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.

 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Ilene Roizman

Ilene Roizman was previously a journalist on the East End of Long Island, where her work appeared regularly in many newspapers and magazines (one article was referenced in a footnote in a scholarly art text). She moved to western Massachusetts to fulfill the dream of living in a college town, and has worked as an editor, proofreader, and transcriptionist. These days she’s enjoying a renewed focus on fiction writing, with a novel and a collection of stories in progress.

Ilene's piece, "Violin-Shaped Scar," 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've known I wanted to be a writer since I was nine or ten, but I don't remember any particular motivating factor. I think I'm hard-wired to be a word person. I was an early reader, even before kindergarten, according to my parents, and have always been verbal. In fifth grade I wrote a series of short plays, and thanks to a very supportive teacher, we performed some of them in class. In retrospect, I believe I was driven by a strong desire for clear communication, and writing allowed me to figure things out in my head before expressing myself to others. 

Decades later, I'm still inspired by the need to figure out or make sense of something, to answer a question or discover something about myself or the world around me. I'm inspired by life experience, by dreams, by people I've known. I'm inspired by other writers whose work I admire. I'm inspired by an abiding love of language and its ability to express, even with inherent limitations, the essence of human experience.

Q. What draws you to nonfiction in a world enthralled by the sensationalism of fiction?

A. I'd argue that nonfiction can be just as sensationalized as fiction, depending on the subject matter, the style of writing, and the level of hype. Writing is writing, and whether a story is based on facts or spun from the imagination, it has a foundation in lived experience. As Mark Twain is quoted as saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't."

As a reader, nonfiction allows me to get glimpses into the lives of people I will never meet, which fosters a sense of connection. As a writer, I can share something about myself or my interactions with the world truthfully, directly, and openly, with the hope and anticipation that others will understand and connect in a personal, even intimate way. 

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

A. There has to be a context in which an event or series of events has some significance or contributes to some learning or realization. Writing about an event itself is reporting, and there's a place for that, and it can be done creatively and sensitively. Writing about the feelings or motivations or personal context surrounding an event is a form of exploration that opens up all kinds of creative possibilities. Ultimately the subject can be anything, and what makes it worth writing about are the self-reflection and meaningful connections sparked by the experience.

Q. Your piece describes reconnecting with an old acquaintance through technology. How do you think technology has changed how we form and maintain relationships?

A. Technology inevitably influences how we form and maintain relationships. It may have accelerated in recent years, but there was a time when a simple telephone was a marvel of technology, and that certainly changed how people connected. Now we take it completely for granted. For sure, without Facebook I wouldn't have had the experience I wrote about. Social media allows spontaneous things like that to happen. It also allows me, for example, to have casual contact with someone I worked with many years ago who now lives in Thailand. A few years ago I did a lot of online dating, which expanded my options enormously, and the process of writing personal profiles forced me to look at myself in a whole new way. 

But the bottom line is that while technology might provide opportunities, such as connections with long-lost acquaintances or introductions to men I may not have met otherwise, it doesn't do the work. It's still up to us to make relationships happen, whether electronically or face-to-face.

Q. How did that childhood memory impact the rest of your adolescence?

A. It was always a vivid memory, since it was the only time I had such an injury, and after a while it solidified into a handy anecdote. I had never given it serious thought as the incident that ended my budding violin career, that was just a way to joke about it. I didn't go through adolescence regretting having stopped playing violin, I just went on. (In junior high and high school I sang in the choir, so I did retain some interest in music.) And because we moved shortly after that happened, it became just another memory packaged up with all the other discrete memories of living in that neighborhood for only two years.

Q. Do you believe in coincidences? How did hearing from Kenny change your perspective on the past, present, and future?

A. I believe that we're programmed to notice patterns and connections, and what we call coincidences are points where things line up in a way that stands out as recognizable. For a long time I've had a nonlinear view of time, so my perspective on past, present, and future wasn't changed by this particular experience. I believe that learning or discovering something new in the present in relation to an event or experience in the past changes the past by updating or expanding our view of it. Figuring something out—or in this case, filling in some of the blanks, getting another side of the story—changes our memory of that past experience, and then going forward it's altered, it's never the same.

What was more significant for me was the realization that I had given up on the violin and never gave it a second thought, never tried to resume lessons, never looked back. Hearing from Kenny, and then his not following through, changed my perspective on myself as a person who had an affinity for a certain kind of music and didn't know why.

 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Delaney Kochan

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Delaney Kochan is a mountain-raised writer whose love languages are cut flowers and thunder storms. She has published work in multiple collegiate literary magazines and guest-writes for outdoor adventure and youth ministry blogs. She started a lifestyle brand and magazine with her friends in college and now works finding and telling stories of missionaries serving in Europe. She loves language, and on the weekends she pretends she can paint.

Delaney's piece, "American Sniper," 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. Many people begin writing because they feel a need to tell a story, but my first love was language. I grew up an avid reader and hesitant writer, but the pivotal moment of deciding to make language a life-long passion came my senior year of high school when my class read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The evolution of Stephen’s language, the fragmented thoughts, the musical quality of the book, captured me. I actually stole that book from my school. After reading the first chapter, I started marking the text, knowing it’d be staying with me after we finished studying in class.

Beautiful language still inspires me. But my inspiration has broadened since then, and I’d say that it is beauty that inspires me. Beauty and truth and the human experience. I want to make my own experience of life and others’ experience more vibrant and full and real. To misappropriate a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” I think writing helps me sit with life and put shape to it—bring color and a physicality to our thoughts and experiences.

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

A. My writing-roots are in poetry. Beginning my creative-writing education in poetry formed strong values of precise diction and hard-working images in me. Both of these things are crucial to writing an impactful piece in few words. Editing has become a favorite part of the writing process for me. You have to get the whole thing down first, but the crafting of words into a particular map or lyric for the reader is the fun part for me. Learning to say exactly what you mean and choosing your words carefully is a lost art I aim to bring back.

In writing longer pieces, I’d value all the same things, but you are allowed more variety of pacing when you write them. You have to pay particular attention to energy in flash nonfiction. It is a snapshot of a moment or thought rather than the full thing.

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

A. That it sticks with you. That it has something to offer. And I think most moments do. It is up to you as the writer to rightly convey what that event marks in the world or in your own soul.

Q. Clearly being the daughter of an Army Ranger had a profound impact on you, can you put into words how that has influenced how you live your life and perceive the world?

A. My father was actually out of the military by the time he and my mom started a family, but we lived in a military town with multiple bases and installations, a military academy, and prep-schools. Consequently, there was, and is, a culture of sacrifice and honor that runs deep here. Sometimes the concepts of sacrifice and honor are misunderstood even by the culture that circulates them. Both are beautiful things, but the difficult questions that life in the military brings up make morality very fluid at times.

Being raised in this culture, I’ve learned to hold very firmly to certain things I believe so blurry circumstances don’t have a chance to alter my morals. But I’ve also learned to hold very loosely to other things, knowing that my philosophy on something I’ve never experienced isn’t the whole picture and I need enough humility to listen to others if I ever want to mature as a person.

Growing up, it was my friends’ parents who served. Now its my own friends, men I’ve dated, and the parents of kids I mentor. People I care for have counted their individual life’s value less than the freedom and safety of their tribe. They have committed to valuing the whole above themselves. I believe everyone should live this way, caring so deeply for others that you value their wellbeing above your own. But the danger that this kind of living implies for those who choose military life is often more immediate than for someone who hasn’t. And that is where my philosophy on living comes into tension with my desire for the military men and women I care to be safe and be well. It’s complicated and hard and emotional. I felt that tension echoed in American Sniper which is part of the reason I was drawn to writing about it.

Q. How impactful do you think it is to hear others' stories and life experiences?

A. So impactful! We all come with biases and are limited to our own place in time and space, but there is so much more truth and life to the world than what we get to experience on our own. Hearing others’ wisdom and experiences is one of the greatest gifts we get from our ability to tell stories.

Q. Explain why you were most sympathetic with Kyle's wife and not Kyle himself after watching the movie.

A. It was simply because I can relate to her more than I can Kyle. My life experience so far is much more like the one left at home to worry over her loved-one, the one who struggles with how to courageously and compassionately engage the hurt and trauma that come as a consequence of violence. It is something I am immensely passionate about:  learning how to deal with people’s emotions, fears, hurt, with grace. How you do this—how you love them—speaks to people about their worth. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Verity Sayles

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Verity Sayles is an essayist from central Massachusetts. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Oregon State University and on staff at 45th Parallel Magazine. Her work appears in The Commonline Journal, Dark Matter Journal, and Burningword Literary Journal. She can be reached on twitter @saylesteam and at veritysayles.com.

Verity's piece, "Supposedly Succulent," appears in issue 18 of Under the Gum Tree, published in January 2016.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. I love nonfiction because it encourages you to see the ordinary “real life” as sensational. I love the form of the essay because it encourages a relationship between writer and reader—and sure, there is certainly that in fiction too—but with nonfiction I feel there is a direct relationship, it’s like, come sit down and listen to me tell you about lobster, or whatever. And formal choices do a bulk of that work. Content is important sure, but there are thousands of ways to delight in the every day and I think nonfiction really allows for this. I love the flexible and shape-shifting nature of the essay, and also, admittedly, I want to the be the center of my essays. I want my experience to shape the words I put on the page. 

Q. When most people think of short pieces of writing—fiction or nonfiction—they most likely have something slightly longer than this piece in mind. What do you see as the benefits of having a shorter piece? What are the potential drawbacks?

A. I think short pieces are great because they are a challenge. There is a density to short prose; every single word and white space has to be doing a ton of work for your reader. They are a super saturated experience. I think that short pieces are great because they allow for a single moment to stand for a whole. For example, with Supposedly Succulent, I wanted to build a sense of class, of place, a feeling of discomfort, and insecurity of identity within one scene. I wanted the scenic details to do a lot of that work, to demonstrate that the narrator feels out of place. That’s also why the perspective shifts from “we” to “I” too. But this could certain be in a longer essay too. I could see a moment of dinner functioning in a longer essay about moments of discomfort with your background, or perhaps ways we try to blend in. I think also in a longer work I would give more attention to internal dialogue and reaching to a universal experience, and really work to establish more of a presence as a narrator, this scene is simply a slice of a more complex (or at least I’d like to think so!) character, and in a longer work those complications could have room to breathe.

Q. Do you feel that you invested as much in this piece as you might have a longer one?

A. A different sort of investment, perhaps. I wrote this piece for my very first nonfiction workshop at my MFA program. It was the first piece of my writing members of my cohort were going to read, I felt it had to really define me, so I spent a long time writing and reworking it. My roommate is a poet, and we might spend similar amounts of time on a poem and an essay—but she is writing twenty words and I’m writing twenty pages. I think it’s just where you put the weight of your revision, and what you want the piece as a whole to do. I’ll be cutting whole pages out and she will be toying with a single word and it can take the same amount of time. Revision is hard no matter what the length. Though I do like short pieces because you can see the whole thing at once—I have a thirty page essay I am working on right now and it’s spread the entire length of my living room, I’m just trying to get a hold of it. Longer essays can develop unwieldy tempers and be hard to rein in sometimes.

Q. The whole piece is written in active tense, why did you make that decision and what do you think it adds to the piece?

A. I like active tense. I also wanted the reader to move along with the author. I wanted to craft an experience on the sonic language level—from light sounds like ‘lazily’ ‘lilting’ ‘tinkling’ to this pretty acerbic, harsh, guttural language during the dinner scene, to finally, the reveal. I think that the active tense carries the reader through those sounds—especially read aloud.

Q. The piece focuses on the lobster imagery, what was your thought process in picking this image and what does it symbolize to you?

A. Even though I’m from New England I never ate lobster growing up because it was so expensive. It’s also a highly ritualized meal—you have to know the steps involved and how to go about it, so it’s clear to pick out the outsiders. I knew I was going to eat my first lobster and I had looked it up online and tried to memorize the steps before sitting down at dinner. As soon as I sat down, I forgot everything and felt so self-conscious. Now I eat a lot of lobster in the summer (I love lobster rolls!) but the process of eating it is so messy. I am always still hungry and I smell like lobster juice for days after. But it’s sacrilegious to say you don’t like lobster in New England, so I still pretend I love it because it’s usually part of a fancy celebratory meal—I don’t want to be unappreciative, or ungrateful, and I like the butter, but really, I would so much rather have a lobster roll.

Q. Your piece has lots of external description and consequently little internal dialogue, was this a conscious decision or is this how you approach the world in general?

A. Not always, I think the choice to have this piece rely largely on external description is because this piece is really about pretending, about crafting an exterior to match the details around you. I wanted my reader to be so focused on the action and description of eating lobster, to feel a sense of discomfort with the imagery of the eating process, that they forget the author is there, a part of this anonymous “we.” Then there is a shift at the end, and the narrator readily admits she is pretending, so I didn’t want her to reveal her actual thoughts until then, I wanted the language of description to serve that purpose instead. It’s sort of like rewarding your reader in that last move of an essay—you’re letting them in on the secret that (hopefully) makes them recast their initial reading. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Andrea Mummert Puccini

Andrea Mummert Puccini is a mother, environmental biologist, and writer. She is a native of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay lowlands. She now lives in northern California with her husband and two sons, where she works with farmers and ranchers to improve water quality and create wildlife habitat on agricultural lands. She co-authored California Wildlife: Conservation Challenges prepared at the University of California, Davis, and her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, River Teeth online, Full Grown People, Yolo Crow, and a number of scientific journals. She can be reached at andreamummertpuccini.blogspot.com.

Andrea's piece, "Imagine a Bamboo Farm," appears in issue 18 of Under the Gum Tree, published in January 2016.

Q. Today everyone seems very focused of fictional accounts of far-off worlds and morbid dystopias. What made you start writing nonfiction in the midst of this culture?

A. I admire and am grateful for artists and writers who are moved to create fictional worlds.  For me, though, the inspiration or desire to write has always come from real experiences. There is so much interesting and beautiful richness in life that I want to attempt to portray it, to write about real experiences as a way to share them.  There is a bit of a documentarian or museum curator impulse that motivates my writing.  It also has to do with wanting to hold and examine certain times or places or thoughts.

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

A. I think that what makes a creative nonfiction piece engaging is the thought process and state of mind of the writer rather than the actual subject or event. Anything that causes a writer to pause and reflect and maybe take a turn in their thinking could be a good subject. My creative nonfiction teacher Rae Gouirand has said that in creative nonfiction the narrative arc happens in the writer’s ideas rather than in actual events. I think that’s a good way to think of it.

Q. You use several headings to break this piece up. How did you decide on the format of “Imagine a Bamboo Farm”?

A. The format wasn’t an intentional choice.  As I was writing, all of the little chunks were coming up.  I tried out the headings as a way to leap from one to another without trying to create a narrative bridge. I ended up liking how they added lightheartedness, acknowledging that I could see humor in my worries over lost dreams or passing time.

Q. How has your perspective on achieving your dreams changed from the beginning of this narrative to now?

A. I am more relaxed about it.  Recently I flashed back to the conversation with my friend Kate, when she told me she was daydreaming about using her law degree in Cuba, and I realized that my mindset is more like Kate’s now. I can’t imagine feeling frantic to pin down my dreams and life path.  As I wrote the essay, I came to the idea that even unrealized dreams can be meaningful, like the topsoil for growing your life. These days I feel pretty comfortable with not knowing which dreams will manifest in reality and which will always stay dreams.

Q. Do you still see some dreams as mutually exclusive as you perceived Lisa’s dream to own both a home renovation store and a bamboo farm?

A. I think that believing in the possibility of your dreams is important to them coming into reality. So I would never tell someone that their dreams are mutually exclusive. Yet, practically speaking, I am also aware that our lives on earth are of a limited length. I know that being aware of our own temporariness can be part of what gives life poignancy and emotional depth.  So, for me, I do see some dreams as things that may take many years, and would exclude other dreams that would also take decades. However, I know some people are much quicker than me.   

Q. You quoted Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, in your piece: “If we hold a piece of rock in our hands with clarity of perception… we not only feel the solidity of that one rock, but also the spiritual implications of it; we experience it as an absolute expression of the solidity and majesty of Earth… we could be holding Mount Everest in our hands, as far as the recognition of fundamental solidity is concerned.” Can you explain why this resonates with you?

A. To me, it means that there are some fundamental and universal qualities of our experiences on earth… like the solidity of rock or the ephemeral quality of mist or a blossom.  I find it reassuring that these physical properties or characteristics themselves resonate with many or most people.  As if there is some spiritual or emotional analogy to the physical property inside of us that thrums in response.  I appreciate both that we are attuned to nature and the Earth that we evolved on, and also the reminder that there are many experiences and emotions that unite human beings at a basic level.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Greg Marshall

Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, where he was the nonfiction editor of Bat City Review. His work has appeard in Electirc Literature, Tampa Review, Barely South, Everyday Genius and elsewhere. Before moving to Texas, he was the arts and entertainment editor for The Park Record in Park City, Utah.

Greg's piece, "The Ramp," appears in issue 18 of Under the Gum Tree, published in January 2016.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. I should probably begin by saying I do write fiction. One of my first attempts at creative writing, undertaken shortly after my dad’s diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease, was a novella about a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Rather than going the realist route, the piece is one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affairs you write after encountering George Saunders. It features water aerobics, an eighteenth-century ghost, Egyptology, diabolical Mormon missionaries and a member of the New York Dolls.

I guess the question is how I got from there to here. The answer, I think, is experience. When I wrote fiction about my dad’s illness, I was still in college, imagining what awaited me once I moved home. Once I was home, the disease was so much more devastating than anything I’d dreamed up. Even the respirator was something from science fiction. I wanted to capture what it was really like for me as a caretaker, how having a simple conversation required a dozen technical chores. The speculative novella was about putting myself in my dad’s shoes; “The Ramp” was about sharing my own point of view.

Q. You open the piece with a question. What prompted that decision and how do you think it is indicative of the narrative to follow?

A. When you’re dealing with someone on a respirator, there are lots of leading questions, naturally, as you try to suss out what they’re trying to tell you. Do you want to be deflated? Do you need to be suctioned? The weird thing about my dad’s situation was that he had a say in when he died, meaning he could choose when he went off the extraordinary measure that is a respirator. Think of the burden, having to ask each day if life is worth living. It gave even the simplest matters an existential weight, effectively turning everything into a question. “What’s the point?” I ask in the piece. What is the point, indeed, when you’re grappling with the ineffable: death, contractors. It’s really my dad’s straightforward question midway through the piece that cuts through the bacon grease: Why are you angry with me? Angry with him? To be honest, I hadn’t realized I was. By calling me out, my dad made the conversation about us again, a father and son, united in wonder.

Q. You do not identify yourself as your father’s son until mid-story, what prompted that anonymity?

A. It wasn’t a conscious choice, I admit, but particularly in shorter narratives I think it’s best to plop readers into scene and let them swim around in it. A little indirection can be a good thing as long as it’s not confusing. We aren’t writing letters to the editor, after all.

Q. Have you contemplated more figurative interpretations of the oxygen machine or ramp? What do they symbolize, or are they metaphors for universal struggles?

A. I’m sure those figurative interpretations are there, but I’d rather leave them to readers. In some way, the piece is about the resiliency of metaphor. Even in the most pinned-down nuts-and-bolts narrative you find yourself lapsing into it.

Q. Why did the ramp's construction cause you so much internal turmoil?

A. The short answer is that I was an opinionated brat who didn’t like to see his childhood home go to ruin. The less-short answer was a general sense of futility. The disease progressed much more rapidly than we had anticipated. A ramp, a shower with a seat, a bathroom big enough to accommodate a wheelchair and medical equipment—all these things were obsolete by the time they were installed. They became symbols of delusion and waste in my mind, more evidence of what my dad couldn’t do. The irony was that the ramp was one of the renovations that proved very useful. We spent a lot of time in the backyard after it was completed.

Q. You slowly describe an evolving perception of death in the piece, how did this experience influence your appreciation of human impermanence?

A. Rereading the piece, I’m reminded of how impatient I was for the whole awful experience to be over. The human condition didn’t seem to be one of impermanence at the time but one of eternal suffering. I want to tell myself to slow down, to find more room in my heart for grace and to feel more secure in my own future, my own right to exist. Part of me was frightened, however illogically, of the prospect that my dad might live for another ten years and as the dutiful gay son I’d be the one stuck caring for him. What you learn only in retrospect, of course, is that burnout, however real, is temporary; absence is permanent. I live with my dad’s death every day. He had the courage to end his life when he felt it was no longer worth living. I thank him for that terrible gift every day.

Meet the Author: Michelle Shappell Harris

Michelle Shappell Harris writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she and her family landed in 2012 after nineteen years living overseas in the French-speaking world. She works at The Reclamation Project, a small nonprofit running out of the historic Rialto Theatre, leading a team of translators providing low-cost services to the community and developing writing and reading groups. You can find her essays at Eclectica and Mothers Always Write and articles about the intersection of faith and justice at InterVarsity’s The Well. Michelle is an MFA candidate at Ashland University. She and her husband have two teenagers and still schedule time to talk without interruptions.

Michelle's piece, "The Transformation," appears in issue 18 of Under the Gum Tree, published in January 2016.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. The work of paying attention and crafting essays about the story I am living is what compels me to write. And for now, I can’t imagine constructing another world with its own characters and storyline.

That being said, I love fiction, and I think the best fiction tells stories that we relate to, that help us to better understand the world and one another. I feel at home in some fiction series, whether it’s Precious Ramotswe’s office in Botswana in Alexander MacCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series or Marilynne Robinson’s fictional town of Gilead. I’ve always loved fantasy too, and the stories my family has inhabited and read aloud over the years have served as places to journey together—places like Middle Earth, Narnia, and Hogwarts. 

Q. When most people think of short pieces of writing—fiction or nonfiction—I would venture to guess that they have something slightly longer than this piece in mind. What do you see as the benefits of having a shorter piece? What are the potential drawbacks?

A. Most of my writing is longer. I tend to see the links between events and situations and try to pull them together. But every once in a while, a moment or scene stands on its own. A couple early readers of this essay saw it as a part of a longer meditation on my marriage, but what drew me to write about the moment was not its statement about my marriage; it was that moment in time and my thoughts and actions leading up to my husband’s words. So I kept it short and took out stray sentences that led the readers astray.

A drawback with a flash piece is that it could be a pleasant or even devastating vignette, but there’s no turning, no going under the surface to tell a deeper story or to invite reflection.

Q. Do you feel that you invested as much in this piece as you might have a longer one?

A. Definitely. This piece began with me being blown away by my husband’s sudden appearance and his words at the end of the essay.

So I wrote it down. And then I came back to it, filling it out, examining it from different angles. Writing about my marriage and appearance was uncomfortable, and I worked hard to get it right. Then I needed to know how others responded. I asked several people for feedback, more than I usually would. I listened to what they heard me saying and went back and made sure I was staying true to my intention in capturing the moment.

I take a lot of time with longer essays as well, but in a flash essay, I think every word has to count. A stray sentence or word can mislead. That was the challenge with this essay.

Q. You begin this piece by examining your physical appearance and then you move on to discuss your marriage. What—if anything—do you think this says about the way you perceive yourself?

A. Interesting question! I wouldn’t have taken the time to write so carefully about my perception of my looks and aging. It’s not something I think a lot about. It just is, if that makes sense.

What struck me in the moment, and what has always struck me about romantic love—is the level of cherishing in a romantic relationship. To be found lovely.

I think the link between my managing and being mostly content with my aging physical appearance and my husband’s unchanging regard for me is what struck me that day.

Q. Physical aging is usually not a topic that is voluntarily discussed. What made you want to write about his?

A. Years ago, I read Betty Friedan’s The Fountain of Age. I was in my late thirties, and the book challenged me to not be afraid of aging, knowing that there is something to be said for wisdom and life experience. I want to age well.

My natural inclination as an American woman is to be afraid of grey hair and wrinkles and the losses they represent. So I try to have a sense of humor about it, work to have friendships across generations, and to fully inhabit the place I am in life.

Q. You begin the second half of this piece by saying “my marriage is middle-aged too.” What does it mean to you to have a “middle-aged” marriage?

A. I’m currently reading The Light of the World, written by poet Elizabeth Alexander in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. Hers was marriage between two artists, and I’m not sure if their marriage would have ever been middle-aged.

For me, it’s a question of temperament, situation, and history. I’m an introvert, happy to retreat into the cave of my thoughts and feelings and words. I have to push myself to stay engaged. I settle easily, if that makes sense.

And our situation as a middle class family with teenage children puts pressure on our marriage. We are pulled in many directions, must pay attention, close attention to important things—finances, children, and work. So we have to be deliberate to carve out time for our relationship. We still struggle with this.

We will celebrate twenty-five years this December. When I say middle-aged, I also mean that we know each other, the good and the bad, in ways we could not have imagined twenty-five years ago. I think any long-term healthy relationship requires generosity of heart and humility.

 

Meet the Author: Dorian Fox

dorian.jpg

Dorian Fox’s essays, articles and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in december (as Honorable Mention, 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Awards Nonfiction), Gastronomica, Alimentum, Monkeybicycle, National Parks Magazine, and elsewhere. His work has also been shortlisted for awards by Ploughshares, Phoebe and Bellingham Review. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College and teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston.

Dorian's piece, "The Other First," appears in issue 18 of Under the Gum Tree, published in January 2016.

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

A. I started writing as a kid. My parents read to me a lot, and I think I wanted to emulate those stories: Richard Scarry, Seuss, Sendak. But the nonfiction impulse was there from early on, too. In kindergarten we did a little book project, and mine was an illustrated guide to birds. The teacher typed up our words and spiral-bound the pages and drawings, and I thought that was the coolest thing, turning my ideas into a physical object that I could hold.

These days I write mainly to figure things out. And since I’m drawn to personal writing and memoir, it’s often myself I’m trying to figure out. I tend to write about events and memories that bother me. Something that sticks or hurts or confuses. It's usually a problem that can’t be easily solved, if at all, but writing can help to see those problems more clearly.

Q. You earned your Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College. What drew you toward writing nonfiction over fiction?

I like writing fiction, but I’ve often felt my imagination doesn’t run deep enough to be really good at it. The trick of making invented characters feel viscerally real is amazing to me. I applied to Emerson’s nonfiction program because, at the time, I felt more at home grounding my work in my own experience. I guess I still do. I like the imperative of an authentic voice: speaking directly to the reader as yourself (or some version of yourself). And I’ve come to appreciate the unique struggle of being honest about what you’ve done and why. It’s you on the page, so you can’t hide. The reader will know.

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

A. Like with any story, conflict is the main thing. It doesn’t have to be a monumental conflict (think: Virginia Woolf’s moth dying on the windowsill), just an interesting one that the writer has a clear emotional or intellectual stake in. A great piece of creative nonfiction can take almost any form, and there are no rules aside from trying to tell the truth. But I think we should feel the writer pushing toward some kind of answer, even if that answer can’t be known.

Q. “The Other First” describes what might have been your first kiss—depending on how you define “kiss.” Looking back, do you regret that day in the treehouse?

I do consider it my first kiss, and no, I don’t regret it—but I did for a long time after it happened, even into my twenties. That was why I wanted to write the piece, I think: to fully confront those feelings of shame surrounding what I eventually realized was a normal act of experimentation between boys. At the time, it felt deeply transgressive and abnormal, which is why I lied about it to my friends as a teenager.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but even as I wrote the piece some part of me still worried about what that kiss said about my sexuality and my childhood. It took a few revisions to get the essay to a point where it felt really honest, where I was owning the memory and my feelings about it.     

Q. How did that event shape the rest of your adolescence?

A. In the overall stew of adolescence it was relatively minor, but I think it probably contributed to Nathan and me drifting apart. And I think my feelings about it were symptomatic of a general uneasiness about sex and my body. I was a self-conscious kid, and growing up Catholic in Western Pennsylvania deepened that self-consciousness in certain ways. No adult ever told me kissing a boy was wrong, but this was the 1980s and there was plenty of insinuation. I think I absorbed a fair amount of homophobic stigma from the culture, certainly from other kids, but from adults and media too. Even though I was pretty sure, even then, that I was straight, the treehouse encounter felt like a dark secret, something much heavier than it actually was.

Q. Many coming of age stories examine the theme of lost innocence. Do you feel that this is true of “The Other First” and in what ways?

A. I do think the piece explores lost innocence, but not the scene in the treehouse, so much. I now see the kiss as an innocent act. It’s what I did years later—lying about it to my friends, betraying Nathan and myself—which really marks the beginning of the end of my childhood. Loss of innocence, to me, is about the ways shame can influence our actions, driving us away from ourselves. Which is the sort of thing that starts to happen around middle school. Lying about Nathan was one example of me doing the wrong thing because I was afraid. I can cite many others from that time in my life.

Q. Is this still an uncomfortable memory for you? What made you decide to finally put this experience into words and show it to others?    

It’s not uncomfortable now, but I wonder if it would be if I hadn’t taken the time to write the essay. I think I was drawn to that memory because I sensed, on some level, that it was still unresolved for me. 

Still, the prospect of sharing the piece was unsettling at first. More than anything, I worried about writing children in a sexual context, even if the events were true and one of those children was me. I was afraid of offending people. When I expressed my worries in my MFA workshop after submitting the piece, my professor said, “But don’t all children do this?” That really surprised me. So I’d be happy if the essay could be for readers what my professor was for me in that moment: a reminder that sexuality is fluid, and there’s nothing fringe about that. If our culture could get comfortable treating sexuality that way—which, thankfully, is happening more and more—I think we’d all be better off.

Meet the Author: Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin’s work has appeared in Chicken Soup for The Soul, Saranac Review, Brevity, and various online publications. “Right Foot, Left Foot” received special mention in the 2013 creative nonfiction contest held by Hunger Mountain Journal. Melissa lives with her husband, John, and their stuffed animal, Hawk, in South Burlington, Vermont, where she is a correspondent for her local newspaper. Melissa is currently revising her memoir, The Peach, a story of healing, forgiveness, and the search for a new identity after an older driver confused the gas pedal for the brake and plowed through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in 2003. The driver struck seventy-three pedestrians, including Melissa. A former nurse, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Melissa's piece, "Right Foot, Left Foot," appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published in October 2015. 

Q. Throughout your piece, you allude to the accident that rendered you handicapped. A man named George Russel Weller drove his car into a crowd of people in Santa Monica, allegedly mistaking the gas pedal for the brakes. Could you describe the accident in terms of how it affected you? How did it change the way you saw the world and other people?

A. The accident affected me in many ways—physically, psychologically, mentally. Before the accident, I had worked as a neonatal intensive care nurse, but my physical injuries prevented me from returning to that kind of setting: fast paced and physically and mentally demanding.

I was not a writer before the accident; the accident made me a writer. Though the accident was tragic—people died and many more were injured—it offered me an opportunity to see and interact with the world in a much different way. With my nursing career a chimera of my past, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I had kept a journal after the accident, and, in 2009, when my husband returned to school (we married in 2004), I took a writing/research class with him. It inspired me to write. The teacher inspired me. I asked her to work with me as a writing mentor, and, from there, my writing took off. I joined a writing group, then returned to school in 2010, and received an MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013. I write every day (or almost every day), contribute human interest stories to a local newspaper, and encourage others to write. Writing has spurred me to be more aware of my surroundings: a falling leaf, a flitting bird, lovers kissing in the park, a homeless man crouched in the corner of a building holding a sign that reads, “Anything will help.” And I am more open to listening to other’s share their struggles, whether they are physical, mental, emotional in nature. Writing human interest stories for my local newspaper allows me to interact with my neighbors and the broader community. It impels me to listen closely, to learn, to experience much more than my microscopic world.

Undoubtedly, I am much more cautious than I used to be. I used to ski, rock climb, mountain bike, and even dabbled in a bit of ice climbing. Now, I go for walks. And, though being aware of my surroundings is a good thing, because it keeps me in touch with the world beyond me, I tend to be hyper-vigilant, thanks to PTSD. That falling leaf I mentioned earlier—it’s not unusual for me to flinch when it falls past my line of vision. I jump at the ring of a phone, a knock at the door. I cup my ears at the sound of sirens. I gasp, sometimes screech, when my husband kisses me goodbye in the morning, and I’m still in bed half asleep.

And I am more attentive to older drivers. I’m quick to say that they should not be driving if I see dents on their car. But this is a tricky topic: taking the keys away from older drivers. I had to take the keys away from my father a few years ago when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (I’ll talk about this in the next question).

I prefer not to drive, and no longer drive long distances, and avoid driving at night if at all possible. I’d rather walk, but, then again, I was walking when Russell Weller hit me.  

Q. Do you find yourself resenting Weller for what he did, or have you somehow forgiven him for the pain he caused you? Do you think hate is more powerful than love?

A. I do not resent Russell Weller. When I learned that it was he, an old man, who hit me, and dozens of others, I felt sad for him. I remember thinking, “He’s just an old man. I can’t imagine what he is feeling.” Much later, when I learned his initial response to the accident—“Why didn’t people get out of my way”—I was angry, really angry. I wanted to meet him, ask him why he was driving (he had a history of minor accidents), why he would say such a terrible thing. I wanted to hear him say he was sorry. With my husband,  I returned to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in 2010. During that trip, we stopped by Russell Weller’s house. The shades were drawn and there were no cars in the driveway. He was in his nineties then and ill. I wasn’t even sure he still lived there. That morning I bought a sweetheart rose plant to bring to him (it was Valentine’s Day), and, after my husband pulled up to the house, I walked up the driveway to the side door, and left it on the stoop. A no trespassing sign stopped me from ringing the doorbell. I did not leave a note—I believed, somehow, he would know it was from me. Maybe that’s because I had attempted to contact his family, but they refused to speak to me. 

But I still needed to see Russell Weller, to find a way to forgive him. I’ve always been a forgiving person, and tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s the caregiver persona in me, or as a result of conditioning (my father used to say, “Let’s think about the positive side of things”). In 2011, I requested, from the head deputy of Santa Monica, a video of Russell Weller giving a statement to police less than two hours after the accident. When I viewed it the first time, I did not like him. He did not cry, and, somehow, we equate crying with remorse. He spoke in a way that seemed uncharacteristic of someone who just mowed down a bunch of people. He spoke about his time in the war, about his personal life and history. At times he laughed. Though he said, “Those poor, poor people, and look what I did,” I could not get past his casual talk. It was months later, when I viewed the video again, that I was able to forgive him. This time I internalized his statement, “Those poor, poor people.” I heard the sorrow in his voice, saw it in the way he held his head low. I realized that remorse is not only exhibited through tears; it’s felt, heard, seen through words, the sound of one’s voice, gestures, body language.

That video was the closest I ever came to meeting Russell Weller. He died in December 2010, at age ninety-three. And though I say I forgive him, I believe forgiveness is dynamic. In other words, we may forgive someone one day, but not the next. Overall, though, I can confidently say I have forgiven Russell Weller. For me, forgiveness and hate are close relatives. If you don’t forgive, it whips up hate. If you hate, how can you forgive? I believe hate is equally as powerful as love. But hate eats at you, to the point where you can’t hold it in any longer, so you dump it on others, pour onto them all the built up ugliness inside of you. That’s not who I want to be.

Q. You explore the theme of perseverance, of continuing when things seem utterly hopeless. Your character shows extreme determination to heal, and to return to the life you had. Did you have moments where you felt like giving up? Or were you always an incredibly driven and hopeful person, as you are in the story?

A. I’ve always been a driven individual. In college, I studied late into the night with the goal of achieving honors, which I did. I worked hard as a nurse, and offered to care for the sickest babies. I ate challenge for breakfast. But I’m getting better at giving in a bit, accepting that sometimes I won’t get it right. I started meditating last spring, and that has helped me a lot— to be in the moment, focus on the here and now, release self-judgement. I didn’t have moments when I felt like giving up, but I did ask myself, many times, “What am I doing? Where am I going? What will I do with my life?” I think those kinds of questions are to be expected of anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma—abuse, rape, divorce. I did feel lost and lonely at times. But I had a solid support system: friends, and my husband, who I married twelve months after the accident. So he has been with me through much of the ups and downs: when I struggled in the workplace, when my PTSD was at its worst and I experienced panic attacks, and when I was diagnosed with a TBI.

Q. How does the accident affect you today? How was it changed you as a writer?

A. As I mentioned earlier, I still experience symptoms of PTSD, but, through treatment, I have learned to recognize them. Sometimes, I even make fun of myself. For instance, when my husband and I are out for a walk and I jump and grab his arm at the beep of a horn, I say, “I’m a nut,” or, “What a wacko I am.” Then we laugh. What other choice do I have? In terms of my TBI, I know the kinds of things that wreak havoc on my brain: lack of sleep (I need a good nine hours of sleep), doing too much in one day, being around a lot of people for long periods of time, shopping at places like Costco (an environment that no one with a TBI or PTSD should subject themselves to). Like I said earlier, the accident made me a writer, and that I am grateful for.

Q. You used the mantra “right foot, left foot” as both a means of learning how to walk again as well as the title of your piece. Looking at what the phrase meant to you then and today, has its significance changed for you? Do you think the meaning of things can truly change for people, or are these associations stagnant?

A. I do not believe the meaning of “right foot, left foot” has changed for me. I am always, figuratively and literally, putting my right foot forward then my left (or vice versa). Whether I am out for a walk, climbing the stairwell, crafting an essay, revising my memoir, baking a cake, I am placing one foot forward then the other. That’s how I move ahead—one step at a time. Sometimes the steps are daunting ones, like when I returned to school at age forty-three. Eek! That was scary!

Yes, I do think the meaning of things can change for people. We grow up (or not), we meet new people, we face expected, and unexpected, challenges; the world changes and forces us to adapt. In that way, the meaning of things change for people. I believe that’s how we learn. For example, I used to think forgiveness came dressed in black and white, that you either forgive or not: two options, that’s it. But forgiveness is a process. In graduate school, my critical thesis was about how authors write about forgiveness. I decided that it comes in stages, like Kubler Ross’ stages of grief.

Q. When you were in the hospital the second time, did you feel that all the energy and effort you’d spent trying to heal had gone to waste? What was your lowest moment, the moment when you felt the least hopeful, in your healing process?

A. My healing bubbled definitely burst. I thought being in the hospital would slow down my progress. I felt as if I couldn’t get a break. But I did not feel the energy I had spent trying to heal had gone to waste. If anything, I was more determined. I think my lowest moment in my healing process was when my doctor told me I might need foot surgery. In the accident, I had sustained a fracture of the first metatarsal (bone behind the big toe) of my left foot, and it wasn’t healing correctly. I experienced a lot of pain, and limped my way through each day. Of all the fractures I sustained— pelvis, lower, back, ribs, sacrum—I never thought such a small bone could cause so much pain, but it did. It took well over a year to heal, and, occasionally, it still throbs.

Q. The theme of time, of wanting to change the past and fix our mistakes is prevalent in your piece. At one point you look at the calendar longingly and and wish that you could stay in August and undo the accident, when it is already October. Do you feel that we forget to experience our lives wishing to fix the past? Hoping to change the stagnant, longing to alter the past so as to create a better reality for ourselves?

A. Yes, I do believe we forget to experience our lives wishing to fix the past. I have let go of much of needing to go back in time to undo the accident. I’ve come to a place where I would not change what happened. I know, that sounds morbid, but, if the accident had not happened, I would not have become a writer, and I’m not sure I would have re-connected with John, the man I married twelve months after the accident. We met a month before the accident. He was performing in his Irish band at a local pub and a friend, who was in his band, invited me to hear them play. Since I played the Irish fiddle, I couldn’t say no. But my life was very different then: I was single after recently ending a seven year toxic relationship, and wanted to play, be free. After the accident, John reached out to me, several times. When he asked me out to dinner in December 2003, we immediately connected. I could be myself, and say what I wanted to say without feeling judged. What moved us in the direction of marriage, I believe, was his need to be needed, and my knowledge that he was willing to stick it out with me, broken bones and all. He assured me that he’d always be on my side and look out for my wellbeing. I needed that, and it has worked in our favor ever since—we celebrated our eleventh anniversary this past August.

 

News

Under the Gum Tree & Fourth Genre Host Joint Reading at the 2016 AWP Conference

The process of writing is simple. Grab a pen and blank notebook—a laptop if you prefer that taptaptap and the ability to obliterate any adjectives that manage to momentarily violate the sanctity of your sentence—and find a quiet place void of distraction. Maybe you have an office dedicated to maintaining the perfect environment of serenity or maybe you resort to locking the cat, the dog, the kids, and your spouse at the other end of the house and hunkering down in your bedroom with curtains drawn and headphones in. Either way, writing is a solitary endeavor. As is reading. Which is why it’s such a privilege when conferences like AWP role around, giving writers the opportunity to share and receive new ideas and inspiration.

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) was founded in 1967 and has since grown from supporting thirteen university writing programs to more than five hundred. This year AWP is hosting its annual conference at Los Angeles Convention Center and J.W. Marriott Hotel in California and the Under the Gum Tree team couldn’t be more excited to see the venue so close to our Sacramento home. Taking place from March 30 to April 2, 2016, this year’s AWP conference is expected to see more than 12,000 guests and will feature more than 2,000 authors, editors, teachers, and publishers.

For the past four years, Under the Gum Tree has been welcomed at the AWP conference, hosting successful offsite events that help us encourage and support writers—from budding novices to experienced professionals—to share their true stories without shame. While creative nonfiction is still considered by many to be a new development within the nonfiction genre, we love to share our passion for this form of storytelling and we hope you will join us on Friday, April 1.

Bonaventure Brewing boasts a beatuiful outdoor venue, perfect for this year's reading.

Bonaventure Brewing boasts a beatuiful outdoor venue, perfect for this year's reading.

This year Under the Gum Tree has partnered with Fourth Genre—Michigan State University Press’s nonfiction literary journal—to offer this year’s guests a rooftop garden happy hour of telling true stories. Join us at Bonaventure Brewing (Co. 404 S Figueroa St, Los Angeles, California 90071) from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 1, 2016. The event is free and all are welcome to join us, so grab yourself a drink from the cash bar and then cozy up under the stars to hear readings from Under the Gum Tree contributors Penny Guisinger, Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Griep, and James M. Chesbro and Fourth Genre contributors Kathryn Winograd, TaraShea Nesbit, Kate Carroll de Gutes, and Katherine E. Standefer.

To learn more about the contributors, please find their bios below. For any questions regarding the event, give us a shout out on Twitter or Instagram at @undergumtree!

Find us at booth 621 all weekend!


Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth GenreSolstice Literary Magazine, and About Place Journal, and her reviews appear regularly in The Quoddy Tides and The Review Review. Her essay “Coming Out” was named as a finalist in the 2013 Fourth Genre essay contest, and one called “Provincetown” was awarded an editor’s choice award from Solstice. She is the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Her creative nonfiction essay “Six-Point Win” was featured in Issue 9 of Under the Gum Tree.

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of The Melting Season, Southside Buddhist, Talk Thai, and In Thailand It Is Night. He teaches in the MFA program at University of Florida. 

Camille Griep is the author of the novel Letters to Zell, an epistolary fairy tale and her newest book, New Charity Blues, will be available on April 12, 2016. She is the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Her shorter works have appeared in journals such as Cartridge LitSynaesthesia, and The First Line. She lives and writes near Seattle. Her creative nonfiction essay "Roads, Lost" was featured in Issue 16 of Under the Gum Tree.

James M. Chesbro has had work featured in The Writer's ChronicleBrainChild Magazine, The Huffington Post, Connecticut Review, The Good Men Project, and Spiritus, among others. His essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University where he is an adjunct professor of English. 

Kathryn Winograd is the author of Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, and Air Into Breath, winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. She’s recently been chosen by AWP as its Member in the Spotlight and serves as  faculty for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program and Arapahoe Community College.

TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice, a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize and the recipient of two New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. Her prose has been featured in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The GuardianThe CollagistQuarterly WestThe Iowa Review and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University.

Kate Carroll de Gutes is the author of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award Kate has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.  That sounds really fancy and impressive, doesn't it? Really it means she'll have student loans until she is 72 years old and that all her liberal arts education makes her fascinating at dinner parties. You can learn more about Kate and read her critically acclaimed blog, “The Authenticity Experiment,” at www.katecarrolldegutes.com.

Katherine E. Standefer writes about the body, consent, and medical technology from Tucson. Winner of the 2015 Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, her most recent work appears in Fourth GenreThe Iowa ReviewThe Colorado ReviewCutbank, and The Indiana Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The University of Arizona, where she currently teaches in a pilot narrative medicine program at UA's College of Medicine. Follow her @girlmakesfire.


Written by Faith Lewis, Under the Gum Tree intern.

Meet the Author: Elaina Osborn

Eliana Osborn is a mother and writer living in Arizona. She is at work on her first novel and publishes widely in commercial magazines.

Eliana's piece, "Raspberry Grandma" appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015. 

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

A. I've always written, ever since my classic story inhabiting Kunta Kinte back in fourth grade. But since I stopped working full time when I had my first child, I've been more focused.  As a nerdy kid I always wanted to see my name in print so I think that is still the secret driving goal.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. I hate secrets.  I grew up in a family where I didn't feel like I could be honest.  As a result, I am perhaps overly open about my own life.  I love reading and writing nonfiction because of it.  Real life is plenty sensational—there's a need to cut away the grocery shopping parts, but real relationships are just as dramatic as made up ones.

Q. What topics do you often find yourself drawn to write about? Are there common themes you tend toward in all your writing? Do you see the same themes reoccurring in you fiction as well as your nonfiction work?

A. I think I write a lot about underdogs—I'm working on a novel about a father and daughter separated on the US-Mexico border.  All my writing, fiction and non, is about giving a voice to the quiet or hidden, the stuff that doesn't get press.

Q. The piece published in UTGT begins with an interesting quote that you never return to: “In 1968, Daphne Smart Osborn was a fifty-year-old with eight children. That’s the year she won an arm wrestling contest against the other mothers.” Why did you decide to begin your piece this way?

A. Grandma Daphne has always been a small woman, fierce but not physical.  When my dad told me this story—with pride—at her funereal, it made me sob.  I thought she was great before but that kick-ass side made me so happy.  A lot of the strength I have is from Daphne's unconditional love, for me and others.  There's something tremendous is being accepted.

Q. When considering nonfiction writing, it can sometimes be difficult to decide what event to write about even if we have a particular person or feeling we want the piece to encompass. Why did you choose to focus on this particular incident with Daphne and your son in the garden?

A. I've tried to write about Daphne for years.  I've never felt happy with what I came up with.  A short essay seems so reductive compared to all that a life entails.  But the moment with my son and his great grandmother took my breath away.  You'd think I was making it up—amazing light, a chill in the air, wisdom from a little kid.  Thinking about it now, I get chills.  It was everything about love and generations and who knows what else.

Q. The reader is also directed to pay particular attention to growing fruits and vegetables throughout this piece. Would this have been something that Daphne would have placed special value on? Do you feel that her views on such things have influenced you?

A. Before anyone else, Daphne was a health food nut.  Eating dinner at her house was virtually impossible without wanting to puke.  The only way to survive was through toast and grabbing something from the garden before she had a chance to ruin it.  I love her, but she was the worst cook I've ever met.  I know she'd love to hear a positive food memory and be pleasantly surprised. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Mark Liebenow

Mark Liebenow’s essays, poems, and reviews have been published in journals like Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Citron Review, Swink, Crab Orchard, DMQ Review, Rain Taxi, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. The author of four books, he has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua Creative Nonfiction Prize, and Literal Latte’s Ames Essay Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. 

Mark's piece, "Driving to Find Home," appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015. 

Q. Your piece has a transcendentalist air to it; it is characterized by the idealism of nature and the individual. Transcendentalists assert that truth is only found in nature when we each listen to our unique intuitions and are free from material things. Does nature have this ethereal quality for you? Are you perhaps searching for this same transcendence?

A. Ethereal? Definitely. As soon as I enter Yosemite Valley, its beauty and grandeur overwhelm me. Every day in Yosemite I experience moments of awe, like when I’m standing at Glacier Point and alpenglow settles over the mountains. Or when I’m at the lookout by the Wawona Tunnel as a thunderstorm clears and mist rises slowly from the dark pine forest on the valley floor.

But idealism? No. This beautiful wilderness will kill me if I don’t pay attention or if I treat it like an amusement park. A couple of years ago, I think twenty people died in Yosemite, many from doing something stupid. Nature has its own set of rules. If I respect them, I will be okay. What I want every day is to be glad that I’m still alive.

What I love about the wilderness is that it hasn’t been altered by humans. How it looks today goes directly back to the beginning of time, thousands and thousands of years, and this touches me deeply. Standing on the top of Clouds Rest at 10,000 feet, or hiking through an old growth forest, I feel the presence of something timeless. What I want is to interact with the wilderness, to enter that space where our two worlds touch. The longer I’m in nature, the more a relationship develops, a closeness in the sense of Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship, a communion with the Power, the Other that created the earth and continues to shape it.

On the trail, I am alone with nature. There are no material distractions. I try to hike with my life opened up, all my questions and confusions, and then I listen for nature’s insights into them. It’s a walking meditation that goes from sunrise to sunset. There is no agenda other than to be open to whatever happens. One day I headed off on a fourteen-hour hike, but three hours in I discovered a place on the side of the mountain where I wanted to sit for a couple of hours. Another time I was going to hike two hours up to Nevada Fall, have lunch, and hike back down, but I kept going and ended up way out in Little Yosemite Valley, and it was a delightful day of exploration. So I never know what will happen when I set off. This worried Evelyn when she was alive.

Q. Throughout your piece, you remark at the beauty and power of nature, but at the same time you mourn the loss of Evelyn amidst this incredible landscape. The reader gets a sense of both your loss and your love for nature, and these inverse emotions are intertwined with an emotional complexity that is beautiful and confused. Do you feel that same confusion in every part of your life, like you are carrying a loss and at the same time trying desperately to live again?

A. It is complex, isn’t it? I had two great loves in my life—Evelyn and Yosemite. One was now dead, and I feared that I had lost the other one, because my first trip back to Yosemite was a disaster and I felt nothing but grief. Even Yosemite’s great beauty was unable to break through that wall.

Later the joy of Yosemite’s incredible landscape did return, but grief was still pounding on my heart with a rubber mallet. I felt like a yo-yo in a nether world, being pulled back and forth between two extremes.

Yosemite helped me understand that as central as Evelyn had been in my life, as traumatic as her death was, and as important as each life is, there was also something greater going on in the world than the death of one person and the grief of another. My difficulty was trying to bridge the gap between the two realities.

Now, some time later, I understand that I will always grieve Evelyn because I will always love and miss her. And if I’m paying attention to the lives of other people, there will always be something to celebrate and something to mourn, and I need to acknowledge both. This is the reality of life. Each day I need to dance, and each day I need to cry. The ancient Celtic people taught me that.

Q. Has nature always has spiritual power over you? In what way do you feel affected by it?

A. I grew up in the Wisconsin outdoors, playing in the woods and on the lake through all the seasons. Nature was a sanctuary, not that I was running away from anything. I just felt the presence of something important there. I’d sit on the shore of the lake for hours and feel I was home. When I finally made it to Yosemite, I had John Muir’s reaction, that I was in a place where everything came together and where spirituality was living.

The Ahwahnechee, who once lived in the valley, spoke about feeling the Great Spirit’s presence in the thunderstorms. Being there when storms were swirling through the valley with lightning and booming thunder, I understand their conclusion. In wild places I feel awe, glory, and wonder. The natural world is still changing, still evolving, and I feel creation’s energy flowing through every living thing.

Q. You say at one point that you “want an environment that surprises and makes [you] feel alive.” Why do you feel the need to have an ever-changing horizon? Are you the kind of person who finds yourself feeling stuck in the same place?

A. I like an environment where I can die. The horizon doesn’t have to change, but I like surprises.

When I was living in San Leandro, California, the weather was blah. I couldn’t see the sunrise because the Oakland Hills were in the way. I couldn’t see the sunset because the fog rolled in over San Francisco most afternoons and blocked that. Temperatures year round were between 45 and 75. We had no rumbling thunderstorms. No snow. When there was rain, it started and stopped without fanfare. Going from there to Yosemite was like entering the promised land.

In the city I know what to expect, and I can walk around in my own little world. But when I go into nature, something unexpected is always happening around me and I have to pay attention. Dramatic weather can sweep in in a matter of hours, and if I’m out on a hike and haven’t prepared, I could die. Wild animals like coyotes and deer are moving around, colorful birds are flying through the trees, and often I go around a bend in a trail and there’s a view that takes my breath away. Of course there’s always the chance of running into bears and mountain lions, with the element of danger that they bring.

But at night, when I’m tucked in my sleeping bag and look up, not only can I see the stars clearly, I can see into the depths of the cosmos, and I fall asleep with my imagination drifting among the constellations.

 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Brad Guillory

Brad Guillory teaches creative writing and literature in Covington, Louisiana. He grew up in New Orleans and writes nonfiction about film and music. His work has appeared in Storyacious, The Film Journal, Brain Trust DV, and Film Fanaddict. When he is not writing, Brad also writes music with his band Push Push and spoils his children Brighton and Chloë. Brad earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans in 2012.

Brad's piece "Lyrics and Panic: The Time My Mom Found My Tapes and The Devil" appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015. 

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

A. I started writing when I was about twelve years old. I just wanted to write what I felt and what I was curious about.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. When I started writing nonfiction, I started opening doors that I didn't want open, but I opened them anyway.

Q. What topics do you often find yourself drawn to write about? Are there common themes you tend toward in all your writing?

A. I'm interested in the muck of the world and how it reminds me of what I like and hate about myself.

Q. Your piece published in UTGT revolves around the idea of fear and what it motivates people to do. In what ways did you experience the community’s fears aside from your mother’s reaction?

A. I really didn't. It was mainly my mother and other friend's mothers. I remember wearing an Agnostic Front shirt that had Jesus on the cross. He has a gas mask covering his face and an American flag wrapped around his waste. A line of armed U.S. soldiers are beside Jesus. My friend's mother saw me in the mall, and she yelled at me, "You better go home and burn that shirt." Even then I understood the message of the image: If Jesus came back today, the government would string him up and crucify him all over again. The grown-ups didn't get that.

Q. Music is considered by many people to be one of the things that shape us as individuals as we are growing up. It is a deeply personal thing to listen to a song and no one ever finds the same meaning in the lyrics. How do you feel that heavy metal music influenced you at this time? Was there any truth to your mother’s concerns?

A. I can't blame my mother for thinking lyrics to certain songs could be bad for me. She was reacting to what the media was telling her, just like parents in the 1950s burning their kids' comic books. The grown-ups were scared, so they reacted. To answer your first question: all kinds of music influenced me. From Black Sabbath to the Suicidal Tendencies, I was blown away by what kids my age were listening to. I remember hearing the Buttonhole Surfers's "22 Going on 23"; that song made the room spin because of the morbid sample and the greasy bass line and the abysmal drums and the dying guitar. Heavy Metal, punk rock, and hard core really opened me up to be saturated with all kinds of music.

Q. Do you truly believe that the problem for your mother was the music? Or is it possible she was reacting to something else she disapproved of and the music was merely the first opportunity she found to take a stand?

A. My mom didn't wanna be embarrassed. If I was walking around with a Clive Barker shirt that without a doubt predated Japanese Hentai, she would tell me to go change. I was like the young girl putting on her short skirt in the bushes around the corner from the house. I can't blame her though; a shirt with tentacle phalluses might be pushing it.

Q. Do you feel that this piece highlights the differences in ideologies between generations? Did those differences continue to play a role in the interactions between you and your mother after the events of this piece?

A. Every generation has something to push in the faces of their parents. I'm sure parents hate reading Kanye West's lyrics as much as my mom hated reading the lyrics of the Dead Kennedys, but the lyrics for "Kill the Poor" have a message that isn't unlike Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" or Kanye West's "New Slaves."

My mother and I always fought over the strangest things, stupid things really, but she always supported my writing. No matter what I wrote--even when she thought my writing was too dark--she still loved the idea that I loved to write. She always made me feel good about writing.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Phyllis Brotherton

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Phyllis Brotherton has a long history accounting for things. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University at the age of sixty-six. Topics of her writing include motherhood, identity, sexuality, and aging. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Spry, Your Impossible Voice, Shark Reef, and Jet Fuel Review. She was recently accepted to participate in a panel for AWP16 titled, “Worlds Within the Other California,” and is currently working on a collection of her essays, “Methods of Accounting.” She is a financial executive at the local PBS station and lives with her wife in Clovis, California.

Phyllis's piece, "Creating Artifact," appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015. 

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

A. Aside from a few very bad “Teen Angel” type short stories in high school the fact that I might write never occurred to me until after an also very bad second divorce. As is many times the case, the writing dream had been sublimated to a career in accounting and financial management. The joy of putting words to paper, which emerged in my early forties, has never stopped and only grown stronger. I really gave myself permission to get serious about writing in my late forties. I received my MA in nonfiction first, then over a decade later, with a passion for continued learning, I went back to school, receiving my MFA earlier this year.   

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. I am more interested in reading fiction, than writing it. Spinning tales was only a teenage dream, though I have great respect for the talent it takes to write good fiction that mirrors life and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I do have a passion for the real, for life as lived; an honest disclosure and self-reflection. That being said, I do find myself spinning the sometimes surreal out of raw factual life data, from a memory or image.  

Q. What topics do you often find yourself drawn to write about? Are there common themes you tend toward in all your writing?

A. Yes. Fortunately or unfortunately, I fall into certain subject ruts: My relationship with my adult son; my mother’s decline into dementia and her relationship with my brother; identifying as a lesbian later in life, aging and death. Not easy subjects, but they are all deeply personal and seem to have in common a search for identity.

Q. The visual layout of this piece is fairly unique and it forces the reader to read differently. Why did you choose this format for your piece? How would the piece have been different if you had chosen to write in a traditional prose format?

A. I’ve never taken the easy or traditional route, either in life or in my writing. Non-traditional form is important to me, not just to be different, but to serve a purpose, which I hope is to further illuminate the themes going on in the piece. I am drawn to mosaics or collage as a work of art. And, in a way, I feel I am creating art by elimination, a kind of erasure. Brevity is also key. A reader will not see or be told everything and hopefully construct his or her own meaning.  

Q. These seem to be very separate glimpses into your life, very much independent of each other. What joins them together in your mind?

A. When you have lived sixty-six years, there’s lots of material to work with. I could organize a personal narrative in so many ways: my life in birds, my life in beds, my life in significant trees. So I attempt to smash the blue dishes of my life with a hammer and begin to fit together disparate shards, working them this way and then the other to create a piece of writing. “Creating Artifacts” was created in just this way. I worked and worked on it for many years, honing and refining, until it solidified, became intact and unchangeable.

Q. Why did you pick these particular moments to include in the piece?

A. I work by association, by what suddenly occurs to me from the previous segment. This piece is also very much driven by the images that are conjured in my mind from Takashi Hiraide’s poetry. It is almost ekphrastic, like looking at a painting and personally reflecting on it.

Q. You are quite fluid with the use of tense throughout the piece. How does this change the reader’s understanding of the events and how they are related to one another?

A. Yes, maybe because the past is very much present for me; photographic images captured in memory brought back to immediacy through the writing process. But, there is very much dream work here, as in section V. where I see myself in many imaginary scenarios, that are in a way spiritual moments. I fully believe there are many identities within each of us. Some play out, some stay hidden, but they are all part and parcel of who we are as individuals, sort of mosaics ourselves.  

Q. Sexuality is very much a hot topic issue right now. How did you feel writing on the subject? How do your sexuality come to influence the remainder of the piece?

A. This section happened organically by my reactions to Hiraide’s 42nd prose poem in his series. At this point in the piece, I am pushed to a kind of confession. What does cause us to do anything, make any decision? Many times there are multiple answers and no answers at the same time. Some things just are; my own cerebral “explosion.” I wrestled with whether or not I would keep this section in the piece for a number of reasons: self-consciousness, fear of judgment, the seemingly odd juxtaposition with the other subjects, my partner’s privacy and her own reactions. I faced all of these fears and decided against one more erasure. Deletion felt disingenuous, fear-based.

My current relationship with my son, though I hesitate to call it estranged, is distant. This really has nothing to do with my lesbian lifestyle choice (I hate the way this sounds), later in life. No firm answer or one reason usually exists to how parent/child relationships evolve into adulthood. And, in spite of our best efforts, not everything can be fixed. What I'm giving to the reader, to my son, to my partner, to the universe, is a glimpse of me; the innermost thoughts of one woman with many facets, many identities. I am creating artifacts to be discovered or pondered, which I also felt Hiraide was working to accomplish in his serial poem.

Q. You quote a poem (For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide) throughout much of this piece. What does this poem mean to you? How do you feel the use of the poem should affect the reader’s interpretation of the piece as a whole?

A. The genesis of “Creating Artifacts” began one early morning while reading Hiraide’s book. I was underlining especially important lines, as I usually do, and began to write furiously in the margins, in reaction to his words and images. My mind was on fire. In these moments, I was in “conversation” with this poet, tapping into something I could not, cannot explain. After I wrote this piece and shared it with others, including MFA professors at some point, I was encouraged to drop the quotes from Hiraide for basically two reasons: 1) to allow my writing to stand on its own and, 2) the complications of obtaining the poet’s permission. I experimented with removing all the quotes, but, the piece did not seem the same. The imaginary dance between two authors’ minds had disappeared. I felt like it had lost its emotional engine. I decided to keep the quotes in and face the issue of permission if it was ever accepted for publication. And, I am glad I did. The editors of Under the Gum Tree accepted it and sought permission from Takashi Hiraide’s publisher, with success, for which I am so grateful.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Benjamin Winterhalter

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Benjamin Winterhalter is a writer, journalist, and former attorney whose work has also appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Baffler, The Morning News, and PopMatters. His début collection of personal essays is forthcoming in 2016.

Benjamin's piece, "My Halloween Ritual: The History of a Coping Mechanism" appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015.

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

A. My first article in Salon was published in the fall of 2013. I suppose that marks the beginning of me thinking of myself as a writer in any sort of serious way. I was 27 at the time. I'm 30 now.

I don't really know why I started writing. I went through this phase where I was reading a lot of narrative nonfiction--David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Sloane Crosley, Tom Wolfe--and decided to try writing in a similar style about topics that interested me. My friend John Harpham, a graduate student at Harvard, suggested I submit this essay I wrote--it was about automated essay grading and the Common Core curriculum--to outlets like Salon and Slate and N+1. I was surprised and delighted when I heard back from Anna North, the culture editor at Salon at the time. Her interest in my work boosted my confidence and inspired me to think I could build a career around something I have always loved doing.

Since then, writing has shaped my life in more ways than I care to think about, partly for fear of re-triggering my nightmares…

I lost my job as an attorney the day after the publication of my first article in The Atlantic. My firm profile got linked in the comments section, and the rest is history.

In general, writing about my real life--especially about sex and relationships--has had a major impact on my real life--especially my sexual relationships. There's an inherent violence in having someone else tell a story about you. And I think our culture emphasizes shame and self-concealment over truth-telling, especially when the truth is messy and complicated, so people get uneasy about being written about. People in my life have reacted in various ways--both positive and negative--to my writing stories that include them. But I've found that it's deeply cathartic to tell the unfiltered truth--to say what I really believe about my life--and I think that's what I enjoy the most about it. In other words, writing for me is the process of getting to catharsis--I do a lot of W.W.C. (Writing While Crying). I also just enjoy the kinesthetic and rhythmic experience of it--clickity-clack, clickity-clack--and I usually write with music on. In fact I'm listening to Young Thug right now.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction?

A. To be honest, I never considered doing fiction, though I think you may have just Incepted me. I like that nonfiction has more constraints. I just feel this compulsion to be honest--I think honesty, both intellectual and emotional, has gone missing in the wider culture--so if I were to write fiction, it would probably just end up being a lightly Hollywoodized version of my nonfiction work.

Q. Your writing has been featured in several other publications. What topics do you often find yourself drawn to write about? Are there common themes you tend toward in all your writing?

A. I'm a culture junkie--political and apolitical, mainstream and indie, high and low, I consume it all. A lot of my early pieces were on issues in education--the death of the humanities and the greed of American law schools--which are issues I feel strongly about on a personal level. But I've written essays on a pretty wide variety of topics: Interstellar, hipster sex parties, drinking on college campuses, the Myers-Briggs type indicator, The Bachelor/The Bachelorette. I think contemporary culture is the common thread between those. And yeah, there are definitely some recurring themes and motifs in my stuff. For example, the topics that recur the most in my upcoming collection of essays are sex, music, drugs, and movies, which is to say that I'm writing about love, empathy, pain, and loss.

Q. Throughout your piece published in UTGT, you speak directly to the reader. How do you think breaking down the fourth wall and reaching out to the reader allows the piece to be read differently? Do you think that this contributes to how the reader interprets the message?

A. From my point of view, the voice on the page is me talking to myself. It's me examining myself in an attempt to understand why I'm so obsessed with Donnie Darko. In that sense, you could say the breaking-the-fourth-wall technique is my attempt to signal to the reader that I'm inviting them in. It's like saying, "I know you're there, come witness the madness," which is a way of saying, "I'll show you what it's really like for me, and I promise to be honest." Or, maybe more succinctly, "Trust me."

Q. It is often difficult for writers to manipulate time when they are limited to just a few thousand words. How did you decide on the pacing of the piece? Might you have adjusted the pacing if you had turned this into a longer piece?

A. I wanted the structure of the essay to resemble the structure of Donnie Darko itself. However, I didn't write the piece with any particular length or pacing in mind. In retrospect I might have trimmed some of the more tangential sections in the intro and slowed down the ending scene.

It might be worth confessing in this context that I wrote the whole essay in a single 12-hour sitting. I went into in some sort of fugue state, and I was sobbing when I wrote the passage about Mark's death. That emotional response lead me to think I'd reached the climax, so from there I tried to resolve the remaining threads as economically as possible. I intended for there to be this gradual accumulation of tension followed by a rapid release.

Q. It is clear that oftentimes entertainment becomes much more than mere entertainment. Perhaps it is a particular song or book that speaks to the consumer’s situations. For you it was a movie. Do you feel that you would have connected to Donnie Darko in the same way had it been presented in some other form (i.e. a book or a song with the same plot or themes)?

A. For me, movies are more immediate and emotional than other art forms--except maybe music--so I think it's unlikely the story would have been as affecting in a different format.

I do, however, see interrelationships and common themes between different art forms, and I can think of several that evoke the same general mood for me as Donnie Darko. I'm a big fan of The Weeknd and find myself listening to his music a lot around this time of year. Something about the dark sound of an album like Echoes of Silence hits on that same autumnal sadness I talk about in the essay--at least for me. I also think of the soundtrack from the movie itself--like how Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is playing at the Halloween party while Donnie and Gretchen have sex--but I probably wouldn't have those associations had I not seen the film, so I suppose that doesn't count.

Q. You point out a discrepancy between the way you see your “minor infidelity” and Claire’s flirting. How might this relate back to the themes you have pulled from Donnie Darko?

Q. Donnie Darko is about exposing hypocrisy. At the time, I felt Claire's oh-so-obvious enjoyment of the flirting was pretty strong evidence that her stance on monogamy, especially long-distance monogamy, was hypocritical--clearly I wasn't the only one with a wandering eye! Now, I was young and drunk and I way overreacted--it's an embarrassing story in a lot of ways--but I still feel that most people who claim to be good at monogamy are just really repressed.

I'm not saying any of that excuses my cheating--the phrase "minor infidelity" seems a bit callous to me in retrospect--but you might say the whole Claire portion of the essay is an argument against doing long-distance monogamy. It's intended to raise questions in the reader's mind about fidelity and commitment and the institution of marriage as a whole.

Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: David Pace

David Pace has been teaching photography in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. As Resident Director of Santa Clara University’s study abroad program in West Africa from 2009-2013, Pace spent ten weeks each fall in the small country of Burkina Faso, where he has been photographing annually since 2007. He continues to document daily life in the remote village of Bereba and works with the NGO Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), which builds libraries in rural villages throughout Burkina Faso and Northern Ghana. Pace’s photographs have been exhibited and published internationally.

David's photo essay "Market Day" appears in issue 17 of Under the Gum Tree, published October 2015.

Q. When did you first become interested in photography? 

A. I started taking pictures as a child. I received my first camera as a birthday present when I was eight.  I got seriously interested in photography many years later and began taking photo classes in the 1980s.  I went to graduate school at San Jose State University for an MFA in 1987 and have been working professionally as a photographer ever since.

Q. What do you see as the qualities of a good photograph? 

A. Talking about his films, director Alfred Hitchcock used to say, “Drama is like life with the dull bits left out.” My sense is that a good photograph is similar. It requires a strong subject with the distracting elements left out. A good photograph must have great light and strong composition, and must be taken at exactly the right moment.

Q. It has been said that photography is the language that can be understood by everyone. Do you feel that this is an accurate statement? Why do you agree or disagree? 

A. Photography gives the viewer an immediate experience, which may be richer and more direct than a written or verbal description. But some photographs, especially those involving other cultures, require a bit of background information to be completely understood. For example, most of my subjects do not smile for the camera. Some Western viewers have interpreted this as a sign of unhappiness. However in West African, there’s no expectation that one should smile for a portrait. Smiling for the camera is not a convention in Burkina Faso.

Q. When our readers think of Under the Gum Tree, they likely first associate the magazine with the nonfiction essays we are known for. How do you feel a photo essay fits in with these narrative glimpses into our contributors’ lives? 

A. My photo essay fits quite well into the narrative structure of the nonfiction essays in Under the Gum Tree. I’ve been photographing in Bereba for ten years. My project is to document daily life in the village.  I’m trying to construct a visual narrative that reveals the reality and complexity of life in a typical village without romanticizing or contributing to the many common negative stereotypes of Africa. The market day photos are one chapter of a larger visual narrative.

Q. Everyone has heard the anecdote "a picture is worth a thousand words." In what way do you see truth in this statement and how understand photographs to tell a story?

A. A photograph is full of visual information on many levels – personal, cultural, historical, geographical, psychological, etc. One could spend a lot of time unpacking the many layers of meaning in a single photograph. A series of photographs invites comparisons. Exploring their differences and similarities tells a story.

Q. How do you choose a subject for your photos?

A. I look for people with expressive faces and interesting clothing. Often my subjects approach me and ask to be photographed. I take many more photos than I could ever use. The editing process is extensive.  I select the photographs with the best lighting and compositions.

Q. Do you pose the subject before taking the photograph? Is there a reason one way or the other?

A. I choose the background first and tell my subjects where to stand. But I don’t give them any other instructions. I wait for them to be at ease. My subjects all know me so they’re comfortable being photographed.

Q. At the heart of these photographs are bright colors. How do you feel that this represents the village?

A. People in the village are very creative and intentional about the way they dress. Bright colors and contrasting patterns are very characteristic. To me the color in the photographs emphasizes the vibrancy of the culture. I enjoy the challenge of creating a coherent composition from so many disparate colors and patterns.

Q. All of the photographs use clothes or fabric as a backdrop. Why did you opt for this background over other scenes of the market?

A. For the Market Day series I am drawing on a tradition of West African portraiture that uses complex patterned backdrops. I have been influenced by the work Seydou Keita, a portrait photographer from Mali. All of his work was in black & white. I am adding the element of color, paying homage to him and his style in the context of contemporary Africa.

Q. In what ways do you feel these photographs accurately portray the people and culture you have photographed?

A. These photographs accurately portray my relationship with the people. The villagers of Bereba know me well. They trust me to photograph them the way they want to be seen. I’ve lived in the village long enough to understand the customs and traditions, so I feel that there’s a mutuality of respect. Every photo is a collaboration. We each have a role in the creation of the image. Together we are creating a visual record of the community.  Each year when I return, I give prints to all the people I photographed the year before. They know that they are collaborating in the creation of a portrait that they will receive.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Chelsea Schott

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Chelsea Schott is a writer, teacher, and professor living in Houston, Texas. A regular contributor to the Houston Press, she divides her time between writing social commentary, reviewing music, and instructing others on good writing craft. You can find her work in such places as Germ MagazineThe Winter Tangerine Review and My Other Ex from the HerStories Project. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.

Chelsea's piece, "Neighbors," is a candid portrait of two starkly different families, each struggling to reconcile the dichotomy between what's seen and unseen, as well as the things we endeavor to keep hidden. As a young girl, Chelsea learns that her neighbor, well-liked and respected in a small town, is a rapist who takes advantage of her childhood innocence. The piece is blatantly honest, dealing with themes that are both painful and personal without hesitation. Chelsea's is a bitter coming-of-age story that straddles the line between truth and appearances, giving the reader an unbiased look into the morally confounding world in which we live.

Q. The piece seamlessly blends classical language with more casual diction that suits the farm setting, giving the reader a sense of not only where you came from, but where you’ve arrived. Did you intend to use this blend of styles to give the reader some background about you, the author? Some context for the story, perhaps? A. It wasn’t intentional, meaning I didn’t set out to blend them on purpose. The casual language just comes from a sense of the voice they used. Because I’m relying on memory, I just have a feeling of how people spoke. Of course the narrative is in my own voice, or that character, Chelsea.

Q. Do you feel that the innocence of early adolescence is something that we must overcome ourselves, or is it something that others must help us surmount? Did you feel as if Luz was stealing the purity you hoped to cling to a little longer? A. Luz, without a doubt, is a thief of many things. It’s hard to imagine that innocence is something to be overcome, but in this case, innocence works against Chelsea. Her struggle in navigating her own understanding of a budding sexuality is made more difficult by Luz’s presence and actions. That sexuality will forever be corrupted because it was formed in the shadow of a rapist, worse, a rapist that is willfully excused by the community through their denial.

Q. Your piece deals with the theme of family, what’s seen and unseen. We may believe we know someone, but in reality they lead a life we barely experience. Our lives intersect in few places with few people. Do you think it is possible to truly know someone? To see people for all they are, to understand each piece that makes them whole? Do you feel like you knew yourself at the point of time represented in your piece? A. Chelsea doesn’t know herself, especially at 13 years old. She’s very innocent despite having a mother who pontificates salty advice ad nauseam. Her mother’s words are abstract, she can’t seem to connect it all until the moment she hears the screams--her moment of epiphany, a tragic moment really.

Does anyone really know another person? I don’t think it’s actually possible. If it were, would we have words like, “betrayal”? Personally, I prefer not knowing. I think to write about secrets is far more interesting than to write about public personas. People often hide their ruin, but I think that’s where our art lies...in those moments of clarity, no matter how abrasive they are. They may be the only moments of truth we experience.

Q. When your mom is talking to you about Luz, she says, “You shouldn’t be surprised. The world is full of hypocrites.” You go on to say your innocence “Dried up like rain in the desert.” Did you feel betrayed or angry at your mother for depriving you of your innocence, in a sense? Do you wish she had never said that to you? Do you think you would’ve understood that Luz was raping his granddaughter if your mother hadn’t said this to you? A. Chelsea interprets her world through the lens her mother provides. Yet, that lens is a fractured, cynical thing. Mama is unaware of the extent of Luz’s predatorial advances. Chelsea’s mother has a sense of Luz’s perversion, and that sensitivity is something Chelsea lacks--and the reason why Luz is able to take advantage of children. I don’t think Chelsea could have interpreted the events any differently.

Q. How did your interactions with Luz’s granddaughter, Charlene, affect you? Did she make you feel the need to match her level of maturity or did you want to return to childhood? A.Chelsea doesn’t know how to respond to Charlene’s sexuality. She knows she’s somewhere between childhood and adolescence, and on the outside of inherent knowledge that women share. This knowledge is the stuff of taboo in our culture. Chelsea can’t match Charlene’s maturity (or exploitation) because she doesn’t share her damage.

Q. How did your whole experience with “the neighbors” affect your relationships with men, both as a teenager and today? Do you think it made you less of a trusting person than you’d like? A stronger person? A. Everyone is stronger for surviving trauma, so in that sense, yes. Personally, I learned not to trust adults. The community failed these children in not prosecuting Luz. Learning the level of collusion adults will achieve in order to cover-up a crime against children is something I still have a difficult time accepting. We teach children to tell adults when something goes wrong, but what happens when those same adults resist? This is the real antagonist, the real evil in the story.

Q. What are the consequences of growing up too fast? A.I suppose corruption of innocence. The results of a damaged childhood is perpetuating those crimes onto other children. It’s systemic. A grand miscarriage of justice, and perhaps our greatest failing as a society is when we fail to protect children. The destruction is colossal, it simply can’t be underestimated.

Gum Tree Live, News

Under The Gum Tree Live

Have you heard the news? Under the Gum Tree turned four years old in October! That's four years and seventeen issues of telling stories without shame. To celebrate the publication of Issue 17 that was released in October 2015, we invited our contributors to join us to read their featured piece. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we welcomed three writers from around the country: Mark LiebenowAbi Bechtel, and Benjamin Winterhalter. It is always exciting to hear writers reading their own work, so if you missed this installment of Gum Tree Live, watch it below or follow this link to see it on YouTube. Happy listening! 

We are always excited to hear from our incredible writers and we're sure you'll have as much fun with Gum Tree Live as we did!


Gum Tree Live

Join us on 10/21 @ 5p Pacific for Gum Tree Live: Online Reading + Issue 17 Launch

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Under the Gum Tree celebrates our 4-year anniversary and the launch of issue 17 with Gum Tree Live: our quarterly web series. Five writers from all across the country will convene online for a live virtual reading via Google Hangout. Each writer will read a 5-minute teaser from the piece published in our newly released anniversary issue. Join us for readings from Mark Liebenow, Eliana Osborn, Abi Bechtel, Melissa Cronin, and Benjamin Winterhalter. All you need is a computer and an internet connection and you can tune in to the live stream with this link.

The fun starts at 5 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, 10/21. Follow this link for the live stream and use the hashtag #gumtreelive on social media to let us know you're watching!

News

Under the Gum Tree Contributors Honored with Notable Essay Status

With the upcoming release of The Best American Essays 2015, we are proud to announce that two essays previously featured in Under the Gum Tree have been selected as notable essays by the anthology. “Ashley and I,” by Ryan Mitchell was featured in the April 2014 issue and “Attempted Homicide,” by Brigitte Bowers appeared in the October 2014 issue.

The Best American Essays is an annual anthology that strives to showcase the finest nonfiction writing from across the country. A team of editors select exemplary work published through the year in various magazines, journals, and online publications. These essays are then narrowed down further by a guest editor, selected each year for their renowned expertise in the field. This method of essay selection allows for a great variety of writing styles and topics to be included in the anthology each year, making it a unique blend of the personal experiences that make America.

Mitchell’s story delves in to the emotions associated with a gradual realization that people you care about are not always who you think they are. She examines the notion that we supplement our understanding of people be by filling in the gaps of what we don’t know about them with what we would like to be true. This idea has amazing ramifications as she tells the reader about the years she spent communicating with an online pen pal. These idealizations and expectations slowly being to slip away when she finally meets this man—and his girlfriend—during a family vacation. "Ashley and I" brings into question the role of virtual communication in a world that is constantly becoming more digital. The piece is crafted in such a way that as readers see the events unfolding, they can sense the tantalizing and unwritten details. It is impossible to read "Ashley and I" without drawing to mind some similar personal experience when a potential friend—either someone met online or otherwise—has fallen utterly short of our lofty expectations.

Mitchell teaches English at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle Orléans. Other pieces of her work have appeared in publications including Otis Nebula and Cannibal, among others.

Bowers’ piece spans the author’s nine years in an abusive relationship and touches upon the tangled motives and events that held the fractured pieces of her life to his for so long. "Attempted Homicide" begins rather bluntly with Bower confiding to the reader that she had considered killing Dan McDonald before explaining why or who the man was. Bower manages to navigate a challenging and often-avoided subject with her direct and honest perspective. Without saying so, Bowers speaks to the idea that we must be our own advocate, especially when it's the most difficult thing to do. Though in the end she offers no solution to the situation and only a mediocre explanation that doesn’t satisfy the questions she asks herself, the reader is left with the idea that there is no single definition of strength. Instead, it is something we must find inside if we want to see a lasting change in our life.

Bowers holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University, Fresno. She is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced and a columnist for the Merced Sun-Star.

Both back issues of Under the Gum Tree can be purchased in digital format from our website here, or hard format from our MagCloud store here.

The Best American Essays 2015 goes on sale October 8.

Article by Under the Gum Tree Editorial Intern Faith Lewis