Dayton, Ohio, and its environs host a large, diverse, talented pool of writers. The small town of Yellow Springs has given birth to many of those talents, the comedian and philanthropist Dave Chappelle, for one. This month I want to introduce you to another of the Springs’ delightful creatives, author Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, whose beautiful and insightful work includes poetry, essays, and short stories. She is also a gifted teacher who shares her expertise with others through workshops and conferences as she mentors aspiring writers through the joys and struggles of the writing process.
Janet E. Irvin: Welcome, Shuly. Thank you for being here. I have so many questions! Can we start off by talking about dancing, specifically contra dancing? You met your husband at a twelve-hour contra dance event! I want to know more about this. 🙂 How did you get involved with this type of dance? Do you still enjoy dancing?
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood: A friend of mine took me to my first contra dance. I was in the final stages of my first marriage, and even though I didn’t have time to get to another dance for well over six months, it helped to know that kind of joy was possible. After the divorce, contra dance became a huge part of my healing. It gave me a place to accept mistakes and be fully in my body and the moment, and it also gave me my dearest friends in Chapel Hill—people who pulled me through the years to come and made my single life full of love.
And yes, I met my husband in the mountains of North Carolina at a 12-hour contra dance. It was an auspicious beginning. We don’t dance as often as we used to, but when I do dance, it reminds me of one of the happiest parts of my life.
JEI: You are a prolific writer in multiple genres: story, essay, memoir, and poetry. Do you naturally gravitate to one more than the others? How do they nourish each other?
SXC: I have been writing poetry the longest, so it’s my go-to genre when I get stuck. I can always write a poem, even if it’s an awful one. Having been a student of poetry, fiction, and essay/memoir, I can truly say that learning in one genre always teaches me about the others. I tell my students that all the time: if we are reading a poem together, and you aren’t a poet, I can still point out techniques the poet is using that you can use in your fiction or essays.
JEI: In the trailer for your short story collection A SMALL THING TO WANT, you speak about the importance of observation. Would you share a moment when such observation led to a particular poem or story?
SXC: One time I was riding in a car with a married couple who’d been together for decades, and they started what I would call a bicker-banter, pushing one’s buttons but in a way that probably happens daily and isn’t exactly arguing. I paid close attention, and though I didn’t use one bit of their dialogue or even the topic they discussed, I mimicked the style of their bicker-banter in my short story “What She Wants” (in my collection, A Small Thing to Want) in a car scene. I love listening to how people talk to each other and watching them interact. I think it’s why I like writing dialogue and scenes.
JEI: You also speak of writing from “a kernel of truth.” In your workshops, how do you incorporate this into your teaching or advice to aspiring writers?
SXC: In my memoir/personal essay workshops, my students are wanting to learn how to write about their lives, so it’s assumed they will write about the truth. My job is to teach them how to shape the story on the page, but not change facts. In my prompt-writing workshops, in which my students write whatever they want (fiction, nonfiction, poetry), I always lead with a prompt based on their life: “Write about a time that you….” Then I encourage them to adapt the prompt. But even if they write fiction, I think it helps to start with thinking about their own experience, to remember what that was like, and to either write using that as a template or to write the opposite in order to understand what might have been.
JEI: Your workshops cover many aspects of writing. The one on making titles do more of the heavy lifting is especially intriguing, as appropriate titles can be elusive. What do you suggest writers do to find titles that do the work?
SXC: Read poems, flash essays, and flash fiction by strong writers. Look at how these writers use their titles. Especially in short pieces, the title should do some of the heavy lifting of the piece. The really good writers know how to do this.
JEI: As I read your poems and essays, I’m struck by the fearlessness and honesty with which you infuse your work. I’m also touched by your kindness to your subject matter and toward the narrator, real or fictional. Was there an evolution in your writing that brought you to this approach?
SXC: I don’t feel fearless. I remember one time an essay of mine—that was very personal—was just about to be published online, and I wrote the editor and told her I was scared and having second thoughts. She talked me down from the ledge. Ultimately I was glad that it was published, and if one is going to learn memoir, learning to be vulnerable is step number one.
As for being kind, I think maybe what you are sensing is my wish to understand the character, real or imagined. The better that I can understand a person, the better I can render them on the page. No one is all bad or all good. I love exploring the in-between.
JEI: Since you mentor others in your workshops, I’m curious if there are writers who have served as your mentors, perhaps in the MFA program at Queens University or at Ohio State in the journalism program. Who had the biggest impact on your writing?
SXC: Dr. David Citino had a huge impact on my poetry writing. I took courses from him at Ohio State—his poetry classes were what pulled me through the last year of my master’s degree in journalism. They felt like home to me when I needed it. He took a chance on me when another professor wouldn’t, and I will always be grateful. He not only made me a better writer but he also taught me how important it is to believe in someone and to say yes you can. I hope I am that kind of teacher myself.
JEI: You are also an artist! The cards available in your Doodleshop online are beautiful and speak to the dreamer in all of us. How do you fit this creative work into your busy writing schedule?
SXC: I doodle to relax, so when I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or I just want to do something fun with no purpose in mind, I sit with my paper and markers and draw whatever comes onto the page. It’s been a real joy to come to doodling after decades of telling myself I could not draw.
JEI: You have two memoirs — 52 THINGS I WISH I COULD HAVE TOLD MYSELF WHEN I WAS 17 and THE GOING AND GOODBYE: a memoir. What prompted you to write these books?
SXC: I never think of 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 as a memoir, but you’re not the first to call it that. I wrote that little advice book because I wanted to pass on all the small but important things that I wish I had grasped much earlier than I did.
The Going and Goodbye was my first book, and I put years (and years!) of work into writing it. When I first started to consider writing it, I only knew I had some stories to tell from my life about love that had come and gone, and about leaving home and finding home and figuring out what home means, but I didn’t know what the shape of the book would ultimately be. Writing it was a journey for me—it led me to study memoir and it deepened my understanding of my own story, but, more importantly, it deepened my understanding of those who were in my story. By taking years to write the memoir, I got the gift of time and perspective.
JEI: If you could spend time with any fictional character, who would you visit and what would you discuss?
SXC: When I finished The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, I thought to myself I needed to Google the main character, Danny Conroy, and see where he was now. Of course, my next thought was to remind myself he wasn’t an actual person. But that’s how real he felt to me. So I guess I would meet Danny and ask him what all has happened in his life since the end of the novel.
JEI: Where is your favorite place to kick back, relax, and recharge?
JEI: My favorite place in the world is my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. A piece of my heart is always there, and I go back as often as I can.
My thanks to Shuly for sharing her thoughts and experiences with us. Below are the covers of her books as well as the link to her website, where you can find out more about her and order books and cards.