Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
December 19, 2016
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
In the past, I’ve posted a handful of craft/teaching essays on/about the differing functions of research:.
The first is my essay The Role of Research in Writing Personal Narratives; (see # 6 in the archives below); another is # 37; Kim Kupperman’s The Body of the Beholder: Some Notes on Voice. In this piece, Kim cites Peter Elbow and others’ research on voice to support her own views: and #44, Karen Babine’s Using the Essay to Teach Place-Consciousness to First Year Students--an essay that combines research-based materials with Karen's experience of teaching place to freshman writing students.
This month’s craft/teaching essay, Jo Scott Coe’s Call Me the Midwife, Sometimes, is about how doing two kinds of research in her investigation of a murder led her to discover not simply the facts and artifacts (what Jo refers to as “first-time research”), but perhaps the even more important human story that lies beneath the facts and artifacts.
Blog # 55 Call (Me) the Midwife, Sometimes by Jo Scott-Coe
As my new book, MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest, heads to press, I am reflecting on the different roles we play when delivering nonfiction stories. Metaphors about writing are imperfect, discursive, and overlapping, but they can still help us understand our aesthetic approach and our ethical position. Lately, I’ve been thinking more about indirection, waiting, and partnership in nonfiction. I’m thinking about the difference between writing as a surgeon and writing as a midwife.
Nothing about MASS came easily. It involved nearly five years of intense research about the religious milieu into which Charles Whitman was born and raised before committing his shooting rampage at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. I studied mid-century American Catholicism and the seminary training of priests. The work required a lot of first-time digging to develop a portrait of Whitman’s ordained and troubled friend, a clergyman who had all but disappeared before he died, more than thirty years ago.
I usually experience nonfiction research as a kind of archaeology, a methodical excavation. But that metaphor was not precise enough for all of the work of MASS. At times, I had to act as a narrative surgeon, armed with proverbial knives and saws and oxygen masks, a mind-map of contingencies and if/then charts in my head. I also had to muster a fierceness of purpose and focus because the story was breached and tangled within institutional as well as individual histories. The process felt taboo, unwieldy, even dangerous, as if I were fighting against nature or HMO policy to revive what had been preemptively discarded as disposable tissue.
Like surgeons, sometimes nonfiction writers have to “take” or “get” the story. We insert ourselves and schedule procedures, roll our sleeves, wash our hands up to the elbow, and dig in. It’s a big mess before it gets better. We try to keep it sanitary.
But just as “excavation” eventually yielded its usefulness as a way of understanding, “surgery” yielded to “midwifery.” Near the end of my work for MASS, I stumbled into and completed a long-form investigative essay that explored the perspective of Whitman’s wife, Kathy Leissner, whom he killed the night before the tower shootings.
No one had told her story before. “Listening to Kathy” took approximately six months to complete—a much more compressed timeline, relatively speaking, with a process no less rigorous than the first. But I understood that the story had come to me. Not out of a fog or a trance or on the back of an eagle, but because a source decided to share and I was available after months of parallel surgical practice.
Kathy’s eldest brother and I had interacted when I was finishing MASS. I had contacted him with a very narrow area of interest: did he have memories of the priest who presided over his sister’s wedding in 1962? We exchanged letters, emails, and talked on the phone, and then I didn’t meet him in person for another year.
He had already received all manner of polite and oddball inquiries across the five decades since his sister was murdered. At one point, he shared a story about someone sidling up to him long ago in a restaurant and making light conversation until, then, abruptly declaring: “I already know a lot about you.” Who knows whether this person was another writer angling for a story, or someone obsessed with Whitman’s crime, or a researcher working on behalf of someone else. But Kathy’s brother didn’t stick around to find out. He summarily walked away. I would have, too.
It’s difficult enough to connect with strangers about tough subjects as a writer even when you’re open and friendly. But the scene described to me was haunting because it smacked of the young surgeon at a cocktail party, playing god, a little too enamored of his own specialty—body parts rather than people—and a lot too proud of his BMW. It was a cautionary tale, I think, for all writers doing research: Don’t make it weirder than it already is.
Perhaps because of all the work I’d already struggled with in examining the trauma before and resulting from the UT shooting, I understood that Kathy’s was not a story to be “gotten” or “grabbed.” Treating Kathy as a “possession” was in fact the core of her husband’s attitude, emboldening him in the end with the toxic permission to take her life.
When Kathy’s story eventually came—that is, when her brother decided he was ready to share it, and that he wanted to work with me—her material tumbled into my professional care all at once. I was charged with reviewing and studying never-before seen primary documents, including letters and photographs, and speaking with surviving friends and family members who had not agreed to interviews before.
Like MASS, “Kathy” required first-time research. But my surgical skills and knowledge were secondary in bringing forth the story at all. None of that would have mattered unless her brother had trusted me, which meant that he would help me help him bring the story forward. We tend to see midwives as lesser-skilled medical assistants in the birthing room. But that fails to recognize different kinds of necessary expertise. In order to be born, Kathy’s story required me to be ready to be ready, more narrative partner than technician.
I have been asked since “Listening to Kathy” first appeared in Catapult: How did you “get” this material? How did you “get” this access? While I understand these questions in the spirit within which they’re offered, I also cringe a little. They reduce the labor—only possible as a result of evolving mutual trust and collaboration—to an individual conquest or a feat.
A larger question may be: Why should artifacts and memories protected and preserved for half a century be shared with anyone? I don’t know the answer. I can’t offer a formula or a certification that qualified me to be on the receiving end. I can say I am sure this wasn’t entirely up to me—that’s probably the key.
Some stories must be yanked, sliced, sewn, and sawed at. In the messiest cases, scars heal after complications or linger because deeper wounds have been disturbed. But sometimes we may actually be invited to bring material forward for public understanding, to expand the discourse on a subject that may have seemed to be closed.
The journey from MASS to “Listening to Kathy” taught me the difference between the story that didn’t want to be saved and the story that was dying to be written. Each one required something different of me. As writers, we would do well to consider when to begin with the scalpel and when to hold back external tools, attending first to the humanity of the sources who reveal themselves. Reflecting on this choice may make the difference between discovering a story and losing it forever.
Jo Scott-Coe’s latest book is MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest (forthcoming from Writ Large Press). Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a Great Read by Ms. Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Talking Writing, Catapult, Assay, Superstition Review, Salon, Cultural Weekly, Luna Luna, River Teeth, Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Times, and many other venues. She has also had Notable listings in Best American Essays. Jo works as an associate professor of English at Riverside City College in Southern California. You can find her on Twitter @joscottcoe and on FB @teacheratpointblank.
Here’s the link:
Listening to Kathy.