Issue #10, 1998
About the Author: Lucy Wilson Sherman
About the Author: Lucy Wilson Sherman
Sherman tells me "Some people don't like me at all." Straightforward remarks like this characterize her. She is someone who is both uneasy about and proud of this, a struggle which is evident in "Learning From Goats." In the same essay we find a woman who wants to give and receive love, to succeed in conventional ways, caring about what her mother would have thought; at the same time we find her talking unabashedly about being gaga over goats, kissing them on the lips, voyeuristically observing the castration of the goats and then elatedly throwing the products of the surgery to the dogs. Unflinchingly, she tells us about a father "knocking up" his daughters.
She hesitated about how much to reveal about herself in the essay and wrestled with each portion that could be offensive. She was afraid to look "goofy"; afraid she would seem "corny" or overly sentimental. In the end, she wanted to portray things the way they really are. She is baffled that anyone might elect to omit something that really happened. "This is a farm. I love it. I love the down and dirty. I want to expose everything. I want to be able to joke about everything."
Sherman has been on a 13-year odyssey to find her own authenticity, the kind of authenticity she admires in her goats. She has recently completed a full-length memoir, which includes a more in-depth description of life on the farm. It is called "Laying Foundations: A Year Constructing a Life while Restoring a Derelict Farmhouse." It's a layered story about a love affair with the man who became my husband, once my alcoholism client 13 years ago. My husband is black and illiterate." This has raised some controversy, which surprised her. "I didn't realize it would. But it certainly has. Anyway, I moved here and my hope was to get next to things and it would put me in a state of mind where I would take in instead of put out all the time."
This quest for "getting next to things" has led her to value real stories. "I didn't read for a long time. I was renovating this farmhouse that we live in. I wasn't taking in; I was putting out. I was hammering and bashing to change my environment and making big sweeping changes. When I went back to reading, I was put off by fiction. I wanted real life stories. I loved adventure stories; I wanted people against nature, people against themselves. That led me to memoir of all kinds; I think I've read 200 in the last 2-1/2 years." She feels that in memoir she has found her genre. Following essayist Philip Lopate's advice that "The wisest thing an author can do is mine his obsession," she says "There are those of us who could not dream up a set of characters or an interesting plot line if our lives depended on it, but who can describe, with even a bit of charm, ideas which obsess us, and we depend heavily upon our endless fascination with our lives to do so."
Sherman moved to this farm 12 years ago "tired and close to an edge" and became fascinated with the goats. "I knew it was a great passion and I couldn't understand it. I guess that's what motivated the writing. If you don't have a question, there's no point in writing. Watching, she observed that they take time to chew their cud twice. They are tranquil, unselfconscious, meditative, present and in the moment. Unlike them, she has tended to think the path to enlightenment is through accomplishment rather than being.
This tendency can be seen in the first five paragraphs of this essay. She hits the ground running. Immediately we have to deal with her relationship to her mother as a young child, her adolescence, her tendency toward activity rather than contemplation, marriage, college, her tubes being tied. She laughed about this and said, "I'd try to get it in one sentence if I could!" She has been told that she presents herself too quickly and broadly forgetting that her audience needs to be invited in. Definitely unruminantive behavior. "I'm aware of these struggles. I have a tremendously difficult critic. I have to get up at four in the morning to fool her. I have to start writing before it gets light out because something happens. The world looks at me when it's light. But I've found that little trick. Then [I find that] you have to not do it for it to get done. I walk. I do something else. Some stuff really comes to me then and I see connections."
Sherman begins this piece as a "kid" and ends with a wish, to grow, to go up on the mountain by herself and face being "useless." By the time she had finished this piece she was able to do that. "The good thing and the unfortunate thing about personal essays is that when you really go into a subject and write about it thoroughly, it's kind of over. Writing this paved the way for me to move on. I could visualize it, and do it and I'm kind of over it. In a way, this essay stands for that period and now I've moved on. It's a good thing writing is such a challenge that it can keep us going forever."
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