Stephanie Anderson’s piece “The McFarthest Spot” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.
What’s your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I grew up on my family’s ranch in western South Dakota, a place I love and respect with people I cherish. The nearest town, Bison, is the subject of “The McFarthest Spot” published here in Midwestern Gothic, but I’ve written more directly about the ranch, my family, and the prairie elsewhere. The region influences my writing primarily by functioning as a center from which many of my essays and stories unfold. With the exception of a couple pieces, everything I’ve published or am working on evokes the grassland and/or its residents somehow. My debut book, One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture, grew out of my dismay over how industrial agriculture ruins Midwestern land and bankrupts the people living there. The prairie is the landscape of my youth, a place that lives within me in memory but also in the present as I return to it via creative and research-driven work.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
I can probably speak most authentically about western South Dakota, since it’s the area of the Midwest I’m intimately familiar with. To me, the most compelling aspect of western South Dakota is the grassland. It’s unbelievably beautiful, vast, wild, and remote, a place that invites expansive thinking and feeling. We’ve plowed up or urbanized most of the Great Plains, and western South Dakota includes some of the last acres we have left. Some of those acres are partially protected as federal grassland, while others are privately owned by ranchers. That portion of the state is a desperately needed sanctuary for prairie flora and fauna, and one of the last glimpses of what the prairie used to be in the United States.
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?
My writing tends to be deeply rooted in place, whether that’s the Midwest or these days Florida, since that’s where I live now. A specific, vividly imagined setting is the foundation of most good essays and stories, and my settings are often inspired by places I’ve observed directly or that resonated with me in some way. A lot of writers draw from memory and experience like this, so it’s nothing special.
What I’ve learned about that practice, though, is how powerfully one’s state of mind influences recollection and interpretation, and this becomes especially important with nonfiction. When writing about the prairie or my family, for instance, I am in a constant battle with nostalgia since I miss both so much. Sometimes I discover new, unexpected insights into old events I’m writing about, events I thought I understood completely. Conversely, when writing about more recent things, I have to guard against the sharpest, easiest emotions and push myself into deeper, more wide-ranging thought. A difficult but fruitful lesson I’ve learned is that my first observation or argument may not be the most accurate one. There’s usually more if I sit with the piece longer.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
My writing process is fairly cyclical since, being a writing instructor, I am on the university schedule. I spend the summer writing pieces that I’ve imagined or, in a few rare cases, started during the academic year. I occasionally write a spur-of-the-moment something while traveling—I started one essay on a camping trip, for example—but most of the actual writing happens at my desk or couch, my two greyhounds napping nearby. I spend the fall and spring semesters submitting, since that’s when most literary journals accept submissions; planning/researching new work; and revising any pieces I couldn’t finish over the summer.
As unromantic as this sounds, the most important part of my writing process is discipline. I don’t wait for inspiration or an artistic mood, although if I feel moved to write I try to act on it immediately. I sit down and write as much as I can on the days I schedule for writing, and I submit persistently, even when a piece has been rejected dozens of times. I build in time for revision. I learned these behaviors from my undergraduate and graduate mentors. Writing something, anything, is always better than writing nothing, because one can revise a “nothing” into a “something” later on.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
It might be easier to say when I know a piece isn’t finished. If I have not revised it at least once—and by “revised” I mean reconsidered completely and made global changes, not just line edits—then it’s not finished. Usually I revise half a dozen times or more over several months, sometimes much longer. If I feel satisfied with a piece, it’s probably still not finished and I need to wait a few weeks before going back and revising a bit more. It might be finished when I feel satisfied with it a second or third time.
Who is your favorite author (fiction writer or poet), and what draws you to their work?
For fiction, I admire Anthony Doerr’s work. His short stories and novels glitter with specific, evocative details and plumb emotional and thematic depths without wandering into cliché. For nonfiction, I love Eula Biss’ writing. Her essays are astoundingly perceptive—I’ve learned so much from her—and her writing is lean and lyrical. And for poetry, I am drawn to Lyn Hejinian’s work. Reading her poetry is an immersive, immediate experience, and I strive to replicate that effect in my own work.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a collection of essays connected by (surprise!) the Midwest, particularly the prairie, rural life, family, and agriculture.
Where can we find more information about you?
Visit www.stephanieandersonwriting.com or www.facebook.com/stephanieandersonwriting for more info on forthcoming work, including my debut book One Size Fits None, and upcoming events. Thank you for reading this interview!