www.amy-bee.com or say hey at @hey_amybee.
----------interview by Renee Roberson
WOW: Your essay “Ugly Pumpkins” describes your relationship with your mother-in-law, and how you’ve been the recipient of some questionable arts and crafts projects (rejects) over the years. Do your family members ever read your writing and do you find yourself from holding back on writing about certain topics in creative nonfiction because of it?
Amy: Thank you, Renee, for taking the time to ask me such thoughtful questions.
I didn’t consider anybody’s feelings about the contents of the story until the piece was done, and once I decided I wanted to share it with the public, I read it with new eyes—Sue’s eyes. I impulsively sent her a text with the link, convinced letting her read it first was the right thing to do. I waited a terse 30 minutes before getting a single line of text back: “I didn’t know you thought the pumpkins were ugly.” Ouch.
The more I thought about my need to share it with her, the more rash it seemed to me. After all, our relationship is highly compartmentalized. If we shared too much with each other, it would get in the way of loving each other, which sounds sad, but it’s not. It’s a pragmatic way to deal with those drastically differing worldviews. I knew Sue would never stumble upon my writing on her own, so I ended up feeling like maybe forcing her to read this piece was unnecessarily hurting her and didn’t benefit anyone.
I will say, though, that Sue got over it so fast, and she believes me when I tell her I love those pumpkins (Because I do!). In fact, my husband has told me he’s overheard her referring to them as her “Ugly Pumpkins.” So maybe I overestimated the need to have someone “confront” my work, but then I also underestimated their ability to process it and be okay with whatever ramifications ensued.
So, yeah. There’s a lesson here, I’m sure. Lessons, but probably no rules. Don’t let other peoples’ feelings dictate the story that you believe to be yours, for sure. But once it’s in the world, well...how you choose to deal with other peoples’ reactions (or potential reactions) will probably continue to be on a case by case basis.
WOW: That's such a good point, and something I know a lot of memoirists struggle with. I'm glad she has embraced the "ugly pumpkins" now after all is said and done! You are currently working on a memoir titled Angry Letters to My Mom (and other tales from a terrible daughter). Since there are so many ways to structure creative nonfiction, what devices are you using in this particular memoir? Is it all in the form of letters or do you go back and forth between letters and other types of narrative sections?
Amy: Currently, Angry Letters is a memoir told in interconnected essays, none of them actual letters. It’s a little tongue in cheek because my mom always accused me of painting her in a bad light, and in our later interactions, of being angry and willful when I wasn’t. So, the title is kind of a, “Here’s the angry dialogue you always expected of me,” claiming it because, in a way, by always accusing me, she was really controlling me, forcing me to never truly tell my version of our life together because if I did, I was hurting her. The stories in the memoir don’t really have a lot of anger, either. Probably because I spent my youth hurt, confused and lovesick for her in a way you can only be about your mom, you know?
WOW: Oh, yes I do know! Your writing has been published in places like Salon.com and you’ve received several creative nonfiction awards. What do you think makes for a compelling piece of creative nonfiction? If you were to judge a contest like this one, what advice would you give contestants to make their work stand out from all the rest?
Amy: I would first say, go ask someone more practiced, experienced and successful than me. But if you continued to pester me, I’d probably overcompensate by taking your innocent question way too seriously, and elaborately dispense writerly advice in an over-excited tone until you regretted ever making eye contact with me.
Ha. I notice in some beta reading groups I belong to, a kind of unwillingness in writers to slow down. They are compelled to summarize. That first draft is for YOU, the writer, so…wallow in it. Get it out, every detail, sloooooow down. Ruminate on the pebble. Describe that guy’s petulant mustache. Digress. Navel gaze. Use adverbs. Follow every unconventional whim. I’m not even saying it needs to be shitty (my first drafts hardly ever are, *ahem*), you just need to allow yourself some freedom. And from freedom, often you’ll find clarity. Or bits of clarity, enough to get you to that second draft, third draft…ad infinitum.
WOW: I like that. Get all the flowery language and descriptions down first and then cut later. It's always easier to cut than add, I always say. Moving to our next question, backpacking is one of your passions and we’d love to hear a little about your favorite trips and how you were first drawn to it in the first place.
Amy: Here is a journal entry from hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. Day 34: And Just Like That, The Heart Is Full Again:
“We spread out quickly along a faint path that cuts through a golden field, then along a road that leads us to a giant concrete canal filled with gorgeous blue water: The Aqueduct.
I can see far in every direction. There is a flutter in my heart. I love the view. I stop to let everyone pass me so that I can take it all in. I pull out my iPod. Music flows into my ears, and the coupling of cool weather, expansive views, and emotive melodies hits me perfectly.
I am transcended; impossibly happy. Here I am, in this world, experiencing this freedom, this beauty. I'm here! I'm alive! Look at those clouds. Just gorgeous. Look at those crazy hikers ahead of me. They’re so determined. They want to see something; feel something; know something. We all do.
I'm bursting with a rare joy, and I start to sing aloud and dance as I walk. I can be okay now, in these moments, for a little while. I'm connected to the earth, to these mountains, this desert. I am a small being meant to simply move within it, within each moment I can wring from this life.
The music demands I move faster, steadier, resolutely. I soon pass everyone, immersed in music and foot pain and the hint of a burgeoning storm to my right. There is the wind that wants to push me off the metal pipe caging precious California water. Then the hundred sheep that I think are boulders until they all turn and stare at me in unison. And the peace sign I flash at the farm workers. The music. The movement. The moments. All of it. Mine.
Camp is among the Joshua trees. The sky is alive with the impending storm, and the light paints the clouds wild, unworldly colors. It's going to rain tonight. It's going to get crazy windy. But I'm okay; here, now. I even fall asleep with a small smile. Sometimes these days happen. Even to me!”
WOW: I don't know about everyone else, but I'm ready for a good old-fashioned hike after reading that entry! Thank you. For writers who are just getting started writing and submitting creative nonfiction, what are your recommendations for finding websites, literary journals and contests where they can test out their work?
Amy: The WOW! Women On Writing Creative Non-Fiction and Flash Fiction quarterly contests are great for everyone at all levels. Duotrope is a good place to get a general idea of where to submit. Once you follow one lit magazine on Twitter, like Brevity, they will keep you abreast of contests and submissions happening (and it’s easy to find tons of journals to follow on Twitter). It’s good to communicate with other writers, maybe form an online writing group or join a Facebook group where everyone beta reads for each other and shares links to submissions and contests.
WOW: Good tips! I find a lot of writing contest announcements on Facebook but I should probably get back on Twitter and take that advice. We wish you the luck in your current and future writing projects. Thank you for such heartfelt answers here.