It seems like I fall into the activities I do best, or maybe I should say do with the greatest affection. A few years ago, reflecting on the fact that my father, sister and son are all artists, I wondered if I, too, could make art. I fell innocently enough into painting naked old ladies. Why naked? Because I’m an untrained artist, haven’t a clue about perspective or the color wheel or technique, and I can’t paint clothes. I’m no good at folds or wrinkles.
Similarly, I fell into the writing of Creative Nonfiction. In the 1980s I became a journalist for a local weekly newspaper and soon found myself writing a column, my first about my disabled daughter, Jennifer. At the time, residents were working to keep group homes out of neighborhoods and I was covering this news for the paper. Unable, of course, to speak out about this topic at board meetings, because I was a reporter, I wrote a column about what a devastating impact this would have on the many folks who were mentally handicapped, and their loved ones. That column touched a nerve with people and became very successful. Soon I was writing a column every week, often drawing upon some family event, mishap, embarrassment, memory, or joke.
In 2002, I went to graduate school to earn my Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing, where during the first six months I grew a sixteen-inch column into a 20-page essay. After that, I was, as they say “off and running” and have since published a number of essays as well as excerpts from my memoir-in-progress called Every Least Sparrow, which is about life with my daughter.
Over the years I have dabbled in other genres, but I always seem to find myself drawn back to nonfiction. I like looking deeply into life and ferreting out what it means to love and struggle and hope and succeed. I believe strongly in the importance of personal narrative, for it is in writing our stories that we touch others, share our humanity and, hopefully, improve our understanding of what it’s like to live in this world.
Additionally, I’ve had quite a few unique experiences, and I feel like they trump in interest any fictitious ideas I might conjure.
I think I probably go through much of the same agony and joy any writer goes through. I sit down in front of a blank page – almost always on my laptop – and put down a sentence. I then follow the thread I’m given until it feels like the thread is complete. Notice how I use the word “feel”. I’m a person who feels her way through writing much more than she thinks. I always start out with a sentence and have no idea where the writing will end.
Once I get started, I press myself to “go deeper”. To get inside those personal experiences and find out why they happened, what they mean to me and to others. I am particularly drawn to the use of beautiful language and spend a lot of time choosing and re-choosing words. I have the unfortunate habit of “fixing” yesterday’s words before I move on, and I suspect that sometimes slows progress. While I’m fixing, though, I give my imagination and emotions time to come into partnership. I love when the essay I’m writing helps me along by unfolding itself in surprising ways. I try to write something every day – lucky I developed that habit while working at the newspaper!
Carolyn Walker is a memoirist, essayist, poet, and creative writing instructor. After working twenty-five years as a journalist, she returned to graduate school and earned her MFA in Writing degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Hunger Mountain, The Writer’s Chronicle, the anthology, Gravity Pulls You In: Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum, and many other publications. Her essay “Christian Become a Blur” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and reprinted in the 50th anniversary edition of Crazyhorse. In 2013, she was made a Kresge Fellow in the Literary Arts by the Kresge Foundation. She teaches for Writer’s Digest, AllWriters Workplace & Workshop, and Springfed Arts.