Renée Thorne is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Parabola, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and Bluestockings, among others. Her first book, Eurydice, Alive, will be published next year with art&fiction. After reading her essay “Excavations” for the spring 2020 issue of Colorado Review, assistant managing editor Jonnie Genova reached out to Thorne to learn more about her writing process, influences, and the “restless” nature of the essay.
Jonnie Genova: Rebecca Solnit writes that “essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship.” “Excavations” does this well, particularly in the ways in which it speaks to familial illness and surgeries, juxtaposed with a father’s faith and a “strange similarity” the narrator feels between the two. I understand this essay to be about fragility, fear, and coping with the nature of our corporeality. Can you tell us more about writing through—or perhaps as a result of—fear?
Renée Thorne: Solnit’s description is quite accurate of how this essay felt to write. At first it was just a sense that there were a lot of underlying parallels, but I didn’t know how to connect them. “Excavations” took nearly a year to write, because I kept slipping into judgments about one side of the issue or the other, but for the essay to work, I had to find and recognize my own point of vulnerability and then write from there.
The writing process itself was healing for me because the essay became a space where my fear could be held. As my own questions in the essay developed, finding an answer or conclusion became less relevant.
JG: Too, “Excavations” speaks to the internal world and the violence inflicted upon it from the outside—whether from ourselves or from institutions. Is writing about the personal something you’ve had to slowly submit to? Or do you have advice for writers who might be conflicted about writing the personal?
RT: For better or worse, it seems like I’ve always been writing about the personal. Sometimes I would like that to change, but so far, it’s just where my pen seems to go.
Writing under a pen name has relieved some anxiety around the question of privacy, but I think I’m also able to gain some distance from my work when I see myself as a character in one of many stories. This becomes easier in an essay like “Excavations,” which not only voices my own experience, but weaves it into a web of other narratives.
JG: Do you have a writing process? A schedule or a routine, perhaps? I once read about a famous author who had the same song on repeat while writing an entire book. Do you have any similar quirks or needs when working?
RT: My best writing is always done during the first couple hours of the day, before I have time to get distracted by a to-do list. I don’t listen to a single song, but I do listen to the same album of Gregorian chanting on repeat when I write. I have been surprised how well this works in helping me concentrate. I think the routine started five or so years ago, so now my brain really knows what to do when I press play.
JG: “Excavations” explores the tendency for those at risk of cancer (and some diagnosed cancer patients) to opt for drastic surgical methods, when less invasive options are available, in the hopes of beating disease. Why this story now?
RT: For me, this essay is less about the specifics of how someone might or might not respond to cancer and more about how we each respond to the fearful reality of having a body.
Although I wrote the essay a long time before the world was thinking about COVID-19, the current situation seems to once again highlight our troubled relationship to risk. There are certainly no easy answers, but this crisis does compel us to question the meaning of safety and to ask ourselves what we are willing to sacrifice for it.
JG: Many writers have addressed cancer and its treatment, from Ensler—whom you mention in your piece—to Ehrenreich and Sontag, among others. Is there anything you’d like to see in terms of writing on this illness? Conversely, is there anything that makes you cringe?
RT: I think what I found so inspiring about Ensler, and what I would love to see in writing on this subject more often, is a perspective which accepts illness, and even death—not in a passive way—but as an experience which is paradoxically rich with life.
I am aware that I’m healthy as I write this, and I don’t want to minimize anyone’s pain, but I am always deeply comforted when I read the experiences of others who have known that kind of darkness, and can still find the grace to affirm the fullness of their life. Rilke also returns to this theme often and has been hugely influential for me.
What disappoints me is when writers speak from narrow anxiety, as if illness were the worst-case scenario, rather than delving into the real threat of living one’s life stifled by fear.
JG: Is there an essay or book that’s really stuck with you or influenced your work?
RT: Eva Saulitis’s essay “When No One Is Watching” was published in The Sun in 2015, the year before she died of breast cancer. It is one of the most beautiful essays I have read about illness and leaves one feeling both humbled and human.
Jonnie Genova is a first-year MFA candidate in nonfiction and the assistant managing editor for Colorado Review. Additionally, she holds a MA from the University of Northern Colorado. When she isn’t writing, she dabbles in photography. She cannot believe she is someone’s mother.