Sunday, February 18, 2018
Interview with Mary Tonne Schaefer: 3rd Place in the Creative Nonfiction Contest (Q1 2017)
Mary Tonne Schaefer writes short fiction and creative nonfiction from her home in Vienna. Yes, THAT Vienna ... Vienna, VA, fifteen minutes outside Washington, DC. Transplanted from rural beginnings—Rock Rapids, IA—to an ultra-urban area, she explores small-scale universal themes that live in all locales.
Although in “Missing” Mary shares personal freak outs and misadventures created by her growing forgetfulness, her favorite focus is others’ backstage dramas. She best loves sharing glimpses into peoples’ unofficial bios ... spontaneous moments and unrehearsed secrets and struggles that weave the common threads of friendships (and feuds). Earlier efforts submitted to WOW contests are “Trending” (a small family in a rural town faces surprisingly painful diversity conflicts) and “Safe at Home” (an early-Alzheimer’s-afflicted elder causes ripples in the routine of the young family he joins).
Mary says she’s working at embracing living and writing outside her comfort zone ... because life makes her do that anyway! Her recent and improbable response to David Wiencek’s devilishly “impossible” writing prompt appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Dec. 18, 2017. Her (long-ago) first creative nonfiction publication is “Jury of Peers.”
If you haven’t done so already, check out Mary’s award-winning story “Missing” and then return here for a chat with the author.
WOW: Congratulations on placing 3rd in the Creative Nonfiction Contest! Was there a particular moment that prompted you to write this piece, or what encouraged you to write it?
Mary: A clutch of conversational “brain drops” forced me to face the issue. My increasingly uncomfortable “tip of the tongue” lapses really bugged me. Despite problems like a plague of frequently forgotten passwords—even to the point of looming email lockout—that kind of problem wasn’t the biggest. On-the-spot verbal “in-alacrity” alarmed me. I rationalized publicly but I couldn’t fool myself that I urgently wanted to keep my words working, so I sat down to “write my way” toward answers in "Missing."
WOW: I like that idea of writing your way towards answers. What was your writing process like for this essay? (How did you start? How did you revise?)
Mary: My operational process was the same (research, write, revise, cut … repeat). But the thought process was different. Although I was dealing with a subject where I needed objective information, what I wanted was a “happy ending.” This was nonfiction—but not someone else’s story. It was my life. Did I even want to explore it, let alone write it? Did proximity color my process? I began as usual, checking out a range of medical research resources. At first, my research query frame reflected my fear: searching on “forgetting” not “memory.” But “memory” turned out to be the way professionals phrase it. And that helped plug me into the positive and begin writing.
WOW: Sounds like an interesting learning process. What did you learn about yourself or your writing through this essay?
Mary: I’m quite private but I’m glad I stepped out and shared instead of continuing to fumble and feel bad. Friends offer, “Same here” and “Welcome to my world.” They need to talk about it too. Research reinforced what I had only hoped was true. My self-diagnosis (not always the best thing, I know) indicates I’m in the normal, neuron-wearing-out pool. But the facts I’ve learned are worth broadcasting, including that possibly up to 30 percent of memory decline cases may be preventable through modification of risk factors and behavioral changes. So, now I’m working on a new piece.
WOW: Oh exciting! I hope it’s something you can share with us when you’re ready. In your bio it says you best love “sharing glimpses into peoples’ unofficial bios ... spontaneous moments and unrehearsed secrets and struggles that weave the common threads of friendships (and feuds).” This is so fascinating! Can you tell us more about this interest and how you observe people and use these concepts in your creative nonfiction?
Mary: Yes, the fiction and nonfiction themes that draw me in are those small pivotal moments of facing what you feel horribly unequipped to deal with or just plain don’t want to look at … but you do. In “Missing” I wrote about my own moments and feelings. I hear the conflicts all around me in everyday life and I think it’s great to have a safe haven (a book, an essay, a personal conversation) to “pull into” to see how another person/character deals with similar issues. If we can find a sensitive way to inject humor or optimism, all the better, so I try for that outlook and tone.
WOW: Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you?
Mary: There are many, many role models but three stand out as inspiring me to try my best to see, feel, capture other moments, subjects and settings, even if the reach exceeds my grasp.
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek pouring out the small moments--raw, real, difficult, stunning, ugly/beautiful. She opens with her night-marauding tom cat disturbing her sleep, depositing bloody paw prints so her chest appears in daylight as though “painted with roses.”
Chelsey Clammer, especially in her essay Ecstasy within Body Home, reaching out to connect with her father, SHOWING the moment where she opens herself to ask for a response on something important to her. And then, it’s not his answer but their acts of asking and answering, “Now, his words glitter and glow through my skin. That permeable organ, a part of me finally letting a part of him in. A thing I’ve never before done, and I can feel the fact of it conga up and down my back.”
Joanne Beard, in The Fourth State of Matter as she interweaves the unimaginable: real time moments of her marriage disintegration, her disruptive house disrepair, her sadly declining long-time pet and … all this within a single week … with the tragic 1991 shootings of her University of Iowa. graduate school office mates.
WOW: Thanks so much for those recommendations! Anything else you'd like to add?
Mary: Yes, absolutely, I have so much appreciation for WOW for the wonderful, effective, engaging, encouraging teachers and classes and for WOW itself as a forum for publishing! It's great to have the challenge of the contests to try to reach new heights in writing and sharing. Engaging with the teachers and other students is a great experience and gives great depth to the online environment.
WOW: Thank you, Mary, for your wonderful writing and thoughtful responses. Happy writing!
Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen.