One year before she became an MFA student at Goddard College, Caroline Catlin had her writing published in The New York Times. For many writers, this would be a capstone achievement.
But for Catlin, it was the foundation of her Goddard learning journey.
In the article, titled What I Learned Photographing Death, she wrote about being misdiagnosed and dismissed by doctors for three years. The results of a long-requested MRI revealed something about her chronic aches and pains that would change everything in her world.
“My story took a turn — the plans I had to become a social worker or a photojournalist were replaced with a list of treatments for grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma brain cancer: six weeks of daily radiation, six months to a year of chemo, possibly another craniotomy. Within a month, the hair on the right side of my head fell out, leaving a bald spot next to my c-shaped scar. I’m 27. The type of cancer I have is incurable.”
The article propelled Catlin into the world of publishing. She had offers from six agents who wanted to represent her, hoping to sell her future memoir to a publisher.
After deliberating, Catlin chose an agent who she felt believed in the importance of the creative process as much as she does. While publishing her work remains a goal for the future, Catlin wanted to prioritize the writing process above all else. Her approach, she said, had to be methodical and poetic. She wanted new strategies, time to pursue them, and a community of writers for support.
Then in June of 2020, Caroline learned she’d been selected to present at TEDx Seattle. After a year of coaching and rehearsals amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she shared her story on the TEDx stage. Catlin’s talk What photographing death taught me about life tells a story of deep empathy in how she experiences the art of documenting the deaths of critically ill children and their families as they say goodbye. Catlin’s photographer’s eye is there to capture the story of these tragedies.
Catlin hopes her talk is “a call to authenticity.”
Leaving her Master’s in Social Work at University of Washington to enroll in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Port Townsend, Washington, Catlin began the process of writing the memoir. Although Catlin grew up in Middlebury Vermont, she’s still has yet to visit Goddard’s historic Greatwoods campus in Plainfield. She currently lives in Seattle.
The call to authenticity is a clear thread in Catlin’s work as a learner, photographer, and writer, disability rights advocate and grief worker. She is committed to learning more about writing by studying memoirs, through recommended reading by her Goddard faculty advisor Bea Gates, who has said, “Poets write the best memoirs.” Catlin cites Goddard alum and poet Mark Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast as one source of inspiration.
What’s so special about Goddard? “The way that the Goddard students care for each other.” she says. Because Catlin has only been a student in “pandemic times” she admits she’s still hoping for that “quintessential Goddard student life.” She credits Goddard’s faculty for making the absolute best of the virtual residencies, creating a community space inside the confines of Zoom meetings.
At her last virtual residency she spoke about how the students came together to help a student who was concerned they wouldn’t be able to complete the rigorous program. “The response was so loving and supportive. They were able to talk about the things they were feeling overwhelmed by. That’s a huge example of what it means to support each other through this program and what student life should be.”
Catlin has taken to her social media platforms prioritizing connection, hope, resilience, and community organizing. On Instagram (@mybodyofwater), her followers find support and courage in Catlin’s photos, writing and inspirational posts.
“I have always operated from a place of believing very strongly in community and connection as the two pillars that I build my life on.” Catlin said, “The process of sharing so much of my story and being open and honest about it has been so rewarding in the sense that the connections that I’ve been able to make with other people who have written to me and said- This is my story too. Or thank you for voicing something I couldn’t. They have been incredibly encouraging.”
“I feel the same way about the connections I want to build at Goddard. I really believe in sharing stories and connecting with each other through authenticity and honesty.” said Catlin
Two of her writing coaches in Seattle, Sarah Townsend and Dani Boss, are both Goddard MFAW alums who recommended Goddard College. The sense of collaboration, support and intimacy inspired Catlin. “When it came time to enroll in an MFA in Creative Writing, Goddard was the only school I applied to. It was the obvious choice.”
“The ability to go to grad school is a very privileged thing I grappled with.” Catlin says. “But I told myself: the world needs all sorts of people.” Catlin sees the value in learning along with other students in a listening community, instead of a heavily competitive or highly critical workshop environment.
“It’s powerful. Because with a low-residency program it is more open to people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.” she said. “When I was applying for undergraduate programs, it was such a competitive and stressful process. I remember thinking about numbers and calculations. With Goddard, I listened to what was bigger than all that. I loved the alums, the community.”
Catlin’s photography practice is critical to the memoir. “As a photographer, you ask yourself- what story do I want to tell? – what’s in the frame, what’s not in the frame? I had a teacher who said, you’re not taking a photo, you’re making a photo. Photography means writing with light – the documenting of narrative. My thesis talks a lot about lens and aperture in this way.”
She admits the challenge of writing the story you are living has its obstacles. “You tell the narrative you want to tell while the narrative is pushing in on you.” Perhaps taking a note from Mark Doty’s Dog Days, she says, “How do you learn to write about your dog while the dog is always barking?”
As Catlin navigates the twists and turns of her medical reality, with full support from her Goddard faculty advisors, she approaches writing with a photographer’s focus and a poet’s luminous heart.
Catlin keeps this piece of writing advice close at hand as she embarks on her learning practice: “Don’t walk away from something until you’ve walked all the way around it.”
Fearlessly, compassionately, and with a supportive community of student writers, Caroline Catlin has sounded the call to authenticity.
Passionate about storytelling since a young age, Caroline’s writing has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Longreads, Healthline, Glamour, and elsewhere. Her photography & film can be found in Boston Globe, AliveNow, The New York Times and LOAM. Caroline’s research and work in behavioral health and developmental trauma has inspired her to incorporate art into the process of care giving and therapy, as well as to work on reforming the way health, illness, and disability are portrayed in media. She is fueled most by gratitude, community, and sour candy. She can be reached at carolinecatlin.com and on Twitter at @caroline_catlin.
Goddard Student Spotlight highlights unique student stories as they are in the depths of their learning practice. Caroline Catlin was interviewed by Ben t. Matchstick (MFAIA ’15) in March 2021. Ben is the Digital Media Coordinator for Goddard College.
Are you prepared to tell your story? Find out more about Goddard’s BFA, MA, and MFA programs, each of which employs personal narrative and self-discovery as a source material to becoming the life-long learner you hope to become. Make an inquiry to find out more at https://www.goddard.edu/admissions/