Sheryl Louise Rivett is the blog editor at So to Speak, a George Mason University literary journal. She is also a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Mason, where she is working with two members of the Mason Health Administration and Policy faculty to edit and organize a forthcoming textbook on managing integrated healthcare systems in today’s ever-changing environment. She enjoys reading the inspiring work of leading thinkers and administrators in healthcare and providing creative support to the project. She holds a BIS in Women’s Studies in Communication from Mason and an MA in creative nonfiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University.
As a Sally Merten Fellow, Rivett taught in the public schools and Fairfax County libraries. She has also taught creative writing in homeschooling cooperatives in the far west DC suburbs, as well as composition at Northern Virginia Community College. In addition to teaching, she has served on the advisory board for the Virginia Board of Medicine, worked as a lay health counselor for disadvantaged women in Loudoun County, and has formed grassroots organizations that focus on women’s health. Rivett’s essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she is the author of Mothers & Midwives: Women’s Stories of Childbirth.
HUERGO: What inspires you to write?
RIVETT: The complexities that are inevitable in life: our relationships; our life events and our responses to them, whether tragic or joyful; and the ways in which people persevere and adapt; the way in which luck affects so much.
The voices of the past. Nothing is more inspiring than examining old photographs and trying to imagine a story behind the one-dimensional image. As a young child, family photographs taken in the towns and cities that my ancestors made their homes fascinated me. I’d wonder if the two women in the photograph had a strained relationship or an easy one; whether the man seated with his son, who I’d heard was a drinker, had a soft and redeemable side; whether the stout, stern woman who always wore a grimace loved to bake. When did the little girl holding the brown and white dog first realize that her mother had asked her father to leave, that she no longer had a father to tuck her in at night or attend her school events like most of the children in her Midwestern neighborhood in the 1940s.
I also feel a responsibility to the stories that have been entrusted to me along the way. For instance, I worked on a psychiatric unit when I was an undergraduate, and the patients often shared their life stories with me. I was an easy conduit, sitting behind the counter working as the unit secretary or sitting in a chair in front of the elevator to “monitor” any patient who tried to leave. (It seems kind of funny now. How would I have been able to do anything?) The elderly patients were the ones who would surround me while I sat at the elevator. I found so much truth in the lines of their faces and the depths of their eyes; they experienced so much despair over their handicapping behavior and idiosyncrasies. One man used to sit and pick imaginary peaches. He was depressed that the family farm, a peach orchard, had been sold. He sunk into dementia, where he imagined he could still pick summer peaches on his Virginia farm. Many of their lives had been quite remarkable, but society had shifted in such a way that their families couldn’t care for them because of their neurological illnesses and resulting behaviors. They were lonely and spun stories for me throughout my eight-hour shifts. My college textbooks remained unopened on the table beside me. I never found the time to open a book.
HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?
RIVETT: I love the drafting process! In fact, I’m most comfortable there. I can lose myself for hours in a story that I see in my mind, guided by intuition about one or two characters. During the drafting process, I do sentence revision constantly, and I read sections out loud, so there’s minor revision happening even as I’m jumping into the heart of a story. More serious revision is something I do best when my initial pieces have had time to breathe, to rest in a drawer or in a folder on my laptop. Once a piece has had time to rest, I find I develop a different relationship with it. It’s as if I’m meeting an old friend for coffee and we’re catching up. I’ve changed, the way the piece feels to me has changed, and we become reacquainted; our relationship deepens when I dive back into it and mold it with fresh eyes attuned to revision. I can better see where to cut the fat, where to expand, and whether there’s a better way to tell the story when I’ve had time away from it.
HUERGO: What is the most important theme in your work? Why?
RIVETT: First and foremost: relationships, whether a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, or simply a chance encounter between two strangers. I’m fascinated by the way in which people affect one another and the ways in which life changes for a character, whether for the better or for the worse, because of a relationship with another person.
But medicine is another, equally important, theme in my work. I see medicine as an art that can be practiced badly—or with revolutionary results. What one generation deems genius, might be the next generation’s nightmare. In modern times, it seems to me that medical rhetoric is often definitive. Take this medication for this. If you have this disease it means X. Have a complaint? We have the answer, but don’t ask questions, we know best. We have entered a time when questioning and mystery and mistakes are not a part of the rhetoric—at least in terms of what is communicated to the public or to the patient. And so I think modern society is ill equipped to cope with illness on a real and authentic level. Finding stories that examine those real and authentic moments—or conversely, the panic when they don’t exist—is a focus in my writing.
I find the questioning and creativity inherent in the art of good medicine to be interesting, whether in modern times or in the past. Medicinal herbs and homeopathy, ancient forms of medicine like shamanism. Equally fascinating are the botched beginnings, like lobotomies and other early psychiatric practices. Where have we erred and what have we gotten right? What have we forgotten or discounted out of arrogance? How has this enhanced or devastated a person’s life? A family? A community?
HUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?
RIVETT: So many teachers! From my sixth grade teacher Mr. Donovan to my first college composition teacher Judy Straffin. More recently, I’ve had the fortune of learning from Tim Wendel, Bill Loizeaux, Ed Perlman, Suzanne Fierston, Susan Richards Shreve, Alan Cheuse and Helon Habila.
I consider Helon a mentor as well as a teacher, and I’m fortunate that I’ll have the chance to work with him as my thesis adviser at Mason. I think every writer has a unique method for gathering story and finding the inspiration to express it most creatively on paper. Helon is the mentor who understands what I’m trying to do with my writing and who gives these quiet, generous nuggets of advice that fit just right, propelling me farther down my path as a writer.
All of my mentors and teachers have fanned the flames of my creativity and offered necessary challenges and advice. I’m grateful to them all.
HUERGO: What advice do you have for writers?
RIVETT: Trust your vision. Trust your instincts. Especially in the beginning. Write it through to the end before considering major revision. Only listen to trusted readers who understand your work.
HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?
RIVETT: Lately I’ve been expanding a rough story into a full-length novel. The main character is a young, single woman who lives in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. Her narrative shifts back and forth between her current life and memories of her childhood with a mentally ill mother. The other major characters who narrate parts of the story are the two women who have had the greatest impact on her life: the adoptive mother, and the biological mother who gave her up. It has what I consider feminist themes in that it examines women’s tough choices during several different decades. And it includes an examination of psychiatry in the middle of the 20th century.
I plan to return to a nonfiction project I started some time ago under the guidance of Bill Loizeaux, when I was in the master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. The project, a memoir, deals with a health crisis, the possibility of inter-generational illness, the environment, and a quest for healing. It will be my last semester in the Mason MFA program, and Steve Goodwin will be serving as my mentor on the memoir. I’m excited to revisit the material and commit to a final form.
I will be working on both book projects at the same time, which I’m sure will be challenging, but I find that writing nonfiction gives me a necessary reprieve from fiction and vice versus. I enjoy jumping from one form to another. When I do, solutions for the other form typically appear in my consciousness. It’s a very synergistic process.