Good writing in any genre rings with truth, personal and universal. In her latest book of micro-memoirs, Heating & Cooling, Beth Ann Fennelly shares her truth about life’s moments, big and small, with poignancy and humor.
Fennelly found her way to micro-memoir by writing into it and letting herself go. In the process, she wrote a series of small pieces that dealt with motherhood, loss of her sister, marriage and life in a small town.
I trust the spirit in which the inspiration presents itself and pay attention to the gift of the initial impulse . . .
“I keep discovering halfway through something what I’m doing. I trust the spirit in which the inspiration presents itself and pay attention to the gift of the initial impulse,” said Fennelly.
Her openness to discovery was cultivated by a piece of advice given to her by visiting poet Jack Gilbert when she was a graduate student at University of Arizona. He looked at her poetry and told her a story about a taxi shortage in Amsterdam in the 1970s which ushered in the use of red taxis driven by drivers in training.
“He said, ‘Beth Ann you need to take the red taxi.’ He meant that I should take detours, take my hands off the wheel and be open to the mystery and surprise of writing.”
The current Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Fennelly is the author of three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, a book of nonfiction, Great with Child, and The Tilted World, a novel she co-authored with her husband, Tom Franklin.
She believes her cross-genre writing influences, strengthens and rounds out her work in each area. “When I realized I was writing micro-memoir I saw that it had the compression and lyrical zip of poetry, the narrative tension of fiction and the usefulness of nonfiction that comes from truth telling,” said Fennelly.
Her influences in playing with the form include The Pillow Book, the diary of a Japanese lady in waiting written during the 990s and early 1000s which focuses on small moments, the haikus of Basho, and the idiosyncratic, truth-laden fiction of Lydia Davis.
Fennelly credits her work as a poet and freelance writer in helping her develop the compression needed for short form nonfiction. “As a poet you think each word is so precious. As a freelancer I would write articles on the south’s prettiest sorority houses and my editor would ask me to cut words. I learned a lot about compression doing that and it is a completely transferable skill.”
Part of the collection’s charm is the way that Fennelly plays with language. In the piece “Small Fry” she offer a childhood recollection of her friend’s grandfather stealing off into a closet while the girls watched television. When Beth Ann follows him she discovers he is sneaking French fries from his coat pocket. The essay ends like this: He held it out to me, a tiny sword, cold as if pulled from the heart of a stone.
At forty-six I know who I am now and worry less about being judged. I paid attention to my feelings.
When writing Fennelly heeded the advice of Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir—write the memoir that sounds most like you. “At forty-six I know who I am now and worry less about being judged. I paid attention to my feelings. When writing about my father’s death, I know I wasn’t a nice person in that piece, but that was how I felt.”
She incorporated humor in the pieces. “I didn’t use a lot of humor when I was younger. I wanted to play with the big boys and if they were writing poems about Greek myths I did too. I know now that I only have to compete with my best self.”
She took great care when it came to titling the essays. “Titles are fun and important, especially in micro-memoir, Titles establish the tone.” They can also carry narrative weight and subvert expectations, as in the essay “I Come From a Long Line of Modest Achievers,” which is followed by: I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.
The book’s title, Heating & Cooling, came after some experimentation. “Salvage, with the idea of salvaging these memories, seemed depressing and Galore had a feeling of excess and looks like glamour but went too far in the other direction,” noted Fennelly. The choice of Heating & Cooling came about because that essay conveyed her “life as an everyday woman” and explored a range of emotions. “I wanted the title to project the fullness of human emotion,” said Fennelly.
Determining the order of the essays was “like a Jenga game.” “The essays are set in different times. I play different roles. The tone and length of them vary. I didn’t attempt to create any kind of narrative. I want each piece to stand alone.”
She wrote the book over a year and a half and originally intended it to have 100 essays. She ended up with 52. She cut the manuscript leaving the strongest pieces. “Revision gets easier the more you do it,” said Fennelly.
With her collection of micro-memoirs getting good reviews, Fennelly is centered about her work. She repeated a story the writer Alan Shaprio told her class at University of Mississippi, where she teaches. He talked about being a young writer and thinking he’d be happy after getting a good rejection and finding he wasn’t satisfied. That feeling continued with each milestone, publishing in a small magazine, big magazine, winning a poetry contest, publishing a book, winning a prize.
He realized he’d never be satisfied with his writing life as long as he looked outside himself for validation. Our reward is writing. That is all we have to focus on.”
About the Author:
Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. She’s won grants and awards from the N.E.A., the United States Artists, a Pushcart, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Fennelly has published three poetry books: Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, a book of nonfiction, Great with Child, and The Tilted World, a novel she co-authored with her husband, Tom Franklin. Her newest book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W.W. Norton, Oct. ’17) Fennelly and Franklin live in Oxford with their three children.
For more information: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Heating–Cooling/
This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris