Terry Ann Thaxton’s “How My Body Was Made,” an elegiac model of how an essay can function as both visceral and emblematic, appears in our current issue, Volume 38.1. Inspired, we asked Thaxton to discuss the essay and her writing in general.
LS: The essay is divided into eleven sections, with themes shape-shifting: “a half-moon sits on its back”; “chickens are our calculated beauties”; “secrets and dogs.” Revelations, in turn, are often poetic: “our father, our god, our checkbook, our bruise”—“I never grow wings”—“I sway on the leash of my childhood home.” How do your poetic sensibilities inform structure or an organizing principle, whether in conception or revision?
TT: Twenty years ago, I started writing a memoir primarily because I could not remember much from my childhood. Most all of my memories were lost somewhere in a box of self-protection. My intention then was to piece together the fragments of memory. In preparation for the memoir, I taped large pieces of graph paper around my garage walls and created a timeline of my childhood: the day of my birth, the day my father died, the day my mother died. Later I found a photo album that my mother had made of our annual camping trips, and I took out photographs and taped them on the timeline. Each photograph widened the memory of each moment. The moments were there, but the meanings were lost in the dull pacing of the linear prose narrative: “This happened, and then this, and then this, and then this.”
I kept writing poetry. I put my memoir in a box in the garage.
Three years ago, I started taking online poetry workshops through the Poetry Barn founded and run by Lissa Kierann. I took a four-week workshop, “Magical Realism in Poetry,” with Brenda Mann Hammock.
In the magical realism poetry class, Brenda provided links to surreal images. Our weekly prompts were to write poems using the images as inspiration. I struggled to find subjects for the prompts because I’d always found my subjects by freewriting until I filled two single-spaced pages. The images started to remind me of my father, and then my mother, and then my siblings. To produce the poems for Brenda’s class, I used two computer screens: the surreal images on one screen and my freewriting on the other screen.
But I wasn’t writing poems. I was writing lyric essays. Essays about childhood. I pulled the box with my printed out memoir in order to return to moments I’d remembered, and I let them haunt my writing as I focused on the surreal and magical images.
By the end of the magical realism poetry workshop, I had four pieces of fragmented memories. Connected moments that made sense because, for me, childhood is all fragmented memory. Is anyone’s memory organized and chronological? Mine is fragmented. Memories blend together. Perhaps because poems are more compressed, I’ve learned, in writing them, to allow the intermingling of moments, places, people, and things.
LS: “How My Body Was Made” entwines other bodies or subjects with your own; for example, you and your siblings are “six dirty trees,” or, “flowers . . . peering through the pinpricks toward sky.” In the seventh section, the essay enters into the first-person plural through a kind of collective threat, connecting the voices of your siblings with your own, and dialogue is echoed throughout; we can hear much of the essay, directly and indirectly: “If I have a sound, it is brittle and persistent.” How did you conceive of listening and speaking as you were writing, or why was it important to you to give a strong sense of auditory experience?
TT: As a child, I felt invisible. I was part of the six. I was a girl. I was not supposed to speak much or express an opinion. When I started writing in my late twenties, I felt like a person. Not invisible. Not only part of the six, but also an individual. My writing has always been about me finding the words to tell the story of the person I was and am, and of course, some of who I am will forever be entwined with my siblings.
My mother was not a happy person, and she seldom raised her voice. In fact, she seldom said anything when my father was home. Her silent rage was so very loud, and in turn the silent anger and sadness of my siblings and I was and is still so very loud. The collective threats and individual wishes are attempts for me to find meaning in the silence that echoed in my childhood and that crackles through memory.
There was also great contradiction in my childhood. While I was a girl, and therefore told I was not as important as my brothers, I was expected by either my father, my mother, my brothers, or all of them to be able to fix things on my own, hit a baseball just as hard, fight back, and throw rocks at passing cars if my brothers did.
Since I began writing, it is the auditory that gives me ownership of my narrative.
LS: The concept of time is diffuse within the essay’s sections, often only attached to setting, which is precisely located, “green, but ghastly and fogged”: “I look into the wire basket and collect thousands of eggs. At times, I am a girl clinging to cracked orbs of hope; other times, I fill my hands with mud and raise them toward heaven.” Elsewhere, “June is always a bud, a cup of summer, a swaying roost, a place we cannot hold onto, but I am fascinated with the flies that cover dead dogs.” “Where” seems to compel “How My Body Was Made.” How would you describe the intersection between the physicality of your childhood home and memory? Do you often return to the same landscape in your writing?
TT: Florida is a physical and emotional landscape that is inescapable. The flora, fauna, air, and people are so intermingled in who I am that I cannot separate them from each other or from me. Florida is getting more accurately described through great writers like Lauren Groff and Karen Russell.
For many people who are not from here, Florida is either an amusement park or a joke. When people visit Florida, they are surprised, first, by how much sky there is and, second, by how much green there is: the dense pine flatwoods, the saw palmettos, the hardwood forests, the swamps. They are surprised by the 90+ degree heat and 80% humidity we wear like a tight sweater for most of the year. Florida is also disappearing—the landscape changes with development, which is probably the primary reason there’s shape-shifting in my writing. The constant change in landscape affects our lives, and the way we perceive ourselves in the world. I may be driving to work or the grocery store, and along the drive come upon 5-20 acres of recently bulldozed woods. Yesterday, there was wildlife and trees and shrubs, and today, there is nothing. In a few months, there will be houses, and a gate at the entrance to a subdivision that will be named after what was destroyed to create it, usually something like “Oak Preserve” or “Pine Woods” or “Gopher Trails.”
I am fifth generation Floridian, at least. My family line might go further back, but the census records are difficult to follow, especially because farmers and laborers were often suspicious of the census takers. Whether I’m fifth, six, or seventh generation Floridian, the landscape is me and I am the landscape. I don’t think it is something that I return to; the landscape, for me, is never absent.
LS: What are you working on next? What can readers look forward to?
TT: I’m always working on individual pieces for a “next book.” I’ve been assuming I’m working on my fourth collection of poems. However, most of the pieces are lyric essays or prose poems about my childhood and Florida. One of the other essays, “The T-8 Egg Ranch,” just came out in Pithead Chapel, and I have several others that I’m working on. Because these are linked, I’m trying to find that balance between linking and keeping each one self-contained. I feel energized by this style of writing, as if it’s the way my story wants to be told.
TERRY ANN THAXTON has published three books of poetry: Getaway Girl (Salt, 2011), The Terrible Wife (Salt, 2013), and Mud Song (Truman State University Press, 2017), as well as a textbook, Creative Writing in the Community: A Guide (Bloomsbury, 2014). She has published poems and essays in numerous journals, and won The Missouri Review 2012 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s prize for essay. She teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where she also directs the MFA program. Follow her @terryannthaxton.
Image credit: “The Nations of Old Lando,” by Adam J. Thaxton.