Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone, Blessing of the Animals, and Season of the Body. She has co-authored two craft books, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her essay “The Names” appeared in issue 24.1 of The Journal (Spring 2000). Recently, Miller spoke with nonfiction editor Silas Hansen about how her work has changed, her future writing plans, and flash nonfiction.
Silas Hansen: When “The Names” was published in our Spring 1999 issue, where were you in terms of your writing career?
Brenda Miller: I was very early in my writing career then. I was in my final year in a PhD program at the University of Utah, and had just received my job offer at Western Washington University. My first book, Season of the Body, was still in its infant stage as my PhD dissertation, and “The Names” was an anchoring essay of that collection, as it touches on the foundations of my heritage, both physically and metaphysically.
SH: If you could say anything to the younger self who wrote this piece, what would you say?
BM: To trust. To let go. To not hold on too tightly to what you thought you wanted to write about. To be a little more playful in general!
SH: How does this piece compare to the work you’re doing right now?
BM: I think “The Names” is much more directly autobiographical and earnest than my more recent work. I was experimenting with form in the repeating chant, and now I let form dictate my work much more strongly. I tend to now look outward before I look inward.
SH: What projects are you working on right now, or do you hope to work on in the near future?
BM: I’ve just completed a chapbook of linked short-short essays, called “Altered Fruit.” In these essays, I sometime experiment with applying the rules of formal poetry (sestina, villanelle, etc.) to prose, and it’s immensely fun!
SH: I’m exited to hear about this future project! I know that you have written many short-short essays, including one of my favorites, “Swerve,” from Brevity 31. How do you decide whether to write a longer piece, such as “The Names,” or a short-short/flash piece? What do you see flash nonfiction pieces accomplishing that longer pieces cannot—or perhaps that longer pieces accomplish in a different way?
BM: That’s a good question, Silas, and I’m not sure I have an answer! I do a lot of my writing in timed segments in groups, and so that is why much of my work lately is coming out in short bursts that seem self-contained. It feels like a flash piece when I can come around full circle pretty quickly with an image that “rings the bell” at the end. I think flash nonfiction acts as a microcosm of experience, and as such it needs to contain all the elements of that experience, but it concentrates them. When I think of “concentrate” I think of those cans of frozen orange juice—“just add water.” If one were to “just add water” to a short-short essay, an entire memoir should gush forth.