Leah Bradshaw placed second in our latest Creative Nonfiction Essay contest with her essay, "Small and Quiet Tragedies," which is about her struggle with infertility. It is beautifully written and everyone can read it here.
Before we get to Leah's interview, let's check out her bio! Leah Bradshaw is a freelance writer and English teacher from Massachusetts. In 2018, her creative writing was accepted into the Cambridge Writers Workshop and she was invited to travel to New Orleans with a select group of writers and distinguished instructors. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where she majored in English and Journalism. In 2008, her writing was accepted as part of a selective Travel Journalism program at the university, and she was invited to travel to Sicily, where she wrote several articles and creative nonfiction under the mentorship of both esteemed professors and fellow students. Leah is currently working on a collection of personal essays and short stories, titled Pink Lines, which will focus on past fertility struggles, a period of time that she considers one of her darkest and most challenging, but also profoundly influential on her writing. As an educator, she hopes to encourage her students to recognize that writing can be one of the most powerful and cathartic tools—they simply have to be brave enough to begin.
WOW: Congratulations on placing in 2nd place with your essay, "Small and Quiet Tragedies." The subject of your essay is dealing with infertility, which is a subject many of our readers may be familiar with also. Why did you personally choose to write about these struggles in your own life?
Leah: Mark Twain once said, “Write what you know.” I have always been a writer at heart, but before my infertility struggles, I didn’t “know” much. I’ve had a pretty wonderful life so far, and I’ve never had much of substance to write about when it came to my own personal situations. I think this is why I’ve always gravitated towards fiction. My own life was never as exciting! I am not calling infertility “exciting” by any means. In fact, it was the first time I’d been forced to live with actual grief on a regular, repeating schedule. But it was also the first time I finally used writing to help myself out of a dark period. One thing I realized about fertility struggles is that most women (myself included) react to it with shame and try to conceal it. It’s not something enough of us talk about, together. When I opened up about my own struggles I was greeted with so many messages from friends near and far – each of them dealing with the same issue – and I’d had no idea! It made me realize this is a topic that deserves more exposure. And I had the opportunity to do that, so I wasn’t going to waste it.
WOW: That's incredible. And I think you're right. I shared with you that I also struggled with infertility, and I did feel that way, too. Thank you for being brave to face it and write about it. Your first line is very powerful--especially once readers go on and read who the "you" is in that sentence. What made you start your essay this way? Did you always plan to write it in the 2nd person?
Leah: It’s funny--I actually never write in 2nd person. And I typically don’t enjoy reading things in 2nd person either! I didn’t originally plan to write it this way in the beginning. This was the first time I actually felt like 2nd person made the most sense to me, though. Throughout this entire struggle, there has been one central focus – this elusive entity that I kept striving for but couldn’t quite meet. Rather than describing the issue for others who might already be familiar, it felt more natural to me to confront the actual source of my pain and make it a living thing. There is something sort of mystical about 2nd person narration, and I felt like this time it actually fit perfectly.
WOW: Agreed--it's a powerful choice. You probably have enough feelings and memories and events that you could write an entire memoir on this subject. How did you narrow it down to write an essay under 1000 words and keep it focused? I know our community has this question a lot about BIG topics.
Leah: I think this was definitely the hardest part! There was so much I wanted to say on this topic. So many random little scenes from my past experiences kept dancing in my head: various baby showers where I sat in agony, days in the office where other co-workers would announce their pregnancies, SO much money spent on cheap CVS pregnancy tests during my lunch break, followed swiftly by crying in bathroom stalls. I knew that there would be too many various thoughts to string together in such a short space, so I instead decided to focus on the issue in its broadest but realest sense: the day-to-day of simply not having something you so deeply desire, and what that day looks like, and which memories and emotions it evokes. I think having my essay begin with that monthly “event” (that we women know all too well) was the easiest way to illustrate the feelings of loss and despair because I could have gone into as much detail as possible; but for anyone who’s struggled with infertility, we all know that nothing in the process is final until THAT event. I figured it made the most sense to kick it off from there, as if in real-time, and walk through the routine string of activities and emotions that accompany it. It really started to write itself from that point.
WOW: So true. And thank you for explaining to us how you made the choices you did in your essay. It will help other writers too! In your bio, it states that "as an educator, she hopes to encourage her students to recognize that writing can be one of the most powerful and cathartic tools—they simply have to be brave enough to begin." Can you explain to us a little about your role as an educator and how you encourage this type of writing in your students?
Leah: One thing I realized quickly, even as a student-teacher in the beginning, was that many kids – especially at the middle and high school levels- actually fear writing. They find it daunting and view it as something they simply cannot do. As someone who has always felt gifted in writing and found it to be such a useful tool to navigate life’s waves, I felt awful seeing so many students feeling the complete opposite way about it. Nowadays, our curriculum expects students to analyze characters, identify things like plot and theme and irony, and basically act as critics. But I feel like there is a major gap in how we approach their writing. Many students are unfamiliar with how to even structure their writing, and this is largely from lack of doing it. My goal has been to get them writing more, even if it’s simply casual in the beginning. I try to incorporate journaling and open-response format in the classroom as much as possible, and I’ve honestly been shocked and pleasantly surprised at some of the things they end up telling me. My goal is to introduce the act of writing as something cathartic. It doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. I want them to use it as a means to clearing all the murkiness out of their heads and see what they can do with the result. What can they create from that? We live in a world where mindless scrolling of technology basically clouds our thoughts and decides things for us before we even realize, and this affects their demographic even more because it’s all they’ve ever known. If I can open the class by asking them to tell me three things in their journals, then I’ve already gotten them to do a little more writing than the day before, and before long, a five-paragraph essay doesn’t seem so intimidating after all.
WOW: I have taught writing in elementary grades, and now that you mention it, I totally agree about that gap. I love the idea of introducing writing to them as a means of working through their feelings! We also read that you are working on a collection of essays and stories titled Pink Line. Can you tell us more about this and what your plans are for it?
Leah: Pink Lines is going to touch on my experience with all the different aspects of infertility. There are so many pools of a person’s life that bleed into one another, especially during difficult times, and this collection is meant to display how those pools intersected during my experience (for better or worse). For instance, how it affected my job, my relationship with friends, with family, etc. People think the biggest struggle about infertility is the mere lack of the child. And that is definitely true; but for me, it became something so much bigger. It was like a stain that started to dribble onto every piece of clothing I owned and into every corner of my life. Some people end up losing their spouse or partner over it. I was lucky enough to somehow experience the exact opposite – a marriage that feels invincible. But my point is that this experience looks a little different for every woman, and my goal with Pink Lines is to reveal all the truths about the experience: the gritty, the devastating, but also the uplifting. Reading about other women’s authentic experiences was the one thing that really helped me through, and I hope this collection will do that for another woman out there who might be looking to feel more seen and a little less alone.
WOW: Pink Lines sounds great! Best of luck with it. Thank you for answering all these questions with such detail and thought. We know that you have a bright future ahead of you!