Interview: Brenda Miller
Brenda Miller is the author of five collections of essays: An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016), Who You Will Become (Shebooks Press, 2015), Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books, 2011), and Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002). She has also co-authored two craft books—The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012), with Holly J. Hughes, and the wildly popular Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (2nd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2012), with Suzanne Paola.
An Earlier Life received the 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir, and Miller has received numerous other awards for her writing, including six Pushcart Prizes. Her short work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is on the faculty of Western Washington University.
Please see “Balance,” new collaborative work by Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, as well as our review of An Earlier Life, also in Aquifer.
Lisa Roney for The Florida Review:
One of the things that was so much fun about reading An Earlier Life was re-seeing some of the pieces that had been published before in literary magazines and how now they hold together so tightly as a book.
I’ve worked so hard on that part.
How did you make that happen?
As with many of my books of essays I’m never really writing my individual pieces with a book in mind. Every time I have tried to do that I get very inhibited and I start censoring myself and I go blank, so I’ve learned over the years to just write my stuff, and then when I’ve reached a critical mass I start putting it together and seeing what organically is arising that holds these essays together. This is something I tell my students all the time—you have what I call your perennial questions, perennial issues that will come up naturally on their own, so you don’t need to deliberately be trying to write a particular story. So in this one I had a lot of shorter pieces—especially the middle section of the book is about a particular time as a young adult that was very difficult for me (I have tried to write an entire memoir about it, but it didn’t work)—so then I had all these little snatches that to me seemed to be making a story, but I wasn’t sure, so I started putting those together and just playing with that, and they ended up being the exact center of the book and creating their own little narrative in there.
The first part of the book had what I call more of a spiral chronology where it’s pretty much going even from pre-birth, with the prologue, which is called “An Earlier Life” and is kind of a fantasy imagining of what an earlier life for me might have been. And then going through childhood, but always referencing the future and what’s going to happen in the future. Then we have that second section about the time in my early twenties when I was living in the desert. Then the third section is more about being an adult and aging and watching my parents age. Then—I really didn’t do this deliberately—but the last real piece of the book is about the afterlife. It really came together.
It’s amazing. Not that many collections of essays work so strongly as a whole.
Even though I was doing a lot of hard work trying to put it together, a lot of these things were very fluid as I was doing it. It was only after I had that last draft I thought, Okay now this works.
But I still have that epilogue. [Laughs.]
The epilogue is that piece called “We Regret to Inform You,” which is in the form of rejection notes, and I love the piece, and many people love the piece, and I kept trying to put it in different places in the book and it just didn’t work because it’s such an odd voice. I finally just stuck it on the end just to see, and it actually works, I think, because it kind of goes from the beginning to the end in one piece. It’s almost like a review of all we have gone through, but in a very different voice. It’s kind of fun, but it’s also very serious and it ends on a positive note so I was pretty pleased with it. You never really know until the book’s in production and you see it as a book-book. Then you say, Is this really going to work? I’m very pleased that it does.
It really does. In your recent Rumpus interview with Julie Marie Wade, you commented that you thought at some point your early life would run dry as a subject matter, but you have approached it this time with a sense of forgiveness for yourself, something you said was new for you. How do you think that writing about the same events or subjects changes over time and what’s the relationship between revisiting our histories and writing and deepening our understanding of them?
That’s a great question because we do kind of tell our same stories. The beauty of it for both the writer and the reader is this coming at it from different perspectives, different angles. I think it was Virginia Woolf who wrote about how the present is a platform for viewing the past [“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” 18 March 1925 entry, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, v. 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.] That present moment keeps shifting every minute as you get older and have different perspectives on things. Even just content-wise or point-of-view-wise as you get older—I hope—you do see those early selves with a bit more compassion or understanding of what went on. You have a bit more distance in order to explore it.
I really didn’t think I would go back to that early young adulthood life in my writing again because a lot of my first book was about that. It comes up occasionally, but this time what’s been going on for me is that as a writer as I progress or evolve—and I hope I keep evolving for the rest of my life—otherwise I’m gonna get pretty bored—I’ve been trying new forms. That form of the rejection note, for instance, is what I call a hermit crab essay, which is a term I use in Tell It Slant, where you appropriate a whole different form or voice to tell your story. In this case, rejection notes. When you’re using a form like that you’re starting with the form to suggest the content rather than the other way around, different from how we traditionally approach it—I have an idea, what form am I going to put it in? When you do it the other way, it opens up the door for unexpected writing. I’d say [I can find new ideas in the same material because of] trying new forms, trying different things. When you do that the essay itself, the writing itself will show you a different perspective.
Another example in this book is the one called “Pantoum for 1979,” and that’s the most recent essay. It got put in at the very last minute because when I wrote it, I thought, This one has to go in! It was part of a project I’ve been doing for years now, which is appropriating the poetic forms like a sonnet or a villanelle in order to explore how tell a story in prose without it being just a poem without line breaks. It’s been fun, and anytime you can engage that more technical part of your mind for writing that gives your brain something to do and then your subconscious comes forward. In the case of the “Pantoum for 1979,” it gets at that time frame using the very specific repetitive pattern of a pantoum. The pantoum tends to be perfect for topics that are rather obsessive, and I’m like Okay this is good. I’m always thinking about this time [of my life], but never quite get at it. I realized too that in that section comprised of the shorter works, there was never a real explanation about who this person was, how I got to know him, what was going on. The pantoum, even though it’s such a restrictive form, allowed for all this narrative. Every one of my [pre-publication] readers said, “Yes, this is what we were missing.” I’d say really experimenting with form and having fun is the way to keep your writing evolving.
It must be great that you demonstrate that so clearly in your own work for your students. You know, students sometimes are very resistant—”I just want to write what I want to write.” But if you show them the excellence that can come out of that, it must be very inspirational for them.
It is interesting that one of the biggest challenges of writing is getting students (or anyone) to loosen up and have some fun. This year, I’m teaching an 8:00 a.m. class, and I think because they’re so tired their guard is down, so they’ve been willing to try a lot of things. At least up until this moment actually—as soon as it’s final projects time then suddenly it’s very serious and they don’t want to use anything that they’ve tried. With graduate students, they’re understandably so focused on their thesis projects, and everything they write has to go in their thesis. It was only when I brought in a collage artist, and we cut up magazines and created this huge mess in the classroom—magazines torn up and glue sticks out and coloring pens—and they were having so much fun. We created these things, and they weren’t for the purpose of doing anything with them. I ignited that little playful spirit, and ever since then they’ve been very game to just try stuff and see what’s gonna happen.
In last couple years in a graduate literature course I’ve taught, we read a book every week and wrote pastiches of some kind or another, and they were the greatest thing. We had so much fun, writing satires and a whole variety of stuff. Some of their best work came out of it. One student said she’d always wanted to write about her experiences going to music festivals but she never felt like the stakes were low enough to try it out, and she ended up changing her entire thesis and wrote an entirely new thesis in about six months that was just terrific.
Nice. I find that kind of thing happens all the time with thesis students that if I get them onto a new form, then all of a sudden they just switch gears and the writing’s fresh and original.
One of the other things that’s striking about An Earlier Life is your use of not just the first person but the collective “we.” You do that quite frequently, and I just wanted to ask why you’re drawn to that unusual point of view in your work. Do you think it’s related to the collaborative writing projects that I know you’re also participating in, or is it something different?
I had never thought of it that way, but it could be. Right now, I do a lot of my work in writing groups, either with my students or with my own writing group, where it’s generative writing. We have certain timed writing exercises and rules and all that stuff, and so sometimes it just comes out in the “we” voice. I think when I’m writing in that mode it comes naturally. I never set out to say, Okay, now I’m going to write a piece in the “we” voice. I think that happens when I feel like I’m not just talking about my experience but the experience of my cohort growing up in Southern California. I’m trying to think of exactly which pieces use the “we”—I know there’s the one about the lifeguard [“Dark Angel”].
There’s “Dark Angel,” but also “L’Chaim,” “Change,” “Sweat Lodge,” and maybe a couple of others where the “we” is your family [“In Orbit”].
I just love it when people see stuff in my work that I had no idea about. [Laughs.]
With those pieces, I’m not talking about a particular experience of mine, but about a particular experience of a generation of people. “Dark Angel” is this piece about the lifeguard and just going to the beach in Santa Monica and just us girls and how we were in those awkward teenage bodies and connecting to our bodies. That particular piece was supposed to be three separate essays, but they weren’t really saying anything on their own, so I put them together and saw this theme of distress and that kind of growing-up angst and undiagnosed depression—all things that a lot of girls go through. That piece uses three different points of view—the first section is in the “I,” the second in the “you,” and the third in the “we.” They show different phases or aspects of growing up.
It’s a strategy that can work to make readers feel included, and I certainly felt very much that way, but I think writing with the “we” is tricky because sometimes people can say, Oh why are you speaking for me? I felt like you handled it in a very gentle way, so it never got overwhelming or bossy. It never became a royal “we.”
You find it in fiction, too, and it is tricky because, for one thing, it doesn’t have a gendered pronoun, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. Yet when it works, it works. Oftentimes, I’m organically writing in a particular form like a “you” or “we” point of view and it’s actually not working, but it is getting the material out. So I always look at that in revision and often change the point of view. I really want to encourage people, like I encourage my students, to just try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to keep it in that form, but you probably will get to some lines and material that you wouldn’t get to any other way.
Would you speak about the ways in which genre boundaries seem to be in flux these days?
They are totally in flux. I love it. I love it so much.
We used to get that advice—there was that sort of classic advice—that you should choose one genre and stick to that. Obviously, we make something else of that advice now. [Laughs.]
People are doing such amazing work out there. This particular book is probably the book of mine that does that more than my other books. I’m using poetic forms. I’m using a lot of
hermit crab–type things. Even the use of the “we” voice is a fictionalization of experience. I feel like this book is really in flux between poetry and nonfiction and fiction and other
things, too. [Laughs.]
I think it’s very exciting not to be couched in these very distinctive genre boxes. When I was editor of Bellingham Review, I kept seeing more and more that people are really trying to break those boundaries. I’m all for it.
The collaborative work really does that because, like, What is this? There’s no one speaker, a lot of them are in short sections, and some of them were responding to art, some were responding to a particular topic. It’s a very exciting back and forth that doesn’t really fit anywhere, which makes it hard to find a place for them. We get rejected a lot because people just don’t know what to do with them.
Send one to me. One thing about The Florida Review is that there’s a history of engaging with new forms or forms being newly accepted as of artistic merit. The previous two editors did this over the years with creative nonfiction and then graphic narrative, and I’m looking to stay in that tradition. We’re starting to accept some digital storytelling, to recognize that as an art form, and we’re open to all kinds of things.
One more major question—your writing is characterized by an intense interiority and often somberness, but you also sometimes exhibit what I might characterize as insouciance. “Swerve,” in particular. And you’ve already talked about “We Regret to Inform You.” It’s not a light humor, but it’s funny. How does humor work for you and your writing, and how do you decide when it’s right to be funny?
I never set out to be humorous because once you do then you’re not. [Laughs.] I mean, some writers are. Some writers are very good at that, but I find if I’m not having a good time then I might get bored with it. It comes out of playing with form. Often the hermit crab pieces have what I’d call an inadvertent humor to them because you’re usually taking a very objective form like the rejection note—in this book I also have a dress code piece, and that kind of thing is usually pretty authoritarian and rigid—then combining that with really intense personal stories and confessions. The humor arises naturally [from the contrast] and then the key is whether it gets gimmicky. In the revision process, I have to find out what this piece is really about.
In the case of the rejection notes, I had probably twice as many as ended up in the final piece because once you start writing about rejection you have so much material on your hands. I was having a grand old time just writing them. I gave a first draft to some readers, and they said, “Yeah, it’s good but it gets a little repetitive and gimmicky,” so I had to think about what this piece was really about. I heard in several of the letters this idea of finding the role that suits you, so I cut out all the letters that didn’t have that and highlighted that theme in the others. Then it started to take on more of a cohesiveness and a sense of being a complete piece. Then it takes that turn in the middle—it’s kind of humorous at the very beginning with being rejected in my art class—not having my drawing displayed—or being rejected as a tenth-grader—not going to the dance. You know, normal things that people can relate to. Once you start working in that way, people let their guards down. They’re laughing and saying, “I can relate to that,” and then it gets more intensely personal as it goes along until I get a letter about my miscarriage as a young woman, and it’s actually from the miscarried baby, which is not something I was expecting to happen, but again it was like the form demanded it. I was just going along chronologically and I’m like, Okay what happened next in college?Oh yeah, and I said, Do I skip that? Well, no. So, I wrote it and then just went on. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it, but in the revision process I found, Oh there’s that real turning point in the essay. Whenever I read that piece aloud—and I love to read it because it’s an audience-pleaser—they’re laughing and laughing, then I get to that turn. There’s like the “Ohhhh,” and then people get subdued. Then there’s laughter again, but with a different feeling.
Though it happens a lot in more traditional essay forms, it’s more difficult. By using these other forms you automatically create what I call a shared space between the reader and the writer using a form people relate to—especially, in this case, if you’re reading to writers who are all familiar with the standard rejection note, so they’re already with you. That’s one way I go about thinking about humor.
What else would you like readers to know about An Earlier Life? And where you going next?
I’d like them to know that these essays were written over a period of time—probably five or six years—and that I did spend a lot of time getting them into the order that they are. Sometimes
readers of essays will pick it up and just read at random, and I’m thinking, I spent so much time putting it in this order, so read it in order! [Laughs.]
I’d say that the collaborative work is really intriguing to me. I also have been doing some writing challenges over the summer. I wrote from a prompt a day with a writing group—me and two other writers—and we did the prompts in different ways. The first month was from a literary magazine that had it as a part of their way of getting people to their website, but they put out a prompt a day, and my two friends and I wrote to that. We’d send each other work and we liked it so much we continued in July and made our own prompts and just rotated who gave the prompt. Then in August there was a photography blog doing a prompt a day so we would take a photograph a day and then write to that. By the end of the summer I had probably more than 220 pages of new work.
This was also while my father was dying, and I thought there’s no way I can write, but it’s the summer and I need to write. By having the community and by having the external prompts, I was able to record everything that was happening that summer as well as memories that were coming in. I have not looked at work yet, but I plan to next month and to see what’s there. That
might turn into its own little book, but would never have been written without community. The type of community we need changes as we develop as writers, and I don’t need a feedback community so much as I need a generative writing community now. But I still need community. I guess that would be the last word—I think we all need our communities.