Our nonfiction co-editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently had this exchange with Megan Bush, our Issue #14 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about the influence of her Alaskan setting on her writing, her interest in identity and memory, and the memoir she is working on now.
I’m going to start by asking you the same question that begins your essay, “Knit to Feelings”: Tell me about yourself.
Last May I graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and moved back to Southeast Alaska where I grew up. However, instead of moving to the big city of Juneau, my partner and I moved to Tenakee Springs, population 70, named for the hot springs that are located right in the center of town. The town has no cars (but lots of skiffs), and transportation to the outside world is via floatplane or ferry. I live with my partner and our two huskies off the grid, a 30-minute hike or 10-minute skiff ride outside the main town. Every day, I hike in to work as a teacher’s aide at the local school. I’m also finishing a memoir centered around my grandmother, my mother, and me, and the different ways we addressed and did not choose to address Grandma’s schizophrenia.
Your grandmother sounds fascinating. She learned to fly airplanes in Michigan and worked as codebreaker during World War II. What do you remember most about her?
For all the amazing things Grandma accomplished, my fondest memories are of her atrocious meals. As the child of two Lebanese immigrants, she picked up the Lebanese tradition of trying to overfeed anyone who sat at her table. Unfortunately, instead of Lebanese food, she embraced the 1950s Industrial Revolution, so the food she served was boxed and canned. I love to eat, and yet at Grandma’s we all picked our way through mushy green beans, boxed mashed potatoes, and spam while Grandma tried to push us to eat seconds, thirds. Meals at Grandma’s were filled with so many acts of love: She loved us so much that she cooked these massive, multi-course extravaganzas, and we loved her so much that we choked them down.
What compelled you to write “Knit to Feelings”?
I am haunted by what it feels like to be deemed crazy. Grandma was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her mid-30’s, and for the first 10 years she fought it with medication and treatment. Then, slowly, she stopped taking medication and seeing doctors (which is very common with those suffering from the illness). By the time I came on the scene, she had been hearing voices for 50 years. However, I knew she was schizophrenic before I knew what schizophrenic really meant, so I attributed much of who she was to mental illness. I believe a lot of one’s identity is formed through what we remember, and memory is fallible. So in some ways, we are all wandering around with fallible images of ourselves, and our friends and family accept these images as authentic. And they are authentic because the memory in its current form has shaped that person. However, with Grandma, where she misremembered in more spectacular ways, I didn’t accept her stories. I will always regret this about my relationship with her.
What draws you to questions of memory and identity? How does this relate to the questions you’re wrestling with in the memoir you’re writing about your family and schizophrenia?
After any amount of time writing from one’s own memory it’s hard not to question memory. In their book Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Experts Who Put Memory on Trial, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham write about the way our minds reconstruct memories. Memories don’t come to us whole; the memory is constructed from what we have stored. And when we pull at ourselves to recall, we pull what’s there and fill in gaps with inferences, like piecing together a recipe without having all the ingredients for which it calls. Which means that what my mind is doing in reconstructing memory is no different than what Grandma’s mind did, only my ability to reconstruct is more plausible. Growing up, I thought I knew reality and Grandma didn’t. This was how my mother always treated Grandma, and I picked up her approaches. It made dealing with some of the strange, scary things Grandma said much easier. As a kid, I asked questions like, “Mom, why did Grandma say Aunt Nancy doesn’t love her?” and my mother would say, “Oh, don’t worry Honey, that’s just Crazy-talk.” I learned to chalk a lot up to crazy-talk, which meant I could still have a relationship with Grandma. If I’d taken her seriously all the time, I’d have grown up mistrustful of her. So I’m glad I was able to dismiss some of what she said. However, where do you draw the line for what you dismiss? Because in the end, these dismissals also dehumanized my grandmother.
As we were editing this essay, you were in the midst of a week-long camping trip in Alaska. What do you enjoy about living there? How does the landscape inspire your writing?
As preface for my current life, I’d like to say that I haven’t always embodied Alaskan stereotypes as perfectly as I do now, and despite what TV and even Alaska books likes to present, most of Alaska doesn’t. I’ve lived in Alaska for most of my life and for most of that time, I’ve lived like the majority of Alaskans: in a city, with lots of recreation opportunities near my house. It was lovely. Juneau, where I was born and raised, is like living in a photograph: mountains and ocean smashing into each other, bald eagles, glaciers, bears walking through town. But most of daily life was more typical than Alaskan writers like to give it credit for: wifi at home, a big public high school with basketball games on Friday nights, driving to Costco on weekends, symphony concerts and theater and Star Wars on the big screen around Christmas. However, in the past few years my lifestyle has changed a bit more. I’ve begun learning to use the landscape in a much more utilitarian way: living in a rural, subsistence-based community means constant outdoor time—rain or shine—to check crab pots and halibut sets, hunt, chop wood, and walk to work through the woods. I love feeling like I’m in touch with my ecosystem and my landscape.
I struggle with how to write about Alaskan Landscapes. There are such myths and it is so easy to add to the mythology because like most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth to the “Last Frontier” rhetoric. I try to write about the place I live, but not romanticize it in a way that it becomes unreal. I tend to like stories about people, so I draw on landscape for setting and as metaphor for the human dramas happening in the story.
Tell me about the MFA program at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks that you attended. How did it shape your writing?
I started my MFA knowing I wanted to write a book about my grandmother. I’d been writing shorter essays and stories, but couldn’t quite figure out how to start such a large, overwhelming project. I think a part of me hoped an MFA would have a step-by-step guide to book-length writing. Surprise of all surprises: there is no such guide, thank goodness. However, spending three years in a writing community meant writing became a daily routine, and that, more than anything, has shaped my writing. I found amazing professors who taught me how to research (an under taught and much-needed creative writing skill), who taught me to focus on image, who taught me structure in writing longer pieces. At the end of the day, I had to muddle my way through writing my first manuscript, and it was—is—messy, time consuming, and full of false starts and missteps. But I really have had to go through all these steps on my own; there isn’t one process that works for everyone.
You’ve also published fiction. How does your nonfiction work benefit from your fiction and how does your fiction influence your nonfiction?
I feel less inhibited writing about Alaska when writing fiction. I’m more self-conscious about my own clichéd ideas about landscape and Alaska, and assigning some of these views and ideas to characters makes it easier for me to explore conflicting thoughts about wilderness, conservation, living-off-the-land, etc. Trying my hand at fiction also helps me see and understand story-structures in nonfiction.
What are you working on now?
I’m redrafting my memoir, as well as writing smaller journalism pieces for newspapers and magazines. I have an article coming out in Alaska Magazine soon.
Given that Mud Season Review grew out of a writer’s workshop, I have to ask: what has been your worst writing workshop or feedback experience?
I took a mixed-genre workshop in graduate school that seemed wonderful because it was billed as a write-whatever-you-want workshop. Each week, there’d be a smattering of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. People were submitting chapters from manuscripts alongside screenplays alongside experimental poetry. It should have been a wonderful environment for receiving all kinds of feedback from people who write in different genres. However, the lack of structure meant that no one could agree about where to focus. We’d spend an entire workshop session talking about a single sentence from someone who wanted feedback on a chapter of their book. We’d have prose writers without the language to talk about poetry trying to describe what was missing. The workshop became almost hostile; people would write feedback that said “I just don’t get it,” or “its fine, but it’s not my style.” I learned that I prefer structured workshops: better to have a theme or genre-focused workshop because understanding how to read in a way that’s helpful to the author is crucial.