One of our nonfiction readers, Elena Mederas, recently had this exchange with Wendy Fontaine, featured nonfiction author for Issue #37. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her experiences as an MFA student, her journey as a mother and how it has influenced her writing, and more.
What inspired you to write this story?
The story started as a piece of flash about watching my daughter, Angie, try to catch a firefly over summer vacation. When our vacation was over, I looked up something about fireflies—how they generate bioluminescence, probably—and found some connectivity between the natural cycles of this remarkable little insect and my personal feelings regarding all the changes she and I were going through. Catching lightning bugs is something I associate with youth and summertime, which are such fleeting moments in life. I wanted to capture that in an essay.
I’m not sure if this piece fits the literary definition of a braided essay, but I chose the structure because I wanted the scientific sections to inform the narrative sections—a combination of personal and technical. That juxtaposition seemed important.
A lot of the imagery in your story is based on the natural cycles of life—whether it’s the brief light and life of a firefly or the growth of your daughter. Can you expound on this theme and others that you explore in your essay?
As my daughter gets older, I wrestle with all the moments that, for better or worse, we will never have again. The last time we visit a certain theme park, the moment she no longer wants to hold my hand, the questions she asks about relationships, politics and other perplexities. She’s my only daughter, so these are milestones I’m going to experience just once. And because of that, I want to hold onto everything! But of course I know I can’t do that. I have to let her become the person she is going to become.
I also tend to find great solace in nature, in all the changes and transitions that happen in the natural world. Being outside, whether that means walking in the woods or sitting on the beach, is how I cope with stress and process the things I don’t understand. There’s wisdom in the color of fall leaves, in birdsong, in the sound of the ocean and the shells that wash up on the shore. I like paying attention to those things. I like exploring how the environment affects and informs my emotional connections.
Being a writer and appreciating nature are a lot like being the parent of a growing child. At some point, you become the observer. You have to take a step back and, through all the confusion, focus on the magic that exists in front of you.
Your daughter seems to have a big impact on your writing. How has motherhood influenced your life and work?
I started writing about my daughter before she was even born. When she was in utero, I’d write her letters about the things we were doing—going on hikes, practicing yoga, etc.—and the things I was worried about—would she be healthy, would she be happy, was I strong enough to be her mother? After she was born, the letters focused on sleepless nights, nursing troubles, temper-tantrums, all the usual stuff. Then, during my divorce, I started writing about those things in a column that I sold to local newspapers—partly because I needed the money and partly because I knew there had to be other single-parent families out there struggling with the same things we were struggling with. After those columns, I started writing essays. And from those essays sprang a memoir.
Now most things I write get filtered through the lens of motherhood. I can set out to write something that doesn’t have my daughter in it, but somehow she always manages to find her way in. She’s a storyteller, too. She likes to write, draw and make her own animated videos. Her stories are funny, with very strong voice.
How have the themes you have written about changed over the course of your life? Are there certain ideas or memories that you continually return to?
I find myself writing about the same things over and over, but in different ways. Becoming and being a mother is probably first and foremost in everything I write. Having a child changed my life in ways that affect every other branch of my existence, so it makes sense that I would write about her as much as I do. She likes it when I write about her, but I suspect that will change too as she gets older.
Family and home are major themes in my writing. I grew up in a small, working-class town in western Maine, a place I didn’t particularly love at the time but have come to appreciate. I revisit my hometown in my writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
There’s also lot of childhood memory in my work, and certainly a lot of nature. I live in Los Angeles now, and there’s more nature here than one might think.
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write?
I wish I could say that I did, that I get up very early and write 1,000 words every day before breakfast. I’m jealous of people who do that! But I’m more of a mad scientist writer. I write very little one week, then a ton the next. There are productive periods when the pages are filling up, when I’m so consumed by the words that I forget to comb my hair or brush my teeth, and then there are periods when life and responsibility are calling my name and the pages have to wait.
Generally speaking, though, I try to write something every day after my daughter goes to school. My goal is at least two hours. That might mean work on the novel or a piece of flash nonfiction, drafting an essay or typing up a new bio for a literary magazine. I’ll also grab some writing time when Angie is at art class or swim practice or in her bedroom watching television. I always have a notebook on me for spare thoughts and essay ideas. I have sentences on the backs of paper bags, napkins, magazine subscription cards, everywhere.
One other thing I like to do, which feels like part of my writing process, is take an afternoon walk. I’ll go to the park near my house or stroll through the streets in my hillside neighborhood. Maybe I’ll see a red-tailed hawk or a hummingbird. Maybe a coyote or a tree that grows toward the sun. I’ll notice the flowers, the wind, the way the clouds get stuck in the mountains. Meanwhile, whatever piece of writing I’m working on is swirling around in my head, unknotting itself.
What writers or other artists have been important to your development as a writer?
Graduate school turned me on to a group of authors whose prose literally gave me goosebumps. The very first book assigned to me in grad school was “Maps to Anywhere” by Bernard Cooper. It blew me away. His sentences were like sculptures. I didn’t know writing could be that magical! I added all of his work to my reading list.
Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” is one of my favorite books. I love how she plays with memory, how she uses it so vividly. Annie Dillard’s nature writing is sublime. I admire the short, snapshot-style writing of Abigail Thomas and Sonja Livingston. Of course, there’s Joan Didion. And don’t forget Mary Gordon, Mary Oliver, Ann Patchett, Roxane Gay and Lidia Yuknavitch. Oh, and Jo Ann Beard. “The Boys of My Youth” is on the top of my bookshelf, where I put all my favorite books.
A few years after finishing grad school, I got the chance to participate in a weekly writing workshop with Bernard Cooper. It’s an amazing experience to be in the presence of someone you’ve admired for so long—and even more amazing to learn that they too struggle with scene and dialogue and various elements of story. I’m happy to say that “Fireflies” is one of the pieces I workshopped with Bernard.
Could you tell us about your experience attaining a master’s degree in creative writing and your current work as a professor? What do you think is the value of pursing advanced degrees in creative writing?
I got my MFA and my teaching certification from Antioch University in Los Angeles, a low-residency program that combines writing, community engagement and social justice. For me, the main point of pursuing an MFA was simply allowing myself the time and space to explore new realms of writing. Before becoming a mom, I worked for about ten years as a newspaper reporter at a daily newspaper. Writing for a newspaper can be a bit formulaic. I wanted to try something more literary, more creative and personal, and the MFA seemed like a good way to do that. I also enrolled during a time when I desperately needed something inspirational in my life.
The first semester was eye opening. After so many years of reporting, suddenly here were all these new forms: lyrical and braided essays, hermit crab essays, flash nonfiction, nonlinear narrative, memoir. There were a million places to go! No rules! No limits!
After that first semester, though, I planned on quitting. MFA programs are expensive and studying instead of working, especially as a single parent, felt too indulgent. But thankfully, the Guy P. Gannett Foundation, an organization that helps journalists pursue higher education, gave me a full scholarship. I stayed on at Antioch, got my teaching certification and taught at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
When I’m teaching, I do very little of my own writing. I think that’s true for most writing teachers. It’s hard to maintain the energy for grading and curriculum planning and still have something left at the end of the day for your own work. It’s not impossible, but it requires a boatload of self-discipline.
The MFA, or any other advanced degree, is not a magic ticket to becoming a writer. What makes someone a writer is the act of writing, the practice of sitting down with an idea and a pencil and working at it, for weeks or months or sometimes even years. It requires carving out space for deep thinking and finding ways to express those thoughts. That might mean enrolling in an MFA program, or it might mean taking classes at your local writers studio or community college or maybe even online.
One thing that’s free: finding a few like-minded writers whose work you admire and inviting them to form a weekly or monthly workshop. I have a literary community of four women, all of us mothers. We meet every month or so to read and critique one another’s work. It keeps us honest in terms of deadlines, and we support one another through the submission process, which can be daunting.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?Do you have a particularly memorable experience that you can share with us?
I think the most memorable workshop experience I ever had came during my time at Antioch. I was workshopping a section from my memoir, “Leaves in the Fall”, which is about coping with divorce and moving back to rural Maine while also parenting a two-year-old, when someone in the room suggested that I rewrite the manuscript “without the child character.” It wasn’t a negative experience, per se, just strange. That’s the thing about workshops. Some feedback is relevant and some of it isn’t. It’s our writerly authority that decides what to take and what to leave behind.
But overall, my workshop experiences have all been good. I enjoy the experience so much that I seek it out. I take classes through my local writers studio. I pulled together my own workshop community of mother-artists. I read things via email for friends who live far away, and they read things for me. I enjoy that process of digging into the nitty-gritty of a piece of writing, discussing its merits and its possibilities.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m drafting a novel. It’s a murder mystery, of all things—something I never thought I’d actually write. It doesn’t involve any nature writing or parenting. Instead, it’s about secrets and false memory, two of my other favorite subjects. Fiction writing has been a fun departure from creative nonfiction, with a different set of challenges and considerations, but I’m an essay writer at heart. On any given day, there are five or six pieces of creative nonfiction on my desktop.
What do you hope readers gain from your writing?
This is a really hard question. Maybe I don’t think about readers as much as I should! Honestly, my primary concern as a writer is getting to the heart of the matter that I’m grappling with by tapping into the truest truth I can find. Sometimes readers say an essay of mine made them cry, which makes me feel pretty good, like maybe I’ve managed to uncover something universal between us.
In my favorite poem, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, she writes: “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” That sentiment seems to hit the mark. So I guess what I want readers to gain is a sense of vulnerability, of collective fragility. I want them to read my words and feel like we are all in this together and we’re going to be fine.