Meet The Author

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Andrea Roach

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

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

I fell in love with writing and stories when I was very young. My mother was a reader and she filled my life with books and introduced my to the library. It was an elegant and symmetrical building built in 1898 with massive columns framing the front entrance and smooth stone walls with Renaissance Revival features and globed lampposts out front.   The Children’s Room had its own entrance on the side. I remember the mahogany door and the dark wood bookshelves. The library was the first place I was allowed to walk to on my own as a child, my first experience with independence.

I also consider my mother to be the first writer I knew and while she didn’t write stories or have the luxury to pursue a career for herself, she was the first person I saw put pen to paper. She wrote thoughts, letters, doodles and I of course wanted to be like her, so I began to do the same.  That kind of writing has a healing, cleansing quality to it that I appreciate.

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade with my best friend, Paula. It was a horror story, and it had all the standard scenes we saw in movies, blood pouring out of faucets and running down walls, with bits added from the ghost stories my parents told me on family nights. I didn't have a typewriter so I dictated and she typed. I wish I had saved those pages.

What inspires my writing now is the mystery and magic of telling a story, its movement. Once I surrender to the process of whatever story is trying to be told through me, I find myself on this fascinating journey of discovery that makes everything seem shiny and new. Even after long periods of time trying to figure out how to enter a piece, a stretch that can feel so heavy at times, the moment it comes to me is super exciting.  I really dig that rush. This current draft of my memoir has led me to the depths of human complexity, the pulsing heart of every instrument that Ornette Colemen played and the metaphorical genius of molting cicadas. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.  

My characters also drive my writing.  I like to write about people I’ve experienced growing up, invisible people, the victims of domestic violence, the homeless men who live in doorways with their trash bags, newspaper-lined shoes and liquor bottles.  These people, who have suffered and struggled everyday of their lives, are full of wisdom and love and I think it’s hard for some of us to look past their tragedy and see their humanity.  Agatha and Aaron are the main focus of my essay but writing about the “Avery girl”, a person I only knew through a story  overheard as a child, who had such an impact on me that I recognized her a decade later, also felt important to the idea of how people, even strangers, imprint themselves on us and shape our viewpoint of the world.

2. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

This is something else I’ll attribute to my mother.  She loved true crime stories and biographies.  She also turned me on to documentaries when I was young. We’d watch PBS together all the time and she’d scoff at anything that wasn’t “true”.  So that’s probably where it started.  What I like about nonfiction writing is that it demands a fearlessness and an honest confrontation of self.  If you’re going to do this kind of writing, you can’t be afraid to speak your truth and that requires some real excavating. As nonfiction writers, we have to get beneath the surface of experience and our own external representations to find verity. I actually like doing that kind of sleuthing. It helps me grow as writer and a person. 

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

I think you can find a story in almost anything.  I tend toward large heavier landscapes like death, love and abuse, but I also think an essay about the day you accidentally swallowed a fly that was in your coke can could be just as intriguing as going to the wake of the woman your uncle killed if the writer is able to connect it to the human experience in a meaningful way.  I look forward to writing some lighter pieces just to balance out the space I’ve had to occupy to write essays like the one that appears in Under the Gum Tree.

4. How much have lies and hope intertwined in your life? Do you continue to think of them as things that work off of one another?

Good question.  I’ll try not to go too far off the topic of the essay. The symbiotic relationship of lies and hope has always been part of my life, even before I was born. If you think about it, lies and hope are the foundation of our civilization. We live in a society/world where there have historically been hierarchies of wealth and privilege and ruling classes that have thrived on our willingness to believe the stories and promises told to us. The relationship of lies and hope is important to understand because it drives our thought processes and behaviors.  Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, understood this with his analysis of political propaganda and consumer culture and I think that some of his theories can be applied to the way we navigate certain situations and relationships. When I came up the title "The Lies We Call Hope," I was thinking of “lies” as self-deception, not really as purposeful untruths meant to manipulate. The stories and omissions we tell and justify to make people and ourselves happy or to avoid pain save us from being swallowed by fear and worry. They help us dream and imagine. It’s taught behavior and it’s useful but those same stories and omissions can also become crutches used to protect us from emotions that we think will crush us. I think in that way lies and hope can inhibit our ability to see and deal with hard truths. I try to be aware of the stories I tell myself in order to figure out what I’m avoiding or what I need to learn, especially in difficult situations.

5. Upon entering the funeral home and coming face to face with Agatha's family, are these hopeful lies stripped away? How did their grief force you to confront what had happened regarding your uncle, Aaron?

I think the hopeful lies were stripped away but I don’t think I was aware of it at the time.  I just thought I was naïve, and I was.  I thought that because I didn’t personally kill Agatha that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to go into someone’s space of mourning but the pain and anger was so palpable it scared me in a way I had never experienced. I left with an uneasiness that haunted me for years.  And it took a long time to find the words to express that feeling.   The wake was a turning point for me and the way I viewed violent men.  I grew up witnessing physical violence but a man has never beaten me. I describe my uncle, who is very close to me in age, having a soft angelic voice and that’s the man that I knew.  I had to separate the other man, the violent Aaron, from the loving one and that’s something I was taught by the women that raised me. The monster in men was something we had to exorcise with love.  It became our responsibility.  I think up to the point when I went to Agatha’s wake, I still carried the idea that somehow the abuser deserved more compassion than the victim because he was sick.  When I saw Agatha in her casket and was met with so much hostility from her loved ones, I was forced to start looking at abusive relationships in a different way.

6. "I told myself that it didn't matter what he did because in my family, love and violence are the same." Love and violence resonate throughout your piece; do you see them as two sides of the same coin?

I don’t see love and violence as two sides of the same coin but because I grew up with damaged people who really wanted to love and be loved I understand the dynamic. My parents could never get past the inherited pain and ideas about men, women and relationships given to them from other generations of damaged people. For them and for my uncle and me, love and violence morphed into normalcy. It was the only model for romantic relationships I had seen growing up. I was lucky that my mother was determined to make sure I didn’t live her life.  She guided me, the best way she could, to another path. I’m grateful for that and a lot of other factors that have helped me to live life differently.

7.   Agatha appears to be the opposite of you: stripped of her identity as a black woman and, in death, totally unable to express herself. Is she part of the reason you wrote this piece?

Yes, that’s part of it. I had only met Agatha twice, briefly, before she died and both times she seemed quiet and reserved. Maybe it was because she didn’t know me, I can be shy too when I first meet people.  I wrote the essay for Agatha, to give her a voice and perhaps even pay penance for my blind loyalty to my uncle. I’m exploring her more in my memoir.

My mother also had something to do with this essay, and everything in my life, as you may have noticed.  She died of lung cancer shortly before I started my MFA program and I initially wanted to tell her story.  We joked about it sometimes, that our life could be a “movie of the week.” It was part of my own grieving process and a way to honor her.  I was so afraid that she would just be erased and I couldn’t let that happen.  In writing my mother’s story I thought about the word survivor and what that meant and I thought about how my mother, a victim of domestic violence for 15 years, could have been Agatha.  My mother was also very different from Agatha, she was out spoken and strong but also misunderstood, called crazy, without any consideration for the abuse she endured.  That bothers me. So it’s important to me that the women I write about, who have lost their lives in one way or another, are seen and understood.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katie Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katherine Groppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Mackenzie Myers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Jessica Love

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Amanda Gibson

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

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

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

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

Moments that touch my soul and heart inspire my writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Matt Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Finn Janning

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Hollie Dugas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Sarah Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet The Author

Meet the Author Emily W. Blacker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.