“So, tell me what each of you have been working on,” says poet-essayist Jane Satterfield, glancing around the table at me and the other creative writing students. She adjusts her glasses, then picks up a pen, ready to take notes as each of us responds. Her voice is quiet but articulate, with a lilt not unlike the compassionate tone of a therapist. She mentions nothing about the dedicated trek she just made up to Towson, hopping off a plane from Chicago that morning and trudging through slush from the previous day’s snowstorm. Instead, she had begun the night’s master class on her essays by passing out sheets of blue cardstock to each student for name cards.
We all take turns describing our essays-in-progress, quick to qualify their roughness in front of an accomplished author. Satterfield listens to each, eyes intent on the speaker, and restates each student’s idea like a veteran professor—with thoughtful suggestions and a keen eye for potential.
Having just read Satterfield’s memoir, Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond, I wasn’t surprised by her inclination to treat creative writing students as peers or her soft-spoken eloquence as she presented her work. An Associate Professor of writing at Loyola University in Maryland and award-winning poet and essayist, Satterfield brings to her writing both the gentle empathy of an observant artist and the meticulous, intellectual style of a scholar. Published in 2009, Daughters of Empire contains a series of memoir essays that recount her year abroad in England, a trip incited by her now ex-husband’s award of a Fulbright teaching exchange. With personal, introspective scenes that are often evocatively and tenderly rendered, Satterfield focuses on various affronts to her identity during a volatile period in her life: unexpected motherhood, a crumbling marriage, and a troubled reunion with her birth country.
After the initial roundtable introductions, Satterfield asks us what we’d like to hear. The consensus is immediately “Assignations at Vanishing Point,” a lyrical essay-poem hybrid that weaves together intersecting images of hunger, emptiness, isolation, and desire. Satterfield smiles like this is a frequent request. As a trained poet, she shines brightest in this fragmented style of essay that focuses less on a cohesive form and more on a patterned interplay of images and ideas. Her writing process for this piece, she explains, involved one summer spent devouring a carefully selected reading list and producing over 75 pages of writing. At the end, she plucked out the brightest images and the most “intellectually exciting” ideas for “Assignations,” playing with them until they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The rest was deemed a casualty of production.
Without much pause for ceremony, Satterfield jumps into the essay, reading the piece evenly and deliberately and pausing twice to elaborate on a source for a quote. There’s no dramatic flair to her narration, but that’s to be expected. While all of the collected essays in Daughters reveal a wealth of emotion, they don’t condone histrionics.
After the reading, the students are ready with questions. The starstruck feelings have worn off. What was your writing process for Daughters like? How did you make time for writing once you had your daughter? I ask how she chose the material from other sources that she incorporates so seamlessly into her writing. To all these questions, the author reveals her thorough and often premeditated approach. She talks about the rough transition from poetry to essay-writing and chuckles as she describes trying to produce new content without a clear plan as an “experiment in openness.” As a single mother scrambling to make ends meet, her need to meticulously plan out her writing adapted; she wrote fragments down on post-its in every spare minute she had.
New motherhood and the birth of her daughter are key experiences in Daughters of Empire. As I read the memoir, I was so enmeshed in that time in her life that I hadn’t expected such a gap between the period of her writings and the current day. Now, almost 20 years later, her daughter is a college student and Satterfield is both remarried and a full-time writing professor. I felt I’d witnessed overnight her journey from the uncertain pregnant woman in Daughters to accomplished writer and experienced mother.
Hearing her talk about her daughter as a real-life college student, instead of the unborn presence in her writing who’s existence was heavy with implications, brought the conversation to a reality that creative nonfiction writers often struggle with: the ethics of writing about our personal lives. Memoirs usually portray those close to us as we see them — good or bad. Interestingly, Satterfield describes constantly thinking about the future consequences of writing Daughters. Would her portrayal of her ex-husband injure her daughter’s future relationship with her father? Would her uncertainty and occasional dread about an unexpected pregnancy affect her own relationship with her daughter when the book published? A private person, she jokes about refusing to join Facebook to avoid the stress of overanalyzing what people will think of her profile, her posts, her statuses.
Perhaps my own unawareness of the potential ethical conflicts behind Daughters is another testament to Satterfield’s success; though controlling and childish in the essays, her ex-husband never seems intentionally abusive or a target of revenge. And her feelings of love and excitement about transitioning from daughter to mother outshine her fear and dread of bringing a child into an unstable marriage. Empathy reigns.
After answering all of the student questions with an ease and precision that seems practiced but not rehearsed, Satterfield picks up another piece to fill the last ten minutes of our class. The essay is titled “A Place at the Table,” and was featured in the My Real Life Family section of the Baltimore Fishbowl. The essay turns a professorship interview over dinner into a meditation on the complex individual and societal histories that inform our eating choices, and the transcendence a communal table can impart to a simple meal. True to form, she pins down the intricacies behind an ostensibly routine event and lauds the power of shared experiences.
As students file out of the room, I get my book signed and linger, as if trying to catch genius by contagion. But the secret to the brilliance of Satterfield’s work is right before me as she again chats about interesting turns my essay-in-progress could take: she lives her life as she writes her life, with a depth of compassion and a keen attention to the complexities in what others may find ordinary.