Malahat volunteer Katie Weaver talks teen pregnancy, parenthood, and identity with Alicia Elliott in her nonfiction piece, "Weight."
Elliott's piece will be published in Issue #193, Mapping Creative Nonfiction in Canada, a special themed issue dedicated entirely to works of CNF. This issue will be printed February 2016.
How did you make the decision to omit the part of the pregnancy where you are bearing the child and your stomach is big?
I always imagined this piece as having three distinctive parts, replicating the three trimesters of a pregnancy. While the obvious place for the third part would be the birth, I found that, in narrative terms, the birth itself wasn't really that interesting. There wasn't a strong enough emotional arc. I wanted to map the way an unexpected event can throw your life into disarray, forcing you to consider yourself in ways you hadn't expected to. In my case, that was with an unplanned pregnancy at 17, so showing my emotional and personal progression from before the pregnancy, to during the pregnancy, to after the birth made the most sense.
Plus, I already wrote about my daughter's birth in another creative nonfiction piece, so I wasn't too eager to retread that territory.
You use second-person point of view throughout your memoir. How did you choose this POV to tell such a personal story? Was it how you’d always imagined the story to be told?
This actually started as a much different first-person piece. I'd been writing it in bits and pieces for months but it wasn't really working. Then, as I was waiting for the bus to work one day, the first line of the piece came to me and everything clicked. It wasn't long after that I had my first draft. I think writing it in second-person gave me the distance necessary to really engage with the material without worrying too much about voice, which is something I'm very aware of when writing in first-person. The interesting thing about second-person, though, is when you read it, it doesn't distance you at all. It actually draws you in. The first time I read it was in Nancy Lee's short story collection, Dead Girls, and it was so immersive and interesting I couldn't understand why it wasn't used more often. Obviously not everyone can do it with the ease and precision of Nancy Lee, but I'm glad I finally took a crack at it.
You cover a ton of ground in this piece, from parenthood to your own parent to identity, all while incorporating feelings of isolation, fear, confusion and even joy. Still, everything comes together artfully and seamlessly. Was it your original intent to cover all these topics before you wrote the piece (and if it was, were you nervous to start the writing process?), or did they come out organically (and if so, what was that like)?
I always knew with this piece I wanted to explore parenthood. Parenthood is a strange thing. You experience it one way as a child and a totally different way as a parent. For me, becoming a mother threw my feelings for my own mother into so much relief. My judgment of her changed, softened. I started to consider things like legacy, and what gets passed on. Was I going to be the kind of parent my mom was, the kind of mother society encourages me to be—a woman suffocating herself under the weight of her child—or was I going to try a different approach? Was there a different approach? What did it mean to be a mother? What kind of sacrifices were necessary, what guilt? I wanted to really wrestle with the complicated nature of motherhood, to eschew the notion that parenting is a Pamper's commercial.
Everything else that came up sort of surprised me. I wasn't expecting to touch on sex education and consent, for example, or speak about mental health and Catholicism, but they all ended up being essential parts of the overall picture.
I am swooning over the sensory details in this piece, especially when you talk about the “pebble” inside you. We begin in the first sentence with this image, this feeling, even, and it stays with us the whole way through. Was the pebble something that came to you while you were experiencing these moments, or did the pebble come afterwards, when you were reflecting on the moments?
A bit of both. It was a feeling I had immediately. I basically rolled off of Mike and thought, "Well, that's it. I'm pregnant" that night. Every day after I felt a sort of presence in my body that I shouldn't really have felt. I'm not sure if it was psychological—part of me wonders whether it was just the inevitable result of Catholic guilt—but I know that it was a very distinct feeling I haven't had since. Reflecting on it for this piece was the first time I really found the language to describe it. As soon as that first line came to me it was a eureka moment. I finally had a way to describe how I felt at 17! It only took nearly a decade to figure out.
As someone born in the Northwest Territories, I really relate to the mood and atmosphere of the setting when you talk about originating from a small town surrounded by Indigenous peoples and cultures and names. Halfway through, the shift in setting to a university speaks to a larger shift in the piece, of more self-awareness and, in a way, more hardship. How would you describe your setting choices and their effects on the piece?
I'm glad the settings came across well! I usually find establishing setting difficult, but with this piece it came fairly easy. As I was writing it, I was focused on chronicling my sense of isolation: how that feeling shifted based on where I was, and my personal circumstances in a specific place and time. What I found was that, to really convey those emotions for the reader, it was essential to firmly establish settings. For example, having to pump breast milk when you're thirty and in your own home is categorically different from having to pump breast milk at 18 in a dorm room between classes. The gap between where I was and where my peers were during those times kind of forced me into a higher state of self-awareness, so while I was writing it, conjuring up the settings from back then helped me to conjure up those emotions, as well.
How do you go about writing on personal topics? Do you find it easy, difficult, or does it depend on how easily it flows onto the page? Also, what are a few words of wisdom you’d have for a writer who’s got tons of potential stories to tell, but is scared to put themselves out there the way you have with this intimate piece?
A creative writing teacher I had during my undergraduate, Richard Teleky, once said something to me that I'll always remember: as a writer, you just have to accept that you're going to betray everyone. I didn't fully grasp what he was saying at first, especially since we were primarily studying fiction and poetry at the time. But I think that what he was getting at, or at least what I got from it, was that all of your experiences are material to be mined. Writing what you know doesn't necessarily mean you should just be writing from exactly what happens in your own life; it also means pulling from the deep wells of emotion you dig every day. You know grief from when a family member died, so you can use that. You know joy from when you asked that boy out in grade seven and he said yes, so you can use that. In that sense, your writing almost always plagiarizes from your own life—at least emotionally—so no moment is ever truly sacred. It's all material. And if everything is material, nothing is safe. Thus, betrayal.
Having said that, creative nonfiction is much trickier because you're writing about real people. There are no smokescreens. Obviously there is a responsibility you have to the people that you're writing about. You need to be fair, you need to be respectful. For indigenous people in particular, this is a constant concern. You don't want to write about ceremonies that are supposed to be kept secret; you have to be mindful of how you're representing your community. But at the same time, you shouldn't be so concerned with others' opinions that you keep yourself from writing what you need to write. The readers will know. More importantly, you'll know. What you do with that writing after you get it out is up to you. It doesn't necessarily need to be published. It might be enough that you've written it at all.
Sometimes the hardest things to write are also the most important. However, it's also a matter of distance and whether you are ready to tell that story. I would never have been able to write this piece even five years ago. It came when it was ready, when I was ready. You'll know when it's time. You won't be able to think about anything but getting it down on paper. To quote Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (a great movie for writers, and just people in general): "Be honest, and unmerciful." It'll be worth it. Then, when the writing is done, you can worry about whether or not you want that story read.
What works of creative nonfiction inspire you the most?
The first time I was really floored by a piece of creative nonfiction was when I picked up Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking from the Toronto Public Library. I didn't really know what I was getting into, but as soon as I opened the book I could feel my brain nearly exploding. I'd never read something so unique before—moving seamlessly from memoir to anthropological studies of death, to meditations on grief. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and honest. It was like it broke every idea of nonfiction I'd had up until that point.
Since then, I've eaten up creative nonfiction. I love everything James Baldwin has ever written. His essays show an eloquence, honesty, intelligence and lyricism that is truly inimitable. Thomas King's An Inconvenient Indian was genius. The way he still manages to find humour in some of the darkest parts of Onkwehonwe history captures precisely what it is to be an indigenous person.
I just finished Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist and that was like a five course meal for my brain. She's so smart and funny. I just read that she's considering writing a book-length meditation on being a black woman in the vein of Ta Nehesi Coates' Between the World and Me (which I plan on reading very soon) and I'm sure that'll be phenomenal.
Most recently, I was one of the emerging writers involved in the Banff Centre's Indigenous Writing Program and that influenced me tremendously. A few of my peers were working on some really exciting creative nonfiction. Angela Sterritt is writing a book on missing and murdered indigenous women. I read the intro and I can't say enough good things about it. The prose is cutting. The narrative is gripping. Everyone should be excited for this book. Siku Alooloo is doing some truly innovative and amazing things with creative nonfiction—weaving traditional stories with memoir in ways that I've never seen before. I can't wait until she shares that with the world. Plus, Maureen Googoo, between running her own independent news site, is writing a book about her incredible career as the only indigenous reporter covering our people's stories in Atlantic Canada. That'll be a must-read, for sure. And Florence Kelly is working on a memoir about her life: from her childhood on the rez, to residential school, to life in Toronto, to single motherhood. It's absolutely stunning work. I've never been as inspired in one place at one time as I was reading the work of the writers in that program.
What’s next for you?
I have a couple projects on the go at the moment. Right now I'm focusing on writing a book of short stories centered around indigenous women, family and culture. One of the stories placed second in this year's Aboriginal Arts and Stories contest, so I'm pretty happy about that. I've been intermittently working on a series of personal essays ("Weight" is one of them) with the hope that maybe I can eventually cobble it into a manuscript. I've also been working on a feature screenplay with my husband which I'm excited to share when it's ready. It's a genre film, which is totally different for me, but it's been so much fun to work on.
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