The Sunday Spotlight: Writer Melissa Matthewson
Today’s featured writer: Melissa Matthewson.
The featured writing: “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review.
I live in a small, rural town, so in order to fulfill my literary cravings and needs, I rely upon social media to keep connected. While having that online access is great, interacting with people virtually is definitely a poor substitute to being with people in the flesh. And while there are writers and literary-minded folk in my region of Southern Oregon, obviously the opportunities pale in comparison to more populated areas like Portland, which is five hours north. I was thrilled then to discover (actually she gets credit for discovering me via a fellow VCFA alum) and meet Melissa Matthewson, who lives over the ridge in the next valley from me. When we met, Melissa had just begun the MFA in writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I, too, received my MFA in creative nonfiction. Finally, I had flesh and blood literary connection to share the love of words with over glasses of wine at Peace of Pizza in the Applegate valley or a local-made hard cider or ale at the taco joint in my town of Williams. (And someone to travel with to AWP. Here we are outside Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis last year.)
Since our meeting, Melissa has graduated and gone on to publish many striking essays in very fine publications, the most recent being “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review and recently nominated by them for a pushcart prize. Her lyric essay is a segmented meditation on loss, full of both gorgeous language and thoughtful rumination, that stems from a time when her future husband was caught in the mountains in a sudden snow storm.
I felt the possibility of loss as an exertion of pressure on my chest as I walked, the force overwhelming as if I were to be swallowed into the buried sky. This loss as an interruption to the ordinary. My fiancée had gone to the mountains with two friends hours before. I wondered about them in the woods with the snow. I wondered about the blurry confusion of a quick storm. You could say I was worried. As a couple, we were so new, our love like fresh soap taken from the plastic and sweet like lavender.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA), University of Montana (MS), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). Her essays have appeared in the Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Sweet, Defunct, Numero Cinq, Terrain.org, Pithead Chapel, This Magazine, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Under the Gum Tree, and Cobra Lily Review among other publications. Her essay, “A Gathering of Then & Now” won the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in creative nonfiction. She has been a finalist for the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize and the Orlando Prize for Nonfiction. She serves as an Assistant Essays Editor at The Rumpus, teaches writing workshops and Zumba dance classes, and runs an organic farm. She’s working on a collection of lyric essays. Visit her at melissamatthewson.com or on twitter @melmatthewson.
A few questions for Melissa:
Each section in “As Snow Designs” attempts to open the essay anew with a fresh angle of beginning, while also building upon the previous section(s) until the last two sections shift towards finding the ending. Can you speak to that? How did this structure come about?
The essay’s genesis began in a lecture on juxtaposition in poetry and prose at a Vermont College of Fine Arts residency. Danielle Cadena Deulen gave us a writing prompt in which we were to juxtapose three events. The first prompt was to write about a time when you were in an extreme state of being, using metaphor to explain. I decided on writing about losing my husband to the snow. Then she had us write about a city we had traveled to or lived in. I wrote about Missoula. Then she had us tell a story with a clear narrative. Any story. I wrote about coming upon a performer on the Santa Cruz streets painted all silver. She then had us try to connect the first fragment about the extreme emotion to the other two fragments. I left the lecture loving what the writing prompt generated, so I went home and wrote the essay that is now, “As Snow Designs.” I sort of stumbled upon the structure just through experimentation. I was reading a lot of experimental essays at the time and I was influenced by their playfulness in terms of form. In my own writing, I couldn’t find a way to tell this particular story, so it just came to me as I was writing that I should just try a number of different beginnings with titles for each section. The essay evolved over almost two years of writing and revising.
Do you have a specific writing process? How do your essay ideas come to you?
My writing process is to fit in writing where I can! I try to commit myself to three large chunks of writing time per week, but of course, this is usually interrupted for whatever reason. I don’t have a specific time of day that works. It’s whenever I can sit down. I like to write in bed under my wool blanket. I write a lot while my children are running around the house. Perhaps it’s their craziness that inspires me? Or I need the chaos of their voices to fuel me? I tend to write very short pieces of prose. I can’t seem to just sit down and pour out pages and pages of words. I craft sentences slowly, paying attention to word choice, rhythm, syntax. I resist straight narrative, so I like to experiment with form and play with blurring the lines between poetry and nonfiction. Sometimes ideas come to me very easily. I often think of it as a process of enchantment with an experience or an affection for an idea. For instance, I happened upon an amazing place in northern California recently and had an almost spiritual experience in the woods. I was so compelled by the experience that a short piece of prose immediately poured out of me. Or, a friend died recently, so I tried to make sense of the grief and loss through a short poem. Or recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about scarcity, stability, and the course of nature and its uncertainty and somehow I want to take those ideas and craft them into an essay. Big topics and of course, they’ve been written on before, but I like tackling old ideas in new ways. I guess ideas come to me based on experience, emotion, and thought.
What are you currently reading, and what recent books, essays, poems, or stories do you recommend and why?
I’m currently reading The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson; Find Me, Laura Van Den Berg; and Bright, Dead Things, Ada Limon. I’m slowly reading essays in After Montaigne edited by Patrick Madden and David Lazar and Ander Monson’s new collection, Letter to a Future Lover.
A friend of mine from VCFA, Genevieve Thurtle, just published a stunning essay in the most recent issue of The Sun. The essay, “Twenty Three Weeks,” is a devastatingly beautiful essay about losing her daughter. I also read Ada Limon’s essay on Richard Blanco’s blog “To What Do We Owe This Pleasure: On the Value of Not Writing” that I can’t stop thinking about. I have a secret crush on Ada Limon. Guess it’s not so secret anymore. Eula Biss published an essay in the New York Times “White Debt” that I think was very provocative and important and which I’ve read several times and recommend to everyone. An essay in the 2015 Best American Essay anthology gutted me: Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter & God.” I recently read James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” and it’s just an amazing story in so many ways: plot, character, and sentence construction!
Nonfiction books I read last year that affected me greatly were Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Citizen from Claudia Rankine. Also, I devoured Laura Groff’s novel Fates and Furies. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation too. I’ve been drawn to literature about marriage and desire based on the writing I’m doing. I’ve also been drawn to understanding, learning, and engaging in issues and literature around race so reading Coates and Rankine’s books has been a part of that education.
I’ve got a long to-read list. Books I can’t wait to read in the next few months include: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson; How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes; Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay; Negroland, Margo Jefferson; H is for Hawk; Helen Macdonald; and Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith.
What book do you wish you could have written?
What a good question! I don’t know…maybe anything that Virginia Woolf has ever written. Maybe Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Or Lorrie Moore’s collection of stories, Self-Help. Anything Joan Didion. Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Or Crime and Punishment, only because I loved that book in high school.
What inspires you?
The mountains. Trees. Music. Poetry.
Can you share a bit with us about the essay collection you are working on? Does it have a tentative title?
Sure! Right now, it’s a collection of twenty-five lyric essays, though some of these could be considered prose poems or short flash nonfiction. It’s tentatively titled Home, As It Were: Essays. Together, the essays examine the paradox of limitation versus freedom within a marriage. I like to think they form an intimate inquiry into identity as explored through subjects and themes of desire, farming, marriage, sexuality, polyamory, domesticity (and the rejection thereof), music, and motherhood, all tied and threaded to the landscape. Each essay attempts to build a loose chronological story of a marriage from the middle of a relationship to the break, all told through lyrical narrative and hybrid forms. I hope for the essays to blend and fuse writing that is lyrical, intellectually curious and to provoke and arouse the reader through an artful investigation into desire and marriage. We’ll see. It’s an attempt. As in all essays!