If you haven't done so already, check out Eden's award-winning story "The Little Deaths" and then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Q4 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote?
Eden: I started writing “The Little Death” after my dad died several years ago. He was a functional alcoholic, a narcissist, and a sex-addict type of person whom I didn’t grow up with but spent enough time around to suffer his view of women and loose, lousy boundaries. After his death, I realized his past behavior had surpassed gross – that it classified as full-on-but-not-always-overt sexual abuse. I began to wonder if my early exploration of sex was normal or a result of being sexualized by my dad. Writing about my grade-school sexcapades helped me conclude that the moment-to-moment explorations felt too innocent and natural to have been kindled by my dad’s dysfunction, at least not directly. He lived across the country from me at that time, and I can’t recall him boundary blasting me until I was fourteen. “The Little Death” is the result of wanting to document my six-year-old self-discoveries and claim their normalcy. I feel proud of my early recognition of sexuality and cherish the clear, easy pleasure I felt at that time.
The first version of “The Little Death” was short, just under 500 words, and was one of my original WOW! submissions. The reviewer found the topic and writing refreshing but wanted better pacing and more information about Soline. Members of my writing group were disturbed by Soline’s mom’s nonchalance (it was real!) and wanted to hear more about France. I set the essay aside, unsure how to apply suggested fixes without ruining the story’s candor, container, and innocence. Shortly after, my home in Southern Oregon burned in the Almeda fire and a serious relationship broke up. I developed other pieces, mostly relationship and fire-themed, and then made the wise and lucky decision to take Chelsey Clammer’s editing class where we would learn techniques to edit our own work. We were to choose an existing essay and spend the entire class shaping it up – I chose to revisit “The Little Death.” By replacing certain descriptions with physical gestures, adding more specific verbs and body sensations, expanding my aha moments, and clarifying that the essay was not meant as erotica, the changes I made created the exact story I wanted to tell.
WOW: Thank you for so generously sharing your process! It’s so fascinating to hear how authors think about their writing and particular pieces progress over time. What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay?
Eden: I remember my teen and early adult years as tumultuous and painful; I disliked myself and life despite great friends and therapeutic interventions. Except for an island of time spent abroad in Poitiers, France – 1984-85. I blossomed. Something about how the French honor emotion and sensuality helped me understand that I had value. I learned to express myself in French more directly and confidently than I ever had in English and finished my coursework before the end of the school year. Early completion left me time to travel and study jazz dance in Paris. France had served as an antidote for growing up in an environment that didn’t foster self-expression, self-worth, or self-confidence. When I returned to Oregon to complete my senior year of college, I struggled to hang onto my good reception overseas. Writing “The Little Death” anchored my childhood vibrancy and its resurrection in France. At six, I had preferences and honored them, desires that I satisfied without judgement or restraint. I was sensual, spunky, and ready to explore. Those same parts were seen and acknowledged in France – even welcomed. Learning the meaning of la petite mort connected me to others; even French folks on the other side of the globe died little deaths like I did! I felt real and valid, a human on track for a juicy life. My essay captures that essence so I can recall it if needed. I learned that it’s sometimes needed.
WOW: Does the book of poems and essays you’re working on have a theme, and what prompted the working title The?
Eden: The original working title of my book was All My Men because each piece focuses on a past relationship or interaction with a man. I love exploring awkward moments in male-female dynamics. Early on, I wrote several Taylor Swift-like revenge essays – if a man did me wrong, he got written about! Things shifted when I composed a breakup essay called “The Water Man” that explained how profoundly lost I felt in and out of the relationship – this time without being focused on the guy. The essay contained a compassionate assessment of my emotional damage and vow to find a way back to me. I loved it so much that I renamed my book The Water Man…until I realized my cherished body of work would be named after my toxic ex. On a whim, I shortened the book’s title to The, which made me laugh for its absurdity and potential, and reworked the titles of all my individual pieces to begin with “The” – the something or other. I have succeeded in naming most essays and poems The _____, but it’s restrictive, and the title of a recent essay called “Remaining Embers” doesn’t follow the pattern. We’ll see. If enough time goes by, The Water Man title could resurface. All My Men isn’t horrible either. The still makes me smile, so for now, it’s The.
WOW: Titles are so tricky, but can also be helpful to have a working title that speaks to you as you’re writing. Thanks for sharing your title’s evolution! Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you?
Eden: I have always loved the playwright and essayist Sarah Ruhl. I came across her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write while searching her plays for an audition piece. Her ability to take small, daily circumstances and make them bigger or relate them to art and theater inspires me. I bought the book that day and adapted a portion of one of her essays to audition with because she speaks to her readers like they’re in the room with her. Thank you for this question. Because of it, I discovered and ordered Ruhl’s newly published memoir about getting Bell’s Palsy after giving birth to twins. She talks about going “full mammal” with two babies. Another reason to admire her: cool word pairings.
Since studying with Chelsey Clammer, I have been inspired by Brenda Miller (a fellow massage therapist), Jenny Lawson, Kim Adrian, and Marya Hornbacher, mostly for their ability to take a small or usual event and turn it into something special with the way they put words together. They seem to understand how brains jump around to make meaning from the environment and accept their minds’ messages as valid. Whether narrating internal dialogue at a silent meditation retreat (Miller), trying to find a felt vagina that disappeared off the counter (Lawson), creating a questionnaire to better understand an ancestor and herself (Adrian), or trying on red shoes (Hornbacher), these writers share their mindsets and unique perspectives in a way that feels confident and right because they zero in on details and accept their own experiences and perceptions. They follow their creative thoughts far enough to make sense of them and somehow marry their feelings with their thoughts.
Chelsey is amazing. I experienced her first as a supportive, thoughtful, and dynamite teacher and just ordered her book Circadian so I can get to know her writing.
WOW: Thank you for that list of inspiring essayists! I’ve also taken a class with Chelsey Clammer and loved her style! I’m glad you had such a good experience in her class. If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be?
Eden: I would hug myself hard and say, “You have a voice and many things to say. You’re you. Just write and don’t stop. Write for you.” When I was in my early twenties, I somehow ended up with the actor Anthony Edwards in the back of my van – Anthony Edwards from the movie Top Gun and TV show E.R. There were no seats in the back or seat belts, so he and his friend (a friend of my boyfriend) fell over every time I rounded a corner. The drive and laughter equalized us until a conversation over breakfast about writing. He mentioned he had been writing more after his breakup with Meg Ryan. I must’ve said something about wanting to be a writer and wishing I could write because I got a confused stare before he said, “You just write.” At the time, I thought he was crazy. Of course, people would want to hear what Anthony Edwards has to say, but I’m just a regular person. I let that thought keep me from writing for several years.
WOW: I’m glad you’ve broken away from that thought and have been brave enough to share your voice and your story with us! Anything else you’d like to add?
Eden: I love my life now and thank you. With all I’ve been through lately – COVID, a wildfire-consumed house, a breakup – I appreciate even more the opportunity to write and study writing. I’m honored to have placed in the WOW! Q4 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest.
WOW: Thank you for your thoughtful responses. Happy writing!
Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. Tweets @dr_greenawalt.