Post #88 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Kendra Bonnett and I are pleased to welcome Susan Spangler to Women’s Memoirs. I recently finished reading Susan’s memoir, The Year of the Bird and was enthralled by her combination of illustrations and a painful yet powerful story. In particular, we think you’ll appreciate her sharing with you the creative process in writing and illustrating her memoir.
We hope you’ll leave Susan your comments below.
Lines on a Page
By Susan Spangler
Author & Illustrator of The Year of the Bird: True Stories in Pictures & Words
Pencils and paper. Pictures and words. Drawing, reading, writing. That’s me. Actually, not just me. I come from a family of writers. It’s what we all do. Each of us writes about different things in different styles. But we all love words. We all love telling stories.
You name it, I love to write it. From poetry to email. The process of writing — of molding thoughts and emotions into words — helps me figure out what’s going on and how I feel about it. When there’s a problem that I’m wrestling with, I write my way forward. Writing helps me find new answers and think of new questions.
Remembering Hard Times
Almost fourteen years ago, our young son-in-law, John, was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. As I write that sentence, I’m thinking what a shock it must be to read it. But there’s no way to soften it. And there was no way to soften it then. It was horrible. He was 33, our daughter Jenny was 27, and their kids were 4, 2, and 6 months old.
My husband George and I did some speedy renovations, and the five of them moved in with us. John lived here for a year. He died in the upstairs bedroom, with Jenny, George and me on the bed with him and the hospice nurse nearby.
Grief is so strange. So powerful. It moves at its own pace, like a stalled hurricane. Grief is different for everyone, and it rarely brings out the best. It’s hard on marriage. George and I found that out.
We argued a lot. Then one day about a year after John died, our daughter Jenny brought a lost bird home from the playground where she’d taken her kids. George decided to keep it. I thought my head would explode if I had to take care of one more living thing. We could not agree. The argument went on for months. Well, not nonstop. But not resolved, either.
Starting to Write
That’s when I started writing. I thought, if he won’t listen to what I say, maybe he’ll read what I write. I wrote nine pages. In long paragraphs, I made my case. It didn’t work. So I started over.
This time I wrote in short lines — something like blank verse. Unconstrained by paragraph form, I loosened up. My thoughts flowed more freely, ranged more widely.
And a funny thing happened. I came up with a solution. Not a perfect one. Not even the one I thought I wanted. But something we could both live with, and go on from there.
That’s how my book, The Year of the Bird, began. After that, as often as I could squeeze in the time, I’d sit down at my computer and write about whatever was going on. Scraps of moments — funny, sad, touching, troubling. Between working and keeping house and arguing and loving and rocking toddlers to sleep, I wrote. And all of that went into my book.
Transforming my stormy feelings into sentences gave me solace and purpose. A little like meditation, the concentration that writing required quieted my mind. It always does. It’s doing that now.
When you’re upset, your worries can lay siege to your brain. They circle like planes over a foggy airport. You’re stuck in the fog, and you can’t see the ground. But when you’re writing, you have to unstick. You don’t want to repeat the same sentence over and over, right? Of course not. You want each sentence to be different from the one that came before it. Writing forces you to move forward.
Story by story, that’s what I did. After a couple of years, I realized I’d written enough to fill a book — a memoir. All my life, I’ve made my living as a graphic designer and illustrator. (Remember the drawing I mentioned a little while ago?) And when I showed my stories to family and friends, they said, “Why don’t you illustrate them?” So I did. I started drawing.
Drawing, Talking, Remembering
All kids draw. Most of them stop while they’re still pretty small. But if you think about it, the time of life when most kids love to draw corresponds pretty closely to the period when they’re mastering language. That’s also about the same time that conscious memory seems to begin: when the brain has seen enough of the world to begin coding similar experiences into what we call words.
Maybe drawing is actually part of the process of learning language — and, along with that, creating lasting memories. Who knows? Well, I’m sure someone does. I could probably just google it. But I like my theory, so for now, I’ll just let it be.
At any rate, as soon as children begin to learn words, what do we grownups do with them? We show them pictures. We tell them stories. Often we tell them the same stories we were told when we were small. Stories we remember.
Pictures and words. Drawing and talking. Memories and dreams. Art can take so many forms. But for me, it’s always been about the same things as writing: questioning, examining, musing, wondering, bringing ideas to life on a page. Lines on paper. With meaning. In other words: telling our stories.