Issue #10, 1998
About the Author: Genevive Cotter
Five Glorious Senses
About the Author: Genevive Cotter
This essay is one of a collection called "Montana Stories" that Genevieve Cotter is hoping to publish in a book about her coming of age in Montana. Her family moved there in 1939 when she was three. She recollects the extreme poverty of these early years as having an important impact in shaping her personality and her subsequent writing. Her memories arrange themselves in juxtaposition, much as she arranges this essay in which the reader is confronted with a moment of spontaneous brutality in the context of a controlled ritual about love and awe.
"We were so poor, I think my mother thought we would starve to death. We were nine kids." Her father worked as a hired hand and they lived in a bunkhouse. But while she recollects the terror of their poverty, these memories did not diminish the lushness of her sensory experience of the exquisite Gallatin Valley in which they lived. Although materially impoverished, the physical richness of the valley has remained an important part of her internal landscape.
Because of this closeness to the land, she associates all places with color and this shows in her writing. On the first page alone she offers the following images: "The slow darkening into the summer night; the fading flame of day, the valley drunk with a red and peacock blue sky; and tender pink mountain tops." Where she lives now, in North Carolina, she sees gray-green and red clay. Color is not the only thing she "sees" through. She tries to arrange her work in progress on a sensory grid containing sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. "If you can make feelings into something concrete using any of the five senses it makes it easier for the reader." By creating compelling and vivid description and placing the reader in the scene through dialogue, Cotter demonstrates her talent in one of the important creative nonfiction tenets: "showing," not "telling."
Cotter says that this essay just "spilled out of her." Because she had done so much emotional work prior to her writing and the frame of the ritual was so easy to work around, this was the rare piece that required little revision. One element of the writing process surprised her, however. "I think when I got to the end and the valley of tears, I thought 'Oh my god, that's the whole thing.'"
Cotter began journaling early in life, long before she contemplated becoming a writer. She reports having hundreds of journals. This process was the beginning of a spiritual journey that opened up many of the memories she had once forgotten and about which she is now writing. She feels it is an important activity for writers and helps eventually "to get to the bottom." On the other hand, she deeply appreciates that "seeing" is a very subjective thing. Several members of her family also write and they often don't view the remembered situation with the same eyes.
Until this memoir, she had written mainly short stories and poetry. She also "gets away" from her writing through painting, which she does every afternoon. "Mornings are for writing and afternoons are for painting." She regards painting more like poetry than essay writing. "Painting and poetry both use vertical images, rather than horizontal or linear ones you usually follow in prose. They also don't require the kind of resolution that prose does."
Cotter seems to have gone through a very active process in finding what system works best for her. More and more, she has developed a trust in her internal landscape, which eases the process of creating, no matter what form it takes.
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