Interview with Diane Reukauf, Runner Up in Q3 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, August 26, 2018
As a mother of young children, Diane Reukauf co-authored Commonsense Breastfeeding and The Father Book: Pregnancy and Beyond. Years later, she received the Outstanding Dissertation Award at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, for The Mother’s Voice in the Progressive Era: The Reform Efforts of Kate Waller Barrett.

Her work has appeared in the print versions of Skirt! Magazine, Lamaze Parents’ Magazine, and Parenting.

As coordinator of international students a t a local community college, she developed The Writing Project to help immigrant students tell their stories. She has conducted expressive writing sessions for female college faculty and pediatric oncology nurses.

She has now returned to her own writing and is currently working on a collection of pieces about grieving. She lives with her husband in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, DC. She frequently leaves this place she loves to be with her adult children and grandchildren who love living out west.

Read Diane's award-winning essay "Carpet Promises" here and then return to learn all about what inspires Diane in her writing life.

Interview by Renee Roberson

WOW: Congratulations, Diane, and welcome! You have an impressive writing background and list of credits. I'm interested to learn more about Kate Waller Barrett--the topic of your award-winning dissertation. Can you tell us a little about why you chose her as your focus?

Diane: I discovered Kate Waller Barrett accidentally. I used to volunteer to teach a unit on childbirth and breastfeeding in Family Life classes at our local junior high. In a conversation with the teacher of that class, I learned that her great-grandmother had worked with unwed mothers at the turn of the last century and that some of her papers were in our local library. I headed to the history wing of the library and spent a few hours reading about her. I was hooked and wanted to know more.

Over a hundred years ago, this southern woman from Virginia, the mother of six and the wife of a minister, was writing and speaking boldly about controversial issues such as sex education, sexually transmitted diseases, and the double standard as it applied to marriage, divorce and prostitution. She had the ear of presidents, pastors and politicians and was in high demand as a speaker in army camps, women’s groups, and universities.

Barrett traveled around the world setting up homes for unwed mothers. Following her policies, the homes served young women for 6 to 12 months after they gave birth, providing safety and support for them while they breastfed their babies, learned some skills, and prepared to head out into the world as competent and employable mothers.

Kate Waller Barrett rejected religious and moral systems that condemned and isolated some categories of women, especially unmarried mothers and their children. She held tightly to her own convictions, but she also believed that folks on both sides of an issue could make valuable contributions to society. She focused her energies on persuading people to do just that.

I wish more people knew about this remarkable woman. Thank you, Renee, for asking the question and giving me the chance to talk about her.

WOW: You're welcome! I love learning more about amazing women throughout history. She sounds like a great person to study. Having conducted expressive writing sessions with different groups of people (including immigrants and oncology nurses), what are some of the experiences you've had watching people write down memories that can sometimes be painful to process?

Diane: I’ve been most affected by the work I did at a local community college with immigrant students, primarily refugees or asylees. They were in the process of learning to write in the English language so I typed their words as they recounted their stories of escape from danger, of separation from family, of loss and yearning. They talked about their childhoods, the rituals of their homelands, and the parents and grandparents they left behind. There were times I quietly cried as I typed. One young woman later told me that she was satisfied that I cried when she told me her story because it meant that she had managed to make me see her own sorrow.
It was a privilege to work with these students.

WOW: Your essay, "Carpet Promises," revolves around the loss of a family member. What was the writing and revising experience like as you worked through the experience while crafting such a poignant essay?

Diane: Originally this was a single paragraph in another essay, and it was a pretty lifeless paragraph, although I didn’t recognize that two years ago. Back then I believed I had accurately reported the facts as I remembered them. I thought that was all I needed to do. It’s satisfying to see that I’ve learned a few important things over the past two years. A major leap in that learning took place at IOTA, a short prose conference held over a long weekend on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

Towards the end of that weekend, I wrote about those carpet-installation days again. As a result of sessions with Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart, the two faculty at IOTA that summer, this time I started writing down sensory images from the event. I was stunned by the flood of details I was able to recall. I don’t know why those details didn’t show up the first time. As I revised the piece later, I started to see entire sentences that did nothing and needed to be cut. I was trying to convey a sense of how somber and fragile and full of generosity those days felt.

WOW: Your bio says you are working on a collection of pieces about grieving. Can you share some more information about that project with us?

After my granddaughter died, I had no idea what came next. The loss felt too big, and I was afraid of what it would do to my daughter, her husband, and their two young sons. My most intense grief was attached to their pain.

In the years after Louisa’s death, I read several books written by mothers whose babies had died. The books were a life-line for me, connecting me to my own daughter’s experience. What I didn’t find anywhere, though, was the perspective of my generation, not as grandmother but as the mother of the grieving parent.

I lost a sweet granddaughter and that loss still takes my breath away, but the pieces I have been writing are primarily about being a witness to my daughter’s sorrow—a sorrow I could not relieve. It’s from that perspective that I am writing about the grief and the goodness I’ve observed over these past four years.

WOW: What advice would you give writers who are just starting to explore the world of creative nonfiction? What do you think makes for a compelling draft?

Diane: I’d suggest that aspiring writers read books about the craft of writing. The books I have in mind are not tedious how-to books; they are pleasures.

I love reading about writing, maybe especially when I’m not writing myself. It makes me feel as though the empty writing times are not wasted times. Plus, I like the feeling of being in the company of the authors. Years ago, I read and loved Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. More recently, I have learned lessons from these books:

Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth
Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir
Kate Hopper’s Use Your Words
Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing
Laura Oliver’s The Story Within, and
Robin Black’s Crash Course.

I highly recommend all these books. And there are many more out there . . . and on my book shelves! It’s also a good idea to read the kinds of pieces or books you’d like to write yourself.

I think it can be inspiring to put yourself in the company of other people who think the words matter. You can do this by attending local literary events - book signings, book readings, one-day conferences. If you’re lucky, you might find short writing courses through libraries or book stores. You can even connect with the non-fiction writing community without leaving home through regular postings from online sites like Hippocampus, Brevity and, of course, WOW.

I’m not exactly sure what makes for a compelling draft, but I can offer two pieces of advice that I use as I aim to write one.

First, don’t over-explain. Years ago as an English teacher, I took a trip with some urban junior high students. As we drove down rural roads, I pointed out cornfields and cows and windmills and silos. One of the students finally turned to me and said, “You don’t have to keep telling us what to look at.” Oh, right.

I try to remember that now when I find myself telling the reader what she should be noticing or thinking as she is reading. My early drafts always have too many words so I spend a lot of time deleting annoying sentences.

Second, I recommend reading your own writing out loud. Sometimes when I do this, I almost cringe as I hear a sentence—a clear sign I need to fix or eliminate something. Other times, I decide to skip over an entire paragraph, telling myself I already know what’s there. Usually the truth is I am skipping the paragraph because it’s flat. Boring.

Really, though, the most important thing is to start writing. You do not need to know the purpose of your writing when you begin. You don’t have to know the structure. I find this to be unsettling, but I think it’s just part of the deal. You suspect you have something to say so you start. Weeks or months later, you find yourself with pages of words, and some of what you’ve written will want to be more—will want to be a story or essay. Then the real can writing begin.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--Thanks for doing this interview and sharing Diane's essay with us. Your questions made me recall an experience I am going to write about.

Diane--That is what appeals to me the most about well-written essays: the unsettling feeling the reader has, the sense of disequilibrium the reader has as they consume the words and the emotions. In my opinion, an essay that's well crafted will begin in one place, travel along some unpredictable forks in the road that seemingly do NOT lead to a satisfying ending, but with the final lines or paragraphs, weave together the diversions along with the beginning to create a powerful piece.

From my perspective,the impact of your essay made you a winner--not a runner up. You moved me. You inspired me. You made me think. And, I connected with you.

Diane, I am so sorry for your loss. I only have one grandchild, and couldn't imagine losing her. I hope I never have to experience that heartbreak. (And your college student--the one who made you cry--was right. If we can make our audience laugh or cry or get angry... well, we've done our job.)

Good luck with your collection on grieving. That's the kind of anthology that's desperately needed because we all have grief in our lives. Hopefully writing it will help with your healing and your living those moments again... just as it helps the reader heal and become stronger.

Diane said...

Thank you, Sioux, for your thoughts and for taking the time to write them down. You are so kind and generous. We can never know whether our writing makes any difference to anyone else. Today I feel lucky to learn that you felt connected to what I wrote. Again, SO generous of you.


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