“Enchantment for me is no place to hide”—Elizabeth Gaucher on writing back to childhood

Elizabeth Gaucher, creative nonfiction author of “Dialing the Dark,” an essay featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017.

Our nonfiction editor, Nina Gaby, recently had this exchange with Elizabeth Gaucher, author of “Dialing the Dark,” an essay featured in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 anthology. Elizabeth will be reading from her work at our book launch party, Friday, April 21, 6:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall. We hope you’ll join us >

It has been said that on some levels we write to understand what we know. You write about striving for an adult understanding beyond the understanding in your “child mind.” Are you still looking to make more sense of this evil which eventually did take over? I guess I’m asking if writing about it helps to at least provide some control over your version of it.

 It’s interesting that you use the world “evil.” That’s not a word I use, ever, because I don’t have a definition for it that doesn’t bleed over into other things. I don’t know what it is.

On some level, I think if there is “evil,” I was closer to understanding it when I was a child than I am as an adult. Maybe that is why I go backwards into the complexity. I grew out of being able to see and identify something mysterious rather than into it. What that something is I would describe more as a shadow. It falls on us, into our lives. We see it but don’t often know what is casting it.

I think that’s where I was, cognitively, as the narrator in this essay. Aware of a shadow, and wanting it to move away, but not knowing much more. I still don’t know much more.

There is a sense of enchantment that runs through your piece despite the tragedy of its narrative. I may be going out on a limb here, but do you think that is either consciously or unconsciously intentional, to soften it a bit for the reader? Like a child reading a Grimm’s fairytale, as Bettelheim has said, while unreal it is not untrue, and the child intuitively recognizes the difference?

 I will confess, I am a huge fan of fairytale and myth, which might seem odd for a committed nonfiction writer; at the same time, I don’t think they soften the truth. If anything, they make the truth sharper and sometimes more painful, unavoidable even. Enchantment for me is no place hide. It’s where there is no place to hide.

Consider “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Never happened. And yet, it is happening every day. You can’t hide from story because it is not even on your playing field. It’s above you, leaving you only to look up and gasp.

You girls had a dogged handle on controlling the mean man. In fact, from going through the editing process with you, “Mean Man” was an earlier title consideration, a theme you deftly braid into this piece. Is it still a descriptive metaphor for the evil lurking in these low-ceilinged rooms without windows, this Middle Earth as you look back through the frames of this story now? Was Bale’s death preventable or did you ever see it as such? “Initiative, control, choice” …are those innocent constructs or viable actions?

No one has ever accused me of deftness before. Thank you!

A writer has to, I believe, at some point let her work go. Release it and let it be to readers what it will be. I never felt, and still don’t feel, that “evil” was lurking in that house. This is where we help one another. Something, but what?

My narrator is less concerned with “evil” than with what seems unresolved. The place in this essay is full of unanswered questions for the child narrator. I think that is why the girls in this narrative are trying to find their own voices. They want to claim some agency in an environment where who or what is controlling the story is not clear.

Children are incredibly intelligent like that.

Whatever this unnamed thing was, it had power. I think now that it got its power from never being identified.

As far as Bale’s death is concerned, I have never tried to judge or analyze it as “preventable.” I am not going to start now. I sometimes wonder if by the time we are talking like this, “can it be prevented,” the answer is no.

And what do you want others to understand about suicide?

I did not write this piece to help anyone understand anything about suicide. I don’t believe that is possible.

But I did write it to share. To share the experience of not understanding, of feeling close but never close enough, to working to spend a lifetime making peace with grief.

In terms of craft, writers gain momentum often by work shopping their pieces and finding support for digging deeper into the story. What supported you as you explored this topic? There is a tendency in the new Medical Narrative genre to “go there.” A bravery in that we are exposing more about mental health, suicide, trauma, addiction, and abuse. Do you think ultimately this will help reduce stigma and encourage more mental health initiatives? Or do you think there is some other purpose or benefit?

I started this piece a few years ago. It has been workshopped in my MFA program, as well as with the outstanding editors with the BWW.

Early incarnations of the narrative did not spend much time on Bale. Looking back, I’m not sure why I ever thought I could avoid “going there” when it came to my own feelings about his death. But I do think it’s a process for most of us, especially in personal nonfiction, to find our footing with what we need to face. Just starting can be a victory. But good editors and classmates won’t let us stop there. “Go deeper” is essentially the last and best advice I received while working on my MFA.

I am increasingly fascinated by the writer/reader dynamic. Writers often seem to be in a place of, “This is what I want to tell you,” while readers come back with, “But this is what we want to know!” I’m getting better and letting go of my need and meeting the reader in the desire to know more.

From what I see, disclosing more seems to be helping reduce stigma around mental health issues. But I think it’s not as simple as disclosure alone. We have to be able to share with a sense of courage, and that can be difficult.

I sometimes wonder if we could see everyone’s depression, addiction, and delusion if we could handle it. The older I get; the more certain I am it is everywhere. Being more open about that in a responsible way—not for shock value or tabloid readership—I think will help in the long run.

And lastly, what are you working on now?

I saved newspaper clippings about a horrific flood in the state where I grew up, West Virginia. This particular flood destroyed the town of White Sulphur Springs. My family has close ties to this area.

There are many gut-wrenching events in these clippings, but there is one narrative about how a teenage girl died that haunts me. (I just got chills writing that.) I want to create an essay about her death, but I am still sitting with all of it.

Sometimes events and feelings have to live in my head for a long time before they find the page. But that’s part of being a writer! The thinking and the feeling and the just allowing things to be is important.

More about Elizabeth

Elizabeth Gaucher received her BA in History from Davidson College and her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. She is the founder of an online journal for creative nonfiction, Longridge Review. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, The Pikeville Review, and Brevity’s nonfiction blog, among other print and online publications. Learn more about Elizabeth at elizabethgaucher.com.

To hear Elizabeth and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review vol. 3 print launch party: Friday, April 21, 2017 6-9:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017

This book is the fifth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2017 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

An interview with Vermont writer Spencer Smith

Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne

Spencer Smith will be reading her poetry at the upcoming Best of 2016 book tour event in Shelburne

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Spencer Smith, who will be reading her poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Spencer had to say about her poetry and fiction writing and the inspirations behind her work.

How long have you been a BWW member?

About three years.

Do you think it has helped you grow as a writer?

I have been writing since 1977 so I don’t know about growing, but I like it. It has been helpful to me as a writer.

When did you start writing poetry?

I was living in NYC, working as a freelance writer. A friend of mine who wrote promos at ABC told me about a Haiku group she’d heard of called The Haiku Society of America. They met once a month at Columbia University.

I never felt like I could write poetry. I had never studied poetry and was very insecure about it, but I thought maybe I could do Haiku because it was a shorter form. We went, I liked it, and I continued to go to the group.

Later, I came to Vermont for a writers retreat in Adamant and I wrote my first poetry that was not Haiku. The poems were about nature. Then I wrote poetry off and on for the next ten years. This poem, “June Heat,” [featured in The Best of 2016] was one of a couple I was working on about Ukraine and Russia.

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Opportunities and Announcements: Week of September 12, 2016

best-of-2017-5Want to have your short story, essay, or poems included in The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017?

Our call for submissions is now open! This is an exciting year to be part of the anthology, as 2017 marks our 5-year anniversary of publishing the work of BWW members. We’re looking for your best work in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—and we’d love to hear from voices both known and new to us. Deadline for submissions is October 31, 2016. Submit your work now >

Or, would you like to be a Best of editor?

We’re also putting together our editing team for this year’s anthology. Whether you’re an experienced editor or a writer looking to learn more about the editing process or the marketing and book sales side of publishing, we have a role for you to consider. Working on the Best of is an excellent way to build connections with other writers and editors in the community while also building your editing and publishing experience—and credentials—in an open and collaborative learning environment. Deadline for applications is September 30, 2016 or until positions are filled. Apply now >
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Say hello to Mark Hoffman’s “Saying Goodbye”

Best of the BWW 2016 poet Mark Hoffman

The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 poet Mark Hoffman

Our poetry editor, Michelle Watters, recently had this exchange with Mark Hoffman, who will be reading his poetry at the upcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 book tour event at Shelburne Vineyard. Here’s what Mark had to say about his poetry and the inspiration behind it.

How long have you been a member of the BWW?
A couple of years.

Do you think the workshop has helped your writing?

Absolutely. It’s expanded my perspective on writing technique and the nature of craft, while giving me a real sense of the process of writing, helping me to understand my own process so I can use it more effectively. Of course all of these things only have value when you practice; you can’t learn to walk just by talking or thinking about it, and writing is the same way. The workshop gives you lots of incentive to keep writing, as well a safe place to trot out new stories and try them out.

Your poem “Saying Goodbye,” which is in this year’s anthology, is simply put a classic love poem reminiscent of W.B Benton’s book of poems This is my Beloved. When writing this poem, did you intend to leave the reader with a sense of loss and time?

Yes, it was written to a specific person. I’d had a three-year relationship with someone; the poem in last year’s anthology was written near the beginning of that relationship. “Saying Goodbye” was written near the end. I often use poems as a way to clarify my feelings; when I hurt or something’s bothering me, poems help to embody those feelings, so I can understand them better and let them go.

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An interview with Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

Michelle Watters, poetry editor of our forthcoming The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology, recently interviewed Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller, whose poems “Bones” and “Lovefeast” are featured in the anthology. Here’s what Ashleigh had to say about the inspiration for her poetry and the importance of feminism in her writing.

Poet Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

Poet Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller

What was going on in your life at the time you wrote “Bones” and “Lovefeast?”

I was 24 and I’d been living in Arizona for almost a year, and had just spent a jam-packed two weeks along the East Coast with friends, family, and former flames, all of whom I desperately missed. Though I didn’t yet realize it, when I wrote those poems, it was the beginning of a year-long internal search to decide whether I would stay in Arizona and go back to school or move to New York City and pursue the bohemian lifestyle while I still could. Ultimately, I decided to stay, but only after many months of emotional turmoil and a lack of trust in what was best for myself.

Both poems have themes of love gone wrong throughout. Would you say your other work has the same feel?

Yes, I think so. A lot of my poems and fiction have a hint of darkness. I find that happy endings are just not as interesting and difficult to write without sounding saccharin. One of my favorite poems that I have written is called “Spring Cleaning (Swabbing the Decks).” The thing that I love about the poem is it draws the reader in with images of sunlight and newness and freshness, then it slowly descends into the realization that a relationship can’t be fixed and ends with an image of death.

Would you consider your work to be feminist? What does that mean to you?

Yes. My core interest in feminism has been nurtured through my master’s thesis, Contemporary Eco Feminist Fiction, so I am always interested in the intersection of women and nature in literature. There are so many stories that women are ashamed to tell. And the more women tell them, the more often they bring these stories to light, I believe the more we do this as women the less stigmatized we will be. 

When did you know you were a poet?

I was a sophomore in high school and I had a poem published in the high school literary magazine. It was called “Weather Girl” and it related my emotions to different types of weather. That was the first poem that I really felt worked and I was proud of. 

Did you have any mentors or teachers that were integral to your development as a poet?

No one particular person is coming to mind, but I have had a lot of great English teachers throughout my schooling.

Do you write anything other than poetry?

I write short fiction. I have been working on a novel for too long. It is about a young woman who is trying to decide the path of her life after college. Also, I have kept a journal for 25 years.

Are you working on anything now?

I’m always working on something, but yes, right now I am working on a short story now that I work-shopped at a December workshop and that story is about a reunion of friends after the death of someone from their group. 

Where do you like to write?

A coffee shop as long as I am disconnected from the Internet. I like the ambient noise and, when I have my writing in front of me, I can focus on that. 

What writers or poets have influenced you?

My influences are usually the same people who are my favorite writers. Some poets I appreciate are T.S. Eliot. His poetry can be whimsical yet mysterious. I also love Christina Rossetti. Her poetry is both romantic and religious. My favorite poem of hers is “Goblin Market.” It is a religious parable about two sisters and these goblins that tempt them.

My favorite fiction writers…Louise Erdrich. Her book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse made my thesis possible. My favorite all-time writer is T.C. Boyle, and his ability to employ different voices in all of his work has been a huge inspiration to me as a writer. 

What is an average day in your life like?

I get up early, about 5;30, eat breakfast, read a magazine or book, I go for a run on the bike path, and I go to work. I work for a nonprofit called the DREAM Program. We are a mentoring program that pairs college students with youth that live in low-income housing neighborhoods. I am the camp and teen program director. After work, I come home and prepare dinner with my husband, David, and then we will watch a movie. 

Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?

Columbia, South Carolina, the oldest of two kids. A very happy, healthy childhood. It was fine up until a certain point when I started to realize I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have the same conservative views as my family and community. I guess around my freshman year of high school, all I could think about was how to get out. The things that made me happy were acting and writing. Spending summers at summer camp. After spending several summers at camp and realizing when I was there my friends and I were accepted for being ourselves. Everyone was so open it gave me hope that I could find this elsewhere in the world.

Do you find that writing workshops are an important part of your writing process?

I think the most important contribution the workshops have made to my writing process is that they have given me more confidence in sharing my work. Previously, I have always been apprehensive about showing others my work, but attending the workshop and being able to critique others work has helped me to realize that it is okay to be vulnerable.

How to do you see your writing career developing in the next few years?

I would like to set aside more time to write, submit more to literary journals, hopefully get some of my fiction published, and continue to connect with like-minded writers for support.

To hear Ashleigh and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 print launch party: Friday, April 29, 2016 6-9 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA), 135 Church Street, Burlington, VT. RSVP now >

More about Ashleigh

Ashleigh D. Ellsworth-Keller lives in Burlington, Vermont with her husband and is the Camp DREAM director for The DREAM Program, a regional nonprofit mentoring program. She enjoys reading, writing, running, and hiking.

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016

This book is the fourth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2016 edition will be available for purchase in April, 2016. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >

Opportunities and Announcements: Week of February 29, 2016

Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2016 anthology

Celebrate the launch of The Best of The Burlington Writers Workshop 2016: Friday, 4.29.16, 6-9:30 pm at the BCA in Burlington

Our April calendar is up at Meetup.com—and we’ve got a ton of exciting workshops and events planned, including guest author workshops with fiction writers Joseph Hurka and Robin McLean and poets Partridge Boswell and Gary Margolis.

April also brings our annual The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop book launch party. This year’s event will be held on Friday, April 29th from 6-9:30 pm at Burlington City Arts (BCA) on Church Street. Come celebrate with us and enjoy author readings, free food, a cash bar, live music by Seth Cronin & Friends, and lots of good literary company. Readings will feature the fiction of Natasha Mieszkowski, the nonfiction of Cardy Raper, and the poetry of Ashleigh Ellsworth-Keller, Deb Sherrer, and Linda Quinlan. RSVP now >

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