Courtesy of Wilkes University’s Creative Writing MA/MFA Program, an interview with yours truly on a whole variety of subjects relating to writing, teaching, owls, and Kevin Henkes’ mice:
August 24, 2011 by gradasst
Have you ever known a multi-tasker? I mean, a real multi-tasker who seems to juggle it all and do so with grace and, yes, success? When it comes to writing, Melissa Hart colors in and outside of the lines in such a well-rounded fashion that’s so inspiring, she has to be one of my favorite interviews of all time. She’s busy, but she’s incredibly endearing as you see…
Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009.) She’s a contributing editor at The Writer Magazine, and her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Advocate, Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Times, Adbusters, High Country News, Orion, Hemispheres, Woman’s Day, and various other publications. She teaches for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program, and for Laurel Springs School. As well, she works as an independent writing coach and editor. Visit her website at www.melissahart.com.
Welcome, Melissa, and thanks for joining us. Gringa received –and continues to receive — such positive feedback. What do you plan as a follow-up? Are you working on another memoir?
This summer, I’m finishing the final draft of a memoir about learning to train permanently-injured owls for educational presentations at a raptor rehabilitation center while navigating the baffling process of adopting a child. The book focuses on people who dedicate their lives to helping injured and orphaned kids and birds of prey. It’s taken me three years to write, and I’m really excited about its completion and its possibilities to bring awareness to these two demographics which actually have a lot in common!
As you work on personal essays, how do you know when you come across something that might be ‘memoir-worthy’? How do you know when something has enough meat to carry a book-length theme or motif?
With Gringa, I knew I wanted to investigate the under-reported phenomenon of children being separated in the 1960s and 70s from newly-out lesbian mothers. From my perspective as one of those children, I wanted to explore the effects of homophobia on families. I also wanted to examine my coming of age in multicultural Los Angeles and what it meant to grow up in such a culturally-rich environment, believing I myself had no discernable culture.
I’ve written numerous short essays about my experiences with adopting my daughter and with owl-training, but I’m fascinated by how the two paralleled each other over two years, and—as I’d taken extensive notes during our adoption process—I realized I had enough material for a book-length work that expands much of my published material on both subjects.
I urge participants in my writing workshops to identify a specific era and/or event from their life that has energy and conflict and revelation, and to focus their essay or book-length project on this. For instance, I’ve got a client right now working on a long essay about going to Japan right out of college to assist his grandfather one summer with some political activism, protesting a proposed naval base. He’s written about 8,000 words on the subject, but he could easily expand it with flashbacks and history and personal anecdotes to become a book-length memoir.
I spend about half my time writing, and the other half teaching. I’m just not one of those writers who can spend all day every day at the computer—I love to interact with emerging writers and talk shop and help them to get their own work published. I’ve lately started a coaching business for writers, which I adore. I’ve worked with an etiquette specialist, a woman who did search and rescue with her dog, an 85-year old world traveler, and an Americorp teacher—it’s such a fun, fulfilling job.
I had a regular schedule as a special education teacher about 13 years ago, and it darn near killed me. I love the freedom to wake up at six AM and work for an hour before my daughter wakes up, and I don’t mind working like a fiend while she’s at morning preschool because I get to spend time with her in the afternoon. Often, I’ll teach at night and/or meet coaching clients on weekends. This flexible schedule works better for me than would a 9 to 5 job. I like every day to be a little different, with time built in to go for a spontaneous hike or write something unplanned, just in case inspiration strikes. With social commentary, in particular–especially if it’s for newspaper or radio–writers have to jump on a news topic as soon as it hits the wire. I’m grateful for the time I have to monitor the news with an eye for timely topics that I can then explore in a more immediate way than I approach my books and literary essays.
What’s your favorite part about being a contributing editor to The Writer?
I love my editors. I’ve been working with them for about 8 years, and they’re such kind, positive people. They give me wonderful assignments for my “Literary Spotlight” column, introducing me to so many innovative literary journals. My main editor, Sarah Lange, also knows exactly what types of books I like, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing reviews on–for example–Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Notebook and Eric Maisel’s Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions.
You have so many diverse publications to your credit. Did you create and follow a plan for the magazines and newspapers you write for or did these publications grow organically as you discovered your areas of interest?
These publications most definitely grew organically out of whatever interested me at the moment. Matching my writing to suitable publications requires research into the magazines and newspapers out there, which can be so exciting. For instance, I hadn’t heard of High Country News (one of my favorite publications) until I wrote “The Owl and I” and began to look for potential markets. I tell my students to give themselves a couple of hours every now and then to peruse the stacks at the library, and in bookstores, and to research publications online. Duotrope Digest offers hundreds of titles, of course, and I also like to Google a key word such as “owl” along with the word “magazine” to see what comes up!
I write on a wide variety of subjects—among them travel, nature, adoption, LGBT issues, and Down syndrome—and I love how there’s a publication out there to fit even the most specific essay and/or article. By the way, I’d like to emphasize for your readers how open the editors of newspaper commentary sections are to topics and writers from all over the country—for instance, as an Oregon writer, I’ve had commentary published in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. Editors are always looking for fresh perspectives and voices on topics which affect readers in all parts of the country.
You often find unique ways to bridge similarities between animals–owls, cats, raptors–and humans. Have you always been an animal lover? How has your relationship to animals fed your creativity?
This is a terrific question, and one I’ve never been asked! I’ve had cats since I was three years old—the first, a mammoth beast named “Butch” whom I loved almost as much as my little sister. I’m happiest outside, watching animals in nature, or playing with my cats. Ten years ago, I sold my first travel article to Cat Fancy, after visiting a feline sanctuary in Rome, and I’ve been writing off and on about cats (and sometimes my two dogs) every since. It’s interesting to note that my husband and I met at the dog park . . . three years before the romantic comedy Dog Park hit the screen.
Volunteering at the raptor rehabilitation center inspired numerous essays. I’d never been around birds of prey, and getting to feed them and care for them–and later, glove train them—was such a privilege, every single day. I thoroughly enjoy getting to revisit those years in the memoir I’m working on now.
One of the things I tell workshop students on the first day is “identify your passions.” Then, you can brainstorm whom you might profile in a magazine related to these passions, and what related essays you might write, and what books you might review. For instance, I’ve got a student fascinated by VW busses, and he’s written articles, essays, profiles, and blog posts on the subject for a couple of years. As soon as freelance writers get in touch with what they love, they can take a cross-genre approach which keeps their work exciting and relevant.
With fall just around the corner, how do plan to take advantage of the remaining weeks of summer? Anything left on your summer reading list you’re excited to share with us?
Oh, my summer reading list. Between parenting, working on a book, teaching a community-based class and working with coaching
clients, it’s a miracle if I get to open The New Yorker. But I’m on a huge Mary Karr kick right now, reading her work backwards from Lit to The Liar’s Club. I just reviewed Sarah Rabkin’s superb book of essays, What I Learned at Bug Camp, for High Country News, and I’m looking forward to reading John Daniel’s newest book. I’m kind of hoping children’s author Kevin Henkes will come out with a new picture book, too. I’m in love with his mice.
Speaking of books, what’s the one book that you turn to repeatedly for an extra boost of writer’s self esteem? What’s the book that kicks you in the pants when you need it most?
J.D. Salinger’s books—the three that aren’t Catcher in the Rye—ground me and remind me of who I am and what I want to accomplish as a writer. Aside from his story, “Seymour: An Introduction,” there’s little in them about writing, per se, but they’re informed by marvelous characters, compelling dialogue, subtle plotlines, and a great deal of Eastern philosophy which I try hard to practice in my daily life. Jack Kornfield and Jon Kabat-Zinn are my contemporary go-to authors, and all I have to do when I’m feeling unbalanced and confused about my work is to read a few pages.
By the way, Kornfield says in one of his audio lectures, “What is it time to do with that which you have been given?” I urge freelancers to write this question on a sticky note and attach it to the computer. As someone who’s mainly self-employed and juggling several jobs in a day, I repeat it to myself almost every morning. It helps.
Visit www.melissahart.com for news and upcoming events.