Our latest issue opened with Dawn Newton’s “Her Skin” – a sensitive and complex examination of a lung cancer case. It may come as surprising that such an assured and complete piece marks a transition for Newton: from fiction to non-fiction, from short story to an upcoming full-length memoir. In this post, Newton talks about the transition.
You can read “Her Skin” here.
As a trained fiction writer, I know how to write narrative. I usually write linear narrative – nothing too fancy or experimental for me – in spite of the fact that my brain operates primarily in non-linear fashion. There are steps that I take to write a story. Introduce the characters: Bill and Juniper met on the school playground when Juniper enrolled as a new student at the beginning of their sixth grade year. Present obstacles: Bill’s family was poor, and as the two moved through middle school, their circumstances and activities divided them. In ninth grade, when they’d begun high school, Juniper developed a rare disease in her auditory canal that caused her to lose her hearing. Bill learned about her diagnosis and connected with her briefly, but their worlds continued to remain separate. Turn the screws on the situation: In eleventh grade, Bill was enrolled during the second half of the day at the career center. Juniper was in the same location working on sign language skills and occupational therapy. Provide a resolution: After two more years of spending time together, Bill and Juniper decided to create a business, and a school counselor sought college scholarships for both so they could realize their dream of helping the hearing impaired. Throughout the narrative, include distinctive sensory details.
I did not think I would ever write in a non-fiction genre. My prose is too long-winded for journalistic pursuits, and I’ve never experienced life events significant enough to warrant writing an autobiography. However, when I was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, I decided to consider writing a cancer memoir. I didn’t know how to begin. But I saw a presentation on memoir given by Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, when I was at the Bear River Writers’ Conference in Michigan a few years back. From Janzen, I learned Lesson Number One: A memoir is not an autobiography and should therefore have a specific time frame. A second lesson arrived at another terrific regional writers’ conference – Interlochen Writers Retreat. Anne Marie Oomen, a writer trained originally in poetry, I believe, is the author of memoirs Pulling Down the Barn and Love, Sex, and 4-H. In her Memoir Workshop at Interlochen, I learned Lesson Number Two: It’s often helpful to find an “envelope” for one’s memoir – the container or vessel that shapes the themes and the issues. I latched onto the word “envelope” as a concept that could help me shape the structure of my memoir. Of course, like most writers, I broke the rules almost as soon as I learned them. My memoir covers a three-year time frame but examines, in many ways, the entirety of my life. And it has not one but four envelopes shaping its content.
So why did I end up with the word “sashaying” in the title of this piece? “Sashaying” is such a bright, arguably even loud verb. Two of the dictionary definitions I found online for the word use the adjective “ostentatious” to describe the movement involved in a “sashay” – movement from side to side, although I originally channeled the word from my grade school square dancing lessons in music and gym. But the word “sashay” with its hint of ostentation and showmanship gives me courage. If I want to explore the world through the lens of a non-fiction memoir, I’ll need courage to explore my subject honestly. In addition, if the movement of my writing is from side to side rather than linear, so much the better. It’s always good to have some freedom when you move. There’s my sashay. I’m sticking to it.
Dawn Newton received an M.A. in Writing from the John Hopkins University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Gargoyle, the South Carolina Review, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, and other literary magazines. She is presently completing a memoir, Stage IV: Mother on Tarceva, and lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, three children, and gal pal Clover.
This blog post was adapted from an artist talk she presented at The Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia in November.