Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Chelsea Schott


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gum Tree Live, News

Under The Gum Tree Live

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

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

Gum Tree Live

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


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

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


Under the Gum Tree Contributors Honored with Notable Essay Status

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best American Essays 2015 goes on sale October 8.

Article by Under the Gum Tree Editorial Intern Faith Lewis

Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: Kurt Edward Fishback

Kurt Edward Fishback, son of photographer Glen Fishback and namesake of photographer Edward Weston, grew up as part of the photographic community in Northern California during the 1940s and ‘50s. Mentors and friends of the family included Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston. Despite his immersion in the world of photography, Fishback began his artistic career studying ceramic sculpture at Sacramento City College, the San Francisco Art Institute and the University of California, Davis in the 1960s. He first began to experiment personally with photography in 1962 as a way to document his experiences with other sculptors, but it was not until 1973, when his father invited him to teach at the Glen Fishback School of Photography, that photography became Fishback’s primary medium of expression. You can find out more about Kurt on his website here.

Kurt Fishback's photo essay "Portraits of Women Artists in their Personal Space," published in our July 2015 issue, is a collection of portraits of artists in their studios, their most personal and intimate space. The studio is where artists develop their ideas both conceptually and physically. Photographing artists where they make art can shed light on their influences, desires, and creative processes. The point of his essay has been to share artists with the public, making each artist more accessible and relatable.

Q. When did you get into your art form? A. I was born the son of photographer Glen Fishback and namesake of photographer Edward Weston in 1942 and grew up as part of the photographic community in Northern California during the 1940s and '50s. Mentors and friends of the family included Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Edward Weston. My father made advertising photographs for companies like Eastman Kodak, Ansco, Honeywell, Pentax, Rolleiflex and wrote many articles on photograph while operating a portrait and wedding studio in Sacramento.

My first personal work in photography in 1962 began when I asked my dad to be my teacher. I was learning to photograph people in the street and also to document my experiences with other artists. What I learned first was the love of the fine black and white print. It was not until 1973, when my father invited me to teach at his school, the Glen Fishback School of Photography in Sacramento, that photography became my primary medium of expression.

Q. Were there other mediums you tried before? A. Despite my immersion in the world of photography during my childhood, my artistic career began focused on ceramics in the early 1960s. It was difficult in 1961 to find photography in college art departments and ceramics was already well established as a medium everywhere. The ultimate goal was to gain the degrees necessary to teach in higher education as a means of supporting a career in fine art.

It was in the early 1960s I met Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, David Gilhooly, Peter Vandenberge and others. The shift in ceramics from pottery to sculpture without a need for utilitarian function was happening fast. I was swept up by this shift at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1964 studying with Jim Melchert and Ron Nagle and became part of the movement coined by Peter Selz as “Funk Art.”

I had been exhibiting ceramic sculpture widely beginning in 1965 and in 1970 after receiving my MFA at the University of California, Davis, began my teaching career at Fayetteville State University, an all-black school in North Carolina. I taught art history and drawing. A year later I was teaching painting, drawing, design and art history at College of the Siskiyous in Weed, California. And, invitations for clay sculpture shows were still coming in. (I also taught a one year sabbatical replacement job at Sacramento City College while a grad student teaching ceramics, drawing and design 1968/69).

Q. Where do you find most your inspiration? A. I am inspired by the ready availability of ideas that flow when I simply get out of my own way and make art without trying to make things happen humanly by overthinking the process of making art. It was made clear to me early on that life is a letting process and not one that works very well when forced to fit into any particular mold.

Q. Whom do you find has influence over your work? A. My obvious influences are to this day my teachers and mentors through the years, those who shared their wisdom with me about making art and also how to be the best me I can be. Living with and growing up surrounded by creative thinkers made it impossible to consider a life without making art. I quip on occasion about those who sit on my shoulder when I make art such as Robert Arneson and my dad. Even my Grandma "B" sits there on occasion. She taught me carpentry and how to sew and embroider.

Q. How long does it usually take you to complete a photo spread? A. One of the ways I was able to gain access to well known artists with very busy schedules was that I work quite fast. I promised that I would not take more than an hour and would not bring lights or cords and work exclusively with existing light. The key is that I know the craft of photography. There is no guess-work involved. And within what I want my final print to look like, each decision as to composition, light quality and direction on my subject and what might need fixing later with predictability simply flows one by one to the best possible result. When I went to New York, for instance, in 1982, I made forty-four portraits of artists in their studios or place of choice in twenty-one days. Film was my medium then and I exposed a total of 600 frames of film for all forty-four without needing to "bracket" exposure. Every frame I exposed was usable. In other words I made about thirteen exposures per sitting with more than half posing the subject in more than one place and I had never seen my subjects' studios in advance. Oh, and another thought on time. Most of my exposures are relatively long at 1/2 to 1 second in length.

Q. What do you enjoy most about art and its creative process? A. Making art simply allows me to be in contact with my higher self and all the unseen sources of wisdom that most people are just not aware exist. Through the art-making process I not only produce finished objects to share, I also work through other problems in my life and find comfort and a sense of peace that might not be possible to experience otherwise. Over the past four months I even built a Navajo-style loom and wove a 30" x 40" blanket as a meditation practice. And, when something I have made inspires someone else, that makes me the most happy.

What is the hardest part of doing what you do? A. This is an interesting question. Usually I eschew any negative references to what I do but a thought does occur that might bare sharing.

I have been doing what I do for so long that the solution to making a good portrait and an equally fine print comes both quickly and easily for me. This does not mean that the process is in fact "easy." Also, post-production time in Photoshop preparing the files for printing with an exact thought for how those image files will print takes time and effort just as it did in the darkroom before I shifted to digital. All too often photography is taken for granted in this world of iPhones, Facebook, and Instagram. What I make takes time and an ongoing consideration of details and minute elements that most people have learned to ignore and not be aware of. It is often not what is included in each image as much as what is left out that makes it successful. And, that takes years to train the photographer's/artist's response, step by step. And astute viewers will feel the difference all of the attention I pay to my final result makes even though they don't know what it took to get there. All too often today, people are in too much of a hurry to take the time to allow themselves to both sense this difference or frankly even care. That does frustrate me at times. What good photography costs is another factor that lacks public understanding as well.

Q. Do you work from home or a studio space? A. My studio has always been in my home. When I did more commercial work much of what I made for clients was on location and did not require a large studio space. The art that I make doesn't require much space either. Now that I have made the conversion to digital photography almost completely all I need space for is my computer, scanner and professional printer. I still love making my own prints and when a larger size is necessary work with a trusted lab near home. The portraits I make are still on location and in someone's else's space. Working with existing light also makes things easier.

Q. Do you have a favorite photographer? A. I have known and know too many photographers to have one favorite. Each one has their own special message and set of abilities and ways of seeing. If I were to mention two photographers who influenced my work the most they would be Arnold Newman and Yousuf Karsh. Both were portrait photographers but their styles were very different. Since I work with existing light good "street photographers" are my biggest inspiration as they also must make their art with what exists at the time and place their image is captured.

Q. Do you have a set schedule for when you work? A. Commissioned personal portraits by clients are scheduled when they present themselves and when the funds will allow I continue to make portraits of artists. Occasionally a grant stimulates a new series of portraits such as the Leff-Davis Fund for Visual Artists which I received in October of 2014. Thirty new portraits of women artists were partially funded by that leading to two exhibitions, one at Archival Gallery in Sacramento, and the other which just came down at Transmission Gallery in Oakland. At present I am seeking further funding to continue making portraits of women artists.

Q. Are you featured in any galleries or anywhere? A. At present I don't have any work hanging in any galleries. The long-term goal however is for an exhibition of 100 portraits of women artists that will flow from support I am seeking at present.

Q. Is there anything else you want to tell us that hasn’t already been touched upon? A. I would like to add that I am grateful for opportunities like this to share my experience and what I know and feel. The portfolio of portraits of women artists that was published in Under The Gum Tree honored my photography and also the women I photographed. The primary purpose for these portraits and the project is to share women artists with the public gaining them visibility and presence in the world of fine art they might not otherwise have. My hope is that in some small way what I am doing will make a difference in someone else's life other than mine.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Camille Griep

Camille GriepCamille Griep is the author of the novel Letters to Zell, an epistolary fairy tale. She is the managing editor of Easy Street and a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Her shorter works have appeared in journals such as Cartridge LitSynaesthesia, and The First Line. She lives and writes near Seattle.

Camille's piece "Roads, Lost" is her reflection on the time she spent as a camp counselor and the roads that were traveled that summer. She explores themes of finding and losing yourself, growing into the person you hope to be, and making decisions that will potentially change the course of your life. Readers can easily relate to the emotions conveyed in this piece and the weight it places on the decisions you make when you're young.

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 am one of those writers who started my storytelling journey at a young age. Though I’ve come to realize almost no one has a “normal” childhood, writing allowed me to reshape the strange narratives of my adolescence life in comforting and therapeutic ways. In high school, I branched into journalism–a choice that led to a paying part time job in college. I realized knowing how to write would help me no matter what profession I chose and it got me through the many years of corporate America slog until I emerged on the other side, ready to give writing full time a go.My favorite aspect of writing is to fill blank spaces–and not so much the blank page, but blank spaces of existing narratives. It allows me to find empathy for the lost and the unloved and the abandoned. I think those are things that mean a great deal to me in the real world, as well.

Identifying and working full time as a writer has allowed me to understand not just artists and other art forms in a different way, it’s made me experience life and people in new ways. I’m always working and never working. The way the sun rises and sets, the radio plays, the dog naps–all of life is a story. It’s immersive and inescapable. At first that immersion scared me a bit, but I’ve given in to it and my life is richer for the surrender.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction? A. When I settled down to write for a career, I planned to jump right into novels. And I did. But about two months after I took my sabbatical, my grandfather–who was my father figure–was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It brought everything in my life to a halt, including my writing. I wondered if it was a sign from the universe, and I really questioned myself and what the hell I was doing.

From a practical standpoint, it was great because I had the flexibility to be in Montana to help out every two or three weeks. I traveled back and forth between my hometown and Seattle, taking writing classes when I could and trying to find a way to fit writing in. Novels were cleaned off the table. There wasn’t the time my brain needed to settle into a narrative structure requiring so much complexity. So I began writing flash and essays. I wrote flash because it seemed to be a discipline I could work in the time allotted. I wrote essays because Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, and so many other essayists were speaking in ways that touched me deeply and made me believe there was space for me to reach out of the darkness I found myself sinking into.

Essays were a successful format for me. I’m comfortable with my own voice, if not always the subject matter I want to talk about. I picked up a column at the now defunct Used Furniture Review and kept experimenting with form. While "Roads, Lost" is not terribly daring with its format, for me it was venturing into territory that I don’t like to be in: It is far easier to talk about pain, for me, than it is discomfort, uncertainty, unrequited love.

Fiction is an easier vehicle for those awkward moments because I can cram them into someone else’s psyche, distance myself from them. The sensationalism of fiction is attractive because it’s somewhat anonymous, or maybe at arms-length.

When I started writing, I swore to myself was that I’d never write anything I couldn’t put my name on. I’ve kept that promise, and by facing my own nonfiction from pain to embarrassment to laughter, I’ve become a braver writer, and a better one, too.

Q. Many coming of age stories examine the theme of lost innocence. Do you feel that this is true of “Roads, Lost” and in what ways? A. In my late teens to early twenties, I hadn’t yet realized how much growing up I still had to do. I changed more as a person from 20 to 25 than I have in any period of my entire life.

The tale of that particular summer at the beautiful camp on the Boulder River was the impetus, the first push/pull, the first discomfort of the sort of change that was to come–the loss of innocence being realization that I would have to make real, lasting, and sometimes painful decisions about the person I would become, the places I would live, and the priorities I would make. I hadn’t ever stood in front of a mirror before and recognized myself as two different people. For staff celebrations, I changed out of my hiking boots and into platform heels, swapped mud for eyeliner. I didn’t have any concept of middle ground, and I was, perhaps for the first time, terrified. And much of it was wrapped up in my own perception of how someone–who I had deep feelings for–perceived me.

While this was the beginning of a sort of loss of innocence in terms of personal evolution and even in the sense of “you can’t go home again,” it would still be some time before I really lost my innocence in terms of love and loss. Though I’d assumed my childhood experiences with both made me more mature than my peers, it was in fact the opposite. I’m thankful the process was a gradual one.

For me, the ultimate loss of innocence is being able to pick my head up and realize I’ve almost never been truly alone in experiencing my life’s broad spectrum of emotions. The settings may vary, but art in particular– song, dance, visual, literary–is the most direct conduit to that call and response and why, I think, as humans, as empathetic humans, we’re so drawn to it.

Q. You are also the author of the novel Letters to Zell. How does your writing itself adapt to different genres and how did this manifest itself in “Roads, Lost”? A. Sometimes I wish I could be the sort of person who specialized in things. But I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a generalist and may never be an expert at anything. I’ve held jobs from snow plow dispatcher to corporate research analyst. I’ve never been very good at sitting still. This personality trait, unsurprisingly, followed me into my writing career.

In life, I learned to write stories, then journalism, then poetry, then novels, then flash, and each has informed and enhanced the rest. Currently, I am focusing most on CNF and novels. They’re sufficiently different formats that I feel they keep me sharp, forcing me to pay attention to the ways in which I present my voice and craft my narratives.

“Roads, Lost” was written while I was still in the developmental editing process of Zell. The tiny “epistolary” chapters I used for Zell informed the dueling braids of the essay. Using two voices within an essay can be risky, but for “Roads, Lost” it was a deliberate choice–one voice still lost and dreamlike, one voice pragmatic and descriptive–to help shore up the dichotomy at the heart of the essay.

Q. Letters to Zell explores “happily ever after” and how it may be different from what was expected. How might the experiences written about in “Roads, Lost” have influence this perspective of your life? A. “Roads, Lost” addresses a painful dichotomy I found within myself at nineteen. I wanted to be two seemingly incompatible people–a badass backpacking chick and a platform heel wearing export to Los Angeles. I think the primary protagonist in Letters to Zell is dealing with some of the same.

While Cinderella (aka CeCi) wants badly to be the Princess-on-her-way-to-Queen that was part and parcel of her marriage and pre-written story, she also wants to be something else. She yearns to be the woman wrist deep in dough, sweating over an oven filled with the arts of her true calling. These two selves are seemingly incompatible, so she builds walls between herself and her friends, family, and partner in the wake of these wants.

Eventually she finds reconciliation and a new self when she finally destroys the hurdles she built for herself. It is not unlike my own journey between city and country, businesswoman and writer, pragmatist and romantic.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Nick Jaina

Nick JainaNick Jaina was born in Sacramento. He released his first book, Get It While You Can, a work of non-fiction, through Perfect Day Publishing in January 2015. The book doesn’t tell about all the great things that he has done; it shows vulnerability and struggle and how he got through that. “Because,” he says, “those are the things that have helped me the most.” He has released a handful of albums and written the music for several ballets, contemporary dance pieces, feature films, and plays. His writing has been featured in Atlantic Monthly and McSweeney’s Quarterly. You can find out more about Nick here. The excerpts in our sixteenth issue from Nick's book, Get it While you Can, are as poetic as they are unhinged. Nick's piece is lyrical and poignant, with a pitch-perfect rhythm that seamlessly weaves meditations on existence and sanity with the fabric of a musician's life.

“I’d feel embarrassed describing Nick Jaina as a genius outright, and I’m sure he’d hate that, too, but it’s so tempting—because he is so clearly the real deal.” —Morgan Troper, Portland Mercury

Q. You mention that you looked up to Cobain because he was someone who knew what it meant to be sad. But, in retrospect you say: “Now I just think of him as someone who couldn’t stop falling down and hurting himself.” Why did your view of him change so dramatically? As a teenager, why did you think it was almost noble to know what sadness truly meant? Do you still believe that it’s noble?  A. My view of Kurt Cobain changed when I got older and realized that he left behind a wife and a baby daughter. I stopped seeing his behavior as noble and started seeing it as selfish. He had been dwelling on sadness for years, even talking about suicide before he had a kid. To have a child and then exit their life in that way is just very selfish behavior, and it's disappointing that people just lionize him instead of thinking of the consequences of that behavior. I have dealt with depression and I know that it is real and heavy and no joking matter, and I have many times considered suicide, but that doesn't excuse you from the commitments you make as a husband and a father.

Q. Besides Nirvana and, more specifically, Kurt Cobain, who were your greatest musical influences? A. Later in the book I talk about some of my influences, such as Paul Simon and Tom Waits. I've always been drawn to song craftsmen who were focused on the heart, about conveying emotion rather than cleverness.

Q. When you first learned guitar, what drew you specifically to the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?  A. I was drawn to the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" because it was just so ass-kicking. I was not into hip music before, and would listen to cassette tapes of Elton John and Billy Joel. That song just kicked in the door and hit you in the face. The power of it is diminished by all the imitations that came after it, so it's hard to experience what it felt like in the early nineties, when music had been either soft rock or stupid hair metal. But it was a life-saving song for people who wanted to feel.

Q. You mention feeling anxious every time you’re waiting for your guitar at baggage claim, then relieved when you see it intact, “like a little Calvin when he takes Hobbes out of the dryer.” How does your relationship to your guitar effect your music? Do you think it’s important to care for the instruments you play, to treat them more like people instead of things? A. I think a guitar has a soul to it, and the shape and style of it leads your fingers to certain places and to write certain songs. It's the same as the way you hang out with a friend and you think of ideas that neither of you would have come up with on your own. I've never been the type of composer that can just write music on a page. I need an instrument to guide me to the soul of a song.

Q. When you stain your guitar purple, you say, “everyone thought that this discoloration came from sweat or blood and that was fine too.” Why did this rough version of love for your guitar mean so much to you? Do you think it made your relationship more meaningful, like you’d shared some sort of common experience? A. People are so afraid to personalize their world sometimes, and I just decided early on that I don't want to live my life for the re-sale. That is to say, what's the point of having something if you don't use it all up? I'm not going to just keep the action figures in the original packaging because they'll be worth more. These things were made to be used, they are crying out for the love of a rough life.

Q. What do you mean when you feel “chained” to the older music, the music you say you can’t let go of? A. Songwriters have the strange burden of having to live with their old material all the time. Audiences understandably want to hear their favorite songs, not just the new stuff that the musician is excited about. This can be difficult sometimes for the songwriter who has moved on emotionally from a particular person or a time in their life, but that time is documented by a song that people love. You want to honor people's connection to the song by playing it, but it can toss you back in past emotions that you had long since wanted to move on from.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Daisy Florin

Daisy FlorinDaisy Alpert Florin grew up in New York City and attended Dartmouth College. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Minerva Rising and Mamalode. She lives with her husband and three children in Connecticut. Daisy's piece, "Crash," is a reflection on change and the fleeting nature of life, as well as a meditation on the relationships that both bind and confound us. The story is filled with love and endearment, yet tinged with despair by the cancer that later took her mother's life.

Q. You mention that your mother always appeared to belong, to fit in with any crowd. Do you think this quality was an original part of your mother’s character, or do you see it as something of a façade? Do you notice this trait because you wish you had that same capability? A. I do think that my mother's ability to "go with the flow" and blend in with many different crowds spoke to a discomfort with herself. Remember, she was an immigrant who had left her home and family behind and completely reinvented herself on foreign land. That takes a certain personality. So that part of her always fascinated me and, to be honest, sometimes made me feel a little less than. But thinking about it now, it seems to me that it would be exhausting to always move from one crowd to the next, to not have a strong and grounded sense of self. I struggle with that sometimes myself.

Q. When your mother said “how quickly everything changes,” did you feel that she wasn’t taking the accident seriously? Like she was almost okay that it happened, so that she could have another miraculous experience? Or was this comment a genuine reflection on life? A. The accident, although it rattled me, wasn't in fact very serious and my mother could see it as such. She was an incredibly strong person who cut through life like a knife; she didn't let that much get to her. But I think she approached her illness in the same way and because of that, it completely blindsided her--and everyone around her. I think that she died still fighting for her life and didn't have a chance to reconcile anything before the end. I think that's why her death didn't seem peaceful to me, just violent and uprooting.

Q. Was mentioning the fact that your mother might not be able to wear the skirt the first time either of you had acknowledged the illness’s gravity? Do you think this changed your relationship with your mother in any way? A. Yes, this was the first time any of us--me, my mother, my father, brother, other family--acknowledged that her illness was quite grave. I'm not sure I captured in words how powerful that quick glance she gave me was. I could tell then that underneath her facade, she was afraid, and that my question about the skirt parted the curtain on that fear, at least for a moment.

Q. How did your relationship with your mother change after the accident, and after she was diagnosed with cancer? A. When my mother first told me she had cancer, over the phone, I burst into tears. That seems like an obvious reaction, I suppose, but we were not that kind of family. As I helped my mother during her illness, I realized for the first time in my life that I was an adult, that I was THE adult, in fact. She had never shown any vulnerability at all, so that was a tremendous change.

Q. Was the crash a precursor to your mother’s death, a way of seeing her as a real person with weaknesses, with fears, instead of such a whimsical and mysterious person? A person without flaws altogether? A. It was only after she died, less than a year after the accident, that I saw any connection between the two events. I had a family friend once ask me if I thought the accident caused the cancer, that the jolt unleashed something inside her. I'm not sure I believe that but I suppose it's possible. I never saw my mother as a person without flaws, but I was only 27 when she died, not quite mature enough to see her as an adult who had made compromises and mistakes just like anyone else.

Q. Did your mother encourage you to adventure, to experience, to lead a magical life? If so, is that why you felt as if she’d left you, stuck in the same place after her death? A. My mother was certainly a more adventurous person than I was. She brought things to my life that no one was ever able to replace. When she died, there was so much she took with her. I felt abandoned by her for a long time.

Q. Do you feel that writing this story helped you gain a sense of closure and reconciliation with your mother’s death? Or did it dredge up the emotions you’d left untouched and unfelt for so long? A. I read a version of this story at my mother's memorial service fifteen years ago. Her death felt like a kind of accident and so I couldn't help but connect the two. I have been trying to tell this story ever since and it has had many iterations since then. Time has reconciled me to my mother's death and my life has, in many ways, grown around her absence, like a knot in a tree. I write about her often as I move further into adulthood and start to see her with adult eyes. I try to understand the kind of woman she was, how I am like her, how I am different. She gave me so many gifts, ones I use every day. I would be nothing without her. Nor would I be the same person if she were still here.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Alaina Symanovich

Alaina SymanovichAlaina Symanovich recently graduated from Penn State University with her master’s in English/Creative Writing. She has committed to the MFA program at Florida State University, where she will concentrate in creative nonfiction. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth River, The Offbeat, Word Riot, as well as other journals. She has a book of poetry forthcoming from Damaged Goods Press. You can find Alaina online here.

Alaina's piece, "Potato Salad Portraits" blends prose and poetry as she examines the constants and the inescapable changes in life. With a unique form and insightful narration, this piece walks the line between emotion and fact and leaves room for the reader to relate to the piece in a way that speaks to their life.


Q. When and why did you start writing? What do you enjoy most about writing and how has writing shaped other aspects of your life? A. I've been writing since I was in elementary school; I think I was drawn to storytelling as a way of empowering myself. I was an extremely timid child, mortified to sneeze in public or raise my hand in class. I found a lot of comfort in locking myself in my bedroom and creating a written world that wasn't so intimidating. I'd like to believe that, over time, writing has become less about escaping my reality and more about understanding it, but I still sometimes run to my laptop for comfort just as I ran to my blue cheetah-print notebook.

Q. What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction? A. I have the opposite problem of most writers: I can't divorce my life from my writing. If I'm caught up in an intense emotion, it shows in my work. I am my own embarrassing parent, over-sharing about everything from bed-wetting to disastrous first dates.

Q. How did you choose the subject for “Potato Salad Portraits”? A. I was in a fiction workshop at Penn State (where I earned my BA and MA degrees), and one of our weekly prompts was to write about something you might find in the refrigerator.

Q. The format of “Potato Salad Portraits” is fairly unique for a nonfiction piece. Did you consciously decide on this format and how do you feel it affected the piece? A. This piece sprung up at an interesting time in my writing life. I'd just been introduced to the wacky miracle that is a prose poem and I was dying to experiment with the genre. I'd also just been introduced to the concept of the 100-Word story, which I saw as an exciting challenge. I think the marriage of these two forms helped make the prose poems truer to my memory than longer, detailed vignettes would have been.  After all, most of the prose poems focus on memories that are more emotional than concrete. I reflect on these moments and I can recall the blue of the sky or the music of my family's laughter, but I can't recall nearly enough to flesh out an essay.

Q. “Potato Salad Portraits” is also a very short piece. How did you navigate writing the details and conveying emotions throughout this piece? A. I drafted this piece quickly, without allotting much time for self-consciousness or second-guessing. I was in the mood to take a risk, so that's what I did: I wrote what I felt without filtering or editing. (Though editing did happen later!) I wanted to be raw and honest with my writing in a way that would allow readers to connect with my memories. Hopefully, that approach made this piece emotionally available--brevity and all.

Q. You have a book of poetry titled Fortune that is forthcoming. How do you navigate the space between poetry and prose when you write? Do you feel like these two styles overlap in your writing? A. To this day, I'll deny that I'm a poet to anyone who will listen. I haven't been writing poetry for very long, so I feel this enormous, intimidating chasm between "real poets" and myself. With that said, I like the idea of allowing the two styles to overlap in my writing. There's no bigger compliment than when someone says that my prose is like poetry.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Tasha Cotter

Tasha Cotter IITasha Cotter’s first full-length collection of poetry, Some Churches, was released in 2013 with Gold Wake Press. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her work has appeared in journals such as Contrary MagazineNANO fiction, and Booth. A graduate of the University of Kentucky and the Bluegrass Writers Studio, she lives in Lexington, Kentucky where she works in higher education. You can find her online here.


 Tasha's piece, "And How to be Alone," is being featured in the Stomping Ground category of our sixteenth issue. Her story is a requiem for the loss of her parents' marriage as well as a bittersweet reflection on her relationship with her father. The piece addresses life's changeability and the unrelenting pressure we feel to find continuity. Both embittered and loving, Tasha's story is a meditation on relationships and how they effect us.


Q. How were you affected by your parents’ divorce? A. Their separation had a huge impact on me, which was surprising. I still feel like I’m sorting it out. I was in my mid-twenties at the time and had never been especially close to either of my parents, but they were together for nearly thirty years. I think the shock stemmed from the immediate change in priorities and identity. I prioritized understanding what I was being told. If they were really separating, I needed to understand why that was happening. As a daughter, I was used to the foundation and solid ground their union provided. There was a comfort in that knowledge and a clarity about who I was and who my family was. Feeling their union fragment and shift shook up my life. Things changed shape. They changed color. For a while, nothing seemed rooted to the ground, and nothing felt safe.

Q. What kind of relationship did you have with your mother? Do you feel like your relationship with your mother was stronger than your relationship with your father?  A. I’ve always been closer to my mother, simply because she was the parent who really raised my brother and me. She shuttled us to school, to after school activities, she attended band concerts, and was an active member of the PTA. I could go on and on. My mother did it all (and managed their store in town while doing so). In short, she spent a lot more time interacting with us. My father worked from sun up until sun down—he defined himself as being a provider. That’s just how he interpreted the role of being a father. Farming and factory work are two of the primary industries in the area I grew up in (south central Kentucky). I come from a long line of farmers. And making a living farming is extraordinarily difficult. This is what led him to construction. His days were spent working on the farm or at the fence store—a company he started with my mother over two decades ago. It’s still in business today.

Q. You mention that your father’s ability to get the divorce court judge to appear on a Sunday was a “testament” to his good reputation. Did other peoples’ views of your father change the way you saw him? Did you feel like he deserved the reputation he had, or did you see him differently than most people? A. Growing up, I saw my dad as most girls see their dads: they’re like superman. They can do anything. And they make the rules. My dad was my hero, albeit distant hero. When I was told my mom and dad were separating, something in that shiny, unspoiled view began to crack, and a new, truer picture of who he was began to take shape. Sure, my dad—and my family, for that matter—had a good reputation (which is awfully important in the south). My parents had a business in town. My family attended church every Sunday. But my perception began to change. I began to see how my family had been struggling for a long time actually, to stay together despite being broken apart by secrets and poisoned by lingering disagreements and distrust. When so much goes unsaid, it creates this toxic environment, or at least it did in my family. For a long time, there was no lightness, and no laughter. I could feel how uneasy they were around each other in the year leading up to their separation. It was like they had each other on mute. In short, everything came into focus the moment the word “divorce” was spoken. One thing came to an end and a new reality began.

Q. Divorce is an experience many of us have endured, or will endure one day. Often it makes us feel unstable, insecure in the life we’re used to. We feel blindsided, either by our parents or our significant other. Did your parents’ divorce make you see your own life in a different way? Did it change your relationships with other people? A. Their divorce had a profound impact on me. They say hindsight is 20/20, and at the time, their separation was as inconceivable to me as it was inevitable. It confused me and made me question everything. I’d childishly assumed they would manage to stay married forever, despite their differences. Above all, their separation made me realize I’d had a very good childhood, and was lucky, in a lot of ways, to have had such a balanced childhood. I’d taken that for granted. But their divorce had a huge impact on how I judged relationships, and how I went about deciding when a relationship was worth saving and when it couldn’t be saved. These were all things I thought I knew in my early twenties, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t have a clear idea of what relationships could weather and what they couldn’t. I thought I had a lot figured out, and turns out I didn’t. Not really, anyway. Life swooped in and became the teacher, as it has a way of doing. Their separation was a snap-to in a lot of ways. In an odd way, I feel like it helped me grow up. It put all my ill-formed theories about love and naïve ideas about marriage to the test.

Q. How would you describe your relationship with your father before the divorce, and subsequently after the divorce? Did the separation change your relationship in any significant way? A. I have always looked up to my father. He’s the hardest working guy I know. I just wish I had a closer relationship to him. In some ways, I feel like I inherited his need for solitude and space. My dad was always happiest walking the land, checking on the crops and the livestock. He thrives on the outdoors just like I do. But he’s never satisfied, and his extreme focus on providing for me and my family sort of ruled out any chance for a close relationship. He was simply gone all the time, or completely exhausted from work. I think their separation made the two of us closer, because I instinctively felt the need to reach out to him and insist on knowing how his day was and what was going on with him. At the time I just felt like my family was this tiny beautiful thing that had just been hit by a giant meteorite, pieces flying through space. We were all spinning away from each other, and I knew we had to stay in sight of each other if we were going to be anything at all. I felt like my dad would close himself off if I let him, so I had to work to keep the line of communication open. My dad is a very guarded person in a lot of ways. He and I both are, I guess. But we did get a little closer, and I’m glad we did.

Gum Tree Live

Under the Gum Tree Live

So, you missed our most recent Under the Gum Tree Live reading which featured four contributors from our sixteenth issue. Well don’t worry, reader! You can still watch every minute of it here. We had fun, as did our readers, and you can too: just click play or follow this link to see the video on YouTube. 

We were thrilled to hear from four of the authors featured in our sixteenth issue! Many thanks to Tasha Cotter, Daisy Florin, Nick Jaina, and Camille Griep for reading. It's events like Gum Tree Live that keep us engaged and human in this age of technology. Get connected, watch our video!

Meet the Artist

Meet the Author: Susannah Clark

Dsq8ULG1V1Emz2Whd0Rd2qtJuZSWJlKut4yI13kYZ34Susannah Clark received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College in Boston, where she also taught creative writing and freshman composition. Her work has appeared in publications such as Inside Higher Ed, Extract(s), Rock & Sling and others. She recently won Flyway journal’s Notes on a Field contest in nonfiction, for her personal essay about working as a barista during the Boston Marathon Bombings. She lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Susannah's piece is a bittersweet reflection on adolescence and the confounding experiences that shape our teenage selves. An encounter with the 2002 horror film, Signs, serves as both a love letter to youth compounded by the treacherousness of becoming an adult.

Q. The story seems to be a coming-of-age piece but also a loving requiem for youth and its fleeting nature. Youth is an incredibly unique experience because we all must endure it, and we seem to detest being young in the moment. But when we look back, we miss our years of freedom and mistake-making with impunity. Why do you think youth is so painful at the time, but we look back on it fondly? Or do you still see youth as a painful period in your life? A. I think there's a distinction between being nostalgic for something and looking back on it fondly. While growing older has put much of my adolescent struggles in perspective, I don't think of my emotional reactions, however melodramatic, as invalid. I'm less nostalgic for the events themselves, and more so for the capacity to feel anything so strongly at all.

Q. Is there beauty in growing up slowly?  A. There is, but it might be superficial. How you cope with the harsh realities of adulthood carries more significance than how long it took you to realize them.

Q. After watching Signs for the second time, did you remember the whole experience in a different light? Or did your memory of that night remain unchanged?  A. I would say the act of writing the essay influenced my perception of that evening more so than just watching the film again. The substance of memory didn't change, it just became more meaningful. As the essay indicates, I did watch Signs one lonely night in my twenties, but in order to write piece I had to re-watch certain scenes over and over as I reconstructed my teenage viewing and my most recent viewing. You'd be surprised at how much vividness can accumulate when you pause to conjure a single moment, either in the distant or recent past.

Q. How did your own biases and opinions change the tone of the story, in terms of how you described the characters and events?  A. I'm certain that this story would be remembered completely differently from the perspective of anyone else who attended the movie with me ten years ago--it likely wouldn't seem like a night worth writing about at all. It's impossible for me to determine how much of my memory is photographed and how much of it is painted. I wrote the only version I had.

Q. When you say, “the past feels cheap,” do you mean it feels less important, less romantic, or less beautiful in some way? Why does our perception of the past, and our own lives, become so distorted over time?  A. By "cheap" I meant that it was too easy to channel, that we use much less energy to remember than we used to. The importance, romance, and beauty we assign to memories doesn't necessarily disappear or decrease. We just get bored with it. If we had less exposure to those photos and songs and films--if we had to dig them out of box in the basement rather than swiping right or clicking on a link--we might appreciate the memories more.

Q. Why did you choose to stop watching the movie? Did you find it too painful a reminder of that night, or did it change your perception of your youth in a way you never wanted it to? Do you wish you hadn’t dredged up this memory? A. I stopped watching the film because the film stopped streaming--the illegal downloading service I used cut it off and asked me to pay for a subscription. Obviously I could have searched for another site and finished the last ten minutes elsewhere, but the irony was too tempting. Whether or not it was a sign from an outside force, I decided to take it as one. I don't regret re-evaluating this memory because it led to a few revelations, some of which I thought were worth writing about.

Q. Is there anything else you want to add about this piece?  A. I still have not seen the end of Signs, and do not intend to.


Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: Gale Hart

A childhood fascination with creating objects out of nuts, bolts, scrap metal, and wood evolved into an intensely energetic creative drive. From monumental canvases to metal sculpture, Sacramento-based artist Gale Hart's repertoire of visual images grabs, engages, and speaks volumes about universal humanity.

A Narration characterized by humor, angst, and sarcasm presents itself through a constantly evolving cast of characters, Hart's sculptures parallel her paintings, with the visual language remaining constant, her narrative composition, ordered geometry, and color choices. Regarding her recent series of gun sculptures, Hart states:

I think the idea that weapons are needed to keep the peace is a disturbing concept. I wanted to explore this controversial topic in depth, so I decided to take a shot at participating in the gun culture while trying to remain receptive and detached. I began by attending a gun show and later arranged an opportunity to shoot a variety of firearms. Having a weapon in my hand I finally got what "gun control" really is. I marveled at the seemingly "automatic" power I had while being armed and how easily I could have controlled the fate of another. I had to keep the peace, I felt I also held the potential so simultaneously destroy it. The gun show I attended was a place where touching, holding, and caressing is encouraged. This was where I witnessed gun lust first hand. My conclusion, there are no machines in the world that are so varied, so beautifully sculpted, and yet equally so disturbing as firearms.

Here follows Gale's interview and her most recent series of gun sculptures that we've featured throughout our issue. If you want to know more about Gale, her creative processes, and her work, you can visit her website here.

Q: When did you get into your art form? A: I have spent my career testing out every possible medium and materials I could. I have been doing the gun sculptures for about a year and a half.

Q: Were there other mediums you tried before?A: Everything from sewing to bending, grinding, and welding steel. Painting and drawing included. The only thing I have not done is work in glass. But I do have an idea that would require cast glass so ya never know.

Q: Where do you find most your inspiration? A: Hypocrisy, corruption, bad communication, unfairness, politics, and animal abuse.

Q: Whom do you find has influence over your work? A: I really don't have particular artist but more art movements that influence me. Like street art or industrial design etc. I can see a piece of vintage furniture and that can get the wheels turning. I also like art that is painstakingly done. Laurie Lipton comes to mind.

Q: How long does it usually take you to complete a piece? A: The smaller gun sculptures take about a full work week. It all varies.

Q: What do you enjoy most about art and its creative process?  A: Thinking about how to make something work. I like spending time in my head creating.

Q: What is the hardest part of doing what you do?  A: Lifting and grinding steel.

Q: Do you work from home or a studio space?  A: A studio with lots of tools.

Q: Do you have a favorite artist for any reason?  A: Elisabeth Higgins O'Connor. Elisabeth can do amazing sculptures out of fabric that just blow my mind. She creates details that make blobs of fabric come to life and are reminiscent of vintage cartoon characters. Jeff Christensen. Jeff is an oil painter who has a surrealist style who really gets to the point with his narratives on politics and other atrocities. Liza Lou and her insane bead work really intrigues me. I like Retna too. I could go on and on, there are so many artist that I like and it changes all the time who I really like.

Q: Do you have a set schedule for when you work?  A: I work my ass off night and day for months at a stretch then take a month off from exhaustion.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Sara Dobie Bauer

Sara Dobie Bauer is a writer and prison volunteer in Pheonix, Arizona, with an honor's degree in creative writing from Ohio University. She is a book nerd and sex-pert at, and her short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Stoneslide Corrective, Blank Fiction, and Solarcide. Her short story, "Don't Ball the Boss," was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize. You can read more about Sara at her blog here.

Sara’s piece, “You Were Here,” is her visceral and emotional retelling of how a place, such as a family home that you’ve grown up in and visited for thirty-some-odd years, ultimately shapes the person you become. Sara's piece is also an exploration of both the haunting question of how memories and people, whether long or recently departed, continue to stay with us, and how feelings are individually linked to the memories we have and to the people of whom we have them.

Down below, you can see four pictures taken of Sara's family and her childhood home which encompass the heart behind her wanting to write this piece.

Q: This story is incredibly warm, but also tinged with feelings of emptiness; wishing you'd done more with the time you had. Was the intent of this story to process the emotions centered around your Papa’s death, and to accept the idea that things change, or was it an attempt to salvage some of the memories that were becoming clouded over time? A: Truth? I flew home to Perrysburg under emotional duress, knowing we would soon sell my grandparents’ house. I arrived at the house on Walnut Street. I asked to be left alone, and I opened a beer. Then, I carried my computer from room to room and just … wrote. And cried. Lots of crying. I wrote this entire essay in one sitting with the help of three beers and a box of tissues.

The intent was selfish. I did want to remember things (record them for posterity), but I wrote the essay to help me process the horrible ache in my heart at the thought of never again setting foot in my grandparents’ home. When the essay was finished, I showed it to one person who cried and cried over it. When I told her it was being published, she was shocked I’d even sent it out for consideration. She thought it was too personal.

Q: Once others who have been so monumental in our lives have passed, it’s hard to accept the idea that we can't tell them a joke we liked—that they would have liked too, or a song we want them to hear. It's hard to not pick up the phone and feel that it’s still possible to call them. Do you feel like this story and writing in general, have helped you to find peace with these feelings that arise? A: Writing is a form of exorcism. Many of my stories are recycled nightmares that won’t leave me alone, that would fester if left inside my brain and not set free on an unsuspecting populace. However, I’ve never had peace. This morning, my dog fell asleep on one of my grandfather’s sweaters, and I felt distinctly not peaceful. Is this bad? This lack of peace? No. If I found peace, I probably would stop writing. I would stop feeling the need to keep going, keep creating.

Peace sounds very nice in the Biblical sense and in beauty pageants. In life, peace feels like a glassy pool, left to stagnate. We live with adversity. If we didn’t have a force pushing against us, we wouldn’t push back. In the pushing, we find our strength.

Q: When you were experiencing the apex of these emotions, was there anyone who truly understood what you felt? Your brother, who was present in all of the memories you recounted us, perhaps? A: Feelings are individualized entities. Do I feel like my family could relate to this piece? Of course. Did anyone TRULY understand? I’m not sure. A writer’s mind is a strange place. Our imaginations are so visceral. For me, I can pull up a memory from ten years ago and feel like I’m there (a blessing and curse; more often, curse).

What’s interesting about my brother is that he’s a writer, too, but we operate with different intent. Matt keeps a distance from his creation. He can be very satirical and dark, but he rarely brings his own life into the mix. I think the way I open my heart for scrutiny scares him a little. Could he have written and shared “You Were Here”? No, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel it.

Q: The theme of change is prevalent in your story. Many of the characters appear to evolve, but the traditions of the family remain untouched—even the detail of the thirty-year-olds sitting on the floor, despite the fact that they're adults. Why do you think we tend to hold on to our traditions so tightly?  A: No matter what happened, there was always the tradition of Christmas for my family. On December 24th, we knew exactly where we were going to be and what we were going to be doing. There was comfort in that repetition—in the knowledge that even if the rest of the world is turning cattywumpus, Christmas waits. The same goes for any tradition. Traditions ground us and define our identities, even subconsciously. When those traditions are gone, we lose a part of ourselves. This is why we hold on so tightly; it’s horrible when we feel a part of ourselves die.

Q: Do you believe the line between memories and reality is blurred in this story, or do you think you portrayed the events as they actually happened? If all the family members in this piece were to read this, would they feel it was an accurate representation?  A: This story is my reality, and memories form that reality. To me, these are the events as they actually happened. For the rest of my family, probably not. We all see life through our own rose-tinted glasses (or blue-tinted, yellow-tinted … you get the idea). I imagine some of my family members might be annoyed by the way I see “us.”

In my mom’s case, I sent her the printed version of the story in Under the Gum Tree. She initially planned to skim the first paragraph. Twenty minutes later, she’d read the whole thing and called to thank me—thank me for putting our family on the page. That’s what “You Were Here” is: a retelling so that when my own memories start to fade, I will have a story to look back on. A time machine to remembrance.

Q: Do you find there is a difference between memories and ghosts?  A: They both have the power to haunt us but, in equal turn, bring us joy. Memories exist like shadows in the corner of the room. We know the memories are there, but if we turn too fast, we scare them away. Also, if we spend too much time with those memories, we become ghosts. We forget to live.

Q: When you write that you “believe the past is alive,” how are we to interpret this? Are we to believe that the past is an electric collection of these memories preserved in physical retainers, such as the rooms in your grandparents' house, and in their possessions, even in our own bodies and minds? Or could it be that regardless of our efforts to keep the past alive, it will still pervade our lives in ways that we can’t control?  A: The past is alive because it lives on through us, via stories, traditions, and even dreams. For instance, I often dream of the house on Walnut Street. In those dreams, my family is alive and together. They will never die. It’s like the saying, “What we do now echoes in eternity.” The past was once the present, so live the present in a way that will make the past a happy, meaningful place to recall.

Q: Do you have anything else to share about this piece that hasn’t yet been touched upon? Did you have a favorite room or favorite particular memory in the house?  A: Favorite room: The basement. Why? The Ping-Pong table. We left it behind when we sold the house in the hopes that it would find players again—in the hopes that children’s laughter will again echo beside the ricochet of a plastic ball bouncing, bouncing.

My favorite memory is and always will be one of the final Christmases we had together before Barney died. I bought Papa his first bottle of expensive gin. He played swing music on a record player in the kitchen. We all danced—all of us. We all laughed and got along. No one was sick or dying or sad. Looking back, this might have been the last time we were all together as a family. The last Christmas before Christmas changed forever. Is that why it’s my favorite memory—simply because it was our last as a collective? Or is this my favorite memory because we were all, unabashedly, happy to be alive, together, in the house on Walnut Street?


May '15 Contributor News

We like to stay in touch with our contributors and celebrate recent accomplishments, like awards, book deals, and solo art shows. Here's the latest news from several of our previous contributors.

Past contributor, Samuel Autman, has been chosen as the first place winner in the SLS-Disquiet 2015 Literary Contest in the nonfiction category for his essay, "Invisible Nails." Samuel has an MFA in nonfiction form Columbia University and is part of the creative writing faculty at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he teaches journalism and creative writing. His work has appeared in Brevity, Postcard Memoirs, I'm Black and I Travel, The Q Review, and RESILIENCE. Samuel's piece, "The Tongues of Angels" appears in our seventh issue. His award-winning piece, "Invisible Nails" was selected from more than 1,000 entries.


Timothy Kenny, a former newspaperman, non-profit foundation executive and college journalism professor, has reported widely from Central and Eastern Europe, including Croatia and Bosnia during the early stages of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. Timothy has also taught journalism as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bucharest. We had the honor of publishing his piece “Turning Sixty-Six and Six in Umbria” in our sixth issue, and most recently that same essay has been published in a book of his collected essays, Far Country:                                                                                                            Stories from Abroad and Other Places. His book is                                                                                                    set for release this month; for preordering, you can                                                                                                    find it available here.

Penny Guisinger, published in our ninth issue, lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. She is the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Proseand herwork has appeared in Fourth GenreSolstice Literary Magazine, and About Place Journal, and her reviews appear regularly in The Quoddy Tides and The Review ReviewPenny has recently signed her first-ever book contract with Vine Leaves Press for her collection of micro-essays called Postcards From Here, which will be published in spring 2016. The manuscript was a finalist in the annual Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Contest, and was chosen for publication.

Chris Wiewiora, published in our fourth issue, live in Ames, Iowa where he managed Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment and where he earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. He serves on the editorial board of BULL: Men’s Fiction and an assistant editor for About Place–the journal of the Black Earth Institute. Currently, Chris has had an essay republished in Story Magazine and has also just signed a contract to have an essay reprinted in the fourteenth edition of The Norton Reader of Nonfictioncoming out in January 2016.


Jane Garrett Ryder, contributing artist form our tenth issue, was born and raised in Illinois. In 2005 she received her BFA from Bradley University and went on to get her MFA at Northern Illinois University. Jane describes her paintings as a right-brained approached to observing, dissecting and recording the objective subject matter found in lakes, rivers, prairies and forests of south central Iowa. Jane has two upcoming solo shows: at the Silverwood Gallery in St. Anthony Minnesota in August, and at the Wakely Gallery at Illinois Weslyan University in January 2016.

Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: Larry Blackwood

Larry Blackwood is a self-taught fine art photographer with over forty years of experience. Born and raised in Kansas, he has lived in Montana for thirty-two years. He earned a PhD on statistics and worked in the field for thirty years while pursuing photography part time. In 2007 he switched to photography full time. Larry has had major solo exhibitions in a number of venues, including Wichita Art Museum, Center for Contemporary Arts, Museum of Idaho, Hockaday Museum of Art, Art Museum of Southeast Idaho, Viewpoint Photogrpahic Art Center, Holter Museum of Art, and Emerson Center for Art and Culture.

His work his been published in major fine art photography publications including Lenswork, B&W, Shots, Color, and Best of Photography Annual. Awards in international photography competitions include the World Photography Awards and the B&W Spider Awards. He has also received grays sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the states of Montana and Idaho.

This summer you can find Larry's work at six different outdoor art festivals in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and California. As the dates get closer, more information and updates for these showings will be available at Larry's website, where you can also see more of his work.

Q: When did you get into your art form? A: As a young teenager in the sixties, like a lot of other kids my age, I was big into following the space program. I was fascinated by the whole thing, in particular the photos taken from space. Eventually, I started building model rockets that actually shot several hundred feet up. When they came out with a model that had a camera, I bought one. It used small circular pieces of black-and-white film (about 2” in diameter). Developing the film and getting prints of the images required special processing that I could not really afford, so my father showed me how to use his old darkroom equipment to produce contact prints. Later I bought an old enlarger to make bigger prints. At some point, on a trip to the camera store to buy developer and paper, I discovered some Edward Weston prints hanging on the wall. In particular I remember his famous nautilus shell photo. That was pretty inspiring, and since I was having so much fun in the darkroom, I borrowed my dad’s camera and went out taking photos of just about anything that looked interesting to me. I don’t know if I thought it was art at the time, but it was challenging and fun. Within a couple of years I took an abstract photo that I still like a lot today that was published in a Kodak-sponsored photography contest in the local newspaper. That pretty much validated photography as an art form for me.

Q: Were there other mediums you tried before?  A: I did some wood carving for a number of years, and while I enjoyed it, it never really became an avocation the way photography has.

Q: Where do you find most your inspiration? A: My general interests and my photographic interests as well are very eclectic, so the inspiration for my work is I suppose equally eclectic and drawn from everything else that I do. I pursue subjects varying from street photography to abstracts, landscapes, nature, and architecture. Visiting art museums is one of my favorite ways to stimulate my photographic interests. I find that viewing fine art, no matter what the medium or subject matter, is very effective in stimulating the creative parts of my brain.

Q: Whom do you find has influence over your work?  A: There is no singular person I could say has a huge influence over my work. Works by early pictorialist and modernist photographers such as Stieglitz, Steichen, Weston, and Strand shaped my approach to photography more than anything I suppose.

Q: How long does it usually take you to complete a piece? A: I work with digital photographic tools which people often assume to be a pretty simple process. But it can be really demanding and tedious at times. And of course the process also involves acquiring a good image to work with in the first place. I spend hours sometimes wandering around with a camera without getting any workable photographs. Other times interesting results occur on the spur of the moment. On the processing end of the effort, some images require very little work in the digital darkroom. Other images however take hours to perfect to my satisfaction. Recently I worked on a particular image off and on for several weeks and consulted a printing expert in regard to colors etc. before I was able to get a reasonable starting print. Even then I printed and tweaked the image 20 more times before finally getting it just the way I wanted.

Q: What do you enjoy most about art and its creative process? A: As an art form, photography gives me a way to express a side of myself that has no other outlet. It also at times provides a surprising portal to a connection with the world outside myself that seems beyond the usual. I think it is chasing and occasionally acquiring that elusive feeling that is the most enjoyable reward.

Q: What is the hardest part of doing what you do? A: I think emotionally the hardest part of doing any artistic work is overcoming the fear of inadequacy to the task. It takes a certain amount of confidence, of ego and perhaps at times even a bit of hubris to think that one has something worthwhile to contribute to the art world. Comparing my work to that of other artists can certainly be sobering but the real issue is internal; can I meet the standards of performance and progress I set for myself? On the worst days those thoughts can be debilitating and counterproductive. But in general the desire to meet those self-imposed standards is a strong incentive to keep plugging away in spite of whatever discouraging results present themselves.

Q: Do you work from home or a studio space? A: I’ve always worked from a studio at home. We recently built a new home in which more space than I deserve has been given over to my photography work.

Q: Do you have a favorite artist for any reason? A: I do not have a favorite artist I can identify. I think my interests are too eclectic for that!

Q: Do you have a set schedule for when you work? A: I do not work on a set schedule. Since taking early retirement from a scientific job eight years ago I have the luxury of working on my photography about any time I wish to, which usually amounts to 40 or 50 hours a week.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Claudia Pierce

Claudia Pierce lives in San Francisco. Finding beauty and inspiration in nearly everything, she believes that all of life tells a story if one is willing to stop and listen. She is working on creating a workshop to help others find these stories within themselves, and bring them to light. In her spare time, she can be found exploring her city’s hilly terrain, painting or coloring, and convincing her two cats that a laptop is not their personal Barcalounger.

Claudia's piece, "Fea," is the transformative story of one young woman changing her self-image and her own perception of self, after years of being called what may have seemed like an innocent and affectionate enough nickname by her mother—Fea, or Ugly, in English. Her story reminds us that it's truly never too late, or even too bleak, to turn your life into one you can be happy to live and to have. "Fea" is rich with intimate experience and life lessons, but if anything should be gleaned at all, it's that life is beautiful, and for us to discover it, we must first be able to find the beauty within ourselves.

Q: Your piece is an extraordinary one in terms of the emotional and psychological distress that an individual is able to endure for years and to overcome, but also in demonstrating just how powerful the use of words and labels can be. Do you mind telling us how you actually came to understand the transaction in the pizzeria between you and the young man who—in his mind—was only “paying you a compliment"?A: It actually took me a long time to come to terms with what happened in the pizzeria that night. I think mostly, I was embarrassed, and didn't like to think about the incident too much. It wasn't until much later in life, when I finally started doing work to love myself that I looked back and realized "Oh, wow, he was really just expressing his kind thoughts, and I'm the one who assumed that he was mocking me, because I couldn't accept that anyone could see me as anything but ugly." It was a stark realization, but only came once I was ready to see things from a perspective other than the one I'd known my whole life. I suppose the Anais Nin quote is true: "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Q: In reading your piece, readers may be struck by one of Dale Carnegie’s old principles: “Give a Dog a Good Name.” Ultimately the thinking behind this metaphor is that with whatever you have influence over, (Carnegie uses the dog example because of the dynamic of power between owner and pet), you need to encourage and uphold that person or thing to a fine reputation so that he/she or it may be able to live up to said reputation. You mention that in growing up and making it through high school you were shy, but how much, if any, of your shyness do you think spawned from your childhood nickname?A: I would say a good deal of my shyness spawned from my childhood nickname. I think what I labeled "shyness" was really just a product of low self-esteem. I thought "well, why bother asking that boy out, or going to this dance, or asking someone to hang out, because I don't deserve any of that." I don't lay blame on my mother or anyone for my shyness, or my actions growing up, but it would be silly to think this name (and others) didn't contribute, at least in part, to my lack of self-worth.

Q: In your piece there’s not a periphery of many characters, mainly your mother, you, and some supporting roles, so to speak. You mention a young nephew toward the end, but from the beginning of the narrative, readers are never overtly introduced to siblings. Were you the older of children or younger?A: I have one older sibling, my sister. I am the youngest child in my immediate family, and until the next generation started (once I was already an adult), I was also the youngest person in my extended family.

Q: Did your mother have any other characteristic nicknames for your siblings?A: My sister never received a nickname, nor did any other member of our family. My mother calling me this seems to have been random. Even when I've asked my mother what prompted her to start using the name, she hasn't been able to explain it.

Q: Interesting is your mother’s reasoning behind why she saw no fault or ill intention in calling you “Fea," or rather, Ugly. This argument is an age-old one too, as such discussion over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis demonstrates. Does language truly affect the perceptions of reality of we speakers and thus influence our thought patterns, or are words really just symbols, either on the page or spoken, that we then assign arbitrary meaning to? Obviously you found an ingenious way or explicating to your mother the former, that words really do bear weight and influence over us. How did the insight of handling that finally come to you?A: Funny enough, it wasn't something that required much thought. I honestly didn't plot out a way to get back at her, or to make her understand.  My solution was really a spur-of-the-moment thing that came about when she began the nickname with my nephew. I think it came full circle at that time, because to me he was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and I realized that our words and thoughts can lie to us. I imagined this beautiful little person growing up thinking he was ugly for absolutely no reason, and I couldn't bear that. I knew I had to step in, and the idea of giving her a taste of her own medicine came to me in the moment. I went with that route partially because it was something my young nephew could understand and follow, and also because, ironically, my mother is hyper-sensitive to how words are used toward her. She will dissect anything said to her, and try to find the criticism in it, so I figured it was best to serve her what she had been dishing out for so many years. Fortunately, it worked.  I only wish I'd thought of it sooner, though again, I think it took witnessing the situation as an outside party to give me the clarity, motivation and courage.

Q: What you went through, and what your self-esteem and perception sustained over the years really is grueling; to the extent that many of us will never be able to fully relate firsthand, even if we have undergone similar treatment in various other areas of our lives. How strongly do you hold what you learned from that experience and how much do you take-away, turning it into instruction on how to lead life?A: It took me a long time to realize that my experience wasn't "normal." I'd been called ugly so much that in my head, I was just ugly. I speak to that in the piece some—to me, it was as plain as saying the sky is blue. So, in many ways, I didn't realize it was a grueling journey, until I really set out to change my self-perception and start on the path of loving myself. Then, it became a fight; a fight between what I wanted to believe, and what I'd long accepted as fact. Now, I'm honestly grateful for the experience, because it has taught me a great deal. Mostly, it taught me not to believe everything you think. A perfect example of this is that for years I had a phobia of singing, because I believed fully that I was tone deaf. I loved to sing, but never would, because sadly (woe is me), I was horribly tone deaf. I told myself this for decades. Eventually, I decided to take a voice lesson to see if it could be remedied in any way, to make my voice at least somewhat bearable. I took that voice lesson, and I'm not tone deaf at all. I was just singing in the wrong key because I have a low speaking voice and assumed I had a low singing voice. Nope, I'm a total break-a-glass soprano, with a really good ear, and it turns out I love to sing. So, just because you hear something over and over again, or tell yourself something for years, doesn't make it true at all. There is an old proverb that says, "Don't listen to what they say, go see." I hold this to heart. Don't believe everything you think. Challenge your thoughts, especially the ones that limit you.

This experience has also taught me that words have an immense amount of power. I came from a family that threw abusive words around without thought, and without meaning, other than to express anger in the moment. They'd compliment you on your intelligence, but then call you stupid the moment you messed up on anything. I went out into the world throwing these words around with the same ease—ugly, stupid, worthless, etc, without even truly meaning them, or thinking about what I was really saying. It wasn't until I threw one of these words at someone I cared greatly about, and they got very hurt, that I realized it was no different than being called ugly all my life. Energy follows thought, and thought is connected to our words. I now think carefully before I speak, and choose my words wisely so that I am communicating my true feelings, rather than using words glibly to momentarily express anger or frustration. The anger or frustration will pass, but the words you used will stick.

Q: We can only thank you for writing and sharing such an intimate piece, Claudia. Is there anything else you you'd like to share with readers? A: More than anything, I'd like to say that my mother is really a good person. I know I don't paint her in the best light in this piece, and while all I've said of her is true, she is overall a kind-hearted and very generous person, and a very loving mother. I don't know what possessed her to give me this nickname, and I don't think she does either, but I don't fault her for it. I shudder to think of the damage I'd have unknowingly inflicted upon my kids had I had them in my early twenties, as she did. At the end of it all, I can say without a doubt that my mother adores me, and would give her life for me, and that's more than many people get, I think. For that, I'm grateful.


Under the Gum Tree @ AWP15: Telling Stories Without Shame

Under the Gum Tree is proud to announce our third-to-date appearance at AWP; Association of Writers & Writing Programs!


We first participated three conferences ago for AWP13 in Boston. With just six issues under our belt as an independent, reader-supported magazine, we were relatively young magazine years.

Seattle '14 was our second time participating and definitely more streamlined than before. No longer our first rodeo; we knew what we were doing! We even hosted our first off-site event, a live reading in one of Seattle's well-visited coffee shops, showcasing twelve of our contributing writers reading from their pieces. The event was a success, drawing in 60+ people—just look at that comfortable crowd!IMG_3475

Now we—still completely reader-supported and independent, but with fourteen issues (and a fifteenth on its way!)—can say we're seasoned; that we aren't the new kids on the block. With each subsequent year we learn more, take away more, and thus have more fuel for our unrelenting passion for creative nonfiction.

We are off to Minneapolis in a few weeks for our third time as an exhibitor at AWP (we will be at table 1892 for those of you attending who want to say hi), and our second time hosting an off-site live reading—only this time there will be food and libations available! Can you think of a better way to kickstart a Friday night? Neither can we.

Mason's Restaurant Barre is kindly allowing us to host our lineup of seven readers at their space in downtown Minneapolis, just walking distance from where the book fair will be held at the convention center.

Our reading will take place at 6 p.m., so mosey on over to Mason's, grab your happy hour drink of choice, relax while our readers regale you with their true stories, all before heading out to make material for new true stories of your own.

Featured readers that night include: Laurie EasterChris WiewioraPenny GuisingerMarilyn BousquinBenjamin WinterhalterJJ Anselmi, and Whitney Hayes

If you want to keep track of the event for your conference schedule on the AWP's list of off-site events, follow this link, or you can follow here for our Facebook event.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Judith Pulman

UTGTPulmanJudith Pulman writes both poetry and prose in Portland, Oregon where in between working as a teacher, administrator, and editor, she also translates poems from Russian to English—just to keep things light. Judith has been published in or has work forthcoming from The Writer’s Chronicle, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, New Ohio Review, and Basalt. Read more about Judith and her own work at her blog here. Judith's piece, "Prelude to the Performance," masterfully levels her readers upon an equal canvas, bringing us back to the magic and wonder of being eight years old. We are intimately woven into the piece by her ability to recollect specific details of the first time visiting her mother at the Kennedy Center where she sang in the opera. Through sound, sight, textures and feel, we are transported. When she recalls her heart surging at the "gorgeousness and terror" before the performance of Tosca, we feel the same anticipation and awe.

Watch Judith read an excerpt of her piece from the recording of Gum Tree Live: follow this link to 18:30 minutes.

Q: Is it one of your strongest memories for you to remember it so well? A: I went to the opera from when I was five to when my mother died when I was twenty, so this is more or less a culmination of some experiences and an attempt to explore the confusion I felt at that time. My mother was a chorister, and the Kennedy Center was my cathedral along with my place to know magic. I knew no children who also loved the opera; the opera was a world of adults and the elderly when I went there. This situation made me feel both isolated and very special, depending on how my world outside the opera was going.

Q: Or, did your childhood consist of frequenting the opera, so was this story a culmination of multiple experiences? A: Opera is one of the most lavish art forms available, and in the '90s and early 2000s when I was attending, directors hadn't really been casting actors or trying to make productions anything close to realistic (the Metropolitan Opera's regular Live in HD broadcast has changed the game). So I grew up seeing these stories that didn't make any logical sense and accepting them as a matter of course. Opera stories are thus: Tragedy happens, people die and are ridiculed, affairs happen, timing is generally awful, love is random and sudden and not usually advantageous, and hate can motivate one to ruin their own lives. Did growing up loving these stories prepare me for life better than watching "Full House?" The verdict is still out.

Q: Your story really comes alive with the specific details: the “thud-clack-thud-clack” of your heels on the “rust-tiled concrete,” or the hushed and sultry conversation of the loungers at the top-tier bar, even the multiple references to the angelic voices of the opera singers. It is a piece about music, but the sounds you captured are acutely precise. Did you intend for your piece to be very aware in and of itself with sound? A: Thank you! I intended for the piece to be sensory since everything about the Kennedy Center is beautiful, and the hall before you go into the Opera House is enormous and full of sound. There are three tiers and everything is so high up, sound does interesting things in a place like that. Also, opera is unique in its performance since the singers aren't generally miked—so their voices have to be huge to fill that space. I always thought that this was an incredible fact and from the second tier would try to pinpoint my mother's voice among the women's chorus.

You can see a 3-D view of the Kennedy Center's Grand Foyer here. It is as stunning as I remember it looking. Side note: There's a bronze bust of JFK before the steps up to the opera house that weighs 3,000 pounds and is eight feet tall. It looks like his skin is melting off and it always scared the hell out of me to see it. I took it to be a symbol of national grief since he had been killed but now I don't know.

Q: In your piece you write, “I wonder what will happen when I grow up; who will be there to see the world behind the apparent world?” What did you intend that to mean? Children really do have this amazing perceptibility that we as adults lose in the process of growing up. But at that time, why then did it register to you that you didn’t want to lose that keen ability? A: It’s hard to continually hold in one's consciousness of how everything in life has its own brand of sacredness—both objects that fill the world and life forms that fill it. Even now, as I'm sitting here at the computer eating chips with two guinea pigs, and a dog in a house in the amazing city where I live, am I remembering how special and precious every bit of it is? Nope. Because I've got work to do and money to make and commitments to keep today. When I was a kid, I was acutely aware that the opera was sacred, even though it was my mother's workplace  (she usually talked about it as if it were sacred!). When I walked around with my grandmother before the opera or talked to the people sitting next to us, it became clear that few adults recognized how special this show was and that it was, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime event,  since it was live theater. And lord, those ticket prices—$300 or something! And then some people would fall asleep during the show: How distressing to hear a person snoring or unwrapping cough drops in the second act of La Traviata. Why did they come if not to worship and give it their full focus? As Mary Oliver puts it: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. /  I do know how to pay attention..."

Q: In the second to last paragraph, you seem pretty willing to abandon your family’s religion if it’s in exchange for a more lavish lifestyle like those of the regular opera goers, which, to an eight-year-old, doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff at all. But what was behind that thinking? A: I was different as a kid and couldn't explain my identity in terms that others understand. Perhaps this is why I took up poetry and writing, because I wanted to explain the beauty and needed to find common language (or uncommon language, but at least, language that reached across the table.) Growing up in a family with extremely talented parents was difficult. I sang in the children's chorus twice but early on it became obvious that no amount of training would make me into an opera singer. This was heartbreaking, but hey, there's another reason that I took up writing. The abandonment issue is something that I've heard therapists refer to as "rejecting the rejector." I was willing to abandon the religion because it made me strange but not strange in a way that I understood as beautiful, strange because I had no idea what it would look like if I owned that Jewishness that was mine. I had no good models of what it looked like to be Jewish (we didn't go to temple, just celebrated some holidays), so, why would I accept the stink eye from some people who didn't like Jews if I didn't know what the benefits of that religion would be?

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Heather Quinn

Heather Quinn is originally from San Diego, California but currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is an MFA candidate at Portland State University. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, The RiveterCutbank, and now in Under the Gum Tree!

Heather's piece "Memento Mori," is the skeletal framework and existence of the things that encompass a life in its whole. By interweaving writing and photography and by her exploration through barren, desert landscapes, Heather first lays the foundation of her story. It is by ushering readers through her different stages with memorable markers of a place, thing, or an experience that we begin to see the progression of Heather's life—and much like we see within our own lives—the many shapes it takes. We feel the everyday mundanities in our lives undergo change, defined by new meaning as she shows us a hair brush is not just a hair brush when its last and final usage is before her mother submits to the hospital for treatment and surgery. And a camera is much more than a body and a lens through which to view the world; it is a preserver of the histories of a life that sometimes go untold. This story transports us constantly from undeveloped desert, to home life and some of its own foreign places we are forced to confront, and back to desert, all in one sweeping continuum, where along the way Heather exposes what it is we should be seeing but sometimes miss.

Q: Right away your title is striking: "Memento Mori." Most all of us have heard the term carpe diem at some point which translates to “seize the day,” however, memento mori is something which alludes to death and implores us to sort of remember death. What was your thought process behind deciding on this title?

A: The title is based on a quote by Susan Sontag, from her essay about photography, "In Plato's Cave." She says "All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt." This really rang true to me, but through most of my reading of the essay, I found myself arguing with Sontag more often than not. Her view of photography is particularly negative—she characterizes photography as a form of violence, of appropriation, and even equates the act of taking a picture to a rape or a murder. My response as a reader, and of course as a photographer, was that there is nothing unique about photography that makes it more prone to these issues than any other art form. When Sontag talks about memento mori, she seems to be implying that this act of engaging with the mortality of others is a similar act of violence, but we don't need a camera to have these kinds of experiences. Any time we interact with other people or engage with the world around us, we are involved in the mutability of things. There's a tremendous intimacy and tenderness that can come from sharing that kind of vulnerability with another human being, whether that sharing comes through the act of taking a photograph or from just living life around other people. In my essay, this idea of the memento mori was a guiding principle. I wanted to look at how photography can, at times, enlarge these moments of being present in the face of vulnerability and mortality, and maybe even lend these moments some kind of redemptive power.

Q: Interestingly enough, upon reading the first sentences and unknowing of where Jacumba is, it seems this was a piece about exploring distant lands oversea. Everything you write about the sand dunes and the landscape is so exotic; the colors of the green-yellow insects glued to your windshield, the rust-colored rocks, even your description of ascending through the mountains and life and vegetation all but disappearing enacts a shallowness of breath like high elevation’s thin air. However, although your piece begins with the most sensational, and almost foreign images, you gradually descend down your mountaintop to vignettes of life that are increasingly domestic. The first camera received on a sixteenth birthday, a step-father’s arrest and his time in jail, even your mother’s failing health. This progression in actuality feels like the narrowing of a camera lens, was this intentional and if so, what was behind your motivation?

A: I love the idea of a camera lens narrowing in focus. I can't say that that was my intention literally, that I had any notion of recalling something photographic with how the piece was structured, but it was my intention to start with a landscape that seemed utterly foreign—as it did to me on my first visit—from a distance, and as the piece progressed finding ways to connect more directly with certain smaller scale aspects of the place. The California desert really is foreign, and exotic, which—coming as I did from the coast—was stranger for the fact that, as different as the landscape seemed from what I was used to, there is a lot of the desert in the rest of the arid state. When I was living in San Diego, for instance, much of my drinking water was brought in across the desert from the Colorado River. The existence of this vast desert, the lack of water, is very central to life in Southern California, but it's a world that many Californians simply have not explored. To me, this desert represented a kind of shadow world to the one I was living in. I hoped to bring this out somewhat in the piece by progressively taking a closer look at the landscape and the ruins I found there, and by connecting my own personal experiences with these discoveries. So, for instance, the story of my mother's passing becomes connected, in the piece, to the discovery of a forgotten photo album in an abandoned home. Both of these vignettes are about bearing witness to loss, about what gets left behind.

Q: Seeing as how your piece so highly focuses upon photography and the use of cameras, we wonder if you do any photo journalism or ekphrastic writing? Your writing is already so vivid with all your detailed description that the pictures that would be paired with some of the things you describe seem unimaginable.

A: I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard the word ekphrasis before, but after looking it up, it's a great way to describe a lot of my writing. I love what happens when you attempt to translate the impressions from visual art or music into the written form. You always end up with something completely new and fresh that's a dialogue with, rather than derivative of, the original work. In my case, I often start with photographs before I write anything down. My writing about the Colorado Desert started only after I had been taking photographs there for some time. In fact, my first piece on the subject was an artist statement that accompanied a portfolio of black and white prints of desert landscapes that I exhibited in a group show. I don't tend to write a literal description of my photographs into a piece of writing. Instead, I might get out some prints, or open some images on my computer, and have a look through them. They place me back in the landscape, remind me in a more visceral way than simply reading through my notes just what it was that moved me about the scene, allow me to recall those first impressions much more directly than I would be able to otherwise. So I guess there's a kind of ekphrasis in that exercise.

Q: In the final paragraphs you relay that after your mom’s passing, you took the camera back up with a sense of urgency. Naturally something of a comfort and catharsis for you, but when you returned to the dunes, what were you looking to find? Was there a connection to the place because your mom had first suggested you to trek and photograph there?

A: I guess there is some sense of connection to her simply for the fact that she first suggested I visit there, but the direct connection between the place and my mother really ends there. She was this incredibly joyful, energetic person, totally full of life when she was alive. The desert, on the other hand, is almost completely devoid of life. It's such a hostile and desolate landscape. So whatever I'm looking for out there, it certainly isn't her. I think it's that emptiness itself that attracts me. It's impossible to enter this kind of wilderness and not feel that, there's this palpable atmosphere of death and sterility that hangs over the place. It sounds morbid, but I found this comforting. I've had a lot of death in my family—my mother, my father, my grandfather—and too often in our culture we are encouraged to move through the process of loss and grieving too quickly. I felt I could relate to the desert in a way, to this landscape of death. I appreciated how unapologetic it was in its sheer desolation and emptiness. Like I said, there's a lot of the desert in all of Southern California, but in most parts of the coastal cities the aridity is covered up by cleverly irrigated landscaping. In the Colorado Desert, the dryness, and the desolation, is just naked and raw. I liked the honesty in this, and I liked finding the beauty in all that ugliness and death. In a way, it helped me learn how to tell my own story of loss. I found these visits incredibly healing.

Q: Lastly, it seems you have the wish that beauty always be found and explored in everything. You write that in the abandoned homes and ramshackle desert highway, “I was haunting a dead world, stalking some beauty left behind.” How does this have bearing in your own life and your artwork, writing or photography? 

A: I've always had this fascination with things that are abandoned, with things or people that are typically overlooked. I guess it's just about being awake to what's around you, being present in your surroundings. When you see something that other people don't, it's almost as if it exists just for you, or maybe like you exist just for it. In the Colorado Desert, there are a lot of legends of secret and forgotten gold mines. Amateur prospectors and rock hounds still go out into the wilderness looking for these fabled treasures. I can imagine the feeling is similar to what I get out of looking a little more closely at these abandoned homes. When I find something beautiful in these places, when I can frame the perfect photograph of some secret scene in an out of the way place, that's like finding my own kind of buried treasure. But more than that, there's a satisfaction in finding ways to tell stories that would otherwise be lost or forgotten. I think that motivates a lot of writers and photographers.