An Interview with Last Year’s Nonfiction Contest Winner, Mary Collins

MaryCollins_thYour essay “The Coverless Book” won our nonfiction contest last year and is also included in SolLit Selects: Diverse Voices –our first print anthology. It’s a beautifully crafted essay in which you explore your brother Daniel’s death, which followed a number of suicide attempts, by using excerpts from a notebook of his you found after he died. Can you talk a little about the process of writing this essay? I also understand it was your first contest entry ever and your first published piece, so congratulations! It was well deserved.

Thank you! This essay was a long time in the making; about four years, off and on. It took on many forms before it eventually fell into place. I had begun trying to pin down the elements of Daniel’s story a year or more before I found his notebook. Finding it was one of those serendipitous gifts that mystifies me even now. I was struck by how many portents the notebook contained, and by the poignancy of some of that little boy’s observations; how they were born out or refracted in his later life. Months later I picked the book up again and started to go through it, listing them, and boom: there was the scaffolding for the narrative I’d been struggling to structure.

After that, it was a question of reordering the narrative in a way that fit organically with young Daniel’s own way-markers. It was a beautiful process, like a partnership that gave me an exquisite sense of closeness with the child he’d been, the man he’d become, and the brother I so missed. The entire process, though lengthy and necessarily iterative, really did help to create some sense of order out of the chaos of my memories of Daniel, and my conflicted feelings about his no longer being here: the searing missing of him, and the lightness of knowing he is free from suffering. Above all I wanted to honor his life, to create something beautiful out of something that essentially was not, and to push against any notion that a willfully foreshortened life is ever one that is wasted or unimportant.

What draws you to creative nonfiction?

 The endless possibilities it affords; the way it sits with great humility at the malleable boundaries—or even the axis of—all the other genres. The high for me in writing creative nonfiction comes in the discovery of a unifying thread or an echoing event or image that I can play with as a means into and through a narrative. And then the effort of working to find a structure that will best support it. There really are no limits to this process in creative nonfiction, and I love that about it.

With all that freedom comes the constant fear though of the writing becoming overwrought, or nostalgic, and the structure seeming overly contrived or “too clever.” I worry about that when I’m editing a piece, about finding that resting point where the structure is in silent service of the narrative, and not a showy trick that serves only to rob the reader of energy and divert attention from the story itself. I want the structure to be the means through which the reader finds the will to accompany me as I move deeper into what I’m struggling with—a sort of soft yoke to shoulder, a means to bear the story, plow through it, and lay it aside with, I hope, some impression remaining.

In your bio you write that your brother’s death was the trigger to pursue your creative writing. Can you say more about that? What did this new commitment to your creative writing “look” like?

In trying to remember as much as I could about our early years together, I was shocked to realize how little of our childhood made sense to me, how much of it lay under wraps. I couldn’t seem to recreate the order of the most basic events of Daniel’s life. I wasn’t, emotionally, anywhere close to being able to write about Daniel. The thought never even occurred to me to do so. All I could do at that point was to set about trying to list things on a kind of rudimentary timeline. And in doing so, as so often happens in writing-from-life, the more I remembered, the more made itself available to memory. A whole seven years would pass before I could even begin to write about the loss of Daniel.

I had set out initially to write about my father, whom we never knew but whose path—through another of those mystifying synchronicities—crossed with mine a month before my wedding. One morning at my desk, deep into the story of my father, an image of Daniel flashed, unbidden, before me. I saw him with such astonishing clarity, waiting outside a chain bookstore in a busy shopping center. The odd thing is that the image wasn’t conjured from my memory but from a tale my sister Anne had once recounted to me, a scene in which I wasn’t even present. The next morning, back at my desk, he showed up again in the same spot, his hands thrust deep in his jeans pockets, his corduroy collar turned up against the biting wind, his canvas shoes altogether unequal to the weather. This went on for a week or so and I couldn’t shake the image or the story I knew went with it. Eventually, I took a notebook to the sofa and thirty pages later came out of what felt like a trance. The fear of facing down Daniel’s story had evaporated, and the quest to do it justice had begun.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to anyone who is just making the transition to creative writing, like you did?

It would be the advice that the lovely and generous Mike Steinberg, my first mentor, gave me at the outset and that I resisted for two years: don’t set out to write a book-length memoir until you’ve mastered the short-form.

The Coverless Book was in part a means to finally conquer that resistance, and an experiment in applying all I’d learned about essay writing from myriad craft books and journals. I’ve spent the last five years immersed equally in writing and teaching myself to write. There are some incredible craft books and cutting edge work in creative nonfiction.

I know you only asked for one piece of advice, but something I discovered along the way, that got me through writing the most painful passages, was to write them first in the third person, at an emotional remove, as though they are happening to some fictitious “she”. And then edit them into the first person. It’s still a painful process, but makes for a far shallower cut.

What are you currently working on?

 My mother died very suddenly last year. While clearing out her things I came across a philosophy textbook entitled Seven Theories of Human Nature. Flipping through it, I found so much marginalia, so many underlinings and exclamation points that revealed and echoed both her life experience and her world view. I took the book out recently to make notes on her notes and—of course—it occurred to me that I might structure her story (which I had begun some time ago), around those revelations. She was a very interesting woman. The material is very rich. I’m driven to make something beautiful out of the sorrows of her life. So, as a partner to The Coverless Book, I’m working on a long essay called “The Philosophy Book”. I have it in mind to make a similarly long piece about my father, and then, ideally, combine all 3 within one publication. Judging by how long it took me to write the first essay, I’m conservatively estimating that this will take about another 15 years. I hope I’m wrong.