Interview with Eden McCarthy - Runner Up in the Q3 2022 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, August 07, 2022
Eden McCarthy's compelling essay, "Remaining Embers," was a runner up in WOW! Women on Writing's Q3 2022 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest. If you haven't read it yet, pop on over to WOW for a great read, then join us for a fun chat.

Bio: Eden lives and writes in the mountains of Southern Oregon near the California border. She started her first piece over thirty years ago but only recently began submitting her work for publication. Her personal essays can be found in Sneak Preview magazine and on WOW! Women on Writing. She loves to dance (tango/ballroom/folk/contra) and hike with her dog and is learning to sing and play guitar.

----- Interview by Angela Mackintosh

WOW: Welcome, Eden! Congratulations on placing as a runner up in the Q3 2022 Essay Contest with your moving essay, "Remaining Embers." What a harrowing experience to have your house burn down and lose everything during COVID, and I'm so sorry you had to go through that. To help cope with the grief, you turned to Carolyn Hax's advice column and ring theory, a concept that puts the person experiencing trauma at the center of the circle and serves as way to navigate social situations. I find this theory fascinating, and love how you used ring theory to provide a deeper context to the scene with your insensitive date. I can imagine this essay went through multiple drafts to get it just right. What was your first spark or way in to writing the essay and how did it evolve?

Eden: Thank you! And thanks for your concern. I dove right into writing classes with Chelsey Clammer after the fire. "Remaining Embers" came out of her Curiosity and Creative Nonfiction class through WOW! where we used research to fuel or enhance our writing. My friend Brigid, whom I mention in the essay, had unpacked ring theory when several folks leaned on me too hard after the fire. I researched its concepts and used the theory to explore my strong reaction to the man who had brought me the burrito and to protect myself better going forward. The first draft of "Remaining Embers" came organically, and then I reworked it based on feedback from Chelsey and my Curiosity classmates. After the course ended, I continued editing solo. A friend recently suggested I add a responsibility piece; she thinks I failed ring theory because I asked burrito guy how he was doing. It's true that I asked and true that I missed a dump opp, but he got there first and so fast! The main tenet of ring theory dictates that outer circles only offer support. Comfort in, Dump out. Competing for center circle does not connote comfort.

WOW: That scene with burrito guy is so vivid! It always warms my heart to hear that a winning essay came out of a WOW workshop. Another vivid, chilling detail was your choice of paint color, "Remaining Embers," which serves as a premonition. You can't make this stuff up! What do you think is important when telling your own true stories?

Eden: Reality is bountiful! I think it's important to keep mental notes of associations that occur to you in life: when something strikes you funny or strikes your fancy or when you notice ironies, paradoxes, and things that jar you. That I had painted my house Remaining Embers and that it burned right after finishing the four-year paint job freaked me out and I marked it. Another eery detail I didn't mention in the essay is that I used to dance hula and had an ipu heke (gourd drum) named uahi in the house that burned. Uahi means "smoke." It's customary for hula dancers to name their implements, and I had had a difficult time coming up with a name. Uahi was the only one that had felt right. But where there's uahi, there's fire! 

WOW: Eden, that is eerie! You are so smart to keep notes of details and associations. I find it interesting to discover what things writers leave out; but if you find that one perfect detail, then that's all you need, especially in flash. In your bio, you mentioned writing your first piece over thirty years ago, but only recently started submitting. What was your first piece about, and what prompted you to start submitting after all these years?

Eden: My first actual piece was the beginning chapter of a book about my junior year abroad in Poitiers, France. I wrote the chapter in a graduate writing class two years after returning home to Oregon. I called it aBroad and decided its cover would have crazy, mismatched fonts to make the double-meaning work. The teacher loved the chapter and spent our final class period reading it out loud to me and my classmates, though he thought I should turn it into a short story. I wanted it to be a novel, so I ignored his advice and wrote a problematic and frustrating second chapter. It was the eighties, and I had printed the chapters on the kind of paper that fed through rollers, so the edges were perforated with holes, and the pages were connected to one another like a scroll. You were supposed to tear the edges off and separate the pages but I stored the unfinished piece intact in a box labeled "Writing," which eventually landed in the back room of my Remaining Embers home. Occasionally, I would think about following my teacher's advice to turn it into a short story, but I never did. I lost that work in the fire, along with a handful of flash pieces and poems about my then boyfriend. I'm sorry to have lost that rich part of my writing history. Covid-induced free time and the desire to express myself and heal from the fire prompted me to study and write more and start submitting. Completing a masters degree in business and joining a writers group in the interim had primed me for the push.

WOW: I remember those printers! And that's a bummer about losing your work in the fire.  Hopefully the important parts will weave themselves in your current work. I've found that to be true of work I've lost on old computers. In fact, almost fifteen years after I wrote chapters in my "novel," I wrote memoir chapters and then actually found that old manuscript and it was almost identical.

When we interviewed you last year, you were working on a collection of essays and poetry. I know working on a book takes a lot of time and dedication. Where do you like to write, and what does your writing routine look like?

Eden: Post-fire, I was too strung out to work, so I would often write early in the day after hiking on the property where my dog and I were staying. The studio we lived in was sunny and quiet and lent itself to good concentration. Now that I'm back to full-time work and the rebuilt house, I tend to write late at night - in spurts and for deadlines. I usually write at home, unless my writers group has coffee together and does timed writings with a prompt. I love those. Essay topics sometimes emerge from our timed writings. 

WOW: Timed writings are such a great jumpstart! So is reading, and I'm always interested in what other writers are reading. What are some of your recent favorites?

Eden: I just finished reading an essay by Joy Castro in Oldster Magazine called "Burning it Down." I liked it for its clarity and topic. In the essay, Castro discusses letting her hair go silver and its effects on her identity. Since I had just cut off the last of the dark golden blonde of my headshot, I resonated with her insights. Cheryl Strayed recommended the essay on Twitter. Strayed is someone else I've been reading lately. I'm enjoying her book Dear Sugar, a compilation of letters written to her advice column by that name and her responses. Nia Vardalos adapted Dear Sugar for the stage and calls the play Tiny Beautiful Things. I read the script after seeing the play because I had been so moved.

WOW: Cheryl Strayed's Wild is my all time favorite memoir, and I love her book, Dear Sugar, which was also my favorite advice column when she wrote it for The Rumpus. Speaking of columns, I have to ask, after the ring theory fail, do you still subscribe to Carolyn Hax's column, and what's the most useful piece of advice you've gotten from her?

Eden: Oh yes, for sure! I still subscribe to Carolyn Hax and her column. She and her ex, the cartoonist, deliver great wisdom and humor every day. The best advice emerges from reading the column regularly. Themes like: invest in your emotional health; be yourself in relationships, even at the risk of losing them; don't settle unless you do, but know the full consequences and remember it's a choice; strengthen your boundaries and enforce them as kindly as possible; life can change if you have stamina and patience; and you can change, too. The biggie: you, we, have value - it's our job to recognize it and act accordingly.

WOW: I love those lessons, Eden! Thank you so much for spending time with us today, and I wish you continued success in all your creative writing endeavors. Write on!


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