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Joanne Nelson’s nonfiction piece “If Not for the Mess” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2017 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, attended college in Eau Claire and Madison (BA, MSSW in Social Work). I currently live in the village of Hartland, which is between Milwaukee and Madison. Although I’m tempted to say that place—meaning the land, and the seasons’ effects on that land—is the biggest influence on my writing, I think that the truth is more about socio- economic status. In my neighborhood, the dads were laborers and the moms were housewives. There were lots of kids and parents stayed together. My parents divorced, my mom needed to work, and my two brothers were much older than me. I was the only kid on the block attending Catholic grade school, not to mention an all-girls high school. Let’s just say I didn’t always fit in. College was a continuation of this in many ways, as I often felt I was trying to catch up with what came easily to others about how to act. I think that juxtaposition of how we fit in and don’t fit in plays out in my writing.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
What is compelling is how people can be counted on. Neighbors and neighborhoods are important. I think about this when I think of home. I can count on my neighbor to take care of whatever is necessary if I’m out of town. I can ask people I barely know on my block for help and it will be provided. Send one guy out to the yard with a chainsaw and soon a group will gather. Start shoveling your snow and someone with a snow blower is likely to come over and help. Get stuck in a drift and several people will soon be helping push. I guess a summary statement would be that we notice each other and what is going on around us. Perhaps this happens in many places, but I think that the change of seasons in the Midwest gives people an immediate discussion topic, and immediate reason to connect with each other.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places—such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited that you can’t get out of your head—play a role in your writing?
Hopefully place ends up being as much a character as anything or anybody else in my writing. Any particular story/memory that I’m telling ultimately couldn’t have happened in any other setting. Currently I’m working on a project that focuses on “up north,” the Door County area specifically. It’s about the ways we try to claim locations—in this case, places only borrowed and make them our own. That said, my writing usually starts with an action—someone does or says something that I can’t stop thinking about, that reminds me of something in the past.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Mornings work best for me. It seems like my head gets to full of the rest of life and I can’t sink into the writing if I try to start later in the day. Meditating as soon as I get up and right before I start to write has been the most valuable addition to my writing process in the last few years. I like to write in my basement office, a quiet, plain place. When possible I also like to get away for a few days to a small retreat center, The Bridge-Between in Denmark, WI, just north of my house and concentrate on writing for a few days. So far, writer’s block hasn’t been a problem, but time constraints certainly have. Well, getting in the way of myself by, for example, going on social media certainly also gets in the way. I did, during my MFA thesis semester finally beat my online solitaire addiction. It wasn’t easy.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
Usually I have that, “Yes!” experience when I think I’ve found a last line that wraps things up (or doesn’t wrap things up if that’s what I’m going for). However, so much happens on the way to that. At some point in the drafting process I’ll ask a few trusted buddies to read my work and send comments. Off and on I’ve participated in round tables through Red Oak Writing, so I add that ongoing feedback to the drafting process also. My final steps involve fixing at least half of the fragments readers have commented on (I do love fragments!), reading my work out loud to see where I stumble, and using the find function to look for words I tend to repeat way too much.
It seems to me, that a piece can be finished in theory only. I don’t think I’ve ever reread my own work without changing something.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Oh boy, no way can I name just one—this list changes too frequently!
Favorites include Anne LaMott—especially her early work. I still recommend Bird by Bird to students, and they love it. I’ve learned a lot from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s essays—she’s so funny—and return to those also. Other writers that I reread include Patricia Hampl, Abigail Thomas, and Brenda Miller (most currently The Pen and The Bell as I develop my own Mindfulness and Writing classes). When the new The Best American Essays anthology comes out each year, my favorite becomes each of the authors featured. Favorite essay of all time: “The Fourth State of Matter,” by Jo Ann Beard. Every time I read it I’m completely immersed in the narrative and learn something new about the creative process. I read Lee Martin’s blog posts nearly weekly, he’s a wonderful, down-to-earth teacher.
I like the work of essayists who are compelling, who take your breath away, and yet, who sneak in some drop dead funny lines in the most serious of situations.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a creative nonfiction project about what moors us, what holds us to the base of who we are. I want to explore how specific places, how rituals—even the same conversation over and over—keeps us connected. I want to explore what I mean by the word connected in that last sentence! Although I’ve been at this for over a year and have a good number of pages, you can probably tell I still have more questions than completed narrative. I’m still intrigued by the project and enjoy working on it, so I’ll keep moving forward and see what happens.
In addition, I’m offering workshops and classes (online and in my community) on mindfulness and writing. I love the intersection of a mindfulness practice and the writing process. So much creativity is awakened at that juncture!
Where can we find more information about you?
I now have a website that lists several of the programs I run: wakeupthewriterwithin.com. Besides Midwestern Gothic, my work can also be found in Redivider, Consequence, Brevity, The Notebook, and at WUWM (wuwm.com/programs/lake-effect).