Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, and an unwieldy herb garden. A Pushcart nominee, her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Bacopa, Entropy, Fourth & Sycamore, The Quotable,Rabbit, Touch, and other great places for readers and writers. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.
Hannah Gardner speaks with Sarah below.
Humor is evident in both of your pieces. One of my favorite lines is the first sentence of “A Food Pyramid Rebellion.” Why did you choose humor as a means of approaching these two subjects? How do you go about crafting these voices in your work, whether that be in poetry or prose?
First, let me thank you for including my poetry and for interviewing me!
While much of my work has a serious tone, I employ humor in my daily life as a way to cope with many things, including stress and illness. If you cannot laugh about your situation, even in some small way, then things are very dark indeed. I fully admit that sometimes I am that person crying on the floor, but at other times I am that person laughing with abandon at stories my family, friends, or students share with me. (My wife was telling me recently about her stop at a retail chain store where a dog had somehow gotten into the building and was running with glee through the aisles. I am still laughing about it!) At this point in my medical journey, I have experienced so many indignities and treatments and tests that I try to turn to humor as it is definitely more fun than the alternative.
You mention on your website that your writing has been a distraction from recent diagnoses. Can you talk about that? How does writing function as a distraction or escape from life?
A few years ago I went from being a reasonably healthy person to a chronically ill one. It seemed to happen in an instant, although I realize there was a more gradual onset. I am currently seeing a series of specialists who are trying to determine an underlying, systemic cause of many of my symptoms. In the meantime, I am dealing with a series of chronic pain diagnoses including something called interstitial cystitis. One of the cruelest parts of these types of illnesses, beyond the lack of a cure, is that people do not know by looking at me that I am ill. I cannot count the number of times that well-intentioned people have said some variation of, “You look good!” The pain is there, but I hide it very well, as all chronic pain patients do, in order to face the world and get through each day. When I write or paint, I find it not only cathartic, but a way to occupy my hands and my mind. I become totally engrossed in what I am doing and, on good days, am able to push the pain to the back of my consciousness while I work on crafting something.
I noticed that you are a professor in Maryland. What subjects do you teach, and do they have any bearing on your writing?
I must admit that I am not an English professor, nor do I have any degrees in that field, but my work certainly does have an impact on my writing. I am a member of the Social Sciences department at the community college in my county. I love my job. I truly do. I feel “at home” when I am on campus and teaching students. The courses I teach most often are Human Growth & Development (developmental psychology), Educational Psychology, and Schools & Society. Most of my Ed Psych and Schools & Society students plan to become teachers, but the Human Growth class is a general education course that is required for a number of majors. I love the many kinds of diversity on campus and my students inspire me every single day. I have written pieces that relate directly to the work I have done with students – currently at the community college and in the past. I love being part of the Social Sciences department because our topics are necessarily related to our everyday existence. We talk about REAL things in my classes, and real things most definitely inspire my writing.
I also noticed that you create art, as well. Can you tell us about your art and in what ways, if any, it speaks to the world of storytelling? How do you see art as a means of communicating with the world?
I am not a trained artist, but started to feel like a “real” artist when I sold my first painting in 2016. I had a solo show last fall and have exhibited work in several places. If you had asked me five years ago if that would happen, I would have laughed. Now I have a very small benefit LLC through which I donate a portion of art sales to non-profits, including those that support individuals with chronic pain conditions. One of my sisters says that the outpouring of creativity has been the silver lining of my medical odyssey.
Many years ago in college I took an art class as a pass-fail option during my senior year. I thought it would be fun, but I was wrong. The instructor (who was probably a perfectly lovely person) never gave any grades so I had no idea if I was actually passing the class or not. I do not remember him ever saying anything positive about my work, but during the portfolio review that ended the semester he asked to take pictures of many of my pieces. In fact, he ran after me as I left the building to ask me to return for more photos. When he introduced a new project in class, he would show pictures (slides at the time) of “excellent” work and “uninspired” work. I never knew if he took pictures of my art for the former or latter category, and I never asked because he terrified me. While the class did not turn out at all as I had hoped, it did provide me with an introduction to watercolor.
I kept all of my watercolor supplies and in recent years got them back out. Now, a lot of my painted work is created in part with pigments from medications that I no longer take. (Having mysterious health situations means that I have tried a LOT of medications.) I also incorporate items that are part of my everyday life, including plants from our garden and cat hair from the house. (We have three cats so no matter how much we vacuum, there is always cat hair to be had!) Sometimes, I think the paintings can tell an even deeper story than my written work.
How did you become a writer?
My mother always thought I would be a writer. I chalked that up to her being a mom who was biased about her kid’s abilities. After doing a lot of creative writing throughout my K-12 years, I stopped after I applied to a summer program for student writers and was not accepted. I was devastated, especially because my teachers had been so certain I would get in. I took the rejection as a sign that I was not the talented writer so many people had told me I was, that my small town mentors had overestimated my abilities, and that I should focus on other things. I was very young and had not yet learned that in the world of writing, one must be tenacious and keep submitting. Just because one group or judge or editor does not select your work does not mean that another group, judge, or editor will not. During my college and graduate school years I had lots of opportunities for academic writing, but always had an itch to go back to creative writing at some point. In the summer of 2015 my wife had an amazing opportunity to travel to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. My medical situation prevented me from joining her, but I decided that perhaps while she was on her adventure, I could have my own adventure -- in writing. A local magazine held a short story contest, I entered, and I won. Then, the words just kept flowing. I now have so many ideas that I can overwhelm myself if I am not careful!
Whose work has influenced your own?
I have been a voracious reader since I first learned how letters turned into words and sentences and stories. I give thanks to anyone and everyone who has ever taken the time to share their words with others. James Herriot, S. E. Hinton, Judy Blume, and so many others made a huge impression on me as a young person. Congressman John Lewis has long been one of my heroes and his recent March trilogy is amazing. I share it with all of my students and tell everyone to read it!
Do you have any current projects?
I have a list of projects that keeps growing. Unfortunately, only a few of them get started at a time! I have ideas for poems and short stories as well as fiction and painting series. I love the students I work with and am honored to teach at a community college – a place where everybody has a chance to succeed and be smart. We accept everyone. That concept, complete acceptance, is an incredibly powerful one. Someday, I hope that I can create a body of work that reflects the incredible potential of my students. I am so very proud of them.