Jennifer Sinor’s essay “Out in the West,” opens on a conversation she once had with a writing student at Utah State University, where she has taught creative writing for over a decade. Ostensibly about the student’s work, the conversation turns to the young man’s emotional well-being—he is, after all, a homosexual Mormon teen in a state where norms are dictated by the deeply conservative religious culture. (To illustrate, Sinor later tells the story of another male student, whose wife colored sleeves and knee-length dresses on images of women in a YM magazine “to make it acceptable” for him to read for class) Sinor sees the student, like many of his peers, silently suffering as he struggles between the impossibility of reconciling his opposing identities.
“These questions of craft feel like another shore at this moment, an island distant and foreign,” Sinor writes. “What I want to do is shake him, beg him to leave the valley, head for the coast. What I want to do is hold him in my arms and tell him that everything will be okay. But I don’t. We sit in silence, the radiator’s last beat echoing down the hall.”
This opening scene captures much of what makes Sinor’s nonfiction so compelling: unflinching vulnerability, tight, rhythmic sentences, attention to subtleties, and absorbing research (Utah has among the highest statistics in gay teen suicide, she writes). Indeed, to read Sinor’s writing is to bear witness to her compassionate, sensitive nature via her distinctive voice. This is by design. “Vulnerability is not an option for a writer,” she says in the interview that follows. “It is, I think, what gives writing a ‘voice.’” Incidentally, these qualities also make her a superb creative writing professor, something I can say from experience, having also sat in her office and her classroom while a student at USU.
Sinor grew up in a military family, and her upbringing was defined by transience. Her father, a military lawyer, who appears in several of Sinor’s essays, called the family “gypsies.” She has written about the experience in personal and academic essays—“Through the Particular We Come Home,” “The Marlin,” and “Inscribing Ordinary Trauma in the Diary of a Military Child”—as well as an upcoming memoir, A Fathoming: Entries on Ordinary Trauma, scheduled for publication by the University of Utah Press in 2017.
Like her upbringing, Sinor’s oeuvre moves over a lot of ground. Yet, no matter the subject, her stories are always tethered to the personal. In each of these works she tends toward the lyric essay, mixing non-linear narrative strands to replicate “our lived experience,” as she says. These include The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray’s Diary, which uses her great-great-great aunt’s diary to explore the literary and historic value of journals; “The Certainty of Spinning,” which examines environmental and personal metamorphosis; Placing the Academy: Essays on Landscape, Work, and Identity (co-edited with Rona Kaufman), about the importance of place to identity; and “Confluences,” an essay that examines life and death through a perilous canoe trip her father took with her uncle in northern Alaska.
Sinor has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize as well as a National Magazine Award, and her essays have been published in The American Scholar, Ecotone, Fourth Genre and the Utne Reader, among others. She is the winner of the Donald Murray Prize and the Utah Original Writing Competition for both nonfiction and the novel. She lives with her husband, the poet Michael Sowder, and their two young boys at the foot of the Bear River Range in northern Utah.
Next year promises to be exciting for Sinor. Along with A Fathoming, she’s set to publish a collection of lyric essays centering on Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist whose work she cites for its passion and intensity—two adjectives that can also speak to Sinor’s work itself.
This conversation took place over email in January 2016 as she worked to finish manuscripts for both books.
When we agreed to do this interview, you told me you had to balance it with finishing two manuscripts. Can you tell me about them?
Happily. I have two books coming out in early 2017. The first is a coming-of-age memoir entitled A Fathoming: Entries on Ordinary Trauma. I think of it as a series of linked flash nonfiction describing the ordinary trauma faced by a military child—where war, and the possibility of war, is made ordinary by those around her. The second, entitled Holes in the Sky: Essays Inspired by the Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe, is a collection of lyric essays that move in, out, through, and beyond the letters of one of the great American modernists.
I began working seriously on the memoir more than a decade ago—in fact one of the pieces in the book is something I first drafted in 1998. It has gone through many incarnations and followed many paths (initially written for a general audience and agented, and now experimental and more literary). I think structure is the hardest craft question to handle when working on a book-length project. The form must arise organically from the work, but when you have hundreds of pages of material it can be difficult to get the sense of an organic whole. For me that took years to figure out. And lots of trial and error. I landed on the flash form because I like the way each piece offers a view, an angle, a flash. When you link the moments together, a kind of story unfolds but it is not one with a tidy beginning, middle and end. It is the gist of story, the gesture toward story. And the reader must then bring her experiences into the meaning-making process.
The second book, the collection of essays, is what I turned to a few years ago when I needed a break from writing directly from my experience. I wanted a new source of inspiration—something externally arising rather than internally—and that is when I stumbled upon O’Keeffe’s literary legacy. At first, I just wrote a single essay, centering on the letters she wrote from Hawaii in 1959, but that work led me deeper into both her biography and her correspondence. Once I began, I could not stop. Her letters have a kind of passion and intensity that you cannot leave behind. In addition, her commitment to modernism complements the lyric essay as a form so well. The ways in which she creates gaps in her letters are very similar to the voids she seizes in her visual art—together they invite questions about the limits of language and the place of the inexplicable—perfect subjects for the lyric essay to consider.
You once wrote, “I write about loss because it is a constant, in my life and in everyone’s. Loss is democratic. We have all experienced it. And when I look back at my childhood, it is defined by loss.” What was your childhood like, and how did this sense of loss define you?
I am channeling the novelist Nicole Krauss with the first part of that line. She writes in one of her books that “absence is the only constant.” And I do think that is true. Loss is something that binds us together—as well as pain and suffering. You can depend upon it. Of course you can add love to that list, but I have always seen the outlines of loss most clearly. I think that comes from my military childhood where I was asked to leave much behind. I moved nine times as a child, living in a place as briefly as nine months. Two weeks into my junior year of high school, we were ordered back across the Pacific. We left within days. My father called us gypsies, told us we were lucky. In many ways, we were. I wanted to believe in the romantic idea of the nomad, home within herself. But it was also hard. I have eaten many lunches alone. To this day, I keep packing boxes in the space beneath the stairs. More than twenty years outside my service, and I still wait for orders to move.
Is this how you define “ordinary trauma” in your upcoming memoir—constantly starting over? Or is it something else?
To define ordinary trauma, it helps to begin with a traditional definition of trauma. An event is traumatic when it is stored in the part of our brain, the amygdala, that is before or beyond or without language. Trauma haunts a person because the traumatic event—rape, incest, battle—is held within the body—registered by the body on an unconscious level—but cannot be articulated. The person cannot tell the story of what happened. A person who suffers from PTSD is literally haunted by past events—to the point where ordinary events overwhelm her. Talk therapy and scriptotherapy work largely because the individual is able to finally put words to this awful experience and can then begin to heal.
I define ordinary trauma as events that happen to us every day that have the potential of being distressing, disturbing, and even traumatic, but are rendered ordinary by the outside world. The military child provides an ideal example. She grows up in a culture that is dedicated to the preparation and possibility of war. But those preparations—the guns, the soldiers, the constant relocation, the deployments, all the paraphernalia of war—are as ordinary as a stop sign or breakfast cereal. When she drives home to her house after school, she drives over speed bumps filled with explosives aimed at terrorists. That is how she gets home. In that way, ordinary trauma is also outside of language, much like acute psychological trauma. It’s invisible. We don’t articulate the ordinary. No one remarks on the stop sign or the soldiers humping their weapons. Ordinary trauma produces its own kind of suffering. It, too, is left to lurk.
You finish that earlier quote with this: “What I have found, though, is that writing about loss is actually writing about wholeness, that what you think is empty or abandoned is actually the very stuff that makes you whole. In my losses I am connected to all the losses in the world around me. So I cannot actually be empty or alone.” When did writing come into your life, and did expressing yourself through words become a conduit to feeling less alone?
We tend to think of writing as a solitary activity—the artist in her garret, typing madly away. But writing is always, at every moment, collaborative. Even when you are physically alone. We create our reader as we write. Whether writing a novel, an essay, or an email. This is true for diary keeping as well. In that case, the reader is yourself, but you write toward that self. Writing is collaborative, too, in the way that you are adding your thoughts and words to a conversation that has been happening for a long, long time. You don’t write in a vacuum. You write out of a collection of experiences, experiences that intersect in you. Every word, in some way, has already been spoken—not literally—but through your lived experience. It comes from somewhere, already clothed. And it arrives on the page in the company of all these other words—the ones said and the ones unsaid. Each word connected to other words. Each sentence, a rope to what has come before. It’s why we write. Not because we want to be read—though many of us do want that—but because as writers we understand the necessity of these ropes. We rely on their strength to bind us from word to word, idea to idea, person to person, present to past.
Your writing has a rhythmic, ethereal quality marked by a careful attention to details and an inclination toward vulnerability. How has your writing voice developed since you began? How have you cultivated it?
The older I get, the more certain I feel about the words I put on the page. But I don’t think that is just about writing. It’s about living. At some point in your life, you begin to realize that this is your life. This, here, right now. You aren’t going anywhere. There is, in fact, nowhere to go. Such a realization might sound depressing on the surface—as if you were stuck, dead-ended. But it’s actually liberating. It’s all right now. You don’t have to save anything for later. You don’t have to wait for another degree, award, publication. You offer it all at this very moment, and what you have to offer is enough. It’s all there is to offer at this moment. So you send it out. And then you let it go.
What is the importance of expressing vulnerability on the page for you as a writer?
Vulnerability is not an option for a writer. It is, I think, what gives writing a “voice.” This doesn’t mean you must reveal some deep dark secret or a sordid past. In so many ways that would be easier if it were true. Instead, vulnerability requires revealing your humanity, those tics and sputters that make us human beings—our simple needs, our hopes, our desires, our fears. What tune do we whistle when we walk past the cemetery? What story do we tell ourselves at night to help us fall asleep? What wish do we have for our second child? What dream do we have for ourselves?
Etymologically, the word vulnerability comes from the Latin, vulnus, wound. When we make ourselves vulnerable, even if that is just exposing our naked need, we reveal our wounds. Arthur Frank has a wonderful book called The Wounded Storyteller. In it, he writes about those who have suffered terrible traumas—abuse, rape, accident. Those who have been wounded must learn to tell the story of their lives differently. The map they thought they were following no longer works. They narrate the new version of themselves as wounded storytellers.
We are all wounded in some way. Just surviving middle school leaves us marked for life. We learn to tell the story of who we are through our wounds and with our wounds—not around or despite them. It is when we pretend that we are whole, complete, and invincible that we get into trouble. If we are writers, we lose credibility with our readers. If we are parents, we set our children up for unhappiness.
Sometimes our wounds show: a black eye, the loss of a limb. But for most of us the wounds are invisible. We cannot read the trauma on another’s body. We must assume that everyone we meet bears scars. As a writer, a storyteller by profession, I have an even greater duty to make my map as detailed and accurate as possible. I think it is the essayist Scott Sanders who says something like, “I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine, but because it seems to open a door through which others might pass.” The image of the door, the wound, the open heart. All are gateways to those places and ideas that we, as human beings, found our lives upon—the power of love, grace, forgiveness. Our wounds opening onto all we don’t have words for.
What were your early attempts at writing like? Did you dabble in other genres? How did you eventually settle on nonfiction?
Like many writers, I have written for as long as I can remember. I kept a diary as a child, but, even before that, I wrote stories. I remember reading my first “novel” to my father when I was nine or ten. Sitting on his lap, a sheaf of stapled papers in my hand. The main character, a young girl named Carrie, had to survive a hurricane (I lived in Hawaii then and storms threatened the islands every fall). The gale force winds unleashed flying butcher knives that stabbed everyone Carrie loved. Even then, I was all about loss.
In the fourth grade, we studied how markets work—supply and demand. The teacher asked each of us to come up with a product to sell. One boy chose rock candy, another homemade lollipops. I chose poetry and opened my shop. The day of the market arrived but no one came to my stall. The line for the red lollipops snaked out of the classroom. By the afternoon, my teacher took pity on me and commissioned a work for a quarter. She asked me to write a poem about a police officer. I was entirely insulted by the subject matter—way too pedestrian for me. Police could not be the subject of great art. I never wrote the poem. I made no money that day, but I learned something important about myself as a writer: writing had to arise from inside me. I also learned, of course, that writing would never make me rich.
Through my master’s degree I wrote fiction. I worked with Marly Swick at the University of Nebraska and Lynne Sharon Schwartze at the University of Hawaii. They taught me important lessons about character, structure, and urgency, lessons that have informed my nonfiction ever since. Most of the fiction I wrote for those workshops was thinly-veiled autobiography. Occasionally I entered imagined worlds but usually I would return to my own life for inspiration. I was starting to realize the ways in which a story could open a space for others to gather around. I didn’t need tragic characters or exotic locations. I didn’t need alternate realities or imagined tension. All I needed was a remembered conversation around the dinner table when I was a child or the exact look in my then-husband’s eyes when he lied. So I dressed my life in the garb of fiction and called it story.
At that time, I couldn’t study creative nonfiction. Those classes didn’t exist. I had to wait to find creative nonfiction as a PhD student, when I began studying autobiography. To me, as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, the most exciting work being done in the humanities was the work that blurred disciplines and fields. In between genres and fields and conversations, I saw so much possibility. The margins. The gutters. The space on the side of the road. Initially, my own work wove between writing studies, experimental ethnography, and autobiography. Ultimately, several years after completing my PhD, I learned to call what I was doing creative nonfiction.
So many of your essays are written in the braided, or lyric, form. You often balance research, site visits, and personal narrative. What draws you to this structure?
I like the lyric form, or a non-linear form, because it replicates our lived experience. It’s how our minds work. Chronology is the lie. I find that if I am trying to reproduce the intersection of ideas or experiences that is happening inside of me when I face a complex subject (why do I tend to see the world in terms of loss rather than gain, what is my response to real poverty) that the braided or lyric form is the only form possible. It allows me to move by association rather than by chronology. And since my mind moves that way—one idea leading to another, the cause unhinged from the effect—it feels more honest on the page. Closer to the emotional truth.
The irony, though, is that even though the lyric form may be closer to our experience, more truthful, it is much harder to negotiate as a writer. All those spaces, those gaps, those juxtapositions, make it seem easy. Like a Jackson Pollack, we naively think. Splatter a canvas and done. But once you leave the shores of chronology—a beginning, middle, and end—you are on your own and you have no boat. You have to create a structure that does not move linearly but moves nonetheless. Our lives are wed to time—we love the structure that it gives to our days, our weeks, our pasts. If you are going to take away linearity, you must invent a structure that provides the same poetic sturdiness of tick, tick, tick. It must be tight even as it appears random, loose on the page.
When I teach the lyric form, I often begin with Stephen Dunn’s “Little Essay on Form.” In its entirety it reads, “We build the corral as we reinvent the horse.” Dunn himself when describing the essay admits both his pleasure at the metaphor and his understanding that, pushed too far, like all metaphors, it flirts with collapse. Still, for my students, it is the perfect place to begin the study of the lyric. While they might understand the need to manipulate form in relation to content, it has not occurred to most of them that content is equally imagined or made. All bets are off when you move into the lyric, and that is both terrifying and thrilling simultaneously.
Certainly balancing these disparate narrative elements takes a degree of design and planning. Tell me about your writing process, particularly how you make the strands of the braided essay come together.
Typically I write from a first sentence—a sentence that comes, as sentences so often do, seemingly from nowhere, but which has actually been percolating deep inside of me for a long time. For me, an essay has to simmer inside before a single word makes it to the page—it begins as an inkling of an idea or an experience I might pursue. I run with that inkling. Literally, I run. Every morning long before the sun comes up and in every kind of weather. This morning it was zero out, and I took this question, the one you have asked, with me as I ran. I do my best wordless writing when I am running. Something about the rhythm of my stride, my breathing, the same route every day, creates a background out of which thoughts and ideas can arise. I might take an essay running for many days, weeks, even months. Just thinking about it, laying it alongside things happening in my life, things I am reading, things my kids say or my students say, or things from the past. All of this swirling about inside, inchoate at this point, just bumping into each other, rising and settling back.
And from this comes a line. Usually the first one. A sentence pushes to the front. And I begin. Sometimes I know what I am braiding together, but often I don’t. Sometimes I have a sense of the form, but usually that comes later. At first, I just write.
Words on the page. I just try and get words on the page. Eventually I start to see what I am doing, the deeper subject of the work, the form it wants to assume. I believe you follow your gut more than your mind when you write. My mind, for the most part, gets in the way. It tells me the ideas are flat, to put it away, to give up. I have to trust the deeper, more intuitive part of my body to keep writing. It’s what gave me the first line after all.
Once I have a sense of the players—the strands or the pieces that seem to have something to say to one another—and once I understand the larger question I seem to be exploring, then it is a matter of welding the pieces together through image and detail. I think of my reader at this point—intentionally—and I think about how I am going to get her from one section to the next—how much help does she need, how much can she juggle, what will carry her across. In a lyric form, you want your reader to be active, you want her to complete the meaning, but you also want her to stay. You don’t want her to give up and walk away. The trick is in finding the balance. To find that balance, I read a lot of lyric essays, and I teach them. I turn them inside out and try to find the seams. I also put my draft away for days, even weeks, and return to it with fresh eyes—in hopes that when I pick it up again I will see how it struggles or strides.
One last thing I would add is the place of research in all of this. Much of my writing process is intuitive. I just have to trust that because something arises in me while I am thinking about an essay that I should follow it on the page. But I also follow the ideas out. I research. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. And every time I do, I am amazed by what I find. So often when I am writing I literally cry out at some connection or metaphor or image I discover while researching a topic that seemed ancillary at the start. It feels almost otherworldly to me, like magic. Part of me thinks my body knew it the entire time.
Could you say more about the importance of research in creative nonfiction? I remember as a student in your class you encouraged us to go to the library or on a site visit to add another dimension to the story.
Because I came to creative nonfiction the way that I did—not through an MFA program or through a creative PhD—but rather through a program focused on writing studies more broadly, I have been trained as a researcher and I know the value of the archives in our lives—the literal archives as well as the archives of our past, our memory. And if you do archival work long enough, the traditional kind, where you are looking through box after box and box—you learn that what you think you want to find and what you will actually find are two different things. And the latter is the better. But you can’t find what you don’t know you are looking for if you stay at home. You have to go out there. You have to visit a site. You have to pore through the boxes. You have to hold the strands of hair or the gun or the bronze statue in your hands. You have to stand in waist-high grass or in the waves as they roll up the sand. You have to touch the paper. You have to walk the same road. You have to pick up each and every rock and look beneath it. You don’t know what you are looking for. You don’t know. And you may not even recognize it when you first hold it in your hands. But for sure you will never ever, ever, ever find it sitting in your study.
Go there. Hold it. Measure it. Film it. Touch it. Draw it. Feel its heft. The things of the world. That is what we write about.
Your two young boys sometimes appear in your essays. How did becoming a parent change you as a writer?
Honestly, the biggest change in my writing that motherhood has brought is my ability to write in small spaces of time. It may be trite, but it is true. Before I had kids, I liked to have four-hour blocks of time to write. I thought I needed that long—a half hour to journal, a half hour to read some beautiful language, two solid hours of drafting, and then an hour to work on revisions. I haven’t seen a four-hour block of time in more than ten years. I am, in fact, writing this paragraph in the twenty minutes I have before I pick my boys up from school. There is no preamble to writing for me these days. I don’t mosey around, kick up the dust, roll my pen between my fingers. I write. Like I am on fire. Or maybe more like I am a smokejumper leaping into a fire. I begin in flames and write in flames—head bent, one-pointed, completely absorbed with my tools. And because I don’t have large chunks of time, I am a much more efficient writer. I actually get more done. I don’t have any other options.
My children have opened my heart in ways I would have thought impossible. They have altered my understanding of my past. They have expanded my humanity. But most profoundly they have given me the forced opportunity to seize every spare moment and wring everything I can out of each one.
Since your family does play into your creative nonfiction, how do you reconcile writing about them and telling the truth, some of which may be hard to hear or relive? I’m thinking particularly about your essay “Confluences,” about your father’s perilous experience taking care of his brother on an ill-fated canoe trip in Alaska.
Oh this is timely! I know the advice I give to my students about this very question. I quote Octavio Paz to them: When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. And I can certainly talk about the importance of telling a true story, the need to write without censorship, the moral value of art. I can also talk about creating complex characters, the ethics of nonfiction, writing about the “other.” But at the end of the day, every writer has to make peace with the decisions that she has made. There are no lines here. No rules. No final answers. You do your best to write the truth of your experience, and then you decide if you want to send that version of your past into the world.
I write about my parents a lot, my father in particular. And I write about my sons as well as my husband. None of them have asked to be included. Most of them, I would imagine, would actually choose to be left out. In my upcoming memoir, I have tried to put myself at risk on every page—my own humanity—but I am very aware that I am risking others all the time as well. And they had no choice. The question I wrestled with in the end was one of scale—a completely inappropriate question when it comes to art, yet the only one that eventually made sense to me. I asked myself if the story I was telling was agile enough—meaning the art itself had risen to some invisible bar that only I could see—that it might open out rather than shut down. Because I know I will cause pain. To people I love very much. None of us live golden lives. We are all terribly imperfect. And to put ourselves and others on the page requires revealing our limits as human beings. In my memoir, I was able to decide just which limits of my own to reveal, but my father did not, nor did my mother or my other relatives. I chose for them, and that is a burden I will forever carry.
I do not write about others lightly, yet I cannot write about my own life without drawing others in. We are all connected. I can just try my hardest to risk myself most of all and to bring compassion to the other characters I create. I tell myself that if I write as beautifully and truthfully as I can, then all of us—all of those I have reined into my pages including the “I”—will be seen as whole, complex, and real people—people who yell and cry and love and hate and sing and swear and work and wait and wail. If done well, my readers will recognize themselves in each and every character.
You used your father’s journal to help tell this story, but it isn’t the first time you’ve explored the literary and historic value of journals. What draws you to these documents?
I first began working with the writing of others in graduate school when I centered my dissertation on the diary of my great-great-great aunt Annie Ray, a woman who homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century. Annie’s diary was handed down to me from my great aunt. She wanted me to turn Annie’s entries into a novel. But I was arrested by all the ways Annie’s diary didn’t tell a story. Her entries were bare-boned and empty of all the usual markers we look for in a good tale—characters and plot and tension. Instead, she documented how many loaves of bread she baked or the wash she did that day. Little else. I could have read between the lines, done some family research, and furnished a story for a reader, but that seemed to me to be a betrayal of the work Annie was actually doing. Instead, I developed a reading lens for ordinary writing. I learned how to see Annie as an author making complex decisions on the page. I learned to value what is typically dismissed or ignored.
As an avid journal keeper, I have always been interested in how diaries document moments that pass unnoticed. A diarist never knows when her diary will end. She always writes in the middle of things—and is therefore unable to create a narrative arc, get the kind of narrative distance necessary to craft a story. I love the idea of writing in the middle. I love the way diaries and letters allow you to perch on the windowsill of someone else’s present. O’Keeffe’s letters have given me that—the windowsill on which to perch. And I am very conscious of the ways in which I am both with O’Keeffe as her days unfold and far away from O’Keeffe sitting in my kitchen. What a tension: both near and far away. That is one of the delights of reading historical letters and journals. You exist simultaneously in two worlds, and the frisson between them is compelling and lush.
You teach creative nonfiction at Utah State University in a Mormon culture that is often repressive, as evidenced by your essay “Out in the West” about young Mormons coming to terms with their homosexuality. How do you get your students to open themselves up through writing? What is the most important lesson you try to impart to your students about writing creative nonfiction?
Years ago, I learned that as a teacher I have to give students a path that is possible to walk. If I present them with ideas or stories or essays that are too challenging, too upsetting, I only succeed in shutting them down. If I truly want them to have a larger worldview, to open their hearts to people who are unlike themselves, then I must give them a way through. So I try and do just that. Readings that will allow them to gather around the story, not stop reading. And discussions that we build together—rather than those fueled by an agenda.
The years we spend in college, typically in our late teens and early twenties, are years of great growth. I know that I changed radically in the four years I was away at school. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, I discovered the world of ideas. Every class challenged me to rethink what I had thought was true. I would leave my British Romantics class with my heart racing. I want my students to have the same exciting opportunity that I had. But to do that I have to create the space where many paths are possible and all are well lit.
In my writing workshops, I find it is the writing of the other students that does this work for me. We gather around stories of eating disorders or gay Mormons or alcoholic mothers and suddenly the They that my students have been warned about—those Others who have renounced their faith or slept with men before marriage or shot heroin—are not so other. In fact, the Other is right beside them, and she, too, is wearing jeans and loves Dr. Who, and she is writing beautifully and honestly about making her way in the world. Through scene and detail and image she is showing us her map. And suddenly no one can look away.
You once wrote: “Place shapes us as much as gender, or race, or class. Who I am has much to do with where I have stood.” In “Out in the West” you said you felt conflicted about your life in Utah, where you’ve now lived for over a decade. Given you’ve spent so much of your life moving around, do you feel as though you’ve found a place that you call home?
Oh heavens, no! I am fairly sure no matter how many years I live in a place I will never feel like I am home. I love living in Utah. It is truly beautiful. Mountains rise up in my back yard, and a river runs clear and cool through the middle of town. But Utah will never be home. I have a writer friend, Susan Swetnam, who calls herself a neo-native. She knows more about this part of the country than those who have lived here for generations, but she understands that knowledge will never make her a native. I feel the same way. What I wonder about is whether my boys will call themselves Utahns. Will they claim Utah as home? It’s the only place they have ever lived, but does longevity in a place automatically engender home?
Because I have never had a home, never claimed a landscape or a city or a state, I don’t know what that feels like. I really only know what it’s like to be outside. But I am comfortable with my outsiderness. It’s a good position for a writer to occupy. On a ledge, a windowsill, a transom—far enough removed to see widely.
Finally, Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, so I have to ask: What was your worst writing workshop experience, either as a writer or a teacher?
Honestly, I have not had many terrible workshop experiences, either as a student or a teacher. I have had painful experiences—either because the subject itself was painful or because the writing was—but even those I wouldn’t call terrible experiences. You learn so much about your own writing by responding to the writing of others. What to do and what to avoid. More important, you learn how to talk about writing, how to articulate why a metaphor fails. I have had many students cry in class but never had a student leave. I have sat in silence that stretched forever while we waited for someone to think of anything positive to say about the piece before us, but even those moments aren’t terrible. Just hard. Kind of like writing itself. I believe in difficulty, and messiness, and failure. I trust that territory much more than I do ease or grace.