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Nancy Ross-Flanigan: “Memoir is so much more than a faithful recounting of events”

August 31, 2009 by · 10 comments

Interview with Nancy Ross-Flanigan by Cathy Shap Nickola


Halfway through my teens, in the mid-1960s, my father abruptly announced he was moving the family from Oklahoma to a pin-dot of an island in the South Pacific. Strange Territory is a story about learning to feel at home in two alien places at once: the remote U.S. territory to which my family has moved (American Samoa) and the unfamiliar ground of adolescence. As I begin to redefine myself and understand the world differently, with the island’s fragrant lushness providing a sensual backdrop for my passage into womanhood, Samoan society also is experiencing growing pains, attempting to hold onto ancient traditions while embracing 20th century technology and culture. During my stay in Samoa a series of dramatic events — including a hurricane that devastates the island, a schoolmate’s near drowning, the death of my best friend’s father and finally my own diagnosis with cancer — unfolds, forcing me to confront issues of attachment, loss, imperfection and impermanence. That exceptional year, I now realize, was in some ways preparation for the life of uncertainty, tenuous attachments and wrenching losses that lay ahead, lived out in a series of places with their own strange attractions.

I met Nancy Ross-Flanigan over breakfast, during the summer of 2005, while at a Writer’s Conference in Northern Michigan. She was sitting next to a window with a group of other women writers, and I remember thinking that she was striking looking, her long silver hair cut straight across at the bangs, and wearing a black tank top that revealed at least one tattoo on her arm. But when she spoke, she had such a soft voice, a very gentle manner. I believe she was eating oatmeal, or maybe it was yogurt and fruit, taking very small bites, and I remember how she nodded her head slowly to someone’s question, and as she answered, she seemed to be almost counting her words. I also noticed a significant scar on her neck, but didn’t learn until I got to know Nancy better, that she had faced a life-threatening illness as a teenager.

That morning, I was invited to join a writer’s group that Nancy belonged to with three others, and we met regularly in Ann Arbor the rest of that summer and fall. Nancy brought chapters from the memoir she was writing about the year she spent living on the island of Samoa when she was 16, to share with our group, and I was taken by her work from the very beginning. Initially it was simply the lushness of the description, but over the months and then years, I began to see a very powerful story emerging. Nancy is also an award-winning journalist, science writer for the University of Michigan, and freelance writer, nominated for a Pulitzer in 1991. She recently sent me a selection of articles she wrote over the years on health, wellness, and relationships for various magazines, topics to which she does not limit herself, but enjoys, and I found each of them not only entertaining and engaging, but also healing.

Her writing is wise, joyful, and it is reflective of the grace with which Nancy moves through her days. She not only overcame a life-threatening illness, but later in life, suffered the death of her husband, and she has turned these and many other experiences into essays, articles, and stories that instruct, question, hope, and celebrate. I talked with Nancy recently about the many writing hats she wears, her science background and spirituality, and the challenges and joys of writing a memoir. It is said that different species come into the world having been allotted a certain number of heart beats. Writers, I believe, translate “heart beats” to “words,” and the work of some writers challenges this truth, while the work of others respects it. I’d say Nancy belongs to the latter group, her work not bemoaning a sense of limitation, rather confidently asserting that we should not waste what is precious.

In regard to your freelance writing, do you find yourself choosing topics, pitching stories, as a result of things you are going through, say health or relationship challenges, as a step towards healing yourself, and does the writing of the article become therapeutic for you? Or, are you given the topics more often? Furthermore, are health and wellness areas that you have always gravitated toward or does it just so happen that the articles you sent me all fall into this category? Perhaps you also write frequently about other science-related topics?

Sometimes editors assign topics, but often I have opportunities to suggest stories, especially when I have a longstanding relationship with one magazine, as I did with Health and Alternative Medicine. In those instances, my editors have encouraged me to write about things I have experienced, not necessarily as I’m experiencing them, but later, when (presumably) I have some perspective. I guess I have gravitated toward stories on health and wellness partly because of my background and experiences but also because reader interest in those subjects is high, so there’s more demand for those types of stories than for hard-core science.

I do also write about a wide range of science-related topics, though. In my former work as the staff science writer for the Detroit Free Press, in my current work for the University of Michigan News Service, and in my freelance work I have written about ecology, evolutionary biology, molecular/cellular/developmental biology, genetics, neuroscience, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, geological sciences, paleontology, information technology, physics, engineering — pretty much the whole gamut.

Yes, we are told that time and distance offer us perspective over past experiences, but I don’t think time and distance alone suffice in helping us to integrate that new perspective deeply so that we can learn and grow from those experiences. That’s where writing (or reading the writing of someone who is wrestling, or as I prefer to see it, dancing, sometimes awkwardly,with a similar experience) is such a useful tool. You’ve written beautifully about relationships, loss, and integration. Your article, “Relationships,” (Health, June, 2000) was a very “healing” read for me. In my opinion, there is very much a healing quality about your writing. Some writers annoy; some raise questions; some make us laugh. I feel like the work I’ve read by you asks us to calm down, breathe, and take notice. Do you get this feeling either as you work or look back at your writing, and are you especially influenced by either the writing or thinking of a particular writer–who and why?

It’s interesting that you picked up on that quality. The articles you mention were written during a period when my life was all about slowing down, calming down, breathing and taking notice, examining my past and and figuring out how it related to my present and future. The writers who influenced me most during that time actually were other magazine writers. In particular, I admired the honesty and depth of Dorothy Foltz-Gray’s writing (she also was writing for Health magazine when I was). More recently I have been influenced by Jo Ann Beard , Mary Karr , Ann Patchett and Richard McCann , among others.

Can you tell me more about your illness (what you faced as a teenager?) Were you diagnosed while living in American Samoa? Did you find yourself grappling with issues of faith? Do you think your interest in Science and your writing about health issues comes of this life experience?

At age 17, while living in American Samoa, I was diagnosed with a type of oral cancer, which later spread to the lymph nodes in my neck. My family moved back to the States so I could receive treatment. I don’t recall grappling with issues of faith at that time. I think I believed that everything would be all right, but that was due more to my ignorance about the seriousness of the disease than to faith. Although now that I think about it, maybe there was an undercurrent of faith that I wasn’t aware of at the time. Some of my interest in writing about health issues probably came, not so much from my actual experiences with illness, but from my ability to survive repeated bouts of a life-threatening disease.

I always wondered how and why I managed to beat the odds and whether there were things I could do to tip the balance in my favor. But the roots of my interest in science and medicine also are familial — my father and older brother both were physicians. There’s a 14-year age difference between my brother and me, so I was still a kid when he was in pre-med and med school. Even with the age gap, we were close, and I remember my brother showing me how to use a microscope, taking me to his college biology lab and teaching me how to draw the chemical structures of various molecules (which I think he did to keep me quiet while he was studying, but whatever the reason, it stuck somewhere in my brain, because when I later took organic chemistry in college I realized that I already knew how many bonds to assign to particular atoms).

Your writing is very interesting to me, Nancy, in some sense, perhaps, because you are so intriguing as a person. There is about you and your writing this surface of cool science and logical thinking, but there is also an undercurrent of intense spirituality. You seem to live with these two aspects of your personality held in wonderful balance, and I would describe you as a very serene person. It seems to me that finally, after such a historically turbulent relationship, science and spirituality are finding new and profound ways to productively communicate with one another. Can you talk about this at all from your evolving perspective on your own experiences as a student of the sciences and a woman who has experienced both profound loss and profound joy. And I’m also wondering, as a result of your ability to survive repeated bouts of a life-threatening disease, if you did indeed discover something you could do to tip the balance in your favor?

About 20 years ago, I began making a conscious effort to achieve more balance not only between my scientific and spiritual sides, but also between the diligent worker and the what-the-hell hedonist, between the individualistic loner and the person who values connection with friends and family. I’m still working toward that goal and probably always will be, but I believe that whatever progress I’ve made toward it has been a key to my physical health and my ability to experience joy in spite of great loss.

As for the relationship between science and spirituality, I think they’ve been moving closer for some time, though they will always be separate worlds because science is about objectively validating observations, and spirituality deals with things that can’t be objectively validated. To me, though – and maybe this just reveals my ignorance of some fields – certain areas of science seem a bit like religion in that inferences are made about things that can’t be directly observed, and you have to take some assumptions on faith.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing seriously? And when did you decide to write a memoir about your year living in American Samoa?

When I was about 10, several neighbor girls and I reported, wrote and delivered a neighborhood “newspaper” (a mimeographed sheet of articles, jokes and crossword puzzles), and at the height of our early journalistic careers we were interviewed by a real reporter from the local paper. When she asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I said I wanted to write for a newspaper. I think that was the first time I articulated the desire, though I had been writing little stories and poems almost since I learned to print on a school tablet. I’m not sure how to define “writing seriously,” but I began taking my writing seriously when I got a summer internship at the Detroit Free Press, and my first story landed on page 1.

For some time I was content as a journalist, but as I was given more opportunities to write feature stories and personal essays, I became interested in exploring creative writing. When I learned there was such a thing as creative nonfiction, I realized that was exactly what I had been wanting to write.

Even with all my journalistic experience, I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer of creative nonfiction until I attended my first writers’ conference in 2004 (Bear River Writers’ Conference, in northern Michigan), where I had a wonderful, encouraging instructor. As a result of that conference I got involved in a local writers’ group with other Bear River attendees. I started the Samoa memoir just to have an ongoing project to share with the group, and their responses to it spurred me on.

In his introduction to “The Art of Truth: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction,” Bill Roorbach compares creative nonfiction writing to the work of a food stylist who must prepare food to be photographed. He writes: “The food stylist knows what the chef does not–that food for photos, aimed at the palate of the imagination, is not the same as food to be eaten.”

He goes on to write that the stylist is “bringing the truth of those meals to a flat page, trying with every tool at her disposal to fool the eyes and thence the taste buds of tens of thousands of magazine readers and moviegoers into perceiving the delicious truth of an actual meal, when to simply photograph the actual meal would result in a kind of lie, rendering a magnificent creation as a limpish and ugly arrangement of soulless foods.”

What it all boils down to is bringing the writing to life, beyond mere reporting. The writing in your memoir is very poetic, and perhaps you are still in the process of discovering the “delicious truth” of your experiences in American Samoa, but can you talk more specifically about the different pleasure you yourself get in writing creatively (though all writing, I believe, is creative) versus writing as a journalist? Factual writing has its place of course, and I’m branching off here a bit, but with the folding of so many newspapers, and the proliferation of on-line journals, do you think we, as readers and bloated consumers of “news”, are a bit desperate for soulful reporting?

Your analogy to food styling is wonderful. Memoir is so much more than a faithful recounting of events, and the pleasures involved with the two types of writing are indeed somewhat different. In my factual writing about scientific topics, the pleasure comes mainly from synthesizing large amounts of complex information and presenting it in a clear and (I hope) engaging way.

Depending on the assignment and audience for whom I’m writing, I may or may not be able to play with language and express things poetically. In the memoir writing, the goal is for readers to experience the place, sensations and emotions that I experienced, not simply to consume facts. So the joy comes in reliving and trying to recreate in words those experiences and to deliver a deeper message that readers will find meaningful.

I do think readers are hungry for something more soulful and personal, which is why there’s an audience for memoir, personal essays and even first-person reported articles, and some articles on and much of the content of The Sun reflect that trend.

How much “reporting,” or research, did you find yourself doing as you worked on the memoir? Is memoir writing a natural thing for a journalist, do you think? And I’m wondering if you think (because i sort of do though I’ve never thought about writing a memoir) if writing a memoir is less a matter of telling a story, and more a matter of re-living the story as a way of doing some detective work? And what did you dig up about yourself, your family, our country, our culture? That’s a big and leading question, I know.

The obvious similarity is that both deal with fact, but journalists rely on fact-gathering through interviews and research, whereas memoir writers may use those techniques but also rely heavily on memory, which isn’t always as trustworthy. While working on the memoir, I did quite a bit of reporting and research, but not in the traditional journalistic sense — it was mainly reading the diary I kept that year, as well as letters and a few other things I wrote during or shortly after that time; looking at old photo albums and scrapbooks; talking to friends who lived there at the same time; listening to music (both Samoan and American popular) that was important to me that year; even using particular scents to trigger memories. In that phase of the research and writing, I was reliving the story, not so much to get at the facts as to go beyond the facts and try to re-experience the sensations and emotions.

I also did some traditional research, reading what few articles and books I could find about Samoa in the period the memoir covers. This was mainly to confirm that my memories of Samoan culture and history were accurate, but I also hoped to flesh out some details of the politics of the time, as some pivotal moments in my personal coming-of-age story meshed with the growing pains of Samoan society, which was attempting to hold onto ancient traditions while embracing 20th century technology and culture.

I’m not sure I dug up anything about my family or our country that I didn’t already know. I was aware, even as a teenager, that the United States had long neglected the island territory and then, just at the time when we happened to be living there, pumped a lot of money into “modernization” projects such as a modern airport, a luxury hotel and an educational television system. And I had later heard and read that, for various reasons, much of what was built and established in the ’60s ended up being neglected or abandoned.

What I learned about myself was that perhaps I wasn’t quite as shallow and immature as I thought I had been during that time (though I was still plenty shallow and immature) and that I was more deeply affected by that year than probably any other in my lifetime. I’m my current work on the memoir, I’m trying to gain a better understanding of exactly why it affected me so strongly.

We’re becoming much more sensitive to the essential importance, value, of ancient traditions and much more aware of the need for balance between tradition and technology, I hope. While living in American Samoa, which ancient traditions struck you as most odd or incomprehensible at the time, and based on your recent research, do you think American culture had an overall positive or negative impact on the island? And though you’re still in the process of figuring it out, what understanding are you beginning to sense of why your experiences in American Samoa so powerfully affected you?

The kava ceremony is an example of an ancient tradition that struck me as particularly strange and incomprehensible, though I also found it fascinating. The ritualized preparation of the kava by the village virgin (and even the public acknowledgement of her virginity), the long orations in arcane language and the strict rules for the seating of guests and the presentation of kava were unlike anything I had experienced anywhere.

I suppose the closest similarity would be to the ritual of communion during Catholic mass, but being a Baptist who only occasionally went to mass with my Catholic cousins, I probably was just as perplexed by that ceremony. Also, the concept of aiga – responsibility to family – sometimes seemed to be carried to extremes, with families undergoing hardship to provide the requisite number of kegs of corned beef to bereaved relatives, for example. At the same time, I envied the close, extended families that resulted from the system.

I’m not sure I can accurately assess the overall positive or negative impact of American influences, since I’ve been away for so long and have seen things first hand only during one return visit 23 years ago.

But from what I’ve read and heard from friends who still live in Samoa or have relatives there, the end result has been poverty and despair even greater than before the “improvements” were made. At one time, Samoan society was studied as a paragon of stress-free living, but now drug use and suicide are serious problems.

Samoa’s strong effect on me probably was partly the result of experiencing adolescence in such an idyllic, romantic setting. The whole atmosphere of the island was aphrodisiac. But beyond that, it was the first time in my life that I confronted issues of impermanence and imperfection, which continue to be major themes of my life to this day.

Lessons in learning to accept imperfection came not only from the usual teenage crises over hair and body image, but also from seeing the island devastated by a hurricane, from witnessing the frailties of a father whose flaws I had overlooked up to that time and from facing the prospect of being irreparably damaged by my own illness. The experience of impermanence was both in living on an island for a finite period with a group of people to whom I became exceptionally close but feared I would never see again, and in being diagnosed with cancer and having to consider my own evanescence.

How long have you been working on the memoir? Has it brought you back into contact with people you thought you’d lost forever? And what are the biggest challenges, and biggest joys of working on this project?

The memoir has been in the works for five years, but I haven’t actually worked on it all that time. I worked on it slowly for a couple of years and intensely for one 18-month period, during which I finished the first draft. Since then, due to personal circumstances, I haven’t been able to do any concentrated work on it, but I’m still doing a lot of thinking about it and planning what to do next when I am able to focus on it again.

I already was in touch with several of my closest friends from Samoa days, but working on the memoir prompted me to reconnect with others. I’ve found a few through Facebook, and the circle keeps growing.

The biggest joy has been simply reliving in my mind the one period of my life I’d most like to actually relive. The biggest challenge is trying to figure out which parts of my story will resonate with readers and tying all those disparate pieces into a cohesive and compelling narrative. That’s the work that’s still ahead of me.

Nancy Ross-Flanigan has been writing professionally for more than 25 years. During her 13 years as Science Writer for the Detroit Free Press, she also wrote personal essays and features on subjects ranging from espresso etiquette and motorcycling to widowhood. As a freelance writer since 1995, she has written for such publications as Dallas Morning News, Technology Review, Health magazine, Fitness magazine, Alternative Medicine magazine and More magazine. For the past 12 years she also has worked part time as a science writer for the University of Michigan News Service. Her honors and awards include:

– 2007 Society of National Association Publications, Excel Award, third-place Bronze Award for best feature article in magazines over 100,000 circulation (awarded to Arthritis Foundation for her article in Arthritis Today magazine, “Breaking the Rules”)

– 2004 Magazine Association of the Southeast first-place Gold Award for Best Feature (awarded to Arthritis Foundation for her article, “Oh, Swell”)

– 1992 JC Penney-University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Awards, finalist, multicultural journalism division

– 1991 Pulitzer Prize nomination, Detroit Free Press

– 1988 National Headliner Award. Part of Detroit Free Press team that received award for coverage of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crash.

– 1986 National Society of Professional Engineers science writing award, first place in newspapers over 25,000 circulation category


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