Cait Weiss Orcutt teaches Inprint’s Personal Essay Workshop which started on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 6. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Chautauqua, FIELD, Tupelo Quarterly & more. She is founder of the Writers Guild Community Creative Writing Workshops in Columbus, Ohio, Editorial Advisory Board Member of Mad River’s Slash Prize, and Online Editor of The Journal. A recipient of an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor/MD Anderson Foundation Fellowship, she is a graduate student at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. Here Cait talks about the first workshop gathering.
Cait Weiss Orcutt: This past week, our Personal Essay workshop met for the first time. I had come to class planning to talk craft—what is Creative Non Fiction, for instance, and what (or who) makes “fact” fact? Instead, it quickly became apparent that, while the sky outside was clear and blue, the class was still caught in the storm.
And why shouldn’t they have been? Why should we force ourselves to pretend we’re okay? If writing is about honesty, why lie about what is really weighing down our thoughts, troubling our dreams and hurting our hearts. An enormous, historic disruption occurred—and for many, if not all of us here in Houston and beyond, the recovery effort contains its own disruption, grief and trauma. How can we write anything “personal” without sharing what we’re going through?
The following micro personal essay came from an in-class prompt paring human qualities (Strength, Apathy, Grief, Hope, Lust, Divinity) with the word “storm.” It was a privilege to hear these stories, created and crafted in class. We’ll be sharing one of the class’ micro essay daily this week. Each piece serves as a proof of our city’s resilience—you can give us rain, wind, uncertainty and days of isolation, but as soon as we can find a pen, we will turn that into art.
Each piece serves as a proof of our city’s resilience—you can give us rain, wind, uncertainty and days of isolation, but as soon as we can find a pen, we will turn that into art.
“Getting Undammed” by Paige Hassall
I carry inside me the seeds of the cosmos, the portent and possibility of all I have not done. You carry them, too, but you probably don’t know it. Or, if you do, you regard your seeds more docilely than I can mine. Your relationship with them is healthier. You better tolerate their persistence.
Yesterday, a man who wanted to be clever with me online said he thought that “lol” must stand for “lady of leisure”. I was affronted, though I didn’t say so. I am raising two teenagers, completely alone. I got them and five dogs safely out of town under mandatory evacuation as Harvey’s inland rainfall gorged the Brazos. In my day job, I work with refugees. I volunteer to support my kids’ extracurricular endeavors. And I write, just enough not to feel like a complete fraud when I tell people that I write.
But these seeds.
I like to be alone. When I was married, I thought that I liked the state of being married. Looking back, I see that this liking was more an assuagement of shame, the false relief of conformity. We were damned and dammed up, but the soft, pallid seed that fed on social standing and respect was nurtured by my status as a wife, and then as a mother. My marriage was a brief, forced flowering that bloomed for the camera at the expense of the stalk.
I think, at least, that I still like being a mother. But ask me a year or two after my youngest leaves home. Such blooms are all annuals in the end.
The liking of these things – things referred to by people whose minds I admire as bourgeois concerns – is a clean, plastic tarp I have stretched over the clay hiding the small, dark seeds. Keeping back the wild, ungrafted embryos, while the annuals bloom, one after another, in the scant layer of potting soil and perlite I have piled hopefully on top.
The seeds I carry the deepest — those of yearning for more than safety and comfort; those of the longing for God — are locked tight in a casement of impermeable clay. Sealed off from water and air and light, because I fear I could not cope with the harvest of ponderous trees, wild vines, rampant bamboo.
But then, harvests can be drowned, of course. Perhaps it isn’t essential to suppress the sprouting. Things have a way of sorting themselves out.
Now I have witnessed how things brought to fruition by water can also be vanquished by it. The pine trees that clambered up mountainsides, secreting owls and spiders, are chopped down, stripped bare, plundered for the frameworks of our lives.
We have dominion over the earth. Until the water comes, and the sodden frameworks mildew, disintegrate. Turn to muddy pulp.
I keep the small, dark seeds – tiny sources of vast anxiety and shame – deeply buried and under wraps. Knowing all the while that water always, eventually, finds a way.