This week’s guest: Nancy Owen Nelson
This week I’m pleased to host author and educator Nancy Owen Nelson. While still teaching college English classes, she has turned to memoir and poetry writing over recent years, publishing two memoirs, including the award-winning Searching for Nannie B: Connecting Three Generations of Southern Women (2015); a poetry chapbook, My Heart Wears No Colors (2018); and a poetry book, Portals: A Memoir in Verse (2019). She lives in Dearborn, Michigan, with her husband Roger and cat Fortuna (Tuna). In future, she hopes to revise a novel, Four Women, giving it more literary “verve.”
Nancy will talk about her brand-new release, Divine Aphasia: A Woman’s Search for Her Father (Ardent Writer Press, 2021).
DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.
NON: Thanks, Don. It’s a pleasure and honor to be featured on your blog!
DL: What inspired the creation of the book?
NON: Divine Aphasia: A Woman’s Search for Her Father has been in process for decades. Sadly, the suicide of someone close to me pushed me toward writing creative nonfiction. I had recently broken my fibula and was on crutches for several weeks. This gave me more opportunity to sit with my laptop and write. The suicide also brought me back to the importance of living in the moment, doing what I wanted to do, speaking, and writing my story.
DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?
NON: Unlike many authors, I don’t journal. I wish I did because I know how much it helps authors to track and remember key points of their writing. I just have a concept and decide to start in small pieces. For instance, I have an unpublished novel which began with a character coming home from school in the late 1940s. From there, the novel birthed four women characters, each with her point of view.
When I began Divine Aphasia, which went through several titles and phrases (including different foci and story arches), I decided to construct a memoir around the months after falling and breaking my leg. Though it seems an ordinary and common injury, I took the opportunity to write chapters around aspect of my life—parents, sisters, marriages (more on that later), my son, etc. These chapters progressed with my healing process, and I wrote of surgery, of walking on crutches, and eventually, walking again in my neighborhood. Ironically, I ended up with eight chapters; then I met my current husband, Roger, and I was able to write the ninth, which ended up being read at our wedding luncheon. The nine chapters felt like a gestation and birth.
The original titles for this version were The Fortunate Fall (an allusion to Adam and Eve), and later Reductio Absurdus (my Latin may not be so great 😊) around the idea of the absurdity of the human situation. I’m a huge fan of Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. In fact, I’ve been impacted deeply by it since reading it in a college French class. You’ll find references to it throughout this memoir, including the title.
Readers reviewed the manuscript in various versions, and the common response was that I was trying to cover too much material, that all the parts of my life need not be in one memoir. As it turned out, I’ve published a few of the chapters and individual pieces. Some poetry grew out of them as well.
Finally, I settled on focusing on the impact of relationship with my career-military father and my last husband, the one who died by his own hand. My question was “Why did I marry so many times?” The memoir is an answer to this question. An earlier title, In the Army Now, eventually became Divine Aphasia, an allusion from Beckett’s play.
The pandemic? As mentioned, this memoir was mostly written before COVID-19. Most of what I did was to tweak and edit. I gave a lot of time and care to the cover, which was created after many Zoom hours with photographer Joel Geffen (with Cathy Dutertre). Since I teach online and work otherwise from home, being inside the house wasn’t a huge adjustment. Nonetheless, like many others I’ve talked with, I felt the need to write about the pandemic—silent and invisible, but frightening. It became a metaphor in some poetry I wrote.
DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?
NON: After what I’ve already said, you’ll understand that “fun” isn’t the first word I’d associate with this book. However, as painful and challenging as it has been, I am gratified about having survived the process of self-examination and come to some terms with my question.
Probably the most satisfying part of the book was the almost-last chapter, “Beginnings,” in which I catch my dad up on my life and challenges since he died at 62 in 1968. I’m able to describe my journey and to bring forward what I’ve learned from it. Joyfully, I tell him about my current husband, my son, who is named after him, and my granddaughter, his great granddaughter.
DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
NON: I probably answered this under #3 above. I will add that, as the date of release on June 30 comes closer, I’ve needed to reexamine the manuscript to make sure this is what I want to say.
In fact, I added this addendum to my Acknowledgments:
Most names are changed. To readers who may recognize themselves or others in this book, I intend no harm to anyone. Please take me at my word, as I say in the Preface: “Now I know that these marriages were a pilgrimage to find, to fully understand my father, . . . . [and] why I married so many times.”
Those who attempt memoir know the tug-of-war that can happen between telling one’s truthful story and NOT deliberately hurting anyone. It’s a tough balance and it’s risky. However, writers will find that the impulse to move forward is compelling. This helps them, I believe, to know that their stories need to be told.
DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?
NON: Divine Aphasia can be purchased here on Amazon. Readers may also purchase a signed copy from me at this link. The payment includes a slightly adjusted book cost + media mail shipping + a small fee from Paypal.
DL: Any final reflections about the book (what you learned from writing it, for example) or things you want people to know about it?
DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Nancy. Much luck with the book!