Randon Billings Noble: I left something out of the beginning of my piece: It all really began with a different book — Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. This is the book I started reading after the first appointment, but I had to stop almost immediately, and it was this sentence – refrain, really – that stopped me: “My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank.” I was not prepared to enter this relationship with blankness, so I read Williams’s first book, Refuge, instead. But the idea of blankness, of erasure, stuck with me. There were parts of my story that I did indeed want to erase but as an essayist I feel compelled to explore experiences we usually resist. So I tried to do the impossible – erase and explore at the same time.
RR: You reference Terry Tempest Williams’s work in your piece. What is the benefit of referencing other works in your own essay, and what are the potential risks?
RBN: Referencing other works can act as a kind of shorthand to people who know the work and it can introduce the work to people who don’t know it. The work and your own writing then enter a larger conversation. I hadn’t thought about the risks, but I suppose one of them is that the work you’re quoting overpowers yours, that you start to lean too heavily on the other work’s writing and ideas instead of your own.
RR: One of the quotations you use from Williams, “I don’t mind erasure if it is done by my own hand…” seems to imply that erasure can be empowering for some, if they are the ones doing the erasing. Would you agree with this implication?
RBN: Yes. I don’t think anyone – including a cancerous growth – wants to be erased by someone else!
RR: At the end of the piece you speak of the raven’s unknown fate. How does fear of the known versus the fear unknown play into this piece?
RBN: When I finished this essay, the end (the temporary end, as all but one ending is) – the end of my own story was still unknown, but all sorts of frightening possibilities loomed in the near distance. In some ways fear of the unknown is worse than fear of the known. You don’t know how to think about it, what plans to make, or what actions to take. Instead all your fears become a hanging mist that prevents you from seeing a clear way forward.
RR: In this piece you seem to use religious references, such as the raven and the dove with Noah’s ark. In what ways did religion influence this writing?
RBN: Religion didn’t influence this particular piece of writing – but I’ve always been interested in stories from scripture, and the story of the raven and the dove has especially intrigued me. The raven seems to get a bad rap – he didn’t come back with a sign that the flood had receded and all would be well. But what if he flew back and forth and back and forth and there was no land? What if he fell into the sea and drowned? And how did the second raven feel, the one who was left behind? I’ve always wondered about what was left out of this story and what might fill its silences. “What of the Raven, What of the Dove” starts to ask these questions. I hope that its readers enjoy contemplating the answers.