Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #44 featured nonfiction writer Bill Marsh. Here’s what Bill had to say about processing memory through writing, his experience as a teacher, the overlap between the writing process and beekeeping, and more…
In “No Baby, An Apology,” you allude to your desire to write this story, and how that desire even contributed to an argument surrounding your family’s grief. Can you say more about what compelled you to write and submit this essay, in spite of the personal challenges it presented?
I’d been wanting to write this essay for a while, but I knew it would be tough—the experience, the memory, the way it circulates in our family even now so many years after the fact. From the beginning I wanted it to be true/honest from every angle, as a retelling, as perspectival reflection (i.e., from my male/husband/father point of view), and as an honest reckoning with the differences between how my wife, Octavia, and I process the memory. Before writing anything I float ideas to see what she thinks. In this case I was basically asking for her okay to write about something shared and very personal. This set off the interchange described in the story. When I thought about it later (having set the project aside after that episode), I realized that if I was going to write this essay at all, and do it honestly, it would have to absorb not only the pain of our failed pregnancies but the difficulties and potential risks of treating it as a ‘topic’ in the first place. That’s when the writing took on the form of an apology—parenthetically at first and then explicitly. While I always knew it might go public, I held fast to the idea that mostly I had to clear the air and, as much as possible, make things right. Moving through and beyond all these different layers of interaction/difficulty became integral to the story itself.
Several of the readers on our team noted that they couldn’t recall ever reading another essay about miscarriage written from the father’s point of view. Were you conscious of that “unheard voice” as you worked on the piece? How did that affect the development of the essay?
That’s another reason I wanted to write this—both to explore that point of view and to create a kind of working template for how to do so, for my own practice at least. I guess plenty of fathers have written about the experience of having a baby, but I too haven’t seen much written by men on baby experiences gone wrong, this kind of loss (ectopic pregnancy) in particular. So yes, I was thinking a lot about this—not just the ‘unheard voice’ but the privileges, responsibilities, and limitations of that voice (father/husband). I remember when I started drafting I was both terrified and excited about where it might lead, what the writing of it might dredge up—emotions, new self-understandings. As writers we know that’s a ‘good place’ to be, so I let that fear/excitement pull me through. Anchoring it all to the double-sense of ‘apology’ helped a lot because, once I had that word, I knew where to situate the trouble (part of it, at least) and saw a way out, a way back to a place (with Octavia) of experiential sharing. I tried to capture that sense of trouble and return in the ending.
We were also intrigued by the use of second person address, and other shifts in narrative voice in your essay. Why did you make these choices? Did it take a lot of revision or did it flow pretty easily?
It snuck up on me, sort of. I was two paragraphs in when I realized I was writing in the second person, so it came ‘naturally’ and then made perfect sense given the essay’s purpose. I started thinking of it as an apology early in the process. I knew I had some explaining to do. And Octavia had helped me see (as she often does) that my intentionality in wanting to write about the experience—from the male/husband/father point of view —was just as important as the story itself. Taking all this into consideration, I recognized that everything I had to say was directed to her. I remember trying a few lines (in my head) in straight third person but it sounded false, distant, irresponsible—too removed from the interpersonal work required to achieve an ‘honest reckoning.’ Once I settled into this voice it came pretty quickly. I think I felt some urgency to get that first draft written before other habits (rhetorical stances, competing intentions, basic self-doubt) kicked in. I know there’s always some risk in using second person (recently I saw it listed as a definite don’t on one editor’s list of do’s and don’ts), but I think it was necessary, in making this public, to keep it personal and direct. The basic grammatical difference (I owe her an apology vs. I owe you an apology) is important to me.
Let’s talk about titles—both “No Baby, An Apology” and also more generally. How do you decide on a title for a piece of writing? At what point in development does the title become apparent for you?
Generally I can’t start without some kind of working title—a word or concept, at least, to set the direction. I write poetry, too, and this isn’t so true when I’m writing poems, but with prose/essays, the anchor word/concept is essential, even if the word eventually disappears or gets swapped with another. I need that guideline. With this one, ‘baby’ was there at the beginning (no surprise), and when I added the word ‘apology’ to my notes, I knew where it was headed. I like the word “apparent” in your question because there is a sense of the word or idea (as potential title) appearing or emerging from a scramble of thoughts/concerns. I love that flash of recognition when the title snaps or slides into place—whether early on or as an afterthought. As an aside I’m fascinated these days with using punctuation in titles. In my notes and early draft, I used “no baby (an apology)” as the guideline and a gentle reminder as I worked through all the layered ‘explanations’ in the essay. In the end, the comma made absolute sense as a way to suggest balance, parity—an apology as reference point for no baby, and vice versa. I think the title, as a refrain, plays with that tension, suggesting an equivalence that’s both frightening and also somehow acceptable and okay.
In your bio, you mention that you are a beekeeper. Oddly enough, so are several members of our nonfiction team. We’re wondering what beekeeping has taught you about writing and vice versa? Do you see any overlaps between the two lines of work?
Both require heavy lifting and dedication! I’ll say more on this below, but Octavia and I collaborate in a few different areas, beekeeping one of them. In fact, she’s the beekeeper and I relish my role as ‘assistant’ beekeeper. We’re novices, hobbyists, but the more we learn about bees the more we recognize (1) how important it is to keep hives, if at all possible (we have access to land in north central Illinois, help manage a small farm) and (2) how amazing bees are as creatures and interconnected social beings. We had a pretty harsh winter this year and lost all our hives, so we decided to take the summer off. But as soon as we made that decision we realized how much we needed and missed the bees. Maybe the first overlap is there: as with writing, beekeeping is immersive and requires steady, if not always constant, attention. Plus bees are an awesome example of work/process/production as material transformation. And obviously there’s something to the idea of the beehive as collective effort that writers can learn from. Even when we’re writing alone, we’re writing collectively, in collaboration.
You also mention that you teach at the college level. How do you approach your work with students? How does your teaching inform your writing and vice versa?
I teach writing (and reading, research) at both the college and pre-college levels, so there are obvious overlaps and intersections. Sometimes I write about teaching/learning in my essays. Sometimes the teaching is just another version of what is (or will be) a writing project. Also, teaching a process/practice that I do everyday keeps me focused on the craft, the basics, as well as the possibilities and pitfalls. Most of my students don’t come to writing by choice, so I often find myself pitching the activity as both useful/functional and potentially liberatory. I can be sincere about this because everyday I experience those moments when writing is not ‘freeing’ or useful at all but agonizing, dispiriting. I can also offer up personal examples of success, and I think all this (the difficulty and rewards) motivates my students to try, even if their own writing is never easy or completely satisfying. I’ve always been keen, too, on teaching publishing (or production more generally) as a culminating step in the writing process. Beyond this obvious overlap (writer teaching writing), I think teaching, regardless of subject, is conducive to writing and develops pretty much the same skills: planning, communicative exchange, rhetorical appeal, engagement with others (as both audience and co-producers of meaning), organization and presentation, and so forth.
What do you remember about your own early attempts at writing? What’s the first essay you remember writing? Have you dabbled in any other genres?
Like many of us I wrote a few stories and essays in high school and college, but the one that stands out is an essay I wrote as a college sophomore on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The assignment (analyze an album) really captured my imagination, so I took a lot of time with it, did some outside research, listened to the album a couple dozen times, once or twice in an ‘altered state’ to see if I could hear anything new (I didn’t). I remember having a blast simply with the process of analyzing, brainstorming, refining ideas, and then sculpting an argument that was both logical and personal, emotionally driven. Since then much of my creative work, as a writer and small press publisher, has been in poetry. I took a poetry writing class that same year in college and fell in love—with the economy, density, wordplay, intensity. I’ve also published academic articles and a scholarly book on plagiarism. About two years ago I pivoted to mostly essay writing, and I’m finding a lot of interesting overlap between and among these genres. I enjoy essay writing the most because it draws on just about everything I’ve tried and done before—narrative arc, character development, research, close reading, concise language and wordplay, argument, and so on.
You likely know that Mud Season Review grew out of a writers’ workshop, so we like to ask questions about workshop experiences. What was your most memorable one? What role does reader feedback play in the development of your work? How do you incorporate it (or not)?
I have an MFA in poetry (Arizona), so most of my workshop experiences/memories center on that time, which was both glorious and demoralizing, as many workshops can be. Workshops sometimes get a bad rap for being too structured or insular, for insisting on a certain style (the vanilla ‘workshop poem,’ for example) or reducing everyone to an acceptable common denominator. As a teacher I know this can be true—but also not true. Much depends on how the work of the workshop gets framed—and the ‘shop’ itself, the learning environment. The kinds of feedback and community interaction workshops afford can be super useful, even life-changing. Most of writing is revising, as we all know, and real revision (seeing again) requires a second set of eyes, and then some. Octavia and I have worked on several writing projects together (articles, two novel attempts), and now we half-jokingly refer to her as my ‘agent’ when it comes to essay writing. She reads drafts and offers incredibly incisive, productive feedback (yes, she will be reading these responses before I send them off!). In some cases I work that feedback directly into the essay itself, as I’ve done with “No Baby, An Apology.” I do this not just to ‘show the seams’ and honor the backstage work, but also because the essays I’m trying to write are all about changing perspectives and evolving sensibilities, and all take up, in different ways, issues of race, class, and gender. So the feedback Octavia gives is essential as I do this self-interrogation and restructuring work. It functions more like evidence, a second layer of invention, deepening the reflection and research. I should add that this feedback/interaction is reciprocal, so when I get the chance I act as her agent, as well.
What are the best essays being published right now, either online or in print? Do you have a favorite read or two to share with us?
I mentioned above that I’m somewhat new to nonfiction, so for the last two years I’ve been reading as much as I can—the Best American series, for starters, but really anything I find online (or hear about on Twitter) as I explore journals and get a feel for what’s out there and discover what’s worth multiple passes (e.g., Mud Season Review). In general, though, I think the ‘best’ are everywhere and not just in the pages of BAE or the New Yorker. One of the great joys of surfing and sampling is finding new and surprising work in unexpected places—writers experimenting with genre, playing with form, content, etc. As for personal favorites, I’ll just list a few books and individual essays that have stuck with me. Kiese Laymon’s Heavy is earth-shatteringly good, each chapter a powerhouse essay in its own right. Plus just about everything in his collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, especially the title essay and “You Are the Second Person.” Brittney Cooper’s book Eloquent Rage. Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here. In my first-year comp course I teach Eula Biss’s “Land Mines,” Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker,” Angela Morales’s “The Girls in My Town,” and Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue,” plus a few others. To me these are all great examples of really good writing and poignant personal essays that take on serious social issues, which is a priority for me in my teaching and my own writing.