Finding Art, Inspiration, and Innovation in an Essay

Interview with Michelle Spokes
by Creative Nonfiction Editor Andrew Miller

“I’m trying out different versions of the fantasy so it feels right, returning to the beginning of a scene and then varying it. Writing it felt a little like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.”

“New Girlfriend” is a segmented, primarily chronological essay, with some wandering into music and the visual arts. It is in first person, present tense. Explain why you made these stylistic choices.

Yes, “New Girlfriend” is essentially chronological, though there’s also a ‘variation on a theme’ quality intentionally added to several scenes. Drinking the tea. Sex on the dining room table. The borrowed time alone together. Each of these comes in ‘threes’ because I’m trying out different versions of the fantasy so it feels right, returning to the beginning of a scene and then varying it. Writing it felt a little like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

The essay was originally written in the past tense. A thank you to one of my writer friends, Jeanette Geraci, who read an early draft and suggested present tense, which added momentum and immediacy.

The wandering into the arts aspect was added after “New Girlfriend” had been repeatedly rejected. I’d retired the essay to a folder. What happened was that I became obsessed with Melissa Febos’ writing, then found out she was judging a contest for Witness Magazine. Nothing I was working on was ready, so I overhauled this essay, inspired by her style.

Years ago, I had the lucky opportunity to ask the poet Li-Young Lee how he got such a distilled quality to his work. “It’s like Chinese lacquer,” he answered, “paint a coat and wait for it to dry. Paint the next layer. Wait while it dries…”

This essay’s base coat has Patti Smith for her rebel voice and Jean-Leon Gerome’s painting “Pygmalion and Galatea” for the image and allusion. Everything else—Mapplethorpe, camera obscura, Ancient Greece, Ajna chakra— are brushstrokes of varnish.

I’m proud to say the new version of “New Girlfriend” came in as a finalist.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs include striking portrayals of mundane objects (flowers, portraits) and erotic and sometimes disturbing images. I also found these elements in your essay. Were you consciously trying to make a verbal rendition of Mapplethorpe?

The reverse, actually. All of that was there before I added Mapplethorpe. It’s fairly characteristic of my writing. Unfortunately, it’s also just me, standing there in awkward silence with people glaring at me because I’ve dropped another conversation stopper.

Years earlier, after staring intensely at Mapplethorpe’s images, you wondered about “turning shock into familiarity.” For the last 100 (or more) years, our language has become more relaxed and our sexuality more liberal. Is this nation turning “shock into familiarity,” and is this healthy?

Fuck, yes! At least as far as the freedom to express sexual orientation and identity—that’s healthy. Deana and I talk about feeling repressed, restricted from living openly as we are. We grew up as Generation X without words to define ourselves—except for unspecific, derogatory ones, thrown around as insults. I felt confused, attracted to women and worried I was gay, then relieved when I responded to men, then more confused than before when, in my twenties, I found myself in love with a man and woman simultaneously. I couldn’t conceptualize until I sought out answers on the internet in the late 90s and discovered the term “bisexual.” How many of us have felt invisible, hidden, mortified, or lost without the language to speak honestly and clearly about ourselves? Even still, I keep having aha moments: metamour, polyamory, mixed orientation marriage…

Thank goodness, in our nation and globally, a constellation of terms and concepts has illuminated the whole LGBTQIA+ spectrum and then some. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding (and danger), but at least there’s less of a void.

That said, the “shock into familiarity” I felt as a teen looking at the element of kink in Mapplethorpe’s work is a little trickier. The suggestion of masochism in some of his photos, for me, echoed internalized shame. What I was “recognizing” was the fact that pain accompanied the desires I felt.

Because past loves had slipped away, you worried about being “…a midwife of love…” Is that an apt comparison? A midwife is present for the birth and then leaves. Doesn’t passion between two people (regardless of sexual orientation) gradually diminish because of “familiarity?”

With JJ and then Avi, I shared sexual intimacy, and also friendship. I saw them through some lonely times. Listened, advised and encouraged them with guys they dated. I basically ended up in that weird limbo between being friend-zoned and getting mixed messages. It felt like I delivered them into the arms of someone else and was expected to step back.

It wasn’t what I wanted. For me, passion deepens rather than diminishes with familiarity, with the in-depth and the long-term.

The story of Pygmalion and Galatea suggests that we fall in love with our artistic creations. Doesn’t that also happen with love—an artistic creation of sorts—and isn’t this embedded in your essay?

This idea is fascinating! Paradoxical.

Galatea, specifically the version in Gerome’s series where she’s viewed from behind, is included in “New Girlfriend” because, well, first of all, she is so sexy. Deana’s got that body. The myth about a vision becoming sculpted marble becoming sweetly alive is one of various hints to the reader foreshadowing what’s revealed about Deana as the essay concludes.

Why did your relationship with Deana falter after you two discussed the possibility of a foursome with your husbands?

Do they discuss a foursome? That’s one interpretation. I’m open to it.

The relationship falters because it isn’t real. The power of memory is pitted against the strength of imagination, but neither satisfies me.

Some readers might be upset by the eroticism in “New Girlfriend;” others might envy your relationships. How would you respond to these comments?

Yeah, I worry about the eroticism– always afraid it pushes the work into a niche that could inhibit publication opportunities. So, thanks to all at Mud Season Review for being open. I’m drawn to the sensual, so my enthusiasm overrides the apprehension; if it turns me on, I love to read about it, live it, talk and write about it.

As far as envy… maybe just feel it, then let it transform into appreciation or experimentation or imagination or something. I’ll also add that some of what I’m working through in my writing is how to cope with a lifestyle that generally isn’t societally sanctioned or modeled. I’ve struggled as much as I’ve enjoyed.

Describe your long-term writing goals.

My name (or pen name, that is) on the spine of published books. Being among the community of writers. Reciprocity. Since reading is listening, writing becomes a chance to chime in. My novel, If There is Nothing But This, is looking for an agent or small press. Why We Love the Rain, a collection of memoir essays, is in progress. Then I’ll see what I’m working on next.

Tell us about other writers that you admire.

There are thousands. Many gurus. Febos and Lee, of course. John Weir (one of my teachers). His new collection, Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me, is riveting. James Baldwin, Anthony Doerr, Jeanette Winterson, Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill, Miranda July, Carmen Maria Machado, Kristen Arnett, Justin Torres. I just read June Gervais’ debut novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair, and was so captivated by her characters.

By Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is the creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He has a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in biology and spent most of his career at the US Army Engineer R&D Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After retiring from the government, he taught at Thomas University in southern Georgia. He now lives in Florida, volunteers in prisons, restores antique stained-glass windows, and writes.  His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Front Porch ReviewBlue Lake ReviewThe Meadow, The River, Arkansas Review, Northern New England Review, Northern Woodlands, Maine Homes, Fatherly, and Toastmaster Magazine. His website is