A List of Favorites, Richard Wilbur, the Importance of Memory, and Rejection

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Christmas came early for me this year: I am so grateful and humbled that my memoir made it into the Dayton Daily News list of 2017 favorite nonfiction books. Thank you, Vick Mickunas.

The other big gift: I had the great privilege of reflecting on writing memoir and rejection and a whole host of other things when the editor of Southern Literary Review interviewed me. He started out asking me about Richard Wilbur, and if you haven't read any of Wilbur's poems, I'll link to my favorite of his here: "The Writer."

This poem has a long history in my life, and I chose the poem's end as the epigraph to my memoir. This was a choice I made long ago, before the memoir was even complete. Here is what the editor, Allen Mendenhall, asked me, and my answer.

AM: Shuly, thanks for this interview about your memoir, The Going and Goodbye. I want to start by asking you about the epigraph by Richard Wilbur, in part because he passed away just about the time your book was released. I find that intriguing because you quote him on the subject of life and death, which you grapple with in the book.

SC: I was lucky enough to meet Richard Wilbur when he came to my undergraduate university not long after he had served as poet laureate. Because I was one of the editors of the literary magazine, I had the privilege of having lunch and spending some hours with him, along with other students. A few years later, while in graduate school for journalism, I took some poetry writing classes as a way to get through my journalism degree (not that the journalism program was bad—I just longed to be studying creative writing). In one poetry class, my professor, David Citino, asked that we all memorize and recite a poem, and I chose “The Writer,” which is where the epigraph comes from. To this day, I cherish the poem for what it did for me then—help propel me through a master’s degree I didn’t love but that served me well—but also for the story the poem tells: of someone needing to write in order to, in essence, live.

AM: Could you live without writing? 

SC: Yes, but I think I would suffer now without writing. It has helped me grapple with and understand a great many things in life, and it has served as a steady companion. That being said, I can imagine that it’s possible that one day I won’t turn to it anymore. I journaled from when I was a child until about ten years ago—journaling was a constant in my life. One day I just stopped for no apparent reason, and I haven’t journaled since. I think things can run their course.

AM: As I read your book, I felt a tugging, aching longing for people and places of my past, even as the story was yours. With every gain in life, it seems, there’s a corresponding loss, just as there’s a loss with every gain. Most of these involve relationships, romantic or otherwise, and the remarkable way in which our emotional state at any given moment is bound up in the feelings and desires of others. 

SC: One of the things I wrote in the book was that I like beginnings, before I’ve had to pick one thing over another—because with every decision, there is one thing that gets chosen and another that isn’t, sometimes many others. And those others have always been hard for me—I am capable of grieving deeply for them. It’s taken me a long time to realize that those choices might not have turned out as I used to imagine them. What’s that saying? Something about how unhappiness comes from focusing on what isn’t rather than what is. I believe that.

To read the rest of the interview at Southern Literary Review, click here.

Thanks, as always, to all of my blog subscribers. Two of you just subscribed in the last week—a warm welcome to you both. 

And I hope everyone reading this has a peaceful holiday season.