Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Sarah Dickenson Snyder

Sarah Dickenson Snyder is poet based in Massachusetts and Vermont. She is the author of The Human Contract (Kelsay Books, 2017) and the chapbook Notes from a Nomad (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Snyder’s poetry and prose have appeared in Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Comstock Review, Damfino Press, Chautauqua, West Trade Review, The Main Street Rag, and Passager, among other magazines and anthologies. In May of 2016, she was a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press, and she has been selected to be part of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In addition to writing poetry, Snyder worked as an English teacher for thirty-seven years.

EB: First off, congratulations on your two books of poetry coming out this year! Do you primarily identify as a poet?

SDS: I write some prose—I had a piece recently in in Teachers & Writers Magazine about teaching writing, which is the first chapter of a book I’m playing around with. The book is tentatively called Teacher Land and it’s about the things I’ve learned from my years of teaching—something a beginning teacher might read. I’ve really enjoyed writing it, and I do like writing prose, but, really, I feel more like a poet.

EB: How long have you been writing poetry?

SDS: I sent a batch of poems as my college essay when I applied to Bowdoin College. And then, three months into college, I called my parents and said that I wanted to drop out of school to move to Vermont and write poetry. This was greeted with absolute silence. Then my dad cleared his throat and said, I actually think if you stay through the year you will get more experiences with people to write about in your poetry, so I’d stick it out for the year. Which was good advice, and I ended up staying all four years, but, truly, I don’t think that feeling ever left me, the desire of wanting to go write poetry in Vermont. And when the opportunity came for me to take the option of early retirement from teaching, many years later, I felt this incredible association of I must do this.

EB: How is writing poetry different than writing prose for you? Are the experiences different? Or is the experience the same and just the product is different?

SDS: It’s very different. When I’m writing poetry—which I try to do for two hours every day—I sit at the table and write in my journal, and it always comes out as poetry. I’m all about prompts and timing. I will give myself a prompt and go off for seven minutes, and I’ll do this for two hours, and then I will go back and look for language. For me, it’s always that Robert Frost adage: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I’m always looking for surprising places I went, surprising language. Sometimes I will put a list of words on pages in my journal ahead of time and then have to use those words in what I’m writing. With poetry, I’m always finding something I didn’t know I was looking for.

For Teacher Land, I’m doing that same searching with language, but not with ideas. Usually I have a pretty clear idea of what I am entering when I am writing prose, and what I want to get across. Prose, for me, seems a lot more directed. I write a lot of thank-you notes—I make all my own cards—and much like that, I go into it knowing what I’m doing, knowing what I want to say, but the language can always push me into places I didn’t know I was going.

EB: You have said that your poems are largely autobiographical, and when you do write prose, it seems to be usually personal or autobiographical as well. Do you see poetry as a type of nonfiction? How do you approach writing poetry based on your own life?

SDS: It’s about mining and excavating. My book, The Human Contract, is on some level an effort to understand the contract that we have human-to-human and, primarily, mother-to-daughter or mother-to-child. I’m really mining anything that I have experienced. I’m always trying to excavate where the heat is—whether it’s Jim Porter’s tweed jacket at a junior high dance, resting my cheek on that, or whether it is picking up a photograph and turning it over and seeing my mom’s handwriting say “Anne’s birthday” when it was my birthday. I’m mining for details, and they’re always autobiographical details.

I think that’s why I was really attracted to middle school teaching for so long, because I can almost be there. It’s so visceral. I can go there immediately. And middle school was challenging for me socially—I had such a radar for mean girls because I was one. I could seek them out, and my hope was to help them, because mean girls are insecure, and I felt so insecure at that age.

EB: I think that’s why I’ve loved teaching middle school, too. I love the weird kids, the kids on the fringes, the kids who try to say something funny and it just falls flat—because I was that kid. And I think my students can sense it in me too, because it’s those kids that start hanging around my office.

SDS: My heart breaks, I can’t even tell if it’s in joy or sadness, for middle-school kids. I adore them. The means ones, the fringe ones, the earnest ones—they’re so real—and in fact I loved doing poetry with them because they were better poets than I was. They have access to that sort of surprise. I have to spend two hours trying to get there, but it’s right on the surface for them.

EB: Speaking of students, how has your experience of being a teacher affected your experience of being a writer?

SDS: Well, it affected it in that I put being a writer on hold for thirty-seven years. I took poetry classes whenever I could—through the Teachers As Scholars program. Through one of those classes, I met Barbara Helfgott Hyett, and I began taking workshops with her. It began to feed this really interesting thing. It was like digging down and finding a water source you didn’t know was there. When I went to Barbara’s class, I felt like I was going home. I was getting water to grow. But I couldn’t sustain it. While teaching, I wanted to get papers back the next day. I set high expectations for myself, I’m a crazy grader, I can get through shit fast—but it meant working three to four hours at night, all day Sunday, doing a lot of preparation over the summer, because I wanted to be a good teacher. And when you’re a mother, a teacher, a wife, a sister, a daughter of two parents dying of cancer, you can’t be any of them really well. You try to be the best you can. But there’s no way a writer could have fit into that as well. So there were periods of sometimes ten years when I wouldn’t take a class with Barbara. But now I’m working with her regularly.

EB: Do you use techniques you used on your students on yourself?

SDS: All the time! That’s how I taught creative writing—really all writing, even analytical writing. I wanted my students to be creative when writing analysis. The word “analysis” means “to break open.” I would give them a passage, and as we looked at it and started to undo some of the language, we might discover what the writer is doing, discovering something surprising, just as I try to do in creative writing. It was all about figuring something out. And when I’m writing, that’s what I’m doing too. I also would ask my students to “Just Write”—for the first five-to-ten minutes of class, as students were arriving, they would come into the classroom and get right to work on a piece of writing. There would be three prompts on the board, music playing, and time for me to have a quiet check-in with each student as all were writing freely. Eventually, I started writing along with the kids while they “Just Writing.”

EB: I do that too! I start off each of my classes with five minutes of journal writing, and I always write in my journal along with my students. I think it makes them take it more seriously—not, oh, this is just something she’s telling us to do while she’s checking her email, but it’s important enough for her to be doing it too.

SDS: Now, I “Just Write” every morning.

EB: That’s so great you can turn your teaching tricks on yourself. Getting yourself to focus is the hardest—I’m often my worst, distracted, inattentive student when I sit down to write. I would hate to have myself in class.

When you are writing nonfiction or an autobiographical poem specifically, what do you find most challenging?

SDS: Nothing about the writing process—I mean, it’s challenging just because it’s challenging to write. But I try not to avoid challenging places to write about—I will cry while I’m writing. But once I write it… it’s scary to put it out into the world. That’s the challenge for me—the risk that comes with having your work out there. The first poem in The Human Contract identifies that I’ve had an abortion. That may create discomfort, but it’s real.

EB: What about when you put stuff out there that isn’t just about you—but is also about your children, your husband, your family? How do they feel about it?

SDS: I think my husband, children, and sisters are very supportive of me. Honestly, I’m not sure if I would be comfortable publishing some of the poetry about my mother if she were still alive.

EB: And what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction and autobiographical poetry?

SDS: Seriously, writing is fun for me. Maybe fun is the wrong word, but writing and reading—it’s joyful. I’m inspired by reading other’s work. Every morning I wake up and have emails from Poetry Foundation, one Rattle, one from Poets.org, and I always read those first thing in the morning. To read fiction is inspiring too—I just read and enjoyed The Nix; I’m listening to Lincoln in the Bardo—and nonfiction too, though, I actually prefer to listen to nonfiction. There are a couple nonfiction books I really like—Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Watch Gilbert’s TedTalk on creativity. She has a really cool wacky idea of where creativity comes from.

Though it’s scary, I do like sending my work out, knowing that people are reading my work. I can’t decide if it’s ego-driven or necessary affirmation of doing something I feel like I have to do and feeling like, see, there is a reason why you have to do it.

EB: I think that’s the thing I love about nonfiction. It feels so good when you write something and someone reads it and says oh my god that was my experience too, or when you read an essay and your breath gets taken away because you feel like the writer has gotten into your brain. The human experience can be so isolating, you feel like you’re the only person who has ever experienced something, but that’s not true. And writing is a way to connect with people.

SDS: I feel that way when I read Ann Patchett, her nonfiction or fiction—just, wow, her work has touched me. How cool is that? You write things by yourself and don’t expect anyone to read it, let alone connect with it. I remember once when I was using the school photocopier—I probably shouldn’t have—to make a couple copies of my poetry manuscript to send to an editor, and a colleague of mine, Jen, came in to use the copier, and I said, “Oh, sorry, Jen, it’s going to be a minute.” And Jen started looking at what was coming out of the copier, and she saw that it was a lot of poems, and asked, “What is that?” I told her it was my manuscript, and how it was a collection of poetry about mothering and losing a mother, and Jen asked, “Can I read it?” That was the first time someone ever asked to read my work. And she took it, and read it, and gave me some great, really specific feedback, and afterwards she asked, about the manuscript, “But can I keep it?” Hearing that, that something I wrote, she wanted to hold onto and have… I needed that.

EB: Finally, do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

SDS: I like so much of what Anne Lamott says; she’s funny and accessible and real. I love this passage from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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