Our editor in chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Meredith Boe, our Issue #27 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about the differences between writing flash and long form, her typical writing process, and how she utilizes feedback from workshops.
“Gravity” is a short essay that accomplishes a great deal in few words. What made you decide to go with short form (or flash nonfiction) for this piece? Is this a form you are drawn to in general?
I do tend to write a lot of flash pieces. When I started working full time after graduate school a few years ago, I thought flash prose or poetry was all I had time for. I quickly realized that short form pieces can require just as much work as lengthy stories or essays—each word, each phrase, starts to become more important in short form. You have to get to the point quicker. The ending matters more. The title matters more. The first sentence matters more. To me flash is more about language and ideas than a story plotline, as with poetry.
I chose this form for “Gravity” because of the content and the atmosphere I wanted to convey. I wanted the reader to sit with ideas, to find out what a sentence could mean to them personally without having to explain it. The brief form also mirrors the short lives of the two main focal points of the piece—the narrator’s dead father and the Angolan man—both of whom died unexpectedly. Grief can sneak up on us and bring us to tears in seconds and, just as fast, it’s gone and we go about our days normally.
In addition to nonfiction, you write poetry and are part of a poetry group in Chicago. How does being a poet influence your nonfiction writing and vice versa?
The flash form requires quick, descriptive, concise language, just as poetry does. I wrote nonfiction before I wrote poetry, so I feel like nonfiction is more present in my poetry than vice versa—my poems are often very prosey. But once you start writing poetry, it starts to influence everything; thoughts, emails, texts, so of course the rest of my prose is affected. Each word, each blank space, each punctuation mark must represent something in a poem, and now I’m able to use that mentality when approaching prose. Hopefully that can only make my writing better and more interesting.
Do you share your nonfiction with anyone as you’re writing it? How do you incorporate feedback into your work?
I am very fortunate to have a group of friends to share writing with. We meet twice a month to discuss each other’s work, so we’re constantly encouraging each other to work on something new or revise something old. (This group was the first to see “Gravity.”)
After workshops, revising can be tricky. You don’t want to change every single thing that was brought up in the workshop, because often times the comments were conflicting. And the writers in any given workshop will have different styles and preferences, and you have to keep in mind that not everyone will like yours. If you’re confident that something is working, don’t change it just because someone else didn’t like it. The important thing is that it’s doing what you want it to do successfully. Workshops can open your eyes to major problems, and those are often clear right after someone points them out.
Your essay deals with grief, but it also focuses on a few key incidents and relates them to that grieving process. Was there a particular incident or experience that compelled you to tell this story?
My father died over eleven years ago now, but I continue to have this recurring dream that he’s back from the dead. Not that his death never happened, but that he returned afterward to everyone’s astonishment. What is most interesting to me, though, is that in these dreams he can’t participate in anything. It’s as if we cheated death somehow, and thus there are consequences. So is it really better to have him back in that state? I felt like writing about that would help me explore it or understand it better.
Then, I read the story about the man falling onto a street in England from a plane he snuck into. It was so powerful for so many reasons, but I imagined actually witnessing something like that—not having a clue how this person just fell from the sky—and it brought me back to those dreams when my dad suddenly appeared after having died. It seemed natural to write about these two things together.
Can you discuss how you see the relationship between the sky and the dream-state in this piece? Those are two central spaces that brush a surreal quality over the piece and point to something beyond or past a normal state of being. Do you think this sensation is something that you were translating from lived experience into language, or something new that has formed on the page as a result of the imagery and scenes you present?
When I started writing about these two experiences, I think the sky and the dream state started to emerge as key spaces on their own, without my help. Initially I wasn’t sure how these stories were going to be connected on the page. I think it worked because, as you say, the dad story was the more surreal story—the dream state. The narrator reflects on what does it mean to die, to grieve, to continue with life after death. But then this other man’s story is unbelievable, yet it’s real. You almost don’t know how to react to something like that. But it grounds the narrative, I think. The narrator is dealing with these intense dreams but then thinking about how awful this man’s life must have been to be that desperate to get away.
In a more general sense, what is usually the “beginning” of an essay (or poem) for you? Do you start with an idea, a feeling, an image, or something else?
I usually start writing with more of an idea or an image that I can’t shake. Something I need to work through. But sometimes I’ll think of a really good title for something and go from there, even if I end up changing it after the piece is done. I recently wrote a short story using a random line from a book that I just happened to like as a first line. With the poetry-on-demand group, we always start with a topic thought up by someone else—whether broad like “love” or “winter,” a family member’s name, or a whole sentence. I think it’s important for writers to be flexible and have the ability to find stories and/or poems in almost anything.
What does your typical writing process look like? Do you have a particular time of day or location where you like to write?
That is something I’m working toward right now actually. I typically write for hours when I feel like writing for hours, and that can be problematic when I don’t feel like writing at all for long stretches. I usually force myself to write something at least once a week, even if for five minutes, and I am usually working on old drafts whenever I have time—after work, on my lunch break, Sunday morning, etc. I always prefer to write in the morning with my coffee when my mind is fresh.
Who are your favorite creative nonfiction writers and why? What about writers in other genres?
Annie Dillard and David Sedaris first got me into nonfiction writing. They are such good storytellers; they know what to save from their lives that will morph well into powerful, relatable prose. Dillard’s language is completely packed with detail but it feels easy. And I admire the way Sedaris uses humor to discuss serious moments.
I also love Maggie Nelson. Her books (Bluets and The Argonauts) inspire a lot of my short prose. She writes in bursts, utilizing short form to showcase her poetic language, touching on issues that will make you cry just in a couple sentences. It’s hard to do and I try to emulate that in my writing, especially my nonfiction.
As far as other genres, George Saunders has been a favorite fiction writer of mine for a long time. Such interesting work, it will consistently blow your mind with how spot-on he is. Even in his alternate universes and future civilizations his characters are just so human, his topics so accurate to life. Tobias Wolff, Sandra Cisneros, Billy Collins, Zadie Smith, Natasha Trethewey—too many admirable writers to name. And the list just continues to grow.
What is important to remember when writing a shorter essay that may not be as much of a concern when writing a longer one?
When writing longer stories, it’s easier to outline how the story will run its course, and the plot points are easier to recognize. More time is spent on those moments in the prose, helping the reader know what to focus on. In short pieces, the writer has to accomplish that with minimal space and more precise details. You have to keep in mind that the reader may not assume certain things that you think they’ll get to on their own. It’s a delicate balance of not revealing too much, but revealing enough so that the reader isn’t lost in vague language.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of flash pieces, most of them similar in form to “Gravity.” Some are fiction, and some are more poetic. I’ve also been writing a lot of poetry—a goal of mine this year is to read more of my work out loud, and people are usually the most receptive to poetry in that setting.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask our contributors: what is your favorite, or most memorable, workshop experience?
I had a creative nonfiction class in undergrad—I want to say it was autobiographical writing or something along those lines. We all turned in stories about place, focusing on setting details and the five senses. At the beginning of the next class, the professor, Susan Kates, read her favorite line from each of our stories, and displayed them on the projector. (Yes, the English department had no money and most of my professors still used projectors.)
I remember thinking my story was really bad when I turned it in. I had just started to become serious about writing then and didn’t know much about how to write something that sounded good. But the lines she pulled from each of our stories were so good—you could tell she had truly picked the best ones—and it made me feel like I could do it, that we all had this incredible potential. It was so encouraging, which is one of the most important feelings a young writer can have.