Holding on to the Spoon
I grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I have four sisters and a brother, and at one point, to rein in the chaos of our dinner table, my parents instituted “the spoon rule.” A large, wooden spoon was handed around, and if you wanted to tell a story about your day, you had to be holding the spoon (sort of a low-tech version of tapping your hot key on Ventrilo in ENW 820!). My pursuit of writing might just be my attempt to keep my fingers tightly clasped around the spoon.
Or, it might stem from the grocery sacks of books my mother brought home from the public library each week. We were miles beyond the reach of basic cable, so I just kept reaching into those bags, drawing out Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
Back then, I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be a field biologist, more specifically, an ethologist like E.O. Wilson or Eugenie Clark. My father was a biology professor who studied small mammals, and I loved to accompany him into the woods and gently shake the field mice from the aluminum traps into my gloved palm. Such satisfaction in noting the nose-to-tail measurement, the mottled swirls of color in the fur, the dark particularity of a scar: those mornings may have been my first and most important lesson in concretion.
When I began college, I enjoyed my science courses, but I loved my English ones. I kept trying to fit more and more of them into my schedule. Eventually, I just gave myself over to words.
Back then, I participated in forensics (not crime scene investigation, but performance of dramatic narratives). We competed in reading stories and poems, excerpts from plays, etc. One afternoon, my coach entered our practice room, deep in the bowels of the university theater, carrying a box of slim, colorful paperbacks which he spilled across the floor. “Dig in,” he said. “You guys need to find fresh material.” We were to take several of the volumes home and mine them for competition material. It turned into an all-nighter for me. I had never seen a literary journal. I had never read a contemporary short story. I read for hours, and then I turned on my word processor and tried to write one.
Soon, a handful of us were meeting late at night to read our original stories and poems to each other. Mine was a private, conservative college—the girls’ dorms were on one side of the campus and the boys’ were on the other, an ocean of sod between them. “Visiting hours” were strictly limited to weekend evenings, but someone had a key to the campus newsroom and our co-ed workshop could meet there at midnight. It probably began as the desire for something clandestine, but it made me try to write something every week.
I spent the fall semester of my senior year as an exchange student in Barcelona. What a jarring and beautiful experience! I had grown up in a town of 3,000. Until then, I had only been on a plane once. Suddenly, I was mastering a new language and living in a huge, European city whose streets wound through dripping gothic archways and swaying skyscrapers. In the midst of that dislocation, I wrote and wrote. I like to imagine the same thing happens to our MFA students during the summer residency. I recorded the things around me in a journal, I penned long letters home, and I wrote poems and stories about the landscape I’d left behind. All I wanted to do was write, so, from Spain, I began applying to graduate programs in creative writing.
The following fall, I began a MA program in creative writing and literature at Kansas State University. In truth, it was a little terrifying. I had grown up at the mouth of a hollow, and when I first moved to the prairie, every time I stepped outside, I felt like a bird was about to swoop down and get me. I felt just as exposed amid all I didn’t know about craft. There was so much I hadn’t read, so much I hadn’t even known one could try on the page. Slowly, I grew comfortable amid all that space. I went on to earn a MFA in fiction from Arizona State University. Along the way, I grew to love the teaching of writing as much as the actual writing. I served as a visiting writer at Prescott College and as the director of the creative writing program at Cameron University before making the move East, excited to be part of the MFA program here at Eastern Kentucky University. And never once have I regretted giving myself over to words.
Creating a Community
I write because I want to make the world a better place, and I want to encourage my students to do the same. That doesn’t mean I want them to create stories that are heavy with agenda. It means I want my students to write in order to learn more about themselves, their families, and their communities. I want them to write to better understand others and to become more empathetic people. In ENW 820, I stress character above all. “Character creates plot,” I tell my students, “Character is greater than form, greater than theme, greater than symbol.” As writers, I believe we create characters to test our own boundaries. In doing so, we discover what really matters to us and share those values with our readers.
I believe in the momentum of round table workshop, and my favorite thing about our program is the fact that Ventrilo allows us to employ round table workshop during the regular semester. While writing is a solitary endeavor, I think learning craft is best accomplished within a trusting community. I run a fairly structured workshop, asking that students begin each session by discussing text (what happens in the manuscript) and subtext (what that means). I think it is important first to look at a manuscript with the same “believing” critical lens that we would a published story or poem encountered in a literature class—otherwise how can the writer understand what his piece could become? I ask students to praise specific features of the work, and then we spend a great deal of time on prescriptive criticism—meaning it is not enough to merely state what ails a manuscript: we have to find specific examples of what’s problematic and offer solutions. The writer may choose not to take any of the advice offered in workshop; however, that close line-editing sharpens how we, as individuals, understand craft.
Searching for Smut
The summer I was twelve, I read Willa Cather for the first time. My sister was back from her first year of college, and she left the house every morning at 9:30 for a shift at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in the Valley Mall. The second her car pulled out of the lane, I would start snooping in her room, fingering her jewelry and the bottles of scented lotion which lined her windowsill, trying on her clothes. One morning, in a jumbled vanity drawer, I found a paperback featuring a beautiful woman on the cover—a woman with a Roman arch to her nose, wild wavy hair escaping her bun and blowing back from her face. Behind her was open prairie broken only by a dark horse and buggy. I assumed I’d found a romance novel, or what my mother, not wanting us to get sucked into the boxes of them she secretly hoarded in closets all over the house, called “smut novels.” (Such censorship made us want to find them all the more, which is probably why another sister went on to become a successful romance novelist!) I squirelled this book away to the hay loft ready to scan for the racy parts.
But it wasn’t a romance novel. Clearly, my sister had begun to read this book for a freshman English class (though her heavy highlighting ceased twelve pages into Book I). I kept going, even once I realized I was dealing with a literary novel. I liked those too, only for different reasons. I was drawn immediately and deeply into the narrative. Perhaps because of the nostalgia evoked by the narrative distance? Or because of the way Jim Burden’s childhood perspective seeps through that filter? It might have just been the mystery of the prairie landscape which is so stunningly evoked. Regardless, I was hooked. I read all day and finished the book just before my parents were expected home from work.
By the time they walked through the door, I was a mess—snuffling, red-faced, sobbing. I couldn’t stop the tears, and I couldn’t explain what was wrong, despite my parents’ intense questioning. (At first, they assumed one of the pets had died. Then they became convinced I had hurt myself physically.) I wasn’t sure why I was crying—on the surface the novel had reached a happy conclusion: Antonia, reunited with her childhood friend, surrounded by her twelve children, exiting the fruit cave in “a veritable explosion of life.” At the time, I guess I thought I was sad because the book was over. It wasn’t the first time I had been reluctant to leave a protagonist behind.
I never told my parents what was really wrong, and I never returned the book to my sister’s junk drawer. For a long time, I wouldn’t look at the text, but I kept it close. I brought it with me to college, and then I moved it across the country in a box of favorite books when I, like Jim Burden, made my own move out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and across the prairie. Finally, remembering the sweeping descriptions and the way the landscape had become an important character, I returned to the text in response to a literary analysis assignment in an eco-criticism course. I felt the loss again, but this time, I had words for it. I could find the interstices in Jim’s narrative and, through them, glimpse Antonia as tired, toothless, and left behind. Likewise, I could glimpse the loss of the tall-grass prairie eco-system through his celebration of all the urban development that had come to the countryside around the town of Black Hawk.
I fiercely admire so many writers. I love the way I can open Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and instantly feel time slow down and accordion out in the image of a plane arcing the sky or a drop of water on a garden plant. Alice McDermott’s prose makes me feel this same expansion—like literary meditation, reading such rich prose. In college, when I first read Louise Erdrich, I felt my entire paradigm of literary thinking shift. A plot could be circular. A metaphor, after its initial splash, could continue to echo like pond rings across the entire narrative surface of a novel. In graduate school, I discovered Edna O’brien’s The Country Girls, and I have savored each of her releases since for the lush landscapes and the female protagonists who are simultaneously so strong and so vulnerable. I have never been able to quite let go of my initial affair with the short story, especially those of Alice Munro who in 20 pages can somehow conjure the sweeping, generational feeling of a novel.
But My Antonia remains my first and most visceral experience of how literature can make a reader feel more than she understands. I have taught that novel several times. I try to re-read it every year.
Landfall: A Ring of Stories, Ohio State University Press, 2016
Viable, Five Oaks Press, 2015
The Language of Horses (poetry chapbook), Finishing Line Press, New Women’s Voices Series, 2011
"Strange Museum," The Journal, forthcoming Winter 2016
"At the Bottom," Blackbird, Issue 12.1
“Some Living Creature,” Blackbird, 2013
“The Last Season’s Growth,” Red Earth Review, Issue 1, Spring 2013
“Beneath the Green,” Alligator Juniper, Spring 2012
“Dry River,” Louisville Review, Issue 70,Spring 2012
“Expecting,” Blackbird, Issue 10, Spring 2011
“Accidents,” Pinch, Issue 31.2,Winter 2009
“House of Joy,” Quarterly West, Issue 62, Summer 2006
“Floating,” Shade, Four Way Books, Fall 2006
“The Space Behind the Words,” Redivider, Issue 3.1, Fall 2005
“Olivia, the Rock,” Phoebe, Issue 34.2, Fall 2005
“Sugar,” Western Humanities Review, Issue 59.1, Summer 2005
“Naked Ladies,” Louisiana Literature, Issue 21.1, Spring 2005
“Lucy’s Wake,” Santa Clara Review, Issue 91.1, Spring 2004
“The Sound of Animals,” Fourteen Hills, Issue 9.1, Spring 2004
“Landfall,” Hayden’s Ferry Review, Issue 32, Fall/Winter 2003
“Bread Pudding,” Crab Orchard Review, Issue 8.2, Spring 2003
“Seeing Red,” Indiana Review, Issue 24.2, Fall 2002
"A Fingerprint, Carried Long and Quiet" and "Monsoon Season," Kentucky Writer's: The Deus Loci and the Lyrical Landscape, Roberts Reading Series, Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society Press (forthcoming)
"Little Deaths," "Blackwork Solstice," "The Work of Women," "These Terrible Times," and "Even Stones Comes to Rest," 4ink7: Issue 3, Fall 2015
"A Large Body of Water," New Madrid, Issue 10.1, Winter 2015
"Tell Them You Had a Mole Removed" and "Ambrosia," The Southern Review, Spring 2014
"For Her to Enter this World," Gulf Stream, Spring 2014
"Moving Water," Southern Women's Review, Issue 8, Spring 2014“Dark Moon,” “Divination” and “That Kind of Fortune,” Saranac Review, 2013
“Winter Without,” Ruminate, Issue 26, Winter 2013
“Before Nohl Bought the Boat,” “Perk Holes,” “House Sparrows,” and “Field Dressing,” Superstition Review, Issue 9, Spring 2012
“Kerosene,” Becoming Woman, University of Nebraska Press, 2012
“Returning to Water” and “Still Life of Aunt Alice,” Alligator Juniper, Spring2010
“Viable,” Southern Women’s Review, Issue 2, Winter 2009
“Pica,” PoemMemoirStory, Issue 11, Fall 2009
“Bajada,” Superstition Review, Issue 3, Spring 2008
“My Mother with Horses,” Ruminate, (in print and online), Summer 2008
“Blessing, North of Perigoux,” Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses, Yarroway Mountain Press, 2008
“In the Outer Banks,” Sea, Sand, Sail, Old Mountain Press, Summer 2007
“A Fingerprint, Carried Long and Quiet,” Ellipis, Issue 43, Spring 2007
“Rise,” Karamu, Issue 19.2, Summer 2005
“Winter and Homesick,” Blueline, Issue 25, Winter 2004
“Thinking of My Mother, Twenty-eight Years, Six Months,” Briar Cliff Review, Issue 15, Spring 2003
“A Summer,” Petroglyph, Spring 2002
“Unknowns,” Louisiana Literature, Issue 17.1,Spring 2000
“Virginia Creeper” and “Friedman’s Church,” Sunflower Anthology, Flint Hills Press, 1999
“Nursing Art,” Blackbird, Tracking the Muse Loop, Issue 11, Fall 2011
“Julie Hensley’s character-driven prose crosses generational and social boundaries, and her narrative shifts deftly between dueling voices as her two protagonists spiral toward and away from each other, creating a double helix of second person perspective. Set against the backdrop of a family farm, Hensley’s fiction anchors us in a generous sensibility as an aunt and niece negotiate a territorial disconnection with a sense of earned wisdom and a welcome simplicity.”
--Blackbird, Introductions Reading Loop