Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest in Progress: Susan Tekulve

I have been begging Susan Tekulve for years to write something for this blog, and I’m thrilled to report that my nagging has finally paid off. Susan is a wonderful writer (see below for information about her exciting new collection of stories, Savage Pilgrims), a dedicated and superb teacher (at Converse College and in the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program), and a dear friend. You may recall the fried pimento cheese sandwich in Spartanburg…she was right there with me! And the day of beauty at the Estee Lauder counter…totally her idea!

I would need 1000 dictionaries to find enough nice words to say about her and about her work, so I'll just have to randomly pick one: fabulous! I am truly excited to be able to share with you one of her favorite writing exercises, and I’m looking forward to trying it myself:

At Home In the World: Using Travel to Produce Autobiographical Writing
By Susan Tekulve

In her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty states, “Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.” She argues that like travelers, writers are preoccupied with discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life as well as in the lives of others. The following writing exercise relies on the principle that most people carry their earliest, most sacred memories of home with them into adulthood. These memories are often hidden in the past, but the experience of travel to a new place sometimes will trigger a familiar emotion and unlock these early, forgotten experiences. The travel experience also allows you to gain the distance and perspective on your early memories of home that is needed to create structured memoirs and literary travel essays. I use this writing exercise in my creative nonfiction travel/study courses, but I swear by using this approach while I am traveling and writing about my travels both in the States and abroad.

1) Preparation: Before beginning this exercise, read memoirist Patricia Hampl’s essay, “Umbrian Spring.” In this essay, Hampl combines her memories of the Catholic convent school she attended as a girl with her travels to the convents and monasteries “offering hospitality” in the little hill towns of Umbria. You can see how Hampl’s journey through the Italian monasteries allows her to gain perspective on her childhood memory of the convent school and to contemplate the meaning of hospitality, one of the oldest missions of monastic life.

2) Draw a map of your earliest remembered neighborhood and include as much detail as you can. Who lived there? What were the secret places? Where did your friends live? Where were the off-limit places? Once you’ve made your map, it’s time to write. Tell a story from one of the places you have drawn on your map. Do not edit yourself yet. Keep writing until you’ve finished the story.

3) Go for a walk around the foreign city that you are visiting. Choose a building, fountain, door, sculpture or any other feature that you have seen in your wandering that speaks to you. Give it a name that has meaning for you. Draw or sketch your own map, (primitive, rudimentary or detailed), of the route that has led you to this spot. If on that route there are other significant spots, mark them too and give them a name. Retrace your steps to your destination. Sit down, study the map of the place you have named and free write for ten minutes, focusing on sensations, objects, in random order, of your tour. What is it about this place speaks to you or seems familiar? How did it make you feel? Why did it make you feel this way?

4) Compare the map from your journey with the map from your earliest memory. What do these two maps have in common? How has the journey experience helped you to understand your early, childhood memory? What questions, if any, has the travel experience answered for you. Using Hampl’s essay as a model, write a personal experience essay in which you connect the story from your childhood with the story from your journey.

Additional notes on using this exercise in a class:

When I use this exercise with students, I am usually teaching abroad in a workshop situation or in a travel study program, though I think this exercise can be adapted easily to a city in the States or to your own personal travels. First, I have the students read the Hampl essay before coming to our class session so that we can discuss its meaning and structure together. Then, I have them draw the childhood map and free write about one of their childhood experiences while we are all together in class. After the students have completed their maps and "memory" free writing, I send them off to explore the town or city that we are in, giving the students a set time frame, (about one hour), to find their "travel destination" and draw their second maps. This gives the students enough time to find a place and record their impressions; however, it also ensures that they don't wander off too far or get lost. Finally, because students need time to ponder, I suggest that they write the actual draft of their essay when they are back in their living quarters, possibly revisiting their chosen "travel site" on their own.

About: Susan Tekulve is the author of two story collections, My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press) and Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books; available for purchase here: Her chapbook, Wash Day, is forthcoming on the Webdelsol "World Voices Series." Her nonfiction, stories and poems have appeared in Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Best New Writing 2007, The Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, Beloit Fiction Journal, Crab Orchard Review, The Literary Review, Webdelsol, Black Warrior Review and The Kansas City Star. She has been awarded scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Sewanee Writers Conference. An associate professor of English at Converse College in South Carolina, she is completing a novel.

You can read more of her work here:

~“Second Shift” (essay) from Writers on the Job,

~“A Dance of Words: A Conversation with Beth Kephart” (writer interview),

~“The Way of Stories: An Interview With Jean Thompson (writer interview), Webdelsol,

~“Real cities With Imaginary Prose About Them; An Inerview with Thomas E. Kennedy” (writer interview), from The Literary Review,


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.