I shivered, rubbing my palms on my pants as I sat in the lobby of the Haworth Inn on that first snow day. While my friends were warm in their dorm rooms, I had made the trek across campus to meet with JRVWS visiting writer Sophfronia Scott.
I had never met an author after reading his or her work. In Professor Rhoda Burton’s Advanced Creative Nonfiction Class, we spent a few weeks pouring over several pieces in Scott’s essay collection Love’s Long Line. There exists an intimacy in memoir—I’ve heard it described as a “warm, inviting voice that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear”—and Scott’s voice definitely holds that closeness.
She writes what she wants unapologetically, never shying away from bold topics such as her experience with the Sandy Hook shooting in her civil discourse essay “For Roxane Gay: Notes from a Forgiving Heart.” She even plays with different forms—like her essay “A Payoff Letter,” a piece that begins as a literal mortgage payoff letter, but twists into a serious commentary on our attachments to physical space.
As a beginner creative writer trying to figure out her own genre, I wanted some insight from Sophfronia Scott on finding that perfect balance: how does one successfully blend a warm memoir voice with the genre’s inherent exploration of colder subject matter? Since Scott offered to meet with a few creative writers to give feedback on their pieces, I couldn’t resist the urge to bring a piece I had written for class that was based on one of her essays.
Now let me just say: I have been studying creative writing for two years. I have studied memoir for a solid semester at this point. I have written about pretty much every embarrassing, secret, awkward, dark moment I have ever had. Many of my classmates and professors have read these pieces. I figured at this point, I was over the whole shyness bit. Nope.
Sophfronia Scott and I ended up meeting in one of the rooms in the Haworth. For thirty minutes, we dissected the piece. However, it very quickly shifted from a critical analysis of the piece to an analysis of me:
“Why did you feel the urge to write this piece?”
“Why is this important to you?”
“You keep circling back to this metaphor. Why is that?”
“Why did you write about this now? Why not a year ago?”
“How many times have you written about this? Why so few?”
Suddenly a somewhat humorous piece about how much of a neurotic cleaner I am turned into a deeper analysis of who I was: someone who perhaps uses her excessive tidiness as a tactic to gain control of a situation in which I had none. Even the colloquial language I used to describe the situation spilled my subconscious intent: “the whole thing was such a mess!”
“My piece ‘A Fur For Annie Pearl’ started out as a funny little piece about my search for the perfect fur coat,” Scott mentioned in our meeting, “but as I was writing it, I realized that it was so much more than that. My obsession with the coat stems from my relationship with my mother.” Perhaps the secret for the balance of a warm voice in serious conversation lies in a deeper understanding of the self; after all, humans don’t exist in a binary of light and constant darkness. Even our humor is seated in a deeper struggle, and writing is just a conversation between the reader and the writer about this inherent humanity in the humorous mundane.
Scott echoed this sentiment when she visited my writing class the next day. When one of my classmates asked for any advice Scott had for the beginning writer, she responded with: “Journal. It can be about everything and anything; it can even be about the weather. But journal. Notice everything—the snow, your emotions, your experiences—and keep a record of them. You get to practice your writing and you’ll learn about yourself along the way.”
Good thing it was a snow day that next day, because I took her advice, writing about the white landscape from the comfort of my warm bed.