Tightly Structured and Wildly Thought
Interview with Celia Jeffries
Sarah Feldman, Straw Dog Literary Correspondent
.Celia Jeffries is a writer, teacher and editor whose published memoir pieces tackle subjects ranging from group therapy to breast cancer, through forms that include narrative, flash nonfiction and collage essay.
From 2011-2013 Celia served with the Peace Corps in Botswana, working in the Kopong Junior Secondary School as a School Community Liaison. She says that she’d planned to join the Peace Corps when younger, but life “took a left turn…. Thirty years on, I found myself with the time and space for it.”
Celia’s background includes work for the TAB Newspapers in Boston and in educational publishing with Houghton Mifflin. She has run writing workshops for children, teenagers, college students and adults, and recently received a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for her work facilitating a writing group for nine-year-old boys. Her work has appeared in Solsticelitmag.org, Writer’s Chronicle, Westview, Puerto del Sol and the anthology Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper.
Sarah: I’m interested in the wide variety of contexts in which you’ve taught: in the classroom, both at the high school and university level; through workshops and mentorships; as a Writer-in-Residence at Forbes Library; as a School Community Liaison with the Peace Corps in Botswana. Are there any shared features in terms of what you hope your students will take from the experience?
Celia: Most of what I teach is writing. I follow the Amherst Writers and Artists method, [so] my focus is on finding the individual voice. I think once you have that, the rest follows – you can do whatever it is you need to do.
Even in Botswana, most of what I taught was writing. The Peace Corps put us into a program for teaching “life skills” – an HIV/AIDS prevention program whose structure had been prescribed by the Botswana government. But one of the pieces of advice I got from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer was to “do what you love”. So I started a writing club at the [Kopong] school. I was able to effect more change that way than through the established “life skills” program.
It’s very much a formal school structure in Botswana – they have corporal punishment, all the learning is by rote. I thought that [the students] would be uncomfortable with the sort of free form writing I introduced in the group. But they took to it immediately.
English is the official language of Botswana. All the textbooks are in English and all the exams are in English, but many teachers don’t teach in that language, which presents a serious obstacle for many students. But in the writing club – because its format was so open, and because it wasn’t for grades – they wrote in English with no problem.
Sarah: Is your focus the same when you’re teaching a workshop?
Celia: My workshops are more craft oriented. I use exercises focusing on specific points of craft. I think that’s what people want in workshops, especially here in the Valley. It’s a question of: “Now we’ve got our voices flowing, how do we give form to what we want to say? How do we create memoir or fiction or essays?”
Sarah: Reading your memoir piece, “Breastless” (Solsticelitmag.com), I’m struck by the variety of tones and angles you weave together into a resonant whole. What was your process like in creating this piece?
Celia: I think I came at this piece of my story in many different ways at many different times in my life. Which is what memoir does, because memory is different every day, colored by what’s happening in the present moment. Memoir is about how you remember something, how you make sense of that story in your life.
Maybe it’s my journalism background, but I’ll often think through a story for some time and not really get going on the writing until I have my “lead”. For “Breastless”, the lead was, “I have a man-made breast”. Once I have that first line I find the rest of the piece takes form more easily.
Sarah: Do you have a sense, when you’re shaping material from life experience, of how it comes to be structured as memoir rather than fiction? What are some of the differences for you?
Celia: Fiction demands more logic than reality. I just find life so wild, I have trouble ‘making things up’. I think memoir allows you to make connections and move through time in a different way than fiction. Our minds are all over the place all day long. That said, I think memoir can be as tightly structured as fiction. Perhaps the best memoir is like the best poetry – tightly structured and wildly thought.
For more information on Celia Jeffries, visit her website, here.
Join Celia to explore memoir
and learn about different approaches
for writing and shaping your own individual stories.
May 13, 6:00 – 8:00 PM
Storrs Library, Longmeadow
Sarah Feldman’s work has appeared in The Villager, Chelsea Now, The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead. Some of her poems were anthologized in “Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry.”