Talking with essayist Brenda Miller
In “Knitted,” an essay in her new collection “Blessing of the Animals” (Eastern Washington University Press: 158 pp., $17.95 paper), Brenda Miller reflects on knitting lessons, Zen meditation and the Vermeer print that hangs on her office wall. "[K]nitting,” she writes, “turns time into something that can be measured, shaped into something tactile, with heft and beauty and usefulness.”
Miller might as well be referring to her writing, which achieves a similar effect. Her essays appear in a variety of forms and voices on subjects ranging from stained glass to Greek myth; they detail landscapes that include a theme park in Utah, a city in the Middle East and a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. For all that, she is interested in connections -- not only within individual essays but in terms of how they fit together as a shapely and satisfying whole.
The author of one previous collection, “Season of the Body,” and the co-author of “Tell It Slant,” an indispensable volume about the craft of creative nonfiction, Miller answered questions from Bellingham, Wash., where she writes in the attic of a 1920s bungalow: “No Internet up there,” she says, “and no phone.” From the window, she has “an almost unobstructed view of Lummi Island in the distance.”
In the personal essay there’s this conceit of intimacy, isn’t there? -- as if the reader really knows you. Is that true?
It’s so interesting because people do feel they know me after reading my essays, and I appreciate that. But at the same time they don’t know me; they know the person on the page. It’s a very real persona, but it’s not the entirety of who I am, so it can be a little tricky.
Who is your persona on the page?
She’s kind of a blabbermouth -- she’s willing to say all kinds of things that I would never in a million years say to even my closest intimates. A lot of things the narrator says are not things I’ve consciously been thinking or mulling about; they very much come into being as I’m writing. I’m tapping into her on a subconscious level, and that’s why it’s important to me to write, because otherwise I don’t hear that voice.
You write often about yoga and meditation, but it seems your writing is a spiritual practice in and of itself.
Definitely. I think it’s the most important practice I do.
How do yoga and meditation inform your work?
They’re about learning how to observe without a lot of judgment -- and that’s essential when we’re writing -- to have enough patience to see what will come out on the page and not immediately start shutting down before it has a chance to show you what it’s going to be.
Some writers say they know the end before they begin. Has that ever been true for you?
Most often it’s a surprise when I get there. But sometimes I’ll be writing along and the shape of an essay will become clear to me. Then the momentum really picks up and I become very interested -- there’s a sharpening of focus.
Do you feel you haven’t fully realized an experience until you’ve written it?
Yes, I think I do. At the same time, when I write, it turns into a different experience. So that’s a little scary: There’s the experience you’re having which is fleeting and evanescent, and then there’s the one you write, which is set down after time, and neither one is really true.
But the joy is when you understand the event through the writing. That’s usually what I’m after, not necessarily trying to set it down as transcription of memory, but to come to some kind of interpretation of the incident that has a bigger meaning.
You’re very respectful of the people in your life -- kind to your parents, your lovers. Is this how you maintain a sense of privacy?
I’ve written essays that aren’t so generous, and they don’t seem to work for me. I try to teach my students this too: that if you’re writing out of anger or resentment, it’s not going to come across that well on the page. You need to be writing to or from a place of understanding.
Do you ever feel like you are writing to or for somebody specific?
I think I’m actually always writing to myself, maybe a younger version of myself who needs to hear me. Again, it’s not me, it’s a version of me who’s listening very intently to what I’m discovering as I’m writing.
How did you come to writing?
I did a lot of things in my 20s, a lot of odd jobs. I was a massage therapist, I was a cook. Then I moved to Seattle and started to take classes. I didn’t know that writing was something I could do, although I’d been writing poetry all my life. I took a class on the personal essay. And that’s when I discovered you could take something right in front of you and write about it. I had to learn to find an external to focus on in order to allow my emotions to surface -- it was so much fun. I found my voice!
Do you still write fiction and poetry?
I still write poetry as warm-up. But my poems feel a little more “earnest” than my nonfiction. I allow myself to be more sentimental in poetry than I do in prose. And I’m not a very good fiction writer.
I’m really not that good a storyteller. I’m good at images, I’m good at language, I’m good at metaphor, I’m good at weaving kind of elaborate patterns through my essays, and that’s not the kind of skill that necessarily translates that well to fiction. I’m not that good at creating an original plot, or characters who are distinguishable from one another. These are just skills I haven’t developed -- although I think I could, and it might be fun to try.
So how did the new book fall into order? Did it happen deliberately?
It did happen very deliberately. But I only got the order of the book after I wrote the title essay -- which was the last essay I wrote. I don’t really write with a book in mind. I just write my essays as they come up. My first book came together after a very long process. With this new one, I kept trying to shove all the essays together, and that didn’t quite work. But then I wrote “Blessing of the Animals,” and all the others seemed to line up behind it. I thought, Oh, OK, this is a book I can be proud of.
Lenney is the author of “Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir.” She teaches in the master of professional writing program at USC.