June 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Brevity Assistant Editors Alexis Paige and Penny Guisinger talk about short prose, porcupine relocation, Downeast Maine, and Guisinger’s first book Postcards from Here, a collection of micro-essays that was published by Vine Leaves Press in February.
Alexis: What were the origins of this book? Did you have the concept in mind before you wrote it, or did the concept emerge as you wrote?
Penny: I started writing these short pieces while I had a handful of much longer pieces in progress. The urge was likely a response to that lost-in-the-woods feeling I had at the time. It’s easy for me to feel underwater or upside-down in longer pieces, and this tiny form gave me a way to feel like I could finish something. I knew pretty quickly that they were a collection and that I was working on a book.
AP: Did you think consciously about form as you wrote? Did you think: here I am writing micro-essays?
PG: What’s hilarious about this question is that I constantly narrate what I’m doing in my head! So, yes, I probably did have that exact thought. Some part of my brain is now thinking, “Here I am, answering questions for Brevity.” I assume that’s a precursor to an eventual authorial meltdown.
But – yes. I was thinking about form. I don’t remember if I identified them as micro-essays, or what terminology I used in those conversations with myself. But I was always watching for some moment that would make a good short piece – some moment that was more than what it looked like on the surface.
AP: Tell me about the conference you started. Is it part of a larger campaign to dominate the world with short prose forms?
PG: It’s not a bad goal, is it? I started Iota: Short Prose Conference because I found my MFA experience to be so transformative to me as a writer and as a person that I wanted to create something like that – on a smaller scale – for other writers. I also wanted it for myself: a multi-day event that brought writers together to talk about the things we all care about. I focused it on short prose because it’s something I’m passionate about and there was not another conference with that theme. So the focus was part art and part marketing. This summer will be Iota’s fourth year. It’s held on gorgeous Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, which is right over the bridge from Lubec, Maine. I’m literally dizzy with happiness to welcome Dinty W. Moore and Mark Doty as 2016 faculty. Thanks to this powerhouse faculty, and Iota’s beautiful location, the conference is sold out this year. I’m also thrilled that Stonecoast MFA generously provided this year’s full scholarship to a rural Maine writer, as I’m very committed to providing access to local people as much as possible. I’m also committed to serving lobster to all seafood-eating participants – so everyone should book early for 2017.
AP: I love how your book title and collection invert expectations of the postcard, which one usually associates with a dispatch from an exotic location—or if not exotic, at least from away—away from one’s daily grind. But these are postcards from home to away that dwell so deeply in that which so many of us want to escape: chores, work, parenting, weather, local politics, even porcupine relocation. The essays locate beauty, irony, humor, absurdity, and even the sublime in ordinary moments. So I wonder if as a writer, or as a human being, you actively pursue such transcendence as you watch and record these moments. In other words, is it the quality of your looking, is it some habit of mind (optimism?), is it writing craft or aesthetic that imbues these pieces with such lift? I guess I’m asking (for a friend) how you consistently find such beauty and love and grace and quiet grandeur in such discrete, ordinary moments?
PG: (Laughs) Well, it’s not because I’m an optimist! I think of myself as pretty cynical and critical of the world. But because I was very actively writing this book, I was always watching for moments around me that held more than they appeared to. I’m very goal-oriented, and once I committed to this project as a book I wanted to finish it. To finish it, I had to write the pieces in it. And to write the pieces in it, I had to find things to write them about. So I did look at the world differently. I scanned my days for moments that divided themselves quickly into multiple layers. I don’t want to sound too academic, but this project involved a certain amount of deconstruction of my own world. For example, the piece about my wife catching a porcupine: it’s a funny story, but it’s also a statement about the dynamic in my marriage. And once it’s a statement about my marriage, it’s also a statement about yours because all marriages have that give and take quality. I think I can say that I didn’t always know, when I sat down to write these pieces, what the layers would turn out to be, but I recognized the potential in the subject at hand. My work as a writer was to take the screws out, open the thing up, and see how it worked and what it had to say.
I also learned a lot about titles during this project, how I could slide the idea of the piece across the table to the reader in the title, which allowed me to leave it out of the piece almost entirely. The porcupine piece is called “Marriage,” and there’s one right after it called “Marriage Two.” Their stories are not immediately related, but through the titles I could thematically link them and say a bigger thing about my relationship. And yours. And everyone’s. It was a revelation.
AP: I am interested not only in how, but also why you pursue such transcendence in the work. As I read Postcards From Here, I found myself looking at my own ordinary moments differently. I, too, live in a beautiful, rural place, but I’ve always had a kind of wanderlust that verges on pathology; I’m always talking myself into being present, into staying, into being less dissatisfied. This book, by virtue of its singular commitment to observation, showed me how to look at my days in a way that might bring more grounding. (Did you know you were writing a self-help book?) I realize I could be imposing this reading (projecting as it were), but I read your essays as postcards to yourself as much as to the outside world. Are you writing them to yourself? And if so, why?
PG: Oh, geeez, that’s such a deep reading. I guess so? Maybe? (Shifts uncomfortably.) I think all of us who write creative nonfiction are, to some extent, engaged in a conversation with ourselves. (And what I do NOT mean by that is that we’re “naval gazing.” Gag.) We’re engaged in an act of self-discovery that we share with the reader. Why would we sit down to write about things we already completely understand? The most interesting experiences I have as a writer are when the material reveals something new to me, or uncovers a memory I didn’t know I had, or allows me to make connections between things I hadn’t thought of before. One of my mentors, Barbara Hurd, talks about looking for that “mind at work on the page.” That’s what I’m always trying to let the reader see – what am I working out on paper here? What’s the concern? Readers find it more engaging if they’re invited into an ongoing conversation rather than being talked at.
As for the “why” part of your question: I write for the same reason all writers write. For the fame and money. (Why are you laughing?)
To Be Continued Tomorrow