The Assay Interview Project: Brenda Miller
November 1, 2021
Brenda Miller’s most recent book, A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing on Form, was published by University of Michigan Press in July 2021. Her book of collaborative essays with Julie Marie Wade, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, is forthcoming from CSU Poetry Center in Fall 2021. She is the author of five more essay collections, including An Earlier Life, which received the Washington State Book Award for Memoir. Her poetry chapbook, The Daughters of Elderly Women, received the 2020 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. She co-authored, with Suzanne Paola, Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and, with Holly J. Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Brenda’s work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a professor of English at Western Washington University and Associate Faculty with the Rainier Writing Workshop.
About A Braided Heart: A Braided Heart provides a friendly, personal, and smart guide to the writing life. It also offers clear and original instruction on craft elements at the forefront of today’s emerging forms in creative nonfiction: from the short-short, to the braided form, to the hermit crab essay. An acknowledged expert in these forms, Brenda Miller gives writers practical advice on how to sustain and invigorate their writing practice, while also encouraging readers to explore their own writing lives.
Brenda Miller is perhaps best known for her coining of the term and concept “hermit crab essay,” her oft-anthologized essay “Swerve,” and her craft piece “A Braided Heart,” all of which are collected here in A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form (“Swerve” is included in a piece that describes its genesis within a writing community). The Table of Contents is a list of Brenda’s smart and thoughtful essays on writing creative nonfiction and the writing life that have appeared over the past twenty years, starting with excerpts from her seminal co-edited craft book Tell It Slant, and ending with a collaborative epilogue that points to a forthcoming book with Julie Marie Wade, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices.
Yet the contents in between are not arranged chronologically. These are mostly pieces published elsewhere, well-known to those who have followed discussions of CNF craft and pedagogy (if they’re new to you, you are in for a treat!). And it’s wonderful to have them collected in one place. But what is new is how these pieces are arranged, and therefore how they speak to each other and create both arcs and a cumulative effect. Those in Section 1 tend to describe her individual writing life and process, while those in Section 2 expand to include issues of creative nonfiction craft and pedagogy. Section 3 continues this outward expansion into the value of creating and being part of writing communities, before culminating in the collaborative Epilogue. Even within this larger arc, there are delightful transitions between individual essays, such as “Hand, Writing,” on the pleasures and uses of writing by hand, which gives way to the persistence of a particular pen in “Durable Goods,” or how “On Thermostats” fully explores that metaphor before flipping to resist that impulse in “The Case Against Metaphor.”
The result is a book that’s not a collection of personal essays, not a craft book, not a pedagogical text—but not not these things either. True to form, all three of these elements are included and braided and hybridized throughout the book, and would be useful to students and teachers and personal practitioners of creative nonfiction.
And speaking of form, this book is full of examples of essays written in innovative forms that illustrate poet Marianne Moore’s aphorism “Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determines the form.” Besides the braid enacted by the title essay, the piece “‘Brenda Miller Has a Cold,’ or: How a Lyric Essay Happens” constantly resets itself to a version of “it happens like this,” a verbal wheel hub that sends out spokes in different directions; while “Writing Inside the Web: Creative Nonfiction in the Age of Connection” describes attempting to write without being tempted by the monkey mind of Internet access, the footnotes detail that struggle, constantly distracting us from the main text. There are also some fantastic close readings and explications of how certain texts are working, and some how-to models for generating material. So, both the arrangement of these essays, and their individual forms, give us a lot to engage with.
However, thanks to the Internet, I can actually interview Brenda to get her perspective on her purpose in putting it out, and how it’s put together.
Heidi Czerwiec: Brenda, congratulations on the release of this book! I’ve been excited about it ever since I heard you were putting this collection together, because your own creative nonfiction and your approaches to teaching it have been so formative to me, as I know they have for the larger CNF community. As I say above, this book is not a collection of personal essays, not a craft book, not a pedagogical text—but not not these things either. How do you see these elements working together and separately in this book? How/why include them all? What’s your overarching goal – is this book for readers? Writers? People new to CNF?
Thank you so much, Heidi, for this insightful and generous reading of A Braided Heart! This book gradually came together over the years; whenever I’d put together a new collection of personal essays, there’d always be a handful of “orphans” that just didn’t seem to fit. They would live together in a “miscellaneous” file on my computer, their ranks growing, having a merry party all on their own. At the tail end of 2019, in between projects, I moseyed over to have a look, and I saw that nearly all these essays were about writing and/or the writing life.
Though I write about writing quite a bit (as do many writers, because, hey, writing takes up a lot of our brain space), I cringe a bit when I see references to writing or being a writer in creative nonfiction that’s about something else. I feel it takes the reader out of the created world and instead focuses the eye on the writing hand. But while these essays were exiled to another realm, they had formed relationships in my absence. They now could work together in a collection that was centered on writing.
At the same time, I was often being asked for craft articles that had appeared in various places, so I invited them to the gathering. And I had a few blog posts I’d written that were peering in at the windows. I printed everything out, scattered them about on long table, and began mixing and matching, forming the ideal seating arrangements for these essays to talk to one another.
I think (hope) this book is for people who write, who want to write, who teach writing, and readers who are always curious about a writer’s process, so much of which takes place in isolation, behind closed doors.
As you say, this book came together over a number of years. Is the timing of this book, or the span of time these essays cover (20 years) significant? How so? In that time, do you think that your positions on writing, craft, and pedagogy have expanded, or distilled?
I think we need to remain open to change in all aspects of our lives, including writing. For me, what worked well for years can suddenly no longer fit and I need to do a workaround. Sometimes I need long stretches of time to mull; other times I need to write quickly, in between other obligations.
Teaching is the same way: I’ve changed a lot as a teacher in the 22 years I’ve been at Western Washington University, and while I would never say I was mistaken in my pedagogy in those early years, I have learned and practiced new methods that work best for me to maintain energy for the work. And, of course, in the last year, my teaching has done a complete shift with online classrooms, using both synchronous and asynchronous methods. While at first I was hesitant, it turns out I’m pretty good at it, and this has opened up new possibilities for me in this third act of my life.
In the book, I think there are some pieces that seem “dated” (such as “Hand, Writing” which deals with very old Mac computers); I had, at one point, put dates on them so that readers would know when a piece was written. But the editors and I decided that wasn’t necessary, as the themes in them still endure. (And, to be honest, I couldn’t really remember when most of them were written! I don’t have a great memory for dates, which can be a problem for a memoirist…)
In “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” you (rightly) call for us “to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page.” My next few questions relate to this. As I say above, while most of these pieces are not new, what is new is how they’re collected and arranged here, how they speak to each other. How did you arrange them and see them interacting? What’s the larger design?
I tried a few different arrangements, and the one I landed on seemed to make the most sense. The first section, starting with “First Words,” is more personal and chronological, forming a composite of my writing life. I hope these essays will inspire readers to think about their own beginnings as a writer and how that thread has continued to be prominent in their lives.
The second section is where the more academic pieces gravitated, clustered together to give readers insights into the nuances of craft, especially in lyric forms such as the braided essay or the “hermit crab” essay. Many of these pieces started as talks I gave at places such as the Rainier Writing Workshop or the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The third section returns to the writing life closer to the present day and these short pieces are a hybrid between personal and craft essay, mainly focused on how I keep myself writing and the way I need writing communities to generate new work. The last piece, “The Shape of Emptiness,” brings us into my life as a writing teacher, and for me this seemed an apt way to complete the body of the collection, on the word “love.” The epilogue—a correspondence between me and Julie Marie Wade (who was my graduate student, way back when!)—arrived at the party at the last minute, to remind us of the context (global pandemic) in which this book came to fruition.
I love that you call attention to the body of the collection ending on the word “love,” which I missed! I noted a few transitions/connections between individual essays in the review above—are there ones you’re especially proud of? Artifice you hope we’ll notice?
I love the transitions and connections that you noted in the review, thank you! Those kinds of transitions arise organically as I’m moving pages around. I’ll often be paying attention only to the first and last lines of each piece, hooking them together like a needlepoint. I don’t really expect readers to notice these kinds of things, and in fact I know that many readers never read a collection in the order it’s presented. So, it becomes an exercise for one’s own satisfaction.
I also appreciate how “On Friendship, Assignments, Detail, and Trust” takes such a familiar text—your flash essay “Swerve”—and reintroduces it to us by describing its genesis. Yet the way in which you do so resists just talking about content, and instead details the elements of your practice and craft that helped shape it. Could you talk a bit more about this choice?
“Swerve” was an instructional essay for me, in that it showed me how the four words in the title of my process piece are often instrumental to creating strong work. “Swerve” becomes not so much about my own personal experience of being in a “bad-for-you” relationship, but instead it’s about how we forgive ourselves and others. I had been trying to write about that time in my life more directly, and it always fell flat because once you think you know the story, the muse takes a holiday.
Speaking of muses, you reveal in a couple of asides in this book that you originally started by writing poetry. How did I not know this??? So many of my favorite essayists come to nonfiction from poetry, but I didn’t realize this about you! I knew you were deeply interested in form, and had adapted some poetic forms to the essay, and I read the short collection of poetry you recently published, The Daughters of Elderly Women. But I had always thought you were coming to it from nonfiction, not that it was more of a back-and-forth. Would you talk about how the lyric has informed your prose?
I think I’ve always been drawn to making connections in writing—and to finding new configurations of language. It’s why I’m a terrible fiction writer! I have no real conception of how to “plot” a story; instead I’m coming to new understandings through imagery and the nuances of sound and rhythm.
Being “drawn to making connections” makes me think: you describe your writing process often as a version of trying to focus and fend off monkey-mind, both at retreats blessedly predating the Internet, and since then, particularly in “Writing Inside the Web.” I’m a writer who regularly writes with ten tabs open on my browser—in fact, I searched for the title of your chapbook and looked up the Marianne Moore quote above. Yet we’re both writers that write expansively or obliquely— what you call “peripheral vision” and what I call “lateral moves.” For me, the Internet enables those lateral moves. Could you talk about how you need focus in order to enable the peripheral vision or indirect approach? In what ways do you construct your peripheral vision, both off and on the page? Is this a process you teach to students, and if so, how?
I’m writing to you from the Whiteley Center, a wonderful retreat center on San Juan Island not too far from where I live in Washington State. When I first started coming here in the early aughts, wi-fi was not easily accessed, and so I expected to dive deep into myself, without distraction. Now, many years later, I simply don’t have the stamina (or mental well-being) for that kind of intense introspection! And I welcome distraction, work with it, work beside it. I’m often looking up etymologies of words to use those meanings more lyrically. I’ll take a walk and new images or phrases will arrive. I’ll do idle research, finding outer manifestations of inner thoughts.
What I can do here that I don’t do as much at home is what I call “scribbling” but could also be “channeling”: I start the day reading poetry, and then just start writing associatively, by hand. I expect nothing from this writing, and I let it go on as long as it wants to—sometimes a page, sometimes several pages. I don’t look at this writing, but save it for when I’m at home; then I’ll open the notebooks and see if anything has spark and momentum. At home, the kind of patience, time, and openness for this kind of writing (which might not really “produce” anything) is in short supply, but I can take an hour to type up something that’s wriggling around on the page.
In the afternoons, I’ll do more “project” work, writing or researching for things that are already started (or doing assignments, like this interview!)
As far as teaching it as a process, I’m not sure this kind of associative writing reflex can be taught, but it can be practiced. My students and I are often doing in-class writing together, and I use multi-part prompts that nudge students to abandon intellect in favor of intuition; these exercises also build stamina to just keep writing to see where it leads. For example, if they’re writing about early memories, I’ll have them go back and overindulge with imagined sensory detail, and then to follow one of those details to see what else might be lurking below the surface. Then I have them write the question “Why?” over the whole thing. Why remember this? Why now? What else was going on? We just keep pushing and pushing.
I love that “we”—we tend to picture writers toiling in seclusion, but the truth is, we need a larger community. Even your pieces on retreats describe you seeking out the other authors or staff, and you include a section on writing in groups and collaborating. Your own career has largely been a reaching out to create connections for the CNF community: Tell It Slant, this book, workshops, the forthcoming collaborative essays with Julie Marie Wade. Can you talk about what community means to you as a writer, and in what ways you’ve deliberately created it? What does it do for you? How do you (or how can we) know if a community is right for you, or not?
As I mentioned in an earlier question, I think it’s important to stay open to how your writing processes evolve as you grow and change, as a person and as a writer. For many, many years, I wrote in a writing group with close friends, generating lots of “scribbling” in my notebooks, and it’s where most of my new work started. I was at a point where I didn’t want feedback or critique, but just needed focus for writing new work.
At some point, I found my writing in this context was becoming redundant, writing about the same things in basically the same tone or approach. So I needed to take a break from that, and use other sources instead, like poem-a-day challenges for a month, writing contracts which gave me goals and deadlines, etc.
So while I’m writing alone, for now, I’m still writing in the context of community. For example, I’m here at Whiteley with my good friend Jane Wong, and though we aren’t writing together or sharing work, just knowing that she’s here with me—and that we’ll meet up for a walk and a fabulous dinner at some point—gives me the focus and good will I need. I also have a reciprocal relationship with my friend Kaity Teer, setting goals and deadlines each month, meeting ideally once a week when we can arrange it.
And in school, since we are writing together in class, we are creating this kind of community that fosters energy and focus. At times we will collaborate with each other in class, sending work back and forth across desks. Once they experience the kind of energy communal writing can create, I think students are more encouraged to develop these kinds of experiences on their own. I’m always telling them that the classroom is a unique opportunity to meet other writers who could become life-long support in the writing life.
And talking with you, Heidi, here, in this correspondence, reminds me that my work does have relevance in the wider world, something I’ve been struggling with lately.
I’m so grateful for that, and for you and your words. Your book arrived at the perfect moment for me – I’ve been thinking a lot about the craft of writing lyric nonfiction lately, and trying to pin down the mechanisms by which it operates. A lot of your examinations of craft in this book are excellent. But when you talk about the lyric essay, you seem to have a lot more comfort with allowing for mystery, inspiration, and a more intuitive approach. How do you account for that?
It's a mystery!
Ha! Fair enough. Well then, what does your ideal lyric essay look like? Do? Accomplish?
I just read an astounding braided essay in the most recent issue of Orion (Autumn 2021) called “Remembrance Poppy” by Katrina Vandenberg. In it, she weaves in information about poppies, poppy seeds, and opioids, with personal stories about the birth of her daughter, the death of her grandfather, and her own experiences of pain. And because Orion is such a beautiful magazine, the essay unfolds against a backdrop of vibrant collages centered on red poppies.
Some sections are longer, either with narrative or researched information, and some are just one sentence long. Since Katrina is a poet, the language is lush throughout, and many times I stopped to write a line down. I was completely engaged from beginning to end because of the way her associations—that started with the tiniest thing, a poppy seed—kept growing and deepening. That’s what a perfect lyric essay does—immerses me in a subject I had no idea I’d be interested in and then makes me wholly invested in learning more.
Mmmm…what a perfectly Brenda way of ending this interview: with mystery, growth, and a generous gesture to the larger writing community. Thank you so much for this.
Thank YOU, Heidi!
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She teaches and writes in Minneapolis, and is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.
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