Interview by Holland Prior
Not too far from our hallowed University of New Hampshire halls you will find Mira Ptacin, a creative nonfiction writer who lives off the coast of Maine with her family. Mira’s writing is energetic and intimate, drawing the reader in with her vivid and honest prose, and her work has appeared in Guernica, New York Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and many other places. Fresh off her book tour for her new memoir Poor Your Soul, which navigates her journey through an ultimately unviable pregnancy, Mira Ptacin took the time to speak to Barnstorm about her work and writing craft.
Your book, Poor Your Soul, began as a few different essays that you later compiled and expanded upon. Can you describe what it was like to transform your material into a book-length memoir?
Many, many, many revisions and tests of different structures. I had to consider the reader, maintain a connective tissue throughout the piece, and work to make it flow into one single story that read like a long tapestry. I tried different arrangements, often dropping clues that would cue the reader into the next chapter (sometimes thematically, sometimes by giving a date and time when the chapters skipped ahead and back in time, for instance). In its earlier drafts, I focused only on the story of my pregnancy. The book was brief and packed a punch. But I wanted to evoke empathy, show what led to what led to what led to what. I kept coming across threads that traced back to my childhood, and in studying them, I could follow them back into my past, like, my youth, and found that childhood events led to other events that led to other events that led to other events that influenced my decisions and behaviors and thoughts behind the main narrative of Poor Your Soul. And by digging deeper, by having the story be more than just what was on the page, I could make the story three-dimensional, not superficial. This structural revision took me about eight years to play around with. I’m hoping it worked. I feel good about it.
You’ve embraced “the uterus and the American Dream” as your writing beat. Can you describe what that means to you and how it shapes your approach to writing?
This is how I see the world: how it affects women, and their goals and dreams. I can’t see the world any other way. I can’t help it. It’s what I care about. We could both be writing about the same exact thing, but our approaches, our drives, our interpretations, and our theses might be completely different. I just see the world through “uterus and American-dream colored glasses,” I suppose.
Poor Your Soul delves deeply into your own grief over the loss of your baby, and in that journey you explore your family history and relationship dynamics very openly. How did you navigate the delicacies involved in writing about your loved ones?
I had no problem writing about everything, because I knew my intentions were only for the best—for my version of the truth—and I didn’t put anyone in a bad light. Also, I have a disclaimer in my memoir reminding readers that this is all just my interpretation.
I often re-read this quote by Stephen Elliott: "People can give you permission to write the good things about themselves; and they usually will. People can give you permission to write the 'bad' things about them; it's surprising how often they'll do that, too. But people never give you permission to write things about them that they don't KNOW about themselves. They can't. And that's the killer."
My immediate family was open and supportive of all that I included, and I’m grateful for that. And even if they weren’t, they would never want to sanitize my writing, or stifle my or anyone’s freedom of speech. They trusted me. And still do.
You’ve taught writing workshops in various settings, including the prison system. How has teaching influenced your own work as a writer?
I think teaching is the best form of growing as a writer. And I love teaching. It forces me to uproot what I’ve been practicing and to preach it. It forces me to confront what I believe in as a writer and declare it to my students, which kind of re-teaches me and seals the deal. It makes me stand by my convictions; it keeps me on my feet as well, but forces me to edit (which causes me to learn and continue to learn).
When I assign readings, I read them as well and must know them well so that I can lead discussion on them. Plus, teaching allows me to hear other points of view, not just the voice in my head. Teaching is learning. It is an incredible gift to be able to teach. When you teach, you preach. You’re preaching to your audience, but you’re also saying what you believe, so you’re reminding yourself of what you believe, and sort of questioning your beliefs and forcing yourself to find the answers through talking. And also your students question you, so it forces you to always be re-evaluating your beliefs. You have to answer for yourself.
You received your MFA from Sarah Lawrence. What was your biggest takeaway from the program? What advice would you give current MFA students or recent grads?
My biggest, biggest takeaway: you get what you put into it. You don’t have to go to graduate school to become a great writer. You become a good or a great writer by studying the craft: by reading and reading like a writer. By writing. By discussing writing with others. By surrounding yourself in the world of literacy. Graduate school buys you the time and the environment, but it is expensive in one way or another. So if you’re going to go for it, and it is an incredible experience, you gotta promise yourself you will go all-body in. Be the best damn student you can possibly be. Squeeze every single bit of juice out of that experience, and you will be glad you experienced it, and you will benefit tremendously. Also, this goes for every single experience in life.
What are you working on now?
My personal harmony! I recently had a baby and she (Simone) is almost four months old. She came with me on my book tour, which wasn’t too challenging (despite the fact that I developed pneumonia during the first leg of the national tour), but now that I’m home, my challenge—and it is quite a challenge—is to find a healthy rhythm and balance of motherhood, ME-time, helping around the house, dog care, cooking, exercise, meditation, reading, and WRITING. Despite all that is going on, I am starting to work on my next book, but I’ll be writing a proposal before I begin to start the manuscript. It’s a book of nonfiction that takes place here in Maine, and it’s about a subculture of Maine female Spiritualists and clairvoyants, as well as technology vs. instinct. I’ll keep you posted . . .