The Write Stuff

Rebecca McClanahan "Word Painting"A Conversation With Rebecca McClanahan

When we’re not gobbling up the written word with a gusto that bewilders non-readers as much as whatever it is they do for pleasure baffles us, one of the things we writers like to do most is talk to other writers.

This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Rebecca McClanahan, the 2010 winner of Santa Barbara City College’s Raab Award in Creative Nonfiction, who will give a reading from her work from 7-8 p.m. on Friday, October 8, in the Fe Bland Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Leslie Dinaberg: You’ve published in many different genres. How do you decide that this idea will be an essay rather than a poem or fiction or creative nonfiction?

Rebecca McClanahan: I don’t think particularly about that, though I’m sure you could find little vestigial tails of experience in poems that I have written. … I think I’ve always written about home and loss of home and homesickness. … There are certain things, themes and characters and places that I revisit whether in fiction, poetry or nonfiction. … Certain things that continue to float up, that you revisit in some ways, you gnawed on it, you buried it and then it came up in another shape another form. … At some point you do begin to notice patterns.

LD: You often write about your personal experiences and your own life. When things are happening are you writing about them or do you wait a while?

RM: I think I maybe do a little of both. I have a writer’s notebook and sometimes I’ll jot down things as they are happening to me, events or specific details that I want to retain. But I think especially as an essayist, and that’s sort of the main hat I’ll be wearing in Santa Barbara because of the Raab Award, I really think that nonfiction and the essay is a reflective stance, that’s the genre. With a good essay, I think you really want the sense that you are discovering the meaning, the why of the experience, you’re not just writing down what happened.

… The best essays require reflective distance, especially if you’re a character in them. You’ve got to be the person on the other end of the experience trying to understand it because being in the middle of it, it’s a muddle. … I think there’s a place certainly for blogs and for instant writing and all of that but I don’t want to lose the power of reflection and time. You know that old saying; “we serve no wine before its time.” I tell my young graduate students “we serve no memoir before its time.” Wait a little bit.

LD: I read an interview where you were talking about how much more difficult it is to write sincerely about happy feelings as opposed to darker material. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RM: I hosted a panel called “Joy: The Last Taboo” a couple of years ago. It really is very difficult to not be Hallmarky about it … It’s very, very hard in our culture. I think especially because we really want to go to that sordid troubled dark memoir. I’m just so tired of them I can’t tell you.

LD: My husband and I have a running joke that our childhoods were too happy for us to really be successful writers because we didn’t have enough drama-no alcoholic parents or poverty or any of that great material.

RM: (Laughs) There are so many sad things out there. But here’s a quote by the poet John Ciardi: “You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.”

I definitely have written about a lot of dark things, personal and otherwise, but that’s not a whole life and that doesn’t make it interesting just because your father raped you or something. Even that has to be shaped into a text that is beautiful and meaningful to others. … What I look for in writers is someone who has really, really worked hard and allowed the truth to come through them in a way that’s going to change my life. That’s why I read. I can read the newspaper for the other stuff.

LD: As a writer, how do you know when you’re done?

RM: With briefer pieces, poems and brief lyric essays, I think I have a very firm sense when they’re done. The longer book length essays, it’s much harder to know because it’s such a complicated weaving. … I try to explain to my students, it’s like all the plates are spinning, and you’ve spun one and you’ve spun another and before the first one drops you have to run back to spin it again and finally when all of the plates of the world of the poem or the essay or the novel are in the air spinning as beautifully and blissfully as they can, they’re all alive at the same time, then you know it’s done and you get out right then-before you fall on your head.

Rebecca McClanahan will be reading from her work at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 8, in the Fe Bland Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. For information about her writing visit For more columns visit