Remembering Judith Kitchen

Excavating a Life

Queen of the Fall book coverQueen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, is a collection of linked essays by Sonja Livingston and the If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book selection for 2016.

For the next few weeks, Sonja will be here for readings, signings and discussions at Writers & Books, local libraries, schools, colleges and bookstores.

Sonja is from the Rochester area, and divides her time between Rochester and the University of Memphis, where she teaches writing. The daughter of a single mother and one of seven children (with five different fathers), Sonya has also written a memoir, Ghostbread, about growing up in poverty in the Rochester slums and on the Tonawanda Reservation.

When I read the dedication page of Queen of the Fall, I was surprised and delighted to see this: “For my mothers, actual and acquired, and In memory of Judith Kitchen.

I wondered: Does Sonja look upon Judith as a mother figure, a kind of midwife who helped Sonja give birth to her own writing?

Yes, she does. So do I, and so do many in the Rochester community. I know Sonja does because, flipping through her essays, I found “Flight,” about the personal essay writing class taught by Judith that Sonja enrolled in many times.

I took the same class from Judith years ago, when I first began writing memoir and essay. Poet, novelist and essayist Judith Kitchen was a professor at SUNY Brockport at the time. She was married to the poet Stan Rubin, also on the Brockport faculty. Both were master teachers beloved by students and the literary community here.

I’d had to wait a semester to get a spot in Judith’s class. She generously added a slot or two beyond the designated maximum enrollment of twenty to accommodate those of us at the top of the waiting list. Judith didn’t have to let us non-matriculated students in, but she did. I think that she welcomed the diversity of backgrounds and generations, because it made for lively, rich discussion and, ultimately, more learning and better writing.

Our class was made up mostly of young people enrolled in the Creative Writing MA program. There were a few women getting mid-life master’s degrees in the class, too. I was in the small group of moms with kids and/or jobs, taking the course as continuing ed, trying to squeeze in the class time, plus the hours of writing and preparing critiques.

Oddly, I sat next to another mom with young children who also happened to be writing about having a mother with schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure I liked that so much, but on the other hand we “got” each other. We were of the same tribe and found our own experiences validated in each other’s writing.

HouseOnEcclesI remember those three-hour sessions every Tuesday evening, all of us crowded around a large conference table in an undersized room. Usually, two people were in the hot seat: the writer whose essay we were critiquing, and the student moderator leading the critique.

Being the moderator was nearly as stressful as having 20+ people deconstruct and critique your writing. Judith wanted us to practice and learn the art of critical reading and the art of leading a successful writing workshop. She knew the value of writers in community and that the best way to learn how to write is to learn from one other. So, in addition to our writing assignments, we were required to come to class prepared to intelligently discuss our classmates’ essays, having read them thoroughly and marked them with comments.

Judith was strict in her expectations, but she was also kind and nonjudgmental. This is crucial in a writing teacher, especially in a college setting where you have new, young writers grappling with their innermost secrets and shames and confessing them on the page, perhaps for the first time.

We wrote and shared funny essays, of course, and happy ones and contemplative ones. But in Judith’s class, I learned what it was like to be young and beautiful and anorexic in a dorm full of women with anorexia. I learned what it was like to have your dearest, life-long friend, the one who knew you better than anyone else, commit suicide. I learned what it was like to be secretly lesbian and have a Vietnam war veteran with undiagnosed PTSD for a father.

I wrote a couple of essays about my family, my mother, schizophrenia, and the boy I loved. I shared with the class stories I’d never told before and listened to their comments.

One classmate’s essay in particular has stayed with me all these years. He wrote about a long night of partying. Beer after beer, shot after shot. The girl he was madly in love with. (Who he was still madly in love with; it was all over every page and you could see it in his eyes as he listened to our comments.) The girl who didn’t know he was alive. The girl whose long blonde hair he pulled back and held as she vomited into a toilet.

I don’t think he was confident of his own potential and, for sure, he knew before we said anything that he hadn’t nailed it, this unrequited love he was trying to write about. I think this boy and his essay got to me because I had two sons on the young side of their teen years. I realized that I was old enough to be this writer’s mother, old enough to be the mother of all the young writers in the class. I knew that I would never hear about my own sons’ loves in this searing detail, because that is not what sons tell their mothers. I knew this boy’s mother would likely never hear the story her son was trying to tell us.

I wanted to offer him something helpful and constructive, but I was mystified. I, too, was finding that, when it came to writing about my own first love, I was at a loss. How do you write about love in a way that is not sentimental or cliche, but authentic, vivid, new?

In autobiographical writing, you need to learn how to methodically unearth your personal land mines without letting yourself go crazy all over again. Then, with focus, presence of mind, patience, and persistence, you teach yourself the craft of writing. Draft after draft, you learn how to spin your most intense life experiences and emotions into storytelling gold. It becomes not about you anymore. Your exquisitely cut but imperfect gem of a story (it will never be perfect), the only one like it in the world, is ultimately for the reader.

Maternal is the word I think of now to describe Judith Kitchen. The way she created a safe, nurturing, supportive place for new writers to learn how to do this.

In class, my comment to the boy writing about the girl he loved was only to say something that would help him feel some kinship in his struggle. I said I thought writing about love was one of the hardest things and I was trying to figure out how to do it, too. I told him his writing was, for me, authentic and deeply felt, and that I thought if he kept writing but didn’t try to force it, eventually it would become what it was supposed to be.

A few years after I took her class, Judith and her husband moved to Port Townsend, Washington, where they founded the Rainier Writing Workshop. It is a unique, 3-year low-residency program. Its focus is not on achieving heights of literary prowess or publication or prizes, but on helping students find for themselves a sustainable, lifelong writing practice. A worthy goal.

Judith passed away in 2014. Years after Judith left Rochester, there are a handful of writing groups that originated from her classes that are still going strong.

Next week: Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall and Ghostbread.

Have you had a writing teacher or artistic mentor who has influenced you and helped you along on your creative path?

 

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

And,

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

And,

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

The Empathy Exams

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world – anywhere, anytime, ever.”    Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

 

At work when I need a break, I go for coffee in the atrium of the medical school. On the way, I pass by the learning labs, where occasionally I see people–young, middle-aged, and older, male and female–sitting in the hallway, waiting for their turn to go in.

They have a twinkle in their eye as though they know something you don’t. They’re psyched, as if prepared to give a performance. That’s because they’re medical actors, hired so medical students can practice their empathic patient interviewing and diagnostic skills.

The Empathy Exams book coverIn The Empathy Exams, author Leslie Jamison explains what a medical actor does. She knows because she’s been one herself:

“My job title is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies….

Medical acting works like this: You get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us–not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocol. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real estate and graphic design firms…

My specialty case is Stephanie Phillips, a twenty-three-year-old who suffers from something called conversion disorder. She is grieving the death of her brother, and her grief has sublimated into seizures. Her disorder is news to me. I didn’t know you could convulse from sadness. She’s not supposed to know either. She’s not supposed to think the seizures have anything to do with what she’s lost.”

These are the first paragraphs of the first essay in The Empathy Exams, and they intrigued me for a number of reasons: Leslie’s compelling voice; her take on the ironies and subtleties of medical acting; and because I, too, had been nonplussed when, as a medical librarian, I learned about conversion disorder.

A couple of years ago an “outbreak” of conversion disorder (known as mass psychogenic illness) among a dozen or more high school girls in a nearby upstate New York town captured the attention of media around the world.  One after another, the girls succumbed to uncontrollable tics and verbal outbursts. They were besieged with requests for interviews. Their physicians advised them to avoid social media so the frenzy wouldn’t cause their symptoms to get worse. Some people thought the girls were faking their illness. Erin Brockovich (with lawsuits in mind) suspected environmental poisoning. At the medical center where I work, I was asked to track the news coverage. Neurologists wanted to see if there was a correlation between spikes in media attention and exacerbation of the girls’ symptoms.

No environmental cause was ever found. Eventually, most of the girls recovered. One journalist wrote a well researched investigative piece that pointed out the girls came from troubled families in a town devastated by unemployment. Many of the girls had recently experienced significant domestic trauma. Perhaps this trauma triggered their conversion disorder.

In her essays, Leslie is concerned about physical and emotional pain, what it means to empathize with those who suffer, how difficult this can be, and why it is important to have our pain acknowledged by others, given the fact that we’re so often quick to accuse people of succumbing to victimhood. I often think about this when I read reviews dismissive of memoirs as self-indulgent. I wonder if I’m playing the victim when I write about some of my own experiences. Ours is not an empathic culture.

Leslie writes about her own pain and that of others in various walks of life: those suffering from “phantom” illnesses; a man in federal prison for a minor crime; ultra-marathoners who push their bodies beyond reason; three teen-age boys accused of murder on the thinnest of evidence.

As I read, I began to think of the girls with conversion disorder in a more nuanced way and, yes, with greater emapthy. The media stories had reduced the girls to caricatures. Leslie’s essays got me thinking the girls hadn’t had their fair share of empathy (or good fortune) in their personal lives and certainly not during the sensationalistic coverage of their illness.

I’d just about finished reading The Empathy Exams when I read a New York Times article about the alleged rape of a college freshman, Anna, by two football players. After what seems to have been a staggeringly incompetent college “investigation,” the football players were cleared. Anna left school after she was harassed for making accusations against members of the football team, but she plans to return this fall. She doesn’t want to be defeated, and she wants to help other women on campus.

I couldn’t get this story out of my mind.  I mulled it over when I went to work out at our community center. The story has unleashed a firestorm, with accusations back and forth: between Anna and the football players, as well as among college officials, the district attorney’s office, and Anna’s legal counsel. Many of the kids–the football players, the fraternity members, the girls who went to the party – were drunk to the point of oblivion. (Anna, herself, was so drunk she doesn’t remember being raped – hence, some of the controversy – though others witnessed it and did nothing. One of Anna’s friends did help her, and other friends decided to call the police.) How can this self-destructive partying be fun for anyone, and why are students driven to do it?

If you believe the unbelievable numbers cited in this story–that 20 percent of college women are sexually assaulted–it does seem as though we are not paying attention to something important. That perhaps we need to start listening to a certain segment of the population, and listening with empathy.

After I finished exercising, I sat in the lounge overlooking the pool, watching moms and dads swimming with their children. I pulled out Leslie’s essays and read the final one, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Leslie seemed to be speaking about Anna.

“It’s news if a woman feels terrible about herself in the world–anywhere, anytime, ever….

Sure, some news is bigger news than other news….But I don’t believe in a finite economy of empathy; I happen to think paying attention yields as much as it taxes. You learn to start seeing.

I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out of date…masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore.”

Leslie has much more to say, and her essays are far richer than I’ve captured here. I won’t share her most important insights, as much would be lost in the translation.

She’s a remarkable new writer.

Still reading Barry Lopez

Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer`s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful.                    Barry Lopez

About This Life book coverIn the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out –  artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.

I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.”  An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln.  Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.

Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.

Crow and Weasel book coverOver and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.

Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,”  in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.

I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?

If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our bests interests to see that no one among us is silenced.

So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.

“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

Quotes from: About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1998.

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