My introduction to Janna Marlies Maron came when my essay “Something to Do with Baldness” was accepted for publication at Under the Gum Tree, a reader supported, full-size, quarterly literary arts magazine that specializes in creative nonfiction, with visual artwork and photo essays alongside feature essays and four regular department sections: Fork and Spoon, Soundtrack, 24 Frames a Second, and Stomping Ground. Janna is the editor and publisher of Under the Gum Tree, which she began five years ago with the publication of the first issue in August of 2011.
Under the Gum Tree was my first creative nonfiction print publication in the January 2014 issue, and I was ecstatic when I received my copy, which has gorgeous artwork by Jane Ryder. The magazine is printed on high quality paper with a thick card-stock cover and the pages have that slick coffee table-display feel. I couldn’t believe my essay was set in such a beautiful display. It was as if I had hit the jackpot. Later, I was honored to have my essay nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors, and I got to know Janna more personally when she interviewed me for her podcast series More to the Story (more on More to the Story below).
One thing that impresses me about Janna is her incredible ability of creative manifestation. She has generosity of spirit and is community-minded, qualities that increase her capacity towards that creative manifestation. She is, in essence, committed to the act of creativity, especially personal storytelling. As Janna states on her website:
“If I had to sum up what I’m all about in two words they would be: authentic storytelling. That’s the core of why I write, why I publish stories and why I teach others to write their story. I tell stories that challenge and inspire people to pursue the potential of their creativity; I nurture creativity by making space for exploring and showcasing creativity.”
In addition to editing and publishing Under the Gum Tree, Janna runs TrueStory, a nonfiction reading series and open mic in Sacramento, California, a collaboration she founded with writer and professor Elaine Gale. And just this year, Janna unveiled her podcast More to the Story, an eight-episode series “all about creative nonfiction and telling true, personal stories.” In the introductory episode, Janna talks about “why sharing true, personal stories is important,” and she reads an excerpt from her own story “The Gum Tree,” published in the premier issue. The other episodes include discussions with previous UTGT contributors Penny Guisinger, Maddy Walsh, Timothy Kenny, Samuel Autman, Kate Washington, Katy Sargent.
Janna Marlies Maron holds an MA in creative writing. She teaches as an adjunct professor of English, facilitates writing workshops in Sacramento and online, and offers editorial support services. Janna writes on a variety of topics, including health and wellness, and is the author of three ebooks: How to Manage Depression without Drugs: 5 Game Plans That Helped Me Get My Life Back, Claim Your Throne: How to Manage Your Online Content & Rule Your Corner of the Internet, and Sip, Don’t Gulp. She lives in Sacramento, California with her husband.
A few questions for Janna:
When you began Under the Gum Tree, did you have any idea of what you were embarking upon? Were there particular journals or magazines that you drew from for ideas or inspiration? Will you share the story of how UTGT came into being?
There were a couple of factors that went into my starting UTGT. I found the genre creative nonfiction in grad school and when I graduated, I didn’t see a lot of opportunity for reading or publishing in that genre. That, combined with my professional background in magazine publishing, prompted me to explore the possibility of starting a magazine. When I looked at other literary magazines, one thing I felt was missing is the magazine-size, full-color, glossy experience of magazines—that’s the experience I had with my job history and the experience I loved about interacting with magazines. Color, design, layout, I wanted to bring those elements to the literary publishing world.
Did I have any idea of what I was embarking on? Not really. I mean, before entering the literary publishing space my experience was strictly with lifestyle consumer magazines, and there’s a big difference between that and what I do now. The material that I publish requires such care, and it has such staying power. Not only that, but I am building lasting relationships with the writers whose work I publish, and I often get to watch them grow in their careers. There are writers who were published for the first time in UTGT, and they have gone on to have the essay we published in an anthology, or they get a book deal, or their new work is being recognized as a notable essay in Best American Essays. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look at the list of notables and see so many names that have also been in UTGT, and that is not something I ever imagined would happen when I started the magazine. It’s an honor to feel like a small part in a writer’s publishing journey.
Can you talk about UTGT’s tagline “Tell Stories Without Shame”? For me, this tagline was a defining reason why I chose to submit to UTGT. In the pilot episode of your podcast More to the Story, you read the story you wrote titled “The Gum Tree,” which elucidates the meaning behind the title of the magazine. Will you talk about how these two, the magazine’s title and tagline, are intrinsically linked?
Writing creative nonfiction is the single most important work I have ever done in my life that moved me to a place of self-acceptance. I really hate talking about writing as therapy, because when you craft true stories, personal or otherwise, into art, it moves beyond therapy—it has to in order to be considered art, and it has to be art in order to speak to an audience. So I am not talking about therapy here. But I am talking about the experience of writing about my story—what has made me who I am as a person—in a way that helped me see how it shaped me and how there was nothing in it to be ashamed of. The act of writing allowed the story to take on its own life, apart from me and my interior world, and once I could look at it as something separate from me it wasn’t so painful or awkward or shameful.
People often ask me what it means to “tell stories without shame” because the assumption is that there is no shame in the story. And that’s not it at all—it means that we are not ashamed to tell our story. That is the experience that I’ve had with writing and telling and sharing my story, including “The Gum Tree,” and that is the experience that I want to give others, both readers and writers, with Under the Gum Tree.
This month, UTGT is celebrating its five-year anniversary. When we met for lunch this summer, you were planning an anniversary hoopla celebration. Please share with us what your upcoming event is and how readers can be involved.
Yes! I am super excited to be planning an event I’m calling a National Nonfiction Simulcast. It is in partnership with Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Hippocampus Magazine. Each publication will host a local event with readers, and the entire reading will be broadcast online via a live-streamed video. Anyone can attend at one of the four locations or remotely by watching online! It’s happening on October 29, 5 p.m. Pacific / 8 p.m. Eastern. All the details and info can be found at underthegumtree.com/live, and that’s where the video will be streaming on the day of the event.
You also were planning a redesign and contemplating a minor name change of the magazine. Can you talk about some of the changes you’ve made since UTGT’s inception?
I did briefly contemplate a name change from Under the Gum Tree to simply Gum Tree, and I had an informal poll of previous contributors and subscribers who overwhelmingly voted for the name to stay the same! So that’s not changing.
I did, however, make a big design change by taking the tree symbol off the cover. I did this for a few reasons. The main reason is that it was limiting what we could do with art on the cover. If you look at our previous covers, they are all very similar with virtually the same treatment of the art. Removing the tree gives us more freedom and space to use; it also lets the title come to the top edge of the cover, which is more traditional placement for magazine titles.
That’s the biggest change. Readers may not really notice the other changes because they are subtle and that is intentional. I wanted to retain much of our signature elements like a lot of white space, full-spread treatment for the opening of a piece. But the updates I think add really nice touches, like two column text instead of one, and icon images for each of our themed departments. These are the little details that I think keep our design fresh and updated.
One of the things I love about UTGT is the incredible visual art that counterbalances the writing. How do you find the artwork that goes into the magazine?
We do get some art by submission, but not a lot. I’m very fortunate to have an extremely talented art director and designer who collaborate on the art work. They will often solicit work from artists, collaborate on which issue it should be in, and the design placement of the work in the magazine. One other design change directly affects the art we publish, and that is that we will do full-bleed on the visual art as much as possible. Sometimes file size affects whether we can do that or not, because if files are too small then the quality won’t render in print, but when we can do it, we will because the full-bleed images are so arresting and compelling in print.
I so enjoyed interviewing with you for your podcast More to the Story. What was it like for you to work in the auditory realm, creating a podcast, as opposed to the visual realm of producing a magazine? Can we look forward to new episodes in a second season of More to the Story?
Oh, I love it! I started the podcast so that I could provide a way for people to hear the writers reading their own work, which I think creates a whole new experience with the story compared to strictly reading the text on a page. And then hearing the writer share about the story, how it came to be, what it was like to write about it, also adds a new dimension that I hope will ultimately entice people to check out the magazine. It’s also another way to support the writers that Under the Gum Tree publishes, which I really love doing, so, yes, I do hope to have a second season.
At the top of your “About” page on your website is a terrific picture of your legs in red cowboy boots. You tell a little story about you and these boots:
“I used to be afraid to wear the red boots. Actually, I used to be afraid to do a lot of things: walk the one mile to high school alone, try out for basketball, get my own apartment and live without roommates. I also used to say “no” to avoid feeling uncomfortable. If I didn’t know anyone at the party, I’d send my regrets. If I couldn’t find a friend to go with me to yoga, I simply didn’t go—even though learning yoga was a New Year’s resolution. And I certainly never wore the red boots.
Sound crazy or familiar? If it sounds familiar, then you’re in good company. All of the work that I do—writing, editing, publishing—is in pursuit of helping others to intentionally look for ways to be true to yourself, living the life you were meant to live instead of the one that someone else prescribes for you. Often those prescribed expectations—of parents, teachers, coaches, pastors—keep us from being our true self because we’re so afraid of what might happen otherwise.
I share my story because now I wear the red boots. And I want to help others do the same.”
I love this sentiment of overcoming fear and taking risks to fulfill your true self’s identity and of wanting to help others do the same. How did you come to the place of being able to wear those red boots? What changed for you? Was there a defining moment or experience, or was it a gradual coming to terms with who you were and where you wanted to be?
It was definitely gradual. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home and church, and a lot of my upbringing taught me to pay attention to whether or not I was following the rules, and I think I subconsciously learned that following the rules meant I was living up to everyone else’s expectation of who I should be.
Being a writer makes me naturally inclined toward self-reflection. So as I was coming into my own as an adult in my late twenties I realized that I still wasn’t comfortable with who I was, and I had sort of had this assumption that I’d just all of a sudden get comfortable when I became an adult and left the social construct of high school and college. Except, of course, it got worse. So I did things like forced myself to live alone for one year even though I didn’t want to. I did this when I was twenty-eight and, as the oldest of four kids, I had never lived by myself. I did things like resolve to “stop saying no for comfort’s sake”—that was actually a New Year’s resolution I had one year. The red boots were another self-challenge, because I bought them and couldn’t bring myself to wear them for something like a year or more. I had to remind myself of my own mantra to not say no for comfort’s sake.
On your website, you call yourself “a self-proclaimed ‘woman in progress’” but I like to think of you as a literary mover and shaker. I’m inspired by the many projects you have on your plate and your ability to manifest your creative ideas as well as your strong commitment to community, especially the creative nonfiction community. What motivates you? Where do you get your energy from? How do you balance the many demands of your varying roles as writer, editor, publisher, teacher, and podcast producer with your personal life?
You’re so sweet, thank you! I like the term “woman in progress,” because it helps me to remember that no matter what level of success I feel I have achieved, there is always room to learn, grow, change, and improve.
Energy is an interesting thing for me these days because I have to be very careful how I spend it. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2012 and even though I have been symptom free for three years, fatigue and depression still creep in from time to time. In spite of that, I have this inherent need to make things happen; it’s just part of how I’m wired. I can’t stand when people talk about the way things “should” be because unless there is some action I can take, the theoretical is very frustrating for me. I guess that makes me a pragmatist (probably also why I prefer nonfiction to fiction!). So, to answer your question, when there’s something I’d like to see exist in the world, my first impulse is to create it myself or to be a part of creating it. It’s probably not the best impulse to have all the time because that’s how I end up doing so many projects that it does get to be unmanageable at times.
In fact, at the beginning of 2015, my husband and I made the decision to close a business that we had had together for four years. That was not an easy decision for us to make, but it was the right decision, and it’s part of what allows me to keep doing other things like the magazine and podcast. When people ask me about how I manage it all, the best answer I can give is to say that I’m constantly evaluating what takes the most of my energy and what gives me the most energy in return. When an activity sucks more energy than it gives, then I know it’s time to let go. I’m always talking through those variables with my husband, who helps keep me in check, because he’s the one who has to deal with me when I’m stressed and take care of me when I’m spent.
What authors inspire you? Which books are some of your favorites?
Joan Didion is my favorite author. Her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are stunning. I have not yet experienced the loss of someone close to me, and still I feel I experienced the heartbreak of loss through those two books. I also love Eula Biss and Michael Pollan for the way they weave reporting and research with their personal stories so masterfully.
What are your favorite things to do outside of the literary world?
As you know I take an annual trip to Ashland, Oregon with my sisters—that’s partly literary because we are there for the Shakespeare Festival plays, but we also shop and eat a lot. My husband works for a winery, and wine tasting is one of our favorite leisure activities. We love to host dinner parties and facilitate conversation among friends over good food and good wine. We travel as often as we can, and our favorite vacation spot is a remote beach where we can lounge and read all day long. We ride our bikes around town when the weather is nice. And I practice yoga regularly.
You’ve already manifested a lot. Where would you like to go from here?
That’s a good question—I’m not sure. My big dream is to see UTGT become self-sustaining and profitable as an independent magazine. Jeremy, my husband, thinks I should start another magazine. I guess we’ll just have to see!
The winner of this week’s book giveaway of Jodi Paloni’s linked short story collection They Could Live with Themselves is Dale Kleinheksel! Congratulations, Dale. I hope you enjoy it!
The featured Writer: Christy Bailey
The featured writing: “El Pañuelo,” published at Hunger Mountain
Today, May 1, is Christy Bailey’s birthday. She was born in Houston in 1967 to Margaret and David Bailey, elder sister to Melanie, and aunt to Lindsey and Grace. Christy would have been 49 years old today if her life hadn’t been cut short nearly a year ago by inflammatory breast cancer on June 12, 2015.
Christy earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2002, Christy chose service and adventure over the financial stability of her corporate job by joining the Peace Corps and accepting a post in Honduras, a place that profoundly affected her and influenced her future writing life. After returning from Honduras to her home in Denver, Colorado, Christy earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July of 2011.
After graduation, in addition to continuing her own writing and participating as a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Christy taught creative nonfiction at both University of Denver and Regis University, taught writing to homeless kids through the nonprofit program Art from Ashes, and was a writer in residence at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Christy also founded, with her friend Robyn Richey Piz, Salon Denver, a monthly writing group that celebrates writing and the writing life and supports risk taking and the development of new work.
I met Christy at VCFA, where we both were pursuing creative nonfiction and were in four out of the five required workshops together. Christy was a semester ahead of me. At VCFA, a low-residency program, new students join at the beginning of every semester (either in winter or summer), which is kick-started by a 10-day residency; thus a group of students also graduates at every residency, and as such, Christy graduated a semester ahead of me.
My first evening on campus, I went to the opening reception in the gallery, a sort of meet and greet to help integrate new students. I can get quite shy in these situations, and I basically entered the gallery (late) and found nearly everyone already in conversation with each other, so I made a quick dash around the room, lingered alone in spare gaps here and there for a couple of seconds—Awkward—and then made my way out and back to my dorm room. On this spin round the room, one person intercepted me: Christy Bailey. She seemed to have radar for a fellow creative nonfiction writer scheduled for her workshop, and in that brief moment of conversation, I felt like she already knew me. It wasn’t until I went back to my room (I can be kind of dense sometimes) that I realized the headscarf-covered woman I had just met was the writer of the engaging memoir chapter in my workshop packet about a woman who suffers from alopecia areata (hair loss from an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack hair as though it is a virus).
Christy’s in-progress memoir, titled Pañuelo Girl for the colorful pañuelos (headscarves) she wore on her head, detailed her struggle to come to terms with her hair loss and her path to self-acceptance both while serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras and after. When I read Christy’s chapter for workshop, I knew instantly that I was in the hands of a capable writer, one who had a distinct knack for scene development, description, dialogue, and entertaining storytelling. Her narration was at times concise and spare, always charming, downright funny at moments, and tender and soul searching at others.
It was an absolute pleasure to be in so many workshops with Christy and have the privilege of reading her work and sharing in the critique process. As a writer, Christy was very open to suggestions and worked diligently at revision. She wanted her manuscript to be perfect, so she would listen carefully to and consider thoroughly the input of others. During this time at VCFA, Christy wrote a 350+ page memoir that she continued to work on up until her death.
Last June, Hunger Mountain published an excerpt from Pañuelo Girl in the LOVE issue, which was dedicated to Christy Bailey. The excerpt, “El Pañuelo,” is one of the scenes I had read in that chapter Christy submitted to my first workshop at VCFA. Here is an excerpt from “El Pañuelo“:
Finally the photographer breaks the silence, hurls harsh, mysterious syllables at me. “Quítese el pañuelo,” he says. He talks so fast, not like my patient host mother, who enunciated every word while guiding me through her hillside home yesterday afternoon.
“Repita?” My eyes squint into the blinding light of a high-powered, fluorescent bulb.
“El pañuelo,” he says, louder this time, and slower. “Quíteselo.”
My mouth gapes, I’m sure I can piece this together. Pan as in bread? Quita as in quit? Quit the bread, fatty? I stifle a laugh. Gorda I do know, and he did not say gorda. Though from what I’ve read, a stocky woman like me can expect to hear her share of gordas in this country, where the blackest gal in town is called La Negra, the guy with the squintiest eyes is called El Chino, and the most undernourished sticklet is called La Flaca.
“No comprendo,” I concede. I have no idea what you’re saying, Big Guy.
The photographer taps his head in beat with the words. “El pa-ñue-lo. Quí-te-se-lo.”
We lock eyes, my soft baby blues and his black stones. I halt all movement to concentrate. There’s a woodpecker gnawing on his skull. No, wait. On my skull. I’ve got wood for a brain. Or a stain. On my bandanna. Crap. Not bird shit? My hand flits to the knotted scarf.
One of Christy’s last forays into the writing world was to the AWP conference in Minneapolis in April of last year. Christy was very ill at that point, but she was determined to make it to the conference, knowing that it offered her the best opportunity to see many of her dear writing friends from all over the country in one location and for the last time. Here, Christy is at the podium, giving a reading at VCFA’s student and alumni reading. I hadn’t arrived in Minneapolis yet, so I missed it unfortunately, but I hear she rocked the house—or I should say the church, for that’s where it was held.
Christy not only left behind her memoir manuscript, Pañuelo Girl, but she chronicled her journey through cancer in a private Facebook group called “The Christy Bailey Fan Club” that had more than three hundred members. Christy’s posts were brutally honest and real. She took no pains to spare her fans from the challenging reality she faced on a day to day basis. But she also spread beauty, grace, determination, wisdom, hope, and gratitude when she had it. Her chronicle of life with cancer offered those who loved her from afar the opportunity to see into her experience, participate in the process alongside her, and offer words of love and support. Those posts have been compiled into a manuscript and, with some luck, will be published as a book along with Christy’s memoir. Be sure that once there is news of such an event (possibly in 2017), I’ll be singing the praises of her publications with announcements here on my blog.
Normally, my Sunday Spotlight features an interview, but since that is not possible, I have included some thoughts on Christy’s writing and her identity as a writer from some of the people most familiar with her work.
On Christy Bailey’s writing:
“Christy’s writing reflected how she lived—honestly direct, fully engaged, deeply sensual, and wittingly funny. I always closed my eyes when she read her work so I could be transferred to her world of experience, taste new and exotic fruits from Honduras, sway to the rhythm of her words describing the waves hitting the shore or her feet upon the pavement, smile at her stubborn and funny perspective, nod my head to the truths she revealed about herself and the world.”
~ Lia Woodall, friend and writing colleague
“Christy’s memoir about her struggle to come to self-acceptance despite the ravages of alopecia was a model of honesty, courage, and sensitivity. I hope that writing it was some help in preparing her for the greater struggle she waged to maintain her dignity and joy in the face of the cancer that eventually took her life and took from us a writer of talent and heart. “
~ Laurie Alberts, MFA advisor, author of A Well Made Bed and Fault Line
“Christy Bailey’s writing couldn’t be more honest. She never feared sharing her deepest secrets with her readers. She didn’t hide behind her pen—she stood in front of us naked on the page with all her amazing blemishes and pitfalls. This world flung so much at her—divorce, debt (ex-husband induced), self-doubt, weight gain, job loss, alopecia, and stage four cancer. I defy anyone who reads her memoir not to admire her. When I first read her work in an MFA workshop, I wanted to be her friend because of her strength in life and her prose. For about a year, we shared our work in an online writing group. Each time her chapters arrived in my Outlook box, I opened them immediately, eagerly devouring her stories, her life, her intensity, and her insight.
To borrow a few clichés—something Christy would never do—she was the real deal, the brightest star. Unfortunately, she also got away too soon, and that makes me sad.”
~ Sheila Stuewe, friend and VCFA colleague
“Rare is the writer who can translate their innate voice and turn fear and flaws into humor on the page—all the while molding unique crisis into universal message. Rarer still, are those who bare their souls while writing in a stream-of-consciousness … a sort of musing that draws you in with its candor. Christy Bailey was all of these things and much more. I’ve read her stories, been in every [school] writer’s workshop with her, and read the first draft of her memoir. Her everyday self was always present—demonstrating what it means to write your genuine self in memoir. I smiled and cried and hurt right along with her in between commas, blank spaces and question marks. We writers should always aim so high.”
~ Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro, friend and VCFA colleague
“Christy brought layers of craft, and memoir, and original thought to her writing. She was direct. She took pain and found humor and so delivered poignancy. She diminished the magnitude of struggle to find truths to share. Her writing brings you into her private world. Treating her hair like a scorned lover, I feel her grief, mourn the loss, and begin to grapple with a new sense of self. She always brought the work back to the intention. Her details deliver meaning and are absent of judgment. She used humor delicately, kindly. She gave power to her struggles in a way to involve us, to feel closely her loss. Christy wrote of the universal truths of our vulnerabilities and losses with humor, creating a language to immerse us in her world, a world we very clearly understand.”
~ Annie Penfield, friend and VCFA colleague
“Christy, in her riveting and urgent memoir, Pañuelo Girl, emotionally and metaphorically unwraps the scarf from her head, seemingly layer by layer, as she brings us deep inside the experience of alopecia, a hair-loss disease first noticed by her mother when Christy was a child. But, like any fully realized memoir, it is more than a surface story—in this case, a story of hair loss. At its core, it’s an exploration about self-definition, identity, and self-image. What does the hair loss really mean, metaphorically? How does Christy come to terms with it?
When I worked with Christy her last semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I myself arrived at a revelation: we, as writers, and particularly as writers of creative nonfiction, all wear pañuelos of one form or another. Which is to say: We all have secrets we hide from friends, family—ironically, or not, feeling more brave on the page—sharing our secrets first with ourselves, with words written on paper—until later, once our words, once our lives are artistically rendered, we share them with others.
Christy, in the finest tradition of memoir, has done just that. With great courage and intensity, Christy, in this memoir, yes, wears her pañuelo, but also shows us how she ultimately reaches the place to wear it proudly. At the same time, chapter by chapter, she delves beneath the surface of scarves, no scarves, hair, no hair, to arrive at her own deepest and most revelatory emotional truths.”
~ Sue William Silverman, MFA advisor, author of The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir
Christy was a talented writer, but she was also a fierce and loyal friend. Besides the work she left behind in the form of written words, Christy left a legacy of deep friendships. Christy was a bridge between people, and she will never be forgotten.
*Special thanks to Margaret Rivera Bailey for permission to use photos from Christy’s Facebook page.
This week’s book giveaway for a copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family garnered lots of interest. It is evident that this is a hot topic for nonficiton writers. I wish I had copies to give to everyone who entered the giveaway. Wouldn’t it be fun to be Ellen or Oprah and have the ability to give away gifts on a grand scale to people who you know will appreciate it? Sounds awesome to me. I’d love to be gift fairy. But for now, I’ll just have to stick with my small scale fun.
This week’s winner is Laura Alonso! Congratulations, Laura.
I’ve been sick twice in the last three weeks since coming back from AWP, and I’m still recovering, so I have not had the energy to produce my regular Sunday Spotlight column. But today I feel well enough to write a blog post and keep some semblance of momentum going.
I’ve been thinking these past few days about the risk of alienation and fallout with friends and loved ones to writers of memoir and personal essay. On Facebook, this week, I’ve seen several people post questions about this very topic. This was already on my mind because I have an essay brewing in my brain—but not yet put to paper (or more accurately, to screen)—that if written and published could quite possibly hurt and anger someone in my life to the point that our relationship would be irrevocably damaged. This relationship is already a precarious one, and whatever misgivings I may have will not prevent me from writing the essay. Once it is written, though, I will have to evaluate whether or not it makes its way into the world, which is an altogether other consideration than the writing of it.
This topic, about what is considered fair game and what is off limits to creative nonfiction writers, is one that gets brought up often, and nearly everyone has an opinion about it. Put simply, when you write about your own life, you will write about others. Life is relational. We are not monks living solitary existences in caves. Nearly every action of every day involves a relationship of some sort. Even Thoreau, living simply and alone in his cabin at Walden Pond, wrote of relationship, albeit that relationship was mostly with Nature, but it was still a relationship. And even then, Thoreau returned to society, giving up his solitary experiment after two years and once again interacting with others in his daily life. Relational.
So far I’ve been lucky as to not have experienced backlash to my personal writing. But the threat is always there I suppose. No matter how much care I take to be compassionate towards others in my writing, I have no control how any one person will react. This is another truth about living in the world. It is relational, and we have no control over anyone but ourselves.
This is one of the things that I love so much about personal essay and memoir: It, too, is relational. In the stories of others, we can see ourselves—even if our day to day experience is vastly different. Our hearts, our minds, our spirits share the fundamental core of experience.
A couple years ago at AWP in Seattle, I bought a copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. At that time, I also ordered Joy Castro’s Island of Bones: Essays to be shipped to me. When I received my package from the University of Nebraska Press, they had sent me a duplicate copy of Family Trouble instead of Island of Bones. Because I am lazy, I did not return the book for the one I had ordered. Instead I decided I would just give the book away to someone who needed it. That was two years ago. See? Lazy!
This week I am giving away this perfectly unused copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. This book will not necessarily give you a definitive answer on what you should do if you face a troublesome response to your writing from family or friends because each situation and those involved are unique, but the stories within may offer solace and support and even a few ideas moving forward if you’re feeling tentative. Here’s how the University of Nebraska Press describes the book:
Whenever a memoirist gives a reading, someone in the audience is sure to ask: How did your family react? Revisiting our pasts and exploring our experiences, we often reveal more of our nearest and dearest than they might prefer. This volume navigates the emotional and literary minefields that any writer of family stories or secrets must travel when depicting private lives for public consumption.
Writers included are Jill Christman, Rigoberto González, Alison Bechdel, Dinty W. Moore, Sue William Silverman, Paul Lisicky, and Allison Hedge Coke, among many others.
Leave a comment below to be entered into the drawing. Sorry, I can only ship within the U.S.. The winner will be chosen from a random, blind drawing and announced here on the blog on Saturday, April 30. You have until then to enter. Good luck!
Last week on The Sunday Spotlight, I featured the new issue of Hunger Mountain, No. 20 Edges and offered a free copy to be given away, chosen from those who left a comment on the post. As promised, I’m posting the winner today. But first I want to mention that only two people (!) entered the giveaway by commenting on that blog post, so it was a 50/50 chance of winning. Way better odds than playing the lottery! And I also want to note that both those people are friends of mine, so just to be clear that I did not play favorites and this was a bona fide blind giveaway, this is how it went:
I wrote the two names on pieces of paper, folded them, placed them behind my back and mixed them up. My husband chose which hand (my right), and the winner is… Susanna Donato!
I’ve got three more giveaways planned. The next one is up tomorrow for a free (new and unused) copy of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro. Also planned for the near future are new copies of two books by Sue William Silverman, Love Sick and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White Anglo Saxon Jew, and Jodi Paloni’s linked stories collection They Could Live with Themselves, newly released by Press 53. So keep an eye out to enter these giveaways.
The Sunday Spotlight has returned! I’m moving back into the column slowly, so rather than featuring one particular writer’s work with an interview, this week’s installment features the publication of Hunger Mountain: The VCFA Journal of the Arts’ newest annual print issue No. 20 “Edges,” which is fresh off the press and made its debut at the AWP conference two weeks ago.
I’ve worked for Hunger Mountain going on six years now in a variety of roles, beginning my first semester at VCFA in January of 2011 as a creative nonfiction reader. I did a stint as an assistant editor of The Writing Life section and took over as assistant creative nonfiction editor in November of 2014.
This year’s journal is simply gorgeous. The cover art is provided by Cynthia Atwood, and it’s full of interesting, unique artwork within the pages by Nils Karsten. It has an appealing layout and design, and, of course, it is full of superb writing in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction! Even writing for children and young adults is represented with a fiction piece for both middle grade and young adults.
I’m so pleased with this issue! I have not yet had the chance to read pieces from genres other than creative nonfiction, but the issue includes fiction by Robin MacArthur and Xu Xi, two exceptional writers I admire, and I look forward to checking out their new work and experiencing some writers I am not familiar with.
Of the creative nonfiction, we have published five brilliant essays: “Star Struck (1982)” by Sheila Grace Stuewe, “Take Heart” by Eileen M. K. Bobek, “White Oak” by Brad Felver, “Spell Heaven” by Toni Mirosevich, and “The Secret of Water” by Jody Keisner. I love all these essays! Publishing such fine writing is the reward for all the hard work that goes into a literary journal throughout the year. I know it sounds corny and cliché, but the creation of a literary journal such as Hunger Mountain really is a labor of love; nearly the entire staff volunteer their time and efforts.
And here’s the bonus: I have one copy of Hunger Mountain No. 20 Edges to give away! To qualify for this giveaway, leave a comment below. (Sorry, I cannot ship outside of the U.S.) The winner will be randomly chosen from those entered in the giveaway, and I will announce the winner here on the blog on Saturday, April 23. You have one week to enter!
The Sunday Spotlight is on a brief hiatus! I meant to post last week to give everyone a heads up that I’m taking a break and that it will indeed return! Expect the next feature in 2-3 weeks.
I traveled to Los Angeles this last week for the AWP (Associated Writers & Writing Programs) conference, which just ended last night. It was a full three days and nights of connecting with writer friends, attending readings and panels, perusing the incredible book fair, and working the Vermont College of Fine Arts information table. I’m on my way home now to the quiet woods of Southern Oregon, where I’ll let the inspiration of the conference sink in and motivate me.
Look who I found in the book fair…
Montaigne sure is well preserved for his age. And he looks an awful lot like Pat Madden!
Today’s featured writer: Chelsea Biondolillo
The featured writing: “Lovesong” published at Diagram.
I met Chelsea a year ago when I took one of her generative creative nonfiction workshops online through Apiary Lit and then met her in person during lunch with a small group of badass women essayists during the AWP conference in Minneapolis. Through this interaction, I found a kindred spirit. Chelsea grew up in Oregon and even spent time in my obscure rural town in southern Oregon when she was sent to Herb Pharm (a farm and herbal medicine company) for a training when she worked as a nutrition team leader at Whole Foods. We also share an enthusiasm for the wilderness and a fascination with birds. When I found a dead owl splayed upside down as in mid-flight caught by the barbs of a blackberry cane behind my chicken coop, the first (and possibly only) person I knew I could send the photos to who would appreciate them as much as I did was Chelsea. So when I experienced her multi-media essay “Lovesong” published on Diagram, there was no question I would feature it here on The Sunday Spotlight.
“Lovesong” is one of those essays that defies categorization. It is a blend of photography and text, even three links to YouTube music videos of the song “Lovesong” by The Cure and covers by Adele and 311 as an end note.
The essay juxtaposes pictures of dead birds—both found on the side of the road and part of a university vertebrate collection—with quotations from books on birds (such as National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America) and personal notes and poems from lovers. The effect of these juxtapositions is startling and savvy, composing an offbeat metaphoric compilation.
I love when artists and writers blend mediums and take risks, and Chelsea’s essay “Lovesong” does just that. For those of you who are interested in alternative forms of essay (and even those of you who aren’t), check it out!
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of Ologies (Etchings Press, 2015). Her prose has appeared recently or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Diagram, Orion, Passages North, Sonora Review and others, while her journalism has appeared in Discover, Science, Nautilus and on public radio. Two of her essays were selected for the forthcoming Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016 and Waveform: 21st Century Essays by Women. She has received the Carter Prize for the Essay from Shenandoah and an O’Connor fellowship from Colgate University. You can read her occasional #cnftweets and see pictures of her breakfasts on Twitter: @c_biondolillo and follow her travel and publishing news at Roaming Cowgirl. These days, she teaches, writes, and hikes in Arizona.
A few questions for Chelsea:
“Lovesong” is such a unique essay the way it blends the images of dead birds with epigraphs and personal poems and notes from lovers. I’m so curious how this piece came together. Can you share the process of how it manifested? What was your inspiration? And which came first, the images or the text?
I’d been trying to find a way to use the dead bird pictures for quite awhile. I wrote three microessays about skinning birds back in 2013, and they’d caused a bit of controversy with some publishers before finally being printed by The Fourth River as part of their Women and Nature issue in Spring 2014. Those micro essays were included with a chapbook submission that has so far been rejected by every reputable prose chapbook press at least once. When speaking with one of the press editors at AWP last year, she said, “Oh, I remember your dead birds!” Ever since, I really wanted to push the dead bird thing. I had been rearranging the pictures for a bit, trying to hear what they had to say and during that process, I was talking to another editor friend who loved the idea and solicited a piece that combined the photos with some text snippets–as soon as I heard “text snippets” I thought of old love letters. I had hoped I had enough material just from weird poems I’ve been given over the years, but then while digging through my box of correspondence, I found such great gems in old letters that I broadened my scope. The editor who solicited the piece was ultimately vetoed by her colleagues. Luckily Diagram was more open-minded.
Are you the photographer of all the images? If so, what kind of role does photography typically have in your work (if any), and if not, how did you gain access to the images?
I took all the photos. My undergraduate degree is in photography, from way back in the darkroom days of film and printing chemicals, and for as long as I can remember, taking photos has been a part of my creative process. Usually, the pictures are a form of note-taking (though a few of my longer essays have been published with accompanying photographs) rather than an end to themselves, but I’ve been experimenting more and more with images as essay components. In fact, this last fall, I worked with Creative Nonfiction magazine to launch their latest rolling microessay contest on Instagram. You can see the images and essays by searching for the hashtags #cnfgram and #tinytruth.
Nature and the environment—specifically birds, and even more specifically raptors—are influential in your writing. When did this influence begin and where did it come from?
I hate to be disappointing here, but that is the million dollar question that I’ve so far been unable to answer well. My grandmother was an amateur photographer and a pretty avid birder. She took me for long miserable car rides where we would stop on the side of the road and stare into otherwise empty fields for long minutes at a time, trying to identify warblers and grosbeaks. I don’t remember liking birds especially as a child, but they’ve stuck with me in a way that now feels like nostalgia. Sort of like how some of the worst hair metal from the ’80s now feels a bit beloved, maybe? Whenever I feel lost, I turn to birds. They are some kind of thread back to something–and once I figure out what, there might be a book in it.
Many of your essays play with form. Does the inclination to structure an essay alternatively come naturally to you? For you, what are the determining factors that dictate the form an essay will take?
I am a collector. I have a hanging file that always lives near my workspace that is (still) full of ripped out magazine pages and sheets of strange wrapping paper from my art school days (mid-’90s), not to mention the old love notes that appear in “Lovesong” and a host of new snippets, stones, shells, feathers, bones–these objects and images, and the ideas they represent, tend to roll around in my head until a format or outlet for them becomes clear. Sometimes, I think, “Don’t I have an old postcard of a skeleton? Maybe that’s what this needs.” Sometimes, I think, if I start writing down all the steps to skinning a bird, and all the things I remember about my father, what would that make? It is not a good process, because it can take years for some idea or image to tell me what it wants to be. I wish I had the discipline to sit down at a desk every day and write and make images, and then cull the best from a great and weighty stack. As it is, I just try to keep my eyes and mind open and wait for word from the files to bubble up.
Can you list three of your favorite books, and why? Additionally, can you list three writers who inspire you?
I don’t have three favorite books. I have a fluid list of dozens that I love. But here are three of the usual suspects:
- Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – the way she plays with form, and the melancholy and magical way the heartbreak bubbles up through the blue to the surface of the piece.
- The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie – it’s beautiful and smart and funny and complex and lush and surprising.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard – I have a lot of favorite nonfiction and this is one of them. I love Dillard’s wry humor that bubbles up unexpectedly and her patient and wide eyed lens.
I am inspired by Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s ability to move from poetry to prose with grace and agility. I am inspired by Maira Kalman‘s mixed media book projects, and the way she uses all sorts of text, images, and assemblages to tell her stories. I am inspired by Kenneth Patchen’s optimism in the face of what (at the time for him, as now) was so much horrific human behavior. Here are a couple of his picture poems.
Will you share with us what you are currently working on in terms of your manuscript(s)?
I am not working on anything right now. It’s not a comfortable feeling and I beat myself up about it a few times a week. My workload has gone from “intermittent” to “crushing,” so writing will just have to wait until summer.
What other activities besides reading and writing do you enjoy?
I am an avid knitter, slow but consistent runner, occasional birder and as-often-as-possible hiker. When I can, I also love camping, backpacking, and road trips. All of these things are about process. They take time, and over time, they reveal wonderful things. That’s what I want my days to be like, and ultimately, the work I create.
Do you have any words of wisdom or writing advice to share?
Oh man. I feel like (especially right now) I only have terrible advice to give. How about this: be compassionate with yourself. I have a reminder set on my phone that goes off everyday at 7:45 am. Often, I miss it because of my schedule, but I know that (even if I don’t see) it tells me every day: “You are awesome. You work had and you do your best.” I need this reminder, because I can be my own worst cheerleader, and that’s about the most unhelpful kind of ally to have when you’re in this line of work.