“My True Story”: An Interview with Kate O’Brien Wooddell

Writer, storyteller, and educator Kate O’Brien Wooddell recently published her first collection, Beasts, through Florida’s Happy Tapir Press. Beasts is a compendium of poems, flash memoir, and even a couple of pieces that verge into surrealism and magic.

Beasts covers familial, often politicized themes like motherhood and daughterhood, sexual abuse, travel, memory, and reconciliation, all deeply informed by gender and family. The way these pieces fit together reflect the often fractured nature of what it means to be a woman, a lover, a survivor, an artist, and a person—all these things, all at once.

I first worked with Kate several years ago at a summer camp where a few years before that, Kate had been the (beloved!) teacher of my younger sister. Kate is one of the most interesting people I know—honestly, I could listen to her stories for hours, and she’s one of those friends whose beautifully-wrought Facebook posts make social media worth it.

When Beasts arrived at my home in South Florida, it felt like Kate had knocked on my door, ready to share a story. After reading the collection, I jumped at the chance to interview Kate on her politically timely and emotionally moving work. Doing this interview was a real treat. I know you’ll enjoy reading her words as much as I have.

Beasts is what I would call a hybrid text because it contains both poetry and prose. I think that hybrids are “beastly” in the best sense of the word because they are surprising, risky, powerful, and impossible to ignore. What did your process look like as you chose what went into this collection?

Everything about this little book is predicated upon three relatively recent events in my life.  At least one of those events will resonate with many, many people.  While I was discussing the source of my current writing inspiration, an associate in the master class that I mention at the end of this book identified my trigger as “PKSD” – Post-Kavanaugh Stress Disorder.  It is a term that was often referred to during our Writing/Righting Your Life workshop with Amy Ferris and Linda Schreyer in Kauai in November 2018.  Innumerable people who have been sexually abused and victimized had their own scabs torn off during the Kavanagh confirmation hearings earlier that summer and took profound and personal aggrievement at the unconscionable assaults on Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford.  But you know that already.  Everybody does.  It was immediately after that confirmation travesty that I penned my opus in the back of the book, “#WhyIDidntReport.episode1.”  At one reading, this poem stopped the open mic, at the request of the audience, so people could publicly process their feelings and reactions.  I have an unfinished humorous (to me) poem about penises, inspired by watching Sen. Lamar Alexander on a Sunday morning talk show back then, that I have long wanted to pair with this other piece at a reading, if the first one wasn’t already so long.  Partly, I just want to be that nearly 70-year-old gray-haired grandmother who gets up there in front of a young diverse audience and announces that I am going to read two poems about dicks.  Maybe channel my inner Lucille Clifton.

So, the Kauai workshop (the second significant event) clarified for me that “my story” was all about surviving sexual assault, twice, and spending a lifetime, it was now unavoidable to realize, not ever fully dealing with it.  I planned to focus all this energy into a memoir.  I came home from Hawaii loaded for bear, so to speak.  Amy and Linda are wonderful facilitators (this may answer your third question somewhat) and I not only came to understand the trajectory, depth and expanse of my story, but, especially through some of Linda Schreyer’s exercises, I came home with a list of scenes—a few of them beginning to be fleshed out, and, if not exactly a whole outline, strategies for moving myself forward in this process.  But…

The third significant event in my process was the fact that my husband had a stroke, a left cerebral hemorrhage, fortunately at home with me, four days after I returned from Kauai.  I was literally in the midst of the first baby steps at figuring out how to create a writer’s platform for myself.  (Something I still have not done.)  I spent the next month sleeping either in Barca loungers at his side in the neurological ICU or on a cot, to constantly stimulate his now neglected right side, while he was in rehab.  I spent each day going to six therapy sessions with him and learning how to coach him further, caring for him along with the nurses, forcing him to eat with his right hand, etc., and then doing his laundry when he fell asleep at night as he was having difficulty getting himself ready to use the hand-held urinal in time.  At night I talked and wrote to friends and some of the amazing women I had just left behind.  I cried a bit.  I did not want to give up the dream, so, I enrolled in a program called Slipper Camp that Linda Schreyer runs in twenty-day online cycles.  I received three prompts every other morning and had 48 hours to submit 1,000 words to her.  Wash, rinse, repeat ten times.  I had participated in a few sessions prior to Kauai, on the themes of Home, Love and Mothers & Daughters and thus had 30,000 words already filed away.  So, I enrolled in another session while living in the rehab hospital, assuming I (Wonder Woman, right?) could knock it all off before collapsing onto my cot in between the loads of pissy laundry.  The over-achiever in me curdled at the completion of only four assignments.  Later in the spring, I managed another session and knocked out seven of the ten.  And then I discovered another online workshop co-facilitated by two women whose class I had sampled in Kauai.  Laura Lentz, a stupendous writer and coach working with Debbie Augenthaler, a widowed psychotherapist specializing in grief and adjustment, offered six weekly Zoom Room sessions of Write Your Grief Story.

I thought I would be writing about my husband’s stroke, even though he was now making a remarkable recovery.  Instead, I found myself returning to my true story.  The sexual abuse as a child, the denial by my mother, life in a dysfunctional alcoholic family, and my rape at nineteen while living alone 2,000 miles from home.  Pieces were created right there online within twelve- to fourteen-minute segments during our three-hour sessions.  So, a lot of stream of consciousness writing occurred that I later reformatted, sometimes into verse and sometimes into longer prose pieces.  Laura also offered a one-day workshop about Fathers on, of course, Father’s Day, and one of the father poems in the book came from that.  I was enriched, connected once again to a writing community, and determined that if I did not have the time as caregiver, coach and chief ass-kicker for my husband’s recovery to write the full memoir, then I would find a way to produce something.  To get my name on a piece of published material ASAP.

Enter Johnny Masiulewicz, a Chicago ex-pat living in Jacksonville, FL, and to whom I was introduced by yet another former student, a young woman who is now the most prolific poetry reading organizer in town.  She created a reading in my honor when we visited Jax for the first time in a decade, two years ago. I shared with the stage with the best talent J’ville has to offer.  I was humbled and thrilled at how the arts scene there has grown since I left.  Johnny runs a small operation called Happy Tapir Press.  He has published my student Keri’s first chapbook as well as one by a teaching colleague who is a serious poet with many other publications.  So, we made a kind of natural team and worked at this remotely for a few months.

Knowing my “true story,” it was easy to start with the poem “Amy’s Workshop” and signal this collection as a record of process.  In fact, that piece was not written as a poem, but whenever I read it to anyone, they assumed it was a poem.  Maybe my storyteller voice took over.  So, I reformatted it and worked it into a poem while trying to remain true to the material that was shared during that sacred time.

The second piece also came from Laura’s workshop, and to address your fourth question, she works with archetypal patterns and, in fact, has a writer’s workbook coming out soon following Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.  She also infuses her sessions with poems and imagery to help her students move beyond a mundane recording of facts from their lives.  So that piece—“The End Lives…”—came out as a bit of a prose poem and I knew that would signal the course of my journey.  I chose lines from it for the back cover and worked with a former student who is a phenomenal artist.  They really liked this piece as a possible visual inspiration and it was their decision, as much as mine, to pull an image from it for the cover illustration.  Kelly produced evocative work.  When we count the beasts on the cover, there is not only a two-legged and a four-legged (in the moon) creature, but those familiar constellations are alternatively named Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.  We wanted to go with the ubiquitousness of bestial behavior.  I always knew I would conclude this collection with the traumatic long poem recounting my childhood molestation.  One can probably find several beasts beside the actual perp in that poem.

I included the second-to-last piece, “On Fire from Within,” written in one of those Slipper Camps, because I wanted to suggest (especially for those who might be interested in waiting for my full memoir), that there is a beast in me as well.  That I can own my own sexuality and flaunt it, enjoy it, use it and misuse it both.  Part of the memoir will be exploring what effect abuse has on one’s psychosexual development and relationships.  It took me three tries to get marriage right, not to mention depression, a suicide attempt, maybe having spent my entire nineteenth year in a state of trauma…

Hence jumping right into “Walking Out of Tillamook,” the third piece and first prose entry in this book.  It came out of that Kauai workshop.  I had to get it out there early that this collection was going to “go there” and talk about rape and assault, at least give clear indications that they were the momentum behind most of this work.  But psychosexual issues are not separate from the identities we form in childhood.  Since my relationship with my alcoholic father was tumultuous, though he had been my earliest hero, it was essential to include vignettes of my life with him.  “Earth Angels” evolved from an exercise in another of Laura Lentz’s workshops.  I did not want to include the long poem about my father that I wrote over forty years ago, but its story was still significant enough to recount.  It has occurred to me that most of my pieces about my father end with a kind of redemption.  He’s been gone twenty-five years.  That has not yet occurred with my mom, whom we buried just two years ago.  I included the prose reflection “First Born” to introduce her as the kind of person who does not deal in facts and significance, so that it would maybe be a softer blow when she utters those fateful words to me in the final poem.  Words that shattered any chance for us to ever have a truly honest and personal relationship.  The memoir will have much, much more about that.  The only “old” work in this collection is the poem “My Father’s Tears.”  It seemed like a nice segue after writing about my birth questions.

I really, really liked my “Medicine Woman” poem, especially since I don’t know where it came from.  It poured out as one of my exercises for Linda Schreyer in a later Slipper Camp.  I had never written a poem for her before.  She was stunned.  I needed to include the warrior energy it expresses amid all the tragedy and disappointment.  Another former student volunteered to create the illustration for that piece.  For the fable-within-a-story of “Lengau and Mkwezi”, Linda posted a photo as part of one of the prompts and my storyteller brain just took over.  I think I had been talking about sexual dimorphism with my oldest grandson who is majoring in animal behavior.  This felt like such a female-triumphant piece I really wanted it included.

While thinking about layout and pagination and whether to seek more illustrations, I perused old workshop material and again found the main idea of “The Key” shaping itself into a verse presentation while “Sealed in the Acid Bath,” stayed in the prose poem arena.  I sent those to my editor rather after the fact and he scolded me for kind of “saving the good wine for the end.”  He really liked those pieces, as they elaborate so much on my relationship with my father, so we made room for them.  But I needed a positive female force to “answer” those two, thus putting “Medicine Woman” right after them.

This is probably way more than you wanted or need, but I have enjoyed this opportunity to reflect on the process.  I do not essentially consider myself a poet.  I have not spent a lot of time nor academic study in this area but have learned by frequently being in the presence of great poets and reading.  I am actually somewhat embarrassed by the poetry and would truly like to put most of it in a crucible and burn it down to essential truths and images.  But my brain still finds itself only able to speak of some topics in that manner.  I know this “confessional” style has long been lambasted as “women’s verse,” and deserving of less attention than those other “more muscular”, other-directed works.  But I don’t feel impelled to write poetry, per se.  I am answering a motivation to tell part of a much larger story in whatever form seems to hold it best. 

You have some history studying the ideas of Carl Jung. Have these archetypes or other ideas have informed your creative writing? If so, how? 

As I mentioned the great Campbell monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, above in reference to Laura Lentz’s soon-to-be-released workbook, StoryQuest, I have come to view my life as a continuum of self-actualization.  It has been a long and interesting, even if at times bumpy journey.  I have endured my night-sea voyage, contemplated life from the belly of the whale, and found atonement with the father.  My father had been such a huge and ogre-like presence all my life, definitely a negative animus figure, that I spent years reading and attending lectures, seminars, workshops and even some time in therapy with a Jungian analyst, trying to get a handle on our relationship.  Neither I nor any of my five siblings ever considered our mother as “part of the problem.”  She was our Saint Joan, our martyr, as much a victim as were we.  It really took until my latter fifties to begin to recognize I would NEVER have the opportunity to have that great heart-to-heart conversation with her that I had with my dad shortly before his death and which I mention in the “Earth Mothers” piece.  My brothers all believe Mom walks on water, but my sisters and I agreed we would have to content ourselves with zero resolution of our issues with her.  I made my peace with that before she passed, but it does not take away the occasional waves of anger and sadness at what we both missed.  My own daughter, seeing the harm it has done and being bold enough to assert her own needs, insists that we never settle for that vacuous kind of relationship.  I am in that part of the journey now where I hope to find forgiveness for my mother in this ugly and painful abyss of sexual abuse that has constricted my life.  I can see that I am almost home and hope the writing of this full memoir will bring me there.

I saw on your Facebook page that you worked with a writing coach before publishing this project. What was that experience like?

The three women I have credited as midwives for this little book all worked their magic in different ways.  I think of them now as my own versions of Flora, Fauna and Merriweather from The Sleeping Beauty.  Amy Ferris is a bold truth teller and hugely intuitive coach.  Her workshop techniques bring individuals into contact with themselves and even more spectacular is the synergistic effect of her workshops which focus most often on women writing to reclaim something of ourselves at whatever point in our lives brought us all together.

Laura Lentz is a wise and brilliant wordsmith whose knowledge, experience and compassion guide writers through what might otherwise be dangerous waters.  One strikes gold frequently while working with Laura.

Linda Schreyer and her Slipper Camps have been invaluable to me.  As you can see, I have no difficulty getting words down on a page.  Linda has forced me to become a strict self-editor.  That 1,000-word limit kills me.   I can blow out my initial assignment in a heartbeat.  I then spend the next 36 hours painfully editing down those extra 600 words, sentence by bloody sentence.   Her themes and prompts have sent me deep into my past and family life along with ruminations on love, art and society.  I have lots of inspiration now for jumping into the memoir with a new, highly-recommended coach.  As of January 1st, I will pretty much be in memoir boot camp with author and renowned writing coach Anne Hefron and her Twelve Months to Memoir program.

The poems and prose in Beasts speak to one another like photos in an album. We see not just common characters, but common gestures and moments that extend from one piece to the next. There were also places where I felt like something was purposefully cut out of the photograph, a mystery, but then I found the “missing piece” later on within the book. How do your backgrounds as storyteller and historian (I don’t know if you would categorize yourself this way, but I hope it’s okay that I have!) help you think about narrative arcs in individual pieces and the collection as a whole, especially in terms of dealing with similar characters/themes in different genres? 

Wow, thank you, Freesia, for this lovely way of seeing how the pieces fit together.  Having taught English and literature most of my career, and asked students to interpret authorial intent, it both stops me in my mental tracks and excites me to have someone doing this to my first work—a mere 39-page artisan chapbook, no less.   You have really hit on the several pieces of me that came together here, without much conscious intent on my part.  Again, as a long-time Jungian adherent, I have always believed in synchronicity—a word that is now much worn out though overuse and misuse.  But I believe all the aspects of my past life have braided themselves together to land me here:  I did not begin college with the intent of teaching.  I sought out clown work (concurrent with my Jungian introduction and encounter with poet Robert Bly and his Great Mother Conference) in my twenties to combat depression.  That eventually led to a focus more on storytelling and less on foolery, other than from an academic perspective.  Yet that also slid me into teaching high school drama and resurrecting their Thespian group when no one else wanted to touch it.  But it was a decade later, falling into teaching a language arts program for academically gifted students at an arts magnet middle school and then being asked to start their Creative Writing program, that all of my random pieces aligned to create a clear picture of who and what I really was meant to be.

I teach in a very narrative manner, so I guess storytelling, that Irish gift of gab, perhaps, is the thread that continues throughout.  My family are all talkers and several conversations are usually happening at once.  Yet we all have acquired the skill of being attentive to all of them at once and jumping in and out of threads as we feel compelled.  None of us can tell a story, no matter how small, or insignificant, without providing full backstory.  Everyone expects listeners to remember the cast of characters as digressions upon digressions occur before getting back to the main arc.  So, this is how I think.  I find that I want to tell the real kernel of the story several times in different ways, before I finally reveal the plot.  I am also the family historian, the genealogist, and that has taught me to think not just chronologically, but also under the broad swath of simultaneous branches.  It’s not really a conscious choice.  That’s just how I tell it.  I’m glad it worked for you.

I also have come to realize that in this business of assault, trauma and owning one’s story, there is never a simple or direct arc.  There are reactions I suffered to the event when I was eight, but then I was raped at nineteen.  I also got pregnant later that year and had an abortion.  Several traumatic events all colliding.  I was twenty-three with a nine-month-old son when my first husband and I separated.  There were so many issues, but it was my natal family that pushed me to the suicide attempt at twenty-five.  I was physically harmed by my second husband in my thirties, and after fifteen years nearly left husband number three although that has healed beautifully, and we’ve enjoyed another sixteen years since then. But it was during all this life that I finally encountered a trigger that sent me into tears for three days, in my fifties, about this childhood abuse situation.  That completely distorted time for me, especially the “time of my life.”  The arc, the narrative that I had been weaving for so long.  So many things fell into question and I had to begin piecing it all back together.  I still have a hard time writing a simple story with something like, “and then I was raped.”  I’m sure every survivor does.  We need to tease our way into these terrible memories, hopefully following Ariadne’s golden thread on our way back out.

I also hope my readers and listeners are willing and able to entertain those various pieces, as you did, and juggle them a bit until the picture begins to make more coherent sense.

What’s next? Interpret this question as you will: for you, your writing, and beyond!  

As I mentioned, my primary project, especially now that my husband is doing so well, is to tackle the memoir full on.  I view this chapbook as a prelude to that work.  Practically every topic that I hope to explore has been introduced here in one piece or another.

My daughter and many of my former students want me to move on to life stories of a much more humorous, adventurous and uplifting nature but understand that I must do this other work first.

In the meantime, I have proposed a new chapbook to my editor at Happy Tapir Press (Jacksonville, FL).  He’s excited.  I want to collect and, as necessary write or ghost write for some contributors, stories about shoplifting.  Just last week, at a memorial service for two of our oldest friends, I canvassed several women from my hippie community back in the early 1970s about this and it seems we all did it to one degree or another.  I’d like to curate an assortment of stories from women who stole for varying reasons and with a variety of outcomes.

Also, many folks who have followed my past year of Facebook posts about Jeff’s continuing progress have asked me (or us) to formally write about this.  I know I worked damn hard to bring him back.  And he fought hard, too.  We are still in process, so we can’t do it right now, but I like the idea.  I’ve had friends write to me seeking advice in helping THEIR partners through illnesses.  So maybe there is a need for this.

If I can get some name recognition and get the memoir done and eventually sold, I have all those old partially done novels, both adult and YA, that just might demand completion.  But that’s the big dream.

Meanwhile I will continue to tell stories for my grandchildren’s classes and push myself out to poetry open mics more.  I need to learn to be a better “reader” of my own work.  I know if I can dramatize stories that I know by heart, I can grab an audience with some of these poems, too.

So, it’s simple:  I want to be a writer when I grow up.

**

Interested in ordering Beasts? It’s available online through the publisher’s website, Art City Jax. 

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