we are not in the same field. Our jobs are not the same. One can’t be the other on the same task.
Creative non-fiction is also the most unforgiving. Let’s be honest, when we put the prefix “non” in front of most words, our brains are wired to easily dismiss everything past that. When you finish a piece, what measure do you use to tell yourself that it’s finished and ready?
DONNA L. MARSH
I have found something. Really. Just that. In an essay, I wander around the subject until I’ve found something. Usually it’s “this is like this” and the two thises are unexpected but interesting. Or I find a mystery for further study in another essay. For me, I usually start with a beginning, or a concept and I write by stepping into the zone (a geographic space) and describe. The story must, for me, be located somewhere. I find the ending by lining up the stories until I see the way they thread. When I see it, I think the reader does. And that’s the end.
9/11 touched your life in a profound and deeply personal way. In “Light and Shadow” published in RSR’s Spring, 2017 issue, you said, “The point was to laugh, to confront with joy and life the determined ways time took us.” Your powerful words read, to me, like a philosophy on how we should live. In the years since 9/11, how do you feel your writing has evolved?
I wish I were the only one who has had such an impactful tragedy. Of course I’m not. Two questions collide here: How and why does one live after the loss? (I mean the practical things like getting out of bed, following social codes, preserving some of the life habits that were a part of you before the loss.) The second question is how and why does one understand life?
Before 9/11/2001 I had two major losses: my father died at 59. He was still youthful. His voice was still vital in my imagination. He was critical of every facet of my being (my body, my moral choices, my children, my marriages, the cleanliness of my homes). And I loved him. He died because it was the 4th of July in 1991 (I write about this a lot.). The second loss was I wrote a book in the late 90s and it could not be published. It was the story of America’s children. Me. My sister. My brother. My children. It was my writing—fragmented, poetic, philosophical. It was the story of what kind of ethical life can be recuperated when your beloved parents are criminals. And it hurt that it was well-received by many, and rejected by more, but no one would publish it. Then, bamm, 9/11. Ten years after my father’s death, another American day, writ so large. First anger motivated me. Many essays about the Bush administration, about the need for a real investigation into the culpability of our own government as it failed to protect us, and, too, the political gains to the right, and, too, the rampant Islamaphobia. I remember the day my fingers first worked at the speed of my brain—for a writer this is essential. That one thinks and words emerge visibly. I had been holding a basket of laundry and I passed by my television and overheard a quote from Dick Cheney about the ’04 presidential election. He said, “John Kerry won’t keep you safe.” I snapped into place right there. My first essay that circulated the web was an “Open Letter to Dick Cheney.”
But I am a joyful person. I want to laugh. I want to swim. I need the feeling of the sun of my face. The joy of holding and kissing and play wrestling with my kids, that’s me. That’s why, after all the crap of my parents, I grieved their departures, because they taught me all of this. We laughed almost every day and when we cried it was for good reason.
That’s what life is. If it’s not to be enjoyed, why live? So my writing came home to this. I left the angry, political, advocacy writing to find, instead, what matters. And it’s always what we value in the most mundane of days—a good meal, a kiss on my dog’s head, waking up to cool sheets. If that matters, then that is what we protect and that is what we explore.
And that, too, is not just something that happens to me. We all need and want to taste, touch, hear, feel, smell. That’s “the simple” we value.
Some of your writing, especially about your daughter, is a whirlwind of emotions for the reader, and I cannot know what it must feel like as you write a piece with such feeling. When you take that mental journey as a writer, how do you prepare yourself?
DONNA L. MARSH
I’d rather be with her than not. I fear the day I stop crying over her. Writing her stories is casting her life again on the page. It’s my way of validating our lives together. It’s an apology for all the missteps I made as her mother. It’s acknowledging that her brothers still need to know more about she and I someday. Mostly, it’s about understanding what our lives mean. At the end of metaphoric day, in the scale of human history, the life she lived is roughly the same amount of time as my own. We had a relationship that merits exploration. We lived in a culture that I want to understand, that is important for me to understand.
The deep emotional space is where love lives. When I go there, I am engulfed by my love for her.
Creative non-fiction is an area of writing I’ve never explored from behind a keyboard, but I’ve read plenty. Your style of creative non-fiction spans different subjects and time, but I always get a sense of something therapeutic. When you teach CNF, how do you move past the style of the writing and teach writers about choosing substance?
DONNA L. MARSH
I always teach CNF by starting with the genres it is not. I teach poetry and we mark its qualities. Same with fiction. We look at the modes of description and the effect of words and genre expectations. Poetry helps students understand tone, and insight, and words with richer than temporal meanings. When we read CNF, we look for the power and impact of metaphor. The last thing we focus on is “story.”
To the 9/11 generation, who will soon be entering college for the first time, what will be your message to them as a writing instructor? How will you convey “peace is a value” to young adult writers who have seen a planet consumed by conflict for most of their lives?
DONNA L. MARSH
I am newly retired from teaching in the classroom. But last semester (and for most of the semesters I taught) I asked students to read Michel Foucault’s Panopticism. Everyone should read it. Every one. It explains power and the way social systems of oppression are intricate, interwoven, and decentralized. I teach as I write, so I pair deep philosophical texts with those kinds of text that show patterns. We watch films like American Beauty (amazing for what it decenters) and Two Spirit (a lesser known indie film about the Nadleeh Navajo people and their belief in the fluidity of gender). Contrasting texts helps students to find the borders and the connections between ideas and their realms.
As for this planet consumed by conflict—I think they know their tasks better than I do. They respond to compassion towards them and that is the way to get them to be more compassionate.
At a certain point last year it became clear to me that I could teach more efficiently through writing, than I ever could in the classroom again.
Thank you for sharing some of your most intimate thoughts with us. What projects will we see from you in the coming months?
DONNA L. MARSH
I am writing two books and revising that first one–the disappointment.
My Life in Dogs, Tales of Post 9/11 (working title) is a linear narrative about the dog my daughter left behind (who eventually came to be mine) and the two dogs after. It is about two thirds of the way drafted.
The second book, Reaching for the Pearl, is a series of interconnected essays, one of which, In the Shade of Apparition is published in Red Savina Review (Fall 2016). The title essay is published in Stone Canoe Journal (Spring 2016). Gabrielle’s Mother was just published in the July 2017 issue of Corvus Review. I’ll start submitting the first essay in the collection (Before the Flags) in a couple of weeks.
The Half Life of Solomon’s Children is the original book, written in the late 90s. In it I write, “they say when you die your life flashes before you; for some, it happens sooner.” I think this book unfolded because it was the half of my life when I still had a daughter. I’m reworking this to begin each essay/chapter with a short preface that explains what the essay foreshadowed. It’s a freaky thing to read it and see all of the warning signs, the signs that said I knew to some extent what was coming.
I also write essays on subjects I care about every day: Race, gender, sexuality—how we live our lives. It’s all so fascinating.