Our nonfiction editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Jericho Parms, featured nonfiction author for Issue #28 and our Volume 3 print issue. Here’s what she had to say about accessing memories, the theme of duality in her work, and her approach to publishing.
One of my favorite lines in “On Weaving” is when you write, “I am a bully that way, always twisting an idea’s arm until it chokes up some meaning.” This seems to speak to some of the investigative aspects of creative nonfiction (and of writers’ lives) and how quickly we can become obsessed and do ever more reading, more looking closely at the details until, as you mention, some meaning becomes revealed. How do you know when a particular object or image—like a Navajo rug or a dollhouse—is going to play a key role in a piece, and how much arm-twisting would you say typically figures into your process?
And when you’re doing that arm-twisting (am I right to think of it as rumination, research, extraction) are you thinking as a writer or just as a curious human? Or do you see those as separate categories at all?
I don’t always know, but I am often inclined to begin with an image or observation and see where that leads me. Recently, I was asked by a student of mine who was completing an assignment for a professional development course to circle words on a list to describe her. The list contained an array of “active, strong adjectives”—ultimately, it was an exercise in revising a resume to include more dynamic descriptions. Among the words that I immediately circled were “curious, empathetic, inspired.” A few weeks later when I nominated the same student to be acknowledged for her creative nonfiction writing, I found myself using the very same words to describe her voice and insight on the page. I believe that the process of thinking as a writer is a reflection of our curiosity as human beings, and that the best writing reveals the two as intimately linked.
Something I’m really drawn to about your writing is the multiplicity of your symbols and images—how, in “On Weaving,” rugs become personal history, family history, and national history, and you draw parallels between complexity, density, and strength. Do you feel like you take a similar approach in your writing—balancing varied ideas to build your intricate and harmonious essays?
I do believe that everything contains multiplicity and that images in particular can be used to great effect when we are willing to see them from various angles. Similarly, I think the best essays take on not just experience or narrative, but ideas, and are equally fueled by inquiry and uncertainty. I am always searching for the balance and harmony those dualities can reveal.
At the end of “On Weaving” you circle back around to the image of yourself as a child standing in a canyon in Arizona and seem to reinforce a kind of separation between the woven-ness of your partner and your cat and you: your own physical body, selfhood, memories, and history. And I love how in an essay that has such strong themes of family and partnering and relationships as part of this beautiful tapestry of life, so too there is that emphasis on the individuation and the necessary strength of the individual components. Is this an area of energy for you as a writer, in general: this notion of dualities, not as oppositional but as necessary for life? You touch on this in one of my favorite essays in Lost Wax, too: in “A Chapter on Red” you note the color’s potential for passion and death; its affiliation with both the organic and the manufactured.
Yes, duality is an important theme in my work and it stems largely from my personal experience and perspective as someone who has grown up “in between” as I often say. In between racial and cultural identities, in between urban and rural spaces, always weighing my impulse toward independence and my ability to be part of a whole—a community, a family, a partnership. I don’t see duality as something necessarily oppositional but rather as rich with potential understanding.
Near the end of the essay you come back to that question, asked by your grandparents, of “what would come of the children” and you answer it, literally and briefly. But the whole essay serves as a response to that question, too, and that final image especially speaks to some continual desire to both push ahead and preserve the aspects of our pasts that are resilient and positive. That seems to keep the essay as a whole both grounded and hopeful. Would you say those are goals of yours, in your essays?
I would, absolutely, and I think this speaks, again, to the notion of duality that I’m so drawn to. Like much of history, I find the play between past, present, and future in our own personal lives ripe with beauty and love as well as conflict, disappointment, sadness. In “On Weaving” I wanted to confront the tension between past and future, tradition and modernism, independence and partnership. It is the inherent tension of experience that I think grounds me as a writer, but it is also what encourages me to interrogate experience, to look closely, and, in turn, to extract and forge meaning. It is the meaning-making, as well as the image of me as a child, that gives me hope for that girl, a young self that is trying to comprehend the world—vast and unruly—around her.
What is your approach to endings? Some of your essays have a clear narrative arc, but often you seem to be turning an idea around and looking at it in varying lights. Yet that organization still requires that you “stick the landing” and leave readers with the language and image that is unexpected but complete and related, which you do over and over.
More often than not, I tend to circle around an idea and fragment a narrative such that it becomes more of a meditation, an inquiry, an argument with myself, a series of observations. I love essays that end unexpectedly yet manage to tow the line between cohesion and an allegiance to a piece’s intention; endings that invite further exploration—even unhindered wonder.
I think the essays with the best endings reinforce my belief that essays never really end, which is to say that when they succeed, they ignite our own curiosity, inspire us to question, see differently, reach for understanding. Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome” definitely comes to mind—an essay that offers a research-driven meditation on telephone poles and invention, a history of lynching in America, and ends with a subtle, yet poignant, shared moment with her sister. Another all-time favorite ending might be Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I,” a see-sawing reflection on the author’s relationship with her late husband, executed with a syntax and structure that has long inspired me as a writer, and then ending with a sentence so embodied with longing and nostalgia that it inevitably makes me reread it. Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” also comes to mind, which builds the metaphor through contrasting and exquisite details of the hummingbird and the whale, then shifts artfully to close the piece with a series of almost quotidian human moments that themselves serve to represent the universality of the heart.
Much of your writing involves yourself, as the narrator and writer, in a moment of the present or the very recent past—I’m thinking especially of your piece “Night” that was published in Brevity. And this seems to marry reflection and introspection in very interesting ways—bringing memory more fully into the everyday. There is wanting, there are “maybe”s, and there are questions—about shelter and aching and uncertainty. Do you have a requisite amount of time after something happens before you can write about it? Or do you jump right in when things are fresh?
While many of the essays I write tend to have a sense of “I,” the writer, being present in the thinking and remembering of experience, the experiences themselves are often grounded in a more distant past. “Night,” as you mention, uses the present experience of hanging curtains as a way of framing my memory of a moment that occurred years prior. In general I like to think of memory as present in the everyday or at least close at hand. I often struggle to enter directly into past experience without acknowledging the time and distance that inevitably colors my memory of that experience. I try to be open to associations and seek imagery to serve as the connective tissue between past and present. In “On Weaving,” for example, the present reflection on lying in bed, limbs interlaced with those of a partner, the up and over step of the cat across my legs, led to reflections on the Navajo rug slung over the foot of the bed—an object that carries its own history and questions.
Did you ever have a thought to present Lost Wax as memoir? I know that’s a conversation that can happen in creative nonfiction—essay collection vs. memoir—and I was wondering, especially since the essays are loosely chronological: was that a conversation you had with editors at University of Georgia Press at any point?
Never. And that is no reflection of my feelings toward memoir, which is a form I very much admire. All of the pieces in Lost Wax were originally written as stand alone essays, and when it came to publishing the book, it was important to me to preserve that origin, to uphold my commitment to their original form, even if ultimately they came together to compose a loose chronology. (In many ways this speaks back to the notion of duality discussed earlier—that desire for independence while longing to be part of a cohesive whole. One could argue that a book of essays vs. a memoir reflects that desire as well.) One of the reasons I was so pleased to have found a publisher like the University of Georgia and in particular the Crux Series in Literary Nonfiction is because they understand and value the essay as a form. I am grateful to have worked with editors that were concerned first and foremost with the quality of the book, not the label or market value of its genre. At this point there have been so many amazing essay collections published to great success that I think the perception that memoir is a better sell is changing as well.
You know when you spend time in someone’s home and begin to understand the level of care and attention they put into the arrangement of their belongings and furniture? That’s how your essays in Lost Wax feel to me, “A Theory of Substance” in particular—your inventiveness in that regard seems like a signature part of your voice and style as a writer. At what point in the writing process does organization of sections come into play? Is that something you come to naturally, that ability to infuse meaning based on arrangement?
And on the subject of structure: do you have a designated space in your house where you do your writing? Or a favorite place outside the home for writing? Do you write every day?
I wish I wrote every day, but it is simply not a reality for me. I do think about writing every day, and I’ve come to believe that such meditations are equally important. I take a lot of notes, write down snippets of language as they come to me, consider potential associations, list images, record things observed or overheard. I frequently return to Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which I often use in my classes, as much for my students’ benefit as a reminder to myself. Beyond this regular practice of thinking about writing, or as a writer, my actual writing process tends to be pretty erratic. While I often write in short bursts and binges, I tend to revise in long bouts, my attention settling into the process of re-seeing, reworking, getting into the weeds of content, language, and form.
I am fortunate to have a space in which to write, and while this is not something I take for granted, I don’t always write there. My own restlessness often leads me elsewhere: to the kitchen table, to the living room floor, to a bookstore café, to the subway in the city, to a museum gallery. As long as I am left alone and have momentum with an idea, I can usually get something done. Like many writers who work and teach and have loved ones and other things that need time and attention and nurture, I try to take whatever opportunities I can to write. But I also try to remain forgiving of time, which is inevitably in short supply.
Do you think of yourself as a “young essayist”? It seems to be something of a “thing” in creative nonfiction—we’re very much aware of writers’ ages, because there maybe is some stigma about how that enhances or limits their abilities to reflect or see memories and life’s events in a larger context. Which is so ridiculous, right? And I think that’s something we’re moving away from as CNF becomes more and more its own genre, with authors like you on the cutting edges of that. I’d argue that weaving the present, as you do, as a still-shifting state creates far more interest, to know that we’re always on ground that isn’t entirely stable—as you put it in “On Weaving,” we look for “evidence of how we live in times of discovery and turmoil.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever thought too directly about my age in relation to my identity as an essayist, but I can certainly say this feels like a starting point, the beginning of one leg in what I hope will be a long relay in the larger sense of my writing life. I am acutely aware of other writers both older and younger than me that are (and have been) doing incredible things with the essay and helping to bring the vast range and possibility inherent to creative nonfiction as a genre into greater light. The essay has a rich, varied, and humbling lineage, and I am deeply inspired—and hope I continue to be, whether I am still young or when I grow old—to work towards participating in that conversation as a writer.
In addition to your role at Vermont College of Fine Arts, you’re also a professor at Champlain College. What pedagogical approaches do you take to teaching creative nonfiction? Do you work much with students who are new to the genre (and if so, how do you get them excited about telling their own stories)? What are reoccurring challenges you’ve dealt with in classes, or points of difficulty? Do you find that your work as a professor and assistant program director fuel your writing life and give you inspiration or motivation?
Yes. Over the past few years writing, teaching, and program administration have become three prominent points of engagement for me, and in many ways I see the potential for them all to work together. While I love the fact that all aspects of my professional life circle around writing, it can also be a lot to juggle. I didn’t always envision myself teaching, but I’m grateful that I’ve found my way there. Whether my students are new to writing or taking an advanced elective in creative nonfiction, my approach to teaching remains committed to helping students find and develop their own writing process while also challenging them to become engaged readers and critical thinkers who look closely at their own perspective and seek language to convey the lens through which they view the world. I’ve been inspired by my students’ progress and in awe of the courage it takes them to strip bare their armor to find and reveal their voices as writers. While it is singularly inspiring, teaching is, of course, a demanding endeavor. In my experience as a writer, an educator, and an administrator, teaching creative writing and critical readings is best forged through a mentorship of shared passion.
You received your MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency writing program. How did your writing change over the course of getting your MFA? How much of Lost Wax came out of thesis work?
In college I studied political science, history, and journalism. A few years later, when I began my MFA at VCFA, I was interested in moving from that journalistic background to exploring personal narrative through the study of creative nonfiction. I knew I had stories I wanted to tell, material I needed to explore, but beyond that, I was relatively open to how my work might evolve at the graduate level. The most significant change in my writing over the course of my two-year MFA program was my shift to the essay, a form I took to most readily and which afforded me the greatest flexibility of expression. Within its malleable bounds, I found I could weave personal narrative together with my penchant for research, art, and culture. As a writer, I’ve found creative nonfiction to be the perfect marriage of form and function. Many of the essays in Lost Wax began during my MFA program and, with the exception of only a few newer essays, the final book manuscript was largely based on my creative thesis.
You’ve published in some really top-notch journals (American Literary Review, Fourth Genre, Brevity, *cough* Mud Season Review *cough*). Were you very strategic, from the start of your writing career, in terms of knowing which journals you admired and most wanted to see your work in? What are you working on now, and what is your current approach to publishing? Do you still regularly submit to journals?
I’ve been working on a series of essays that explore objects and inheritance. My approach to publishing hasn’t changed much. I love the process of submitting to literary journals and see it as a great way to stay motivated to write and put work out there. Both reading and sending to journals is a valuable way to engage with a larger community of writers and editors as well. But it also takes a certain level of commitment, organization, and follow-through. Especially when we are starting out, it’s easy to impose a lot of pressure on ourselves to always be sending work, but in my experience I’ve had the most success when I’ve been more strategic or targeted with submissions. I know it’s been said (and said again), but it really is true: you have to be familiar with the journals that you most want to appear in. I also think it’s worth supporting (whenever possible) the journals that you most admire. When I first started submitting my essays, I sought out a handful of literary journal subscriptions. I read the journals. I reread back issues of the journals. I scoured author bios to see where some of my favorite essayists had published, and then I sought those journals out as well. It’s a lovely feeling to find the right home for a piece, but it is also a process like any other: it takes work and patience.
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?
Good question! I’ve had so many wonderful workshop experiences. If I had to pinpoint one of the more memorable, it would be my very first graduate workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was struck by the quality of feedback I received from faculty and my peers—feedback that revealed just how much we often assume as writers; feedback that would ultimately help shape my understanding of persona, the need for self-characterization on the page, the importance of clarity and directness in the process of crafting lyric prose. That workshop was the beginning of what would soon become a budding affair with the essay form.