I was invited to do a blog post as part of a rolling series on the writing process. Cool! And so is the person who invited me, Sarah Wells. I met Sarah when I taught at the Ashland Low-Residency MFA program, where Sarah is the dauntless administrative director. She also is the managing editor at Riverteeth. She also is a poet with a book, Pruning Burning Bushes. She also is the mom of three kids. She’s also made a fantastic and successful foray into the world of the essay. As you can see, Sarah’s last name might have to be changed to “also,” but we like that it’s Wells because then her email address is “swells.”
But I digress. Actually, that’s a lot of what I do as a nonfiction writer, and then I try to make all the digressions line up or mean something larger.
Here are the questions I’m supposed to answer:
1. What am I working on?
Two books. One is a memoir about witnessing addiction; it’s nontraditional in that the focus is on me, why I stayed, how I ended up loving an addict, all those complicated and interesting and self-implicating questions. It began as a series of brief essays, because the only way around my fear of the topic was to write tiny snapshots. But over time I got more brave and I figured out ways to not only tell my story but to make larger meaning (I hope).
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My genre is a playground of amazing literary invention. To my mind, claiming a corner of it as my territory doesn’t make sense because I know other people are constantly churning it up. I will say that, like many others, I am partial to the essayistic memoir, the thinky life story. I tend to write a plain-spoken or accessible style because that’s the voice in my head that’s left after I delete all the abstractions and evasions. Maybe this comes across as simple in my work, but I value the Midwestern aesthetic in all its complexity. I use research, like many other people. I’m interested in activist and labor narratives, and I write nonfiction about what it means to stick out one’s neck and try to change things (difficult for an introverted writer, but less difficult than the discomfort of watching things go to hell from the sidelines).
3. Why do I write what I do?
I was born broadside. In other words, I started to write early and often, thinking like a newspaper columnist, for reasons I don’t much understand. My mother would probably say it was because I was a colicky baby and a child who simply could not stop talking. I had a column called “Kid’s Side” in the New Lenox Weekly Reporter when I was in seventh grade, and I wrote about things like the need for a bike path and whether or not our public school should have uniforms. It was fun. Popular kids who never noticed me suddenly wanted to beat me up. In my writing since then, the polemic and didactic have brokered an uneasy détente with the stylistic and the reflective, as I also wrote poetry and fiction since I was in grade school. I was almost expelled in high school for trying to write an article in for the local paper about why we didn’t have a newspaper at my huge, sports-obsessed high school. I really didn’t mean to cause trouble. I was just curious and started doing interviews and I followed the questions, and then I had to write it. In my journalism independent study, I had to pass my articles about the Garden Club and the Russian Club through the principal’s office for approval, so I dutifully also handed in my feature. I got called in and was told that if I published it—this was in 1989—I would be expelled. Seriously. My parents and I slunk away, scared of getting in trouble—this was an issue of not knowing that we had any right to make waves. In another area and another set of circumstances it would have been a glorious lawsuit. After the threats and the yelling from the principal, the piece was never published. I cried at my little independent-study desk in the English office and that was that. Maybe I have my high school to blame for my inability to shut up since then. Then I discovered creative nonfiction in 2000 while I was in graduate school for journalism, and fell in love with a form I didn’t think had a name.
4. How does my writing process work?
My requirement for myself is to show up at my desk for at least an hour a day and see what happens. I like to think that sometimes boredom works for me. I get so annoyed at not having anything to look at or think about that I start writing something. But when I’m not supposed to be writing, I will often get ideas like a poet does, in the form of strong impulses, snapshots of experience, and images or chains of words in my head. Those scraps go into files in journals and in the free program Evernote, which I love for keeping track of everything. I like to work on multiple things at once. And after a long time of not having readers, I am SO happy to be involved in two writing groups that are amazing with smart women who give me utterly priceless feedback.
Okay, now I’m passing it off to these folks for next week:
Jeff Darren Muse is a super-talented writer who’s thoughtful and committed. I met him while I was teaching at Ashland U, and I am so glad we are friends. Here’s his official bio: Jeff writes and teaches in southwestern Wisconsin and works seasonally as a National Park Service ranger near Gunnison, Colorado. Trained in science and environmental education, he recently received an MFA from Ashland University, focusing on creative nonfiction. His writing has appeared in Ascent, The Common, Flycatcher, and Poecology, among other publications, and he’s working on a collection of personal essays tentatively titled Manly Labor. Learn more at www.jeffdarrenmuse.com.
Elizabeth Hilts is like a swiss-army knife. I suspect possibly that she can do anything, though she denies this. She’s the author of the Inner Bitch book series, and is working on both a novel and a memoir, and has many publications to her name. She is a wonderful friend and a trusted reader of my work and she makes me laugh sometimes so hard I can’t breathe. We send a lot of text messages.
And I’m supposed to have a third person, and I emailed someone but didn’t hear back. Then I didn’t follow up at all. It’s the last three weeks of the semester and I’m a little nutty. I don’t know what I’m doing writing a blog post anyway.