BRENDA MILLER describes her most recent essay collection, An Earlier Life, as a prophecy. Beginning pre-birth with the title essay, she imagines herself into the world of a baker on a cobblestoned street, from there whirling the reader through a turbulent youth and into adulthood, spiraling through personal and spiritual relationships, imagining even her ultimate transition and afterlife. Miller, who has authored several books, including, with co-author Suzanne Paola, Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, is a virtuoso of the lyric essay, and once again in this new collection she skillfully plays with form. This time, whether she fixates on a single object, or touches the bedrock of subjects like depression and rejection, what Miller makes of the process of coming into herself is a personal history grounded in compassion and reconciliation.
Brenda Miller and I recently spoke about intimacy, imagination, and intuition in the writing and reading of personal essays.
KATHLEEN LIVINGSTON: The collection takes a long view, covering a number of earlier lives. How does chronology function in An Earlier Life?
BRENDA MILLER: We often work very hard to come up with a coherent order for a collection of disparate pieces — and though this labor should be invisible, so that the reader feels she is immersed in a coherent body of work, we really hope people will read in the order we’ve created.
This time, after trying many different configurations, I settled on one I like to call “spiral chronology.” By this I mean the essays do, on the surface, work sequentially. Along the way, though, they spiral back to touch on images and themes from the past, and reach forward to prophesy the future.
The middle section was the most difficult to bring together, and also the most satisfying. Starting with the short-short “Swerve” (originally published in Brevity), I knew this could be a place to bring together many short pieces about a complex and emotionally difficult period I lived through in my early 20s. And by bringing them together here, and editing ruthlessly, I was able to come to some closure, artistically, with this material. Since they occur in the center of the collection, this time period becomes a hub, a turning point, and I’m able to move on to other “lives,” including those of my parents.
You write in “Who You Will Become,” “the Hebrew word for God means ‘I am what I am becoming.’” This spiritual concept seems central to the book, but can you say what it means in the context of writing personal essays?
That’s a beautiful question. I am a writer at all — and a writer of personal essays in particular — because I “become myself” on the page. This is a tricky concept, since, of course, that written self is an artifice; at the same time, that persona is able to discover and speak truths that are inaccessible any other way. The essay is an intimate form, an honest form, and ideally that intimacy gets translated into the writer-reader relationship.
I’ve just returned from a 10-day writing retreat at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. Though I have a perfectly nice writing space at home, there’s something about being in a place dedicated to creative and scholarly production that ignites a different part of the writing mind. Being there, I experienced again the way the busyness of the mind can settle down, become quiet, to allow for a deeper internal voice to rise up and be heard. For me, this is what spirituality has always been: listening for what murmurs below the surface, allowing yourself to be guided toward a new level of understanding. Making connections in a life that appears disconnected.
I love the intermingling of lyric and narrative essays. Do the two different kinds of writing involve different processes for you?
Lyric modes of writing require more of that “retreat” frame of mind. I’m working on an essay I started on that last retreat that has about five or six different imagistic threads; my notebook is full of arrows and asides and question marks. I really have no idea where it’s going, but I’m following it anyway because my intuition says something is going to happen.
I’m also currently working on a project in which I attempt to translate poetic forms — such as a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum — into prose (one such piece in An Earlier Life is “Pantoum for 1979”). I love doing this because I’ve found the most important skill I’ve developed as a writer is being able to find and execute the right form for my material. Sometimes these pieces turn out to be what I’ve coined “hermit crab” essays: they use existing models to tell a story (an example is “We Regret to Inform You,” an essay written entirely in the voice of rejection notes, which serves as the book’s epilogue). When I have certain “rules” to follow — from an adopted or poetic form — material arises that couldn’t have been accessed otherwise.
Narrative writing can actually be more difficult for me, although enjoyable in a different way. In early drafts I like to write in the present tense, and I tend to overwrite, which means I have a lot of material to work with. Sometimes these details are inaccurate factually — I do the fact-checking later and then I work with the gaps between imagination and information.
How does playing with tense function as a writing strategy?
Just as I’ve found we don’t need to be imprisoned in the perspective of “I” in personal essay (I use second and third person, as well as imagining the perspectives of others), we don’t need to be locked into tense. The present allows us to fully inhabit our experiences, as if they’re happening now, in the moment of the writing (because memory is imagination), but future tense is also a powerful way to show how an older narrator — the author — can have a different perspective from the character on the page. And the layering of tenses can be very satisfying.
In “We Regret to Inform You” this layering becomes even more complicated. The “rejection notes” seem to play out in present tense, but they all refer to past events, and at the same time forecast the future. In writing this piece, which looks at the different kinds of rejection I’ve experienced, I was able to find some measure of acceptance. The layered perspective led me to some startling moments of insight and forgiveness.
Let’s talk about the essay “36 Holes.” The essay deals with depression, but the piece is somehow lighthearted. Can you talk about lyric essays and structuring? How did these fragments accumulate for you?
“36 Holes” is one of my favorites — not only for the prose that emerged, but for the process of writing it. I was alone at the Whiteley Center, and I found myself really struggling. As I described earlier, the everyday mind quiets down on retreat so the internal voice can be heard — but sometimes that voice isn’t so pleasant. I’ve lived with depression for most of my adult life, but it wasn’t something I’d ever really understood or felt I could write about.
I was at a rather dangerous point emotionally, and my choice was either to flee or to find my way through it. I’d been given a playful assignment by my colleague Sherry Simpson to write an essay about “holes”: from that starting point I began to write very short segments, snippets, because that’s all I could handle. I brainstormed the different holes I’ve known, and started to look up facts about holes. Though I usually try to avoid the internet during a retreat, I needed it this time as a companion. And that’s how I came across the live feed of the 33 Chilean miners being rescued from a mine collapse. I followed their progress obsessively, and their story became a kind of narrative thread holding all the “holes” together. While depression itself is directly mentioned only in passing, it really does become an essay about emerging from the dark.
But did it come together all by itself? How did you finally make the essay work?
All this was in my notebook, with the arrows and asterisks and question marks. When I returned home, I typed up the raw material, then printed it out and cut it apart to put it back together in a way that made intuitive sense.
The essay is funny at points, too, the way self-revelation can be funny even when it’s painful.
It’s true — there’s a little bit of humor to let in the light. I love “36 Holes” because it feels so “kind” — that’s the only way I can put it. It seems to be full of empathy for everything: the miners, the miners’ families, myself — anyone who has found him or herself in a hole.
Watch the trailer to An Earlier Life, published in 2016 by Ovenbird Books.