Our nonfiction co-editor Brett Sigurdson recently had this exchange with Melissa Wiley, our Issue #19 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her childhood as the reflective daughter of farmers; what she has learned about herself and the value of uncertainty, through writing; and what she is working on now.
According to the bio we published with your essay “Healing Waters,” you’re also the assistant editor for Sundog Lit, which publishes “writing that scorches the earth.” What does this phrase mean to you?
To me, “scorched-earth literature” refers to writing that demands to be written. What matters is the strength of the impulse, not where it comes from. There’s a heat to the prose or poetry as a result. You can feel this in your body as you’re reading it.
I know a lot of people with a facility for language, a real talent for writing, but who never get to work. Part of this is laziness, part is lack of time, but most writers who fulfill their talent’s promise don’t have a choice in my opinion. They don’t have the option of taking time off. Sundog actively seeks out these kind of contributors, so there’s an immediacy to everything we publish.
What compelled you to write “Healing Waters,” which seems born of your own scorched-earth impulse?
I actually woke up one morning with the phrase “falling is not a passive process” cycling through my head. Usually the seed of my writing is an image; I can’t shake whatever it is and then have to see where it comes from and what story, if any, follows in the process of exploring it through writing. But “Healing Waters” began with this phrase, and I immediately felt, “Yes, this distills something. This is true.” So I wrote down the phrase and thought of rain, which falls more naturally than anything else perhaps. Yet, every image or phrase of any power always contains its own opposite. So rain falls, but steam rises. Simply exploring the phrase itself led me to thinking about hot springs and then my first experience in one with my parents and sister for our last family vacation.
Because my parents are both gone, part of me very much wants to color every moment we shared as precious, which of course in some sense it was. But the enfant terrible in me—the very good daughter who couldn’t help saying something radically disturbing on a fairly consistent basis—acknowledges how much at the same time I needed distance from their goodness so I could become more myself. Taking time off to go to Colorado with them just when I’d achieved full independence seemed to encapsulate this conflict.
I also have to accept the person I was while they were dying, however much I wish I could have been more selfless. In this sense, there is a coolness to the piece as well as to the vantage I write from whenever I think about them, something that is at odds with scorched-earth literature. There’s a regret that shadows my last years with them in particular. Were they still alive, were I more reckless of a person, I think I’d write with more power and fewer apologies for risks taken or not taken, especially given the fact I write only creative nonfiction. As it is, I often run tepid.
In the essay, you write of your parents, who are farmers: “On a farm where cows are born and die on a regular basis, my parents’ existence is real in a way mine isn’t. Theirs is life at its most candid.” Your writing voice has a certain rawness to it, and your angle of vision seems often pointed at hard truths, two qualities that I think are exemplified in “Healing Waters.” How is your writing a response to, or an outgrowth of, the rawness you associate with farm life?
Well, thanks for recognizing that. A brutal confrontation with truth as I see it is why I write to begin with, in addition to a certain love for the medium. And, yes, farm life absolutely informed that pursuit from its inception. You can’t help your dad birth a cow without getting some blood on your hands, then seeing the splash of placenta over hay you were just playing in. You can’t help him bury sheep without witnessing the sclera of their eyeballs begin to yellow. These things make a lasting impression on a kid for whom they’re a daily reality. They did on me anyway.
For the most part, though, I preferred distancing myself from the action, staying indoors and reading or painting, while my sister still farms somewhat in their footsteps. I preferred reflective distance, but most of the time it wasn’t an option. As the oldest, I was also given more responsibilities, and a lot of humor in our family arose from my constant mishaps with animals and farm machinery. I think my parents were happy this abstruse literature thing clicked for me in college, but I also think they worried about how too much thinking, too much reading and fruitless contemplation, would affect me. They’d done their best literally to ground me in the earth, but I was and am pretty floaty.
From a conventional viewpoint too, they were right to worry. I still prefer art to basically everything else. I think my life has a direction, but I’m not steering it toward a particular one. I moved to a city for college on purpose: to escape the constant drain of painting barns and pulling weeds on my headier interests. Yet, I also mourned our farm as soon as I left it, and that sadness is never going away. Some of my writing’s rawness is simply an attempt to preserve what has forever vanished.
This also made me think of your bio published on Storyacious, which states you’re a “careful observer of life’s unraveling who takes notes in the form of lyric essays.” From reading your essays and columns published online, I think it’s safe to say you’re a prolific writer. How do you mine your own life for the many essays you’ve written? What is your process for this creative examination?
I’ve been out of graduate school for a long time now, more than a decade, so a lot of my formal training has pretty much gone out the window. No one is asking me to write, either, so I have to be my own motivation. The only thing that really works for me is to start with the holes. Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of them. By holes, I mean the things that are or seem to be missing. I mean when things go wrong, when life is hard or annoying or even too quiet. If you only let yourself swim in the uncertainty, a subtler truth surfaces. This is where I think the real story is always happening, in a subtler dimension that goes unnoticed when life conforms too closely to how we conceive of it. I think perhaps Keats said it best, with his concept of negative capability.
I don’t necessarily mean big holes either. And I definitely don’t mean you have to feel extremely depressed or angst-ridden to be productive. I don’t see my life as having any real meaning, and I’m at peace with that. Yet, still there’s beauty. There’s endless beauty, and it all comes out of the spaces. It arises when something seems like it should be happening but isn’t. If anything really worked out for me like I wanted it, I’d have nothing to say of value.
As it is, the work before me feels endless. I start with a little recognition of pain or disappointment or sense of something missing, fall through the hole, and see what comes out of it. Then I spend at least fifty times as long editing the result and excising at least half of what I’ve written, because these holes are very messy places. Scraping paint off a barn with a pocket knife is easier than making sense of a lot of my own writing once I think I’ve finished.
That said, I did have a wonderful opportunity last summer to go to the Writer’s Hotel in New York City and receive some really valuable feedback from fellow writers as well as from the conference staff. Everyone was incredibly supportive, particularly my workshop leader, Richard Hoffman, and I came away with the realization that, however rich your pain may be for material, if you can get yourself some support, by all means do it. Since then, my creative process hasn’t changed—I still start with the spaces and let things get really messy—but I breathe more while I’m writing and allow the reader, I think, to breathe with me; I allow the spaces themselves to say something. I’ve also felt freer to play around with structure when editing. Simple sub-headings have become a revelation. Things like this that help the reader—I’ve just begun embracing them. The beautiful thing is they also help me clarify what I’m really saying along the way.
In the essay, you allude to the deaths of your parents, which loom over the story. Was this essay cathartic for you? How do you handle balancing truth-telling with writing about loved ones more generally?
I don’t know that it was cathartic as much as necessary. Invoking catharsis makes me feel as if I’ve grown somehow beyond it, and the truth is I haven’t. The pain of losing them remains just as real to me now as it was years ago; I’ve just had to learn to live with their absence. My normal has changed into something sadder yet more compassionate, because this loss also connects me to anyone else—and there are so many—hurting just as deeply.
I also really didn’t want to be on a family vacation when I had finally achieved what felt like full freedom, and for the most part I didn’t enjoy this time we had together. I wouldn’t relive it either, given the option. Because my parents died so shortly afterward, however, I’m also grateful for every experience we shared, not because of how good or bad a time we had but because it was simply more exposure to people I loved to their core. So the conflict inherent in this essay still exists inside me when I think about it. True catharsis would purge this, and it hasn’t.
As to writing about my family, however, there’s no conflict whatsoever. My parents are dead, so they don’t get a vote. My sister is loving and supportive. Plus, I’m still an enfant terrible who mostly doesn’t care what anyone says. This is my life to live and interpret, and everyone else has their own. As to how I can relay my material with more power and urgency, that’s a different matter altogether.
You used to write about food for the Chicagoist. Did that offer you any skills that you can apply to your lyric essays?
I used to write about food—some restaurant reviews and such—but I only got into that for some free meals. Even that, though, told me something relevant to my literary life. It told me that hunger is determinative. When people ask whether I’d ever resort to cannibalism stranded on a ship or desert island, I’m always an immediate “yes.” I know it without this scenario having actually ever arisen; I’m just waiting for someone to ask me the question. At the Writer’s Hotel, I also received some feedback saying my descriptions of food interfered with the pacing of the narrative. The reason, though, was obvious. I was hungry as I was writing. This is as valid a truth as whatever realization I’ve gleaned from my past. It’s also probably more pertinent to any reader whose stomach is growling.
So my second book—my first, Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press in early 2017—exploits my appetite and reflects on the sensuousness of eating throughout. The interruptions really are its point, because however adrift our spirits may be in search of love and wholeness, our bodies anchor us in the present. In that sense, hunger is a gift. Altogether, it’s another book of essays but arranged as a menu, from proteins to libations.
What are you working on now?
As I keep working, my writing has gotten slower. I’m less impulse-driven and more reflective and, however much I really don’t care about conforming to standard notions of success or purpose, a nagging feeling of uselessness still creeps in now and again. That thought led me to reading about vestigial organs and picking up a nice little book by Neil Shubin called Your Inner Fish. The book itself is less a compelling read from a literary standpoint than it was a reminder that we physically carry within us evidence of our evolution from the sea. And to me this is vital knowledge. To me, a person without much of a family or sense of stability, this connection means something. So I’m working on a cross-genre book of vestigial organs and life experiences, both of which stay with us far beyond our physical need for them. It’s going to take me a while to complete, but for whatever reason it feels important. I feel like, charting the life of something like the coccyx, I can say things that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a long time now.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I always end interviews with the same question: What has been your worst workshop experience?
This wasn’t so terrible, but it led me to stop writing for about a decade. That sounds dramatic, but really it wasn’t. Graduate school had ended, and I had work to find and then to do and nothing really to say at the end of the day that others, I felt, couldn’t say better than I could. At the beginning, this was simply because my life was going smoothly. There weren’t enough holes to summon any artistic need to make sense of them, and at the time I liked it that way, nice and easy. Then not long afterward it was because my parents were dying, while later still I was simply trying to fight all these suicidal urges and muster the energy to do basic things like shop for groceries. Things were either too-smooth-yet-busy, tragic, or depressing for me to bother writing.
If it weren’t, though, for someone in a writing workshop saying, “This is nice, but I don’t see a point to any of your writing,” I still think I would have at least kept up a writing practice, because I’m a fairly disciplined person. I think I would have been in better shape, in other words, once I started in again. My muscles wouldn’t have gone quite so flabby. I also wouldn’t have been so distrustful of my own discursive instincts. Because I had no intelligent response to offer during the workshop, however, I figured I should wait to write until I could make a clear, cohesive point. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. If I ever have an emphatic point to make, my assumption is that I’ll have lost all sight of beauty, than which there’s nothing more superfluous or worth pursuing.
The reason I think this comment hit me so hard, too, was because everyone else in the room, my teacher included, nodded. I probably took this way too seriously—it probably echoed something I’d long been telling myself anyway—but I also felt a little like I’d been swindled, that all semester I’d been working to incorporate their comments into each revision just to be told this didn’t amount to anything because I left readers with no clear message. But life leaves you with no clear message either, or at least mine hasn’t, and I’ve never understood why people expect anything else to do the same. Yet the workshop—these other discerning people—represented external, objective reality. They didn’t accept my work’s uncertainty, and I accepted their opinion as not only valid but accurate. Regretting this wasted time, though, accomplishes nothing, and I’m from nothing if not practical stock. Since I’ve started writing again, I’ve realized uncertainty is all that drives this engine.