Amanda Parrish Morgan is a former high school English teacher who lives with her family in Connecticut. She coaches high school cross country, teaches creative writing, and is working on an essay collection. Some of her work has appeared in N+1, The Rumpus, The Millions, and Electric Lit. Her essay "On a Field, Sable" will appear in the Fall 2017 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, October 1, for special savings and discounts.
A life dedicated to an act so pure and universal as running provides an interesting backdrop to discuss a book like The Scarlet Letter; ultimately, great literature should hold a mirror up to the world and tell us something about ourselves. At what point did the book and your runner's lifestyle start coming together for you, and how long did it take for you to fully realize you had to tell this story?
I had tried to write about running before, but always felt like the result was hackneyed or else so technical as to really be more about the minutia of running. I also wrote about the glucose screening test, first in a really un-self-aware way, and then with a few days' perspective I was able to look at what I'd written and see that it came from a defensive place of shame. I actually can't remember when The Scarlet Letter came barging back in, but I live in New England and so every autumn the mood kind of feels Hawthorne-ish, and I think the novel was on my mind last fall. I used to encourage my students to use the literature we read as a way in to more personal essay writing, and so bringing the novel to my own experience felt like what I, as a teacher, would have told myself to do. The more I thought about the different threads of the essay, the more I realized I really wanted to write about transformation.
Toward the end of the essay, you take on motherhood and how we, as a society, expect certain behaviors or actions from those who are mothers (or are pregnant). A specific example is when you are jogging up a hill at one of your team’s meets and someone implores you to stop. Societal expectations can certainly benefit the individual, yet at the same time they can mutate into hurtful expectations or something as harmful as ostracization. As a writer, what advice would you give other writers about approaching such large, complex issues?
Regarding writing about motherhood specifically, it was really something I just couldn't help writing about. I brought some really terrible, sleep-deprived drafts I'd scribbled in the first few weeks after having my daughter to my writing group. After I had my daughter I felt so awed by the women who'd been with me through labor and delivery (midwives, nurses, OB) and by my own mom that I found myself fantasizing about going back to school to become an OBGYN. I'm in so many ways not suited to that work, so I wrote instead.
I felt sort of self-conscious about writing rather than being a doctor, being more cerebrally-involved rather than physically-involved. But, my friend and writing mentor, Rachel Basch, said something to me that kind of felt like permission to take writing about something as personal as motherhood seriously in a broader social context. She called the (at that time very rough and messy) writing I was doing an important feminist act, and I was stunned and also immediately thought, "Of course." I'm not sure that this advice is even specific to writers, but I guess I'd say that larger social issues don't have to start from the broad, outside, political, but can just as (or more) powerfully begin with personal experience.
In your story, one of the themes is the idea of physical transformation and how it often borders or blurs with self-flagellation. Many stories come about from peoples’ obsessions with lifestyles and this idea of human transformation. Do you think, absent running, you would still have experienced this story, only with another practice, lifestyle, or goal?
That's a really fascinating possibility. I have often wondered that, and I think the answer is yes. I have a pretty obsessive personality and for all of the many faults I have as a family member and friend, I am fiercely loyal. I think whatever I'd fallen into that offered a sense of identity in those adolescent years would have been all-consuming. What's harder to answer, for me, is in a society that places so much value on how women look (particularly on their weight) if a nonphysical transformation would have changed the way other people treat me the way that running indirectly did.