Allen Mendenhall Interviews Shuly Cawood, Author of “The Going and Goodbye”

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.

Shuly Cawood

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.

AM:  I realize that writers of memoirs and personal essays always get asked about this, but I’m curious nonetheless. Do you feel any misgivings or hesitation when you write about those who are close to you, or have been close to you?  I’m thinking, for instance, of Rob or Matthew or Preston. 

SC:  I wish that I didn’t have to tell any of their stories in order to tell mine, but all the people in my book played a significant role in my life’s journey. I tried to only tell the stories of theirs that I thought were necessary. I did my best to examine my own actions and behavior as much if not more than I did theirs. That’s the job of a memoirist. Perhaps most importantly, I tried to be fair, but let’s face it: it’s inherently unfair that I’m the judge of what’s fair. Still, I hope that if they were to read the book, they would think it was fair. I read my book over and over trying to see it from their point of view. In the end, I knew I had done my very best to be both honest and fair. Whether I achieved that, I cannot say.

AM:  Why do you write creative nonfiction?  To work through problems, feelings, and emotions?  To study yourself?  To vent?  To entertain?

SC:  I think it all depends on the piece—the reason or reasons can change. I write some things to share a story with someone, or to entertain; other things I write and don’t know why I am writing it, or I figure it out along the way. As for my memoir in particular, I wrote it to make sense of parts of my life—to understand why I had made the life choices I had made. Along the way, I ended up learning more about the people in my life and how they might have felt, how I might have affected them, failed them.

AM:  Do you think your closeness to the funeral business makes you more attentive or sensitive as a writer?

SC:  I don’t know that it’s changed my writing. It’s changed my life, though. I’ve always been sensitive, but it’s helped me understand grief better and how people handle it in such different ways. And I’ve certainly learned what it means to have a good funeral.

I’ve also learned a lot about my husband as I witness how he shapes his business to help people as they take their journey through grief. He’s taught me a great deal about generosity, too, and commitment to giving back to and improving the community.

AM:  Could you talk about the importance of memory?  Your book is attentive to the possibility that you haven’t recalled some things fully—that there are details you might have forgotten.   Joyce Dyer is quoted on the cover of your book as saying, “This is a voice you can trust with your life.”  I find that interesting given that you work professionally with death, but also because, in my view, your honesty about memory—its limitations, refractions, and blurriness—gain the reader’s trust.

SC:  Thank you for saying that. Honesty is important to me when it comes to memoir writing, or else the story becomes fiction. I should say upfront I am not a big fan of composite characters or changing things that the writer deems necessary to improve the story and small enough that the reader won’t mind. I don’t believe in making up dialogue or making up scenes. If I didn’t remember something or write it down at the time it happened, it did not go into my memoir as “truth.” I realize memory is inherently flawed, but I wanted the reader to know that if something went into my book, that was how I recalled it. Readers could at least trust that. We could talk on and on about what is truth versus Truth, and how my memory of events will be different from another person’s. But I’m a big believer in—at the very least—being honest with what you do and don’t remember. When I couldn’t remember something well, I sometimes used, as the great memoirist Rebecca McClanahan taught me to do, “the gift of perhaps,” which explicitly signals to the reader that what I am about to tell you clearly resides in the realm of my imagination, and therefore I didn’t hock it as truth.

Click here to purchase

I wish I had a perfect memory. I was fortunate to still have my journals from over the years, and those helped a great deal, but there were two stories from my life that I really wanted to include in this memoir that I couldn’t recall well enough—in terms of dialogue specifically—to do them justice. Instead, I chose not to include them and then wrote them as fiction instead. They are now part of the short story collection I am working on, and both have been accepted for publication in literary magazines.

AM:  What are your hobbies outside of writing?

SC:  I love dancing, when I manage to make it to a dance. I read, I walk a ton, and I jog the occasional few miles. I keep a garden, though I’m no expert at it. I absolutely love hiking, and I seem to travel quite a bit.

AM:  You hold an M.F.A.  Do you feel that aspiring writers should pursue these programs?

SC:  I think that MFA programs can be a huge benefit to writers. I’m grateful for my MFA—there’s no question it made me a better writer, and I am still very tight with my peers from the program. I don’t believe in shoulds, though, and I don’t believe an MFA program is necessary to pursue becoming an author. It certainly can help, but the main thing is being dogged about one’s writing, not giving up. This writing stuff takes grit, and rejection is all around for the taking. But if you have grit, the rejection becomes less important. You shrug at it and move on.

AM:  Do you have personal strategies or tactics for maintaining grit? 

SC:  In terms of writing, yes: I don’t take rejections personally and therefore they don’t crush me—98% of the time. The other 2% happens when someone I really respect tears apart a work of mine I love. What can I say? I’m not perfect.

I write for me most if not all of the time—that is, for the fun of it rather than with an endgame in mind. This allows me the freedom to experience the joy that got me started writing in the first place, and it is why, to this day, I continue to love writing.

AM:  I’ve loved reading your writing.  For our readers’ benefit, I’ll point out that your book can be purchased at this link or by clicking on the book’s image above.  Thanks for doing this interview.  Please do keep writing, for everyone’s sake.

About Allen Mendenhall

Allen Mendenhall is associate dean at Thomas Goode Jones School of Law and executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center. His books include Literature and Liberty (2014), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pragmatism, and the Jurisprudence of Agon (2017), The Southern Philosopher: Collected Essays of John William Corrington (2017) (editor), and Lines from a Southern Lawyer (2017). Visit his website at AllenMendenhall.com.

Comments

  1. I read Shuly’s memoir earlier this year and was deeply moved by it. Happy to hear there’s a short story collection on the way.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: