Woodstock writer publishes poignant and painful memoir
Elizabeth Ussher Groff for Pamplin Media
A local author comes to grips, in a published memoir, with the trauma and violence her parents faced
"When trauma and violence occur, sometimes memories are suppressed or tucked away, deep into the history of a country, or inside a family, and individual psyches.And so it was with [Vargas-McPherson]. Under her pen name of C. Vargas McPherson, 'Inheriting our Names' the name of her 'imagined true memoir' was published in April to rave reviews. It has been praised for its beautifully-depicted epic of family, war, and trans-generational grief. In lyrical prose, the book reveals family history that had been deeply buried in the past." Read full article here.
Extended interview between Elizabeth Ussher Groff and C. Vargas McPherson:
1. As an English and philosophy major, you have been a writer for a long time. What year did you start taking writing workshops? Was it because you knew you wanted to write a book, or did that idea come from taking (how many?) workshops from Cheryl Strayed? What year was that?
I have been writing since I was around 8-years-old when I discovered haiku. The scaffolding and structure of haiku and its focus on nature was a perfect entry into writing for me. I started my first “memoir” when I was 10 on an old manual typewriter my family found at a yard sale. The author Amy Tan once said, “I am a writer compelled by a subconscious ‘neediness’ to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.” She seems to be saying exactly what I was feeling as a 10-year-old and still feel today: bearing witness, seeking validation, making meaning from the incomprehensible … this is what has compelled me to write. I do my best thinking on paper!
In undergraduate and grad school, I took creative writing classes and had some small stories and poems published in college magazines. But earnestly writing a book didn’t occur to me until I was living in Italy with a newborn. (However, that travel/new mother memoir will forever live in the bottom drawer of my desk. )
The Attic Institute on SE Hawthorne Street has offered workshops by truly amazing local authors: Marc Acito, Merridawn Duckler, Emily Harris, Karen Karbo, Elinor Langer, Jennifer Lauck, Lee Montgomery, Whitney Otto, Paulann Petersen, Kim Stafford, to name just a few. I was lucky enough to take a memoir workshop with Cheryl Strayed right before her brave and enormously successful book Wild was released. I think that was in 2011. I registered for her workshop because I love her first book Torch and wanted to find a way to be that honest and vulnerable with my own writing, and I emerged from her class with a better understanding of how to approach each character with compassion. It was a remarkable experience. The Attic is such a wonderful resource for aspiring Portland writers.
2. When I was one-third through the book, I began wondering how you managed to research, write and publish a book with children and maybe another job? Were your children grown by then? Just a kind of personal question. Did you work during the day on the research and writing – just one part of the day? Or?
Oh my goodness! Don’t forget that it took me 15 years to get this project completed! Part of that is because I had two children at home and was working parttime, and also (full confession) because I’m a slow writer and take lots of breaks … there are lots of demons that must be vanquished before picking up my pen: self-doubt, imposter syndrome, straight up fear! And there are the questions that infiltrate my thoughts: Is this story mine to tell? Will I harm anyone by telling it? Do I know enough about this subject to venture into this long overdue conversation?
But even when I wasn’t writing, I read. I read many, many books and articles about Spain, the psychology of trauma and transgenerational grief, the ongoing trickle of news as the horrors of Franco’s regime surfaced. I did this all while the kids were napping or in school. I jotted notes on receipts in the pick-up line at Laurelhurst elementary. I joined a writing group that kept me accountable. A writing buddy and I would meet every week for pep talks and to work together at the New Deal Café on NE Halsey St. And there were months when I laid it all down to get some distance or because I was at an emotional block.
This story depicts a nation’s tragedy, but it also reveals a very personal trauma that begins well before my birth. Exposing my own sorrow revealed a deeper wound that belonged to my mother; and in exploring her pain, I uncovered my grandmother’s devastating grief. This story parallels what is happening in Spain as the Truth Commission seeks to literally excavate mass graves and uncover the atrocities from the Spanish Civil war and the Franco years following his bloody coup. It took me time to untangle the threads of these stories and then weave them into a meaningful whole.