Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Poet Author Cortney Davis: The Art and Craft of Writing True

Author Cortney Davis
Cortney Davis is a gifted nurse and an award-winning poet and author with 16 years' experience in women's health. She is the author of The Heart's Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing, the poetry chapbook Conversion/Return and four poetry collections. She is also poetry editor of the literary magazine Alimentum: the Literature of Food. Her intrepid new novel is To Begin Again: The Story of a Young Doctor Who Chooses Life. In this guest post, Cortney describes her delicately balanced approach to the divisive and painful subject of abortion, of faith and belief, and the essential quality of writing true.

AA: What prompted you to write the novel To Begin Again?

CD: Several things sparked the idea for To Begin Again, which is the fictionalized story of a young, married OB-GYN resident who, in the beginning of the book, is firmly pro-choice. Like many young women who've grown up in a feminist world, Martha believes that abortion is simply part of the women's rights package. When she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she opts for an abortion, believing that having a baby during her residency would be too difficult and would interfere with her training. Although Martha has a loving husband, a neurology fellow who is even busier than she is, she doesn't really discuss her decision with him but assumes that he will agree with her decision, which he does. Then, as part of her training, Martha meets Stacey, a patient who will change the young doctor's life. I don't want to give away the plot or ending of the book, but suffice it to say that Martha must struggle with her own feelings about pregnancy termination—something she'd never actually thought about before but simply accepted—as she meets, in her training, other characters with strong opinions on both sides of the abortion debate. The impetus for writing this book came from my own journey in women's health; from my intimate knowledge of pregnancy termination and my desire to inform those who would never have access to this first hand information otherwiseand from my belief that our society too often accepts, even promotes, abortion without a second thought. This is a book about that second thought, a book I had to write—even though I knew it would be difficult because, in the telling, I'd have to expose myself as well.

AA: Had you done a longer work of fiction before?

CD: Although I love writing short stories, I've never tackled anything even close to novel length before—and actually To Begin Again might be termed more of a novella. In manuscript form, it was about 150 pages, but in published form it's 131 pages, not counting the book club questions at the end. So in many ways I still don't feel that I've written a novel. I tend to think of To Begin Again as a really long story! I'd love to write a long and complex novel, but I'm not sure that's a form I'm called to or even capable of—I think that novel writing is a special skill that requires a distinct way of viewing characters and plot. The ability to conceive, plan and execute a novel is a gift.

AA: How did the process of writing a novel differ from your other writing projects?

CD: One way it differed was in length. My usual short story runs 10 to 45 pages, and this tale continued to engage me through 150 pages, much to my surprise. Like most of my writing, which is more often poetry and short fiction, To Begin Again took over and seemed, at times, to write itself. Of course, I was consciously making decisions all through the process and especially in revision, but during the initial writing the story seemed to flow. It's wonderful when that happens, isn't it? I always spend a lot of time on revision, and I must have revised To Begin Again fifty or more times, a word here, a phrase there, a whole chapter deleted or added or moved. The process of revision is where, I think, we actually create or kill a piece of writing.

AA: What was the greatest challenge in writing the book?

CD: I found the greatest challenge was to write about a controversial subject—abortion—and find some sort of balance in the writing, a way to tell both sides of the debate, but also stay true to my own pro-life belief, a belief that has been formed by my more than 20 years working as a nurse practitioner in women's health. Like the main character, Martha, I began my career supporting a woman's right to choose without actually knowing anything about abortion. I worked in Planned Parenthood, and I wore one of those "keep your hands off my body" buttons on my lab coat. But as the years went by, as I moved from Planned Parenthood to a larger hospital-based clinic, as I examined women pre- and post-abortion, as I actually participated in abortions, and as I observed the emotional damage abortion can cause—well, I learned about abortion from the inside, you might say. And it's much easier to be pro-choice when you have limited knowledge of fetal development and of the termination procedure itself. I wanted Martha to follow the same path that I'd followed, gradually coming to a conversion along the way, but I didn't want sentimentality or a false sense of piety to drift into the novel. Those emotions can be difficult to avoid when you're writing about something as delicate as faith and belief.

AA: What are your hopes for To Begin Again?

To Begin Again
CD: My hopes are that the book will reach a wide range of readers: those caregivers who work in women's health; those men and women who aren't aware of the complexities of abortion or of the pressures placed on doctors and nurses to participate in abortion; those who are interested in the abortion debate, especially those who might be examining their own stance on life issues; those who work in the pro-life movement; those who work in the pro-abortion movement; and those who are simply interested in an engaging peek into the medical and surgical world. The medical information in the book is accurate; there is one very graphic chapter in the book, a situation many caregivers have lived through, so the book is for mature teens or adults, something readers should be aware of.

AA: Is there anything you'd like to add?

CD: Yes. Revealing my pro-life beliefs through the vehicle of my writing was a difficult decision for me. I wanted to use my writing talents to expose, so to speak, this darker side of women's "health," and I wanted to be true to my experiences as a caregiver. But it's not easy anticipating the rejection that can come your way when you take a stand publicly. Happily, To Begin Again has been selling well (it was published by OakTara Publishers in Virginia and is available from Amazon and other online book sellers) and I've received some wonderful letters and email from readers who, whether they agreed or disagreed with my beliefs, found the book engaging and informative. Finally, I'd encourage other writers to take the same risk I did and to write about their deepest beliefs and passions. Such an undertaking might make them uneasy and it may not always garner publishing credits, but it will make them feel that they've walked the walk in their writing as well as in their lives.

Cortney Davis is on the Rachel's Vineyard online board of experts and is a member of Nurses for Life. She has received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She is co-editor of Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses. She has won the Prairie Schooner Poetry Prize, the Center for the Book Non-Fiction Award, two American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year awards and an Independent Publisher's Small Press Award in Non-Fiction.