I‘d almost forgotten that Judith Kitchen, accomplished writer and the co-director of my MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, inscribed her book, Half in Shade, for me last August. On the final night of residency, as we gathered outside for dinner with the sun descending into the trees, I asked her to sign it. She wrote: “For Maggie, Best of luck moving in this direction”. Last week I just finished Half in Shade as a part of this month’s reading selection for my program.
Two days prior to the signing, I had made the decision to switch genres from fiction to nonfiction. Judith defies “genre”–she’s published poetry, fiction and nonfiction–and her new book is a memoir. Judith knew that I was moving into nonfiction, and I don’t think she was completely surprised. I had, after all, entered residency with both fiction and nonfiction workshop material. Apparently, as stated many times by my classmates, our program directors, Judith and Stan Rubin have an uncanny ability to set you on a course you may not have fully envisioned before but really, it’s true north.
While I’ve always written short stories, my work of fiction has always been loosely disguised. My stories all have their roots in my own life, and many are set on Marquette Island. Most of my characters are like me, desperate for connection and yearning for a life spent on water or at the top of a mountain. Although I’m not a complete stranger to the world of creative nonfiction and journalism, I didn’t really imagine myself as anything else then a woman who would write novels and short stories. Not memoir and essays. I knew I wanted to write about the influence of the island and my family, but imagined it would be a work of fiction.
But here I am now, writing essays and drafting my memoir. I’ve sighted in on the lodestar.
My experience during my residency helped to set my compass and pointed me to the location I’d been tiptoeing around, scared to really search for (even though I do publish a blog, and it is personal and intimate so I really don’t know why I approached nonfiction with such timidness).
Now, relying on both luck and courage, I am finding the path in “this direction”. The trail isn’t always present (and I don’t think any writer, no matter their genre, can always find the trailhead let alone the path) but instead of shaping facts into fiction, letting my life’s events dissolve into weakly written stories, I’ve pushed further on the route. And with just two more packets remaining for my first graduate year, I have well over a hundred pages of material. Material that I’ve stored up but didn’t really know how to place it on the page, not until I was given the blessing to move in “this direction”. I’m writing my story: chapters and chapters of my youth in Michigan and my adult life in Montana. And these pages, saved up and stored on my computer are my own cairns on this trail, guiding me to the next point and helping me to find my way back, whenever I get turned around.
This project is much more than just about me. It involves my family and I’ve dug into my family history, sending tens of emails a day to my mom, asking about dates of birth, marriages, deaths, and more. There are characters, there’s a narrative arc: it’s all there, well at least it’s becoming there, on the page. Because I’ve always known, even when I was a young girl, that what I wanted to write about most was how an island in northern Lake Huron transformed my whole family. And how the waves and the Boston Whaler and the boathouse and the cedar trees and the rocky beach shaped me into the person and the writer that I am now. How this landscape defined a particular set of relationships for me and how this island cast me off to the mountains, adding further definition to my life.
Moving in this direction hasn’t been easy. There are times when I’ve wanted to escape into fiction, although I know I can’t truly write a story that doesn’t bear some mark of my life. The times when I want to escape, when I want to lie because it hurts to write. Or even embarrassing. Or shameful, even. When I feel myself slide toward the fabrications (I’m not talking about changing facts, I’m talking about escaping my story and fleeing into another), I know that something powerful and important is pulling on my ear: this needs to be told, no matter what anyone will think. Don’t ignore it any longer, let the flood happen. In a recent interview Terry Tempest Williams said, “What sticks to the soul is what gets placed on the page.” For me, this couldn’t be more true. Imprinted upon my soul is the tug of Lake Huron’s current, the slap of the Boston Whaler’s hull against the rolling whitecaps, the salty taste of a Triscuit topped with blue cheese when I sat, surrounded by my entire family, still in my damp swimsuit, listening to their laughter during cocktail hour. Also burned into my soul is my many mistakes: mistakes I made on the island, in Indiana during college, and in my new home. Geography may have shaped me, but it didn’t alleviate or change any of my own misdoings and all of that–the island, northwest Montana, and all the details in between are all apart of the direction I need to shift towards if I am truly going to commit myself to the writing life. There have been days when I emerge from my office, shaken and weary. There are other times when I nearly slam the keyboard on the floor. And more often than not, there are days when I’ve been lost, set free to explore my story and the hours go by and before I realize it, I’ve written forty pages.
The whole reason I started this blog was to find the writer I had buried, had secreted away. And with a little push from my faculty at residency, a nudge from some very intuitive classmates, and with my compass reset, I am moving in “this direction”. So a belated thank you to Judith Kitchen for wishing me the best of luck.
I will need it. Don’t we all?