Recently, Literary Arts & Wine sat down with memoirist, blogger and cocktail columnist (Ms. Barstool) in Berkeley, California. She read for the series in July where she shared parts of her newly released memoir There Was a Fire Here. Here, she shares her thoughts on the memoir itself as a mode of writing and of remembering, the creative process, MFA programs and...dancing!
How did you decide to write about losing your home to the Oakland fire? Were there other competing stories in your mind-- or have you simply known this is a story that needs to be told?
It wasn't really a decision I made consciously. The fire managed to creep into everything I wrote afterward. In fact, the first piece I ever got paid to write was in a magazine called "Fine Homebuilding" which gave me the opportunity to share some of the things I learned during the planning and rebuilding of our home. This was the story I needed to tell, with all of the details in one place--and so all the short pieces I'd been writing found their way into my book.
Can you describe your creative process? How do you write? Where is your favorite/most inspiring spot? Do you have a routine?
I will spend a lot of time composing in my head when I get an idea--most of the time. Occasionally, I'll just sit down and bang something out without thinking too much. I write in bursts, usually late in the afternoon. Although if I wake up with a sentence or a paragraph already started in my mind, I head right for my computer and start writing. And this is why I sometimes don't notice when it's2:00 and I haven't gotten dressed yet! I am lucky to have a room of my own, with a lovely green chair-and-a-half that is great for reading and/or napping. When I need to get out of my computer chair, I go sit in that one! I don't have a routine and sometimes I wish I did. But I rely on my own sense of timing, and some days are just not writing days, while others are ONLY writing days.
Can you describe your experience attending and receiving an MFA? Was this experience integral to your identity as a writer--and your work? What would you recommend to writers who do not have an MFA?
For me, the MFA program offered me the opportunity to focus on writing in a way I had never been able to do before. I have an undergraduate degree and another master's--and both of those were earned while I was working or raising kids or both! So those two years were the first time in my life I was "just" a student. Because I was a student of non-traditional age (my daughter's euphemism for "older"), I had some reservations about fitting in with much younger students. I have an aunt who is a great role model. She always got along well with everyone no matter what their ages or backgrounds happened to be. I could almost hear her voice telling me to get over it and just do the work--so that's what I tried to do. So beside the other adjustments to being back in school, I had to decide that my age wouldn't matter. We were all there because we wanted to write and to improve. I found this to be the case--I learned what some of my bad habits were, and I learned to dig deeper into the stories I wanted to tell. My identity as a writer evolved over the two years. Before the program, I didn't exclusively define myself as a writer, but it became increasingly comfortable to say "I'm a writer" when I got my MFA. Did the MFA "make me" a writer? No, but it gave me a focus and the confidence to keep writing and getting published. If someone is considering whether or not to get an MFA, I would suggest doing the research on individual programs. They aren't all the same, and there are so many factors to weigh: cost, location, faculty, programs, opportunities. It's a lot to think about!
Would you have been able to write the book without the support of an MFA program?
Maybe, but I enjoyed having my classmates participate in its development. Also, I doubt I would've had it written in a timely manner if left to my own devices. Having to create a 100 page manuscript might have been impossible without the accountability and the imposed deadlines that were a critical part of the program.
What was your favorite part of There was a Fire Here to write? Or, to rewrite? And, why?
My favorite part might be the artifacts chapters. They gave me the chance to preserve the memories of some special things that had sentimental value. I also loved writing the beginning and the ending, in which I could really let loose about the horrible parts of the fire, knowing that the middle chapters would carry the reader through the process of surviving and rebuilding with the ultimate message of hope and resilience.
When did you "decide" you wanted to be a writer? Or, did you?
For as far back as I can remember, people told me I was a writer. I just accepted that I could put words and sentences together in ways that people enjoyed reading. I had a lot of fun writing my papers in college and grad school. Most of my writing was to amuse or entertain myself or my family. It wasn't until later that I really started to work at writing stuff that had a more serious focus. My aunt, the one I refer to above, published a neighborhood newspaper in San Francisco for many years. She encouraged me to write for her paper, and gave me my first bylines. It was a thrill to see my name in print, and I've been seeking that same thrill ever since!
Your work is saturated in memory. You mentioned that Truckee is also a place that holds particular memories for you. What was it like to read a work about memory, in a place that is, also, a part of your past?
Ah, Truckee! My husband and I and our three kids used to spend a couple of weeks at Donner every year. One of our family rituals involved a one on one "Truckee Day" with me. Every time I think about Truckee I remember those special days when I would spend a morning with one of my kids. They're all grown up now with families of their own, so I get a little wistful when I remember a time when having lunch with Mom and going to the toy store was such a big deal. I loved having the chance to share a part of my book in a place full of so many pleasant memories.
What is the role of memory in your work?
When I wrote my "Zero to Sixty in One Year" blog and ebook, I relied heavily on memory. This turned out to be good training for writing TWAFH. I find that memory holds a story together, that one memory leads to another, and it's amazing how those details enrich a story. I would say that memory is front and center in the things I've written so far. My sister used to say, "How do you remember all that stuff?" and I didn't have an answer.
What advice would you give to other writers interested in writing their own memoirs?
My advice would be: get started! And slow down. Take time to sort out the essential elements and give each one a chance to shine. It's a good idea to start with a focus, but you should remain open to other possibilities too. Also, consider who you're writing it for and find the right voice to use in your writing. After I wrote my ebook, I created a list of prompts to help people get started writing their life stories. If anyone is interested, let me know and I'll send a copy!
Could you tell us one random fact about yourself? Your choice!
After many, many years of not dancing, I joined a tap class several months ago. I have found that it's easier to tap out words on a computer than it is to remember what to do with my feet! But I'm slowly getting the hang of it.
About Risa Nye:
Risa Nye lives and writes in Oakland,CA. Her essays and articles have appeared in a number of local,national, and online publications and anthologies, including Fine Homebuilding, The San Francisco Chronicle, Skirt!Magazine,You and Me Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Chicken Soup and Not Your Mother’s Books,and Oh Sandy! She is co-editor of Writin’ on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest. She recently earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College. Currently,she writes a semimonthly column about cocktails under the name of Ms. Barstool for Berkeleyside.com.