Crafting Beauty from Trauma: An Interview with Keema Waterfield

July 15, 2022 § 3 Comments

Keema Waterfield is the award-winning author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Much of Keema’s body of work features drunk hippies, stoner parents, and traveling to play music from an early age. Her prose is lyrical and often humorous, even as she explores the impact of early childhood sexual trauma. 

Summer Koester (rhymes with “luster”) is an award-winning writer living in Juneau, Alaska. Though they both grew up in Juneau, the two met online after Keema’s book released and Summer reached out for an interview. Here, they talk about radical honesty, how to decide whether to include a traumatic event in your story, and writing into hard-to-remember moments.

Summer Koester: Inside Passage and your Brevity essay, “You Will Find Me in the Starred Sky,” both feature trauma and sexual abuse, and yet you manage to make it beautiful and avoid self-pity. Do you write with a specific audience in mind? 

Keema Waterfield: It’s too much to say that I write for the world, but I absolutely feel that I do. I write to give voice to survivors, and to push back against the apathetic. My grandmother’s edict was: we don’t talk about these things. My mother’s: we don’t keep secrets anymore. Mine is: it’s time to break open all the windows and scream

SK: That’s a directive I can get behind. How do you decide whether a difficult event needs to be included or can be left out?

KW: A lot of new writers ask me this, and here’s why: if you’ve experienced trauma in your life, you likely grew up avoiding being seen to protect yourself. You also probably heard that you were too much, that your story made people uncomfortable. It’s natural to ask whether you can hold your reader through these challenging moments when your own friends or family rejected them, or if you even want to try.

Keema Waterfield

When you’re debating whether to include a painful event in your book, answer these questions: Did this experience shape you? Does it move the story you are telling forward? Without it, are you incomplete? Then trust that your audience wants you to bring your fullest self to the page, but we typically won’t need to see every slap, only the most pivotal ones.

Ask yourself how much your reader needs to know explicitly to understand the enormity of every scene you choose. For example, once I’ve revealed there’s a man with his pants around his ankles and a gun to my three-year-old head, the reader doesn’t need more scene. They need me to quickly move in with my reflective voice and help them make sense of the moment, to show that I remain their sturdy guide through what comes next.

SK: Radical honesty is terrifying!

KW: You don’t need permission to write the truth, but if you’re afraid of your story, you aren’t ready to dig into it yet. Worrying about the court of public opinion, who might be hurt, or what reviewers will say can paralyze you and undermine your project. Hard subjects require fearlessness. Start by writing for just yourself while you build confidence. 

You’ve reached the appropriate emotional distance when you’re able to show a person behaving badly on the page without moralizing their actions. Then you’re ready to carefully select your in-scene moments and marry them to thoughtful sensory supports and reflection. Bear in mind that too much scene overwhelms, while heavy reflection bores. Study authors you admire to see how they balance that.

SK: You seem to have mastered the balance between scene and reflection, so I need to study up on your work more. 

Summer Koester

I know when I strip down in publications or on social media, I end up having dreams about pontificating naked on top of buildings. How do you avoid vulnerability fatigue when writing about painful topics?  

KW: Can I drop a heart emoji in here? Sadly, I haven’t found a cure for vulnerability fatigue in memoir writing. I accept it as another part of my story and prepare myself for unexpected naps.

When I’m working on intense material, I set a timer for 40 minutes. I let myself feel whatever comes. Then I take a walk, eat something, or call a friend. I don’t beat myself up if I can’t get back to the material immediately, and I trust that any emotions that arise are earned. I strive to let them pass through me rather than turn them away. 

I always plan a few days or a week of down time to let my nervous system settle after those sessions. I focus on my children’s small delights, my dog’s snores, and the dingleberry I need to comb out of my cat’s hind fur.

SK: In The Return: The Art of Confession, Melissa Febos writes: “On the page, I return to the past and make something new of it, I forgive myself and am freed of old harms, I return to love.” How do you tackle difficult events that are hard to remember? How do you translate them to the page?

KW: That’s a great question. Every nonfiction writer faces this problem at some point. 

I view memoir as a form of narrative archaeology rooted in curiosity. Our job is to unearth fragments of personal history and ask how the pieces we’ve lost to time, age, or trauma inform our understanding of ourselves. What did or didn’t happen? How did it shape us? Why does it matter? Confronting the holes in your memory is an opportunity to imagine what might have been. There is equal power in what you know, what you can’t remember, and the story you’ve made up in your head about it all. While the questions you ask will be unique to you, the urge to make sense of them is universal, which gives your readers a reason to buy in to your journey.

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