By GARY KNOWLES
On Mar. 30, a group of students and professors sat around the parlor of the Creative Writing building to listen to visiting writer, Sonja Livingston.
Livingston, a professor of Creative Writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, read from two of her books and discussed writing and ideas with students in Creative Writing classes at the University of Mary Washington.
The main focus for Livingston’s reading was her memoir, “Ghostbread.” The story follows Livingston and her family around upstate New York during the 1960s and 70s.
Growing up in poverty is a central part to the memoir, but Livingston’s detailed, emotional flash pieces never let the story grow stale or feel like she was complaining. Instead, the book simply communicates what happened to the reader and strings them along from point to point, and character to character.
Livingston also presented parts of her newest book, “Ladies Night at the Dreamland.” She told the students at the event that she struggled with the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction when writing that collection of essays, because the book incorporates both history and imagination in one place to shed light on women’s stories that are not often told.
As a growing writer myself, I have been fascinated in how we as writers, storytellers and artists deal with the emotional and personal weight created by the stories we tell. Livingston shed some light on her process of dealing with those themes.
“When I write about things I’ve usually processed it already,” Livingston said. “It’s not fresh.”
Distance from the past seemed to be paramount to effectively writing about it for Livingston. She explained that being too close to something can allow anger or pain to cloud the story and the message it brings to readers. Instead, Livingston wants to recount the details and events, while offering the reader something more to grab out of life.
“Shifting the voice and point of view helps to handle more difficult material,” said Livingston.
The reading eventually evolved into an exchange of ideas with the writers and students that attended. For example, Livingston gave advice to a student asking about the choice of publishing nonfiction under a pseudonym. Livingston assured him that if the choice was to protect someone in the piece then using a fake name shouldn’t take away from the story’s validity.
Before she left, Livingston discussed her current writing project. Her next series of essays focuses on religion. More specifically, Livingston is interested in travelling and discussing practices and beliefs that people no longer participate in and what we lose in the process.
The series was inspired by a return trip Livingston took to her old church in “Ghostbread,” where she found that her childhood community church was dying out.
Livingston’s visit served as a great learning experience for Creative Writing students to get some insight from a successful writer about any ideas they have been struggling with, or other ways to deal with writing issues and the writing life.