Percolators, Bathtubs, and Creative Nonfiction

In the post below, Adrian Koesters writes with the honesty and wisdom she brought to “It Couldn’t Hurt,” a piece in our last issue. In that piece, she shared her struggles with fibromyalgia. In this post, she guides us through a narrative encompassing (but certainly not limited to) the rosary, PTSD, the “guts” required to write CNF, and bathtub inspiration. 

 

The title comes to me because I have recently devoted myself to making coffee in an electric percolator, after a lifetime claiming I could not make coffee and then realizing that letting the machine do the slow work for you gives you exactly the cup you meant to make. Drip coffee maybe is too fast? I don’t know. All of my adventures with the French press have been disasters. Too much pressure? Too much having my own way with it? You see what I mean.

As to percolators and nonfiction, I recently read a relevant essay on taking your time in a memoir by Julie Johnson Riddle (whose wonderful memoir, The Solace of Stones, just came out from U of Nebraska Press). She considers how often memory confounds us no matter how sure we are of our facts, and beyond that, how likely it is for ego to overmaster consciousness. In time, though, Johnson Riddle maintains, in nonfiction the truths of your story will find you, and when they do, they are often humbling if not outright shaming.

Memories may be beautiful, and yet…

Like many writers, I started out writing poetry for the (for me, anyway) get-in-get-out safety of it (imagine thinking poetry is safe!), because I simply had a terror of opening my mouth for any reason. You get a lot of writers like this. And I’ll tell you that very, very often, a poem still will come to me nearly whole, and I have no idea why this is other than that when I write poetry, I think I’m more able to let a part of my psyche come forward in a way that can happen at times when I write fiction but nearly never does with nonfiction.

This could be nonsense, and I’m not speaking for anyone else, nor remotely saying that there is not an imperative (or truth) in poetry and fiction as opposed to nonfiction, but for me, nonfiction takes more guts somehow. Getting your facts straight without the protective padding of metaphor and free narrative choice takes guts.

I began my nonfiction writing career in the bathtub. I’d been in treatment for delayed post-traumatic stress for a number of years, was married, had a small child, and spent most of the time when I didn’t have to be at work curled up on a bed or (if nobody was home) hanging on the walls and howling. Here I’m just stating facts: this is what it was like.  My mother died in 1999, and I thought that I would like to write about her. I came up with a very long poem about her, and another about my father, whom I never knew. I was making stuff up all over the place factually, but was getting as close to telling that truth as I could.

Still, both of the poems were unholy messes, though I whittled them into shape in time. And then, for reasons I’m still not perfectly sure about, I went back to praying the Catholic rosary. I’d never really prayed it on my own as an adult, and as a kid it was almost completely meshed up in the deaths of then-Pope, now St. John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy—both times the radio was set to the Rosary at full blast and seemed to go on for days. It scared me.

But I took up the rosary in those last years of the worst of my illness. And over one or two more years, with various treatments and help, the worst of the PTSD began to subside. Still, I kept on with the rosary. Most of the time I didn’t pray it at all, but carried one or three around and was never without at least one of those plastic glow-in-the-dark jobs they string over the poor box—as incentive to give? I’m not sure: I think elderly sisters and people in nursing homes make them, but they are always there.

And after the previous fifteen or so years of managing a line or two of poetry every now and then, followed by two days under the blankets, I began to write again, mostly poetry, then some fiction, and then I went back to school and started writing in every genre. But before that, I also started to take baths again (instead of showers—I was bathing, at least!), where I rediscovered what great ideas come to you in the bathtub, really often close to genius, the same kind of genius that strikes you when you wake up from a really good dream but with a little more ability to remember what you were thinking about. One day, lolling in the hot water, I thought, “You know, this rosary thing has really helped me a lot. I should write a scriptural rosary for people like me.” This thought was followed the next day by, “And then I need to write a book of poems. And then a novel. And then a memoir.”

The prayer book was written nearly instantaneously and published about as quickly as it’s possible to publish a book, even one so short. I’m proud of it, but I read it now and think, “Who wrote this?” I don’t think I could manage such a book again, so there must have truly been a spirit waiting for me to take care of it. I’m glad, but the whole process gave me a very false idea of what makes a book of nonfiction.

That was in about 2003 or so. And all of those things that in the bathtub I said ought to happen did—except the last. I had it in my mind to write a book about how often we moved as kids, which I thought would be a pretty good basis for a book I could write very quickly, à la cottage-industry Wisdom I Have Gained from the Gift of Trauma, but it didn’t happen. The next book was to be about how great food is and how wonderfully I cooked and ate for a year, etc., but then that Julia Child book came out, and so I figured I was picking up something in the air that wasn’t really mine.  I still want to write those books, but I know now they are not going to be the books I had in my instant-wisdom head when I first conceived of them and that they are not going to produce themselves “nearly whole,” not by a long shot.

Now, even in very short pieces, CNF still goes (yes, painfully) slow. My first published piece was begun in 2004 and published in 2011. The piece I wrote for this journal, “It Couldn’t Hurt,” was started in the summer of 2008, and it was finally “done” last year. I have a very small piece about a photograph of my father that I have been trying to get right since before 2005, and it’s frustrating not to be able to get at the heart of it. Still, when I think about “telling the truth” about my life, in the hopes that it might be of interest or benefit to some reader somewhere, I know I “ought to” have the “guts” to tell it the way not that I need to, but in the way it needs to be told (maybe these are the same thing, but I don’t think they always are). I do know it’s going to take a long bath and a slow cup of coffee—and if God is good, it won’t be anything very wise, either.

*

Adrian Koesters’ nonfiction and essays have appeared in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Treeand in the anthology Becoming: What Makes a Woman (University of Nebraska (2012)). Her nonfiction book on spirituality, Healing Mysteries, was published by Paulist Press (2005) and her collection of poems, Mary Parishes, was published by BrickHouse Books (2013). She holds an MFA in poetry from the Rainer Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University and a Ph.D. in fiction and poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She taught creative writing at UNL and the Creighton University MFA program, and currently is the editorial research specialist for Grants Resources at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. 

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