Michelle Rene Wins Second Place With Her Essay "Pit of Snakes"

Sunday, November 11, 2018
Michelle Rene is our second place creative nonfiction essay contest winner (Quarter 4) with her essay titled, "Pit of Snakes." And no, that title is not figurative. If you have an Indiana Jones fear of snakes, then this essay may terrify you--that's how well-written it is. Read on to find out more about Michelle and her tips for writing about your childhood in creative essays!

Michelle is a creative advocate and a multi-award winning author of a number of published works of science fiction, historical fiction, humor and everything in-between.

This year, she released several books. Hour Glass, her touching tale about Calamity Jane, won Chanticleer Review’s Best Book of the Year award. It was released as an audiobook in September. Her experimental novella, Tattoo, has won high acclaim from Foreword Review and Publisher’s Weekly. Recently, she published an anthology of stories and humorous essays from her time growing up in West Texas called Defending Ducks.

When not writing, she is a professional artist and all around odd person. She lives as the only female, writing in her little closet, with her husband, son, and ungrateful cat in Dallas, Texas.

Visit her website at www.michellereneauthor.com.

WOW: Congratulations on placing second in the WOW! creative nonfiction essay contest. Your essay is going to give many people the heebie jeebies, but they need to read it anyway! So how do you think this experience in your young life made you the person you are today?

Michelle: Thank you! I had a really weird upbringing in Texas. I spent a good deal of time in the country. We have a lot of dangerous animals that you sort of learn to live around: rattlesnakes, copperheads, scorpions, bobcats, mountain lions, etc. Funny side note, I actually once wrestled/played with a full grown mountain lion. She won. But back to the question. Because of where I'm from, and my knack for getting myself into weird situations, I ended up with a lot of crazy experiences most people can't boast. I don't really know anyone who was dangled over a pit of snakes as a child, for example. While it's funny to tell people these crazy stories of my youth, I am extremely thankful both for the experience and for surviving the experience. I believe it gave me more confidence as an adult to go and try new things without fear.

WOW: I bet. I mean, once you survived a battle with a mountain lion, what else is there? I have to ask, did you ever go into a pit of snakes again--by yourself or carried in?

Michelle: Oh hell no. I did go back to the Rattlesnake Roundup several times after, but I steered clear of the pitmasters just in case. It was enough to live it once. After that, I preferred to just stare over the wall like everyone else. I always did stop by to say hello to the pitmaster who carried me in. He was really nice even if he did threaten to recruit me. He worked the roundups for years until he was bitten and had to retire.

WOW: Oh no! Goodness, what a career that is. How did you structure this creative essay? I'm sure a lot of our readers want to write about childhood moments that stand out to them, but it's often hard to focus the essay.

Michelle: I found my essay voice after I perfected my verbal storytelling skills. It didn't really occur to me how crazy my stories were until I started telling them as an adult to "normal" people who looked at me like I was insane. I got really good at regaling friends and coworkers with these tales of my youth. When you cut childhood memories up into bite-sized story bits fit to tell at a dinner party, it forces you to format your memories into an essay. Once I figured out how to convey the oddball humor of what happened without doing hand gestures and accents, I found my essay voice. The story I told at dinner about my father letting some crazy guy dangle his daughter over snakes became the essay, "Pit of Snakes."

WOW: How very true. Thinking about some of these childhood memories like: What would I say at a dinner party? is really good advice. What is a tip for writers who want to write about a distant memory but may have trouble recalling it? You make it sound like this happened to you just yesterday, with all the details you included!

Michelle: Well, I am blessed with a very good memory. However, I do strategically choose stories that are borderline traumatic to write about because you can't help but remember those more. I might not remember much about the time I rode my bike and skinned my knee, but being held over a pit of snakes does sort of stand out in one's memory. The other thing is to ask people who were a part of the story to help fill in any gaps. As a storyteller, I always worry about embellishing my memory too much the more and more I tell it. I check in with family as I go to make sure I'm remembering correctly. My father took pictures of our little adventure, including one of the pitmaster holding me over the snakes. Yes, there is tangible evidence this happened. I looked at those photos for years, which kept the memory fresh.

WOW: Great tips--looking at photos and asking older family members can help fill in those details we forget, even though we want to write about these memories. Let's switch gears for a minute. Tell us about your books. Your bio says you released one this year as well as a few other publications.

Michelle: I actually had two books released this year with separate publishers. Hour Glass, with Amberjack Publishing, is my historical fiction novel about Calamity Jane that won Chanticleer Review's Best Book of the Year award. Tattoo, with Annorlunda Books, is my experimental novella told backwards, which got glowing reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Foreword Reviews. I personally released a collection of funny stories, called Defending Ducks. It is a combination of crazy essays like "Pit of Snakes" and humorous fictional stories. I have three more books releasing in 2019, so I feel very blessed and very exhausted!

WOW: That's all such fantastic news, and congratulations on the great reviews you are getting--and the awards. Well-deserved! Thanks for stopping by with your busy schedule, and best of luck to you. 


Angela Mackintosh said...

Excellent interview!

Michelle ~ I absolutely love your essay. It's hilarious, and your VOICE is what makes it a standout. (That's what the judges said as well--that your voice was so unique that your essay rose to the top.) It's like listening to a funny friend at a dinner party! After reading your interview, it totally makes sense that you'd perfected your verbal storytelling skills first. But it's also more than that...the arrangement of your essay and how you walk the reader through your experience and include her in the story (like when you say, "It tastes like spicy dark meat chicken if you are curious." - addressing the reader directly with "you" draws her into story), and it's creative. One of my favorite parts is when you describe "cleaning snakes" - complete with Kenny G music. Lol. I also feel like I can hear the voices of the characters by your use of dialect.

I enjoyed the conversation about memory because it's a problem I'm having right now while I'm writing my memoir for NaNo. And you're right, writing about the traumatic experiences is much easier, but since I'm going for memoir length, I have to put some normal times in there and those are the hardest to remember. I have diaries and photos, but my diaries were written sporadically, and all the kids I'm writing about have disappeared or are my age and probably wouldn't remember something from almost thirty years ago. =/ One thing I found that helps is listening to music I listened to back then to put me back in the moment. I'd love to see your photos, btw! :)

Thanks for the interview! I can't wait to hear more about the mountain lion story. Maybe you'll write about that for the next contest? ;)

I know you're doing NaNo, so good luck writing buddy. :) Congrats on three published books this year! You're amazing!

Margo Dill said...

Angela--thanks for mentioning the music connection to help with memoir writing. I think a lot of people write about their childhood/teen years--to publish or not! And I forgot how you mentioned you were listening to music to help remember.

I thought Michelle had some great tips for remembering because honestly, her essay sounds like it happened yesterday! (Plus gives all of us a panic attack--at least we know she lived through it because she wrote the essay!)

Michelle Rene said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Rene said...

Thank you Angela and Margo for your lovely praise! It's so humbling and flattering that so many liked my essay. I hope my advice helped people.

...and yes, I did write an essay about my time with the mountain lion. It's called "Cougar Hickey." Hahaha.


Mary Horner said...

Good interview, Margo. And Michelle, I can't wait to read your books and visit your website.

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