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Writers on Writing, Volume 3: Elizabeth Scarboro

Elizabeth Scarboro has written a memoir titled My Foreign Cities. She has also written two children’s books: Phoenix, Upside Down and The Secret Language of SB. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, the Bellevue Literary Review, and the Telegraph. Her writing has received the Chautauqua prize and the Olga and Paul Menn Award for Fiction.

Liz will teach our 8-week nonfiction workshop this spring! Her Hidden in Plain Sight: Memoir/Personal Essay Workshop begins at Left Margin LIT on March 22nd.

What is your favorite part of the writing process?

My favorite part of the writing process is also the part I find most daunting--getting my first draft down on paper. I love the way a first draft has a life of its own, pulling me in unexpected directions and exposing me to new ideas. But I also find it unnerving and I flounder around a lot.

A few years ago, your memoir My Foreign Cities was described as a "love story set on the frontier of modern medicine." Can you tell us about the experience of writing that book?

My first husband lived with a life-threatening illness, and died when we were both young. After his death, I found myself wanting to describe our life together before it slipped away from me. But over time, I realized I was writing less to describe that life than I was to understand it. It took me a very long time to write the book, and meanwhile life rolled forward--I got remarried, had two children--and that shaped my perspective on the story I was telling, too. Writing the memoir gave me the chance to slow time down, and examine an experience that didn’t allow time for reflection while it was happening. I’m grateful for that.

You'll begin teaching your second nonfiction workshop at Left Margin this spring. What is something you would like to say to potential students out there who are undecided about taking the class?

Give yourself the gift of joining a terrific writing community that will inspire and invigorate you in your work. I’m really excited to return to Left Margin and help my students develop the many stories they want to tell.

How do you balance criticism with encouragement when you respond to your students' work?

I consider myself both a careful and generous reader. I want my students to take risks in their work. I encourage them to be honest, urgent, complicated, playful. My goal as their reader is to figure out where each story is headed and help the story’s writer figure out how to get it there.

What advice do you have for aspiring memoirists?

There’s no time like the present! Don’t be afraid to start, in whatever form that takes--scattered notes here and there, a letter never sent, a series of images. I’m in favor of any and all mental tricks to get the process going. My personal favorite is to pretend that what I’m writing won’t be part of my final manuscript. This happened to be true for me--I wrote and rewrote the first three chapters of my memoir, and they all ended up in the recycling. But they led me to the beginning I needed to write.

Can you tell us about a book that has made a lasting impression on you?

So many books! One I will never let go of is So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. In the novel, the main character is haunted by a single moment--he is in high school, and he sees a boy he knew years earlier, and doesn’t acknowledge him. They were friends, and this boy’s father was murdered. The narrator re-imagines with intense, painful particularity the boy during the time before and after his father’s death. He’s the storyteller, but also a culpable participant. I was moved as a reader, and awed as a writer by the emotional depth and complexity Maxwell created.

You've published a memoir, two children's books, and multiple essays. How do you juggle projects among all three genres?

For me the story comes first, and then I figure out which genre will allow me to tell it most fully. I tried my memoir as a novel originally, because I’m more comfortable with fiction, but at some point I had to admit it wasn’t working. I also move back and forth between genres depending on the constraints of my life.

What’s your latest book project?

I’m working on both a novel and an essay collection right now. When I have long stretches of time, I work on the novel, but when my time is really limited, or an experience from my week won’t leave me alone until I write about it, I go to the essays.

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