The Rumpus Interview with Brenda Miller
An Interview with Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade
Los Angeles Times
Talking with essayist Brenda Miller by Dinah Lenney
Sarabande Books Interviews: Season of the Body
This book presents the reader with an unusual structure: a memoir in essay form. Could you talk about how the book came together? And was the theme of childlessness apparent to you from the start?
The “oldest” essay in the book is “Prologue to a Sad Spring,” and that is really the first personal essay I ever wrote. I took a class in the personal essay at the University of Washington about fifteen years ago, just for fun, and I was immediately drawn to this particular genre. I had been writing poetry and fiction, but neither of those seemed to hold my particular voice in a way that was satisfying. When I wrote this essay, my voice seemed to expand, and free up; the essay practically wrote itself, and I still think it has that kind of flow and energy to it. I’m pleased that the Weston photograph that inspired it is the cover photograph for this book!
I continued writing essays for many years, never with the idea that they would become a book. I just wrote what was “up” for me at any one time. But our writing will always reveal our deepest passions and obsessions, so naturally the theme of infertility and children kept arising, all in the context of how my body has moved through the world. Even in the essays that do not ostensibly deal with this subject, the language and pace and rhythm are informed by this stance. I often write in fragments, with white space bridging the different sections; to me this style is very much “of the body”; sometimes what cannot be spoken is more truthful than what is verbalized, and so the gaps may be the most “real” parts of the essay. This style also implies a different kind of relationship with the reader; John D’Agata, lyric essay editor of The Seneca Review, says that lyric essays “invite the reader in to complete their meanings.” So, I guess more than childlessness, or even the body, my book is about communication: how we touch one another, how we connect and fail to connect. . . .
Your spiritual quest utilizes both traditional Jewish teachings, meditation, massage, and other philosophies. Do you think there’s any danger in mixing these spiritual paths?
Well, I never claim to be an expert on religious and spiritual matters. It’s a very personal thing, and all I can speak to is my own experience. I know that as I’ve matured, I’ve begun to see the connections, rather than the disparities, between many different traditions. I now feel a kinship with Judaism as an adult that I never felt as a child, precisely because I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of ceremony and ritual in my life. There is also a long history of meditation in Judaism that is quite akin to the mindfulness tradition in which I now practice.
Your writing style shifts almost effortlessly in time and often braids together scenes of your life that are twenty or more years apart. How do you manage to keep present in each moment and avoid the”flashback effect” that slows down some fiction?
Since I’m not tied to a chronological sequence, or to a traditional narrative arc, I pay more attention to the images that bridge the gaps in time and place. So, through the fragments, I’m able to put together an essay that is flexible enough to juggle many different elements at the same time. If I’m writing a more linear essay, I pay very close attention to transitions. I’m always telling my students that the key to powerful writing is in the transitions, whether you’re working in a linear way, or more lyrically; it’s the transitions that give the reader confidence in you as a writer. The reader won’t necessarily notice the transitions, of course, but the transitions will create the essential structure that keeps the reader secure. It’s like being in a well-built house: you don’t want your guests to necessarily crawl down into the basement to admire the foundation, or to inspect the floorboards for well-placed nails; you just want them to feel good and comfortable, to know they are in a safe and pleasing space where anything is possible.
Speaking of fiction—did you ever bend the facts to suit the form of the essay?
Sometimes. But whenever I do, I try my best to alert the reader to what I’m up to. Creative nonfiction demands a certain allegiance to artifice over experience. . . . What I mean by this is that we’re not necessarily setting out to transcribe, or record, the facts of our lives; the goal should be to create art that arises out of experience. That means you will employ imagination, hyperbole, compression: really all the tools of the writing trade to create an essay that is aesthetically pleasing and emotionally true. It doesn’t mean that you lie about facts essential to the self; I would never, for instance, make up the fact of the miscarriages or infertility. That would betray my relationship with the reader. But I may condense several trips to the desert into one, as I did in “A Field Guide to the Desert.” Do you see the difference between the two situations? One has to do with content; the other, with form. You have to look at your intent: Am I making this particular move to shock the reader, or to aggrandize myself; if so, I’m not going to do it. But if I’m making a move that is essential for an artistically satisfying essay, without betraying fundamental facts, then I have no qualms whatsoever.
Again, I try to let the reader in on this as much as possible. I’ll use a lot of key phrases: “I imagine…” “I would like to believe…” “I don’t remember, but….” Also, the unusual forms help this along: of course life does not unfold as a “field guide,” or as a “How To” piece, and so if you put your memories into this form you are already alerting the reader to the fact that we’re not in the realm of reportage. As long as you are straight with your reader, I think you can give yourself a lot of freedom. And we have to bear in mind that memory, itself, is creative nonfiction; we create satisfying narratives, or myths, about our lives in order to have a strong sense of self. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s part of our essential makeup as human beings. From the moment we utter our first words, we’re telling stories about ourselves in order to make sense of the world.