Elizabeth Dalton’s Long Hair
Elizabeth M. Dalton‘s fiction and poetry have appeared in a number of journals, including Earth’s Daughters, River City, Ellipsis: Literature and Art, and Flying Island. She received an Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Project grant to develop drafts of some of the essays in Burying Molly.
Elizabeth contributed to All That Glitters, a nonfiction collection edited by Corey Ginsberg, Nicholas Garnett, and myself. After a VIP sale on September 21st, at Lip Service, one of the most popular literary events in Miami, the book was released online on October 1st, 2013 (along with Issue 7 of Sliver of Stone Magazine). On October 12, we had a reading at Books & Books, in Coral Gables. On November 24, at 5 o’clock, we’ll be at the Miami Book Fair International for a reading followed by a Q&A with the prose editors (Room 8301, in Building 8, 3rd Floor).
An interview with Elizabeth Dalton follows:
MJ: In Long Hair, you use hair as an objective correlative—an object in the story that serves a symbolic purpose. The story is beautifully woven around hair. Tell us a little bit about your writing process.
ED: In this CNF piece I was concerned with hair and femininity. The idea for the piece came from that haircut Molly had in my backyard right after she started chemo. When it all fell out she was, understandably, sad about losing her hair, because it felt like a blow to her as a woman. I understood this. We had been children in the shadow of the sixties, and we understood that to be truly attractive girls and women, long, shining hair was called for.
I had thought about all this since her death—more than a decade—and I wanted to work it out somehow. That hair represented health and fertility to us is clearer to me now. But she was also so beautiful and entirely feminine without it. Truly. I wanted that to be clear to the reader, even if it wasn’t so clear to her.
MJ: What are some items in your mental check-list when editing a piece?
ED: I usually begin with a skeleton of the story or CNF piece, and by that I mean the events of the plot. In CNF, of course, the events actually happen. I just have to organize them in a way that helps the reader follow the connections I make between my childhood self and my adult self .
MJ: After than I start filling in detail: What time of year was it? What did it feel like when Mom cut our hair? This is the longest part of the writing process for me, creating verticality. Then I reread for pacing : Do I give the reader enough time to process the information before moving on to the next part of the plot? Are the details supporting my point or points?
ED: Finally–and I really do this–I read the draft out loud. What does each sentence sound like? Where does the reader stumble over the words? (And, of course, I use a spell check!)
MJ: Picking up the strands of your sister’s hair, you write, “Six or seven inches, all of them recorded a part of Molly’s life we could never have again.” As a nonfiction writer, you use writing as a tool for remembrance. How important has been writing to help you cope with Molly’s illness? And how much have you written about Molly?
ED: This piece is part of a collection-in-progress titled Burying Molly. I waited more than a decade after my sister’s death to write about her, in part because as I grow older I come to understand more and more what I’ve missed as a sister. Writing about her is therapeutic, and sometimes difficult. Whereas one essay, “Magna Mater,” published in Clockhouse Review, was actually defiant and joyous, “Long Hair” and another essay , “If Ever You Decide You should Go,” published in r.kv.ry last winter, were both so painful I didn’t think I would be able to finish them. I can’t say that writing them exorcised the grief, but it gave that grief a purpose.
MJ: You describe your hair curl[ing] on your shoulders, “a gleaming rebuke to your sister,” and the guilt of your health weighing on you. Does such a guilt ever go away?
ED: No. I was, indeed, the fortunate, older sister. I have all the benefits of a fine education, I’ve raised two children, and my husband and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. My sister was just entering into her adulthood when she died. She adored her husband, and a much longed-for child was on the way. I can’t help but feel that where she was so short-changed, I was unaccountably blessed.
Then, too, and more directly relevant to the question, as a very young adult, I was thoughtless and self-important, as many older siblings are. I so caught up in my own life that I didn’t pay enough attention to Molly during those few years when she came into her own. In some ways, these CNF pieces are an attempt, a futile one probably, to capture some of what I missed.
MJ: What are you working on now?
ED: I’m currently working toward my MFA in creative writing at Spalding University in Louisville , KY. As part of my studies, I’m writing a collection of linked short stories. I plan to continue working on Burying Molly as well.