The Archaeology of Writing: An Interview with Elizabeth Mosier by Curtis Smith

Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Mosier logged 1000 volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write Excavating Memory: Archaeology and Home (New Rivers Press, 2019). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays and appears most recently in Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. You can find more information and links to her latest work at www.ElizabethMosier.com.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Excavating Memory. It was a wonderful read. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to publish it with New Rivers Press?

 Elizabeth Mosier: Thank you! I didn’t set out to write this book—and it’s only clear in retrospect why I needed to write it. Though I began volunteering at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to help memorialize the nine enslaved Africans who once lived at President George Washington’s house at Sixth and Market Streets, the dig became meaningful to me in other ways, too.

My seven years at the archaeology lab coincided with my mother’s mental decline, due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life. And so this book began to take shape as I recorded my observations about processing artifacts in my journal and in short blog posts. These detailed notes were the basis for “The Pit and the Page,” in which I describe how I felt the day my mother didn’t recognize me.

In that essay, I expressed for the first time my idea that writers are archaeologists—digging, processing and repairing the artifacts of experience in order to find meaning. It was this insight that called me to adopt the methodology and vocabulary of archaeology as a means of processing and understanding my personal loss, though I wasn’t fully conscious of this at the time.

 CS: I’ve read and enjoyed your other books—but you were a fiction writer first, correct? At the start of your writing journey, did you envision yourself transitioning to write nonfiction as well? In terms of process, how does writing a nonfiction piece differ from your approach to writing fiction?

EM: These essays are actually a return to what I did first and maybe love most. I do have an M.F.A. in fiction, and my first three published books were novels, but I started out writing nonfiction. In high school, I admired writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Barbara Ehrenreich for their lively, accessible writing based in empirical research, and newspaper columnist Russell Baker for his humor and humility.  In college, I wrote a bi-weekly column for The Bryn Mawr-Haverford Bi-College News, giving myself assignments that required reporting and research, such as attending Joseph Kallinger’s murder trial in Philadelphia or analyzing men’s catcalls in terms of animal behavior theories. After years of writing fiction and freelance articles, I rediscovered how much I love writing this kind of reported/reflective piece while working with receptive editors including Karen Rile at Cleaver, and Avery Rome and Kevin Ferris at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I always do research to anchor my work in verifiable truth. For me, the choice to explore a subject in fictional or nonfictional form has to do with wish fulfillment. Some subjects inspire longing, a strong desire to alter what I find. I’ve learned to pay attention to that impulse, and to either rigorously check my facts—or honor my desire to veer from what actually happened by writing fiction.

CS: Much of the book takes us to your archeology work in Philadelphia. I’m fascinated by the intersections between the sciences and the arts. Did you always have an interest in archeology? If not, how did you become introduced to it? What about the work speaks to you?

EM: I first visited the President’s House dig just after the National Park Service archaeologists revealed the foundation wall of George Washington’s house (which served as the capital from 1790-1800).  There in the ground was the outline of the bow window Washington added to an existing house, which architectural historians say is the precedent to the modern-day Oval Office. I was struck by this symbol of democracy, just feet from where the enslaved African called Hercules cooked Washington’s meals.

I was hooked. What writer doesn’t understand the urge to look for truth beneath the surface or the desire to tell the untold story?  Though I’m not an archaeologist, I brought my writerly skills of patience and nearsightedness to the task of processing artifacts. And my appreciation for the work of real archaeologists only increased during my time at the lab. My supervisors—Jed Levin, Deborah Miller, and Willie Hoffman—taught me everything I know. They were always willing to answer my questions, recommend useful books, and provide context for our work through regular presentations on their findings.  Their generosity opened the door to a field I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. I became fascinated by how artifacts form the archaeological record, becoming the basis for stories that eventually constitute—and in some cases, correct—recorded history.

 CS: I’m always interested in a book’s form—and while Excavating Memory is a collection of individual essays, it also features a number of unifying elements. Was this picture in your mind from the beginning—or did you start writing the separate pieces and then later realize there was a larger, overreaching framework waiting to be discovered?

EM: Washing and labeling a colonial neighborhood’s glass fragments and ceramic sherds, mending and cataloging its bottles and vessels and plates—trained me to see broken things as material evidence: of social class, consumer patterns, cultural practices, politics, and relationships. After writing the first essay, “The Pit and the Page,” I began to apply this lens to a collection of personal artifacts—from a transplanted eucalyptus tree that serves as a community touchstone in my hometown to my grandmother’s 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book—in order to ask: Who am I now that my mother doesn’t remember me?

Also, during the time I was writing these essays, I had to empty four houses full of objects collected by my declining parents and deceased parents-in-law. And so I was thinking a lot about  why we keep what we keep while we let other things go. Dismantling my childhood home under duress was traumatic, and I dealt with my emotions by thinking like an archaeologist. I wondered: What do salvaged or sacrificed objects reveal about how people form identity, or create a sense of “home”? These questions are at the heart of every essay in the book, which is, itself, an artifact, part of the record of my midlife reconstitution in the wake of loss.

 CS: Archeology seems the perfect fit for a writer of creative nonfiction—both have hidden elements awaiting discovery, both involve a kind of blind moving forward and digging down through the years, an exploration of deep, silent histories. We talked earlier about archeology—but can we turn that focus to the intersection of archeology and writing? When did you feel a kind of connectedness between the two? Was that moment of awareness pivotal in this book?

EM: My shifts at the lab were seven hours long, and the Zen-like tedium of washing, labeling, and mending artifacts required just enough focus so that I couldn’t think about anything else. And yet, unconsciously I was processing the ambiguous loss of my mother, using what I later realized was an oblique strategy.  I began to find connections between the work archaeologists do and the mostly invisible work of grief. In other words, digging, processing, and repairing artifacts is a lot like grieving. And likening grief to an archaeology dig that would take ten years to process allowed me to appreciate the enormity of the task.

Of course, working through is what writers and artists do, making meaning from broken pieces of experience. It occurred to me one day at the lab, as we dismantled glass bottles we’d spent weeks mending with masking tape, that writing is like repairing a broken bottle from the base up, and then taking it apart again to fashion a story from what you’ve learned.

CS: The book focuses on your relationship with your mother, which I gather was difficult at times, then further complicated by her descent into Alzheimer’s. It’s always so hard in CNF, navigating where one’s story ends and the stories that belong to those we love begin. Was walking that line difficult? What parameters did you set for yourself?

EM: All my life, I’ve practiced finding beauty in sad things, but I couldn’t write honestly  about the devastation of Alzheimer’s without including some ugly details. Doing so required restraint, perhaps more than the reader perceives. An underlying principle guided the choices I made: my mother is more than her disease. She was a 4-H prizewinner, an accomplished pianist, a successful real estate broker, and a voracious reader, and I included these aspects of my mother to create a multi-faceted portrait. I grew up in a house filled with her books, and I know—because she told me—that she was proud of me.  But like any daughter, I had to differentiate myself from her; this meant claiming my material even when she urged me to write about her or the ancestors she researched doing genealogy.  Though the essay called “Once More to the Barn” features a story she tried to tell but couldn’t, the essay is my story: that of a daughter reconciling her mother’s memories with her own.

Every writer has to find perspective on—and an appropriate position in—the narrative they want to recount.  This was never more evident to me than when I was processing artifacts recovered from The President’s House. The story of slavery is America’s to reckon with, and it seemed to me that my place was to help wash, label, and catalogue the dirty, broken sherds. There are other writers I respect and admire telling the stories of the nine enslaved Africans who lived in Washington’s house, including Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, and Lorene Cary, who wrote the scripts for the LED-screen presentations at the President’s House memorial.

CS: As always, I found your writing beautiful—the book is full of lovely images and sentences. When it comes to writing on this level—the actual word-by-word part of the process—what advice do you offer younger writers?

EM: First and foremost, read! Read for inspiration, to expand your sense of what is possible to write, and to become more fluent in the range of narrative choices that can produce a desired effect. Research your subject to find complexity in what seems commonplace. And always keep a record of your half-baked ideas, because it may take years for you to figure out how to put them to use.

 CS: What’s next?

EM: Aside from a nonfiction proposal I’m not yet ready to talk about, I’ll resume work this summer on a book-length work of creative nonfiction, Provenience: Mapping Main Street in Lynn, Indiana. After my father died, I returned to his hometown—what archaeologists would call his provenience—with his hand-drawn, circa 1950 map. In Lynn, I found closed businesses, vacant lots, increasing crime, and the outline of a larger story of American continuity and loss. I’ve made several return trips to Indiana for research and to interview residents, pursuing a question related to those I explored in Excavating Memory: What role does cultural memory play as a community reimagines its future?

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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