Writer in Residence

On the Idea of a Secret—a Conversation with Rhonda Douglas

By Sandra Ridley

Part 2:
Q&A with Rhonda Douglas

Sandra Ridley: How do you integrate the direct and personal ‘I’ into your poetry? Or does the ‘I’ tend to be an ‘other’?

Rhonda Douglas: I have used “I” to speak as myself, and to speak through a character (as I did with Cassandra of Troy, in Some Days I Think I Know Things.) It depends on the work and what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve also used “you” to mean myself, to mean the reader and to mean a third character or a group of people.

I don’t shy away from the personal, and at some level I think everything is personal, even when framed from a character’s point of view. It may not be my own lived experience but it’s something I can at least empathize with enough to create from it.

I also have times when the personal “I” bores the heck out of me, so I set it aside and try something else.

SR: Do you have any allegiance to integrating, purely, your lived experiences into your work? Or do you prefer to obfuscate or disassociate?

RD: I’ve written out of my life experience since I was a kid. Somewhere in a light blue scrapbook tucked away in the basement, my mother has the first piece I can remember writing. It was a school assignment, possibly from Grade 2, or at least not long after I learned how to print, written on a white sheet with those dotted wide lines they used to promote proper letter formation. The piece — one whole paragraph — was about my brother. When he died in 2012, it kept coming back to me and I was glad I’d written it.

I want to write out of experience, and out of language, that feels real and true. That said, I’ve written poems and stories that I think feel “true” to the reader (in the form of diary entries from a character, for instance) but are completely manufactured. I often riff off one object or tiny moment that was mine in order to write into something that is purely created…yet also mine. These are very fine distinctions.

SR: How do you negotiate the need to write truths with the notion that doing so may mean personal exposure to your own detriment, or that your portrayal of truth may involve a betrayal of the private experiences of others? Or, in other words, how do you weigh the costs and benefits regarding the integration of private or shared truths?

RD: The experiences of my life belong to me, and so do all of the thoughts and feelings that go with them. I often think of the Anne Lamott quote “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I don’t want to hurt anyone but I’m not prepared to actively negotiate what I do and don’t write about.

That said, sometimes I do self-censor. There’s material I want to write about that I have not yet charged into, partially out of fear, but more out of fear of not doing it justice than fear of transgressing a line of what’s yours and what’s mine. If it happened to me, or I can imagine it, then it’s mine, and I may write about it. I don’t want to be in the position of choosing between material I want to engage with as a writer, and my relationship with someone who doesn’t want me to write about it….I suppose I trust that the people who know me and love me wouldn’t put me in that position, and that they know I will care for them in return. I like this notion of a “shared truth.” There are so many versions and shadings of “the truth” — I feel a responsibility to my own version and encourage other people to explore theirs.

SR: Do you think anyone might want to confront and/or attack you for material you have written? If so, what would you say to them? Do you worry or regret?

RD: I don’t have regrets at the moment. I have chosen to share some things in ways that I think protect the people who were at the heart of some of the experiences. With How to Love a Lonely Man, for example, I chose not to identify the lonely man. That was only in part to be a kind and responsible person, but also had a great deal to do with the WHO CARES principle. I think if the poems don’t speak beyond the specific personal experience then I’ve failed to create art from it in the first place. Quite a few poems were deleted from that series for that reason.

My short fiction collection comes out in 2015 from Freehand Books. I’m excited but also a bit worried that the work will be read as more “autobiographical” than it is. In one story in particular, I am playing around with how intimate I can get with the reader, but in all the stories there are moments or objects I’ve grabbed for use from my personal life. All writers do that — we’re emotional pack-rats. I hope that anyone who sees echoes of themselves in the work will understand the alchemical nature of fiction, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was worried about it. Like many writers, my deepest fear is hurting my parents, but they’ve been incredibly supportive thus far — probably helps to have a former English teacher for a dad.

The only person I don’t write about in any detail is my daughter. I’m not sure that’s been a conscious choice, however, I also don’t think she’d ever ask that of me, so I feel safe in her hands as a reader.

In the end, I think we can only make those decisions (write or not write, publish or not publish) in the moment, with the material in front of us and the knowledge of who holds us up as artists, and who might have an interest in tearing us down.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Sandra Ridley’s first full-length collection of poetry, Fallout, won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for publishing, the Alfred G. Bailey prize, and was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award. Her second book, Post-Apothecary, was short-listed for the 2012 ReLit and Archibald Lampman Awards. Also in 2012, Ridley won the international festival Of Authors’ Battle of the Bards and was featured in The University of Toronto’s Influency Salon. Twice a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, Ridley is the author of two chapbooks: Rest Cure, and Lift, for which she was co-recipient of the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Her latest book is The Counting House (BookThug 2013). She lives in Ottawa.