Essaying as Empowerment
A Conversation with Sarah Fawn Montgomery and Jody Keisner
Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s haunting, eclectic collection, Halfway From Home, begins and ends with her father, a man who can “shape the land with his body.” Like the sturdy fence posts he builds, Montgomery’s father is her anchor in a family of eight children—five of whom are adopted—that never has enough bedrooms or food in the cupboard. So, her father teaches her resourcefulness; he “smiles at what the earth can provide.” But perhaps his most important lesson is one in excavation: to dig underneath, whether through dirt or memory. As an adult, Montgomery uses these lessons when she flees the “coastal heart” of California and her complex family dynamics, searching for solace in the forests of New England and the grassland prairies of Nebraska. Quieting her restlessness proves impossible, though, as the coast of California again catches fire, the early days of a mysterious virus sends people indoors to isolate, and her beloved father—the Big Dipper to her Little Dipper—gets sick with cancer. She writes, “…but still I feel the weight of gravity pulling me to the realization that one day I will not be able to get back to him, that one day the darkness of space will close all around and I will not be able to find my way home.” Interweaving memoir with social, environmental, and political criticism, Montgomery unearths stories from her childhood in order to find a path forward through her grief. Halfway From Home is both a poetic love letter to the places and people Montgomery once called home and a searing lament for a world that seems destined to be lost to us forever.
Sarah Fawn and I recently met through Zoom and chatted about the choice to write from different voices, starting and ending with our fathers, and essaying as an act of empowerment.
Jody Keisner: As a native Nebraskan, I was awestruck by (and a little envious of) your poetic devotion to the Plains. You write, “Living in Nebraska required I listen in order to live well, and in listening to the Plains’ moods and mannerisms like I would to an old friend, I grew to know Nebraska in a way I never knew California, though I’d been raised there among the many generations of my family.” Can you talk about how this practice of listening translated into writing “In Praise of the Plains”? In what ways was “listening” to Nebraska—and eventually writing about it—different from what you’d done before?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: We often take the places we come from for granted, framing them as landscapes, as places that exist to serve our survival. When I moved from California to Nebraska to pursue a PhD, everything was unfamiliar—the terrain, the weather, the natural and human histories. I relished not knowing and the way the place defied easy understanding. I was especially fascinated by the way the Midwest was indifferent to human occupation and I wanted to explore how to claim a place that does not necessarily claim you back. I set out to learn about native grasses, soil composition, and the rich fossil record. Learning about how little I knew inspired a humility I’ve carried with me since. When I moved to Massachusetts to begin work as a professor, I learned about the rich fungal networks beneath East Coast forests, about various mushrooms and mosses, and about the natural resources used in the art of scrimshaw. I also carried this with me each time I went back home to California, for even though I grew up on the West Coast, I’ve learned much since leaving about the monarch butterflies that gather there in a small eucalyptus grove for warmth each winter, about sand dollars and tide pool creatures, about diverse oak tree populations. We are so small compared to the vast histories of a place, and learning about natural and human histories helps us understand our position within a larger network of stories. It is also a crucial way to understand our current climate crisis, for making a home somewhere requires nurturing it, and yet we have not been tending to our lands.
Jody: Toward the end of the final essay, you write, “I am still so afraid of the dark.” You offer us closure, but not certainty. “Uncertainty” appears as a theme or state of being in several of your essays, which makes sense especially when you write about the pandemic. Can you talk about your interest in uncertainty and why so many of your essays dwell in this space?
Sarah Fawn: The essays in this collection explore my search for home after being raised in a family that was constantly in flux and after moving extensively as an adult from California to Nebraska and then to Massachusetts. The essays also examine how to find your place when the country is enduring social, political, and environmental crises, and how to live meaningfully when human connection is disappearing and our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world. While the times I write about in these essays are in the past, all of the topics are ongoing and may never reach resolution. Essays that dwell in uncertainty are in many ways closest to the truth of the human experience. They don’t offer tidy solutions because life rarely operates that way. Instead, they offer ruminations, reflection, a powerful vulnerability, and tender insight into the parts of an author’s life they might typically keep hidden. Essays are an invitation into an experience and an exploration, and the essays in this collection dwell in uncertainty not only because the topics and themes are ongoing, but because I needed to believe uncertainty was acceptable. I needed permission to accept ambiguity as opposed to thrashing around looking for answers that would never come. Uncertainty is something we often avoid in the real world, but as much as it fuels fear, it can also be a powerful focus.
Jody: In a few chapters you write in the voice and perspective of yourself as a young girl. What was your process of rediscovering, writing, and revising an authentic voice from your childhood? Why was it important to these particular essays that you use this voice?
Sarah Fawn: This collection examines our collective nostalgia for times, places, and versions of ourselves that no longer exist, so essays weave and collage various voices. Some essays, like you mention, are written entirely from the perspective of a child because what is most interesting about a child’s voice is the sense of wonder, which many of us lose over time. While my adult voice throughout this collection is world-weary because of social and political upheaval, family addiction and illness, the daily grind of capitalism, and the devastation of climate change, the child’s voice is forever fascinated by the smooth surface of a stone or shell, the way light shines through a piece of glass or a fallen leaf. The child’s voice is one that stops to consider how a fossil is formed and whether a tree knows it rings around itself. The juxtaposition of adult and child voices creates contrasts and tension, but it also allows writers to explore the many selves we have been and the ways we have been shaped by the world.
Writing from an authentic child’s voice requires reframing. First, you must reframe the details you include, for children notice shapes in the clouds, a beetle wandering the length of a blade of grass, the sounds adults make when they whisper about family secrets. Children notice a cement stain on Daddy’s boots after a long day of construction work or the way he smells of sawdust and sweat. They notice the soft shadows of a campfire when they are safely nestled between their parents, and also how the moon glows wrong when they are frightened trying to sleep alone in their rooms. As writers, we can rediscover these details by sitting on the ground, by staring at the sky, by listening to the wind or the sound of a moth, by gathering sticks and acorns like we did as children. Playing cultivates curiosity, which allows this voice to emerge.
Writing from a child’s voice also requires we reframe characters. As adults we often allow old grudges and scars to shade our stories. But children can recognize the wounds in someone who wounds others. They can see the sadness others try to shield and the hurts others try to hide. As I wrote about family secrets and shames, I tried to remember the ways I viewed these characters when I was a child. Remembering, the discovery and joy they nurtured in me allowed me to write beyond the resentments and anger I felt as an adult. Writing from the voice of a child allowed me to move beyond quick judgements to offer the empathy and understanding needed to write complex characters and understand our family stories. In many ways, revisiting the voice of a child was what I needed in order to fully understand my adult perspective.
Jody: Our fathers have obviously had huge impacts on who we’ve each become––and are narrative throughlines in both of our books! You start and end with yours, and I focus on my troubled relationship with my father in both my first and penultimate chapter. In some ways, these relationships function as the frame through which readers’ view our other stories. As a child, you view your father as larger than life. You write in “Excavation,” for instance, “Using his tools to excavate and alter the earth makes my father mapmaker, enforcer, creator.” Why did you choose to frame your book this way? Did you know when you set out to write this book that you would begin and end with your father or was that something you later discovered?
Sarah Fawn: My father was the first essayist I encountered, a man who built fences for a living, looking beneath the surface to see what was underground at the same time as he constructed fences at the surface, building the boundaries and borders that made the world make sense. He shaped the way I viewed burial and unearthing, archiving and craft. He also shaped the way I viewed place. Much of my time as a child was spent outdoors with him digging in my treasure hole, gathering stones and shells, polishing rocks or whittling sticks. My appreciation for the natural world comes from my father, who taught me to respect what came before us at the same time that he taught me that not everything will last, that even a well-built fence will fall with time. This spirit guides much of the collection, and I wanted themes of digging and discovery, of childhood wonder and adult restlessness to lead readers into examinations of time and impermanence, the stories families bury or unearth, and the beauty and ferocity of the natural world.
At the same time, however, my father was also a deeply flawed man. His social and political views and adherence to rigid gender roles grew increasingly difficult to accept as I aged. As I revisited my childhood memories as an adult, I understood his struggles with addiction, violence, and poverty just as much as I understood his work ethic, tenderness, and the safety he provided. Writing about him in several essays throughout the collection was my attempt to reconcile these two versions of my father, these two versions of my life. I wanted to write my way back to the father I knew as a child in order to understand the father I faced as an adult. By opening up my inquiry to understanding rather than judgment, I was able to understand why he was this way, what family histories and personal experiences shaped the man who I’d watched shape the land. Though my father was a central figure when I sold the collection, his significance in the book increased during final edits. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after I sent the book out on submission and he passed away during my final edits. His illness shaped the structure of the book significantly. Days before his death, I wrote a final essay about what it was like to claim a home on the East Coast while my father was dying back home on the West Coast. Writing this essay was the only way I could process my fears about what life would be like after he passed. I had no intention of including it in the book, but the act of writing was one of discovery and the essay became the best thematic ending for the book that acknowledged his death while also keeping his spirit alive on the page.
Jody: Some of the essays in this collection are segmented, others are braided, and some take the form of a hermit crab essay. Do you draft within these experimental structures, or do you draft content first and then later discover the structure you want to use? How does writing within these structures contribute to the meaning of the essay—or your process of discovery—as opposed to writing a more traditionally-structured essay?
Sarah Fawn: Form often comes first. As a writer I’m most interested in how containers package content, in the ways presentation on the page constructs meaning. Finding my form first as opposed to drafting content allows me to move in more unexpected directions. Form operates as a meaning-making device as much as content, so in some essays the fragmented nature of the segments adds to the themes, while in other essays braiding several plots together allows cohesion across seemingly disparate subjects. I also utilize form as a way to heighten theme, using titled segments like in the essay “Excavation,” which uses segmented “dig sites” to structure literal and metaphorical digging I’ve done across time and place, or in the hermit crab essay “Lessons in Cartography,” which borrows cartography terms as a structural device to discuss the history of mapmaking and my own movement across the country. Since this collection navigates challenging topics and themes—social and political unrest, climate change, poverty, addiction, illness—the forms also allow me to structure complicated subject matter in a manageable way for both the reader and myself.
My form is also influenced by disability. As a writer who lives with chronic pain, I can’t write frequently or for long stretches of time. Sometimes I’m only able to write a few paragraphs before pain determines that I must stop. As a result, I often write in short bursts and produce only brief segments or scenes at a time. Over the years this practice has shaped my form, and I now write many segmented, collaged, and braided essays. Crafting as a disabled writer shapes my form as much as content or theme.
Tender as they are probing, the essays in Jody Keisner’s Under My Bed illuminate our darkest fears in order to grapple with the anxieties embedded in girls and women in a world where male violence against them is a constant threat. Seamlessly blending personal stories of her rural Nebraska upbringing with cultural reflections on the impact of chronic stress on children, the hypervigilance of young women, and the ways motherhood impacts fear, Keisner questions her ability to understand such fixed cultural terrors, admitting, “I no longer believed one could make sense of suffering—it was a natural consequence of being human.” Yet through her careful weaving of personal prose with thoughtful research about fear, anxiety, and the social, psychological, and biological impacts of living with the constant threat of violence, Keisner thoughtfully explores where our terrors come from and how they shape us, her skillful combination of vulnerability and sharp insight assuring readers, “Together we will search out the right words for the place where there are none.” Keisner’s panic is deeply rooted in her upbringing—the rural towns where she watched horror films as a child, the Omaha suburb where she discovered as a young girl that a serial killer had murdered children, and her volatile father, whose “threat was palpable and close by, something I could sense, an electrical current running through his veins.” But though this collection is an examination of fear, it also offers hope. Keisner poignantly and powerfully investigates worry and devotion, anxiety and empowerment, facing her many fears—intruders, a young aunt’s drowning, a life-changing diagnosis, raising her daughters—and revealing to readers that there are many fears we can face if only we are willing to examine them.
Sarah Fawn: You write in the preface to Under My Bed that the act of naming fears and working to understand them is an act of empowerment. Throughout the collection you write powerfully about the things that frighten you—intruders, horror films, family, illness—terror maturing along with you. How did the act of writing—the genre of nonfiction and form of the essay in particular—empower you?
Jody: Historically, marginalized groups have been shamed and criticized for speaking out about trauma, mental health struggles, and sexual abuse, among other things. (I think of James Wolcott’s 1997 article “Me, Myself, and I” in Vanity Fair.) One of my favorite quotes that counters this kind of shaming is from Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light: “Silence feeds pain, allows it to fester and thrive. What starves pain, what forces it to release its grip, is speech, the voice upon which rides the story, this is what happened; this is what I have refused to let claim me.” My book wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t finally felt compelled to give voice and space to an embarrassing secret I’d kept for many years (at least, I felt it was embarrassing then). Only through writing about my experience of doing my nighttime “checks” for intruders did I come to understand that I was not just some hysterical woman with a childlike fear of the metaphorical boogeyman under the bed. Like all women—especially BIPOC and trans women—I was a woman who was hyper aware of the ever-present threat of violence from men. My seemingly irrational fear came from my real, lived experiences of violence and trauma.
By writing and sharing my work, I refuse silence and meaninglessness in a society that constantly tells women they are overreacting. That’s inherently empowering. It’s also empowering to control the narrative, when many things—many of the “big” things—are out of our control.
Sarah Fawn: You write very deliberately in the preface about the structure of the book, including the various sections and essays arranged in each. How did you approach the organization in this collection? Were there any structures you tried and abandoned?
Jody: I started by tossing my printed chapters all over my office floor! I rearranged many times over several weeks, until I finally saw three thematic connections: Origins (origins of fear), Under the Skin (scientific investigation of fear), and Risings (reckoning with fear). If an essay fit one of the three themes but wasn’t chronologically correct, I prioritized the thematic connection because I want the reader to have a particular experience of progressing through these stories. For instance, the essay about my father and me attempting to repair our relationship had to appear in the third section, along with the other essays about finding a way forward through my fear and into love. I also intentionally ended on an unsettling essay about the death of a female college student—and the statistics about violence against girls and women—because we all should be unsettled by this bleak reality. I wanted my reader to feel a little bit sad and also angry and perhaps called to action. However, I also wanted the final image of “Woman Running Alone” to balance the emotional heaviness with an image of resilience and hope for the future.
Sarah Fawn: You utilize many voices in this collection—adult, child, professor, mother. Why was it important to include these many voices? How do you balance so many versions of the self on the page?
Jody: What a great question! I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of reading Voice First: A Writer’s Manifesto by Sonya Huber when I wrote my memoir. But now that I’ve read Huber’s book, I better understand that we all have many voices that we can—and should—summon in our writing. Huber writes, “The self, like voice, is more of a mysterious hovering, shifting collection of experience, a flow.” I’m fascinated by the idea that we have many selves, just as we have many writing voices. My logic-minded, professor-self felt embarrassed of my seemingly unreasonable young adult-self who had to check under her bed each night for an intruder before she fell asleep. Mining this tension between aspects of our identities—which are often in conflict with one another—can make for an interesting, complicated narrator, one worth getting to know. When I wrote each chapter of the book, focusing on a particular experience and moment in time, I tried to honor that particular self. For instance, I no longer struggle with postpartum anxiety, and my mind doesn’t flood with thoughts of how my children might possibly die. “The Secret of Water,” however, captures who I’d been in the tender months after the birth of my first child: I was a new mother terrified by the overwhelming expectations for mothers and the enormity of the job of keeping a human being alive and from harm. I wrote with the voice and presence of my new mother-self, that woman whose claustrophobic anxiety had narrowed her world until it was only her daughter and her. I’m no longer that new mother-self, but instead of judging her behavior, I feel compassion for her and all new mothers, which I hope is illustrated in the essay.
Sarah Fawn: In the collection you write that curiosity is the opposite of fear. How do you cultivate curiosity in your personal and professional lives? Is the same curiosity that counters fear also what inspires creativity?
Jody: Creative nonfiction is a genre built on curiosity. We teach ourselves and our students to ask, “But why? Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? Who said so? What made it this way? What if it were different?” etc. Creative nonfiction writers strive to understand some aspect of the human condition as it relates to our own experiences of it, but also as it relates to other cultures, genders, races, economic background, (dis)ability, and life circumstances. I am by nature a curious person—one who often rejects the platitude “it is what it is.” This is a double-edged sword, though, because I struggle with acceptance of things I cannot control or change. I often write about those things, though, which offers me the illusion of control!
Sarah Fawn: In the collection you write about the distance between the present and the past, and the ways this impacts perception, yet your recollections are rich and sensory. How do you access the past so viscerally? Is distance required to make stories out of ourselves? Or can we also write meaningfully about the present?
Jody: It’s funny to me what my memory holds and what it does not. If you asked me to name the American presidents in order, I couldn’t do it, even though I had them memorized in my youth and could sing a peppy song about them. It actually saddens me that I memorized so many things in my young adulthood that I can’t recall now. But if you asked me to remember my Grandma Grace, a dozen different vivid memories of our interactions would form in my mind, right down to the sound of the lake water lapping onto the shore by her one-bedroom home and the unpolished toenails sticking out of the flip-flops on her feet. I have a good memory for emotionally charged moments, people, places, and things.
We can write meaningfully about the present and with incredible urgency and intensity, too, but of course our perception of an experience changes as we age, grow, learn, and acquire new ways of seeing. Sometimes, writing in present tense and when an experience is still ongoing feels too intimate and scary to me, if that makes sense. Like, am I going to get out of this alive? I don’t know! It’s still happening! My writing is stronger and richer after I’ve had some time to process the experience, though I certainly write down details and my thoughts as it’s occurring. Even when I write about an experience as it’s happening, I often use past tense so that I can view my younger self (even if younger by only one day) as a separate character, and I can view her without judgment and my critical internal voice. This distancing helps me to view myself more objectively, kindly, and with genuine curiosity.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery
is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. Her work has been listed as notable many times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Catapult, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, Fourth Genre, Literary Hub, New England Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, and others. She is an assistant professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery
is the author of Under My Bed and Other Essays. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Fourth Genre, Cimarron Review, Post Road, Brevity, VIDA Review, So to Speak, Brain,Child, Assay, Threepenny Review, Hunger Mountain, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Adroit Journal, Literary Mama, Hippocampus, Women’s Studies, and many other literary journals and magazines. Her essay “Runaway Mother” is a notable Best American Essays 2022. She writes for AARP’s The Girlfriend, and is the editor-in-chief of The Linden Review, a journal of creative nonfiction focused on health. Read more www.jodykeisner.com.
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