The Desire to Understand: Lisa Martin-deMoor on Crafting the Personal Essay
Now, for the back story to this year’s winner of the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest: what became “A Container of Light” began as a struggle to find the right kind of form, or “structure,” to guide Lisa Martin-deMoor’s own experience with miscarriage into words. That struggle with craft was as intimate and embodied as her subject matter. “[I]t took me a long time to know how to write this essay,” confesses Martin-deMoor, who stole precious time away from her toddler and newborn to answer our queries. I know, we should have let her use that time to sleep—which is why we’re doubly grateful for the insight, and precision, of her answers.
Lisa, tell us how you came to writing.
I’ve been writing seriously for about ten years, ever since dropping out of a Master’s program in philosophy (and giving up on what had, up until then, been my only career plan). At UBC, the philosophy department and the creative writing department occupy the 3rd and 4th floors of the same building, and I kept leaving the 3rd floor to sneak up to the 4th to eavesdrop on the creative writing classes. So then I knew I was in the wrong place. But it was scary because I was very good at philosophy and not a very good writer yet. So I had to face the tremendous volume of bad writing I had to do in order to start improving. Now writing is a practice, it’s essential for me, and I’m a bit nuts if I’m not writing. So since I have two young kids now, that’s another story—how to fit it in.
Your bio in our current issue (no. 120) says your first collection, One Crow Sorrow, won the 2009 Alberta Literary Award for Poetry. What attracts you to the personal essay genre? Are there essayists whom you admire, look to for guidance?
I fell in love with personal essays the summer I was 19 and got my hands on an anthology, Major Modern Essayists, edited by Gilbert H. Muller and Alan F. Crooks, that I still use when I teach. Each essay I read that summer sort of blew my mind. So I discovered Didion and Dillard and Orwell, and Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” and E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake”—and I still get something new out of them every time I teach them. Lately I’ve been reading The Best American Essays from 2009, the year Mary Oliver selected the essays, and I’ve been blown away by Barry Lopez and Chris Arthur and David James Duncan. It’s such an incredible, versatile, intellectually rigorous form—and yet if it doesn’t have a heart, it doesn’t work. So I love that.
How did “A Container of Light” come to be, and why do you think the story assumed the form of an essay rather than, say, that of a poem or a work of fiction?
“A Container of Light” took a long time arriving. I had an urge to write the piece for a long time before I had the angle I needed to begin. I’d been talking with a friend (the writer and visual artist Jessica Hiemstra-van der Horst) for a couple of years about putting together an anthology of essays about miscarriage, stillbirth, and other losses related to pregnancy and parenthood. Her sister had a full-term stillbirth, and we wanted to put together a book of essays about this kind of loss because it feels like there’s not a lot out there that’s literary, and artistically interesting, about miscarriage or stillbirth. Lisa Moore and Dede Crane edited this fabulous book of essays, Great Expectations, full of really diverse interesting pieces about birth, and it feels like there’s room to do something similar with loss, something you might want to read if you’ve miscarried, for example, but also a book someone who has never been pregnant could want to read because it offers something else, at the level of lived human experience.
But it took me a long time to know how to write this essay. I had to get to the right place first, in my thinking. I didn’t know for a long time how to tell the story, what the story was. I always knew this piece had to be an essay, though. It contained far too much to become a poem, and didn’t depend on a metaphorical or linguistic insight the way my poems often do. And it mattered to me to represent the story as a true story, for political reasons, because these things are still deeply private in a way that is peculiar given how much power women have reclaimed vis-a-vis their sexuality. But it’s different with the reproductive function. There’s still a lot of obscurity about what women experience as mothers, as the ones who incubate new life, who give birth. Which is weird because you’d think it would be one of the most interesting things in the world, what it’s like to create a new person. Of course the essay’s about much more than miscarriage, and that’s the thing an essay can do: it gives me a place to formally enact the coalescing of things I sense to be connected. If a poem begins with a metaphor or an image or a line, an essay begins for me with a structure: the structure is what finally brings the things that seem to be unconnected together.
Why The New Quarterly as a destination? A piece such as you describe, one that is a long time in the making, can be difficult to release, send off for publication. How did you go about about finding a home for your work?
I’ve written a lot about grief and it’s not always a popular subject. Something about the description of the Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest felt like it could be a receptive context for this essay to be read in. And it has been, deeply so.
Now that the essay is in print—with a life independent of your desires (much like children soon become)—are there any features that catch your eye, or that stay with you? I am interested in the enduring power of a work, not only how it resonates with readers but with its author—how a finished piece still informs the writer, has a hold on the creator’s own imagination.
You know, when my copy of TNQ arrived and I read the essay in print, the line that caught me was “I watched as my pain became greater than my desire to understand, and I asked for morphine.” That’s the dark moment, the dark place. As Georgia O’Keeffe said (and I’m probably paraphrasing her badly), we can live without happiness but not without being interested. For me, the desire to understand—that resonant, meaningful sense of what it means to be alive, that curiosity—can carry me through a lot of difficulty. When we arrive at a place where we need palliation, because we can’t be alive to what we’re facing anymore, that’s a very dark place.