AWP17: Meet the Readers

We are gearing up for the annual AWP conference next week, and this year, Under the Gum Tree is partnering with River Teeth and Fourth Genre for an exclusive event dedicated to creative nonfiction. Nine readers, three from each publication, will read to AWP attendees live at Shaw's Tavern, on February 10 from 6-8 p.m. Please continue on to learn more about Under the Gum Tree's talented contributors and read excerpts from their contributions to our January issue.

Yahdon Israel is a twenty-six-year old writer from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who writes about race, class, gender, and culture in America. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, EPSNW and Brooklyn Magazine. He's a contributing editor at LitHub; he recently graduated with his MFA in creative nonfiction from the New School, and runs a popular Instagram feed which promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #literaryswag. Above all else, he keeps it lit.

from Dorian (January 2017 Issue)

"The light-skin daughter was being asphyxiated with compliments having everything to do with her mother using her as an attempt to prove she could make her what she wasn't: 'People never believe me when I tell them she's my daughter.' The aunt could only say but so much. In her willingness to agree, she seemed incapable of producing an original thought. It looked as though thinking was never her purpose. Her purpose had been the same as her niece's: to be a muse for someone else."

Carol D. Marsh's essay "Pictures in Leaves," won the 2016 New Millenium Writings Nonfiction Prize. The book from which "Highest and Best" is excerpted, Nowhere Else I Want to Be: A Memoir will be published in January 2017. Excerpts have appeared in Soundings Review (Honorable Mention, 2014 First Publications Contest), bioStories, and Jenny magazine. Visit her website:

from Highest and Best (January 2017 Issue)

"Sometimes we exchange words and grunts, but mostly we are quiet except for the sounds of Rebecca's patient, heavy breathing and the water sloshing in the basin. The routine is familiar and comforting—Rebecca's mute acceptance of the intimacy, the cleansing of skin with soapy water and sweet-smelling lotion, the clean diaper fitted snugly around her hips, the satisfaction of a tidy bed and the comfort of another pillow or a sip of ice water, the leave taking with Rebecca already falling asleep."

andrea roach.jpg

Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative nonfiction who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and was a finalist for The Writer's Room of Boston Fellowship Award. Currently, she is working on personal narrative essays and the third draft of her first novel, a memoir, about the blurred lines of love, family, and violence. Her work has also appeared in Blavity.

from The Lies We Call Hope (January 2017 Issue)

"I saw the Avery girl, about a decade later. It was the eighties, the era when crack cocaine was devouring the black community. She was standing on a street corner, selling her ass for money or drugs. Her emaciated body swayed as she walked in circles, barely covered with ripped jean shorts and a stretched sleeveless T-shirt that revealed her sagging breasts. Fake hair was weaved into her head, or maybe it was a wig. It was long and crimped and fell down her back, wild. Her eyes looked empty. I knew it was the Avery girl because of the thick shiny scar that marred her cheek."

The readers from River Teeth will be David Lazar, Steven Harvey, and Angela Morales, and the readers from Fourth Genre are Jen Palmares Meadows, Will Jennings, and Alis SandosharajWe're always thrilled to attend AWP every year, especially when we're able to bring so many voices together in a night of telling true stories. We couldn't do it without our readers and for this, we thank them. Opportunities like these make storytelling meaningful and inspiring. If you'll be in Washington D.C. next week we hope to see you on Friday night! 


Pushcart Prize Nominations

Under the Gum Tree is proud to announce 2016's Pushcart Prize nominations. The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best pieces published in small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to submit up to six works they have featured. For us here at Under the Gum Tree, we're delighted to nominate these talented authors: Dorian Fox, Ira Sukrungruang, Matt Young, Sarah Wells, Stephen D. Gutierrez, and Rebekah Taussig. Read below for excerpts from the nominations.

1. "The Other First" by Dorian Fox (January 2016)

When I think of my first kiss, I usually imagine the dark, huge, carpeted rec room of Orchard Hill Church in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where dances for middle schoolers were often held. I imagine the voice of Whitney Houston, belting the earth-shaking notes of 'I Will Always Love You' over the sound system while dozens of couples swayed awkwardly in the flicker of green laser lights. And I imagine Courtney Dover, my first girlfriend, who was generous enough to let me press my open mouth on hers and swirl my tongue around for twenty seconds.

That first kiss story is my go-to narrative, the story I've told, in some form, to anyone who's asked over the years. But it's not entirely true. The first time I felt another person's mouth on mine, who was not related to me, happened when I was ten years old, not thirteen. The person was my next-door neighbor, Nathan.

Nathan was one year older than me. We became friends shortly after my family moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh, midway through the summer before I started third grade. I don’t remember the circumstances of meeting him, but it must have occurred sometime in those first sticky-humid months, while I was still acclimating to our beige colonial with the blue shutters and smaller backyard, and the new difficult terrain around it, straining against my bike pedals on the hilly streets of our suburban development. Chicago had been flat, and it would be weeks before I could manage the steeper hills without hopping off to push.

2. "The Animatronic Dog" by Ira Sukrungruang (April 2016)

Rover seems real to me the way real dogs were real. I wanted to pet his animatronic head, made out of synthetic hair. I wanted to snuggle against his animatronic side, feel the thrum of gears that made him work. I wanted to sniff his animatronic breath, which carried the scent of oil. Rover, even without life, even if programmed to do the same thing for decades, was an example of family stability, and family stability, though I did not know it then, was what mattered most to me.

A strange thought came to me: What if my mother and father could be on display, too, that we could be robots and last forever?

Here is my mother sporting a beehive hairdo and a pastel housedress, and my father in a pink golfing polo and brown slacks. Here is my mother sewing Thai dresses under the Buddha in our living room, and my father putting at a masking tape X on the teal carpet. And here is me, their chubby son, glasses like petri dishes, sliding down the stairs in a laundry basket, and the glorious sound I would make, the shrill screech of happiness, the sudden rush of air that tousles his soft hair.  We would travel reincarnated lifetimes: a Thai family in the Wild West, my mother driving the horses, my father with a holstered revolver protecting our livestock; a family in Siam before the fall of Sukhothai, my father standing strong against the Burmese, my mother crying for the safety of his life; a family witnessing the blessing of the real Gotama Buddha under the weighty branches of a Bodhi tree - we would be birds nested in the top branch.

3. "The Body is Not a Coffin" by Sarah Wells (April 2016)

We talk about "the future" and "our plans" since this last miscarriage two weeks ago. I had heard the heartbeat, saw the seed on the ultrasound screen, returned to the doctor in Akron who frowned and said he was sorry, he knows how much we've been through. It is the sixth time I have known I was pregnant, the fourth time we have miscarried. "I don't know if we will try again," I said. "This is getting hard. My husband is tired of this, tired of seeing me like this, tired of feeling like this."

But I'm not ready to say enough. These are our discussions and our separate inner monologues, as if we have any say in what comes from this womb, what will be birthed, what will die. As if my decisions mean anything at all. But they do. I am ready to risk pouring out my heart, like lavender oil in a pot, before Him, ready to risk hope in the face of possible grief, possible disappointment. It means healing and embalming and cleansing and preparing and protecting, it is casting my bread upon the waters. Is it audacious to believe that this God cares deeply about me? But I believe anyway, in a loving, compassionate, patient, merciful, just, mysterious, powerful God of the universe and God of this dining room. He is the Spirit embodied in my daughter preparing for the baby's return with spoons. He is ever-present and hears the prayers of our daughter for her long-gone dog, for the grandfather she never met, for the baby in heaven, and I hear these prayers and my spirit cracks and heals, cracks and heals. He is the God who remembered Rachel, heard her and opened her womb. I don't know what that means, but I feel the verbs: remember, hear, open.

4. "Equal and Opposite" by Matt Young (July 2016)

An explosive detonates, because that is what explosives do. That is is the explosive's SOP. Step one: Explosive is built. Step two: Explosive is placed. Step three: Explosive is detonated.

There is little damage to our lead truck, which has triggered the explosive - a blown-out tire, some scorching of the steel armor. The explosive was placed too far off the road. We'll learn later that even small blasts needle into our brains, cause slight compoundable concussive incidents. We never blame the blast - that is only what blasts do.

People are inside their homes, have shuttered their businesses. Only an hour ago the shops were open and bustling, people swept from dust and dirt, children sold kerosene like we once sold lemonade.

Our trucks halt, because after a blast that is what we've been trained to do. That is our SOP. If a vehicle can push through a kill zone, it does. If it is disabled it stays put and the subsequent trucks disperse to a stand-off distance, obtain situational awareness and casualty reports, and assess the situation.

A group of men meerkat in the distance and we stare them down with tiger eyes behind bulletproof windows. Charlie, next to me, repeats over and over in his Oklahoma drawl, "Motherfuckers," which comes out, "Muhfuckers." The rest of us say nothing, and when the relay comes over the radio that everyone is five by five we rocket open the doors and pursue the meerkat men, because that is what tigers do.

5. "Spiritual Direction" by Stephen D. Gutierrez (October 2016)

Just above her head on the green wall, an office green with a soothing yellow undertone, a nuclear bomb explodes. The telltale gray mushroom forms and dissolves in an instant. I am not on drugs. I don't take heavy meds. It's a common image in my head nowadays. I fear the world community has forgotten the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and are ready to accept nuclear as feasible. 'I think without prayer we would have been dead a long time ago.'

"Well, how about that?" she says. She's a hero. I consider her and all the varied religious who have prayed for peace over the past six decades the saviors of the world, the ones who have generated the energy to prevent horrible accidents and miscalculations in the war rooms of the Soviet Union and United States and China.  I am nuts about energy . It's the single proof of religion I have - that flow you enter almost casually when you let go and trust, have faith, believe - surrender to fate - and indisputably know it is at work for you; that flow with its many odd occurrences and synchronicities baffling the odds makers, disproving the the proponents of randomness. It doesn't need arguing to establish itself as real. It is real. It is mighty. It is awesome. It is scary.

"Are you afraid of death?" I ask her.

"No, I'm not, Steve," she says. Death is so simple, so natural. I've seen so much of it.  It's nothing to be afraid of. It's life you've got to watch out for." Her eyes twinkle.

6. "Reupholstered" by Rebekah Taussig (October 2016)

When Lydia asks me in the coffee shop if she can pray for me, her smile steady and sweet, my head explodes with the word 'no.' No. No. No, no, no, I do not want you to pray for my healing. As if my story's resolution won't arrive until I move from place to place with legs instead of wheels? Lydia can see the effects of childhood cancer on my incapacitated legs, but she can't peer behind my ribcage and scan the self-inflicted battle-wounds lining my insides, accumulated over decades of self-loathing for my differences and deformities. Surely she couldn't imagine the planet of energy it required to build a sturdy sense of wholeness - to let myself be seen gripping the side of my car as I drag my legs across the pavement to put gas in the tank, to allow my partner to watch me prop my torso against the sink as I try to balance well enough to floss my teeth, to hold onto affection for my strange and twisted story - a story that doesn't need walking legs or proportioned limbs to find resolution. I grip onto my sense of self so tightly, and my hand slips so easily.

Lydia is taking a risk with me - reaching out into a world of strangers with an attempt at what she must see as kindness. I share that desire to connect. I can even recognize in this moment that she does not intend to make me feel embarassed or inadequate. But in a room full of all kinds of bodies, she has singled me out as the Defective, herself as the Pipeline to My Restoration. "Oh, no thanks," I say. "I don't think I am comfortable with that."

Meet the Author: Sarah E. Bode

Sarah E. Bode's storytelling began with her Barbies; since then her creative work has been published in Cahoots Quarterly, Cigale Literary Magazine, and Five Quarterly (along with various articles found in the folds of Palaver, an interdisciplinary journal she co-founded in 2012). She currently lives in Brooklyn #twerkingfortomes at Oxford University Press. Sarah explores the city's coffee (counter) culture in an on-going montage of first dates.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now? 

I wrote my first short story in seventh grade, but I've been telling stories since my Barbie doll days. From Barbies to Sims to short stories to a horrible attempt at a novel length text at age 14 to torrid fanfiction to AP test essays to personal essays. But I distinctly remember the feeling I got when I completed my first written short story in the seventh grade. I turned in 23 pages, 20 pages past what was required by my Language Arts teacher. That feeling is something I've heard most other writers reflect - the unloading of yourself onto the page, whether fictionalized self or your naked truth. It was that feeling that kept me putting a cursor to the screen. What inspires me to write most now is living life and harvesting those life experiences in my personal essays. And of course, the current political circus is also highly inspiring as well as amusing and horrifying.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?  

I could say I'm drawn to nonfiction because it allows me to reflect on my life and choices and experiences and learn from mistakes, yada yada yada. But I think the more honest response is that I'm drawn to nonfiction because writing creative non-fiction, specifically personal essays, gives my self-centeredness and narcissism a place to play. What also factors into the joy of writing nonfiction is the different kinds of creativity that the form encourages. It's also a favorite turn of phrase of my father to exclaim when telling me about some news story or the like, "You can't make this shit up."

Q. You're featured in our Soundtrack section. How important is music in your everyday life?

As it's apparent in the sections about my family, music always had a presence in my upbringing. Whether it was being forced to listen to my father's favorite guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or watching musicals with my mother, or learning how to play the violin, or prancing around in my backyard with a Walkman belting out tunes - music has always been pumping in the background of my life. Most moments I remember, I associate with songs, as my essay explores. As far as my life now, music is available anytime, anywhere, and everywhere. I keep having to delete pictures off my iPhone, because I've choked its storage with songs. There's music leaking through the open doors of storefronts as I walk down my street in Brooklyn. Friends post new music videos to my Facebook wall, telling me, "YAS QUEEN." And while I stopped playing violin long ago, and since moving to the city, I don't have a car to sing in any longer and have been sequestered to my shower, music is still a constant. Always there in the background, ebbing and flowing into the consciousness of traversing my experiences.

Q. In your piece, you describe feeling both oppressed and free. How has music shaped this?

Natural responses to music can be very telling in a person, whether it's to dance or drum or sing. Mine is singing. This is how I best connect to music, how I feel it pulse through me, how I follow its themes and apply them to my own life. When it comes to singing along to music that I love (or in the case of my father's repeated classic rock soundtrack of my childhood, tolerated) there's a strong need within me to stick with the artists actual lyrics. For me, singing along is freedom to be loud and make noise and disturb the airwaves around me. But then there's also this oppression of being stuck to the artist's intentions, especially since I'm certainly no songwriter or musician. The oppression is also linked to my father making me sing his songs on repeat.

Q. There's a fascinating hold music has over us, and you explore this throughout your piece. Why do you think music in particular has this power? And do you find yourself battling against certain songs for the memories they hold?

Absolutely, music has this power. Often songs have memories for me, whether it was playing during a first kiss or I cried along to it in my car driving away from heartbreak. And throughout the essay, I tried to navigate the space between that music and those memories. I want to separate them, but I don't. I can still enjoy songs even though upon the first strums or breathy meows, I am hearkened away to my past for a couple of chords. I think for me, the essay in some fashion was about coming to terms with that fact, instead of continuing the struggle to separate. 


Meet the Author: Anara Guard

Anara Guard is a fiction writer and poet who has lived in Chicago, Minnesota, New England, and now Sacramento. She received the John Crowe Ransom Poetry Prize from Kenyon College and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in fiction. Her poems were recently included in Convergence and Late Peaches, an anthology of Sacramento poets. Her new collection of short stories, Remedies for Hunger (New Wind Publishing), received four stars from the Chicago Book Review and was featured in their Best Books of 2015 list. She is currently working on a novel, set in Chicago in 1970.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I wrote as a child and still have a copy of an early story which involved a shoe salesman who was sorrowful at how the customers mistreated their old shoes, tossing them aside in favor of the new, shiny ones. In college I focused more on poetry and then during years of raising children, I primarily wrote in my journal and published professional, nonfiction pieces. About ten years ago, I made writing a priority again and have produced a number of short stories, as well as working on two novels.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

I admire how essays can combine the language of poetry and the creativity of fiction with the ring of truth that permeates nonfiction. When I read good fiction, I am living it; when I read good nonfiction, I learn as well.

Q. In regards to participating in Under the Gum Tree's creative nonfiction simulcast, what are the best parts of speaking/reading to a live audience?

There is, of course, heightened adrenaline in speaking to a live audience. Their reactions instantly let me know whether my humor succeeded, or if they feel what I intended. My words and the audience’s response create a richer, deeper experience that is like theater. Since I usually create in a lone, quiet space, I value such interactions.

Q. Do you think you sympathized more with your father as an adult or as a teenager?

Oh, I definitely sympathize more with him now, as an adult. I understand him better and the forces that shape his life.

Q. Why did you choose to end the piece with the image of the unripened bananas? What did they symbolize for you?

He was so amazed that green bananas were not a different type of fruit than yellow ones are, and I was, in turn, so astonished that he hadn’t ever learned that simple fact. In this instance, his naiveté had kept him green. But he wants to keep learning, to “ripen.” We bought the green bananas as a symbol of hope, even knowing that they will age, just as he is aging.

Q. Do you think your father's fear/understanding of his incompetence is a fear we all face as we get older?

I don’t think there are universal fears that ALL of us face, but no doubt there are common themes that many of us will recognize and experience. Men of his era (the WWII generation) have more resistance to feeling incompetent—at any age. 

Q. Are there common themes between your pieces that you like to explore? Do you use your work to come to a place of understanding or is your work a reflection of reaching an understanding prior?

I like to explore what it might be like to be in another person’s skin—to experience a situation from a perspective different from my own. To me, imagination is at the heart of compassion, and compassion can help expand one’s imagination. The process of writing helps me figure out and understand what I want to say. It’s like having a great conversation with a friend who knows me well!

Meet the Author: Rebekah Taussig

Rebekah Taussig is finishing her PhD from the University of Kansas and lives in a little, old house with two chunky cats in Kansas City. Her work often questions what it means to live in a particular body, and you can always find her pressing into this inquiry on her Instagram account @sitting_pretty. She is thrilled that her first published piece "Reupholstered" has found a home in Under the Gum Tree.

Q.     When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I wrote my first book when I was about five or six years old. I snatched a giant stack of computer paper, folded off the perforated edges, folded the pages in half, and told a story with pictures and a few words about a dark blue car driving through torrents of rain. As I got older, I wrote cheesy poems about sunsets and spider-webs, filled my journal pages with rants and confessions, and wrote essays for class about the absurdity of calories and cliques. I filled my undergraduate degree with strange and quirky short fiction and spent a good chunk of my life writing academic papers about Victorian literature during my master’s degree. But from the blue car driving through the rain to the analysis of disability representations in nineteenth century novels, I think I’ve always been drawn to writing because life confuses me. My inside world and my outside world often clash. I can feel confused, far away, disconnected, alone, bewildered. Writing feels like the bridge—the tool that allows me to make connections, build something I can grip onto—even if it’s just choosing the precise words to crystalize the moment I felt the universe would find a way to hold itself together when I glimpsed the light shimmy through a spider-web.

Q.     Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

I had been writing academic papers about disability and literature for years when I stumbled into my first creative nonfiction workshop. This was the first time I wrote directly about my own paralyzed body. I remember crafting the scene about the afternoon I overheard a friend say he didn’t want me to come sledding because he didn’t want to have to lug “that cripple” up the hill. It was a sharp, painful memory, but as I built it on the page—weaving and whittling it into a shape that felt honest—I felt awake and full. Creative nonfiction can be cathartic for both the reader and the writer, but it is also playful. It invites and empowers. It allows me to write about the things that catch me in the throat, without having to invent a cloak or a pretense.

Also, as a person with a disability, I believe that narrating my own, personal experience is a revolutionary act, and one I hope more and more people will do. Historically, people with disabilities have been written over and spoken for. Representing myself, as myself, participates in changing a larger cultural script that traditionally confines folks with disabilities.

Q.     What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

If Joy Castro and Eula Biss have taught me anything about creative nonfiction, every event, macro or micro, can evolve into a compelling story. In my own work, I am drawn to write about the events that won’t stop nettling me—that keep coming back to me during the day and when I’m trying to fall asleep at night, that make me feel things I can’t quite explain. This is exactly what happened with “Reupholstered.” After Lydia prayed for me in the coffee shop, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t understand why. For weeks, I kept bringing the incident up in conversation. It wouldn’t leave my mind—I could feel it clinging to the inside of my body. I started writing, and I still didn’t fully understand, but that unrelenting curiosity is the very juice that brings me back to the fourth and fifth and sixth drafts—the drafts where connections are discovered and hard-earned revelations decide to emerge. I also think this curiosity is the thread that leads us toward universal connections—when we dig and dig and keep digging for the motivations behind the motivations, I think (I hope) we find each other, all working out our own unique versions of shame, healing, fear, empowerment, loss, and reclamation.

Q.     Lydia's kindness in "Reupholstered" is somewhat marred by her blatant ableism. Is this a conversation/interaction you endure often?

People offering to pray over my body for its healing is something that happens relatively often. People making assumptions about me based on my physicality—that my partner is my hired care-taker, that I must wish to live in a body different than the one I have, that I don’t have a sexuality, that my life is forever tinged with a bit of tragedy, that I can’t open a door, get my wheelchair in and out of my own car, or carry my own grocery bags—happens regularly. It’s not possible to extract ableism from my daily experience. It’s a rhythm I’m sure anyone in an underrepresented, marginalized identity is familiar with—that feeling that you have to fight so hard to be really seen, not as a symbol or a short-hand or a collective face, but as me, my own self with a complicated history and a vibrant, often contradictory inner-world.

Q.     Your piece is a step in the right direction in talking honestly about people with differently abled bodies. Have you found it difficult to express this before?

Before I started writing nonfiction, I don’t think I ever spoke honestly about my particularly abled body, even to myself. Not fully. Despite the fact that I’ve been paralyzed since the age of three, I too was raised in a culture saturated in ableist thinking. My body felt like something to overcome, ignore, rise above—essentially, an object from which to detach. I started reading a lot of writers who engage this conversation with a wealth of intellectual curiosity—Alison Kafer, Andrew Solomon, Eli Clare—and I started to see myself as part of a larger community with a long history and shared stories. I moved hesitantly toward sharing my own stories through an Instagram account called sitting_pretty. (I spent much too long and way too many paper napkins coming up with that clever little name—good grief!). I used (and still use) this virtual space to share brief glimpses into my experiences as a woman with a disability. Very quickly, I felt overwhelmed by the many voices of understanding and support that met me there. I felt connected and seen in a way I’d never experienced before, which has led me to more writing, more sharing, more connecting. I am sure that part of the reason it took me so long to step into the process of narrating my experiences with disability is because I hadn’t seen it modeled. As a culture, we need more stories that represent the idiosyncratic, personal, contradictory experiences of living life with a disability, because stories have the power to shape the way we see each other—they provide a script for how we interact with one another. We need more stories that flip the script surrounding bodies with disabilities.

Q.     The reupholstered couch was perfect as it was before it was "fixed." Why do you think people desire to fix what they perceive as damaged? Do you think this reflects more about them than anything else?

I think that part of this impulse to categorize things as marred versus flawless, defected versus perfect, used versus fresh, broken versus whole comes from an illusion that we can wipe the slate clean, sanitize the instruments, fight off deterioration and decay and maintain a sense of control. I think we lose something when we do this. In an attempt to fight off what we’ve come to perceive as “damaged,” we erase and ignore the very stuff of life—stretch marks, scars, thread-bare pillow cushions, paralyzed legs—all evidence of vibrant, excessive, full-bodied, screaming-from-the-rooftops life. At least, this is how I’ve come to see it.  

Meet the Author: Stephen D. Gutierrez

Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay. Stephen also participated in Under the Gum Tree's recent national nonfiction simulcast, reading from his piece featured in our October issue, "Spiritual Direction."

Q: When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I started writing in college but I had always been a good writer. I always considered myself one inside. I started doing it seriously after being tremendously inspired by quality literature in an English class in my miserable last year of high school. It gave me a path forward, the call. What inspires me most now is the wish not to waste whatever gift I may have and be regretful on my deathbed because I could have done more. While I can do it, I think it would be a shame not to write. As well, I read my contemporaries and convince myself I have something to add to the literary conversation that is exclusive in its way—that is a bit different, that is me.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

In nonfiction you can be more direct and straightforward than in fiction. Really, you can write more nakedly and openly absent the required fictional mask of irony and authorial distance that yields its own rewards but that is always a mediating disguise. You can cry plainly in sight in nonfiction, which can be moving for the reader as well. Also, its confessional aspect appeals to my need to come clean.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

Really anything that moves you enough to want to articulate it fiercely and exactingly for another person to experience is potential material. I suppose we go after that part of experience that isn't easily translatable or explained to justify our words, and whatever brought awe to you is worth trying to pass on. Often these are very private moments that don't seem worthwhile, but I think they are—the micro, the macro, the personal, the political, the act of writing itself—it's all worth writing about if you're passionate enough about it. Whatever excites your passion is your subject.

Q. You refer to God as female in "Spiritual Direction." Is there a reason for this subversion of the typical gender assigned to God?

It's automatic now. "God" doesn't exist. There's no big man in the sky. Everybody knows that. So when we speak of God we are of course speaking of something else; what that something else is confounds me and everybody else, though people are getting close when labeling it an energy, a flow, a rightness with the universe due to certain moral precepts propounded by many religions for a long time, or just right decisions that are most in tune with your elemental self. Anyway, to refer to "God" as "he" is a trap. Immediately, we see the old man, and that's not tenable anymore. "She" has its own risks because of reanimating the old human figure of God, but she's novel, and new, and might contain the power I'm talking about for the time being. She might serve us well as we grapple with this new, evolving notion of divinity. And we might learn that she is realer than we expected, only different.

Q. Sister Carmen Rodriguez has a deep, spiritual connection to her history and culture. Is this the spiritual direction you are seeking?

No, we're very different. I'm in a different place, historically, culturally. I even have trouble identifying myself as "Latino" sometimes, it seems false to my real life and sensibility. If anything, I'd advocate everybody breaking free from their histories and cultures as completely as they can. For me, the sign of a healthy culture is that its individual members grow out of the culture recognizing that it shouldn't be privileged or honored or regarded in any special way. It's just a vessel for the inculcation of absolute respect for the worthiness of every single human being outside that culture. With that said, you can draw on what is good in your culture or has been fructifying, and Sister Carmen makes me proud to be Mexican-American. She has strength and mercy and compassion in equal measure, and she has a spirit that is Mexican-American that is mine, I recognize it, and I honor it. I don't know what spiritual direction I wish to be pointed in or what I want spiritually, but I also think that is exactly the right frame of mind to have about all things spiritual. I'm lost, I'm okay. I'm not arrogant, I'm just trying to be as open as possible.

Q. You write, "Without prayer we should have been dead a long time ago." Even as you struggle with disbelief, you recognize the power of prayer. What accounts for that?

I think it's true. As I said above, I believe we're dealing with energies and forces we don't understand yet when talking about religion and prayer. My gut tells me that all the lonely monks and devoted sisters and religious of all kinds have saved the world from nuclear destruction through their constant intercession on behalf of peace, of sanity, of life on earth instead of death and destruction. I think it's the most sensible thing to do nowadays, pray against nuclear holocaust and for peace, without the assurance of a big ear in the sky bent toward you. Indeed, with the certitude that no such ear exists, desperation is added to the prayer-energy, and that must count. Prayer is serious business. It wouldn't have lasted so long if it wasn't.

Q. In regards to participating in our creative nonfiction simulcast, what are the best parts of speaking/reading to a live audience?

I'm usually nervous before a reading of any kind even though I've been doing them for a while. The main benefit is selfish. I'm told I'm a pretty good reader, and when I feel the power of the words read right coming through me, I'm inspired to keep writing. I'm very doubtful about myself as a writer sometimes, very down on my abilities and calling, and getting up and reading and getting some good feedback from audience members and feeling good about myself doing it is all positive. I think, Shit, I should keep doing this. I should never quit. 

Meet the Readers of our October 29th Creative Nonfiction Simulcast

We could not be more pleased to be hosting a cross-continent Creative Nonfiction Reading Simulcast. Our co-collaborators include Hippocampus, River Teeth, and Creative Nonfiction. This live streaming event on Google Hangouts will celebrate the art of writing creative nonfiction. Contributors from these magazines will honor us and entertain you by reading a bit of their work.

For information regarding times and event locations, please visit our live event page.

To learn more about the featured readers for this amazing event, read on!

Readers for Creative Nonfiction

Jeff Oaks' most recent chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, was published by Seven Kitchens Press. A recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships, he has published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Assaracus, Barrow Street, Field, Nimrod, and Tupelo Quarterly. His essays have appeared in At Length, Kenyon Review Online, and Creative Nonfiction, and in the anthologies My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them and Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.






Brian Broome is an English and creative writing major at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction.

Readers for Under the Gum Tree


Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay.





Anara Guard is a fiction writer and poet who has lived in Chicago, Minnesota, New England, and now Sacramento. She received the John Crowe Ransom Poetry Prize from Kenyon College and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in fiction. Her poems were recently included in Convergence and Late Peaches, an anthology of Sacramento poets. Her new collection of short stories, Remedies for Hunger (New Wind Publishing), received four stars from the Chicago Book Review and was featured in their Best Books of 2015 list. She is currently working on a novel, set in Chicago in 1970.

Readers for Hippocampus

Laurie Jean Cannady, Ph.d. has published an array of articles and essays on poverty in America, community and domestic violence, and women's issues. She has also spoken against sexual assault in the military at West Point.

Her memoir, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was named one of the best nonfiction books by black authors in 2015 by The Root online magazine. A Kirkus review describes Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul as a "bold, honest, and courageous memoir." Foreword Reviews named Crave a finalist in the Indiefab Book of the Year 2015 competition in the autobiography/memoir category.

Cannady currently resides in central Pennsylvania with her husband, Chico Cannady, and their three children. She teaches English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.



Stephanie Andersen lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, with two of her daughters, her husband, stepson, and two dogs. Her work, twice listed as Notable in Best American Essays and twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes, can be found in Brain, Child Magazine, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and The Washington Post. She is currently working on a memoir that details her journey toward healing after giving her daughter up for adoption and examines what it really means to be a mother. She teaches writing at Reading Area Community College and, in her spare time, she teaches Zumba and watches birds.

Thank you Laurie, Stephanie, Jeff, Brian, Stephen, and Anara for participating in this event! It's an honor to work with you. A special thank you as well to our friends at Hippocampus, Creative Nonfiction, and River Teeth. Thank you for your continued dedication to creative nonfiction!

Three UTGT Essays Listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2016!

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of excitement. As Under the Gum Tree prepares to celebrate five years of publication (with a revamped magazine design and a national nonfiction simulcast!), we've received amazing news regarding three of our contributors. Their essays are listed as notable in the latest Best American Essays 2016! We could not be more proud of them and we hope you'll join us in congratulating them!

Follow the links below for excerpts from each notable essay, as well as the biographies of the authors who penned them:

  1. "Signs (2002)" by Susannah Clark (April 2015) 
  2. "I Like You" by Steven Simoncic (January 2015)
  3. "Crash" by Daisy Florin (July 2015)

About the Author

Susannah Clark received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College in Boston, where she also taught creative writing and freshman composition. Her work has appeared in publications such as Inside Higher Ed, Extract(s), Rock & Sling and others. She recently won Flyway Journal's Notes on a Field contest in nonfiction, for her personal essay about working as a barista during the Boston Marathon Bombings. She lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.


About the Author

Steven Simoncic's plays have received productions, readings and worksops at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Garden, The Second City, Pegasus Players, The Baruch Center for the Performing Arts, Stageplays Theatre, and The Soho Theatre in London. Steven's play, Once Upon a Time in Detroit, was selected as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Eugene 0'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwright Conference, and Heat Wave was recently selected for Steppenwolf Theatre's 2015 Garage Rep season. At the time of the publication of "I Like You," Steven completed critically acclaimed productions of Broken Fences with Ballybeg in New York and 16th Street in Chicago, which was featured in The Chicago Tribune's "Best of 2013."

About the Author

Daisy Alpert Florin grew up in New York City and attended Dartmouth College. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Minerva Rising and Mamalode. She is the staff editor at Brain, Child and lives with her husband and three children in Connecticut.



Once more, Under the Gum Tree wishes to congratulate Susannah, Steven, and Daisy on this incredible achievement! 

Meet the Author: J. Daniel Thornton

J. Daniel Thornton is sorry if you’ve ever seen him dance. When he’s not writing, he teaches online courses at Miami University and lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He is an Associate Fiction Editor at The Indiana Review. Tay Zonday follows him on Twitter, and you can too: @joethelion23

Joseph’s piece, “Slouching Toward Abu Dhabi”, appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016. 

Q.  When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

I started writing when I was fifteen or so. It was in some ways out of boredom and it was a lot of bad poetry, and in retrospect it's such a hackneyed story, but in some ways not really. What inspires my writing now is very much what inspired my writing then. I find that it's the odd or out of place things that are fascinating, particularly people who pretend to be something that they're clearly not in some cases. There's a fine line between what makes for an interesting fact, and what will make a good story, but I usually have to commit to that idea and explore it.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? What can you express through nonfiction?

I'm drawn to nonfiction because it forces me to be in uncomfortable spaces. It's a way of looking from the outside in, and really assessing who you were at the time and what's going on with and around your subject. Of course, you can't always write about these things up close, especially if they're powerful personal experiences. There's also something journalistic about it as well that for me at least, makes me feel that I have to be more fair in my nonfiction to people who appear in it than if they were fictional characters.

Q. You address the guilt you felt for hiding your sexuality from Janice, among other smaller lies. How did writing this piece let you come to terms with that guilt? Do you still carry those emotions with you today, or have you reconciled them?

I think I couldn't write the piece until I had come to terms with some of that. Much of guilt is a useless emotion, but I think that you can easily find yourself mired in it. And I think it would be fair to her that I wrote that essay in a way that was honest without being too self-aggrandizing, but since this is a personal essay, solipsism is something that you can't sidestep. You are, after all, talking about yourself. Janice and I were in an unhealthy relationship at the time, and it's much easier to see what was happening between us than it would have been if I had written about it five years ago. It would have probably been easier to be vindictive, but that would be unfair. We were taking two very different paths in our lives, and I wasn't certain of what I was going to do after college until I started applying to creative writing programs.

Q. Explain the significance of the title of the piece and why Sex and the City 2 came to be equated with the necessary punishment for all your wrongdoings.

The title comes from a Joan Didion collection of essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," which is itself an allusion to W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." I think watching Sex and the City 2 became equated to me with that rough beast. The film is insufferable because well, everyone in the film is insufferable. But I think the most awful part about it was that these people were never honest with one another. Carrie never really tells Big how she really feels, and instead is pissed when Big wants to stay in after a long day of working. It's as though he has been a mystery to her for the entirety of their relationship, and that's really disappointing, as this is supposed to be about this savvy female writer. It's a film that doesn't deliver on its subject matter.

The more that I read about feminism and came to terms with who I am as a person, the more I was convinced that seeing that film was a bit of a wake up call and a cosmic/karmic payback for me not really being honest with myself and others about who I was or what I wanted in a relationship. That this was my destiny if I continued on the way that I was going to end up in this situation, where I would be watching something abhorrent on a screen and then being thanked for it, as if I had done someone a favor. I have done favors for others and have felt much better about myself that involved becoming entangled in their personal lives, but watching a movie about rich white women and their problems being rich white women is inherently uninteresting.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

While I think the material for a story matters, what really matters is how it's executed. I've written (and read) stories that I am convinced have great material, but if you don't write it in the right way it will fall flat, or be terribly boring. But this happens with a lot of stories that I've written too, and it's about halfway through writing it that if its not going well, I'll abandon it and come back to it in a week before I continue.

Q. Why do you think you didn't react like Emily did upon seeing Sex and the City 2, in theaters for the first time with Janice?

I had similar feelings, but to me I was more bewildered than anything else. It was a long time after I saw it that I found that the film was so terrible to many of its characters. Emily was more offended anything else. It was hilariously mean-spirited. And I think she was really shocked that this was something that considered itself to be empowering to women, especially when it consistently disempowered them over and over again, as well as pigeonholed every other minority character on the show at the expense of these white female protagonists.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katie Martin

Katie Martin is a Phoenix-based writer and graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Green Briar Review, Silk Road, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Gravel Magazine, and Split Lip Magazine. A chapter of her in-progress memoir has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Katie loves planning trips to Disney World and running with her lazy dog.

Katie's piece, "Leash," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What do you enjoy most about writing and how has it shaped other aspects of your life?

A. When I was about six, I wrote, "I hope to be a writer someday" on a scrap of paper that I still have. I thought that was such a lovely memory until I flipped the page over and saw that I'd also written, "I want to be Indiana Jones" and "I want to be a wood cutter." At least one of those options stuck.

Q. Your piece is a “Flash Feature” this month. What was it like working with such strong emotional depth in a limited amount of space like this one?

A. This essay seemed to lend itself to be a flash piece, since the event itself happened so quickly. For my family, in the early stages of dementia, these odd, emotionally charged little incidents would just pop up, and I didn’t know what to make of them until they were hindsight. It was all those little things that eventually added up to a diagnosis.

Q. Are there common themes between your pieces that you like to explore? Do you use your work to come to a place of understanding or is your work a reflection of reaching an understanding prior?

A. Right now, everything I write seems to be about my dad and this disease, in spite of my best efforts! I'm working on a memoir that centers on his last few years and the changes it brought. I hope that the theme will ultimately be forgiveness and acceptance, not of the disease, but of this life that can be wild and messy and painful and lovely, all at the same time. I try to write from a place of having spent some good time reflecting beforehand. All of this is still a relatively recent event, and I'm sure if I wrote the same story in ten years, it would be completely different. But all I can do is dig in as deep as I can and hope to restore order to some of those memories.

Q. What was your editing process like for a piece that is so intimate? Did you need distance for clarity?

A. I'm not a very good editor, unfortunately! I have a bad habit of writing one . . . painfully . . . slow . . . word . . . at a time. I did need the distance that the years have brought. In the heat of the moment and for several months after, it appeared that my typically mild-mannered dad was just casually strangling our dog. It took some time to realize that it was so much more.

Q. “Leash” was a small, but impactful glimpse into your life. How has your experience affected your writing now? Do you come back to these moments often?

A. This experience has radically changed me and completely changed my writing. I’ve learned so much about people and how we all experience loss and grow from it. I think writing has taught me to pay better attention to the life around me—to try to see deeper than the circumstances right in front of us. It’s easy to look back on those moments in life and wish you had known then what you know now. But as we all know, it doesn’t work that way. And maybe it shouldn’t. I think all these events shape us into (hopefully) stronger people, and we wouldn’t be the same without them.

Q. Dementia is a disease in which all parties suffer. What was the biggest takeaway you wanted your audience to have considering it is a disease that we, as both a society and in terms of medicine, still know so little about?

A. Researchers are expecting that the number or people with some form of dementia will jump from 5.2 million to 13.8 million by 2050. It is absolutely sweeping our country, and it’s hugely important for all of us to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Dementia is way more than losing your train of thought or misplacing your keys or even forgetting names. It’s not romantic, (even though, yes, I still love The Notebook). It can destroy families, because the behavior coming from the loved one is so confusing in the early stages. We’re not used to a disease changing someone’s personality as quickly and dramatically as dementia does. These people often lose their marriages, their friendships, and their jobs. Someone incredibly sick can become homeless in a scarily short amount of time. I hope that readers will take away some compassion for these individuals and their caregivers. I hope they know just a little bit of what to look for, and maybe not be as caught off guard as my mom and I were if someone in their family suddenly starts acting like a different person. I hope they can forgive themselves for the way they’ve treated the people they love and forgive those people for the way they’ve been treated. I think sharing our stories can only help us all treat each other a little better, a little kinder, a little more human.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katherine Groppo

Katherine Groppo is an educator and mother of two who lives in Sacramento, California, where she participates in writing workshops in her community. She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, where she majored in English Literature.

Katherine's piece, "Mixtape," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What do you enjoy most about writing and how has it shaped other aspects of your life?

A. When I was little I had one of those small diaries with a tiny lock. Initially, I was attracted to the notion that if I wrote a lot, I must have very important secrets indeed. Then in high school I realized that I loved spending time searching for just the right turn of phrase to convey a thought. I loved revising my own journal entries, even though I never had an audience. Now, if I ever look back at those old volumes I'm mortified at the silliness of my musings and how seriously I took myself. But it's also a happy reminder that I've grown since then, and hopefully am continuing to grow. 

In high school and college I never took a writing class because I was too scared. The very idea of reading something I'd penned in front of others gave me horrors. It wasn't until I became an adult that I decided it was kind of boring to write without ever having an audience. I joined a writer's workshop, which reignited my enthusiasm for the craft. Today I experience writing as both a gratifying intellectual exercise and also as a way to force myself to pause in the midst of my often-chaotic daily life long enough to figure out what I'm actually thinking and feeling on a deeper level.

Q. Your piece is featured in “Soundtrack” this month. Does music heavily influence your other work? Are there any artists or songs you listen to on repeat that help you write?

A. In 2005 I actually wrote a how-to article about creating a club for sharing compilation CD's based on my experiences forming a "mix club" with a bunch of friends whose musical tastes I admired. Each month one of us would create a mix CD, burn copies, and then distribute them to the other members. We had a successful five-year run, but eventually disbanded because it became so cumbersome compared to just turning on Pandora. I still listen to a lot of those mixes, though. 

I prefer silence when I'm writing because I find music or ambient conversation distracting. I'm a big lyric-listener, and am drawn to songs in which the artists' voices are clear and there's a story being told. My brain always wants to decipher the underlying meaning, so I can't just tune it out and enjoy working to the beat. 

Q. Why do you feel music has such a profound effect on us?

A. I think one reason is that music is a way for us to connect our past with our present. For example, I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard the song and saw the music video for Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares to You." I was fourteen and at a discotheque in Mexico, and I could not take my eyes off the large screen on the wall. When Prince recently passed away, I heard somewhere that he'd actually written those lyrics, and that night came rushing back, complete with all my internal emotions and physical sensations of that time and place. I immediately downloaded a copy, along with bunch of Prince songs that I hadn't listened to in years, and played it for my family. The song was like a mental catapult back in time. I ended up sharing anecdotes about that phase of my life with my husband and kids.

Q. Do you feel the shift from mixtape to online playlists has changed the relationship between “creator” and “listeners” of mixtapes/playlists? How so?

A. I feel extremely lucky to have been a teenager during the relatively brief period when mixtapes were so prevalent. It wasn't until cassettes overtook vinyl records as the dominant music format that they were even possible, and today proprietary laws about sharing music files make the gifting of playlists unfeasible. It's effortless to create a playlist, and listen on one's own device, but that's an entirely different act than laboriously manipulating a cassette recorder to produce a physical object, which can then be adorned with one's original cover art and liner notes. Today's playlists aren't really comparable. Plus, the ease of using Pandora and Itunes Radio removes any motivation to put forth all that effort to create a mixtape. This is not to say that I resent music streaming services. On the contrary, I am grateful to them for introducing me to many a new artist that I probably would not have stumbled upon on my own. But I do believe that something has been lost amid this progress. Mixtapes were a true art form.

Q. Your time without Jeanette was described as “muted,” creating a soul-crushing juxtaposition in your piece against the musical backdrop throughout—like an unexpected key change in the middle of a song. Did the structure of songs influence the structure of “Mixtape”?

A. While writing this I was thinking more about the structure of a whole mixtape rather than an individual song, and how when I listen to a favorite, the song order is totally predictable and comfortable to me. I imagined the turning part of this piece to be akin to flipping over a beloved, upbeat cassette, and having the B Side suddenly and inexplicitly play songs that were unknown and of a wholey different emotional tone. Before Jeanette died, my life had been on a very normal track and I thought I knew just what to expect as I grew up. Her death came out of nowhere and my world just fell apart for a while. 

Q. If you were to create a mixtape now, what tracks would be on it? Minding the order, of course.

A. Earlier this year we had friends over for a Cinco de Mayo barbeque, which was right after Prince passed away. Aiming for an upbeat homage, I compiled the following:

  1. 7: Prince & the New Power Generation
  2. Let's Go Crazy: Prince & the Revolution
  3. Stand Back: Stevie Nicks
  4. Challengers: The New Pornographers
  5. Kiss: Prince & the Revolution
  6. Love Song: Madonna
  7. I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix): Mike Posner
  8. Failsafe: The New Pornographers
  9. Purple Rain: Prince & the Revolution
  10. Gibralter: Beirut
  11. Come Save Me: Jagwar Ma
  12. Fader: The Temper Trap
  13. Something Good Can Work (The Twelves Remix): Two Door Cinema Club
  14. Myriad Harbour: The New Pornographers
  15. Nothing Compares to You: Sinead O'Connor

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Mackenzie Myers

Mackenzie Myers is a native Michigander, temporary Oregonian, and soon-to-be Californian who usually writes about places and the science behind those places. She just earned her MFA in nonfiction from Portland State University, and her work has appeared in various publications, such as Husk, GADFLY, and Traverse magazine.

Mackenzie's piece, "Annealing," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? How has writing shaped other aspects of your life?

A. I don’t remember when I started writing stories, but my career really kicked off in fifth grade when I wrote a story about a girl who turned her dog’s profuse amount of drool into glue that she sold to her classmates. (I was kind of a weird kid.) It won first place in a contest run by my local bookstore, McLean & Eakin. From that little slice of validation, something clicked and I wanted to pursue it further. Since then, writing has been a constant presence, a kind of long-term relationship with its ups and downs. There’s a box in the bottom of my closet full of journals from middle and high school. Both my degrees are in writing. It’s just always been there, both as a method of figuring out personal things and as a way to point to interesting things outside myself and say, “Hey, this is important! You should read about it.” 

Q.  What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction? Who or what were your inspirations?

A. The first person to put me on the nonfiction train was Keith Taylor. I took his environmental writing class at the University of Michigan Biological Station in undergrad, and that flung the genre’s door wide open. I think there’s this misconception that you can only write nonfiction if something traumatic has happened to you, and Keith showed me how limiting that idea is. Though “Annealing” is pretty inwardly focused, my writing usually mixes personal essay with research writing grounded in the natural sciences. There’s just as much wonder and intrigue and sensationalism to be found in reality too, it’s just a matter of how it’s framed! But other mentors down the road, people like Josh MacIvor-Andersen, Paul Collins, and Michael McGregor, they’ve been extremely influential too. Josh and I worked a lot on this piece. He was incredibly supportive. 

Q. When did you know you had enough distance to write “Annealing”? Did you require distance? Or did you need to get the words out of you as soon as possible?

A. This piece in particular was something that just had to come out. In college, I got away from journaling as a method of self-processing and I hadn’t written something personal in a while. So when Monica passed, eventually I had to return to the way I’d always worked through tough things, the same way birds return to a warmer, easier place in winter. Considering her situation, the situation of a good friend of mine who had been close to her, and my own mental situation at the time, it  became too much to contain. It started to consume me. Writing it down was the next natural step. The original draft was much different than this one, though. The original was way rougher in terms of both mechanics and content, because I just had to spill it out. 

Q. “Annealing” dips back and forth between your time in the workshop and coping with Monica’s death. How did you know this was the right structure for the piece?

A. With extreme, emotional situations I feel like people become sort of robotic in how they process things. There’s input, there’s output, and there’s a methodology connecting the two. Sometimes it’s easier to think without feeling and that’s why I set the piece up this way. It was like making a grocery list. Splitting up the piece numerically helped me digest what was going on, and switching between two different environments gave me a break from writing all about the tough stuff. If I’d written straight through Monica’s passing and my own darknesses all at once, it would have been too much, for me and probably for the reader. Having a framework to work within helped me get the piece out, and giving the reader a chance to bounce between the sections probably helps maintain external interest in such a personal story. 

Q.  Your descriptions of the weather and shadows at play seem to reflect Monica’s artwork. Was this intentional? Or something that evolved naturally?

A. These evolved naturally through descriptions of what I was seeing and experiencing. Now that I think about it, the colors Monica used in her work did lend themselves well to the weather. Winters in the upper Midwest can be pretty monochromatic. Grey skies, white snow, longer darknesses. The shadows weren’t really intentional, though I suppose there was an obvious connection between Monica, an illustration major, and the metals shop which was also in the art building. But these things became more prominent on their own throughout drafts of the piece, I think, as I honed in more and more on what I wanted to say. 

Q. When did you realize the process of annealing applied to your life in a bigger way? Have you continued to live with that concept in mind?

A. Again, this was an organic thing I discovered while writing the piece. It wasn’t like I went into the essay knowing that this would be its overall message. But metals class—all the hot, loud, tactile, and violently delicate work that course required—got me thinking about my mindset at the time and where my life was headed. The chemical and physical processes did, too. The scientific stuff. When my professor talked about how molecules in the brass, copper, and nickel we worked with would just know to realign themselves after the stress of hammers and heat, I thought it was fascinating. Something in me latched on to what that meant and toward the end of the piece, when I’d sort of written myself to its conclusion, it seemed like the perfect analogy. It’s still something I have to remind myself of every now and again, but the ground is much firmer these days than it was then. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Jessica Love


Jessica Love, a native Memphian, serves seventy steaks a night while writing stories about mermaids in her head. She is a short fiction and nonfiction writer, who dabbles in poetry. Her short stories, “Eight Weeks to the Sea” and “The Losing Man,” have been published in Castings, the literary journal of Christian Brothers University, where she is currently earning her B A in Creative Writing. Jessica’s poetry and short stories have won several awards, and she has attended the Irish Writing Program in Dublin, Ireland through the University of Iowa.

Jessica's piece, "H(us)ks," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. In the most cliched sense, I've always wanted to tell stories. As a child, I created my own fairytales. Today, I write magical realism. I love trying to understand people through extended metaphors. 

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? What can you express through nonfiction?

A. I think the stories about ourselves and our families are the first stories we know, and while they may seem like the easiest to tell, the truths that we find out in our most personal stories are the hardest and most gratifying to grapple with. Creative nonfiction allows you to discover these truths. 

Q. You use lots of figurative language in your piece, what do you think this adds to a story and why did you include it here?

A. Figurative language is creative writing. To be able to portray the emotions I'm feeling to the reader; I need images and metaphors. 

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. I attended the Southern Literary Festival this past April, and Ann Patchett spoke about why she writes. I don't remember everything that she said, but one thing stuck out: she writes the stories that she wants to be told. I believe in that. I tell the stories I want to hear in my fiction, and the stories I need to hear in my nonfiction.

Q. Explain the significance of the title of the piece. Your family turmoil doesn't really dissolve by the end of the piece. Why did you feel it was important to write this piece and what message did you intend to be left with the reader?

A. "H(us)ks" is a story about my childhood relationship with my mom, and the layers of that relationship. It's a story about the traces of your parents that you find in yourself. The story is framed within the day that I found out that my parents were getting divorced, and, as a child, this was the day that played on repeat.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Amanda Gibson

Amanda A. Gibson is a lawyer who has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland agricultural land preservation program. Raised in Connecticut, she lives with her husband and two children in southern Maryland. 

Amanda's piece, "Cookie Cutter Love," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016. It is her first non-legal publication. 

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I wanted to be a writer when I was younger but for various reasons pursued law instead. I began writing creatively again about five years ago when a friend invited me to join a writing group.  I knew if I didn’t accept the invitation I’d never write the stories that had been nudging my consciousness.

Moments that touch my soul and heart inspire my writing.

Q. How were you finally able to reconcile the emotions you had been harboring toward your mother, and did writing this piece help you in the process?

A. Writing this piece helped me to understand the love my mother had for me, however flawed, and helped me embrace the love I can share with my children despite my painful childhood.

Q. Why did you choose to focus on the cookie-making tradition? Why was this tradition so meaningful for you?

A. This story came to me the moment I realized the cookie cutters were lost.  That’s when I understood that the cookie cutters recalled for me one of my few positive childhood memories.

Q. Why did you decide to close the piece with the image of a beautiful cookie decorated by your mother? What does that cookie symbolize to you?

A. For me the tree represents my mother’s love.  As flawed as she was, as burdened as she was by her demons, she was still capable of making beautiful things—like her family tree—her children and her grandchildren.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. There are no limitations on what should be written.  Anything that inspires a person to write warrants being told.

Q. What allowed you to let go of the lost cookie cutters? 

A. Writing this piece helped me to say goodbye to the cookie cutters.  Also, after I shared the story with my writing group, a writing friend gave me several cookie cutters handed down from her mother. Tied together with a yellow grosgrain ribbon, nicked and darkened with age, they bore the signs of their shared past.  My friend’s thoughtful gesture was the perfect antidote for my loss.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Matt Young

Matt Young is a veteran, writer, and teacher. He lives in Olympia, Washington, teaches at Centralia College, and holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University. His work can be found in Yemassee, Word Riot, Tin House, River Teeth, and others. 

Matt's piece, "Equal and Opposite," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I wrote in high school—angst-ridden teenage stories inspired by whatever Stephen King novel I was reading, or I pumped out the occasional uniformed "Legalize Pot" long form essay for my school's literary magazine. I didn't write during the bulk of my time in the Marines until I got back in contact with an old childhood friend (who's now my wife) during my third deployment to Iraq. I was trying to impress her so I tried writing a novella. It was a cross-country road trip companion story complete with a morose doomed protagonist, an other-dimensional creature dressed like Johnny Rotten, and a wise-cracking prostitute. It will never see the light of day. 

After I got out of the Marines and started college at Oregon State I took some creative writing courses and found that writing gave me an outlet to work through my time in the military. I'd heard and read about veterans using writing to help them better understand war, so I thought that I'd write about my experiences and then be able to move past them, but that's not how it works. At least not for me. It was (and is) re-traumatizing to confront those memories—to try and understand my identity, who I was and who I am—but I think in the face of trauma, reflection and honesty become so important for recovery. And as a witness I feel obligated to share my memories and contribute to that history.

The book of creative nonfiction I've been writing over the past three years (of which this story is a part) has been largely inspired by those feelings of obligation, but as an avid reader any kind of playfulness with form in fiction or nonfiction I come across gets my engine going. I've always been a movie and television fanatic, and I grew up reading comic books and sci-fi and horror novels—those frames and constructions have leached into my work. I love speculative fiction as well. It helps me recognize the uncanny in every day experiences and gives me inspiration to apply those frames to reality. 

Q. You illustrate the obligation you felt to follow orders and procedures. How do you feel that lack of control impacted your identity and how you approach the world?

A. I don't think it was a lack of control—no one ever ordered us to place people in stress positions, that was a decision we made consciously for retribution, to balance what we saw as an off-kilter scale. We talked ourselves into believing we were following orders so we could treat people the way we did without much thought in the moment. I had the freedom to say no, to walk away, and our command encouraged us to say no to unlawful orders if they were given. But there wasn't an order given, there was conscious choice made to hurt someone. We were trained to react to situations, but we were also trained that the situation dictates the reaction. This story illustrates our failure to recognize a changing situation. 

Now, I feel I have more luxury to think about the situations I'm in, about my actions and how they'll be perceived. I interrogate why I did something or why someone else acted a certain way. I try not to be reactionary. I'm suspicious of reactionary people. I know what it can lead to. 

Q. The piece has very little self-analysis yet still is able to present a critique of wartime behavior. Why did you structure the piece in this fashion?

A. I wanted the story to be immediate and horrible, and I wanted to situate the reader in a space where there was little room to think or breathe just as in that moment, so I went to the first person plural present tense. Adding reflection and analysis in that moment would've been dishonest, because it simply wasn't there. A part of me also feels like analyzing that moment would read like an excuse for our actions when there simply isn't any. 

Q. What significance does the title of the piece, "Equal and Opposite", have for you?

A. "Equal and Opposite" is a nod to our use of disproportionate force and skewed sense of Old Testament justice. 

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. In terms of personal narrative I like reading stories different from my own. We read and tell stories to understand the world. I came back from inhumanity through literature and writing. I want to read stories about events and moments that are significant to the people writing them—no matter what they are—and I want to know how those things have shaped their lives and identities so I can become a better more empathetic human. 

Q. Why did you choose to write this piece as nonfiction, rather than create a fictitious scene to present a similar critique?

A. This piece ended up being part of a memoir I'm working on, so that was most of the decision behind using nonfiction. However, the overall decision to write a memoir instead of a longer work of fiction or short stories is a response to myopic attempts at valorizing the Iraq War in past years. There's a movement toward sanitizing the war in mainstream writing and in film with harrowing special operations stories that outline the conflict in black and white, complete with specific finite missions and definite enemies. The characters become faceless and flat, are driven by fanatic patriotism, or they're broken war junkies riddled with that misunderstood acronym PTSD. It's important to remind people how quickly black and white outlines become scribbled with gray. It's important to remind people about the moral ambiguity of war. It's important to think about the weight of action. All those things I suppose I could've done with fiction, but I lived that war and struggle with it daily, so I think it's important to be honest, show my face, and tell those stories the way I remember them. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Finn Janning


Finn Janning is a Danish writer and philosopher living in Barcelona, Spain. His most recent publication is the nonfiction book, The Happiness of Burnout: The Case of Jeppe Hein. In 2016, he will publish his second novel, Who Killed Gilles Deleuze? (in Danish). But basically, he is just the proud father of Askild, Hjalte, and, Smilla.

Finn's piece, "My Name is Finn," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I know it to the date because I started writing when my brother died. I was nineteen. The impact of his death brought me into literature and philosophy. I have always liked being alone, to play with the voices in my head, to think and invent other forms of life, but from around that age this inclination became more literary. I took notes, wrote in the margins of books, etc. From the very beginning, I wrote short stories and essays—often not able to distinguish where one genre ends and another begins.

What inspires me to write is never an urge to say something specific—that is, relive my heart and stuff like that—rather, I write to unwrap what is to me interesting, noteworthy, or unexplainable. The unsayable is what drives my pen. I think that literature is something that can actualize or bring to life what is missed, what is just dying to live and breathe. Literature can make life more present or show what it really means to be a human being.

Q. You illustrate how you have always struggled to accept "Finn" as part of your identity, what made you choose this particular incident to demonstrate that internal turmoil?

A. Many believe a name says something significant about who you are, as if a cool name makes a cool person (but then what is a cool name?). There is also so much focus on identities today: sexual, political, national, etc. This pressure to be someone specific is quite tiring for me. I believe that to write is to lose your identity. To let the words flourish the author must disappear. That is why it is so liberating.

So, you may ask, how does the author disappear when he is writing about how he suffered from having a certain name? It is difficult to explain this process in words. I would liken it to dissolving; you must immerse yourself in the writing, remove all your armor and allow yourself to follow the story. Nietzsche said that philosophy is to overcome yourself, become someone else. For me, writing is the same. You should become something other than a writer as you set down your words. Writing is not a profession to me. It's a blessing and a curse.

While writing "My Name Is Finn," I came to realize that it wasn't so much the name that caused my problems, but instead my insecurity and vulnerability that made me want to become another. I became aware—or, rather, Emil did—that Finn didn't have to change his name to become someone else. This process happens by itself if you have no desire to be somebody specific. Saying this, I wouldn't mind being Jim Morrison for a day.

Q. How much do you think a name contributes to one's identity, and why?

A. In general, I think it contributes a lot but always on a fictional level. Some parents—especially today—think that the name they chose tells something about them. This is pure vanity. Of course, the kids may be affected during their childhood depending on who else shares their name, how they live up to their parents' fictional expectations, etc., but eventually we all grow up and realize that names are just a way to help us organize social and institutional relations. In a world ordered by capitalism and juridical laws, your name makes you the owner, the one responsible.

A name is just a name. Instead of seeing every Eva or Adam as a shadow of the famous Eva and Adam, each new Eva should be recognized as her own self. A name can stand in the way for some people—including myself for a while—but I truly believe that we all are many different identities. It may sound schizophrenic, but why limit ourselves to one, two, even three identities, when we can break out of this identity prison?

Q. You characterize yourself as a philosopher. How do you think this impacts what you write about and your writing style?

A. For me, philosophy is a way of living and not an academic discipline that requires you to swallow a certain amount of information to pass. Most great novelists are philosophers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that literature in order to become philosophy must become fiction. I like that. It also shows that the distinction between philosophy and literature is rather new—perhaps stemming from Kant—but does it matter if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, and all the others are classified as philosophers or writers?

My approach to everything is philosophical in the sense that I take nothing for granted. I am quite comfortable with raising more questions than I can answer myself. I like to create problems, not to annoy or attack people, but to look at things differently. Mentally, I don't like to settle down. There is always something that slips away from the categories we use. From philosophy, I have learned not to ask for the meaning, but what something produces, opens for, makes possible. Walking into the unknown with a notebook is what makes writing the best thing.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. As a writer you should honestly believe that you say something new, even if the subject is old and full of clichés like love, hate, war, or families. To write is a delicate balance of being extremely humble but also suffering from megalomania. Yet, a story should never be told out of vanity. Some people seem to forget that auto-fiction never is (or should or even could be) a self-portrait; rather, it intensifies some of the forces that make this particular life interesting, enlarging the extraordinary in the triviality of human life.

In short, you can write about everything, it simply depends on how you approach it. The only concern you should take as a writer is in regard to the story being told—be loyal to what happens regardless of how stupid it may appear. What might seem stupid at first may in fact be incredibly insightful with a closer look.

Q. Why do you think happiness comes with change and dynamism? 

A. There are many forms of happiness, For example, my son is happy when Real Madrid or Spain wins in football. But on a more profound level, I think experiences of joy and happiness always come with the acknowledgement or acceptance of certain changes, such as accepting getting older, our mortality, that I will never become a professional football player or pianist, etc. Once you can live with these recognitions, you mature in a way that makes you feel good. It's like, "I can go on living despite of that." It's a bit similar to accepting the fate of being given a certain name by your parents; once you have you become conscious of how this particular name may restrict or give advantage (e.g., who is Finn, that's me! I am one in a million with that name in my generation).

Literature is something joyous because it can change the way we perceive the world. Think of Imre Kertész who in his novel Fatelessness shows how happiness can exist in a concentration camp. Instead of dwelling in all the terror and horror, he enlarges our world by showing what else a human being is capable of. Sometimes it's the smallest gestures that make life beautiful, such as a blanket when we are cold. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Hollie Dugas

Hollie Dugas is living in New Mexico. When she is not writing poetry, she critiques novels in the making and conducts a small writing workshop. Hollie has a knack for making language delicate. Her work was most recently selected to be included in Cactus Heart, The Common Ground Review, Adrienne, Folio, IP, and Tulane Review. She is currently a member on the editorial board for Off the Coast.

Hollie's piece, "Long Distance How-To," appears in issue 19 of Under the Gum Tree, published April 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. Some of my favorite memories are sitting next to my father in the evenings after school and listening to him play the guitar and sing old Bob Dylan and John Anderson songs. I liked how genuine it sounded. I can still remember how profound I thought the music and lyrics were, how profound he became when he was playing them. It’s the first time I can remember being inspired and wanting to discover what writing meant.

I have always been deeply curious about what happens when I am not looking and how odd it is to be human. I think it started by writing when I wasn’t writing; it was with me like as small seed rooting in back of my head reaching for sun as I sorted through whatever else life was asking of me. Eventually, writing became something I had to do. I started putting words on the page, any words, and I realized that these words weren’t only about creation but, rather, something I was following like an inner map.

Q. Your piece is a "Flash Feature." How did you go about writing an impactful brief piece of nonfiction? How is it different than writing a longer piece?

A. The piece has an instructional tone but I wanted it to be a wild ride from start to finish, which is how it actually felt for me. I began the story at the last possible moment. No set-up. I like to think of it as jumping into a game of Double Dutch, the reader linked as soon as he or she hops in.  

What makes this piece particularly impactful is the language; it’s highly emotional and the situation is delicate. In such a short piece, there isn’t much time to spend with the reader, so I wanted to manipulate the language to its furthest capacity. 

With longer pieces, I find myself using prose that is only necessary as background information and, often, degenerates into expository filler, which is something I don’t always feel good about. However, when it comes to flash, I get the opportunity to make each sentence artful. In fact, it’s a requirement.

Q. In your opinion what criteria does an event have to meet to make a decent subject for a creative nonfiction piece?

A. My ultimate goal is to express the sensation of an event. But, there are so many angles to look from when writing. Writers, we like to notice them all. The most interesting part about writing creative nonfiction is that emotion can be so powerful as to reshape how we experience an actual event into our own personal truth. In that, I can’t think of many events that would be off-subject as long as the occurrence stirs a passion in the writer. However, in turn, the writer must be able to transform the actual occurrence to recreate that same emotion in the reader.

Q. Why did you choose to write in the second person, rather than in first?

A. Second person fit better with the instructional manual style language of the piece. Do this. Do that. Who is supposed to follow these orders? You are, dear reader. 

The piece is highly personal piece and has tidbits that are particular to me and my situation but, still, I aimed to make it universal and didactic to keep YOU with me the whole time. I hope it worked.

Q. What made you decide to write this piece in a "how-to" instruction manual style?

A. I wanted to compel the audience to feel like they were working on this relationship with me step by step. By supplying the reader with what seems like an endless number of short commanding sentences that sometimes contradict each other, I urge the reader to feel as frustrated and exhausted as I felt during this time. My intention was to establish a sense in the reader that signified that just because the end result was a rickety one, it did not mean that I didn’t sweat the assembly. It was my rickety result, all mine, and I wanted to convey a feeling of entitlement in all of the grief.

Q. The piece has a satirical tone. How important do you think finding humor in tough situations is? How did humor help you get through what is described in the piece?

A. I think it’s impossible to feel one emotion at a time in the spectrum of emotions. My emotions are always and inevitably mixed emotions. When I wrote this piece, I was feeling extremely anxious. But, there were times when I did laugh at myself. When my friends read the piece they laughed too. Mostly, because the tone of the piece was incredibly indicative of myself at the time. I felt dreadful and intense, this way and that way. But, I made fun of myself, which deflected some of the anxiety. I didn’t want the piece to take itself too seriously. I’m not asking the reader to feel sorry about the circumstance. I’m saying . . . And isn’t it a little funny? That somewhere, in the slices of time, my older self now outside of this situation (for better or worse) is looking down at my younger self and laughing. And, there’s also that younger version of me laughing at the older me.

Q. How do you incorporate your poetic voice in nonfiction prose?

A. How do I not? There is a sense of mystery in the poetic voice. Emily Dickenson said, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head has been taken off, I know that is poetry.” I work for that same effect when I am writing prose. I want heads to roll. 

Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: Esther Yi

Esther Yi is a writer living in Berlin. She takes pictures for the same reason she writes, which is to pay better attention. She began taking pictures shortly before moving to Berlin two years ago. There was the obvious desire to “record” details of a new home (“Where did I live?”). But there was also the desire, perhaps not so conscious in the beginning, to uncover the images and patterns that drew her (“How did I live?”). In living somewhere new, she has learned to see newness in old places, including the United States, return trips to which produced some of the pictures in her essay. Visually, she is interested in: shadows; people from behind; windows; aloneness. Her writing has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Cinema Scope, and Cineaste. See more of her work at or on Twitter @yi_esther.

Esther's photo essay "There You Are" appears in issue 19 of Under the Gum Tree, published in April 2016.

Q. How did you decide on the title: “There You Are”? 

A. This is something one says in a moment of discovery after a long search. A purposeful sort of stumbling upon. A collision of expectation and surprise. This characterizes how I feel when I take pictures of people, especially those I know well.

Q. Where or how did you find subjects for this photo essay?

A. Only three of the people featured in the photos are strangers. The rest are close friends or family. I do not have a concrete methodology for finding subjects. I suppose it is helpful for me to be comfortable with the person, and to like him or her very much.

Q. How does being a writer influence your photography, and vice versa?

A. I am not a very descriptive writer. Taking photographs has helped me, in my writing, to stay with a particular image and to interrogate it more than I usually would.

Q. Describe why you are interested in "shadows; people from behind; windows; aloneness," as you mention in your bio.

A. The first two came about for practical reasons. I rarely shoot strangers from the front for fear of annoying them. Meanwhile, the people I know on a personal level tend to stiffen or pose before the camera. So I take pictures of their shadows or backs. There are different kinds of obscurity, and I prefer the one of shadows and backs to the one of manufactured and "aware" posturing. I now shoot shadows and backs more intentionally because I enjoy the challenge of suggesting personality without the help of facial expressions. As for windows: I like that they imply two worlds at once, the inner and the outer. As for aloneness: I like that photography affords me a way of depicting the fact of a subject's separate inner life, while preserving the mystery of this life and admitting my inability to enter it.

Q. You play with perspective and distance. What role do these two mechanisms play in your photo composition when you're taking a photo?

A. I don't make very conscious decisions regarding perspective and distance. What I can say is that I take pleasure in the fact that both proximity to (e.g., the entire head fills the frame) and distance from (e.g., the subject's entire back and the window at which he stands are visible) the subject can produce similar feelings of alienation from the subject, especially when he/she has his back turned to the camera. In short, I enjoy showing just how little I know about the person I am taking a picture of.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Sarah Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of a novella-length essay, The Valley of Achor, available on Kindle, a collection of poems, Pruning Burning Bushes, and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award. Poems and essays by Wells have appeared recently in AscentBrevityFull Grown PeopleHippocampus ReviewThe Pinch, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Wells’s work has been honored with three Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essays have been listed as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. She serves as the Senior Managing Editor for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. Follow her at @sarah_wells and

Sarah's piece, "The Body Is Not a Coffin," appears in issue 19 of Under the Gum Tree, published in April 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I started writing as soon as I could hold a pencil, trying to communicate the way that I saw and experienced the world, although I'm sure I wouldn't have put it that way as a first grader. I loved stories and I loved to try to tell stories. These days, I find myself falling in the Flannery O'Connor camp, "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." I go to the page to process through the questions I have. Sometimes I find answers, sometimes I find more questions, but inevitably, I know myself better afterward.

Q. Your piece is written in the first person. Why did you choose to write in this style and what do you think it adds to the piece?

A. As an essayist, my degree of authority on the subject of miscarriages is limited to my own experience . . . plus a little bit of Googling. In this particular essay, the first person narrator is the most intimate voice for a very intimate subject while also establishing what the reader ought to expect from this essay—had I chosen to write in third person, for instance, the reader might assume a greater distance between the author and this Sarah-character on the page. It also mattered a lot to me to stay close to the first person narrator's experience through each of the four miscarriages, because the emotional center for each of those experiences changed so much for me. To write with any greater distance would have made it more difficult for me to stay within the space I inhabited during each of those seasons. 

Q. In your opinion, what criteria does an event have to meet to make a decent subject for a creative nonfiction piece?

A. Any event can make a decent subject for a nonfiction piece . . . if the writer is able to make meaning from the event. As Vivian Gornick is often and rightly quoted for saying, "Truth in memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened." 

Q. You use a lot of figurative language and metaphorical devices throughout the piece. What do you look for in a symbolic image and how important do you think they are to nonfiction pieces?

A. I find similes and metaphors like quarters tucked between couch cushions. Oops, there's one again. In this way, I don't usually set out to make a metaphor out of something. Two possible approaches occur when I write: either the metaphor surfaces out of the subject matter, which is what occurred in many of the metaphorical images in "The Body Is Not a Coffin," or I begin the writing process with an image, and through the writing of that image I discover greater meaning or association. In either case, the symbolic image evolves organically. The trick is to pay attention. One stumbling block to being real good at figurative language is forgetting or intentionally failing to assign some meaning to the thing. If I'm embarrassed or ashamed about the subject I'm trying to write about, I can misuse metaphor to bury the subject. I think these literary devices are all tools that help us define that amorphous "voice" we like to talk about finding all the time. 

Q. The piece overflows with descriptive scientific and anatomical diction. This seems to separate your narrative from the events depicted. How did you approach narrative distance in creating this piece?

A. This was a challenge I tried to overcome by incorporating research about miscarriages at points when the narrator was doing research herself, or talking to the doctor. I also tried to humanize the scientific terms by enclosing it with the way I might talk or think through things when I'm not referencing a medical journal. The scientific data and diction I included had to have a reason of being there beyond that I had learned it while completing my research, and it couldn't be excessive. As the narrator, it was also important to me to assume that my reader didn't know what the heck the doctor was talking about either and to provide the background information as it seemed appropriate. 

Q. The narrative reflects on many heartbreaking miscarriages. Was the writing process therapeutic? Did writing the piece provide any personal growth or reflection?  

A. I began writing the initial scratches toward an essay about miscarriage after the first miscarriage happened and kept a Word doc of attempts toward telling how this experience impacted me early on, but my own ability to tell the story and my own distance from the grief over what had happened wasn't enough yet to go anywhere. Those early drafts were therapeutic, but they weren't art. By the time I finally felt ready to write through this experience, I had had four miscarriages and two live births. I had also spent years reading and practicing the craft of writing. I could see the change from who I was at twenty-two to the person I was as I sat down to write this essay, and I could label each of the miscarriages with a different emotional center (sad, angry, guilty, accepting), but beyond that, I wanted to discover how this experience had shaped who I am spiritually and how I wrestled with my idea of God and faith through these experiences. The writing process in this essay helped me to solidify the story I had been telling myself about these experiences.

Q. You end on a very spiritual note and the verbs remember, hear, open. Describe what these verbs mean to you.

A. "Remember, hear, open" for me capture the essence of faith in the everyday: In order to move forward through any crisis or uncertainty, we have to remember what faithfulness came before. We have to be able to listen, to settle our spirits and the constant rush of noise, in order to hear truth, wisdom, peace, and love. And we have to remain open. This is one of the hardest elements of faith and religion today. What we witness among some religious people today are the opposites of these verbs: forget, drown out, close. When so many people claim to have all of the answers, they shut down the possibility they could be wrong and deny the obvious fact of faith—there is no certainty about any of this. There is only faith, hope, and love, the truth of what we've experienced and the memory of what has come previously. To close in is to shut out mystery, and what is more mysterious than our notions of who—or what—God is? The callous of close-mindedness hardens our hearts to the very thing we declare that God is—love—and if the statement "God is love" is all we know, we must allow ourselves to stay open to mystery, to humility, to revelation, and to wisdom, in order to operate out of that love.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author Emily W. Blacker

Emily W. Blacker lives in New York City and works as a tutor primarily for students with learning disabilities. She is also a writer of creative nonfiction, fiction, and songs. Her work has appeared in the book Voices of Diversity: Stories, Resources and Activities for the Multicultural Classroom and has received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. She is currently enrolled in the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Emily's piece, "Love Her, Briefly," appears in issue 19 of Under the Gum Tree, published in April 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I started writing stories when I was quite young to explore and get lost in my imagination. Eventually, writing became a way for me to interpret, claim, and ultimately transform my experience. My mind is completely absorbed in an almost meditative way when I’m writing, so I find it to be a respite from the challenges of daily life. What inspires me most is the potential to make a meaningful connection with others. As an avid reader, I know what it is to feel awakened, validated, and changed by the power of a story. When I write, I hope that my words will offer a bit of that experience to someone else.

Q. You interweave two story lines together in the piece. What prompted this decision and what do you think this style adds to the piece?

A. I started out wanting to write an essay about the concept of adolescent melancholy and how sadness is sometimes romanticized. While exploring that idea, the story of Lucy and the story of Eliza emerged as key experiences in my life. When I looked at them side-by-side, I realized that there were some compelling connections. In high school, I seemed like a dark, somewhat remote person, but I expressed my struggles through writing poetry, and I believe that writing saved me in many ways. By contrast, my student Eliza appeared happy. When she took her own life, I spent a lot of time reviewing my memories looking for evidence of her sadness. From my limited view as her English teacher, it seemed that she did not or could not express her pain in words. Ultimately, I had to accept that I might never truly understand the why of what she did. Juxtaposing the two stories allowed me to see each one more clearly, and this helped me to draw a line between myself as a melancholy teen and myself as a teacher confronted with the destructive nature of unexpressed adolescent pain. I think this juxtaposition evokes how we try to use our own experience to understand the mystery of others, and how that attempt often fails.

Q. Throughout the narrative, you act as primarily an observer, was this a conscious decision?

A. I think this is mainly a reflection of how I experience the world. I tend to be more of an observer than an actor. I’m someone who really needs time to step back and reflect before engaging. When I write scenes from my life, I often position myself as an observer simply because that is who I was in that moment, and who I continue to be. I suspect that many writers might relate to this.

Q. The piece deals with the emotional turbulence that comes with adolescence and finding yourself. Why do you like writing about this period in our lives?

A. Working with adolescents has given me a real appreciation for the collision of heightened emotion and identity-formation that occurs during that time of life. I vividly remember hiking to the top of a mountain when I was a teenager, looking out over the world below, and thinking it was the most magnificent, magical experience of my life. Years later, I climbed up another mountain and, while I appreciated the beauty of the vista, the experience felt significantly less meaningful. The charged energy of adolescence is what makes it so rich with meaning and the stuff of great stories. I believe it is important to reflect on that time in our lives in order to understand the foundations of our being. Stories from adolescence are origin stories.

Q. How did your relationship with Lucy shape the rest of your adolescence? 

A. My relationship with Lucy had a profound impact on me. She was not only my best friend and first love, but the first person with whom I explored my same-sex attraction. I have come to understand that we were both trying to navigate the confusion of sexual identity and that often we hurt others when we are not ready to confront the truth within ourselves. Though it was painful, I am grateful for my relationship with Lucy. She was an integral part of my growing up, someone who taught me both who I am and who I’m not, what it means to love and what it means to lose, and how to move on.

Q. Many coming of age stories examine the theme of lost innocence. Do you feel that this is true of “Love Her, Briefly” and in what ways?

A. Yes, lost innocence is central to this story. As a teenager, heartbreak altered my notions of love. As a young teacher, losing a student rattled my faith in the accuracy of my perceptions. But to me, the key loss of innocence in this story is around the idea of melancholy. The story is about losing the naive belief that sadness and depth/beauty are always integral to each other. As a teenager, I drew a line between sadness and beauty to make meaning of my sense of isolation. I wanted to be a writer and I gleaned from literature that suffering was the foundation of art. Certainly, there is truth to this, but it is not the only truth. As I got older I realized that while suffering can be transformed into beauty, it is not necessary for beauty. In fact, true emotional pain is often the opposite of beauty—it can be horrifying and violent. For me, part of growing up was about allowing myself to pursue joy. I still experience melancholy, and I still draw meaning from it, but I no longer see it as the only condition of profundity.

Q. Are these still uncomfortable memories for you? What made you decide to finally put these experiences into words and show it to others? 

A. There is still a certain discomfort in these memories and I imagine there always will be. I suppose I wanted to put these stories into words to explore and challenge that discomfort. While I was writing, I tried not to think too much about the sharing part, and just to stay true to my emotional experience. When it came time for sharing, I did experience a certain anxiety. I think that we are conditioned to contain and protect what is most painful in our lives, so telling personal stories can often feel risky. However, I believe in the power and importance of personal storytelling and I believed in the importance of this story, so I pushed against my fears. I think I am more raw and honest in writing than I am in most other parts of my life, so it is always scary for me to share my writing, but it is also empowering. The constant struggle with those opposing forces is, I think, integral to the experience of writing nonfiction.