Floyd Skloot, author of many books of poetry, four novels, and excellent works of nonfiction including the new “The Wink of the Zenith” and “In the Shadow of Memory” (from University of Nebraska Press), gave a moving craft talk at Ashland University in 2008. This is the only talk on the craft of writing that's brought me to tears.
Skloot talked about the writing process for putting together his essay, “Kismet,” which dealt with the death of his brother. Twenty years ago, Skloot suffered a virus attack that resulted in brain lesions that damaged large sections of his memory and hindered his ability to process information. Despite this major obstacle he has continued a productive writing career. He spoke in this craft talk about the organic structure of the essay, a piece of seven sections that explore interlocking themes. One of his major points was the organic structure that resulted from the essay's subject matter. He traced the evolution of the essay by guiding the audience through the insights and emotions that occurred after his brother's death; since he had lost access to much of his childhood memories, he had to pay careful attention to any emotional triggers signaling a buried memory or association about his brother. Although most of us don't suffer brain damage, we confront the desire to overstructure our emotions, reactions, and memories, fitting them into a form that seems to us to make “sense.” Some of the most beautiful quotes shared by Skloot concerned his gratitude at having the process of writing nonfiction as a framework for reconstructing his sense of self: “You get to say in the essay what you never say to others, what you never say to yourself.” He also described writing as a “spiritual practice”: “You open yourself up and slow yourself down. Once you lose control and surrender to the material, you open the vents and other material can stream in. This requires a looser and more exploratory mode of working. It requires time and patience, a willingness to explore tangents, a willingness to be ruthless with the tangents.