Saturday, June 30, 2007

Susan O'Doherty

Susan O'Doherty, a writer and clinical psychologist, is the author of Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity. Her popular advice column for writers, “The Doctor Is In,” appears every Friday on MJ Rose’s publishing blog, Buzz, Balls, & Hype.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I am reading The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. I admire Didion’s writing, but although I’ve had the book for over a year, I put off starting it because I knew it would be difficult and painful. I finally forced myself to open it because my desire to see how a master writer deals with intensely personal information trumped my reluctance to delve into such a potent reminder of the inevitability of death and loss.

Each time one of my own autobiographical essays is about to come out, I am seized with panic: What if I have misremembered, misrepresented an episode that is meaningful to someone else in my story? If there are two or more competing versions of a story, how do we determine which one is “correct”? And even if I can prove definitively that mine is “true,” do I have the right to broadcast someone else’s personal information? Yet when the facts, or “facts,” are disguised, a writer is vulnerable to charges of fabrication. I am looking at the memoirs of more accomplished writers for guidance in handling these issues.

Didion’s prose is specific, detailed, and devastating. She explores her reactions to her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness with excruciating precision. Yet the questions of truthfulness and of protecting others’ privacy become irrelevant, because she emphasizes that this is an attempted reconstruction of her personal experience, not a recitation of “facts.” And because she does not try to convince us of the validity of her version — because she does not set up an internal conflict in the reader — we are free to enter into her experience more fully. This is a real education for me.

I am also nearly at the end of Ptolemy’s Gate, the final book in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. Generally speaking, fantasy is not my genre of choice; I have enough trouble navigating everyday life without adding magic spells and demons to the mix. However, my 13-year-old son loves these books, and I try to stay current with what he is reading. I must admit, I am riveted. Stroud’s djinni is engagingly world-weary, cynical, and possessed of a dry sense of humor; and his teenaged heroine is resourceful, honorable, and perilously, perhaps fatally, ignorant. In fact, I need to stop writing right now to find out what happens to her.
O'Doherty's stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review, Eclectica, Literary Mama, Reflection’s Edge, VerbSap, Carve, Word Riot, Style & Sense, Phoebe, and the anthologies About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope (Penguin, 2007), It’s a Boy! (Seal Press, 2005), The Best of Carve, Volume VI, and Familiar (The People's Press, 2005). New stories are scheduled to appear in Hospital Road and in the anthologies Mama, Ph.D. and Sex for America, edited by Stephen Elliott.

Her story “Passing” was chosen as the New York Story for Ballyhoo Stories’ ongoing Fifty States Project.

--Marshal Zeringue