Beth Ann Fennelly is an incredible writer whose most recent project is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (W.W. Norton). We adored these little peeks into Beth Ann’s life and experiences. Even though these memoirs are very short, the depth and breadth of the observations are just stunning. You might be able to read this book in one sitting, but we guarantee that you will want to revisit it over and over again. Beth Ann talked to us about her writing process and how to find the extraordinary in the everyday.
You’re a prolific writer who has published nonfiction, poetry, and even collaborated with your husband on a novel. What were some of the writing lessons you learned while writing across so many different genres?
To be honest, I never intended to be a writer who works in multiple genres. All I ever wanted was to be a poet. But I found, increasingly, I was cheating on poetry; I started a love affair with the sentence, digging the possibilities it provides for a wider canvas that allows for a more complex narrative. I guess basically I’m greedy; I kept wondering how a story would be different told in someone else’s medium.
We usually think of memoirs as being these huge tomes that chronicle a person’s life. What made you decide to write your story in a series of micro-memoirs?
Before I published this book, my husband and I wrote a collaborative novel. Called The Tilted World (HarperCollins, 2013), it was set in the flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, and it ended up being a big project. Although we’d each published four books, we’d never written one together. In addition to teaching ourselves how to collaborate, we had to do a lot of research. And it was high stakes: we spent four years writing the novel. Imagine, if it failed, how costly that would have been for our marriage.
Luckily, it didn’t fail. After we returned from book tour, tuckered, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write next. There followed a long, frustrating, fallow period in which I wasn’t writing. I mean, sure, I was scribbling little thoughts and ideas in my notebook, but nothing was adding up to anything. Many of my scribbles were just sentences, or a paragraph, the longest just a few pages. I kept complaining to my patient husband that I was “not writing.” Eventually, however, it occurred to me that I was enjoying this scribbling in my notebook. After the high stakes, research-heavy, character-imbedded-thinking of the novel, my own life seemed rich material again. The little memories or quirky thoughts or miniature scenes I was creating seemed refreshing. So, strangely, I identified the feeling of writing before I identified the activity. I thought, What if this “not writing” I’m doing actually is writing, and I just don’t recognize it because it doesn’t look like other writing I’ve done? What if I need to stop waiting for these things to add up to something, and realize maybe they already are somethings, just small? Once I’d recognized the form and gave it a name, the micro-memoir, I realized I was almost done with a book.
Several of the pieces read like poems. How was your micro-memoir writing process different from your poem writing process?
I was drawn to the dynamic compression of poetry, almost like a chemical reaction—how can so few words trigger such a big response? Also, I was (and still am) in love with the sound of words, their mouth-feel, as wine enthusiasts say. It’s a huge pleasure to create music with your body and release it back into the world with the air rises from your wind pipe.
At the same time, I wanted to take what I love from fiction writing—the arc of narrative, the true beginning/middle/end feeling of a journey. And I wanted the truth telling of memoir writing. So I took what I love from the three main genres and created tiny true stories about my life. It was important to me that the book embrace the full range of human emotions. Some are wistful, some wry, some poetic, some acerbic, some deliberately flat. Many are funny. Also, they vary in content. Some are recollections, some observations, some cultural commentary, some scenes composed of overheard conversations. Finally, they vary in form. All are written in sentences, and all are faithful to the truth, but the shortest is one sentence, the longest four pages. Some are in sections or numbered or make use of the page in interesting ways.
Unlike a traditional memoir, the micro-memoirs you include don’t cover every part of your life in detail. How did you decide which pieces to include?
Micro-memoirs aren’t fragments. Micro-memoirs aren’t slivers of a bigger creation. They don’t depend on the others to make sense. But my hope is that, as the book progresses, the pieces grow into a composite, each piece adding color to the portrait of a woman answering the question: what makes a happy life? Heating and Cooling wants to provide both the pleasures of the individual pieces and the pleasures of seeing a life take shape.
An early draft of the book had 100 pieces. My editor suggested I cut it down, not because any of the micro-memoirs were huge pieces of garbage so much as that the book felt a little overwhelming. So I cut down pieces that seemed outliers thematically. I kept ones that focused on my central roles—wife, mother, writer, woman—and hoped the cuts allowed a kind of coalescing among these central roles. The book is in some ways about the choices we make in an effort to be happy.
One thing that’s fantastic about each of your pieces is that you elevate pretty normal events into these really poignant moments. Why is it important that we tell these stories about everyday life?
The micro-memoirs in Heating & Cooling explore the reverberations of a moment, particularly moments that seem small, unimportant, but, when the noise and clutter are cleared away, reveal themselves to be central to identity.
I’m not someone who’s worthy of some giant memoir detailing my great accomplishments. I’ve never run for president or been taken hostage or climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. My life in many respects a fairly ordinary life; I’m a mom of three small kids, I live in a small town in Mississippi. But even such an ordinary life has moments in it that are wild and funny and surprising and moving and wrenching. Every life does. I wanted to examine that, to celebrate that.
Poetry can be intimidating for a lot of people to read. Do you have any insights for how to start reading poetry?
Yes, read it aloud, to yourself, and read it very slowly! Let the sound teach you how to feel about the sense, for a great poem comes with built in instructions that educate our emotions.
We always love to hear about what others are reading. What were some of your favorite books by women that you read last year?
Actually I probably read three books by women for every one written by a man, so my list could stretch forever. Recently I read books I loved by Jesmyn Ward, Sei Shonoagon (her Pillow Book is a thousand years old and brings me great joy), Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Jenny Zhang, and many others.
Beth Ann Fennelly is the author of three poetry collections, Unmentionables, Tender Hooks, and Open House; two memoirs, Heating & Cooling and Great with Child; and a novel, The Tilted World, coauthored with her husband, Tom Franklin. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, and is also the state’s poet laureate. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.