Concerning Craft: Emily Rich

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Please meet Emily Rich of Arlington, Virginia. Emily is a former federal employee and community college instructor who is taking time off to write. She has previously been published in River Poets Journal, Modern Love Rejects and Circa: A Literary Review.

We published Emily’s creative nonfiction piece “On the Road to Human Rights Day” in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. Here she is reading that work at our launch event:

And here she is discussing how she came to write the piece:

Sitting with my friends in the Chekhov Room at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, I recount a tale of a much younger me getting trapped overnight in a brothel in rural Thailand. I tell the story, sort of a funny anecdote, in an offhand manner as we discuss the adventures that we’ve had with Third World travel.

“That’s a great story,” one woman says. “You should write about it.” The others agree. They are my muses and supporters, these women in my writers’ group, and “On the Road to Human Rights Day” would never have been written without them.

I came to creative writing relatively late in life. As a former history major, Department of Defense employee and community college instructor, I had always considered myself an analytical writer: someone who could get the facts down, get to the point, condense. I was blithely living my life in the same fashion, following the proscribed path of college, graduate school, marriage, kids.

After I turned 40, a series of setbacks occurred that caused me to shake off my complacency. I was diagnosed with two chronic diseases, autoimmune arthritis and then cancer. Two months after finishing chemotherapy, my mother died.

I suddenly had all sorts of existential questions to work through, so I took a leave of absence from teaching and enrolled in a writing course at The Writer’s Center. One day into my Stories from the Attic class, and I was hooked. I found that writing out memories, both recent and long-buried, was a more effective form of healing than I could imagine receiving from traditional therapy. But beyond that, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading and workshopping the stories of my classmates.

I was filled with creative energy. The instructor’s prompts, the assigned readings, my classmates’ contributions spurred me on. My confidence and ambition grew. I had a whole memoir inside of me. The class ended, but I was not ready to quit. Rather than return to teaching, I decided to devote the time that the kids were in school to writing.

I hit a roadblock almost immediately. Without the structure of a class and assignments, I was adrift in my empty house with too many free hours to fill. I was nagged by domestic distractions. Instead of writing, I vacuumed. I planned and shopped for elaborate dinners. I did loads of laundry that produced so many clean towels that I had to smash down dryer-fresh piles to fit them into the cabinet. My home was neat and orderly, but my computer screen was distressingly blank.

This surprised and worried me. How could I be so lacking in discipline? How would I ever get the creative engine running again to complete my memoir?

I signed up for another class. Again, I was swept up in the thrill of being surrounded by people driven to tell their stories. This time when the class ended, I kept in touch with some of my classmates by forming a writing group. Becoming a part of this group has done more to strengthen my craft than anything I else that I have done.

Aside from great company and friendship, I get three invaluable things from my group: deadlines, feedback and inspiration. We meet twice a month to read each other’s work and to share whatever information is relevant to our pursuit.

At one meeting, a friend read her account of being an aid worker in Zambia. In her piece, she described trying to get to an important meeting in Lusaka through streets clogged with a funeral procession. Just the image of her with her Western mindset–must make it to the meeting on time!–reminded me of all the Third World traffic that I’d had to contend with in my younger days working for a refugee agency.

A memory of being the impatient Western traveler, of traffic-clogged Bangkok streets, of sweltering buses began to leak through to the front of my mind. Then, oh, man, remember that time I got on the wrong bus and ended up spending the night at a brothel in the middle of nowhere? How could I have forgotten that incident until now? I told the story and received immediate encouragement to write it down.

At that point, all I had was the scaffolding of a story. Then, I remembered that it was the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that I was going to meet a young United Nations border security guard who had invited me to see the event celebrated in a Cambodian refugee camp. That I had been reading Somerset Maugham and that the short story “The Colonel’s Lady” had gotten under my skin and made me feel sorry for myself. And that the prostitutes at the brothel were young and shy and made to wear large numbered badges on their dresses so that they could be ordered up like menu items by the men in the room.

Each memory was like some new seasoning that I added as the story of my misadventure marinated in my mind.

I tracked down the volume containing “The Colonel’s Lady” and re-read it to try to place myself back in the emotional state that I was in when I boarded the bus. I consulted a 1988 edition of the Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, which helped fill in time-specific details of the journey from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. But then I had to ask myself, “What does it all mean?”

Maugham had put me back in the mindset of the day, worried about going to meet a man I wasn’t so crazy about, upset about being overlooked for a position at work. In light of what I was to witness at the brothel, my personal concerns were what my daughters would call “First World problems.”  I tried to convey that in my piece.

When I had everything on paper, I took it to my writer’s group for critique. They helped me to pare it down and focus it. Finally, I felt that it was ready for submission. It seemed to be a perfect candidate for publication in LPR’s Doubt issue. It showed how self-doubt can get you into trouble. But also how it can lead to enlightening moments such as the one that I experienced when I recognized “the great unfairness of life” at the end of the piece.

If you enjoyed learning how Emily came write her prose piece, you might want to read “Concerning Craft: Chris Bullard” on how he composed poetry based on the same theme.

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6 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Emily Rich

  1. Emily, thank you for sharing these insights into your writing process. Your post has the same friendly, frank tone as “On the Road to Human Rights Day.” I agree that the writing process can help us approach memories and ask “What did it all mean.”

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  2. I had the good fortune to hear Ms. Rich read her piece about the Thailand incident at a gathering of LPR readers in Ellicott City not long ago. I’m so glad to have a chance to see it in this context–how not to waste experience, how to make it work for a writer. I’m reading MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG, about Plath’s pre-Hughes years. Seems pretty clear that she went way too far, almost eradicating the present in order to rush experience into art. I admire the ability of Ms. Rich to achieve some distance.

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  3. I was fortunate enough to be present at the reading of “On the Road to Human Right’s Day,” a power reflection piece that brought together many strands of the author’s life. I love the simplicity in the question, “What does it all mean?” and how it brings forth power lessons from personal experience. Sometimes, experiences, like the elaborate dinners Ms. Rich spent her time preparing, need to simmer before the full flavor come out. Emily Rich is a talented story teller who crafts just the right blend of life’s spices and substance.

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  4. Pingback: LPR’s Exciting New Program for Young Writers | Little Patuxent Review

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