Behind the Words: Phyllis Brotherton

Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

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Phyllis Brotherton

Phyllis Brotherton comes to writing after a long career in financial management, during which she focused on crisis management and financial turnarounds. At 50 she obtained an MA in Creative Writing and did a stint as a TA and adjunct while writing before realizing that the grind of part-time teaching “did not lend itself to spending much time creating.” She returned to the more lucrative role of Chief Financial Officer for her local public TV station, a job she held while pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fresno State University; she graduated from that program in May 2015 having completed a master’s thesis titled “Methods of Accounting.”

She lives with her wife, Denise, in in Clovis, CA.

Phyllis spoke with us about inspiration, her creative process, and how she approaches the work of writing.

It’s probably obvious that we greatly admire “As We Gather Around Ourselves,” particularly the complex weaving of the themes of motherhood, identity, and relationship. What was the initial inspiration for this essay?

The initial inspiration came, literally, at the moment I write about in the essay, when my spouse, Denise, and I sat on our red love seat recliner in the living room of our Clovis home. I was staring at our bare feet, specifically our toes, which had been, however strangely, a recurring subject of my writing.

Around this specific moment swirled a number of subjects of great emotional import for me, which continue to inform, if not absorb, my writing: my mother’s dementia and death, her strained relationship with her son (my brother); my distant, disappearing relationship with my own son, Mehdi; and the then recent news from Denise’s daughter, Tammy, of her decision to move to another state.

Having recently taken a Queer Theory class, truly a consciousness-building experience for me, the subjects of heteronormativity, productive futurity, and gender performativity, were also floating around in my head. I had never, before this class, thought about how motherhood defines, or even possibly “legitimizes” a lesbian’s place in the heterosexual world. This led me to wonder how a lesbian couple, two mothers, define themselves, when suddenly or over time, they are stripped of this primary identity. Of course, I tackle none of these subjects in depth in this essay. That’s not my style, nor was it my intent. More important for me was to capture the deep emotion, the complexity, and the intense, fragile humanness of it all.

It’s interesting that you chose to not tackle these subjects in depth in the essay and you explained that, “almost every segment, in its first iteration, was a part of other short essays or memoir pieces,” which speaks to another theme in the essay, that of erasure.  

“As We Gather Around Ourselves” is possible through erasure, really; a monumental deletion of all that I feel is extraneous. Without being lofty or grandiose, because my personality is anything but, it represents my creative style, my art: that of distillation, condensation, a reduction to some kind of crystalline essence.

There is so much about erasure in the essay. At the same time, however, there’s the competing idea of reinvention, of “becoming.” How conscious were you of the tension between erasure and reinvention while working on “As We Gather Around Ourselves”? How much did that inform the structure of the essay?

Yes, erasure seems to be a theme doesn’t it, though I can’t say I was conscious of it at the time. Erasure was, however, a conscious tool in the formulation of the essay, as I chipped away at extraneous words and paragraphs. I relate this type of erasure to something Louis Bourgeois once said about painting, “You must put the essence of what you want to say into a painting. The rest is arbitrary. Chosen with discernment, but chosen, and choice involves elimination.” Reinvention or “becoming” will likely be my state of mind and intention always, as it seemed to be for my mother.

You inherited your mother’s blue-based or fire-engine red painted toes (a recurring detail we very much admire in this piece). Your mother became a painter later in life (after abandoning the “silly notion” of writing a book) and you come to writing later in life. How much did your mother’s painting inspire your decision to take yourself seriously as a writer? I wonder, often, about the concept of “permission” when it comes to creativity—particularly for women. Did your mother’s exploration of her creativity later in life somehow inform your own choice to explore yours?

Yes, I cannot help but think it did.  My mother’s discovered note about wanting to write a book came at a time when my father had just died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 57. Who knows how long she had had this desire, but it likely became more of a possibility for her when she was freed of taking care of a husband and helping in the family business. I have to say she blossomed. A few years later she remarried and everyday life again took over, but she seemed never to lose the drive to create. By the time she finally was able to devote more time to exercising her creative juices, she had already begun to experience the early symptoms of vascular dementia, which first manifested itself in her forgetting how to spell or use the right words. I think this was the initial impetus for turning to another creative outlet, painting.

My own “permission” came after a second divorce, when I had moved back into a house I’d bought after my first marriage, and had thankfully hung onto. As I re-inhabited this “space of my own” if you will, I began to write poetry, (looking back, some very bad poetry), then took a night class called “Writing for Profit,” at an adult school. My mother’s creative journey and eventual mental decline ran along much the same timeline as my own deepening writing passion and practice. By the time the hospice nurse “explains the blue of my mother’s toes, a natural process by which blood begins to leave the extremities and gather around the heart,” I was a writer.

You’ve said that you’ll probably continue to engage this essay. Yet it appears that you did feel the essay was complete enough to submit—how did you decide to do this?

Saying I will continue to work on this essay might just be my vulnerable writer-self talking, thinking it needs more work, and of course, every piece of writing could use more work. But, it felt finished when I submitted it to Spry, and now adding, deleting or expanding any segment seems an impossible or at least undesirable task. It brings to mind taking a stained glass mosaic and bashing it with a hammer. Really key for me is to continue to engage the ideas and tensions here in other writing. A companion essay titled, “Ice Storm, 2001,” published in Your Impossible Voice, along with other published and unpublished pieces further explore these subjects. My goal is to eventually publish these in a collection of personal essays.

What are you working on most intensely now?

I am so excited and very lucky to have been accepted as part of a panel of five women writers presenting at AWP 2016. In preparation for this, I am in the “noodling over” stage of deciding what I will present. The dilemma facing any mother in defining herself as “other than mother” is a universal one, I think. The concepts of lesbian motherhood and legitimacy are especially interesting to me, though I was a mother long before I identified as a lesbian. The strained (a deliberately vague euphemism) relationship with my adult son, which I allude to in this essay, is another parallel to my mother’s life, but has little to do with being a lesbian, though “leaning on” motherhood is a comfortable heteronormative practice, just as many straight women who decide not to become mothers many times experience discomfort when challenging these norms. No doubt these subjects will show up on the finished pages. The intensity is about to begin.

Are you one who writes daily, one who writes sporadically, one writes in a fever?

Until I retire (who knows when), weekends are my carved out space for writing, usually in the mornings when my brain cells are working on all cylinders, and sometimes for the remainder of a day, if the synapses are stilling clicking. As I am sure every writer experiences, my projects begin in a fever, then continue and are completed only with dogged determination, with frequent breaks for spraying sage, dabbing lavender oil under my nostrils, steeping tea and baking something, anything that fills the house with good smells. Thus is the creative practice, which in effect is really a spiritual practice, of one late-blooming woman writer.


A System of Linear Equations- Hilts, ElizabethElizabeth Hilts writes memoir, essays, and fiction; though she has written poetry, no one really has to know about that. During the academic year, Hilts toils in the fields of academe as an adjunct professor of English and related subjects. She is in a constant state of revision both as a writer and as a human being.

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