Our nonfiction co-editor Brett Sigurdson recently had this exchange with Nancy Wyland, our Issue #21 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about what compelled her to write “Cornucopia,” how she reconciles honesty with consideration in writing about family, and what she took away from her MFA experience.
What compelled you to write “Cornucopia, Unincorporated”?
I wrote this essay during a tumultuous transition in my life, when I found myself somewhat outside the family unit and was trying to understand how I arrived there. Corny was always a haven for me and my family, and I knew I would write about it one day, although I could not have predicted the context the essay would take. One of my favorite essays is E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” which inspired my return to Cornucopia, and also influenced the bittersweet tone of my essay.
What happens after this essay ends and you return home? Do you think you’ll ever return to Corny again?
I had intended to stay in Cornucopia for two nights but found my visit solitary and painful enough to leave after the first day. It was important that I returned to Corny, because I realized on that trip that I was on my own going forward and would have to “suck it up” and rely on myself for comfort now—much like in the essay when I floated under the pier and realized I had to save myself. This trip was one event in a series of experiences I needed to go through following my divorce in order to become stronger. I would like to return to Corny again someday, perhaps with a group of friends in summertime. I will always love that place, and it would be nice to make some new memories there.
Your estrangement from your sons lingers in this piece, as does your desire to live life on your own terms. How did you reconcile them as audience members for this piece? Did you see this essay as a way for you to tell them your side when they wouldn’t listen?
That’s a good question. I think it is a way for me to communicate with them without having to engage in the conversation they don’t want to have. One son has read the essay, the other has not. My hope is that if he wants answers one day, this essay (and others) can give him some insights. Perhaps more than a vehicle for communicating with my sons, the essay provided me with a cathartic structure to record and validate what was happening in the aftermath of my divorce.
Family is a theme in your work. How do you reconcile writing about family in a way that is honest yet considerate of your relationships?
This is always a challenge in nonfiction. For the most part, I share my work with family members when they are in the story, and yes, there have been times when they have objected to their portrayals. That’s when I consider softening the language or omitting details that may not add anything substantial to the overall piece. I try to balance honesty with respect for the people in the essay. It is possible to be honest without being hurtful; it’s just sometimes not clear how your words will be received. At the same time, the people in my life are often characters in my story, presented from my perspective. I own my perspective, and as a writer of nonfiction, I have to be able to own my story.
You attended the University of Iowa’s MFA in nonfiction program, which tends to be overshadowed by the Writers Workshop program, which centers on in fiction and poetry. What skills did you take from the program? Do you think the nonfiction program should be seen as on par with Workshop?
The UI Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP) is one of the best writing programs in the world, and I feel fortunate to have studied with its stellar instructors and students. The Writer’s Workshop is also phenomenal. I think the divide in visibility between the two can be attributed to the fact that the Workshop has been operating for over 75 years, while the NWP is about 40 years old. Creative nonfiction is still a relatively young genre, yet UI’s program is definitely on par with the Workshop in terms of credentials. When I attended, we were beginning to see more crossover and collaboration between students in the two programs, which is great.
I think the best skill I took away from my time with the NWP is how to expand or open up a story without burdening it with too much unnecessary baggage. I have a habit of writing everything into an essay—the house, the yard, the neighborhood, the town, and it can be hard to pare down a story to the most essential parts. I learned from both the instructors and my fellow students how to define the essential elements of an essay and allow them to flourish.
John D’Agata, one of the Iowa nonfiction program’s faculty members, caused controversy in the nonfiction community with the publication of his The Lifespan of a Fact, in which he admits to embellishing facts in his essay “About a Mountain” to make “a better work of art — and thus a better and truer experience for the reader.” What are your thoughts on his position? Should nonfiction writers embellish in the name of a higher truth or stick to verifiable facts?
I understand where he is coming from. I recently published an essay about a junior high school experience in which I called an annoying boy a “queer,” which is exactly what I said. At that age and era (1970s) my friends and I used the word “queer” interchangeably with “weirdo.” While my intent was to insult the boy as being odd, there was no understanding on my part that this might refer to his sexual identity. Because my age or the time period may not be obvious to the reader, I worried that this would appear homophobic. I considered changing it to “freak,” to align the insult with my intended meaning. In the end I didn’t change the word.
There can also be problems with selective memory, or recalling conversations or events of 20 years ago; you know they are not always going to be remembered verbatim or chronologically. I think there has to be some license within Creative Nonfiction to flex unverifiable details that may contribute to the essence of the essay.
You currently work at the University of Iowa as a research administrator to an environmental health sciences research center. What does this entail and how does your job inform your writing?
Our research center is federally funded to study environmental exposures that apply to rural and agricultural populations; pesticides, industrialized livestock operations, mining, water quality, radon are some of our focus areas. My job is to administer the activities of our center and its 60 scientific investigators on campus (some writing and editing, conference organization, presentations, etc.) In addition, I am active in conducting community outreach in Iowa. For example, we have held a series of “Science Cafes” in the past three years at a coffee shop in a rural town north of Iowa City. We bring scientists to the community—psychiatrists, geneticists, allergists, astronomists, etc.—to talk about the latest science in their field and receive questions from the public. It’s a great event, and people love it. Our most popular Science Café to date was on alien life forms.
My job informs my writing in a number of ways. I recently published an essay in Rathalla Review titled, “Death of a Mouse.” We often have lab tours for adolescents, and in the past I’ve participated as a “fainter-catcher” during mouse dissection. I’ve also written another essay on Native American land rights in the context of a large hog operation being placed adjacent to tribal land. Both of these essay subjects arose in the context of my full-time job.
Given you have a full-time job, how do you set aside time to write? What is your writing process?
Now that I’m single and childless, my evenings and weekends are the best time for me to write. I would like to say that I’m disciplined, but having professed to valuing honesty in an earlier answer, I can’t lie. When I write, I generally sit down and try to get the basic idea down on paper first; it often starts off as a chronology of events or a scattering of random images or impressions at first, but I need to start somewhere. After that, I shape it and worry it to death until I’m satisfied it has a chance for publication. I also have a few friends who are great readers of my work, and I often ask them to review and critique my essays; I highly recommend this practice to any writer.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two essays; one is a collaborative essay on “Dating after Divorce” and the other is an accounting of a paranormal experience. I think writing collaboratively will be a great experience, although I think it will also be challenging as we attempt to match our writing styles, tone, etc. Ultimately, I would like to write a divorce memoir.
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?
That’s easy. I won’t mention any names, but I was in the first semester of my time with the NWP, and I was pretty green and naïve about what to expect. One evening, we were workshopping my essay when the instructor said, “I wouldn’t tell you this was boring if I didn’t mean it.”