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Short Prose and Persistence: An Interview with Penny Guisinger

Penny Guisinger recently went on the United State’s easternmost book tour for her first memoir, Postcards from Here. How cool is it to be able to assign yourself a superlative like that? North Trescott, Maine, where she resides, is only a few miles from Canada, and the location features prominently in the book. Told in vignettes, Postcards from Here is not a linear memoir, and passage of time is marked, in part, by the changing of the seasons: a failing wood stove in the middle of the snowiest winter in recent memory, Halloween costumes and hunting season, bioluminescence falling off paddles during a kayaking trip, spring peepers. This book of micro-essays ranges in time and perspective, dipping in and out of Guisinger’s experiences with motherhood, marriage, health, and her community.

Her stories are exquisitely detailed and reflective; from essay to essay, her voice vacillates from tender to bemused, patient to pissed. For example, the chapter “How to Go Bowling with Your Michigan Brother-in-Law” is just one sentence: “Don’t mention the unions.” In the following chapter she juxtaposes that levity with a lavish description of an artist studio:

Behind us, on shelves lining the walls like insulation, were decades and decades of glass. Bottles, glasses, glasses that used to be jam jars, vases, candy dishes. And then I got interested in birds, so I started adding bird watching stuff. From a beam running down the studio’s center hung at least a dozen old bird cages. Gold, wooden, burnished metallic.

The micro-essay being her signature form, Guisinger is the founder and director of the The Iota Conference of Short Prose, where students spend a long weekend exploring the short form—short essays, flash fiction, and prose poems. The conference is held at the historic Roosevelt Campobello International Park, on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, across the border from Lubec, Maine, and this year’s faculty includes Mark Doty and Dinty W. Moore. Guisinger is also an assistant editor at Brevity. Her essay “Coming Out” was named a notable in 2015 Best American Essays and she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

I caught up with her about short prose, how she found her way into this writing life, and the conundrum of writing about people you care about.

You live in the Eastern most part of Maine, and therefore the U.S. Is that where you grew up? If not, how did you end up there?

I did grow up here but was not born here. My whole family is from Colorado. My parents moved to Maine, part of the ’70s back-to-the-land movement. They bought twenty acres of woods, built a house, and put in a garden. We heated with wood and my mom cooked everything on a wood cook stove. She got very good at it—it’s not easy. We had electricity and television and all that, so we weren’t off the grid or anything, but by most American standards, it was very rustic. Then, after about six years of that, we moved to New York City. After “getting away from it all,” my father wanted it all back. So off to Brooklyn, where I attended high school and from where I left for college in Oswego, in upstate New York. There were other places in between, but eventually my parents did move back to eastern Maine. I spent a long time swearing I would never live there because there’s nothing to do, but as I got older I think my definition of “things to do” changed. I wanted to raise a family, and I remembered what a magical place this is to be a kid. So I moved back here when I was in my early 30s. I love it here. My partner and I bought a house on the water and we live at the end of a long, dirt road. We could never afford to have that anywhere else. Plus, we love the people here. It’s a very intimate community.

When did your writing become more than just a hobby?

I started writing as a high school student, and I wrote a lot of terrible, high school fiction. In college, I wrote slightly less bad college fiction (I hope) as I earned a degree in creative writing. Then, I walked away from writing for almost two decades. I got interested in other stuff. I got into political campaigns and organizing. I was a lobbyist for a brief time. I worked for scrappy little nonprofits and larger nonprofits and earned a Master’s Degree in Public Policy. I took it all quite seriously, but I never completely stopped thinking about writing. I sort of propped that door open so it wouldn’t lock behind me, and always assumed I’d get back to work on that someday.

And I did. Just after I turned 40, I started applying to low-residency MFA programs. It wasn’t just my age, though I’m sure that was on my mind. I was in a place in my life where it felt like time. I was in a very supportive relationship, my kids were old enough that I could be gone a little bit, I had a job that supported my interest in pursuing a degree—everything was in the right place. Plus, I had a lot to say. I chose Stonecoast MFA at the University of Southern Maine, and it absolutely changed my life. I became a better writer, but more importantly I learned how to think like a writer. I learned how to revise and submit and revise some more. I met people who are my mentors for life. It submerged me in this writerly culture that immediately became my world.

You and I attended the same MFA program. As an alum, you returned to participate in a panel discussion where you spoke very candidly about some of the struggles you, and all Creative Nonfiction writers, have when their families and personal lives intersect with their work. Is this something youre still dealing with? Do you have any takeaways to share with young CNFers who want to write about the people in their lives?

All I can say is that you have to want the piece to be published more than you want most other things. And you better get clear about which relationships are sacred and which are not. I don’t write much about the sacred relationships: my parents, my partner, my kids. Actually, I write about my kids all the time. But as they’re getting older, and their stories are less intertwined with my own, I’m doing it a lot less. In most other relationships, people either have to understand that this is what I do or I have to be prepared for consequences. Our stories always overlap other people’s stories. It’s sort of unavoidable to include parts of other people in this work. You have to have the stomach for it.

The other thing I can say is: Don’t be mean or vengeful when you write about other people. I always try to make myself the most culpable person on the page. If there’s stuff to own in the story, I try to be the one that owns it. But that doesn’t mean that everyone in my pieces appreciates those efforts or that I always succeed. They don’t, and I haven’t, and there are always mistakes.

The Iota Conference of Short Prose is in its fourth year. The idea for the conference is something you had at graduate school? I have to imagine, in part, this conference was born to solve the problem of living in a very remote, although beautiful, part of the country.

Iota is my favorite thing. Yes. As graduate students, a lot of us wrote papers or did short-term community projects. I conceived of and created a conference. I was very strategic as an MFA student. I wanted every single thing I did in school to somehow take me closer to this writerly life I imagined for myself. So I started this thing that would outlast my time in the MFA program. This year will be the fourth year, and I am bowled over to say that we’re full this year, with a waiting list! So Iota was less about addressing how remote this place is, and more about consciously building a life that I wanted. I found my MFA residencies to be so transformative that I wanted to create some small version of that for other people.

Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of the conference? What have you learned in the years since it started, and how has it grown?

Iota was designed to be small, and in some ways has become even smaller since we started. The first two years, Iota offered three tracks  (fiction, nonfiction, and poetry), and had a capacity of 30 participants. However, in the summer of 2015, we tried a new approach. I always intended for the conference to explore the places where we draw lines between the genres. I found that most writers work in multiple genres anyway, and that this is particularly true for short form writers. So I redesigned the conference and brought in just two faculty. That reduced the capacity to 20 students. I stopped delineating between tracks and created mixed-genre workshops. And I designed it so that every participant gets time with both faculty members. People loved it last year—this summer will be the second time we’ve used that approach. If people continue to love it, I’m sure we’ll stick with it.

What have I learned? Oh, god. So many things I didn’t ever want to learn, like how to make and stick to a project budget and how to stay organized about people’s food allergies. I’ve also learned a lot of great things about networking and the business end of writing and teaching. I’ve made amazing connections with people I’ve admired for years. (I got an email from Mark Doty not very long ago that popped up on my phone while I was in the parking lot at the grocery store. I looked around for someone to tell, “Mark Doty just answered my email….” But nobody really cared.) I’ve also learned that most writers—those that are faculty and those that are participants—are just the most generous, wonderful, open, kind people. I love being in their company. I just love it.

Congratulations on the release of Postcards from Here (Vine Leaves Press, 2016)! I must admit, I felt a little sensitive reading it, both because Im homesick for Maine and because of your keen observations of the details of everyday life and the emotional weight those details can carry. How does it feel to have a book finally out there in the world?

Thanks! Having a book is SO fun. I really recommend it.

Before the book comes out, there’s this long wait. It gets accepted and then there’s a lot of nothing for a long time. There are flurries of activity—choosing the cover, reviewing the proofs, collecting blurbs. But there’s also a lot of waiting. Across all that waiting, I had a lot of time to doubt that this was real. Or to doubt that the book was any good. I kept waiting for my publisher to say something like, “Oh, wait. You didn’t know that you have to pay us $15,000 dollars and that this is actually a scam? Bwahahahahaha.”

And then…the book arrived, and I got to hold a copy in my hands. It was so shocking, but also calming. Since then, I’ve come to understand that having a book sort of changes the conversation I have with the literary world and with myself. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Once there’s a book, there are readings and signings and the possibility of book festivals and other things. It has been sort of a game-changer for me. Having a book makes me carry myself a little differently—it helps take imposter syndrome down a few notches. But now I’m creating a lot of pressure on myself to finish the NEXT book. And we can guess what comes after that…

Prior to the release of your first book, you were nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your essay “Coming Out” (Fourth Genre, Issue 16.2: 2014) was named a notable in Best American Essays 2015, plus a laundry list of publications in some of the most recognizable nonfiction literary journals. Do you have any insight for someone, like me, who might be burned out on the submission process?

I do a fair amount of teaching at the community level. The thing I do that always draws the biggest collective gasp is this: I put my Duotrope account on a projector and put my list of rejections up on the wall so they can see. (Duotrope is a website that tracks submissions, acceptances, and rejections.) As I scroll through the hundreds of rejections, people literally make this shocked, gasping sound. It’s always this wonderful/terrible moment for everyone.

That’s how this gets done, right? There’s SO MUCH NO to wade through for every yes. The piece that was Pushcart nominated? It collected twelve rejections before it was finally published, and that’s not even that many! Rejection is never fun, and I was lucky to have some early successes to keep me going. But they are part of the process. You have to believe and you have to keep going.

I will say, though, that if you have time and the opportunity, it’s helpful to volunteer to read the slush pile at a literary magazine. When I started reading for Brevity, I started noticing that a lot of writers make the same mistakes. Much worse than that was recognizing them as mistakes I also sometimes make! Getting that kind of volume in front of you can help you develop a clearer vision of what writing stands out and what doesn’t. The thing I see most often is short-changing the ending. Over and over, I am reading along, loving a piece, and then the ending just fails. Devote a lot of time to your ending.

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