By Jane Campbell
Re’Lynn Hansen is the winner of PRISM’s 2014 Non-fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in Hawai’i Review, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, and contrary, where her essay was named as one of the ten best of the decade. She has received the New South Prose Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker was published by Firewheel Press. Her book of nonfiction prose poems, Some Women I Have Known, is forthcoming from White Pine Press. Her novel, Take Me to the Underground, was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. She is an editor of South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art.
Do you have any advice for writers who are considering sending their work in to writing contests?
I always research and/or purchase the magazine I am sending to. I teach at Columbia College, so I’ll go to the library racks and see if we subscribe.
I knew I wanted to send PRISM a piece for their contest but I didn’t know exactly which piece to send. Then I read “Blood Brothers” by Timothy Taylor, the judge of the current PRISM contest. That story is about a relationship that comes full circle, about an Iranian and an Iraqi who help each other during the Iran-Iraq War. One saves the other’s life actually, when he could have easily chosen to kill him. I thought the relationship between the men was a metaphor for the humanity we should all have towards each other. More than that, I liked the way the essay breathed; he’d reveal the deep details of one man’s life since the war, then draw back and begin to clock the other man’s life. You could feel the convergence coming.
Convergence is a theme I like to write about. I tend to segment my essays in the manner in which Tim had segmented his writing. Time stops for a while—you go someplace else with the narrative. My piece, “Reunion,” has that time-segmentation. It’s about a group of high school friends who have had a reunion/gathering every year since high school. One of these friends is diagnosed with, and later dies of, breast cancer. After I was diagnosed, I kept thinking back to her. How did she live again? What was she trying to tell me again? She was graceful. Every word out of her mouth was soft, but spoken with intent. Yet she was an explosive person. She was wildly human. Her body movements seemed pulsed by electricity. Many years after high school, we found our lives on converging paths. I was trying to capture all that.
I guess what I’m saying is that PRISM and Timothy Taylor seemed the most natural place to send this story. That’s what I would look for—a natural fit for your writing.
What inspired you to write “Reunion”?
I’m not sure there’s a short answer regarding the inspiration for writing “Reunion.” I like to write about the connective tissue in life. The essay is about a group of friends who get together for a high school reunion every year, but one friend dies—of cancer. Then after she dies, I get diagnosed with the cancer that she had. That’s the obvious connection. I knew I had to write about it. But then I had to grapple with questions of deeper connections, the story which sits below the story.
So I wrote “Reunion” because I like to write and connect things. That said, I also wrote it because this friend was visiting my house in Michigan and left a pair of her pants behind in my closet, and then she died. I thought, really? A pair of pants? That’s what’s left? This cannot be all there is of her. I wanted to write about her but didn’t know how until I myself was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then I remembered every word she had said to me that last year. It was as if she had encrypted it. Also, I began to think of her death and my life, as a double helix strand. It can go either way at any moment, it almost depends on what day we are on, and what cancer drug is coming down the pike. There was a larger story to “Reunion,” the story of our class “reunions.” We had a class president who was amazing and she has a reunion every year at her house. I fully realize the onus that class reunions carry, but then again I wanted to relate how important and meaningful and even loving that is—to keep going and to be there for each other, at a reunion, say.
Non-fiction writers often get nervous about publishing because of the possibility someone they’ve written about may see their work. Is this something you worry about? Do you have advice for other non-fiction writers about how to navigate the ethics of writing about real people?
Yes, I do think about who is going to read it. I would love to say I have no censor at all, but it wouldn’t be the truth.
I’m not sure what advice I would give about this. Who can write about the actual world? If we wrote about the actual world we would accumulate so many details as to enter a plane of nothingness. Nothing would be more important than another thing. For instance, in writing the truth about my writing life, I would have to relate that the penholder on the desk where I write, also contains screwdrivers. Then maybe I would have to count the pens and count the screwdrivers. Then describe the cup holder, and the angle at which the pens and screwdrivers are situated. Do we care for this story? Truth is more complicated than what is there and what has happened. To get to truth the writer has to step beyond what is there. We have to enter the writer’s imagination to get to a more complex level of story. The writer has to interpret. It is the interpretation, the point-of-view that fascinates us. Maybe the essayist’s point of view should come with a warning label—use with caution, write responsibly. But then what would we have? A bunch of boring, fearful, self-regulating writers.
Having said all this, I will mention that as a writer, I don’t go to my darkest place. And I hope it’s not a judgment call for those who do. Or maybe I do go dark sometimes, but it’s within a certain style and levity that I like to maintain—it’s like darkness-lite.
Non-fiction writers don’t have to dream up characters or plots, but many of us struggle with how to structure our pieces. The events in “Reunion” span decades and we sometimes get information out of chronological order. For example, we learn that your friend Susan dies of cancer early in the piece, but we don’t see the events leading up to her death until close to the end of the essay. How did you decide how to structure “Reunion”? Did you outline the piece at any point in the writing process?
I think finding the form, finding the structure, is one of the most difficult things to do for me. Sometimes the structure doesn’t come to the essay from its inception. And I can’t wait for inspiration all the time. That happened with this piece, “Reunion.” I knew what I wanted to write; I didn’t know how. So I just sat down and wrote it in fits and starts. It’s like throwing putty on the page. I’ll throw it all out there. No detail is too small. I like to write from images, so all of those will go on the page. Heaps of paragraphs, each with an image, strung along. It becomes raw material. I’m sculpting the thing. I’ll toss out bits of events, or objects or scraps of dialogue—whatever took my attention, and it’s a huge mess. I’ll take a break and come back and reread it, and think, Wow, this thing is a mess. “Reunion” was like that. Where the heck was I going with it? Then I begin to form it by taking out bits and pieces. You find the dovetails. You find that one paragraph begs for another. Making editing decisions not only brings the essay into focus, it’s sort of a life metaphor. It gives order, creates definitive value. It begins to emerge. You conjure it up through a multitude of cut-and-pastes. You keep concentrating and focusing on what stays in, and at some point there it is, this world, wholly formed.
In the end, I think the reader can pinpoint a straight line of narrative in my writing, at least in this essay, “Reunion.” However, I also like to leave some gaps, some white space in the narrative. This might come from a love for poetry. So there are pauses, digressions, and arterials in the narrative that reflect a more circuitous route, that show I’ve taken into account a much rounder existence.
Roughly how long did it take you to write “Reunion”? Did you produce many different drafts?
“Reunion” took about two months to produce. There were probably a half-dozen solid drafts. And I like to move from one project to another, much like a painter in her studio. Work on one painting, take a break from it, go off and work on another painting. I do this with writing. If you write long enough, you’ll soon find that you have files and files of stuff to get to. While I was working on “Reunion” I was also working on complementary pieces that I see as a collection, a book about family, friends, my cancer diagnosis, and whatever that all means. I was also working on my actual book, the one being published soon by White Pine Press, called Some Women I Have Known. There was plenty of editing to do on that book, an homage to women in my life. So “Reunion” came in fits and spurts between all that. But sometimes, if I am into it, I’ll fly into “intense” mode with a piece. It’s a 15-hour day, with breaks for tea or Diet Coke. I’ll eat a huge lunch, so I can then write without stopping. Then suddenly it’s midnight.
What are you reading right now?
That’s such a good question because I think what I absorb as a reader affects me as a writer. I love Fitzgerald. I use Fitzgerald quotes as epigraphs to pieces. He really has a handle on life’s paradoxes. He could also nail a scene. The opening party scene of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,”— seeing the ballroom through the windows and through the gaze of someone standing outside on the lawn— is exquisite. Sometimes I’ll go to a website like Goodreads that has aggregated Fitzgerald quotes. But sometimes I’ll go for the full ride and reread “Babylon Revisited” or Tender Is the Night. I also read for the classes I’m teaching. I use the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. The Cheryl Strayed piece in there is both intense and meditative. It comes from another world. And Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s “The Beautiful City of Tirzah” sparkles like a jewel. His perception of humanity is so delicate and he uses fine details to express it. I’ll pick up books of essays, because that’s mostly the genre in which I write. I’ll read them and pick them apart for their leitmotifs, their organizational structure. I recently finished Brenda Miller’s book of essays, Listening Against the Stone. Her sense for form is terrific. She knows how to bracket an essay. I also just finished Roxane Gay’s book, Ayiti. Her writing is intelligent, runs at a clip, hovers beautifully over the violence; you really get a sense of all that’s wrong in the world. Lately, I’m taken with Ryan Van Meter’s collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, and it’s been a long while, since Salinger maybe, since I’ve just wanted to read someone and absorb it into my blood stream.
I’ll also get on the Brevity website and see what’s there. A colleague of mine, Jill Talbot, turned me on to this small piece in Brevity that highlights exquisitely, the prismatic moment, the moment from which everything else evolves. It’s called “Last Dance,” by Dana Tommasino, and it encapsulates Donna Summer and the 80s, the gay movement, and coming out, all in about three pages. It’s the 80s on a pinhead. It starts slow, then it blasts, it’s joyful, then it evaporates.
You can read Re’Lynn Hansen’s “Reunion” in PRISM international’s 52.3 issue, which you can buy here.