Interview by Alyssa Martino
Lisa Romeo’s *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp is one of the main reasons I’m now earning my MFA. I say this because I never would have finished my 30-page writing sample without her encouragement and feedback. Fiercely honest, Lisa challenges all of her students to see beyond excuses and—plain and simple—find the time to write. An important and universal lesson.
Since earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program, Lisa has published essays in the New York Times, Sweet Lit, Lunch Ticket, Barnstorm, Pithead Chapel, Quay Journal, and other publications, both online and in print. She teaches writing classes at Rutgers University and The Writers Circle. She is also a Nonfiction Editor for COMPOSE Journal and Freelance Editor for Brain, Child. As if that doesn’t sound like a lot to juggle, Lisa manages to craft essays that are consistently provocative and perceptive, full of stunning images. Below, we discuss the story beneath the story, work/family balance, and the rewards of teaching.
Barnstorm: You wrote in your essay, "Depression-Era Quilt," published in Skirt! Magazine, “Along the way, I also stitched together a version of motherhood, like my quilt, tailored only to me, pieced together from fragments that seemed to fit.” A lovely metaphor. What is your process of discovery? Do you often begin writing about one thing—for instance, sewing—and later out find what you’re really getting at?
Lisa Romeo: I usually know the story I want to tell, in broad strokes, but often I have no idea at all what I'm specifically trying to say or why, until many drafts in!
In the case of that particular essay, I knew from the start I was writing about overcoming postpartum depression—a huge topic and one I've written about in many pieces and forms. It began for me with the quilt as an artifact and what that quilt represented. But I wasn't sure until draft number three or four which particular narrow slice of my PPD story to focus on.
The interesting thing is that while I was initially writing about making the quilt and working out my feelings about motherhood in connection to recovering from PPD, I realized by the final draft (and many people who read it have confirmed this) that the essay also addresses the larger idea that motherhood, while universal, is also completely different and unique for every person. So it makes me happy to know that the essay’s reach is wide.
B: Likewise, I’m curious if you ever begin with one concept or theme, only to realize you’re writing about something completely different?
LR: All the time!
This happened to me a lot while writing many of the linked narrative essays that make up my memoir manuscript about the relationship I developed with my father after his death. I'd begin one thinking I was writing about, for example, how we clashed when I was a teenager, and at some point I realized what I was really writing about was how similar we were as adults, in our need for time alone.
Other times, very often actually, I realize I'm writing two essays instead of one. Or that what I thought was going to be a long lyric essay is really meant to be a short piece meant for mainstream media. And vice versa.
I have come to like and even welcome these shifts and surprises. You never know where they will lead.
B: You’ve had several personal essays about parenting published in the New York Times. How do you decide what outlet will be right for a particular essay or piece? Do you submit pitches when working with newspapers or magazines?
LR: There's a real art to picking which essay to send to which media venue, and I'm not an expert at the secret sauce. All I hope is to have a decent batting average. Sometimes I think I have a good instinct. Other times, I'm hopelessly off base. I try pay attention to where other writers (who I think of as sort of in the same lane as me) are publishing. And I follow my nose: seems to me what I enjoy reading are the places where I'd enjoy being published (though one has to be realistic; I'd be a very unhappy unpublished writer if all I did were send things to the New Yorker all the time!)
I don't often pitch essay ideas in advance unless I'm invited to. The form is so elastic and the experiences so personal, it's difficult to describe what you are going to write (or what it will be about, really) until you write at least a draft or two. The exception is the essay anthology, where you're sometimes asked for a pitch first, and I think this is a useful exercise when you know in advance it has to hew to a certain theme.
I also enjoy writing a short essay (say 800 words or less) rather quickly on request; for example, something seasonally-themed, or related to a newsy topic or trend. That puts my journalism school training to use.
B: Your essays contain powerful, sometimes startling moments. At the beginning of "Cradle and All," in Sweet Lit, you confess, “One winter evening not long ago, my teenager stacked logs in our living room fireplace, the same fireplace into which I once fantasized about tossing him when he was a newborn.” How do you know when you, as the narrator, need to pop in and “interpret” what’s happening for the reader?
LR: In general, I try to avoid explaining things to a reader on the page. I think that if you tell a compelling story, if your writing is clear, if your story is powerful and your prose is precise, then the reader can figure things out. It's my job to tell my story, not to persuade a reader to see things my way.
By the way, it may be of interest that I was submitting that essay for a while but with a different, much milder opening, and getting rejections. Then a writer I respected read the opening page and told me to stop trying to soften the blow for the reader, to not be worried about scaring the reader off, or trying to protect the reader's sensibilities. He encouraged me to rewrite the opening paragraphs as I might describe PPD to a therapist, and so the line you quoted above became the opening line.
Before submitting it again, I talked it over with my son, who was 16 at the time; fortunately he was a mature teenager (now college student!) and he already knew all about my PPD, but I still needed to be sure he wouldn't be upset if I wrote it that way.
B: Speaking of sharing work with people you love, a tired and true question: how do you walk the fine line of writing possibly unflattering realizations about them?
LR: I have to confess I don't worry much about this. I'm aware that because now both of my parents are deceased, that affords a certain additional measure of freedom. Also, I'm not accusing anyone in print of anything horrible, just at times exposing normal human shortcomings, questionable behavior, and multiple sides to our characters.
I hope my work shows a willingness on my own part to also be the flawed, wrong, even unlikable character on the page. I remind myself that I am only writing—can only write—what I know, what I remember and believe. There have been times when my older sister has disagreed with my recollection of family events; that's okay. And my kids have occasionally accused me of "revisionist history" but mostly about silly things. My husband usually doesn't read what I write until it's published and trusts me (bless him) that even if I need to tell a story in which he's behaved like a dolt, that somehow in that same piece I show his better side, too.
B: You’re also working on a memoir about your relationship with your father. What has that process been like so far?
LR: Wonderful, exhausting, horrible, satisfying, tedious, immensely engaging—you name it! The book is comprised of linked essays that trace our relationship from shortly before his death, to several years after, and reaffirm what I think all adult children hope: that death can take a parent away physically, but the love endures—and can change and grow.
Many of the individual essays, or excerpts from them, have been published, or are forthcoming, in literary journals, print and online. I have loved finding good homes for those pieces and working with those editors. The manuscript is making the rounds now to literary and boutique publishers and university presses. It's a somewhat quiet book, on the slim side, and essay books are less appealing to publishers than more traditional memoirs, but I have faith it will find the right home. This process is a lot more anxiety-producing and less fun than submitting to journals, and it's easy to grow frustrated.
So meanwhile, I've begun a second memoir, this one a somewhat more traditional linear narrative. We'll see!
B: You are a wonderfully busy person! Two kids and a husband in addition to the demands of freelance writing and editing AND teaching responsibilities. Does this balancing act ever get easier?
LR: It changes! My sons are now in high school and college, so that means more daytime hours are available; but with college tuition in our future for the next six (or more!) years, it also increases the pressure to keep the paying work coming in—freelance manuscript editing, teaching, private students, freelance journalism. Though I mostly work at home, in terms of time to devote to my own personal creative writing, I probably end up with just about the same challenges as any other writer with a full time job. Juggling, always.
B: As briefly mentioned, you also teach creative nonfiction at several venues, including Rutgers University (Continuing Education), at The Writers Circle in NJ, as well as your own online classes. Has being a mentor affected your own craft, and how?
LR: Absolutely. I think I once read somewhere that to truly understand how to do something well, teach it. This makes so much sense to me now. There are so many aspects of the writing craft that I think we intuit instinctively, but to be forced to explain them to others, to unravel the how and why and articulate it in a way that's useful and clear to other writers, is a valuable exercise.
Now that I've been teaching for little while, I've had the pleasure of seeing some students/private clients go on to MFA programs, and others have been publishing. It's pure pleasure writing those recommendation letters!
This coming fall, I'll also be teaching in an online MFA program. But when I was in my MFA program (Stonecoast), I laughed off any idea that I would teach. Never say never.
B: You’ve had great success in marketing yourself as a teacher, writer, and editor through social media and your website. What advice do you have to emerging writers with regard to this front?
LR: I don't think "great success" is accurate, but I do try to utilize social media as part of having a writing life. Though I have a background in public relations, I am hyperaware of not being too sales-y; it's a fine line, and an ever-moving one. I'm not sure I really know what works and what doesn't, but I do know that when I ask students and clients how they got to me, after friend referrals, the next things cited are online avenues—blog, Twitter, Facebook, or a guest post I've done on another writing blog.
As for advice, I'm sure emerging writers (translation: younger folks!) would have far more useful tips for me than the other way around. But the one thing that I think is good advice for anyone is to participate online first as a member of the larger writing/literary community and have something valuable to offer, try to help and support other writers first—before worrying about how to sell your services or books. Good karma and all that.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Romeo.