Showcased Writer: Coleen Muir
Interview by Gina Warren
COLEEN MUIR is finishing up her final semester in the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans and working on completing a collection of short, lyric essays that center around her family and home. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and Silk Road Review; her essay nonfiction essay, “Home,” was included in volume 6, issue 2.
GW: How did you get the idea to write this story? Was it one of the images that hit you, an overarching want to capture the theme that you portray here, or something else entirely?
Coleen Muir: This essay originally wanted to be an essay about the afternoon my father had to take the barn cats to the animal shelter. Yet, as I began trying to write about the situation, I became more and more aware of the context of it – why did he have to get rid of the barn cats? This led me to begin describing the setting, and also created the destitute tone. Loss was a big element of this piece, as was desire. The desire to keep the cats, but also having to rid the barn of them. Desire, pushed up against the idea of loss, becomes the piece’s tension, though I wasn’t conscious of that while writing.
GW: The narrator steps away from being a character in this piece. Why did you choose to pull yourself out of the story?
CM: Rather than choosing to take myself out of the piece, it just never occurred to me to put myself in, at least not as a character. I approached the essay in terms of images, which made me an observer. Of course, I’m there, in the “you” form, as narrator. I appear while walking outside to observe the rain, for example, and while observing the dead bird with my sister. So I guess I’m a behind-the-scenes sort of character, but I don’t give myself a “section.” My primary role, or function, in the piece seemed to be best-suited to that of an observer.
GW: I thought that the use of second person was an interesting stylistic choice, but one made with prowess; the transition to second person was seamless and provided an intimate sense of immediacy. Why did you decide to incorporate this point of view in the way that you did?
CM: I think “you” enables the narrator to speak of a situation she has lived through without focusing on herself in the telling of it. The “I” tends to force a narrator into commenting on the images, or taking a stance, or to be an authority in the piece. Removing myself from the piece eliminates that problem, and hopefully allows the language and imagery to speak for themselves. This essay isn’t about me, but it’s about my family (and countless other families, I imagine) who have experienced “going without.” I think I was interested in creating a landscape, as well as specific images, which spoke to the experience of what it is like living without money, without options. To write this in “I” would have made this an essay about me – my story. I would prefer for readers to flip through the images and interpret what they see without wondering about how to fit my, the narrator’s, story into it.
GW: One of my favorite aspects of Home was the syntax and how it affected pacing in various parts of this narrative. Shorter sentences juxtaposed with longer ones, such as in the first section starting the piece and the ninth section about rain, slows the pace and directs focus. “We find ourselves surrounded by pasture and telephone poles. Leaves. Scraps of metal and strips of lumber piled against make-shift sheds. Everything waits to be put to use.” How did you view the relationship between syntax and pacing when you were writing this piece?
CM: Syntax is probably just as important to me as what I’m writing about. I see the two – syntax and content – as inseparable, really. I want to make striking images, but the only way you can make striking images is by creating striking sentences. So, for me, I look at writing as similar to composing. Listening to the rhythm of each sentence. I often read back through the lines, over and over, motioning my finger along to their rhythms. I also often read poetry before I write, which inspires certain rhythms.
In “Home,” the search for good language helped me discover the essay, in a sense. “Mayflies live just one day, dying to fuck,” has a nice rhythm to it (I feel), but at the same time, speaks to that element of loss and desire. At first, I only had the line, “Mayflies live just one day,” which felt incomplete to me. So, to carry out the rhythm, “dying to fuck,” I was able to incorporate more substance to the sentence and bring it to a deeper level. If I allow myself to search long enough for the right words and rhymes, images and verbs will surface, and sometimes, they lead me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to go.
GW: There is an easy movement of Home as the focus shifts from different images and individuals, such as Mother doing dishes, Father attempting to revive dead cars, Sister smoking cigarettes, the barn cats that cost sixty dollars to spay, and the rain pounding against the roof. How did you structure this flow? Was it a conscious progression of images, or did the piece seem to progress more organically as you were writing it?
CM: Sometimes, when I don’t know how to begin an essay, I begin writing sentences that aren’t connected to each other, but that try to capture an image that I’m interested in exploring. This essay grew out of a series of images I associated with my parents’ home, which started off as a blank page of random sentences, but sentences that spoke to me in such a way that made me want to further explore them. Those sentences led me into writing the small vignettes that create the essay. And since the essay lacks a specific narrative thread – one single story from start to finish – I had to rely on tone and imagery to make the readers invested in this place and these people.
GW: Authors who write creative nonfiction have an incredible ability to push specific themes and tones by the details they select. How did you choose the particular images and details which color Home so fully and specifically?
CM: Like with sentences, I try to linger on images, mentally, before I write them down. For example, I can remember exactly how that black bird looked after it hit the window that day, but, to write about it, I had to go back in my mind to that day, step out the door with my sister, and find myself standing barefoot in the yard, and looking down at the bird before I could recount the its turned head, its legs, feathers, all that. The pebbles surrounding it. I guess finding the right images is a process of meditating on the experience long enough until you find yourself back in it. Once I’m back in the situation – once I feel like I can bend down and literally feel the bird’s slick feathers beneath my fingertips – then I feel confident in rendering the scene. The details will be there, and it is just a matter of choosing which ones I decide to write down.