I met Brenda Miller at the Get Lit! festival this past April, almost two years after I first read her wonderful essay “Blessing of the Animals” in The Sun. I was reminded of the exquisite beauty of her writing when I heard her read and promptly devoured her new book (titled after that essay) as well as her first collection, Season of the Body. Brenda’s essays have been described as “affecting and thought-provoking” (Publishers Weekly), “glistening, sensuous” (Kirkus Reviews), and “memorable for their sensuality and unflinching honesty” (Library Journal).
Brenda graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my memoir students at Hugo House, who I knew would benefit from her advice and experience — and I’m posting it here knowing that any other writer who reads this will benefit as well.
Q: What led you to personal writing as opposed to, say, fiction?
A: Well, the easy answer is that I’m a terrible fiction writer! I wrote quite a bit of fiction in grad school, because back then “creative nonfiction” was not recognized as a valid creative writing genre. So to write prose, I had to be in the fiction workshops. But all my stories were a bit “forced,” that is: they never quite found their authentic voice and instead relied on standard plot elements I cribbed from writers I admired. Dialogue, too, was always my weakness. When I discovered creative nonfiction, my voice naturally emerged and I was able to be much more fluent in my writing. I found I was able to bring in what I love about poetry (I also wrote poetry for years and years)—metaphor, unexpected images, the sonic quality of language—into prose in ways that kept me excited and interested in my own work. It began to feel more like a process of discovery than fiction had been for me. I also spent a year writing a very bad novel, and so I got that out of my system!
Q: How much distance do you need from a topic to write elegantly and clearly about it?
A: It depends. For certain things, I still don’t have enough distance, even though the events may have happened thirty years ago. For others, I write about them as they’re happening. In either case, I don’t think it’s the literal time, but the mind’s perspective on the topic or event that creates enough breathing room for something literary to happen on the page. Also: form. If you find the right form, or voice, for a piece, it can provide just the “container” you need for whatever the topic might be. And some of my essays span quite a bit of time; so I might start off by writing about an image from my childhood, which leads me to something quite close in the present day; once I’m on that train I’m not going to jump off.
Q: When do you know a piece is finished? And how do you know what is essential and what should be eliminated?
A: This may sound weird, but I think I hear an audible “click” when a piece has found its ending line. But then again, I’ve heard that “click” and then have to go back and “unclick” it, or sit with my ear up against the essay, listening, listening for just the right moment when it all comes together. It takes a great deal of patience. I think you only know it’s finished when it gets published, and even then there are things you’re going to want to go back and change.
When I’m in the final revision stage, I read the piece aloud. When the writing begins to bore me, I stop and see what’s going on in that section. It’s usually something I’ve written to get me to the next stage, and it can be cut. That’s the fun part: once you know what your essay is about and its trajectory (where it’s going to end up), it becomes pretty easy to gently put aside those things that are getting in the way and save them for something else.
Q: When the people in your life become a part of your essays, how do you anticipate/handle their reactions? Have you ever written/published something you wish you could take back?
A: I just don’t think about while I’m writing new work, or else I would never write a word. I save those decisions for when I’m in the revision stages, and then I think about if I’m being fair or exploitative of other people. There are some things I’ve written that will never see the light of day. And yes, there are definitely things I’ve published that I cringe at a little now and wonder if I should have said what I said. It’s as if I’m in a trance while I’m writing and forget that these are actual people and not just characters. I forget that anyone else would ever read this. I could get away with that thirty years ago, but not so much anymore!
I think in most of my writing it’s very clear that I’m telling my own story, from my own very particular perspective, and that I don’t claim to be telling a grand “truth” with a Capital T. I’m trying to understand my own experience, not indict anyone or tell their truth. I think that’s the essential piece of this particular puzzle. If you’re trying to discover your own story, and in the process see how your own story fits into a larger consciousness, you’re not using other people in ways that are vindictive or selfish. You have to be mature about it (or at least give that impression!).
Q: How do you decide how to structure a piece?
A: Well, I’m not really all that intentional about it. The pieces seem to structure themselves to a certain extent. I just start with some image that is bugging me and then ask the question “why?” Why do I remember that? What’s going on there? These days, I can pretty quickly sense how long the essay will be: from a couple of paragraphs to a twenty-pager. And 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.
Q: You sometimes choose the second-person voice (“How to Meditate” from Season of the Body) or the third-person voice (“Table of Figures” from Blessing of the Animals) – is this a conscious decision, or do the stories simply come to you in these voices?
A: I may have answered this in the last question! Both of those essays were started in classes I was teaching; I was doing the writing exercises along with my students, so I was doing whatever the teacher said!
Q: Which writers taught you the most about craft by reading their work?
A: Oh, such a hard question. E.B. White first showed me the power of the first-person voice. Bernard Cooper showed me what could be done with scene, humor and structure. Joan Didion continually teaches me about the sentence. Mark Doty allows me to revel in language and transcendence through language.
Q: Do you have a writing group? How do know if a writing group is a good fit?
A: I now have a couple of writing groups. In the most consistent group, we do new writing together, usually at a café, in formal timed-writing segments. It’s where we get the bulk of our new writing done for the week. And because we just meet at the same time every week, we don’t have to do too much fiddling with our calendars; the space is held for us. In the other group we give writing assignments to one another and bring those in, but that group has a harder time finding the consistent way to be together. I think that may be one of the things to consider: if it’s just too hard to arrange calendars with a group of people, it’s going to end up being stressful rather than a pleasure.
At this point in my writing life, I don’t have a group for feedback on work-in-progress; I’d rather just give to one friend and meet over coffee. I also try to have a “writing contract” with a long-distance friend, especially in the summer. We actually write out monthly contracts on how much work we will accomplish each week and send to the other, with consequences if it doesn’t happen! We don’t often give feedback; it’s just the expectation that you’ll write that gets you in the chair to write. I’m finding that feedback needs to be done only when I’m ready; otherwise, it becomes a hindrance rather than a help. I know it might be heretical for me to say this, since I make a living as a teacher, but I think we may have created student writers who are too dependent on feedback—too eager to please–and so they don’t develop their own intuition and stamina for writing on their own.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A book in collaboration with my friend Holly Hughes called “The Pen and the Bell: Reading, Writing, and the Contemplative Life.” I’m also toying with a memoir in short fragments that are emerging from the writing practice group.
The End — with many thanks to Brenda, and to the Hugo House writers for the great questions.
Brenda is also the author of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (with Suzanne Paola) and her work appears in numerous literary journals and anthologies and has received five Pushcart Prizes. For more info, visit Brenda’s web site.