Written in the Stars: EC native explores grief, astrology in debut memoir
The plan was to interview Courtney Kersten after her March “craft talk” hosted by the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. The 30-year-old Eau Claire native was speaking to an overflowing crowd at the Volume One Gallery about her new memoir, Daughter in Retrograde (University of Wisconsin Press). From the back, I tried to take notes, hearing her rattle off one great quote after another – everything I’d hope to have from an author interview.
“To write a memoir of grief and loss … is, despite the sincerity of those who mourn, fertile land for clichés, melodrama, and trite narratives.” –Courtney Kersten, author of Daughter in Retrograde
I realized that, in her presentation, Kersten eloquently supplied answers without being asked questions. The 2005 Memorial High School graduate spoke about the challenges of writing memoir and the challenges in writing about grief. And she spoke about them as someone who has overcome those challenges – in both the messy process of grieving her mother, who died when Kersten was 25, as well as in the deceptively more organized process of writing a book about it.
First, writing about grief, especially when in the middle of it, is risky. “To write a memoir of grief and loss … is, despite the sincerity of those who mourn, fertile land for clichés, melodrama, and trite narratives,” she told the crowd.
But not only that, the memoir genre itself is sometimes looked down upon as “a juvenile, self-absorbed, and silly act.” She went on to refer to memoir writers like herself as sitting “at the lunch table of literary losers.”
Despite the doubts and dangers, Kersten (who now holds an Master of Fine Arts and teaches Creative Writing at the University of California-Santa Cruz) pushed aside the doubts and wrote one anyway, believing in the genre’s ability to transcend its perceived limitations.
The key was balance.
Kersten described writing a memoir as a personal, therapeutic process. But, she added, “In another way, it’s the entire opposite – about thinking how your narrative could mean something to someone outside yourself. To write memoir is to pay close attention to both to the inner world and to the outer world.”
Daughter in Retrograde details memories of life with her mother, including her untimely death – what Kersten called the “defining moment of my life.”
The book juxtaposes Wisconsin townie culture with Kersten’s fascination with astrology and prophecy. The seemingly odd pairing creates a chemical reaction, as in this passage, which describes gifts friends and neighbors have left during her mother’s terminal illness. “Despite your average citizen giving the pink slip to anything having to do with interpretations, signs, or symbolic messages, we’re all mystics when we mourn in the Midwest. We interpret the fruit baskets and the daises and take them as a symbol. We won’t say a word about the dying woman, but here’s a linen-scented candle. We won’t talk about death, but here’s a box of Florida oranges. We won’t weep before you, but here’s a Bundt cake.”
In that microcosm, one can see why Kirkus Reviews calls Daughter in Retrograde “Alternately comic and poignant” and “refreshingly quirky.” Her writing is clear-eyed; it doesn’t ignore the worst but searches for the best.
And through the process, Kersten emerged as a staunch defender of the memoir. “Memoir and nonfictional stories are a vehicle for connection with others,” she said. They have “the potential to illuminate human truths that could lead to solidarity, to something much larger than just a single person sharing their story. Because while narratives of grief have the potential to become clichéd stories of melodrama and sorrow, they also have the possibility to showcase the truly complex and varied experience of grief … to explore the complicated life of those left behind, and the mystery of those who leave us.”
And in a wise nugget, she added, “Readers will be the judge of whether or not (her book) is successful in this.”
People left the craft talk visibly impressed, heads nodding in approval. A line formed to the cash register, and a lengthy book signing followed, creating what Kersten called an “overwhelming” homecoming.
Consider that a sign.
Courtney Kersten’s memoir, Daughter in Retrograde, will officially be published April 10 by the University of Wisconsin Press. It is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and at numerous online outlets. Learn more at courtneykersten.com.