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A Conversation with Megan Saunders

Creative Nonfiction reader Suzanne Guess interviews writer Megan Saunders about the importance of creativity within personal narrative.

A Conversation with Megan Saunders, author of Creative Nonfiction feature, “Ink.”

What do you hope your readers will think about after reading “Ink” and why do you think this is an important story to tell?

I hope readers think about the complex, messy intricacies that make up the human experience. It can be easy (both in writing and in real life) to paint people with a broad brush to minimize their painful effects in our lives. My mother was not a one-dimensional character; she was many things, and an alcoholic was only one of them. She was also lovely, kind, and funny. Unfortunately, she was also deeply traumatized and often trapped in her hopelessness. I wanted my essay to reflect the kind of uncomfortable, palpable pain that infected my family because I think a version of it exists in many families. This story is important not only as a means of catharsis in my personal life, but hopefully also as a testimony to the importance of speaking up about mental illness and addiction, particularly in rural communities, where the stigma is still very real and very dangerous. Nothing will make losing my mother any less painful, but I can honor her by telling her story proudly – not glossing over the pain – and inviting readers to find strength in their own stories.

How long did it take you to write this essay, and how many drafts did it go through?

I began the essay during my second year of graduate school at Kansas State University in a creative nonfiction workshop. I not only had the benefit of valuable peer critiques from my classmates, but the guidance and encouragement of Dr. Elizabeth Dodd, the workshop professor and my major professor in the creative writing program. Dr. Dodd patiently offered advice and support as I waded through a lifetime of material, finding focus throughout three formal drafts and countless tweaks and adjustments. Eventually, “Ink” made its way into my M.A. final writing project, which consisted of three essays exploring different aspects of my relationship with my mother.

One of the challenges of creative nonfiction is maintaining the balance between creativity and credibility. Some nonfiction writers don’t have a problem with adding scenes, characters, and dialogue to make the story more interesting to readers while others argue against it because it violates the contract with the reader. What are your thoughts on this? 

If a writer feels it is necessary to “spice up” the narrative in a creative nonfiction piece, perhaps it isn’t the right story to tell. I listened to a true crime podcast recently that insisted on using bits of fictional dialogue to move the story forward, and all it did was serve as a distraction. I knew the podcast creators could not know the details of private conversations between two individuals, so why pretend otherwise? It felt inauthentic, probably because it was. That said, in “Ink,” I fill in a few blanks from conversations I had with my mom, simply because they were years ago, and I cannot remember them verbatim. However, they were conversations that did happen and for which I was present. The difference is ensuring clarity within the narrative, while inventing entirely new characters and scene muddies (and possibly cheapens) the beautiful humanity that exists within creative nonfiction.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

The only other thing I ever wanted to be growing up was a country music singer, but Nashville never came calling so here I am. I did, however, create a one-issue newsletter in fourth grade that featured the latest country music news and distributed it to my uninterested classmates, so maybe my interests were intertwined from the beginning. I’ve loved writing stories of all sorts since elementary school, and I recently found an entire box of them in my dad’s basement. Let’s just say my skills have improved, but my passion hasn’t waned. Writing is the one thing that has always made me feel confident and connected to myself, and I think I felt that from a very early age.

Your work as a copywriter yet have been able to carve out time to write “Ink”. What are some of your strategies for switching gears from copywriting to your creative nonfiction work?

My creative nonfiction work has made me a better copywriter. It feels more fluid to think outside the box when my brain has recently been in “creative” mode. However, it isn’t always a great fit – my boss told me the other day that while my “prose is beautiful,” maybe it didn’t belong in a templated email to a prospective student. He may have a point. That said, it’s definitely more difficult to switch from copywriting to more creative endeavors, especially when you add in two young children and a host of other responsibilities to the mix. It’s a struggle to find time to write creatively, and I’ve found that I have to be very intentional about it or it falls to the wayside. Nonfiction writing has become my “treat time” – often later at night, curled up on the couch with my dog and a glass of wine. It’s never my work.

Who are the writers who have influenced you most, and why?

This seems so silly because it has nothing to do with creative nonfiction, but I have always been obsessed with Stephen King, particularly the classics. However, one of his lesser known novels, “Lisey’s Story,” is my favorite book in the universe. The way King creates an entirely separate world for the two main characters that somehow exists both alongside and separate from reality … I remember reading it for the first time and feeling so envious of his ability to build that kind of castle with words alone.

In the nonfiction realm, I am a David Sedaris devotee. His essays often make me cry laughing, which is especially incredible when you consider his subject matter – big-button topics like death, homophobia, heartbreak, and other fun times. I am particularly amazed by his ability to start an essay on what feels like solid ground – a specific event or memory – and morph it into a much larger narrative in a way that feels completely seamless yet still totally unconnected and surface-level, before circling his way back and connecting all the dots. He is a master.

What are you working on now?

So much anxiety surrounding that question! I’m developing the other two essays that were in my M.A. collection, as well as tinkering with other related material that could eventually become a book of essays. I’ve also been toying with the idea of giving “Ink” a hyper focus, zooming in on one or two very specific components of my relationship with my mother and breaking out the rest into separate essays. Stay tuned.

I’m also collaborating with an artist friend of mine to create a coffee table-style book featuring prints of her beautiful canvas paintings depicting the lives of women. I’m writing micro-short stories to go alongside each print, detailing the story behind each painting. It’s been tons ‘o fun to try and match her colorful creativity with words.

Who are some of your favorite writers to read for fun?

Still King and Sedaris! Writers who I find fun usually are the ones who influence me. I love getting lost in an engaging piece of written work, whether it be fiction or nonfiction. Also, my local bookstore offers “grab bags” with a mystery selection of themed books. I chose “beach reads” because it’s 2020 and I’m really enjoying digging in to some completely unnecessary smut.

Tell us about your dream vacation.

I love my children dearly, but they definitely are not coming. Really, I’m not sure if my husband is, either. We’ll play it by ear. Regardless, I’m on a beautiful beach in Southern Italy, sipping chilled wine and reading a delicious collection of Sedaris essays, my cell phone nowhere in sight. I probably am wearing a very floppy hat, as well, as that seems like something one can pull off in Italy.

Elaine Pentaleri
By Elaine Pentaleri

Elaine Pentaleri is co-editor for Mud Season Review. She lives on 23 acres of field, woodland and stream in Starksboro, Vermont. Elaine holds advanced degrees from both Alfred University and the University of Vermont. A poet and teacher, she is currently board co- chair of the Burlington Writers Workshop and president of the board of directors of the Willowell Foundation.  Elaine's work has appeared in small press publications, including Off Channel, Anderbo.com, New Milennium Writings,  ZigZagLit,  Cold Lake AnthologyThe Black Mountain Press, and elsewhere.