Talking Craft and Inspiration with Award-winning Memoirist Katherine Mayfield

by Carol Smallwood

Kathleen MayfieldKatherine Mayfield is the author of the award-winning memoir, “The Box of Daughter,” “The Meandering Muse,” and numerous other books. An editor for more than 20 years, she’s now the publisher and editor of a quarterly literary magazine, The Maine Review. She teaches memoir writing in Maine, N.H. and online.

Please describe The Maine Review and your duties as editor/writer.
The Maine Review is a quarterly print and electronic literary magazine publishing short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and essays on writing. In my years as a developmental editor, I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed the process of fitting the parts of an unfinished book—or a collection of blogs—together into a whole, like a jigsaw puzzle. So much good writing that never found a home passed through my hands, and I wanted to offer writers another opportunity to be published. And because there are so many wonderful artists in Maine, I wanted to feature the work of a Maine artist on each issue’s cover. I love discovering the treasure of a moving poem or story—writing that reaches down and touches me deeply or gives me new insight about the meaning of life. As editor of the magazine, I run the writing contests, read submissions, work with writers, and fit the jigsaw puzzle of each issue together, choosing cover and interior art that fits the season or reflects the mood and temperament of a particular piece and the issue as a whole.

Tell us about your career.
I began my editing career as a legal proofreader in NYC, and have been editing ever since. I’ve always been in love with words, have always been a writer, and when I came up with a book idea in the mid-90s, I went out and got a book called “How to Write the Perfect Book Proposal.” Based on that, I wrote a proposal for my first book, “Smart Actors, Foolish Choices” (Back Stage Books, 1996), and was lucky to have it accepted for publication shortly thereafter, followed by a second book, “Acting A to Z” (Back Stage Books, 1998; second edition published 2010). I also published a number of magazine articles in the next decade, along with a weekly column on living the simple life for a local paper, The Montague Reporter, when I lived in Massachusetts.

A seven-year period of caregiving for my parents interrupted my pursuit of a writing career, but also gave rise to the memoir I wrote on recovering from emotional abuse in my family: “The Box of Daughter: Healing the Authentic Self” (Maine Authors Publishing, 2012). After I received a lot of validation from people who said they felt like I had written their life stories, I realized I had a lot of knowledge and insight about the recovery process that would help others, so I began writing books on recovering from dysfunctional family dynamics.

When I gave the Divine Creative Force total freedom at that point to bring words through my hands, she/he/it took over, and now I have more books in process than I can work on at any given time. My Muse is very pushy, which is a good thing! One way I let the creative energy out is to blog on dysfunctional families on my website. There is a near-constant flow of words into books and poems, and always more ideas pressing in behind those I manage to write down and publish. Creativity, in any and every form, is very important to me.

Box of DaughterWhich recognitions/achievements have encouraged you the most?
I was thrilled when my memoir won awards in the New England Book Festival and Reader’s Favorite Awards, but what affected me the most deeply was that once at a book signing for “The Box of Daughter,” a woman came up to me and whispered, “I didn’t know this happened to anyone else!” I thought, “Yes, that’s why I wrote it.” To me, writers are truth-tellers—we expose the truths under the surface that others try to deny; we shine a light on the ills of society so that others who also experience those difficulties or deceptions know they’re not alone in their perceptions.

This is one of the reasons I started The Maine Review as well: to offer readers depth of experience and insight about life as they read. I think it was a natural outgrowth of my editing work over many years. I like the fact that I have artistic control over the finished product. The same goes when I self-publish my books. I believe that emotions and passion for life are a very important part of the human experience. And I love gutsy writing!

What writers have influenced you the most?
Natalie Goldberg, Brenda Ueland, Anne Lamott and Julia Cameron were primary inspirations as I began to write. The books of Dave Barry and David Sedaris were a huge inspiration for my book of essays, “The Meandering Muse.” And one of the most significant contributors to the ease of my writing process is Dennis Palumbo, who wrote “Writing from the Inside Out,” which I would absolutely recommend to every writer.

What classes have helped you the most?
When I lived in Massachusetts, I took a number of writing workshops based on the Amherst Writers and Artists method at Writers in Progress. Those workshops helped me hone my writing immeasurably, especially the ones with best-selling author Jacqueline Sheehan. There is nothing like a good teacher who encourages students—along with the experience of being immersed in hearing people comment on our own and others’ writing, which shows us as writers what works, what doesn’t and what is truly compelling. I am totally pro-encouragement wherever possible, though honesty is important to me as well. Because of my history, I’m very careful with criticism—it can be so wounding.

What advice would you give others?
This is a big one for me as editor: focus on craft! Inspiration can yield some wonderful ideas, but in my mind, the process of rewriting, draft after draft after draft, is what makes for captivating, forceful work. I receive submissions that are pretty clearly first drafts, but what I’m looking for are well-crafted pieces that engage the imaginations, hearts, and souls of readers—and that takes some weeding, fertilizing, replanting and reworking of words and phrases in the text. And proofreading is essential! Nothing says “second-rate” like a lot of typos, even though the work itself might be first-rate.

My other bit of advice is: don’t be afraid to dig down and put what is deepest or even most painful for you onto the paper. No matter what your experience, others will relate to it. The treasure, the truth, the insight lies deep within. Work your writing as a potter would work a piece of clay so that it becomes the most beautiful, deliberate, passionate expression of who you are that you can make it. I often think writer’s block might be connected to an unwillingness to express as fully and intensely as the writer’s soul wants to express.

What are your favorite quotations?
“Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?”
— Rumi

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche

“Instinct is the nose of the mind.”
—Madame De Girardin