Joan Hanna: First, let me say how thrilled we were to have “Shaping Stone” as part of our October issue. This essay gives the reader such a multi-generational viewpoint. Can you share a little more about your family history with our readers and how that might have influences in your writing?
Mel Jones: Thank you for taking the time to read my essay and share it with the world, surrounded by Matthew Chase Daniel’s beautiful artwork!
My grandmother was my greatest influences. She was a brave woman. My father’s mother, Nana, was my mentor. She taught me about inner strength and perseverance in the face of adversity. The word ‘can’t’ was not part of her vocabulary. She came to the United States with little more than the shirt on her back, and managed, with her husband, to buy a home in Boston, keep it through the Depression, and feed most of the neighborhood on a daily basis. Nana bought me my first dictionary when I was three—and she expected me to learn to read it. She went to a Hedge School in Ireland and believed the only way to find success was through words. Words are power. She encouraged all of us to learn new words, do crossword puzzles, and to write, almost from the time we could speak. She was a taskmaster. She had left behind depressed conditions in her country, and I believe her home to build a better life for herself.
My dad, was the epitome of a stereotype, he was a drunk, Irish cop in South Boston Mass. He died believing he was a failure. My siblings are following in his footsteps; each is medically addicted to something. When I moved to Virginia, I believed my choices were to move or die.
Like my grandmother, I left my family behind and forged a new family in which everyone acknowledges personal limitations and flaws (or at least works towards that ideal).
In many ways I see the world colored by the lenses of these two individuals. They instilled in me my love for words. Both of them looked up and learned a new word every day. They were both great storytellers. Nana told ancient stories, dad told sad stories. Beckett was one of his favorite writers. Their juxtaposing stories helped to create the writer I have become.
JH: You describe the very different experiences for other family members and what “the cliffs” meant to them. Can you explain a little further how this either set up or interfered with your own experience?
MJ: When my grandmother talked about Ireland, it was a magical place far away. It was a place that knew no sorrow or heartbreak. There were castles, rainbows, and fairies. She told magical stories that glossed the difficulties she had experienced; she inferred the lessons that should be learned. For Nana, I believe the cliffs were the symbol of an idealized strength, something hoped for, worked for, but rarely attained. They were something beyond the self.
When my dad talked about Ireland, the cliffs were filled with tragedy and dreams that were unattainable. Sailing by them was a surrender of sorts. He had his chance, and blew it. He
viewed most of his life that way; he had chances, but blew them and wallowed in a whiskey-induced melancholy. He saw his children as the only thing he had ever done right.
For me, the symbolism of the cliffs is an internal, rather than external, experience, a reflection. When I see pictures of the west coast of Ireland with its imposing cliffs and crashing white caps, I am reminded that that’s the landscape that shaped me. Thousands of years, of ancestors, can be seen in the face the ocean has shaped into the cliffs; craggy and rough. But there. Viewing the cliffs is a reminder not of who I could be, but rather, who I am. Gazing out over the ocean from atop the cliffs is an empowering and humbling experience. One has to face down the wind and find a strength that doesn’t come from out there—it resides within. If I can conquer the cliffs their strength becomes part of me…
JH: I really love that this became your own personal experience in the end, separate from your family influences. Can you give our readers a glimpse into the writing process that helped bring about that aspect in this essay?
MJ: It is easy to say my father was this, so I am this too. My parents treated me like that, so I am what I am. It is a continuing process for me to remove myself from that. Yes, I am influenced by the experiences of my childhood – and I can allow those experiences to build me. Or, I can create new experience based upon what I have learned from those events. Periodically, I write to remind myself of that important lesson and so I look at moments. Not events, or even experiences per se, but moments. I hold on to the image, the emotion that came with a particular image and build outward from there. How many things, concrete and abstract, can I connect to that moment? The cliffs—Dad—Nana—empowerment—surrender—family history—connection to the land—land connected to spirit—to me. This piece started as a free write and evolved into a braided piece. Most of my “serious” pieces are braided, because I cannot understand the world in any other way. I don’t try to make sense of anything I am writing until I finish a draft. I allow the connections to be made and follow where they lead, trusting that process. I refine after I have a complete draft.
JH: You’ve also described most of your other work as humorous and not as serious as “Shaping Stone.” How was this story different for you as a writer and why did you feel that a humorous approach would not do justice to the story?
MJ: I think a humorous voice comes naturally to me, and it doesn’t exercise my brain. Because I write nonfiction, humor is essential. Life is hard; we can laugh or cry. To delve deeply on a daily basis would drive me to that age-old Irish melancholy; drive me insane. Just as every moment has a lesson; there is always something ironic to be seen. I naturally gravitate toward that paradox.
The irony in Shaping Stone is too subtle for humor. Despite the fact that neither of the individuals that influenced me felt they were able to overcome limitations or failures, what they gave to me is what has created my inner strength and self-esteem. What they viewed as limits set me free to explore other things.
I have many humorous stories about both my grandmother and father. The learning (teaching?) moment of Shaping Stone is tied to the spiritual nature of the land and the culture that marries its people to that. To tell this particular story with humor would belittle the lesson, at least for me.
JH: I think it’s important to remember that many experiences come from a place of humor. I also find it a very diversifying way to share your work; having that option of seriousness or humor. Please share with our readers any inks, websites and other publications of your work.
MJ: I keep a blog at http://melwalshjones.wordpress.com. It is an eclectic place. Be warned.
Most recently, I had an essay published on Emily Rapp’s blog, Another serious, Irish piece.
JH: Thank you for taking the time to interview and for sharing not only your lovely story “Shaping Stone” but also your family history. Can you answer just one final question for our readers? Can you share with us what recovery means to you?
MJ: For me, recovery, like writing, is a process. I take one step at a time and accept that I am in the middle of the story and I have to let go of outcomes. I cannot influence the people around me any more than I can influence characters in a story. Recovery has nothing to do with ending a relationship with a substance and everything to do with beginning a relationship with the self. To recover from anything we must learn to cast our fears to the wind and put one foot in front of the other on the road to discovery.
I recently left a job that I loved after several confrontational interactions with my employer. Several well-meaning friends suggested that I needed time to grieve, to recover. Instead, I immediately took a job teaching composition – I discovered a new layer of who I am. That layer helped to salve the damage done. Each discovery takes us closer to recovering who we are in our hearts and spirits.