Poet and literary nonfiction writer Rebecca McClanahan, Victoria magazine’s 2018 Writer-in-Residence, has drawn praise from readers for her poignant essays brimming with treasured family recollections. She is author, most recently, of The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, a book that draws upon more than one hundred years of letters and documents to weave the multigenerational tapestry of her heritage. Recipient of the Pushcart Prize, among other awards and fellowships, Rebecca is also an educator. Here, she offers insights on her writing process and career.
Was there a point at which you decided to become a writer, or did your writing career evolve more organically?
Thanks in part to the influence of a great aunt, an avid reader who lived with our family throughout much of my childhood, I began reading quite early. I read everything I could get my hands on—from classic novels and poetry to crime thrillers and Hardy Boys mysteries and seed catalogues and the backs of cereal boxes. My first original creations, beginning when I was about six, were songs I composed in the bathtub. (With five siblings, the bathtub was one of the few places where I could be alone.)
I never planned to be a writer. I changed majors several times in college, as I was curious about nearly every subject, especially music. I paid my way through college by singing for weddings and funerals, and I always sang in choral groups. Later, I switched my major to English literature and composition, and, after teaching in public schools for several years, I began to send out the poems and stories that I’d been secretly writing for years.
You seem to have an inherent penchant for storytelling. Did you grow up in a storytelling tradition? If so, how influential was this on you as a writer?
Like most children, I always loved stories, whether they emerged through books, songs, plays, movies, or through tales told by aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I remember lying in my grandmother’s attic and listening through the floor vent to the adults gathered around the kitchen table laughing and telling jokes and stories. To this day, I enjoy listening to the stories of people’s lives. Every life is extraordinary. Every life holds mysteries and surprises if we just listen closely enough. Storytelling is an ancient art form, and I believe that every person is capable of telling his or her own story, if given the opportunity to do so.
What is the greatest source of inspiration for your writing?
I have always written from a deep need to explore the mysteries of so-called ordinary lives. So I find inspiration in the most ordinary things, which, if given the right attention, become extraordinary. I don’t go looking for inspiration, and it certainly doesn’t come looking for me! Inspiration is present right here, at all times, before our eyes and ears: in overheard conversations, in the patch of sunlight landing on our cat’s black paw, in the way the woman next to us in the chemotherapy waiting room adjusts her bright red turban. It’s the small things that break our hearts and remind us of our common humanity.
Do you see writing as a passion-driven undertaking, or is it something you approach more methodically? Could you talk a bit about your process?
Such an interesting question. For me, the methodical and the passionate work hand in hand during the creative process. By “methodical” I mean the regular discipline and practice of writing. Like any artistic discipline—music, dancing, painting, photography, acting—writing requires rehearsal and practice. And not every practice session ends in a product. So, I get to the desk as often as I can, simply to practice, to play, to write without knowing where the words will take me. Even when I am writing under assignment or deadline, I hope that the writing will surprise me.
That’s where the passion comes in. Once I sense that something is alive on the page, however messy or incomplete it feels, I try to sit with it long enough to sense what the piece wants to be when it grows up. A poem? A story? A profile? A memoir? An essay? I call my early drafts of essays “messays,” and I try to be patient with them and patient with myself, for the revision process is often long and complicated. But never boring. Writing is a mystery waiting to reveal itself on the page. I want to be there when it happens!
What can we look forward to from you in the days ahead?
Thank you for asking. As I’ve said earlier, I am always eager for the writing to surprise me, so I can’t know for sure what the future holds. As for publication, “In the Key of New York City: A Midlife Memoir,” about the years that my husband and I sublet an apartment in the city, will appear in Spring 2020. I am also writing and publishing brief “caregrieving” essays about our years of helping to care for my elderly parents. Some of the Victoria essays that I’ve published this year will appear, in somewhat different form, in that manuscript. Readers can follow the progress of both of these writing journeys on my website.
Find Rebecca’s final essay for 2018 in our November/December issue and copies of her book .