Please welcome author, Melissa Hart, as she shares her experience as a journalism teacher, finding that balance in life and the writing process of her memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood.
One lucky reader will be selected to receive a copy of Gringa – but you must post a comment or question before end of day Jan. 22 !
Tell us about your writing process: do you start with an image? a conversation? an idea for a theme?
I generally begin with an image. For instance, I just wrote a piece of social commentary about quitting my C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture) program in favor of buying local produce at farmer’s markets. In my head, I had an image of my husband holding up a bag of moldy greens from the refrigerator, and I wanted to explore my inadequacies as a domestic goddess and my inability to deal with a box of fresh produce every week.
Other times, especially in the case of social commentary, I begin with an issue that I want to explore. I wrote a piece a while back for The Chicago Tribune, in which I wanted to examine my feelings about adopting a child and wanting, irrationally, to be seen as the “only” mother. In that case, the issue came before the images in the essay.
Your website showcases a lengthy list of published articles and essays. Can you tell us how you know when the seed of an essay has the potential to grow into a full memoir?
I knew when I wrote “Wanting What I Have,” an essay which appeared in both Brain, Child and Mothering Magazine (online), that it had potential as a full-length memoir. The essay examines the two and a half years I spent waiting to adopt a child; the wait was excruciating, and I distracted myself by learning to train permanently injured owls at Eugene’s Cascades Raptor Center.
I shy away from writing pure “mommy lit,” but the very real presence of owls in my daily life during this period is unusual and I’d like to offer it to readers along with stories of my own angst and amusement at the process of international and domestic adoption.
Your latest memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, has a list of questions for book club discussions. How cool is that! How does it feel to relate/connect with your readers? Have you ever been invited to book club discussion on your book (in person or via phone?)?
I’m attending my first book club discussion for Gringa this Thursday in Seattle, and I’m honored to think that I’ll be sitting in a room full of people who have taken the time to read this book. I’ll be attending similar discussions in February. It’s one of the most gratifying aspects of being a writer—to get to meet and talk with readers, whether in person or online.
Still, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve just reviewed Cindy Hudson’s fine “Book by Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs,” in which she suggests to readers who didn’t like a particular book that they might want to refrain from noting this to the author. I worry that people won’t like Gringa, of course, and that they’ll refrain from telling me why.
I tell my journalism students that they’re free to dislike a piece of writing that I assign, but they must explain why they disliked it as eloquently as possible. To me, this is sometimes even more interesting than hearing why someone enjoyed a book!
If you read my first post of the year, I’ve dubbed 2010 The Year of Clarity. Tell us how you balance all that is on your plate: wife, mom, teacher, essayist, memoirist, and journalist, to name a few! While writing longer projects (books) do you still write and submit articles and essays? Do you write only during school breaks? Or do you streamline your energy and focus only on one large project: writing, revising and marketing one piece at a time?
I admit that it’s difficult to balance it all, and I have chronic insomnia. But I’ve dubbed 2010 The Year of Letting Things Go. I have a few unfulfilling paid obligations that I need to quit, so that I have more time with my daughter. I’ve almost got my work to a point now that allows me to write one short essay a week and work on one chapter of my new memoir. look forward to breaks between university semesters as weeks which offer a great deal of clarity—this last break, I wrote four essays and three travel articles and spent wonderful time with my daughter.
You asked about my process; I’m a slow writer. I love to scribble down a rough draft by hand, and then type it up and let it sit for a few weeks. I pull it out again and revise, then let it sit once more for a while. Finally, I look at the piece again and revise, read it out loud, and then, when I think it’s perfect, I give it to my husband. He’s a professional photographer with a background in philosophy, and he’s my most trusted critic. He inevitably reminds me that when I feel something’s polished, it usually needs a bit more work.
Speaking of teaching, you are a Journalism and Intro to Memoir Writing teacher for at the college level and teach creative writing to H.S. students. What is your biggest challenge? What is your best advice for helping young writers find their true “voice” and bypass those nagging editors (especially their own parents!)?
My biggest challenge is finding enough time to devote to each of my students. Some terms, I have 50, and I want to give them so much individual attention and support. At times, though, that’s just not possible. We keep in touch via e-mail, and on Facebook once they’re no longer my students. That’s immensely gratifying.
My advice to young writers is to get a notebook and write every day. I’d also use the notebook as a repository for photos, compelling quotes, lists, sketches, movie ticket-stubs—whatever has energy and helps to recall an event or era.
I remember meeting the novelist E.L. Doctorow when I was eighteen. I went up to him and timidly asked him for advice. He told me to write every day. At the time, I thought that was awfully simplistic advice, but now I see that it’s the only practice which will train a young writer to develop and trust his/her voice.
Can you share with us your favorite collection of essays, favorite memoir or best book on writing in either of these genres?
I adore Sue William Silverman’s “Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir,” as well as the “Best American Essays” series and “Creative Nonfiction Journal.” Anyone writing memoir will want to check out all three for inspiration and practical advice.
What’s next on the horizon for Melissa Hart?
I’m working on a memoir tentatively titled “Learning to Triangulate: A Pregnancy, an Adoption, and a Baby Barred Owl,” as well as honing my skills as a travel writer. I really love quirky natural history and unusual places around the world, and I’m having a good time writing short travel essays and selling them to magazines and newspapers.
I’m also hoping to get a job as a teacher in a low-residency M.F.A. program. I graduated from this type of program (Goddard College, class of 1996) and I’m excited to work with writing students and guide them toward publication.
Read more about Melissa Hart and purchase her books here: http://www.melissahart.com/
You can view the book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrQKInQRMis