Karen Salyer McElmurray, who has been a landscaper, a casino employee and a sporting-towel factory worker, is in her current life a writer and a teacher of writing. She is the author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey, which received the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction and was named a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. McElmurray's debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was the winner of the Thomas and Lillian D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her newest novel is Motel of the Stars. She is at work on essays, a new novel about an Eastern Kentucky gas station and diner called The Black Cat, and a memoir about adoption reunion.
That fall, I traveled with a friend to Atlanta, Georgia to hear a reading by a famous male poet. On the drive, I kept hearing that poet, lines of his that haunted me. The toe of the shoe pivots in the dust…the man in the black coat turns. The poet’s work, my friend said, is merely confessional. And, she said, there’s all that drumming in the woods. We were barely on time as we took our seats in the upper tier of a darkened auditorium in the Emory Center for the Performing Arts, but what we saw wasn’t a poet at all. What we saw was light on a stage and a circle of trousered men in long white and gold coats. The long coats swayed and the dance was totally silent except for the whoosh of cloth and that dizzying circling, over, over, faster and faster until their long coats belled out. Sufi Dancers, I said to my friend and she shrugged. Later, I didn’t tell her that as I watched those six men, their turning and turning in dance, something nestled in the center of my chest. Rapture traveled out and settled in the palms of my hands.
2004. The teaching life.
I began teaching in a Master’s Program in Creative Writing in the fall of 2004. I’d had creative writing jobs before and I was familiar with the routines for creative nonfiction and fiction and my general classes undergrads. We talked shop like they always do in those creative writing classes. Characterization. Scenes. Summaries. Details. Where more. Where less. But after one semester at this new job something I’d felt persistently for several years now came back to me full force. A hollowness traveled out of me and sat in the middle of the seminar table. What I wanted was MORE. What I wanted was a discussion involving not just craft, but meaning. Good writing? It is transcendent, I said. It is, as my friend Alice Friman says of poetry, a ghost in the bones. The shadow beside the thing itself. A spinning sky that we try to stop in the heavens. Writing is resplendent. Ordinary and humble. Without that larger quality, I tried to tell them, we are nothing at all. The faces of my students looked back at me, some with bemused smiles.
For two years in the mid-1980’s I traveled the world, literally and metaphorically. A former lover and I reduced our entire household to what we could carry in two large backpacks and set out for the Far East. We began our travels in a world a little more familiar by visiting Greece and a few of the islands. The famous ones. Santorini. Crete. And once, an island so tiny, it had no name, no houses, no population. Nothing but the ruins of a temple on a cliff overlooking the sea where I filled my pack with smooth rose-colored stones and with teeth from the skeleton of a wild dog. That night, my lover and I and our friends ate with fishermen who’d docked near the beach. We watched them slam gorgeous conch shells against the side of their boat and we ate the flesh they scooped from the shards of the shell with our bare hands. Later that night, we camped out on the beach and I slept like I never have before or since beneath the salt-drenched branches of a tamarind tree. My dream that night is what I take with me wherever I’ve been since. That night someone lovely and god-like came up from the sea to touch me while I was sleeping. The someone was a young man with sun-lightened hair and hands I recognized, even if I’d never seen them. Years later, I met that young man and I knew him, both from my dream and from the sea-water of my own once pregnant womb. I’d dreamed the son I gave away at birth. Dreams are dreams are dreams, my friends tell me these days. Still I call that dream heart's blood. Breath. I call it ecstasy. But that's a huge word, one to be used cautiously and with humility, even when your spirit wants to shout what it knows to the ocean and wait for the waves to bring back yourself, transformed.
2005. The teaching life.
That year, I began to reread the mentors that have counted the most for me as a writer. Martin Heidegger. Deitrich Bonhoeffer. Mircea Elliade. Rudolph Otto. Thomas Merton. As Merton says in a book length meditation called Raids on the Unspeakable, “We find no space to rest in our own hearts, not because they are full, but because they are voids.” I, too, have made raids of a sort. In the past two years, I have even begun to lead my workshops in a different way. When we discuss drafts of prose, I now suggest they look for the hotspots, a term I learned from a workshop I once sat in on at Warren Wilson College. Hotspots. The moments the story reveals its truer self, its meaning, its substance. Words are words, some of my students lately tell me. They mean no more and no less than simply that. Let’s talk, they say, about craft. What I try to tell them is that craft is indeed what it’s all about, but that for me moments of being, those pesky hotspots in a potentially wonderful piece of writing can be unraveled, can open to more and more. Take hold of this or that moment, I try to say, and what you’ll find is not just a character or a setting, not just a set of circumstances that accumulate to an acceptable ending. What you’ll see is everything.
Sometimes when I’m writing, I channel. Channeling. To be honest, I stole that word from one of my graduate seminars, and it’s not really the word for what happens when I’m at the deepest place my writing can take me, but it’s close. When I’m writing well, I forget time, place, everything else but the words I really mean. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe it’s more like this. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m channeling a particular time, a particular place. Say, 1980. Hiking the Grand Canyon. Kaibab Trail. Hermit Trail. I liked hiking alone, even though the park rangers and all my buddies told me not to, that I shouldn’t tempt whatever’s down there in the Canyon’s sacred space, what the Indians called a Kachina, but I did what I liked. That’s what brought me, one day, to hike a trail where I filled my pockets with bits of bright green copper, then found the pelvic bone of a small animal and kept that too, and I kept, also, all the pottery shards I could find. By nightfall, it was too late to hike back up, so I crawled in to a makeshift building, in an old miner’s camp, someone told me later. Three hours went by in the pitch black and I clicked my flashback on and off and on. Eleven o’clock. One o’clock. Two. Two o’clock and small tapping sounds began on the tin roof over me. On, the flashlight. No sound. Off, the tappings, again, louder. Flashlight. Nothing. Tappings. Louder. Resonant. In my pockets I touched the jagged edges of those pottery shards and I thought of throwing them, hard, out into the dark. Over twenty years later, I found the son I surrendered at birth and I gave him those pottery pieces to take back with him to the Arizona desert, where he works archaeological digs. Writing is like that. A gift, on the best of days.
2006. The teaching life.
Essayist Patricia Foster wrote me recently with a worry about her students. “I'm trying to sort it out,” she said. “Exactly what's happened with my students of late. The ones who don't seem interested in the darker conflicts of the human spirit, the emotional range of familial and cultural incidents, the hard work of trying to forgive self and other. I do hope to write about it when I begin to understand it -- and by "it" I mean this determined resistance to the inner life of story, to the inner life of either self or another.” I, like Patricia, am finding this true, this perplexity about that word, transcendence, no less a larger word. Rapture. In a class recently, one that leaves my heart empty, a student told me she’d tried transcendence when it came to writing and it didn’t work and now she was going to try something else. I grew angry, then sorry I was angry, then, at last, frightened, at the possibility that she was right. Oh, but what I wanted to say to her is this. Transcendence. Rapture. Is it something we try? Perhaps. Or is it a gift, an unexpected wonder that lies at the heart of the best of our words and, I hope, the best of what we have to teach. Behind the words? Dancers circling, bells sounding in the dark.