Melissa Grunow’s piece “Train Gone” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Winter 2018 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I was born in Michigan and—with the exception of four years spent in New Mexico and a year in Ohio—have lived here all my life. It’s impossible for me to travel or meet people from other parts of the country and the world without automatically drawing contrasts and parallels to the life and mindset of Midwestern people. Place plays an important role in my work as my upbringing and sense of home is an inarguable aspect of my identity. Since I write creative nonfiction almost exclusively, my identity and my writing are often one and the same. I go camping a lot in the summer and often rent cabins in the fall and spring, so the immersion in rural Michigan also serves as a catalyst for my writing.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
It’s difficult to choose just one, but I am most fascinated by the people. “Midwestern nice” is a real thing, and more often than not, it’s genuine. People are kind and friendly in the Midwest and when they ask how you are it’s because they really want to know.
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?
When I write fiction, the setting is often homes or apartments that I’ve lived in at some point of my life. My essays are rife with the unpredictable and often extreme weather in Michigan. I’m fascinated with rivers, lakes, trees, and trains, all staples of Michigan living, so they frequently function as metaphors in my work.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
Inspiration can come from anywhere and often blindsides me, but it usually starts with a memory or emotion that I cannot shake. I’m a voracious reader, so inspiration can come from reading an essay or a short story that triggers a memory or scene in my head that I may not fully understand, so to find out what it means, I write about it. Occasionally, I am haunted (in that good writerly way) by a dream or a social media post, and it’s as though someone flicked me in the temple and said, “Pay attention. You will have something to say about this.” Most of my stories and essays start with a scribble on a Post-it note or the back of an envelope. When it’s time to write, I tape these notes on the edges of my computer screen as a way to help me stay focused and reconnect with whatever it was that inspired me in the first place.
I do most of my writing in my home office that I’ve set up in a spare bedroom in my house. I designed customized built-in bookshelves, sit at a desk facing a window to my backyard where I watch my dogs chase birds and squirrels. I also write on retreats and in rented cabins if I need to really shut myself off from the outside world, but writing at my desk has proven to be the most productive.
Writer’s block, to me, is simply the manifestation of the fear of failure. Writing is hard and time-consuming and there is no guarantee of any kind of pay-off. If I find myself struggling to work through a new piece, I put it away until I can understand why I’m stuck. Sometimes it’s because I can’t turn off the presumed voices of dissent, other times it’s simply because I’m not sure where the piece is headed, so I need to give it more thought. In the interim, I’ll do something else to let my mind reset its focus. I got into woodworking as a way to give myself some necessary distance. I’ll take my dogs for long walks and listen to podcasts like “Between the Covers” and “Lit Up,” both of which are interviews with writers, and it always helps to listen to other authors talk about their own writing processes and struggles.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to put your drafts aside and just let them breathe. You cannot—at least I cannot—see the flaws in a piece when you’re close to it. I often go through a few heavy revisions involve literally a printed copy into pieces and rearranging them. If I’m really fighting with it, I’ll ask a few of my fellow writer friends to have a look and see if they can pinpoint the problems. Finally, I read it aloud, let it sit some more, do some line editing, and read it aloud again. I only know a draft is finished when it sounds the way I want it to sound when I read it in my own voice.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
Because my writing themes are so often centered around relationships, women’s identity, trauma, mental illness, sexuality and health, and displacement, I’m most drawn to (women) writers who deal with the same topics. The list is ever-growing, but current favorites are Lidia Yuknavitch, Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, Cheryl Strayed, and Meghan Daum.
What’s next for you?
I’m very excited to share that my second book is currently in contract negotiations with a publisher. It’s an essay collection titled, I Don’t Belong Here, and if all goes as planned, it will be released in 2018.
Where can we find more information about you?
You can find me at http://melissagrunow.com, www.facebook.com/MelissaGrunowAuthor, and on Twitter @melgrunow. I’m a big proponent of literary citizenship, and in turn, review books for The Coil at https://medium.com/the-coil. If you have a book you would like for me to review, feel free to contact me through my website.