The Happiness Quotient

#78 - The Energy of Author & Poet Elisabeth Sharp McKetta: Writing For Your Life

May 03, 2021 Thom Pollard Season 3 Episode 78
The Happiness Quotient
#78 - The Energy of Author & Poet Elisabeth Sharp McKetta: Writing For Your Life
Show Notes Transcript

ELISABETH SHARP MCKETTA is a storyteller and the author of eight books: INCLUDING Fear of the Deep (2016) and Fear of the Beast (2019), both collaborations with artist Troy Passey; the biography Energy: The Life of John J. McKetta, Jr. (2017), a true story of a coal miner–and my grandfather!–who set out to change how America uses energy; and a children’s book titled We Live in Boise (2019).  SHE DID A TEDX TALK CALLED “Edit your life like a poem.” 


projects in the works include the anthology What Doesn’t Kill Her: Women’s Resilience Stories; a manifesto/handbook called Edit Your Life;


SHE HAS Literature degrees from Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Texas at Austin. I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the intersections between memoir and myth, a concept that now informs my teaching and writing (and my entire way of looking at the world.) 


Maybe with all this and life with her husband and two children living in Yorkshire Englad during COVID she will ghost write the memoir I have been lying to the world about,,,,,.well, not really.


Elisabeth’s most recent work, the just released She Never Told Me About the Ocean is described by author Karen Russell as “a tidal and intimate book, brimming over with wonders and terrors and the watery echoes that bind generations of women. What a pleasure this book is from start to finish. McKetta maps the dark portals through which her women continuously reinvent themselves, newborn at every age."


Here is my conversation with the brilliant, and ebullient, super intuitive and creative ELISABETH SHARP MCKETTA from her temporary home where she works virtually, on the coast of England.

MORE ON ELISABETH SHARP McKETTA: https://elisabethsharpmcketta.com/

=========
For more information about Thom Dharma Pollard:
http://eyesopenproductions.com/

For a free downloadable copy of A Course In Happiness:
www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient

Our theme song, Happiness Jones, appears courtesy of The Wood Brothers.

For more information about The Wood Brothers:
https://www.thewoodbros.com/

The Wood Brothers on YouTube:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTvWKQovDZlLceuct1EEMMQ

Happiness Jones video can be seen here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKIoiVWwF5A

For more about Thom Dharma Pollard, about personal coaching or his inspirational presentations, virtual or in person, find him at: 
www.eyesopenproductions.com

To join his mailing list for The Happiness Quotient, email him at [email protected]



Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient)

Thom Pollard:

This is the happiness quotient. We all know what a fable is short story that illustrates a moral lesson. The plot of a fable has conflict resolution followed by a truth about life. Think tortoise and the hare by Aesop, the more advanced form of storytelling generally includes the same elements in a mythic structure. For instance, somebody goes into the woods and comes out wiser about the ways of the world emerging with an elixir, real or symbolic to bring healing and hope. What about memoirs like the one I'm endeavoring to write Finally, and sharing a memoir with readers we share our lessons really the morals of our stories, our experiences the keys, to our versions of happily ever after. Yet, memoir writers often like myself get stuck choosing which stories to include, of all the things that have happened in our lives. That right there is the general description of an advanced memoir writing course at Harvard Extension School, taught by noted author, poet teacher of writing for both Harvard and Oxford, Elizabeth sharp McKenna, who was introduced to me by a fellow explorer Jonathan how Reynolds himself an accomplished author. When I told him about my writer's block, for lack of a better word, he suggested that I meet Elizabeth Elizabeth Sharpe McKenna is my guest today on the happiness quotient, and I'm very excited.

The Wood Brothers:

Well, happy. happy, Happiness Jones

Thom Pollard:

Welcome. Before we get started, please check out a course in happiness. In this short, colorful guide. This easy to follow roadmap provides gentle positive suggestions that for eons have been taught by the Masters on how to stop chasing happiness. In our path toward unlocking the mysteries to life's big questions. Go to patreon.com, the happiness quotient, where you'll find a free pdf download of a course in happiness. I'm Thom Pollard. Elizabeth sharp McKenna is a storyteller and the author of eight books including fear of the deep and fear of the beast, both collaborations with artists Troy passie. She wrote the biography energy the life of john J. McKenna, Jr. in 2017. It's a true story of a coal miner and her grandfather, who set out to change how America uses energy, and a children's book titled we live in Boise. She also did a TEDx talk called edit your life like a poem. One of the projects she has in the works is the anthology, what doesn't kill her women's resilience stories, and also a manifesto handbook called edit your life. She has literature degrees from get this Harvard, Georgetown, University of Texas at Austin, wrote a PhD dissertation on the intersections between memoir and myth. Ha, as in, don't let the truth get in the way of a good story, a concept that now informs her teaching and writing and her entire way of looking at the world. She has two children that are blessed by her incredible creativity and excitement about meeting other people and telling stories. Maybe with all this and life with her husband and two children living on the west coast of England during COVID might give her the wherewithal to ghost write my memoir that I've been lying to the world about, Well, not really. But during this interview, she did give me some respite or some salvation in that sometimes we're not ready to write a story until we're ready to write a story. A lot of the work is going on inside the mind. Her most recent work is the just released, she never told me about the ocean. And it's described by author Karen Russell as a title an intimate book brimming over with wonders and terrors and the watery echoes that bind generations of women. What a pleasure this book is from start to finish McKenna maps The dark portals through which are women continuously reinvent themselves newborn at every age. Here is my conversation with the brilliant, the aboolian super intuitive and creative. Elizabeth sharp mcheza on the west coast of England, where she works virtually and in real life with her children and in writing. Toward the end of our conversation, Elizabeth gave me an assignment to once and for all, get me off my arse toward writing this memoir, in our endeavor to discuss how to write a memoir, how to leave behind a story about our real selves and do it right, or at least creatively, so somebody might want to read it. I first couldn't help but ask her about teaching virtually and all. And if she'd had any pranksters ever zoom bomb, one of her classes, and I wasn't disappointed. It led perfectly into a Convo about legacy.

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Funny, I had, I don't know if I told you this during our last conversation, but I had my first zoom bombing experience two weeks ago during this sweet, tiny 11 person reading that I did with my close family and friends for my novel is sort of a an intimate launch party slash practice. And one of him posted the link on Facebook. And there was this list of unknown names in the waiting room that without knowing about zoom omics, I just sort of let them all in. And when within the first minute there was one whose name was an unrecognizable name and saying, you know, all of these, all of these sort of expletive, expletive, so I just removed him from the room. But then a second later, another one, turned on his camera and had a gun and was sort of pointing it at everyone so that I removed him from the room. But afterwards, everyone in the room was sort of a little stunned. And then we sort of had a laugh, and we got back to it. But afterwards, I had a conversation with you know, with the few people who stay later and we sort of thought, well, let's talk about what the zoom over gets out of this. Like, what is the zoom over get out of this? And we couldn't figure it out?

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, the need to feel some impact, you know, isn't that ultimately, the people doing things for shock is we just become little molecules in this vast sea of, of being insignificant, which is fine for some people who are balanced. That's cool, being just as happy not to be noticed, somewhere, but then there are other people who are like, darn it, I'm something and I want to be heard and seen. So I'm going to go screw up this meeting, boom, you know, and that's a mini scale, not like the, you know, the, you know, the guy went after john lennon and things like that, right?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

I think you're right. I love that point. And one of the early I love that point for so many reasons. Both for this parenting book that I feel like I subscribe to most when my babies were tiny was called positive discipline. And there were like, 17 of them, like positive discipline for teenagers positive discipline for teenage musicians, positive discipline for you know, anyone who can possibly imagine. But the sort of basic premise is, all humans want two things, they want significance, and they want belonging. So we can sort of feel, you know, sort of in the tribe in an unconditional way. And if we can give them chores that are right, you know, like, if the three year old fails to milk, the cow, the child, the family doesn't have milk for a year. Like, that's, that's significance, like they have, you know, kids sort of don't have anything that they actually do that helps. I mean, Well, anyway, that's, it's interesting that I think you're right, that in a very base level, we want to know that sort of the ripples that we create touch other people, whether for good or for ill.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, like, how long are people going to remember us after we die? I mean, you could write a book, which is one way but like, how do how do you ensure some legacy? You know, and having kids is one way But as you know, some people are like, well, you, yeah, okay. So you have kids now you can relax. It's like, what's the importance of carrying on a name?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Yes. What is the importance? Like? I mean, most of us will be forgotten. And even those who are remembered Shakespeare, like think how little we know about him. Look, that really, that I feel has been like haunting me this week, more than other weeks. But I read it when I was trying to figure out how to revise my my OSHA novel, which after the first draft was just like this big pile of beautiful bones that was sort of all in the wrong order. So I read all these books on you know, probably more from your realm, you know, screenwriting and plotting and how a narrative that is economical and kind of tells the story, and I read all the bass you know, the, Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell, you saw all the kind of big plot books many recommended by Jonathan, and then I read one that was sort of a lesser known in that canon called the verse Jin's promise called by Kim Hudson, I don't know if I mentioned this last time, but this book left such an impression on me. And one of the things that it talked about that relates to this idea of legacy is that in feminine mythologies, they're sort of in any mythologies, they're, you know, three life stages. There's the, we're young, when we're kind of in the middle of our life when we're older, and then the author divides, looks at the younger stage as the virgin stage, that it's our time, you know, in to figure out what, what we're made of what, what, what we love what we need, and to feel that, that if we kind of shine light on that once of light imagery, and share that with the world that we're sort of being true to our virgin selves. If we sell ourselves to someone else's vision of us we sort of archetype we've become, you know, we've we've poured out sort of what's sacred to us. And in the middle stage, the kind of mother we tend to kind of sprouts in our immediate circle of control, like whether it's children, or whether it's brain children, or whether it's a business or whatever. But the things that kind of require our energy to grow, our job is to kind of nurture those so virgin nurtures herself mother nurture sort of these young without burning yourself out. And then the stage that's most interesting to me is the third stage, which is, which the author describes is the, the wise woman or the Crone who's a trickster, she's pure trickster. And her job is to you know, she's nurtured herself, she's nurtured her young of any form. And then our job is to nurture the world that she's about to leave. And so she's got to kind of look at it with a smile, recognize that it's flawed, and then throw obstacles into the path of the people who are still shaping it, so that if they're on the wrong path, they will shake their lives up and find the right paths. And then she can exit the world feeling that she's kind of improved the world. But according to Kip Hudson, if she clings to her mortality to her mortality too much, and disrupts people's paths for her own gain, not for others, then she becomes the hag who's Right, right. So the the kind of the Crone of a mentor, basically, just their only legacy is to sort of leave the world better than they found it without being without caring if they're remembered or not.

Thom Pollard:

Oh, man, that is so good. I love that, because that's the truth of when, when individuals in their pursuit or in their, in their path toward wisdom or self, you know, some kind of realization, as they encounter obstacles or turns or, or unpleasant things, death or tragedy, those people have this opportunity and presented in those obstacles thrown by the woman by the Crone, if you will, and they can either curse it. And you know, curse cancer, I'm not saying cancer is a good thing, but, or they can embrace it and say this has, this has forced me to look at come outside of this sphere in which I live, and look in this way, which is a whole new perspective. So in that I have great thanks and respect for that, so that that's life, man. That's what that's so cool. That that will we'll put a reading list together for this interview. And you can suggest like 10 books, Oh, what fun, and

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

I want to hear your books, too. I had so many notes. Last time we talked.

Thom Pollard:

You are a storyteller. And you you tell stories, as a as an artist, as a poet, as a as an author, and you inspire individuals to write and you've got books, and you just discussed a little bit about I believe she never told me about the ocean? Is that the book you were telling me about? Tell me about your journey. Without going into the minutiae that might, I would take gladly take days to have this conversation. But what's your journey? How does Elizabeth get to this place of teaching people of being in this wonderful opportunity in position to share her knowledge and inspire others to do you know, to tell their story?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

I thank you for that question. And I feel that that really is the kind of only real question that we asked each other throughout life, I remember having a funny conversation with my with one of my friends in college, because whenever I would meet a new friend, I would come away knowing, you know, their hopes and their dreams, and you know, where they had come from and where they wished to end of their life, you know, like nine to 15 years from then. I guess we were 20. So let's say you know, 70 years. Yeah, that's not the practicalities of like, Oh, right. What do they do for their job? Wait, where do they live? Wait, are they you know, these sort of details didn't sort of factor into the conversation because they weren't the kind of big picture the journey I was just seems like the main question and, and I do think that even at a pretty young age that felt that felt like the only interesting question which made me a wreck at small talk in my teens and 20s. As you can imagine, But always, you know, in the corner of a party like hearing about somebody's life story, but um, but it's true, I had some of these experiences when I was really, really young when I was. Well, I mean, I was raised around books and I was raised, you know, to sort of be intellectually curious by parents who are but when I was in college, I had two teachers who just shifted my paradigms completely and who I feel like I owe so much to, and one was in fairy tales, and one was in memoir, and the fairy tale teacher is still living. Her name is Maria sitar. And I just adore her. She's a giant in the fairytale field. And she's also just very gentle and very maternal. And she took in this group of 1018 year olds, we actually just had a reunion of the 10 of us with Maria datar, about a month ago, and it was just so wonderful to see all of our sweet faces 20 years older, but she just took us all in and, and taught us the classic fairy tales and urged us to pick a question that was interesting to us, intellectually and personally and to write our papers on it. And so I is the oldest of four siblings chose the topic of birth order, because I think it's so terribly unfair that it all the fairytales the youngest usually has this lovely fate and the oldest is like boiled in red hot shoes or house for I picked out by birds or has to, you know, be thrown into the lake and throttle by the wild man or whatever happens to be. So I was curious about this question of, you know, ferry tells us equalizers. Historically, because the firstborns had some of the advantages, and the youngest didn't, and also the youngest had to watch the first you had to watch the first and second born, figure out the obvious paths, and then the youngest had to become tricky and figure out their own. So anyway, I just loved this idea. I feel like my takeaway from learning with Muta tars that fairy tales are both the the mirrors in which we can see our lifes from many different angles, and also that they are ultimately the building blocks for all stories. And neither of those ideas sort of came to maturity for me for maybe 20 more years, although I'm still they're still sort of maturing and I'm still using them. But pretty much every book I've written except for to have fairytales at their core, I always come back to fairy tales. Even my biography of my grandfather, who was a coal miner turned chemical engineer was ultimately just jack in the beanstalk with his life details kind of stuffed in an excellent research assistant who filled in all the science that I didn't understand. But um, they're all they're all fairy tales, and, and the other teacher I had when I was 19, was named hope Hale Davis, she's no longer alive. She is the mother of Lydia Davis, who is a wonderful writer and whose stories often teach my students and hope was 95, when she was teaching at Radcliffe seminars, this course called journal writing, weaving an autobiography. And I had just applied my sophomore year of college for every single creative writing workshop that Harvard offered. And I've been rejected by all of them. My sweet close roommate, who's still one of my best friends who was on a pre med track, but who worked at who worked at Radcliffe, doing sort of receptionist stuff, brought home a catalog and said, Liz, you might apply for for one of these, because she knew how discouraged I had felt. And so I applied for this community education class, not knowing anything about it. And I showed up on the first day, bringing my clutching my little journal ready to start writing. And I thought I had come to the wrong class, because I stood there at age 19, and was surrounded by a group of women, maybe 18, women who were all the youngest was probably 60. And then they ranged up to the teacher who was 95. And I sort of looked around to see if I was in the right room. And they kind of looked at me to see if I was in the right room. And once we all ascertain that I was in the right room, this group of Cambridge ladies who, you know, these women who've been writing their memoirs, together for years, just brought me into the fold and was loving and generous and honest way and for four years until the teacher died at age 101. I wrote with them and I wrote with them every Tuesday. And I stayed in Cambridge after college to write with them another year after I graduated, I did not follow a career path, because I just wanted to keep writing with them for as long as I could. And they, I felt like I was just initiated into these stories that even though they were however many years older than I was, you know, talking about life stages, you know, I was still in the first sort of my life, they were in the, they were in the third. But really, so many of our, the, the beats of our stories were the same things that really sort of helped me understand that there are really only three stories in life, there's the birth, there's love, there's death, and they happen again, and again. And again. And again, in every single form. You know, COVID was a death for many people's jobs. And you know, literally, for many people, it was the death of many people's life in a certain house or certain country or in a certain with a certain carefree nature. And then there rebirths from that. So it was just an incredible experience to write with these women and just to, to have them trust me with their with the stories of their lives. And for me as a 1920 2122 year old to have my first book that I wrote when I was 20 was a memoir, and that looking back on it, there's something both sort of sweet and also a little silly about that. I felt like every life is worth writing about. And so I think that I've spent my life since then really knitting together, these two genres of how can we tell fairy tales and how Can we tell life stories? And how can those two forms? Become? How can those two be knit together to tell the stories that that we need to tell about our lives? And I ended up doing a PhD dissertation on that question about and sort of coming to the scholarly conclusion that, that in certain in certain life stories that we need to tell that are most vital to tell we can't tell them as someone who's still alive and doesn't know the ending, unless we borrow from the fairy tales, unless we both use the fairy tales to help structure jack in the beanstalk. You know, this is a story of a boy who climbed or this is a story of someone who overcame a monster. But also I think we some we can sort of hide sort of veils behind some of those fairytale motifs that if we're telling, you know, retelling a familiar story that is sort of comforting and sort of democratically familiar, I just think that there are certain stories that we're able to tell about our lives that we maybe otherwise wouldn't have the courage or the willingness to tell. So that idea, both structurally and in terms of the the universality of one individual life and all the individual lives has been so important to me in all of my teaching, and all of my writing and, and in the way that I parent that you know, my children are at age six and 10 are steeped in blue beard. And, you know, Molly would be in the bloodier the better. And that also, I think, that they, you know, they they tell a lot of stories. I mean, I remember the first story my daughter told was really, like a family landmark she and her friend were, my husband had stuffed them both into the stroller, and they were riding and one person or one child stroller, two of them, and my daughter was in front and she fell off the stroller and scraped her nose. And she couldn't really speak yet, but she was able to say, you know, something to the effect of, you know, Calvin, me stroller, my fall off bump nose cry. And that was it. Like that was all that she needed to talk to us about what that was a story that happened to her something had happened to her that she that I was not there to witness. So she needed to tell me. So anyway, I just think those things are so important. And in terms of the teaching, I always kind of, I mean, I come from a long line of, of teachers. My grandfather was a chemical and engineering future. My mom also teaches at Harvard, she's a journalism teacher. Her students adore her. My dad taught math before he went to law school. I've just been kind of, I've just come from from teachers and a lot of ways. And writing I think sort of came even though my mom was a writing teacher, and my grandfather wrote encyclopedias, I feel like I felt something I think I did come like lawyers write a lot, my dad's lawyer. So I think I came from both writers and teachers, but I think I sort of chose writing in a very devotional way, in terms of like poetry fiction, fairy tales, like I want to tell stories that are arguably kind of frivolous stories. But that really hit it that question that you asked, like, I want to tell stories about the journeys humans make to become themselves. Like, that's the only story that I want to tell through poetry through prose doesn't matter. Like that's through biography, like, that's the story. And so I sort of stumbled upon that really early felt that that was my calling, and then just tried every possible way I could to come out that in my first, you know, your, my early efforts were all just to, to write as much as I could. And then I felt like I needed to learn more, because I kept bumping against the same hurdles of discipline plot and just not knowing things. So that's why I got a PhD As I thought, like, at least will spend my 20s dealing with ideas and reading more, and that will make me a better writer. And, and that would also give me the ability to become a teacher, which I knew would be a wish I knew I would love. So I sort of spent my 20s incubating, you know, writing and teaching. And then basically the moment I graduated with a PhD, and I was I got married and got pregnant and, and sort of decided, Well, goodbye to, you know, to sort of traditional jobs, why don't we see how this writing thing goes out. So for me, my 30s were completely my 20s were all learning and my 30s were really marked with these two things that felt like I had to do them, like I had never wanted to be as good at anything as I wanted to be as you know, as a writer, and as a mother, like those two just felt like I had to those two are so important. And they came at the exact same time, which was utter chaos is you know, as every parent knows, who also you need, even with nothing else, even without the writing, you know, the first year parenting was utter chaos. But I think that I've never really been able to kind of disentangle my life as a, as a professional writer who sits down and wakes up at 5am and finishes books and revises books and does the research that is needed to produce books and, you know, gets rejected 90% of the time, but that other 10% you know, follows through with the book, I've never known that without also knowing it as a as a mother and as a teacher. So I feel like this sort of triangle of my days is really kind of what sustains me and I sort of think sometimes that I've been really lucky in that I've had you know, I've had just such supportive people in sort of each of those arenas. I've got wonderful students and wonderful writer pack and you know, this wonderful family. And also I think that I've It's lucky to have kind of three lives instead of one because I can imagine with kind of my energy and my intensity, how easy it might be to kind of burnout in one but um, But I feel like I can't ever kind of stretch to the full extent of energy as I might be able to like I can't ever I can't remember the last time I wrote until I was tired of writing. So I had to switch gears to teach, or I can't remember a time when I've ever been kind of burned out of teaching because I had to then shift gears to parent and you know, same thing, like the moment I feel like, Alright, people, I need some time away from, you know, from, I need some sort of time I need some adult time, then it's time to write again. So really, that triangle is then lovely. And I hope I can sustain it for as long as I can.

Thom Pollard:

Wow, that is such a very cool and inspiring kind of summary of what got you to today, I guess. And there's so much more in there, obviously. But so you had this real intellectual inquisitiveness and everything but you were creative, like your grandfather, you said was a chemical engineer, or, you know, a chemist and I have seen that there's a school named after him at the University of Texas, which is pretty amazing. That's leaving a legacy, which we were talking about before. But um, but so you have this intellectual heritage, and you're, you're sparked with the intellectual desire, but you're, for better or for worse, you're you have the creative thing where you, you could have been an engineer and been making $150,000, a year, two years out of graduation. But yeah, I had to be a writer, and a teacher, all my gosh, like, every parent would just be like, what do you not like, you're gonna be an actor. I mean, but you did. But it's because that's the passion and the truth of your heart. And you couldn't ever be anything but who you were, or are I mean, right?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

That's right. That's right. And that's, I think that's really it. That's what I think, you know, has been so exciting for me to study to study your work and to sort of, you know, look at your talk about, you know, your talk to young people about, you know, the things that our parents worry about, as we follow a typical careers that at the end of the day, we had to do that we had to do that. And through one of my books of reading about, you know, archetypes and myths and heroes and all of that. And I've been trying to find this quote for ages, and it's probably on, you know, the one page I keep skipping over, but it's, it's burgers, writers journey, in the quotes is something to be effective, we tend to think that all heroes are bound by something like courage or something like being unafraid. But that's not true. The single quality that that binds all heroes together is sacrifice. And I think that that's, I think that's so moving that I think by the time we're all adults, we've all sacrificed something. And I think that, you know, arguably, the thing that we love the most is the thing that we're willing to sacrifice other things for, whether that's security of a certain financial sword, or whether that's, you know, being charming after 9pm in terms of we the 5am writers, like there's something that has to be sacrificed to kind of love on that thing properly.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah. Or Good job. You know, like, you know, like, I just did a presentation on online virtual presentation the other night, and I base my talk loosely around the hero's journey, if you will, like the, you know, Joseph Campbell, and, you know, people who aren't familiar with it, it's not the hero. It's a hero's journey, meaning in one's own life, and how you identify with yourself and follow your path. And, and so for me, early on, I was so possessed with this desire to go to higher, more wild places and taste without dying, but taste death and witness it and see what that was like on a mountain, if you will, literally and figuratively, you know, I gave up pretty some good jobs and relationships that fell by the wayside. And I just didn't know how not to do it. It, didn't it. I guess, you know, you said the word. Courage I don't look at as courage. I was like, there's no other way. I would actually think I've seen so many people cave and give up their desire to be a screenwriter or to be a designer and just say, you know what, I'm going to go I'd rather have a nice house. And, you know, and and that's cool. I'm, I would too, you know, but um, and give that up and veer off to take the corporate job. That's fine. I'm not judging it, but I couldn't do that. I have a lot of friends who are they could be fully retired right now. They don't because they're creative in their own way of working but I wouldn't trade in a million years what I've gone through and all the struggle for their second home, you know, on Nantucket or whatever, as much as I dearly love them as friends. But so, so yeah, we pursue who we are and, and I can only imagine that your two children while your husband sounds like he's doing the same thing training for the, you know to swim the English Channel crazy man, I love that that's why I'm drawn to people like you're not so I don't even want to go in the ocean past my knees. It could be a shark in there you know. So anyway courage I guess it is right?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Well, I love Oh, this is this this conversation just like, Oh, this just gets me in the heart and I really it is courage and something that you say really resonates with me that I'd be so curious if you would, that I'd love to hear you talk more about you were talking about sort of pursuing these wild places. And there's this Hemingway quote that I love, that's possibly something along the lines of there not a whole lot of, there's not a whole lot of wild, like, there used to be there not a whole lot of wild places, like the ones that I love. And I feel like on a metaphorical level, I feel like the writer who goes into brave places is often sort of at the edge of some wild and has to go there. But again, there's a safety in that, you know, like, my, my book is not wanting to eat me. But I'm really like, I'm married to someone who goes into the wild ocean, you know, he's gonna swim the channel these days and days, you know, every day into this cold water and comes out with a jellyfish bite, or, you know, having been nudged by seal and, and right now I'm living in in Cornwall, which is the sort of place that's wilder than any place I've really ever been, although, before that I lived in Idaho, which was also sort of at the edge of the wild, but I'm just so curious, to just hear more about like, what do you make of that relationship between the human in the wild, like the natural, elemental wild that you go into with mountains? Like that's, you know, that's true climbing in the wild? Like, what is it that the wild does to our soul? Like, why do we need that?

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, you know, it's, it's interesting, because, back in the beginning, it came from a place of rejecting the common place. And what was out there for me to do that was uncommon. I was I was, I had yet to identify it. So there were, there was a time where I thought it would be really cool. And I still have this essence of believing that being a war correspondent, for instance, really was appealing to me because it was so on the edge, but you didn't have to pick up a gun and shoot someone. But you were filming next to a guy with a gun who you as well could be shot and killed. And so I fell in love with the, with the idea of this and I was really drawn to this Australian filmmaker named Neil Davis who filmed the fall of Saigon and through throughout, you know, via the Vietnam War, and ultimately, literally filmed his own death. Not before he rolled take camera he didn't know. It was it was a coup in in Bangkok, Thailand. And he had the camera rolling and a bomb went off during the coup and he his camera just go through. And his sound man drags him away through the shot. And I just thought, Wow, man, like there's a guy who's put himself into the, into the mouth of the lion and was consumed by it. And I was drawn to something like that. So and I just started, I started mountain climbing. I started ice climbing, and that was it. I was like, ah, I got it. Okay, here we go. This is this is cool. I'll do that. And I love to the people in it. And, and I thought at the time, innocently, not that there aren't beautiful Brotherhood's and, and sibling hoods and sisterhoods. within it. I thought that the mountaineering community was immune to bickering or backbiting or, or you know, but it's, it's just like any other community, it just is, they'll screw you over just like any, like, you know what I mean? So you find your relationships and, and ultimately, coming out the back end of it all like, is, it's all about relationships. That's what I was drawn to. I just wanted intense relationships that made me feel like I could, like relate with someone with just look. Just I that's it. It was just I wanted to be connected to something and I had to reject the common place. And it's like, the people that I've been on these adventures with are like, soulmates to me in a way and not that you it's just like, people go to war, right? You know, you could never know what it's like to raid Omaha Beach on D day unless you did it. Right. So that was a that was a little bit of a tangent, but that's what came out of my mouth. Oh,

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

amazing. Well, that really Oh, that's an amazing tangent. And I love what you say about The need to connect with someone else without words, I agree with you, I think that's what every single thing comes back to whenever I do this sort of mathematical like, let's reduce this. So the common denominator, like why do I write? Why do I teach? Why is parenting so important to me? Why would I want to marry this person? Like, why are relationships like it's connection, like, one level down from anything is connection, like, in some form. And I think that one of the things that seems so appealing about the world that you live in, especially to me, who is someone who sort of whose entire all of my connection points involved words, is this idea of the wordless connecting and, and I'm and my husband, again, who's sort of much more of your ilk in terms of like, let's go to the wild, let's just, you know, sleep under a tree by myself next to a bear, I know how to not get eaten by the bear, which is not something I trust myself to be able to know. One of the things that he has observed that I've really sort of thought a lot about as a woman who traffics in words, is that he has observed that with that, the way that that he has felt vulnerable enough to build a relationship with other men, is through doing kind of courageous physical things together and trusting each other wordlessly, you know, like, he has a swim buddy for the channel, and they swim together and presumably don't talk during this one, but they keep each other safe, somehow, you know, they're each other, they've got each other's back, and they really trust each other. And that when he sort of really knows, or gets, you know, grows in relation with another man, it's through vulnerability, and it has to be through some shared physical experience that puts them both at some form of risk. And for me, someone who's not that keen on physical risk, and who feels like, Well, me, maybe I can raise my shoulder to never take risks, which is obviously not the right answer, like emotional risk is, you know, I'm all for it. But um, but that physical risk, and it's funny, actually, it's my son is quite, is a little more in my husband's elk. Like, he wants to sort of climb the tree, and he wants to sort of get a little roughed up, where's my daughter, is very careful and calculated about that, but will always, you know, that is very artistic. So I see her sort of going more my way a little bit. But I don't know, I think that's so interesting, because I think that, for me, vulnerability comes with conversations, like I feel very connected to you through this conversation, and we'll go on in the future feeling like Thomas, my friend, you know, because we've shared this. But it's an interesting, it's a very different kind of wordless connection to be on a mountain with someone or to be in the cold water with someone when you see the biggest seal. And I think there's something about that, that really, that really appeals. That's really the kind of connection that you can't know, unless you do what, what you do.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, and, you know, we all as talking about the parenting thing, you know, a parent, some parents literally tried to make it so their child never gets hurt, physically, emotionally. And I remember being a new dad and being of the mind that, like, if my son wants to try walking along that stone wall, I'll be close, but I'm gonna let him try it, gosh, darn it, and if he wipes out, he wipes out I mean, you know, not, there's a, there's a there's a limit, I suppose to that, but and, and so, I would like to presume at least that my 23 year old and 19 year old sons have some self confidence in who they are as, as individuals from that very basic beginning, like, Hey, Dad, doesn't need to hold my hand when I do this. And, you know, and then of course, you see them have their heart broken for the first time. And it's like, oh, you know, you just want to, like, put them back into the womb, and, you know, hold them and net, but but on the other hand, one of the most beautiful, painful experiences is having your heart broken, and you can't be the woman teaching that class who lived to 101 about writing your life story unless you have your

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

heart broken. Many times. Right, right. outlook for husbands. That's a lot of heartbreaks. It's the human can its birth love and death. It's you know, you're right that in each life journey, like it's shaped and marks and calloused and charted by, by what we love and what we lose.

Thom Pollard:

You teach that I'm going to try to write Somehow, I don't know how to do it, an introduction to this interview that will just in some way, share the essence of who you are and what you've done. But it's not accomplishments that you want to share with the world. As a teacher, as a professor, you help people tell stories, ultimately. So could you just share with me ever so briefly, what you do, and for whom, and with I know, you teach a lot of classes, but we, we talked about the fairytale one, if you will. So we you know, so tell me a little bit about that.

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Yes. So I teach writing for both Harvard's Extension School and Oxford's Department of Community Education. And within that I teach all sorts of writing. But most of my focus is on it Oxford is on memoir and poetry. And at Harvard, I've got a new class this year called mythic memoir. And I've also got one on Novel Writing. They're wonderful courses. And they're incredible students. And I actually had a Eureka today, which is, which is funny that had happened right before you and I spoke. But I was thinking about this, this novel that is right here. And it's so new, and I'm, it's on my desk, and it's so new. And she never told me about the ocean. One of the one of the earlier titles that didn't make the cut was fairy women. Because in it, there's a character who's who's Karen, the, you know, the the fair, the Greek ferryman of souls across the river sticks that in my book of fairy woman. And then there are three other characters whose voices are woven together. And one of them is a midwife. And in the motif of the midwife sort of, pervades the whole book, because she's ferrying you know, babies into life care on is ferrying souls out of life. And really, the whole book is about water, and about how women in connect to how humans Connect, although my book is about women, through ferrying each other, and being ferried through these different life stages, through water, you know, whatever, whatever you want to call the water, whatever metaphor you want to use, it's really about women fearing each other being married. And, and, and that is, in some ways, the true title, although I think it would have been confusing in some ways. But I had this sort of beautiful Eureka earlier today, after I had this wonderful, which goes back to what you and I were talking about, with, with connecting being the underpinnings of why we are alive and what all of this is about, I had this wonderful walk with one of my friends here, along these cliffs in Cornwall, and she was telling me these very intimate details about her life, and I was sharing experiences from my own life. And we were kind of advising each other in the way that friends do without overtly giving advice by saying like, one time someone told me this, or I had this idea, or, you know, there's this TED talk, and I had this moment when I came home, I thought, what I want to be when I grow up is a fairy woman, I want to help fairy people to who they need to be next. And that felt like suddenly the common denominator that that's my job right now as a mother, that I meet my children where they are, and I don't do the labor for you. I'm not I can't do the labor for them. But I get to watch and wait and kind of catch them and help build them up to become as big and brave and self trusting as they need to be to do their own work until they become who they need to be. And, and that will happen many times and you know, same with my students that my job as a teacher is to meet them where they are and to do my best to, to, to see them as they are and to help them see them as they are to help see what is what they're trying to do and what is beautiful about it and what you know what leaps they need to summon the courage to take and, and kind of spot them a little bit, knowing I can't catch them, but that I can kind of be there to try as they take those leaps. And so I think that's that was anyway, that was such a wonderful revelation earlier today that Oh, the title of the book, which I you know, it's always a little sad saying goodbye to a title that you don't use because I will not write another book called fairy woman. But I realized while I get my seven years that I get to be the very woman Wow.

Thom Pollard:

That's that's really, really cool. And you're walking along the cliffs looking out at the ocean. While this is this epiphany if you will, well, not an epiphany but the revelation at least. And

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

there's an epiphany Yeah,

Thom Pollard:

brought out through having these intense conversations with people that we feel safe with to share our innermost truths which the world is brought up. In, you know, no fault of an individual, but people feel so much shame and fear of sharing the truth of who they really are, because they think they're going to be rejected. So as a professor as a, as somebody who's teaching people to write, you are ferrying them at least in the in the context of a course. Because when you inspire people to write isn't writing really the it's the it's like painting, I suppose. But it's the truest form of liberation in a way because they're expressing themselves whether fiction or nonfiction it gets it doesn't even matter. Does it? matters at all.

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

I don't think it matters. And I think that's exactly right. That it is it is a form like it and and it's the form I happen to know. But my guess is that that most forms, whether it's music or acting, or that you know that any form of self expression is, is ultimately doing the same thing. But yeah, that in writing, even if they're writing something that is pure fiction, as you know, my book certainly is and as a lot of things are, I think that we have to pour some of what we know about being human and some of the sensibilities of our journey, even if not the particulars of our journey into it. There's a quote, I think it's Wallace Stegner that's in one of his guides on writing, that was talking about the idea of students being told to write what they know. And the question of whether all writing is ultimately autobiographical. And of course, the answer is no, you know, I've never swum to the underworld with an infant on my back to rescue my ghost as one of my characters does. And I, if I knew there was an underworld, I still probably would not do that, you know, I'm not brave in that way. But, but, but his quote was that we will always write the pros, you will have who we are, that are sensible, who we are, will always inform the way we write and this quote, this direct quote was a murderer will write a murderers prose. And I love the fact that we can't escape, writing the prose of you know, that you will always write the prose of someone who's no mountains, whatever you write, even if you write, you know, a craft guide, a children's book, a play about, you know, two old friends hanging out in the pub, like you will write the pros of having climbed mountains and known them intimately. And I think that I will always write the pros and the poems of the things that I have known intimately. And I think that's part of my work as a teacher is to help my students kind of understand and see and claim what it is that they know intimately and trust that that is legitimate, and that that can be the center of the stories that they tell. And they're not starting from scratch.

Thom Pollard:

Wow, yeah. That's it just to claim what is rightfully yours, or the truth in the, in the, the uniqueness of, of your own self, that's really quite beautiful.

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

I think that's it, though, I think that's really what we all kind of move toward, in life in some form. And I think that's ultimately what we seek from our teachers is some understanding or validation of that. And I think that's probably the most useful advice we can offer those younger than us, I'm at the age where I've sort of, I still seek advice from everyone I meet, because I feel like everyone is a teacher. And also, I recognize that I'm at an age where I need to accept my mastery of some things. And except that I'm a teacher myself. I have research assistants and I, it took me a while to learn how to kind of lead them appropriately and I'm learning, but ultimately, the, you know, the question of how do we pass on wisdom comes up. And I think that that's ultimately what we do that, you know, advice is really a very little use in most cases, but that if we can sort of help people see, I mean, really, that's we're all tricksters in that way. We all have to kind of hold a mirror to, to those who look up to us and see and let them see themselves more accurately, and maybe throw a few stones into their path so that they'll have to readjust to the right path, I think,

Thom Pollard:

right, right. Okay, so in our closing minutes, and we can continue this conversation for the rest of my life that I know you, and I want to. But short term, I'm going to do a little mini course with you, I guess you're gonna kind of Oh, I've been saying for years, I'm writing a book. And I will just shut up now about it. Because I'm not really any closer, I have hundreds of more pages. But the it's an amoeba, it's just drifting outwardly. You were going to do a little, you're going to kind of point help me, you're going to be the wall I bounce off of to get me back down the center of the hallway, in essence. And so what's my first assignment? What What am I? What do I need to do?

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Yes, the first assignment. And I also think that there's a lot to be said about how long it takes to conceive of the idea of a book, I often feel that, that I'll tell my writers that it's okay to think slowly. And write fast and revise slowly. Because I think we sometimes think that if, you know, if we write too quickly, it's not any good. But think slowly, revise slowly, then the writing can be as fast as it needs to be. When I was writing my grandmother's biography, I had a writing mentor who I met one day in May, who asked what I was working on, I said, I'm trying to figure out how to write this biography of my grandfather. And then a year later, I saw him again, and he said, so what are you writing? And I said, I'm trying to figure out how to write this biography. It's like, so you've not progressed at all have you? But it took a few years to get the same answer. So. So I think that every bit of thinking and circling you've done about this project, I would say that that is writing, you've been thinking about it, you've been sort of just stating it. And so what I would say first, your first assignment, the first three here, your first three assignments, and then we'll and then we'll talk shop about what comes from it. So the first assignment is, is we're gonna we're gonna have you write a mythic memoir. And all that means is just taking a story from your life, and using myths and fairy tales to help structure it and also to, if you wish, use their kind of themes and motifs and images to To make it a story that, that that touches a lot of people because they recognize, you know, those are democratic stories, they, they, we all kind of claim them so they can help make an individual life story sort of touch more people a little bigger. So your first assignment is to think of an era from your life where something changed, that is a distinct beginning and a distinct end. So it could be the moment you realize you wanted to climb mountains, to the top of your first mountain, or it could be when you came down from your first mountain and thought, and had to decide if you wanted to climb another one, but some era where some value in your life or some certainty was in question to change, and just write a short paragraph summary of the era of your life that you think you want to focus on. So that's assignment one. And assignment two is to alongside that, write a short one paragraph synopsis of a myth or a fairy tale that you think might offer some guidance or illumination to this era. And I would just first thought that thought, see what calls to you It could have something to do with mountains and snow, it could be just a story, you remember really appreciating at some point in your life, or it could be something that sort of you come upon, but so have those two stories. So that's assignment, that's assignment one and two. And then from there, what I would like you to do is write with how we can do this. Okay, I think that the next one will be to write the beginning of that story. And the end of that story, just about one page, short, a paragraph, two paragraphs, one page, or as much as you want to write on where the story begins and emphasize as much as you can. What what I think of is shimmering images from the book by Lisa Dale Norton, just moments of sensory moments that you remember. So beginning with sensory images, your launch, and then write your landing with sensory images. And then if you have it in you write a moment about what you think the turning point is the scene where that sort of twists us from where we're going to where we land. It's a start with the skeleton of the two summaries, and that kind of triangle of beginning climax and end and then send those to me, and then we'll go from there to finish the first draft.

Thom Pollard:

That sounds awesome. I'm all in and you have a heart. Stop right now. And you've gone a minute over. So I'm gonna. You're amazing.

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta:

Thank you. You are amazing. This has been such a pleasure. And I just feel we could, we could talk for hours and I hope that we continue to so thank you so much.

Thom Pollard:

Well, I probably could have talked a lot longer. She is absolutely fascinating. But Professor sharp Makita has given me an assignment and I need to get to work. No more excuses. I will report back soon on my progress. And believe me, I do not want my first class at Harvard or Oxford to come in anything less than an 'A' so there you have it.

The Wood Brothers:

But, to know how i

Thom Pollard:

For more informati n about Elizabeth Sharpe McKenna or to sign up for her newsletter called poetry for strangers, ple se visit Elizabeth Shar e mckenna.com. She is a frequ nt public speaker on topics rela ed to focusing or distilling a p rsonal organizational purpose building group credo al forms of writing including pers nal business professional p etry, publishing editing applic tions, on lifestyle arch tectures, specially in t rms of putting the essential nd or creative things at the enter. Thank you to the Woods Brothers and their management for the use of their song happiness Jones for our theme song here on the HQ, publicist Kevin Calabro for helping make it all happen. If you'd like a free downloadable PDF of the happiness quotient, of course in happiness, visit [email protected] slash the happiness quotient. For more information about me to inquire about personal coaching or public speaking in person or virtually, please visit ice open productions calm and of course, always you can write me anytime Tom dot Dharma dot Pollard at gmail. Remember that which we most want to find can be discovered in the place where we least want to look and the deeper and darker the well. the brighter the light we will discover. Don't curse the dark cloud the rain inside may very well turn your garden green. Thank you for visiting the happiness quotient. I will see you all real soon.

The Wood Brothers:

All those words I wrote in the storm, that rocked my bo t. I was stuck in my throat whe I was hap and all those and next thing I'm thinking I might as well change my name to happiness jone Happiness happy happ I'm not sick I'm not alone yeah we all got it Happines Jones Happy, Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy.