A Surprising Gift in a Time of Loss
Jill Talbot | April 2019
AWP celebrates the Writer to Writer participants of Fall 2018. We invited mentors and mentees to share their recent experiences in the mentorship program. Here, Jill Talbot discusses her mentorship with Kendra Vanderlip.
At the beginning of the Spring 2018 season of Writer to Writer, Kendra and I agreed to meet every two weeks via Skype to discuss her essay drafts. We set up a schedule that would take us from late February to the first week of May. But early one morning in April, my mother passed, and on the eve of her funeral, Kendra’s father died.
Kendra’s essays are engaging, a pleasure to read. They introduced me to worlds I didn’t know: ice skating, the pageantry of the WWE, and growing up with a father afflicted by repeated brain trauma. She and I got along instantly, laughing and sharing stories of our fathers. Mine had died the year before, in January, a sudden and searing loss that left me in a tremble. Three months after his death, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Doctors told her she had six to twelve months to live. She made it eleven.
Kendra’s essays centered around her father and their volatile relationship. Her attempts to portray him with empathy and understanding were always at the core of our conversations. I remember her showing me a box with items he had given her at Christmas, the way she held up each odd item, telling me his strange explanations for each one. That box made it into the last essay draft she sent to me, with a paragraph about the box now being in the back of a closet because she couldn’t bear to look at it after his passing.
Kendra and I had engaging conversations about her essays, about essay writing, about persona and form and tone, and every session, we’d veer off into stories of our fathers or our mothers. While I knew my mother was dying, Kendra had no idea how quickly her father would go.
We were both lucky. Kendra was with her father in Michigan at the end, and I held my mother’s hand in a hospital in Dallas that early morning in April. Kendra and I were lucky in another way. We were brought together by the AWP program, and while we took a break during the month of April, we agreed on the importance of completing the season, for in those Skype screen spaces for an hour or so, we disappeared into the writing, into working together to figure out how to shape her story, her memories, and after her father’s passing, how to reckon, on the page, with the man she had been writing for years now that he was gone. Writing buoyed us—our conversations about writing, about essays and other essayists kept us moving forward, looking beyond the loss. The AWP program gave me a gift no one could have seen coming—time and space to talk to a fellow writer immersed in grief. We both learned how words save us, how they can bring back all that we’ve lost and how they can take us far away from a world we suddenly find stilled, empty. That spring will always remain a blur for me, but Kendra’s face, her laughter, her work, even her tears will always come back.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Hotel Amerika, Longreads, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, and The Rumpus, and has been recognized in The Best American Essays. In 2018 her story, “Railroad Blues,” was the Most Read of the Year in Little Fiction. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.