I just learned that Angela Lain died on March 25, about eight months after I first met her, at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I’ll never forget that meeting. She had driven from Atlanta to hear Mary Karr read from her memoir, Lit, and I had driven down from Memphis for the same reading. I was standing in the front of the room, talking with Mary, when I heard someone say, “That’s Susan Cushman, the woman with the blog!”
I turned around to see a vibrant woman smiling and waving at me from across the room. I walked over and introduced myself and she said “Yes, I know. I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years.” It was Angela.
We both loved Mary Karr and at that point we were both writing memoir, so we struck up a fast friendship. I told her about the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference I was co-directing that November, and she decided to come to it.
Months later we started emailing, and she sent me the manuscript sample that she was submitting to Kristen Iversen’s workshop during the conference, and I loved her writing. Just a rough draft of a memoir-in-progress, but listen to the first sentence:
“My mother’s glory days were over—except in our house where they were resurrected with each sip of beer as she told the stories that could make me believe for a few sweet moments her glory days had never ended.”
As I read her description of her mother’s childhood home in Savannah, Georgia, I drooled over her darkly beautiful prose:
“I saw other things at Avon Hall that made me believe in magic. In the dark cool of the piano room, a wind-up band of monkeys held court on the marble mantle piece. The music played by these musicians was discordant in a way that seemed to say what the house could not—that a wondrous decay masked a lingering sadness.”
During the conference, I ended up sitting near Angela at Robert Goolrick’s reading at Square Books one evening. It seemed fitting, since that’s where we had first met. What I didn’t see coming was the impact Goolrick’s reading was going to have on me, emotionally. I was a wreck by the time he finished reading the final chapter of his memoir, for the first time, in public. Angela found me and put her arms around me (I was weeping loudly) and hugged me with one of those hugs that goes clear through to your soul.
A few weeks after the conference, Angela and I continued to email. I asked her, specifically, for feedback on the conference in general, and on the manuscript critique workshop that she participated in, led by Kristen Iversen. I’d like to share excerpts of her email reply here:
Overall, the conference brought greater clarity to the whole idea of time and emotional investment. That should be quite obvious, but there's nothing like 4 days of immersion in creative non-fiction to bring focus. Wallace Stegner said it better in his first sentences in Crossing to Safety:
“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake. ... every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in stereoscope.”
(Note: Angela and I had never discussed Stegner, but I had just read his book, Crossing to Safely, a few months earlier. Another “coincidence.”)
Kristen's workshop was very helpful. To a certain extent it mirrored things Neil White said in his craft talk, but if was great to hear it again in the context of the manuscripts. It was very helpful to hear introductions, writing experience and influential authors. Then it was great to hear each piece critiqued by participants focusing on just a few things. For me, it was wonderful to get feedback from a group that did not know my writing at all. . . . Kristen also interspersed personal writing experiences and that was valuable. There was also a breakthrough. When it came time for me to critique the piece on the trans-global love story, I said my impression was that there was a lot more to this story that the writing wasn't touching. Then the person after me said that the author was holding back. The next day, the author said that he had had a breakthrough and understood what the piece was in length and the impact in his life; he said that our comments had inspired him to talk further with Kristen. So that really says a lot to me about the environment Kristen created. I think that is the most valuable thing a workshop leader can bring to a group.
I went back and re-read Robert Goolrick's memoir and on the second read, I saw where the final chapter circled back through the book. Also, by accident, I picked up a memoir at Goodwill called Without a Map. The writing is stellar. I'm about halfway through, but she does something I hear said a lot-- that her prose suggests poetry-- but it is astounding what she pulls off in some of these chapters. This was an unexpected find. I am just thankful that paying attention to good writing is nudging me along bit by bit. If you in all your spare time get your hands on this one, I'd love to hear your review. And from another Conroy fan. I'm going to re-read bits of Prince of Tides. There's something so interesting about his writing that goes beyond the "florid prose." I'm on a Francince Prose investigative hunt.
(Note: I had also recently read Meredith Hall’s memoir, Without a Map, but again, Angela and I had not discussed that.)
I heard from the person who had the "breakthrough" during Kristen’s workshop, and he described it just as Angela did. Kristen will be one of our manuscript critique leaders at the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in September.
And by the way, there’s only one spot left, so if you’re interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m typing these final words through tears, wishing I had spent more time with Angela. Wishing she could have finished her book and published it so it could touch many lives. But I'm also thankful for the way she touched my life, and for the short but very special friendship we shared.