Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: “Images” describes your experiences with cancer and conveys the emotion and tension of these experiences in a powerful yet subtle way. Was writing this piece part of your healing experience in the wake of what happened?

Rachel Laverdiere: This is a great question. 

I had lung cancer when I was young (twenty-five), but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I was forty. Until that point, I’d lived in survival mode—teaching, divorce, health issues, single-parenting, so many relocations… I didn’t have time or energy to process anything that was happening (or had happened) in my life. On my fortieth birthday, my son challenged me, “When are you  going to do something with your life that you actually want to do?” So I started writing. He graduated a few months later and left home shortly thereafter. By then, I was writing like my life depended on it (and it did!). A year later, my mom battled breast cancer for the first time, and I left my stressful teaching job. I’m not sure I would have been strong enough for either if I hadn’t found writing. I realize this is a huge segue, but I promise it ties in!

I think most of my writing is part of my healing process. I can’t imagine how little I’d understand about myself if my son hadn’t challenged me. When I am writing about an experience, I am always writing about so many other experiences as well. An image often brings about a chain reaction leading to a source that goes far back in time.

“Images” was a response to my fears about my mom’s cancer. I’d been trying to write about my mom’s cancer, but every time I put my fingers on the keys, I mentally froze. I just couldn’t process that I might lose my mom—apart from my son, my mom is the only person I’m not sure how to live without. When I went to my mammogram appointment, I finally understood that my fear wasn’t just about my mom. It was also about myself and my son. It was about my fear of having to tell him (as my mother had to tell me) that my body is failing me (again). That I might not always be here for him/that she might always be here for me. At each stage of the appointment, I watched myself process—the visions of flowers and my childhood pasture—heard myself telling the technician my story so calmly. By the time I left the clinic, this essay was ready to be birthed. The first draft came out almost as it is in its final form.

RR: We love how this piece utilizes figurative language about nature to create mesmerizing and potent imagery. Can you discuss your process in writing and developing images in a piece?

RL: My answer might disappoint you, but I write imagery the way I actually see it. I’m always amazed that others don’t see/experience things the way I do! It was actually in writing this piece that I realized “seeing the flowers” is a trauma response I developed as a child. When I’m on overload, my mind saves me by showing me images of nature. The only part of “Images” I sort of manipulated is the final image with the dandelion fluff.

As far as craft goes, I do try to echo language between sections and choose words that follow a theme. For example, the scene where my son and I are on a treasure hunt, I tried to incorporate “pirate” vocabulary to help strengthen the memory.   

As an aside, I actually used to worry that my writing didn’t have enough imagery because I’d never purposefully thought to add it—and didn’t really know how to do it. Silly, right? My imagination might be my superpower.

RR: How do you develop new ideas to begin your writing process for a new project?

RL: I wish I could tell you! I never stop surprising myself—there’s so much I don’t know I remember that claws towards the surface.

I know that nature inspires me. Spring, summer and fall, I try to walk/bike in nature every day. By the time I get home, my ideas/memories often insist on being released. Sometimes it takes a week to figure out how to express my thoughts in words.

Sometimes, I plan on writing about a certain experience and try to do some pre-writing. Those essays tend to lack the sense of urgency of pieces, like this one, that force their way onto the page.

RR: We see you teach courses through your online writing program Hone & Polish Your Writing, and you work as a CNF editor for Barren Magazine. How have your experiences as a teacher and a literary journal editor influenced your writing?

RL: I’ve been an educator for twenty-five years—high school and middle years for the majority and adults for the past seven years. I think all the time I spent encouraging students to think outside the box granted me the freedom to write in the way that I do. It also shaped my storytelling. Teenagers refuse to listen if you drone on about backstory!

They say that if you want to learn something, teach it. As a curriculum specialist, I put a lot of care and attention into the details of the courses I’ve created so far. Researching form, searching for and analyzing essays, and interviewing writers and editors for my courses has enabled me to truly understand each of the sub-genres. “Testing” the material—craft lessons, writing prompts, revision strategies, etc.—has made me a stronger writer. I force myself to use my own checklists, revision strategies and polishing techniques. “Images” was actually written during the beta version of my course on lyric essays! I wrote two other strong essays in that course that are out for submission now.

My work as CNF Editor at Barren Magazine definitely influences the way I don’t write. I get to see what my team thinks about each piece in the queue, so it gives me an insider’s perspective on other editors’ preferences as well as a chance to re-examine my own.

Both my mentoring and my editing have helped me realize how important it is to carve away all of the bits that don’t actually serve the essay. If it doesn’t need to be included, cut it. Make sure the first paragraph or three aren’t just backstory. Make sure you don’t have an extra “explanatory” sentence or more tacked on to an ending. Make that last image one that the reader carries away like a bit of dandelion fluff….

RR: Do you have any upcoming writing projects that you’re interested in discussing with us?

RL: I’m just adding the final touches to my course on hermit crab essays, which will launch before this interview is published. So far, I’ve created Foundations of Feedback, which discusses the psychology behind feedback, provides a framework for giving critiques as well as strategies for receiving critiques. All participants take this course so they can provide and receive valuable critiques in all subsequent courses. To date, I’ve got a course for flash CNF, lyric essays (collage, panels and braids), and hermit crab essays.

For the remainder of 2021, I will be focusing on compiling my essays into two manuscripts. The first manuscript is almost ready—it focuses on my childhood traumas, how they affected my life and relationships, and how I’ve been able to move past. The second (which has been carved from the first) focuses on the journey that has brought my son and me to this moment in time. Although I still have a lot of writing for this project, I want it to be my first book of essays birthed into the world.

Rachel Laverdiere’s work in Issue 8.2: