Deep Wells: A Conversation with Rebecca McClanahan

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Nearly twenty years ago, I read an essay that has always stayed with me. The writer is reading a copy of Denise Levertov’s Evening Train, which she has checked out from the New York Public Library. As she reads and documents this experience for her reader, the writer finds herself engaging not only with the nuances of Levertov’s poetry but also with the penciled marginalia of an unknown reader—she presumes a woman—who has borrowed the book from the library before her. The essay is deftly layered: Levertov, unknown reader, essayist as reader of both Levertov and unknown reader, and also as reflector on the text of her own life.

For years, I searched for this essay, but because I had forgotten the title (“Book Marks”) and author (Rebecca McClanahan), I was never able to find it.

In the intervening years, I began to read poetry and creative nonfiction by a writer named Rebecca McClanahan. I began to teach a lyric essay of hers called “Interstellar,” which is a consistent favorite among my students in every creative writing class. When I approached her about doing this interview, Rebecca sent me an advanced copy of her newest memoir-in-essays, In the Key of New York City. Inside, to my surprise and delight, I found “Book Marks,” the long-time object of my literary quest—a slightly altered version, but still as ever, an essential and inspiring work.

I am so grateful to Rebecca McClanahan for agreeing to this conversation. We speak below about memory, truth, and meaning in the multi-genre life.

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The Rumpus: I’ve always thought of you as a literary Renaissance woman—someone who publishes widely as a poet, memoirist, personal and lyric essayist, not to mention as a craft essayist and guide for fellow writers. But the truth is, I know very little about how you got your start in this multi-genre life. Let me begin there: what is your origin story as a writer?

Rebecca McClanahan: I’ll need to reach way back, to the songs and poems I memorized as a child. I loved words—their heft and swirl, the way the rhythms danced inside me; I could almost taste them on my tongue. But I never planned to be a writer. I just wrote. Poems, stories, songs. Nothing very promising at first, but I couldn’t help myself. And I kept memorizing poems: Hopkins, cummings, Whitman, Blake, Rilke, Clifton, Hughes, Wordsworth, Bishop, Dickinson, Hayden, Plumly, Swenson, Piercy, Lorde. I kept writing, and in my early thirties I had the great fortune of working with Audre Lorde in an intensive month-long workshop. She pushed me, inspired me, corresponded with me, and encouraged me to send out what would become my first book. Later I studied poetry in brief workshops (I was teaching in public schools at the time) with George Garrett and A. R. Ammons, who were also important to me. Most of my first publications in literary journals, though—Georgia Review, Kenyon Review—were short stories, and I continued writing stories and poems for years, until I discovered the creative essay, which opened a whole new world for me. What an amazing world! My love of language, my love of story, my obsession with research, my hunger for the real world, for real people—literary nonfiction offered a chance to use them all, within the same text. The rest is, well, I started to say “history,” but I certainly hope not. I’m still writing essays, still memorizing poems, and hope to until the nice aide in the nursing home takes away my pen.

Rumpus: To my mind, you have special finesse when it comes to the short form, and I wonder if you credit your powers of pith and compression to your formative work with poetry? And since this is a question I always struggle with myself, I figured I would ask you to weigh in as well: how do you, Rebecca McClanahan, define or distinguish between a prose poem, a micro-essay, and even a work of flash fiction? And what can you, Rebecca McClanahan, accomplish in a short-form work (of any genre) that feels comparatively less possible in a longer form?

McClanahan: Thank you for the compliment, Julie, which means so much coming from someone whose work showcases the varied and elastic shapes the short form can take.

Yes, I do believe that my work in poetry informs at least some of my brief essays, particularly those propelled by sound or rhythm; “Advanced Directive“ is an example. A few years ago I published a craft essay in the Tampa Review called “The Soul of Brevity: Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Brief Essay.” One of the thirteen ways was “Ride the train of language all the way to meaning,” where I discuss Judith Kitchen’s “Blue,” an essay in which I can feel the engine of sound pulling the train of meaning. When I feel that engine chugging in my own work, I just hang on for dear life and hope I land on meaning.

But some of my brief essays probably owe more to my fiction writing experience than to my poetry. The caregiving essays in Brevity were driven by narrative and scene; my craft challenge there was to “rake” the prose so that only the essentials remained. I tend to be an over-writer, so my revision work is almost always about condensing and compressing.

Your question regarding definitions is a great one, in part because it is so difficult—perhaps impossible—to answer. Case in point: recently, an editor of a journal accepted a brief piece, and then asked, “Should we call this a lyric essay or a prose poem?” We went back and forth for a while and finally decided to place it in the poetry section of the table of contents, though we agreed it could have been listed as an essay. Sometimes, previously published works even take different forms when they appear in my books. One of the briefest chapters in In the Key of New York City was published first as a poem; I dismantled the line breaks and placed it between two long chapters to serve as a bridge between them—and also as a breathing space.

The only strong distinction I make, though, is between flash fiction and flash nonfiction. I strive in nonfiction (narrative and braided essays, memoir, flash) to always follow the tenet of veracity that Michael Steinberg and Robert Root include in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction, that such writing is “firmly anchored in real experience, whether the author has lived it or observed and recorded it.”

As to your other question (what brief works can accomplish perhaps better than longer forms), I feel that the brief essay is a perfect place to strike an odd, weird, or idiosyncratic pose, to explore a strange or unusual subject, or to employ a more uncommon structure—like the use of second person, which in my opinion is hard to sustain in a much longer work. But perhaps most important is the gift that the brief essay offers to the reader: to experience the “unity of effect” that Poe suggests is one of the hallmarks of the short story. Because of its brevity, the flash essay can break the reader’s heart and heal it, all in one sustained moment.

Rumpus: Yeses and cheers to what you’ve written here, including your mention of “The Soul of Brevity: Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Brief Essay.” It happens to be one of the first craft essays I ever brought into my classes when I began teaching creative writing at FIU!

For the moment, though, I want to pick up on an important distinction you’ve made about your commitments to truth-telling in creative nonfiction, echoing Steinberg and Root’s characterization of CNF as writing “firmly anchored in real experience.”

Some of my fiction-writing friends have suggested just calling everything “fiction”—”flash” if it’s really short, “story” if it’s standard-length—and “novella” or “novel” if it’s long. Even if the content is firmly anchored in real experience, they posit, why are genre banners like “memoir” and “creative nonfiction” important or necessary when “fiction” so often contains autobiographical and witnessed narratives anyway?

I’d like to know your response to this line of thinking, particularly as it pertains to your own fiction and creative nonfiction.

McClanahan: Yes, I’ve heard that comment from fiction writer friends and even editors as well—that prose genre distinctions are unnecessary or even dishonest, given (in part, I’m guessing) the mutability of memory in memoir. And yes, of course, fiction often draws on real-life events and characters. But I strongly disagree that prose genre banners are unnecessary. I like that term, by the way—”genre banners”—as it calls to mind a bright warning alerting readers to what is ahead. Because I absolutely believe that most readers experience the two forms differently. I know I do.

Imagine picking up a literary journal without these genre banners and reading a prose piece that begins, “The night I murdered my three daughters, the moon was full.” Wait a minute, I’d think. Oh my god, is this true? Of course that’s an extreme example, but it points to the importance of the reader’s reaction to our work. As co-editor of River Teeth, Daniel Lehman wrote in the very first issue of the journal, “In fiction, when characters die and live, characters breathe or stop breathing; in nonfiction, when characters die and live, people breathe or stop breathing. This essential difference, though often overlooked or devalued, makes many of us care deeply about these {nonfiction} texts and their people.”

What Dan was saying relates directly to your question, “Why is writing as a witness to your own life and the lives of others valuable for you?” And I’m thinking about two different texts that I’ve published about a woman’s experience with cancer, both of which use the first person “I.” One was a short story, clearly marked as “fiction,” narrated from the point of view of a woman who is facing a serious cancer diagnosis and whose husband is a theater producer and puppeteer. Several details in the story were borrowed directly from my own life; for instance, my husband was, at the time, a professional puppeteer. But the details of the woman’s cancer were, thankfully, not my own.

Some years later I was diagnosed with cancer and published an essay about the experience. (The essay appears, in slightly different form, in In the Key of New York City.) Though I received several letters and emails from readers of both works, the responses were very different. Readers of the story commented mostly on craft issues, but essay readers went directly to life experience, seemingly hungry to relate their own cancer stories as well as to wish me (the real, human character narrating the essay) health and a long life. Which reinforces what I have always believed: that many, perhaps all, readers enter a prose text differently when they believe the facts of the life represented on the page are accurate, whether it is the writer’s life or the lives of the people the writer is writing about, as I also discovered in writing my ancestral memoir, The Tribal Knot.

So yes, I believe that memoir and other forms of nonfiction are important forms of witness, a way to remind ourselves and our readers that there are deep wells of meaning and significance running beneath even the most everyday events of our actual lives. Well, that’s my real life story, and I’m sticking with it!

Rumpus: Thank you for articulating so clearly what I, too, feel about the value of the acknowledged autobiographical impulse in our writing lives. Creative nonfiction, whatever the style of the prose in question, is so often a kind of testimony, and I know that I respond in much the way you describe when I read someone else’s life experience—I want to reach out, human to human, and thank the writer for their willingness to be vulnerable and honest in my presence. I have probably learned the most in my life from poets and memoirists, even as I enjoy a good fictive tale as much as the next person.

Since people often feel they know a writer whose body work includes a great deal of autobiographical material, as yours surely does, I’d like to ask this: what would a person who has read a substantial amount of the Rebecca McClanahan canon to date (note: “Rebecca McClanahan canon” is especially fun and prosodic to say!), not know, guess, or imagine about you, as both a person and a writer?

McClanahan: Readers familiar with the body of my work have learned many of the important events of my life in addition to the central questions, obsessions, passions, images, and patterns that have fueled my writing. Yet I’m sure that readers of some works—say, those who’ve read only my craft book, Word Painting—have met a different Rebecca, on the page, than readers of my essays, nonfiction, or poetry. And even readers of my memoirs and memoir-essays, depending on when those texts were published, might imagine a different Rebecca from the present-tense person who is typing this response. As I say in the author note to In the Key of New York City, life interrupts the memoir. For instance, though my father died in 2016, he is quite alive on the pages of memoir-essays that have only recently appeared in print. And the number of my great-nephews and nieces (as of this writing, twenty-one) continues to grow with each work I publish, and by the time this interview appears the number will, if all goes well, have grown to twenty-two. Which suggests that, when it comes to “self-referential arts,” you can’t step into the same life twice.

As to subjects I’ve not yet written about, hmmm. Perhaps like many writers who have been writing for decades, I’m not sure if I can recall all the autobiographical references that appear in my work. Most readers probably know that I was a military brat, one of six children of a career Marine Corps pilot, and that we moved often during my childhood. That I have been married for over forty years to the same man. That I taught elementary school and high school and then poetry-in-the-schools, for nearly twenty years.

Here are a few tidbits that I’m pretty sure most readers wouldn’t know: I love to dance. I’m not trained; I’m a free-range dancer and I’m sure I’ve surprised and/or embarrassed friends, colleagues, and students by my antics on the dance floor. I worked my way through college by singing at funerals and weddings. If I could choose any job, it would be a backup doo-wop singer, especially if I could wear those matching outfits and do those smooth, coordinated moves with the other backups. I love to dig in the dirt and plant flowers; some of them actually come up, amazing! I am what my mother used to call a “wagon train cook,” someone who can rustle up some pretty decent grub from whatever is on hand. My first payment for writing was when I was fourteen and I won fifteen dollars in a contest sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In the essay, I made an admirable case against alcohol, which I had not yet tasted. (I no longer support the organization, for reasons too numerous to mention. Hint #1: single malt scotch.)

Rumpus: It’s just that I felt like I was reading one of your essays here, with the same kind of direct and engaging voice, all the memorable details, and of course, the humor, e.g. “Hint #1: single malt scotch.” Ha!

Since you mentioned In the Key of New York City, your newest collection due out later this year from Red Hen Press, let’s talk about it. I’ve been reading my advanced copy right along with our interview and feeling such invitations in this book—not only invitations extended to me as a fellow writer, but also as a fellow human. What if my spouse and I likewise decided to move to New York City in middle age and sublet an apartment there? What if we too planned to stay for a year or so and ended up staying for more than a decade? What if? What if? What if? This book is bursting with literary permissions for speculative as well as memory-based writing. In fact, it’s a subjunctive smorgasbord!

So, here’s one of my favorite questions to ask any writer: “What’s your heart passage?” Given that this is a memoir-in-essays (one of my favorite forms the fourth genre can take), which of these eighteen chapters would you single out as your “heart essay” and most importantly, why?

McClanahan: Wow, what a great, difficult question! I promise to answer it, but I want to start with some background about how I shaped the book, because that background is directly related to your question. I like that you call the essays “chapters,” as that is the feeling I’d hoped readers would get. Even though at least most of the essays could stand alone, I hope that readers will read the book from beginning to end so that each individual essay can build on the previous one to create a unified memoir.

Therefore, my process was not just deciding what order to place the essays but also revising them so that together they would speak to one another in what I hope are interesting ways. Some of the revisions were substantive, even violent! (I believe in violent revisions when necessary.) In some cases, I sacrificed some of my favorite parts of favorite essays in order to serve the whole book. Other published essays got cut into pieces and scattered throughout the book, some appearing as flash pieces. One of the flash pieces had originally been published as a poem, but because I felt it was an essential part of the book, I dismantled the line breaks and rewrote it as prose.

All of this relates to your question, Julie. Because I hold in my memory the original essays—before I committed violence on some of them!—it is especially hard for me to choose my “heart essay.” My heart is deep inside so many of them, in their original form and in their present form. But if I had to choose one essay to, as you say, “serve as metonym for the whole,” I guess I’d choose “Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy,” which was originally published as “Back”—see what I mean about violent revisions? Perhaps more than any of the other essays, it includes most of the important elements threaded throughout the book: the surprising intimacies of strangers’ lives intersecting with our own; family and spousal connection; the unpredictability of our lives, how quickly everything can change; my obsession with language, poetry, and even word derivations; and personal, even private moments enacted against public spaces and public events—in the case of this essay, my cancer surgery and recovery, which began in a large New York hospital on the day Saddam Hussein’s statue was destroyed.

Ha! That sounds like a lot of threads. I’d better stop before they all unravel before my eyes.

Rumpus: I want to thank you so much for your time and all your generous insight, Rebecca, and also to acknowledge the unprecedented backdrop against which this interview has taken place.

Right now, all of us are grappling with, in your words, “the unpredictability of our lives and “how quickly everything can change”—has changed—in just a few weeks’ time. You were living in New York during the 9/11 attacks, and your book reckons with that collective heartbreak through a personal lens. I’m wondering if you might share how it was for you to write about that defining event of the early twenty-first century. I’m also wondering if you’re writing now, about or in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

McClanahan: Yes, Julie, our conversation over the past month or two has been increasingly shadowed by this global crisis, and I am so grateful for your thoughtful insights. “Collective heartbreak through a personal lens” says so much. How else do we, as individuals, participate in public grief and trauma except through our own filtered experience? Though most people witnessed the 9/11 attacks through a shared (televised) public lens, what each person experienced—and now remembers—is unique and irreplicable. Neither of the 9/11 essays in the new book describes the New York event itself. One describes the days leading up to September 11th and ends with the first sirens I heard that morning; the other describes the week following the attacks. Between the two is a flash piece unrelated to the attacks but touching its emotional center. I placed it there to create a pause, an open space that I hope the reader will fill with her own memory of the attacks, one that belongs only to her.

As for writing about the pandemic, aside from my private journal entries, I have not written about it and can’t imagine that I will for some time. Though I have often written my way through personal and public traumas—as a way of understanding and surviving them—I rarely share these writings until I’ve had time to reflect on them and to discover the best shape they might take. So, as the cliché goes, time will tell. My job right now is to listen.

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Photograph of Rebecca McClanahan by Lana Rubright.


Julie Marie Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami. She has published twelve collections of poetry and prose, most recently the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (VCFA/Hunger Mountain, 2020). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats. More from this author →