Our nonfiction coeditor Mindy Wong recently had this exchange with Naomi Ulsted, our Issue #32 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her experiences participating in a workshop, and her efforts to stay true to memory.
Could you describe your writing process? Since you have written fiction and non-fiction, do you find that your approach is similar or different?
I’ve written a lot more non-fiction than fiction, although lately I’m more fiction focused. With non-fiction, I usually start with a story from my life. An event or a person or something that meant something to me, or something I thought was particularly interesting or funny. And then I tell the story and, in doing so, I usually find there’s a deeper meaning than what I originally thought. And that’s what gives me the arc of the narrative, so that I can shape a story from the events. I think with fiction, I start with the arc and then fill in the details, so it’s almost opposite. I usually know the message I’m trying to deliver, I just need to create the vehicle through which it’s delivered. In some ways, fiction feels much more free, because I’m not getting bogged down with whether or not the details were accurate to the situation or if I’m portraying someone in a negative or untrue way.
Also, I’m probably concerned with what readers think of both my fiction and non-fiction, but it feels like personal essay writing opens the writer up for more potential conflict or hurt feelings or cruel criticism. So I try to silence that voice when I’m writing personal essays, but it’s still there whispering in my ear, whereas that voice is pretty much gone when I’m writing fiction.
Has writing about childhood memories with your family helped you understand or shape your relationships with them?
Definitely. It’s hard even to know where to start with this response. In my situation, one of the most interesting aspects of writing memoir has to do with my siblings’ memories, or their lack of them.
I’m the oldest in my family and much of my writing covers years when my siblings were really young, and they don’t remember the situations I’m writing about. Their dad (my step-dad) left when they were still pretty young and hasn’t been in contact with any of them for decades. So I’m in this really interesting position where my writing is actually filling in memories for my brother and my sisters. Positively or negatively, I’m creating experiences for them, so I’ve tried very hard to be true to my own memory, but also to be accurate and fair in my treatment of individuals. With the publication of “Bugs,” one of my sisters posted a comment in social media that thanked me for helping to create memories for her. After I’d published an essay in Full Grown People about my brother, he wrote me and said that although he remembered things differently, he knew we all were actors in each other’s stories, and he was glad I was telling mine. Which was a really generous response, I thought. I think that, overall, writing and publishing about my family has brought us closer in that we are sharing more memories and experiences together.
What compelled you to write the essay “Bugs”?
“Bugs” is one of the first essays I wrote in a compilation of essays about my childhood. That particular experience with the bugs was pivotal in how I viewed my step-dad and my own childhood. I think that was the point when I really saw that things were seriously off kilter in my family. My step-dad wasn’t just a little weird, or reclusive, or quirky; there was something seriously wrong with him. Back then, mental health concerns weren’t diagnosed as readily as they are now, and so although I knew something was wrong, none of us had the terminology that we might have needed to actually define the situation. But that experience shaped my life because as hard as I tried to pretend to the world that the chaos at home didn’t exist, when that rash popped out on my arms at school, it was like I couldn’t outrun it and I couldn’t hide it. It was the outward manifestation of chaos inside. So it was an important event to write for me personally. I also wanted to show the strain of this life on my mother, who was constantly trying to keep everything from blowing apart.
In the essay, I really appreciated the character of the mother and her determination to keep the bug situation under control in the family. There are so many great images of her: checking everyone before leaving for school, being insistent on everyone applying cream, wiping cream off the wall with a diaper, and so on. Could you speak more to how your mother influenced and played a role in your childhood and/or your siblings’ childhood?
I’m so glad that my mother’s character in this essay came through in that way, because that was my intention, and I think that’s an honest portrayal. Writing about people we love in an honest way can be really tough. In some other essays, my mother doesn’t come across as positively, but that’s honest too. People are complicated. God only knows what my own children might choose to write about me when they’re grown. I’ve found writing about my mother to be incredibly complex and emotional. My mother always wanted to have a big, loving family, Norman Rockwell style. The family gathered around the piano, etc. And the truth is, she kind of got that, but probably not in the way she had expected.
We do all get along and support each other. And we even sing together sometimes. But we all survived (and are still surviving) her path during those years of sick men, unhealthy relationships, divorce, and all the issues that come from that kind of trauma. In some ways, my mother’s choices placed my siblings and me in chaos, and sometimes danger. But this was also a woman who sold handpicked blackberries in front of the grocery store to raise money so we could go to the fair. A woman who sewed nearly my entire wardrobe on the sewing machine set up in the living room when I was in 8th grade. A woman who raised five kids in a mobile home, did all of the cooking and cleaning, and finished her Associate’s degree at the same time. My mother’s self-sacrifice and her dogged determination to make us a family in spite of the circumstances have helped to bring about the close relationships that my siblings and I have now with each other and with her.
There are some clues of socioeconomic disparity in the community that hit close to home: when the narrator mentions a play-date invitation with Theresa, whose mother declines because, at that moment, the narrator’s family lived in a tent; and later on in the essay, not wanting to be sent home because of bugs like other kids who lived in trailers. Where and when does “Bugs” take place in your life?
Yes, the trailer was a step up because from 2nd to 4th grade we were living in a tent on some property on Camano Island, which is about 2 hours north of Seattle, Washington. When I say “island,” it conjures up idyllic and possibly upscale images, but it really wasn’t like that. I didn’t need to take a ferry to get there or anything like that. You could drive around the island in about an hour, and it was separated from the mainland by a small bridge that basically just spanned a cow ditch. Driving from my home on the island to the town of Stanwood, which was where I went to school, took about 40 minutes. The island is more built up now, but back then, it was really a haven for people who didn’t want to be around people. It was beautiful, despite the cow ditch, with forests and quiet beaches along the bay. Lots of people went out there to build their own log cabins and raise their children half naked, including my mom and step-dad. They scrounged together enough money to buy five acres of undeveloped land and were planning to build their own house. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to do such a thing, so it wasn’t going particularly well. That’s a whole other story that I’ve written about in a series of four essays.
Eventually, when my mom was about to give birth a second time in the house with no running water and barely functioning electricity, they gave up on that idea, and we moved up to the big time – the mobile home. We moved then to a neighborhood with paved roads and neighboring houses in sight, with just a small back yard. The mobile home was larger than a trailer, but not by much. “Bugs” is set when I’m 15, a time when I was acutely aware of social hierarchy and how poverty affected one’s place in it.
I think back on my days in middle school and high school, and I have strong memories of those poor kids who were shunned and ostracized at school. Frequently, they had hygiene issues, and they never had the right brand of Normandee Rose jeans or matching Nike PE outfits. In fact, in my middle school, if your family couldn’t afford a PE outfit, the school gave you the ugliest PE outfit on the face of the earth to wear. It was a red and white striped, polyester, one-piece shorts/shirt uniform. It was as if a clown ran headlong into a catalogue for old ladies with no fashion sense. Luckily, I never had to wear that uniform, but I’ve thought often of the few kids who did and their bravery in the face of that institutionalized poverty shaming.
I’d like to think that I always befriended those ostracized kids, but I know I didn’t. I probably tried even harder to set myself apart from them, because I was working very hard to compartmentalize my home life from my school life. Now that I actually work with at-risk youth, I know on a deeper level the type of trauma that those kids were likely dealing with. But yes, “Bugs” is set at that time in my life where I was learning to navigate that connection between economic prosperity and social success.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
So many writers and for so many different reasons! Early on, I really came to appreciate Barbara Kingsolver for her storytelling. Jeanette Winterson for the poetry of her language. In memoir, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle struck close to home for me, and I appreciated the honest way she presented her parents. You can definitely feel the conflicting emotions. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina for that complex mother-daughter relationship. More recently, I’ve really appreciated D. Foy’s Patricide for a dark and honest presentation of the father-son relationship, and also a new memoir, Narrow River, Wide Sky, by Jenny Forrester. Forrester’s memoir is beautifully written, and I really admire how she captures the spirit of the landscape and the physical environment in her storytelling. I’d like to learn to do that a bit better in my own memoir writing, much of which takes place in such a beautiful and tangled area of the northwest.
What is the inspiration for your writing topics/themes? What do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
Oh, I have so many ideas and so many things I want to write about! I have experiences from my life that I think make good stories, but what I’m really trying to get across can vary.
Much of my material is about building community, whether that means through family, through friendship, or through discovering something new about someone else. In this time that we live in, I sometimes question the type of writing I’m doing. There are so many people doing braver work, more revolutionary work, more political work; work that puts them on the front lines of this war that we’re in right now against authoritarianism. I sometimes question my own choice of material, except that I think my experiences do address the battle that we’re in, even if not directly. I hope that writing from my own experience from a place of lower economic means brings more understanding from readers, generates empathy for individuals in those situations. I hope that my subject matter shows commonalities between people. And the bottom line is that I can only write what I can write. If I start with the message and then create the material, it just sounds “message-y.” At least when I do it. But if I start with the material, then I think the message comes out on its own. At least that’s my hope and how I justify continuing to write memoir or urban fantasy during such dangerous times. Speaking of middle grade fantasy, Harry Potter is nothing if not a book series about resistance in a war against authoritarianism. So I remind myself of these things when I start to wonder if my choice of writing material is appropriate in this day and age. Ultimately, I’m really interested in exploring the idea of community through my writing.
Between raising two sons with your husband and working, when do you find time to write? Do you have a favorite place to write?
Finding time is definitely the biggest challenge I have. Life is a constant balance between being the kind of parent that I want to be, managing a career, and making substantial progress in my writing. I don’t want my writing to be a hobby—it’s bigger than that. It’s a second career. But yes, it’s tough to get all three done. It always feels like a balloon. When you squeeze one side, the other side pops out. I rarely have a week when I feel like I haven’t neglected one of these three aspects of my life. But maybe overall it balances out. I hope.
I used to feel like I needed a good couple of hours to write in order to get anything done. As a result, I rarely got anything done. At a writing conference about seven years ago, I was talking with a writer who had just published his first book with Harper Collins. He worked full time as a systems administrator, and he wrote his book during his lunch breaks. Despite having published a book with one of the “big five,” he didn’t expect to be quitting his job anytime soon, so he was planning to write the sequel during his lunch breaks too. And I thought to myself, it’s the only way to make it happen.
So I started writing from 4:45-5:45 in the mornings. I don’t have time to get distracted by Facebook; I just have to sit down and start writing. Or revising. Or thinking about what I’m going to write. I’m not always perfect, and I don’t always make it five days a week, but I’m pretty close. I also grab two or three hours on the weekends, and occasionally I take a morning off from work and write all morning. Once or twice a year, I plan a writing retreat for myself. Sometimes I go with a friend, one who is serious about working, and sometimes I go by myself. Last fall, I spent two nights at the Oregon coast by myself, and I hammered out a large chunk of a screenplay. Granted, I also watched two movies and drank more than a bottle of wine, but it was still productive for me. So, it’s slow going, but it’s going. We moved into a new house a couple of years ago, and I was so happy to have an office for writing. Before that, I spent a lot of time in wine bars writing, but that got expensive. And probably involved too much wine. So then I moved to coffee shops or tea houses or libraries. Having my own space in the house is ideal. I’m actually surrounded by heads with wigs displayed on them, since I have a thing for costumes. I like to think it contributes to the creative mode.
As my kids get older, they are growing more understanding of my writing time. They used to resent the time I spent writing, and I also had to talk myself through my own guilt. I already spend a large chunk of time away from them every week when I’m at work. However, if I don’t write, if I don’t have something that feeds my creative soul, something that I do for myself, then I’m just unhappy. If I’m unhappy, I can’t be the type of mother I want to be. My youngest son used to slip papers under the door to my office when I was writing that said, “Mama, don’t write.” They depicted self-portraits with sad faces and stick figure pictures of me at the computer with a circle and a line through it. Luckily, as he gets older, he doesn’t complain as much. And I would hope that I can show him an example of motherhood that isn’t self-sacrificing to the point of being unhealthy. I hope to show him an example of balance and self-care.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice?
I honestly still feel like I’m developing my own voice. But I think that reading different styles is helpful, because I think your voice develops in part by taking what works from others’ styles. Forcing yourself to write in someone else’s voice can have the effect of further defining your own voice. I’ve enjoyed experiments where I’ve written a passage purposefully in the voice of an author quite different from myself. It’s a fun experience. And most important, I think, is writing. Writing more, writing frequently. That’s how I’m trying to develop my own voice in my work. I feel like I’ve improved so much since I began this process so many years ago, but I still have a long way to go.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of experience in a workshop environment. I think when you are doing this writing life without the benefit of an MFA, the opportunity to participate in the workshop environment is harder to come by.
I recently participated in a weeklong workshop through The Writer’s Hotel, which was a really incredible experience. However, I was terrified going into it. We all had pages of material to read and critique ahead of time. I would read each selection and think, “Yeah, that’s pretty great. Sounds good to me.” I mean, who was I to be offering any kind of critique? Plus, each person’s individual writing style can be so different. I really lacked confidence in my ability to offer any constructive criticism. However, I wanted honest and real critique for my own work and felt like I had to contribute what I could in that way myself, so I tried to really delve in and put together some constructive feedback. In some ways, I felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
However, that workshop experience was very positive, because we all offered real criticism, but in a very encouraging way. There were times when I felt like my perspectives might have missed the mark, but overall, the give and take in the workshop environment was substantial and helped to develop my writing as well as my ability to formulate and articulate my thoughts about others’ material.
We’re looking forward to reading your “middle grade urban fantasy” writing that you’re working on with your son. Can you tell us some more about it?
Ha! I’m looking forward to reading it too, since that will mean I’ve finished revising it. I’m right in the middle of slogging through a major developmental edit. I originally started it because I had spent 10 years working on my memoir, and I was just so done talking about myself and my life. I had decided to put that on the back burner and start a new project, but since all I’d ever done was write about my own life, I didn’t know where to start.
My son, Logan, and I had been reading together. We’d finished the Harry Potter series and were into the Percy Jackson series, so that was the genre I was immersed in. So I just let myself write, and that’s the genre that emerged. I quit trying to figure out what the message of the book was, or what the overall story would be, and quit trying to make something that would be more “marketable” than the memoir was proving to be, and just wrote. And it was so fun! I ended up with this story of two brothers who begin to manifest special powers. They end up on a journey where they’re escaping from mutant creatures that have been the subject of chemical manipulation by the villain of the story. As Keegan (the main character) begins to develop his ability to wield fire, he has to fight the villain, save his brother, and come to realize that he’s one of four individuals representing the four elements who will change the world.
When I was about mid-way through the first draft I started reading it to Logan, and I realized that his feedback was truly valuable. He related so well to the main character that he began to think of actions and reactions the character would have, and often they were truer than what I had planned. Logan really helped me to get a stronger sense of my main character’s personality. Plus, Logan is all about the villains, so he was able to help me develop a powerfully evil villain, with just the right streak of vulnerability and humanity in him. It’s been a fun project, although it’s had to go through several major revisions and a whole lot of work to get to a place where I am beginning to see the end of the tunnel. It may not be done before Logan outgrows middle grade, but at least I have another boy coming. Maybe he’ll be the one to help me finish what Logan helped me start.
I’ve also watched Logan’s own creativity and storytelling abilities grow. For over a year now, every other night we record a new “episode” of an ongoing story that involves the same characters that travel through portals, visit other worlds, have battles with multiple villains, etc. I think I started by taking the lead on the story, but quickly it’s become Logan’s story. He thinks of where he’s going to take the story and then pretty much authors its direction in each episode. He gets really excited when he’s thought of a new plot twist or character development. It’s been such a great experience to develop stories with him and also to watch his own creativity take off.