Our nonfiction co-editor Katie Stromme recently had this exchange with Lori White, our Issue #17 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her formal choices in “Mapquest to Auntie Iryne’s,” her favorite teaching assignment, and writers who are important to her.
Did you know from the start that you were going to write this piece in a second person instructional-type voice with the unique format, or did this begin as a more conventional personal essay?
Though this is not often the case with a new essay, I did decide on the Mapquest structure before I began to write as it allowed me the distance I needed to capture this journey. Second person contributed some to this distance as well and made room for the humor I wanted to seep through.
Can you tell me about your process in writing “Mapquest to Auntie Iryne’s?” The way that you present the interaction between form and narrative is very compelling, and I like how the formal, straightforward tone of the directions coupled with the chaos of the family road trip creates a dynamic layering effect. Did you begin with a physical printed copy of the directions and work from that?
I tested the destinations—from my home to L.A. to Orange County—and used what came up, then edited it some to suit my needs. The flat tone of the directions was fun to play off of. Having an imposed structure frees up my creativity considerably. I have a structure built in—in this case, a trip with a purpose, a destination—so I have less to worry about, fewer decisions to make.
You teach at Pierce College in California, and as a graduate of a community college myself I’m curious what your favorite part of being a professor there is. I remember some highly unconventional writing being produced by some of my classmates in writing classes I had. What do you find your students do well?
I primarily teach composition, but my department encourages its instructors to use creative methods to reach the course’s learning objectives. My favorite assignment, and perhaps my students’ as well, is the first essay of the semester, a warm up for the academic writing ahead. I ask students to write about a significant time in their lives when they learned something. The community college population is very diverse, so their stories are often surprising and tender. The most successful essays focus on a single moment: spending a night in jail; taking a pregnancy test; or conducting a job interview. Students begin to find their voice with this assignment, which makes the looming research paper a little less scary.
My favorite small moment in your piece is the line “’Now that was a real tragedy,’ your mother will say from the backseat, her lap littered with Kleenex, as you drive through the cemetery gates.” It’s one of those terrifically resonant lines that says so much in such a small bit of dialogue and description. Was that a moment that stuck in your head as it was happening? Or did you come back to it in memory during the drafting process?
I came to that line later in drafting. It’s interesting what stands out to different readers. The dialogue seemed pretty straightforward at the time I wrote it, but looking back, I can see what you mean by the resonance. But that’s a nice surprise, entirely unconscious.
Who are some of the writers you feel you have been most influenced by?
I’ve been focusing on nonfiction for the past few years. Chelsey Clammer, a wonderful writer and mentor I’ve worked with during this time, has introduced me to Lia Purpura, Marya Hornbacher, and Maggie Nelson. There are also several writers I reread for inspiration, such as Brenda Miller and Jo Ann Beard. Their work reminds me of how much I have to learn still. I like the reminder.
The ending of the piece does something really interesting as far as moving into a projected imagining of the actual visit with Iryne, while simultaneously staying rooted in the moment of approaching her house in the car. As you were writing and revising, what brought you to the decision to play with time and sequence and create that particular ending?
The thing about the Mapquest structure is that it ends when you reach your destination. Maybe this is why I wanted to cast ahead in time. The ending was the hardest section to get right. When I had my writing group read earlier drafts, they were unanimously confused. I had to revise the ending several times to make the time transition clear. I got a lot of terrific help from Chelsey as well as from you and the other editors at Mud Season.
Because Mud Season and the Burlington Writers’ Workshop recently relocated to a new workshop writing space on Main Street in Burlington, VT (you should come visit!) I want to ask about your own writing space: do you have a desk dedicated to writing only? A multi-use area? Or do you do your writing wherever and whenever? And what is your favorite place to write?
My writing space has changed over time. I used to require a very controlled time and place: early mornings at my desk. That was it. But now I like to change my environment, from my office at home to various libraries and coffee shops. I finally appreciate the white noise of public places. And I change the time of day as well, though I have yet to be able to write at night. I like to go to bed early.
The broader theme of navigation, too, does a lot of work in terms of moving the story forward physically, of course, as well as emotionally. Do you feel like “voyages” are an element that comes up a lot in your work?
It’s funny that this essay is a literal journey. A fiction mentor of mine, Nancy Zafris, has banned me from writing stories that take place in a car. The problem: my characters never get out of the car. The interplay between the Mapquest structure and the narrative helped to keep the writing alive and active. But most of my writing involves emotional, rather than physical, travel. We want to see this kind of change in our characters.
It might be easy to tell based on some of the past nonfiction selections that our team at Mud Season is often drawn to writing like yours that plays with geography in new and surprising ways. Is southern California the region you feel most at home writing about?
It is. I grew up in Southern California, in a small ranching town. But the great thing about this state is its variety—rural towns like my hometown are a few hours’ drive from the city or the desert or the Sierra Nevada. I know this world well, so it’s comfortable to write about.
What are you working on now?
I have an essay about my neighborhood—about one neighbor in particular, actually—that’s nearly finished. Then I want to return to another piece that uses online reviews as a means of examining a mother-daughter relationship. Summer is my most productive writing time; I’ll be working with Chelsey Clammer again, starting in June. She keeps me moving forward with prompts and readings. I try to complete an essay a month; I’m a slow writer, so that’s a lot for me. She’s pushing me to put together a collection of essays. We may tackle that as well.