Brenda Miller is the first creative nonfiction Master Teacher featured in the Weekend Workshop series. She’s the author of the essay collections Season of the Body, Blessing the Animals, and Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays. Brenda is editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review, and co-author of the creative nonfiction textbook Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Her workshop will take place January 14&15, 2012. There is currently one space available.
Brenda, we are so looking forward to welcoming you to Sacramento in January 2012. I get the sense that you do a lot of teaching and writing in the community. I wonder if you might speak for a moment about how all that started for you, and what you love about talking and working with readers and writers outside a traditional academic setting?
I’m looking forward to visiting Sacramento, too! I love working with writers in the community, precisely because they are usually in a class or workshop for the love of the craft itself, rather than to fulfill a requirement. Passion, vulnerability, and genuine curiosity—these are the qualities that seem to emerge most strongly in community workshops, as well as a wide variety of life experience. It doesn’t take long to develop a sense of common purpose and respect, and so the work becomes energizing for everyone.
When you come together with a group of students in a workshop, what approaches do you use, and why?
I do some icebreakers that help us understand immediately why we are there, who we are, and what we bring to the table. If we’re workshopping previously written pieces, I like to have a conversation with the writer that explores craft issues the writing brings up for all of us, not necessarily to simply “fix” the writing at hand. We are acting as advocates for one another.
Turning to your own work now: this summer, you enjoyed the release of a collection of your selected essays, Listening Against the Stone. Congratulations! How does it feel to have a “selected” out?
It’s wonderful to have a collection out that so fully articulates the central concerns of my work over the years—how my spiritual life has shifted and evolved. When I was putting the collection together, I was surprised to see the new narratives that emerged by putting older essays with newer essays. I also was quite happy to have my six Pushcart-Prize winning essays all together under one roof!
I spent some time today rereading my notes on your work (I recently re-read and taught Season of the Body) and reading some of your past interviews. I love what you said last year, in conversation with the L.A. Times, about writing about things you notice in the world and in life: “I had to learn to find an external to focus on in order to allow my emotions to surface.” I am hoping you might unpack this concept a bit. What kinds of things count as “external” for you? What is it about things external that brings your deeper emotions forward?
I think this is a central concept for successful creative nonfiction, and I speak now as a writer, teacher, and editor. With personal nonfiction work, it can be tempting to write directly about the “big” things that have occurred in our lives and how we feel about them. But almost always these kinds of works become too “self-centered.” It can be difficult to fully include the reader. By starting instead with small, concrete details in the external world, we find our way to the truth of our lives in a more literary—and more universal–way.
For instance, one of the pieces in Listening Against the Stone is called “Dirty Windows.” In it, I start with the mundane observation about how a sunny day in Bellingham, WA (a rare occurrence!) lights up all the streaks and smudges on the windows, as well as revealing all the pet hair on the floor. This detail leads me to meditate on the way I’ve always longed for light that is more “forgiving,” which, of course, turns the essay into a small piece about what allows us to forgive ourselves. I started that piece with my students in a community workshop, and it was completely unexpected; I didn’t plan to write about that topic; I started merely with the external observation. That’s also what makes starting with the external more effective: we haven’t necessarily planned out what we want to say, and so the revelations come as a surprise for both writer and reader. Whenever I share that piece at a reading, I connect immediately with my audience, who nod their heads as they recall the dirty windows in their own lives, and who then are willing to go along for the ride as we head into deeper territory.
Brenda, you have said before that once a writer locates his/her material, “you have to be willing to get some distance from it and see it as just that: material. You have to work like an artist and sculpt it into shape.” I could see this being read by some as a license to secretly bend verifiable facts in service of a personal truth. How do you locate the harmonies between the constant “flux” of truth (as you’ve called it) and the demands of verifiable facts that integrity requires we acknowledge?
I don’t worry too much about shaping a piece for literary effect, as the truth I’m after is not necessarily a factual one. I wouldn’t make up whole events or significant details, but I have no problem re-creating a scene that I might remember as only a flash of memory. Often, I will cue the reader in to these lapses of memory and allow the reader to follow along as I play. For instance, the word “perhaps” is a workhorse in my lexicon, as is “maybe” and “I like to imagine…” The use of the present tense for childhood memories is also an excellent way to signal that you are not “reporting” events, but re-creating them.
I’ll sometimes tell my reader when I’m totally wrong; this happens in the essay “Blessing of the Animals,” when I remember incorrectly how my childhood dog Sheba died. I start with the phrase “For some reason, I remember….” Then re-create the scene. In the next paragraph, I tell the reader my memory was incorrect and give the factual version as reported by my mother. In this case, I leave in the incorrect version in order to make a point about memory and about how erroneous memories sometimes reveal more about ourselves than “real” memories.
Your writing has such a polished surface that, at first, it seems that it must be simple, straightforward. In fact, it is incredibly layered—elements play with and against and alongside each other in ways that are intricate yet also very inviting to the reader. How do you balance those energies—the impulse to layer and weave with the impulse to reach outward to the reader?
When I’m layering a piece, it’s happening very organically, in that I feel as though I’m simply following imagery and language where it will take me. As I am following language, a certain insistent theme will arise. Once I know that theme, I can go back and revise to highlight that theme and the connections throughout, as well as edit out sections that are no longer relevant. In this way, I allow the reader to follow a map, with certain phrases or images leading the way. The reader becomes involved in putting together the essay too, so it becomes a collaboration between reader and writer (or between the reader and the text).
I am interested in what you said in another previous interview—that when you’re drafting, “if it’s something that will lend itself to research, it’s nearly always going to end up in a braided form so that I can play cool images and facts against one another.” This comment made me wonder: When you sense that you’re writing something that doesn’t want research added in, what kinds of forms most often present themselves?
Short forms—pieces that are small glimpses or interludes. But sometimes research comes into those pieces as well. The braided essay also works without research; one of the central pieces in Listening is called “The Burden of Bearing Fruit,” and it follows a central narrative line of me having the Rainier Cherry tree in my backyard cut down. Once I knew I was writing about trees, I wrote a lot of sections about trees in my memory, especially falling trees. The narrative of the Rainier Cherry threads throughout the piece, creating a “plot” that holds all these different memories, which then become more about creating family as a single, childless woman. The phrase “the burden of bearing fruit” takes on a layered resonance in this context: the cherry needed to be cut down because the fruiting trees do not survive as long as those that are merely ornamental; and the narrator has not yet borne fruit in the traditional sense, but is finding her own form of abundance.
What are you working on at present that most excites you and/or most challenges you?
I’m putting together a fragmented memoir that is currently called “The Single Girl’s Guide to Remodeling: Dispatches from a Life in Progress.” (the title essay is a sequel to “The Burden of Bearing Fruit.”) The challenge is fitting all these small pieces together in a way that makes sense, as well as interspersing longer essays in different forms. I’m afraid it will feel like too much like a mish-mash of disparate pieces. But then again, life itself often feels like a mish-mash of disparate pieces, so maybe it’s really a brilliant strategy!
Kate Asche, M.A., is a poet/essayist and creative writing teacher. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, she was a finalist for the 2011 Audio Contest at The Missouri Review and has poetry forthcoming in Confrontation. She received two Elliot Gilbert Prizes in Poetry, an Academy of American Poets Award and was a finalist for University of California Poet Laureate. A trained facilitator in the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method, she is associate director of the Arts, Humanities and Writing program at UC Davis Extension. Follow her and get the scoop on local writing events at www.katesmiscellany.blogspot.com.