November 8, 2022 § 19 Comments
A Q&A with Alyson Shelton
By Andrea A. Firth
Over the past year, Alyson Shelton has interviewed over 50 writers on Instagram Live about their response to the prompt “Where I’m From.” The conversations start with the writer reading their response and from there Alyson and her guest spend a half an hour talking about the prompt, the process, family, relationships and much more. Andrea A. Firth spoke with Alyson about the project.
How did your Where I’m From Instagram Live project get started?
I was introduced to the writing prompt in a workshop led by Jeannine Ouellette. The prompt is inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon. It’s basically a poem template and you fill in the blanks as directed, like insert a sensory detail, a family tradition or name, and so on. I was so struck by the poems people generated. I felt changed by it. A couple days later I thought maybe this would be a cool thing to do on social media, share a poem and talk a bit. We don’t have time in our schedules to connect in a meaningful way with all the people we know. I love hearing people’s stories. But when you meet someone casually you can’t say, “Hi, nice to meet you. What was your childhood like?” I liked the idea of having a container that could do this, one that we could share.
Who has participated? How’s it going?
Initially I solicited people I knew, a lot of writers, but also people whose voices I find interesting and other creatives. Then people started reaching out to me because they saw an episode and wanted to participate. The momentum has been building. Currently I’m scheduled out to April with an interview each week, which will make a total of 80 episodes.
Wow! Why do you think that this fill-in-the blank prompt works? How do participants respond to it?
Many will ask me if it’s ok deviate from the prompt or break the rules. I say definitely break the rules. I’m not their editor, that’s not my function. I’m just here to listen. Personally, I found the prompt freeing and also fascinating because it pushed me to do things I don’t normally do. For example, I don’t really think about smells, but when prompted to do so, I did. It’s curious because the exercise gets you out of your comfort zone, but you still feel at ease, which seems impossible, but I do think it does that for a lot of people because it’s so specific.
The prompt is described as poem and reads like a prose poem, yet by the end it feels like a complete story, with narrative movement, like an essay. What do you think?
I feel like it creates a micro-memoir. I’ve had participants reach out after our conversation and say that the exercise changed their perspective about themselves and their work. The prompt may make the writing easier. I think there’s this myth that personal writing has to be difficult and gut wrenching. Maybe this container helps us access what lives in us and validates our story.
The prompt opens the door to a range of topics like religion and family relationships. How does this contribute to the conversations you have with the participants?
I’m fascinated by what people, some who I know quite well and others less so, choose to share or not share. I’m not going to talk about something that they don’t share in the poem, that’s my boundary. Often in conversation, I think people can feel put on the spot by a question or not sure if they want to share. Here the participant gets to make those choices, and the container, the prompt, provides the boundaries. We get on Instagram Live, the guest shares their response, and we talk about it. Life is so uncertain now and has been for a couple years. I think it’s gratifying and relaxing to go into an experience and have it be what you think it’s going to be.
Another facet of the conversation that’s interesting is that you share your experiences as well.
I do. It comes naturally to me. A conversation requires give and take. I don’t expect the guests to be vulnerable with me if I respond like a neutral party. We’re in this space together. If they’re sharing parts of themselves, I share parts of myself too. It’s not a burden. It’s just how I am.
The conversations include a lot of laughter. Are there ever any tears?
Yes, but I try not to cry too much because sometimes tears can make people feel self-conscious or that they have to take care of me. I don’t want it to be about me, so I try to keep the tears internal. I find laughter is a more inclusive expression. I think a lot of people who join me are nervous. Often, it’s the first time they’ve been on Instagram Live. Laughter diffuses those nerves.
What are you learning and gaining from these conversations?
I’ve learned that things that I enjoy and that come easy to me have merit. I don’t have to do something hard for it to be worthwhile. This comes easy to me, and it’s been validating because other people are enjoying it too. And it’s increasing my connectedness with my community, which is something I strive for on a regular basis. Another particular joy of doing this series is connecting with people who I’ve become friends with online, but who I’ve not met.
I’ve always believed everyone has a story. We’re ordinary people and at the same time we are all extraordinary too. Everyone is walking around with something they’ve experienced, they’ve lived through. The more we recognize that every single person we interact with has their own own story, I feel like we move through the world with more gratitude and grace—at least I do. It’s not just what they can do for me or what is this interaction about for me, it’s about trying to be present.
Alyson Shelton (pictured here) wrote and directed the award-winning feature Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, and successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp, Little Old Lady (LOL) Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byalysonshelton where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series Where I’m From.
Andrea A. Firth is an editor at the Brevity Blog and essayist and journalist. She is co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop.
November 18, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Amy Rogers
Merriam Webster had just featured Kathy Biehl in their “Word of the Day” on October 22 when I rang the author to chat.
Her word? Devotion.
The example cited: “Restaurant loyalties run deep. Look at the scads of eateries that have drawn devotion for decades in the Park Cities, Preston Hollow, and environs.”
Biehl used the term to describe not a familial or romantic attachment – but a devotion to food. She doesn’t know how she was chosen, but it gave us a perfect entrée to talk about her award-winning journalism and her new book, Eat, Drink and Be Wary: Cautionary Tales (9th House Publishing).
Setting aside Biehl’s accomplishments covering topics that range from law to astrology, we focused on her food writing for this interview. Here’s our conversation, edited for clarity, and of course, brevity.
Q: Tell me how you got into food writing. What was your entry point?
A: My entry point was answering the phone. Seriously, I’ve been a writer for a long, long time. I was a feature editor at my high school newspaper. I started out as a journalism major in college. When I got disillusioned, I started doing a lot of freelance writing.
I’ve always been interested in the story, and in people. I have a snappy way of getting people’s attention. Someone I had dated had done the bar listings for Houston Texas Monthly, was going to quit, and phoned me. He said, “You want it?” and I went, “Yep.”
So I started having to encapsulate the atmosphere of vastly different bars, in really short amounts of words, like 60 words, and it was like I was writing poetry.
Q: When was that?
A: In the 1980s. And meanwhile, my freelance writing was expanding into all kinds of offbeat writing and things that show the flowering of the human spirit in weird and quirky ways.
Q: Was there a point at which you declared yourself a food writer?
Well, here’s what happened. I walked into a bar one night, and a guy I had dated – there’s a theme here – who was a reporter for the Houston Business Journal, pulled me aside and said, “We’ve lost our restaurant critic. You’ve got the style. Do you want me to recommend you?”
I honed in on quirky places or unusual places, or found what was distinctive about what was going on. I came at it as a writer. I learned about the food aspect but I always approached it as a total experience.
Q: I love the piece in the book where you discuss the differences between snack food and junk food, because I’ve got to tell you, until today I never made a distinction. But now I do. I think those sly, sneaky, smart lessons are what sets a food writer apart, like writers such as Calvin Trillin. I hope you don’t take offense at me comparing you.
A: Oh, no. I’ve been compared to Hunter S Thompson. I’ll take that. I will take that.
Q: My favorite story in the book is the one about the all-night party at your friends’ estate in Britain, where you cavort about with all manner of food, music, and mayhem until the wee hours. I could just picture it and it was so lovely. Do you have advice or wisdom for writers who want to use the lens of food in their own practice and growth?
A: I really do believe that there’s a visceral, subconscious, cellular impact food has on us, and I really enjoy making sense of that. Writing about food challenges you to convey what you’re experiencing. It really challenges your use of language, because you can’t just say, “This is good,” or “This is tasty.” That doesn’t have any information in it. So you have to become aware of the language as actually translating your physical experience.
Q: I think this book can be a place for people to start to understand that food writing is more than restaurant reviews, and even though you’ve done a lifetime of those, the stories that accompany the experiences are what makes this so universal. Anything else that you would want to say on the topic of the writing life, the trials and tribulations, the joys or the heartbreak?
A: I’ve come to discover that there is a vibrant online publication community. I can remember sitting at the edge of the food journalists’ conferences and the people who had staff jobs would treat all of the freelancers like there was something inherently – a lack of journalistic integrity in us. I looked at them and thought, “We are the wave of the future. Just you wait.”
Kathy Biehl is an award-winning writer and observer of human quirks. For three decades she covered food, drink and the behaviors they inspire. Her writing has also focused on off-beat travel and translating the technicalities of law as well as astrology to the mainstream. Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales is available on Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.
Amy Rogers is an award-winning writer, editor and independent press publisher. Books she has written include Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas and Red Pepper Fudge and Blue Ribbon Biscuits. Rogers is a frequent food and culture commentator for National Public Radio station WFAE, and a current contributor for The Food Network.
September 24, 2019 § 22 Comments
By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen
Before reading my essay “The Wave” on July 22, 2019 at Porter Square Books, I bought mints (my fans deserve fresh breath); large Band-Aids for my left leg (don’t ask); and facial blotting papers (shiny prose, good; shiny t-zone, bad). I asked a classmate for help pronouncing Ocean Vuong’s last name (it’s what any decent person would do). I had dinner with two members of my writing group (nothing heavy), and I made sure I was wearing my special shoes (gold ankle boots are an eternal fashion “do”).
Kristen: Why didn’t you get a haircut?
Kristen: I don’t know—I knew this reading was coming up months in advance. My favorite stylist, Chloe, left my salon, Shag, and I was afraid to ask them which salon she defected to because she was in exile.
Kristen: Did you check how many times you used the word “scholar?”
Kristen: I hope so! My high school English teacher, Ms. Stewart, drilled the importance of word variety into my head. Some writers find it helpful to create a word cloud to check which words they’ve used most.
Kristen: Will your husband record you from an unflattering angle, to be displayed for all of digital eternity?
Kristen: Yes. And I will have robot voice. But the writing is more important than how I look—at least that’s what they tell me—and the bonus of being alive to read my work can’t be beat.
Kristen: You seem to have had nothing to wear.
Kristen: I have a closet full of clothes. But I have chosen to wear the same stretchy black pants I wear every day. I’m hoping the accessories I’ve worn, which include the tooth or tusk or shell of some creature, will distract from my pants, and draw the eye gracefully upward.
Kristen: Omg Steve Almond and Ocean Vuong are reading tonight too, over at Harvard Book Store, so nobody may come to your reading.
Kristen: My friend Amy brought up this point (actually, a few people did), and I told them that I’m an emerging writer, so at my reading they will have no idea what to expect. Almond and Vuong have already emerged, so the audience would just get more of Steve’s New York Times-bestselling short stories and the heartrendingly beautiful poems that won Ocean the Whiting Award. Why not enjoy new work?
Kristen: Omg what if Steve Almond and Ocean Vuong came to your reading? You’d die.
Kristen: Correct. I’d die. And then faint. And then die. And then resurrect myself. And then ask them to come for a drink at Colette. And then fall off my barstool. And then ask them for an autograph.
Kristen: Is your essay too long?
Kristen: I’m a windbag of epic proportions, but I timed this sucker at home. Can we wrap it up? I think the audience was hoping to get to the wine soon.
Kristen: Do you think you should have chosen a different piece to read?
Kristen: For once I’ll try to be like the Edith Piaf song and have no regrets.
Kristen: I wonder if you still have time to revise.
Kristin: Wait. I think I have a pen in my purse.
Kristen Paulson-Nguyen lives in Boston, where she invites you to join her in her self-imposed challenge to write an essay each week. Her micro-essay was published in Issue #71 of Creative Nonfiction. Kristen’s work has also appeared in Hippocampus Magazine. Her poem “Spring Birds” was exhibited in Poem Village, a project of the Adirondack Center for Writing. Follow her on Twitter @kpnwriter.
Photo credit: Lauren Rheaume