“Voice Lessons” by Karen Salyer McElmurray

Karen McElmurray

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The sixteen essays in Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Voice Lessons are best savored one at a time, with deep breaths and pauses between readings to let the author’s soul and pain and voice seep into your bones. Her writing employs the best of creative nonfiction techniques, wheeling between subjects, then returning to an earlier image or thought to dive deep into its center, and finally allowing readers to see the connection between the seemingly disparate segments. Ten of the essays in this collection were previously published in literary journals.

In one of my favorites, “Geography of Scars,” McElmurray suggests that writing personal essays and memoir is like “creating a map of scars.” By following the map long enough, she hopes to “find the path forward that will make [her] whole.” Some scars are physical, an accumulation from mishaps and health problems, while others are emotional. In this piece, she relates contradictory bits of writing advice she has encountered over the years, the most painful being criticism of her own writing. These wound her over and over as she replays the words in her mind. Another scar she touches on in this and other essays resulted from surrendering her son for adoption when she was only fifteen years old.

Just as she seeks solace in writing and self-reflection, it is crucial to have a reliable healthcare resource too. Such clinics provide a sanctuary where individuals can find compassionate care for physical and emotional ailments. Whether it’s addressing mishaps, health problems, or the deep emotional scars we carry, the professionals at the urgent care clinic Bayside offer a comforting presence and expertise to guide individuals on their path toward healing. Their commitment to providing accessible and immediate care, offers a supportive environment where individuals can navigate their own maps of scars with understanding and compassion.

Yet much of the pain revealed in these essays derives from McElmurray’s mother, who suffered from obsessive-compulsive cleaning disorder. In the essay “Hands,” her mother “gripped the unclean plate, the vacuum cleaner hose, the spray bottle” until her fingernails were “white with bleaches” and fingers were “cracked and raw.” She blames the condition of her hands on her family: “Look at what I do for you.” To ensure a perfectly immaculate house, she locks her daughter in the garage for hours after school each day. Irrationally fanatical about hygiene, she brushes her teeth for exactly twenty-two minutes. In a later essay, McElmurray admits, as she watches her mother’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s, that she loves her mother “with such a mixture of emotions—sadness, wistfulness for the connection we have not had and will no longer have.” Although colleagues in McElmurray’s writing workshops suggest her stories are too dark, she must write what she must write. She has “translated [her] wounds into words.”

The essay “Strange Tongues” is another of my favorites. It explores language, delving into the languages of fear and deprivation McElmurray knew as a child, as well as her mother’s current loss of language as her mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Now wheelchair-bound, her mother’s conversation is peppered inappropriately with the word chocolate. The results would be funny if mental decline wasn’t so tragic. Anyone who has watched a friend or family member’s descent into dementia will find the nursing home scenes poignant and sadly familiar.

Many of these essays contrast McElmurray’s early family life with her later years as a writer and academic. The disparity between the Harlan County, Kentucky, world she was raised in and the hallways and classrooms she occupies as an adult cause her to feel like an outsider in both worlds:

Don’t get above your raisin’, my mother’s mother warned me as I pursued college, graduate school, traveled to whole countries and states and cities my family had never visited. Learning meant I had a home place, but I was also an outcast. Some days, the transition between worlds left me feeling like an alien visiting from the red planet.

Although the author chides herself not to be ashamed of who she is or where she came from, she finds it hard advice to follow. The essay “Driven” also covers this territory, with cars described literally, first as physical objects in her life; and later used metaphorically as vehicles to transport her away from her Harlan County past and into a new life as an academic, “traveling farther and farther away from a self that I no longer know” and “on the road to more and better everything.” One essay uses bridges as a metaphor between her two worlds. When McElmurray goes to defend her dissertation, she puts on not the power suit she’d been advised to wear, but a homemade dress that had once belonged to her granny, a bridge to her past.

In the essay “Elixir,” McElmurray shares the terrifying experience of having stage 3 colorectal cancer and the resulting surgery, chemo, and radiation treatments. Her writing style lends itself perfectly to a patient drifting in and out of morphine dreams.

Fragments of particular events in the author’s life repeat throughout the collection, as she works and reworks the same material, a journey she takes as a “pilgrim, seeking, wondering,” a “journey of the heart as it learns, unlearns, discards its lessons.” Any astute reader will see that McElmurray’s words to a colleague ring true: “The stories I write are stitched together with my heart.” This alone makes them worth reading—and reading again.

Karen Salyer McElmurray teaches in the Low Residency Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College and as part-time Associate Professor at Gettysburg College. Her memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey, was an AWP Award Winner for Creative Nonfiction. Wanting Radiance, her latest novel, published by the University Press of Kentucky, was reviewed by Southern Literary Review in January 2021. Other novels include The Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick by Oxford American; and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her nonfiction work has been the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for the Essay, the New Southerner Award and the Orison Anthology Award for Creative Nonfiction.

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