Nonfiction reader Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #41 featured nonfiction author Chila Woychik. Here’s what Chila had to say about the hybrid essay form, the authors she looks to for inspiration, the hope to be drawn from mud season, and more…
What do you hope people take away from “A Country May: 14 Days”?
My usual aim in writing is to adhere to the old adage “write what you know,” and what I know is the pastoral life. I enjoy dispelling misconceptions about rural living while also revealing inconsistencies. I’d love readers to get a glimpse of both, maybe learn to appreciate rural folk and landscapes a little more, nature and the earth a little more, and maybe even language a little more. I’m a firm believer in language that makes us smile, beautiful language, like the land, even when a topic isn’t necessarily pretty: we have tornadoes and floods like everyone else, disease and decay and depression.
Can you tell us more about the structure you chose for this piece of creative nonfiction? What did it allow you to do that a more traditional “essay” might not?
The hybrid form gave me freedom to write as we often think: in dribs and drabs, in short bursts. Life has gotten too full and busy. I’ve come to see that even I prefer the quick reads, the bite-sized bits of truth or observation that don’t take time away, time that I don’t have to give. In many ways, this is unfortunate, but in another way, it’s also inevitable. As long as we keep inventing, we’ll have to keep adjusting.
Your bio mentions your role as founding editor of a literary journal. How does that experience/perspective affect your work as a writer?
Reading so many essays and prose poems has helped me tremendously, to see what I want to do and what I want to avoid. It’s been an invaluable learning experience. I highly recommend it to every writer or aspiring writer: offer to be a volunteer reader at one of the many journals seeking them.
How do you balance ambiguity and clarity? How do you decide how much to give away and why?
When I started writing essays, I recall a friend saying she didn’t see enough concreteness in my work, so I began to write a little more concretely, “giving more away.” But I wasn’t satisfied with the typical creative nonfiction essay, even though I’d had several published already by that time. I’ve moved now to a place where I can entertain both aspects of what I love—specifics with principles or insinuations, metaphor or allusion; or as you put it, ambiguity with clarity.
I move toward a place of balance when I read my essay and say, “Whoa! I’d never take that for Eastern Iowa Review” (so I know I have further revision to do), but then finally, “Yeah, I’d take that one!”
Why do I give some of it away? Because only then can readers get the fuller picture. Country living isn’t a common theme; I want it to be at least better understood.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your family from the process of writing this essay?
All my essays come together incrementally during which time I have plenty of in-thought moments. During the actual putting together of the parts into the whole, I don’t take time to think about it more than that. Instead, it’s in the process of transcribing the individual parts.
The Annie Dillard quote at the beginning is one example. I think of it often, have even considered getting it as a tattoo, and may still do so. In every section, really, there’s something strong, an emotion, an evoking, that brought it to life on the page. The Amish we know and what they’ve told us about themselves, what we’ve observed. My husband’s farm talk, how he loves it, how we hate the chemical spraying, how everything that’s casually accepted here is run through our “but is it right?” filter. The cows surrounding us, their size and might, the condition of many rural fences (moderate to poor). The potential dangers of doing simple large livestock chores. Our old farm house and how the stresses of rural living set me on edge at times, how the droning of a box fan at night can help calm me.
Do you have any advice for beginning writers on how to develop their own voice?
If you find another writer who wows you, you’ve probably found someone you can learn from. Try to discover what impresses you about their work, and then add those observations to your growing repertoire of writing techniques. Most of all, be yourself, write from the heart, not just the head, and listen to your gut. Counselors are many, but if you’re a completely unique individual with experiences and genetics befitting you alone (and you are), strive to find that person, then write as only you can.
What writers inspire you?
Anne Carson, Annie Dillard, Ellen Meloy, Stephanie Dickinson. I keep going back to these four. There are many fine even more contemporary writers, I’m sure, but these are my cornerstones.
What was your most memorable workshop experience? What’s the importance of feedback for you? How do you incorporate it (or not) into your work?
I’m a sparse workshop attendee, probably because I got such a late start at writing. Living rurally also somewhat limits me. Feedback though, especially for the beginner, can be crucial. But it can also vary from one extreme to another, depending on who’s giving it, and that can be both confusing and discouraging.
In the end, we have to feel responsible for our own writing growth, and not fall into “echo chamber” mode, where one school or style may be popular, a handful of authors may appear to dominate a certain writing scene or genre, so we run to those, and then a while later, run to something else that is said to be all the rave. Like a singing voice, we discover our own when we quit emulating the latest pop recordings; instead we experiment until we discover what’s comfortable and doable for us, what makes us happy and confident, what works for us, not Miss ABC professional and polished writer.
If possible, I think writers should make it a point to go to one or two workshops a year, make connections, sit and drink in all they can. And although I’m very careful who I listen to re: writing advice (maybe it’s the German in me), when a journal editor sends me edits to review or tells me why she can’t accept a piece of work, I usually always agree with her unless she simply (and extremely) appears to miss the point of something.
What do you appreciate about mud season, personally or artistically?
Mud season in Iowa signifies the end of harsh winter, a hope in the softening fields near-ready for disking and harrowing, planting and growing. We make sure our boots fit well before we walk along our acreage or in our pastures. For me, personally, it’s a new year in every way a new year can begin.