Elizabeth Creith: Lucinda, we met online in the Flash Factory office of Zoetrope. I remember being struck by your fearlessness and energy, by the funny and offbeat things you wrote and the enthusiasm with which you tackled every prompt. The first intimation I remember of something darker was the flash story “Cow and Calf”, in which the ancestral portrait in the child’s bedroom is a frightening presence.
When I began working with you on your memoir, I saw a lot of darkness. These five linked pieces are darker than your Factory flashes, but more hopeful than much of what I’ve seen of the memoir. In “Perseverance” and “On Failing” I see hope, in “On Mothers and Daughters” a realization that you can break the cycle by biting the “matrilineal tongue”. How did you choose these pieces to fit together?
Lucinda Kempe: The micro essays came from my first semester in graduate school. In Roger Rosenblatt’s class we had to write two 250-word pieces every week. The first semester I was afraid to reveal my story and I thought by writing small I could avoid it. In fact, I went to the crux and revealed it all. What I love about Roger’s essays is their brevity. They’re succinct and carry a punch. So I copied that.
I didn’t write the micros in any particular order, but I began where it hurt most – my father’s suicide. Roger pointed out that On Suicide and On Failure belonged together. But they all belong together. These five pieces form a tiny portrait of a family and how it survived. We persevered despite our perseverations.
EC: I’ve never been able to keep a diary, but you’ve kept one for years. In one piece you said that even as a teenager you were documenting your family to write about them later. Why is writing so important to you?
LK: I have been keeping a diary since I was fourteen. As as a little girl I wrote poems and drew pictures with characters’ words in balloons. I don’t understand anything until I write it down. Words on paper soothe. I have General Anxiety Disorder and one of the ways I feel less anxious is by writing down how I feel.
EC:You mine your journals for memoir – do you mine them for your fiction as well?
LK: The first memoir pieces I wrote came from memory. In fact, one story called Sam Soss Had Sex, which turned out to be some 5000 words, isn’t mentioned in the diary. I use the journals to get the rest right. My emotional memory is powerful, but the actual events, or the time line, are often wrong. A lot of my early fiction was disguised memoir, which also came from memory and not the journals. Today I write fiction based on things I don’t know. That’s so much more fun. So no, I don’t mine my journals for fiction, but I do steal from characters I knew and drop them in situations they’d never be in in life, which is exactly what Mr. Hemingway said not to do. Ha!
I am finally learning at the ripe age of 57 that I don’t have to tell everyone everything. I asked my therapist once, “Why do I compulsively tell everyone I meet my life story?” “Probably because you’re a diarist and you also assume that everyone is as interested in you are you are in yourself.”
EC: You use the term “laissez-faire” to describe your mother and grandmother, but you don’t have that approach to life at all. In fact, you remind me more of your several-times-great grandmother Mary Humphries.
LK: Oh, she was something. Her husband was Isaac Davis Stamps, Jefferson Davis’s favorite nephew. He was killed in the Civil War, right before the battle of Gettysburg, and Mary was left a widow with two little daughters. A year after the battle, she went to Peach Orchard, had his body exhumed and brought it home to MIssissippi, first by train, and when the train broke down she somehow got a wagon and loaded him onto that and took him home to be buried. And then she packed up her household and moved to New Orleans where she started up a girls’ school to support herself and her daughters.
EC: I see her in you – someone who takes steps to change her life. You write to make sense of things, you go to AA. And you somehow managed to talk yourself into the Academia de Belle Arte in Florence when you’d only been drawing for a few weeks, and into the music program at Loyola College when you didn’t know an instrument.
LK:That’s quite a complement, Elizabeth. Thank you! Yes, and I was kicked out of the Academia de Belle Arte, and didn’t complete the music program at Loyola! I graduated with a BA in Drama and Speech. I smartly transferred from the music school mid-way in college. My real training was with Ivan Uttal. He was a graduate of the director’s unit of the Actor’s Studio in New York and a brilliant director. He cast actors who were playing themselves and he knew how to mine their natural abilities. He even hired my mother as an Italian coach for his production of The Rose Tatoo! I’m a good dialogue writer and that came from his tutelage. He died from AIDS in 1996. He was one of the good guys in my life. I miss him still.
I persevere, I keep writing and I keep reading things to people. And I persevere with the memoir I began after my mother’ death; it’s a work in progress.
EC: Yes, we’ve been working on that together to compress – and to tidy up the grammar, punctuation and so on. I’ve seen you go from a wave-as-you-pass-in-the-street relationship with the technical bits of writing to gradually mastering them.
LK: Ha! Wave-as-you-pass-in-the-street is a hyphenated adjectival phrase! I wouldn’t have known that from a Georgia mule when I first began writing stories. I left punctuation and grammar behind decades ago in my hypergraphic journaling. I have written millions of words and the pressing need to record obliterated everything else. When I first began shaping story I was ignorant. I have gotten better because I am a dogged rewriter, and I have been blessed to have you as a friend and editor. What’s better for a lackadaisical grammarian writer than a dominatrix of punctuation and grammar?
I had an another editor tell me, “I don’t care about your story. All I care about is the language.” I thought that was hard, but it’s true. Writing is language. It’s not painting or acting or sculpting. There is a craft and the craft is knowing the rules so that you can use them to make the story better. I don’t want to just tell a story. I want to write a story, and I want the language to move and to sing. When you give edits is you always include little lessons on my usual stumpers; hyphens and those fiends commas! You believe I will get it even when I don’t.
Elizabeth Creith is a writer and editor in northern Ontario. Her memoir “Shepherd in Residence” won the 2013 Louise de Kiriline Lawrence award for northern Ontario non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The Linnet’s Wings, Old Farmer’s Almanac, Flash fiction Online and many other print and online venues. She’s currently working on a YA fantasy trilogy. You can read her blog at http://ecreith.wordpress.com/