Michele Morano is the author of the books Like Love and Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Essays, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She lives and writes in Chicago.
1. What writer do you want to be when you grow up?
John Boy Walton! I fell in love with him as a child watching “The Waltons”—or maybe I fell in love with the mountain and the soft cotton of their clothes and the way the family often turned to conversation as a way of solving problems. John Boy, with his wire-rimmed glasses and suspenders and that gorgeous mole on Richard Thomas’s face, was one of my first crushes, and the character taught me what it meant to be sensitive and attentive, to love poetry and books above all. Even now, when I occasionally happen upon a rerun, I watch the show and get the same flip in my stomach. Especially when the older John Boy narrates. That duality of perspective may have been what nudged me down the nonfiction path. I still aspire to be the kind of flawed-yet-noble, authentic, seeking writer he represented.
2. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
In first grade I wrote a short story that included the line, “This town’s not big enough for the two of us,” which sent my teacher and my mother into spasms of praise. This was puzzling since I’d stolen the line from “Bugs Bunny,” and it made me feel adults are easily impressed because they think kids are dumb. At the same time, I kind of levitated with the pleasure of maybe having writing talent. So that was my first favorite thing. Now, though, it’s probably an essay in my recent collection Like Love, which has the difficult-to-remember title (even for me), “All the Power This Charm Doth Owe.” It’s a very long essay that I couldn’t manage to shorten, but it does exactly what I set out to do, which in my experience is rare.
And then if you’ll indulge me with one more, my favorite essay to read aloud is a short-short called “Learning Curve,” published in the Baltimore Review. It’s a tight, slightly shocking piece that features kids talking the way kids really talked in my fourth-grade class and behaving in ways we don’t like to think are possible. I enjoy revisiting that and saying the bad words aloud.
3. Who do you trust with your drafts and why?
I have different people for different types of drafts, but my friend and colleague Francesca Royster, who’s the rare literary critic, cultural critic, and fantastic memoirist all rolled into one, is someone I regularly exchange work with, and it’s always a good experience. She’s such a smart reader, and yet her gentle enthusiasm makes me excited to go back to work, even when a piece needs a LOT of attention. That’s a real critical gift that I’d like to be able to emulate.
4. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
The wise words that return to me most regularly as I work are from two authors. Scott Russell Sanders, in his essay “The Singular First Person,” describes the essay form as “an amateur’s raid in a world of specialists,” and that line has long given me permission to follow curiosity wherever it leads. And then I regularly think of a revision to the old adage, “Write what you know,” which isn’t bad advice, exactly, but can be limiting. “Write what you don’t know you know” is the better chestnut, which I attribute to Flannery O’Connor, although I’m not entirely sure she said it. The discovery process is what keeps things interesting for writers and for readers.
5. What’s your go to recommendation to read when somebody says “I’m not sure about this whole nonfiction thing?” Why? What do you hope it shows them? What about it excites you?
If a person today actually said that to me (as happened more than once 20 years ago), I’d recommend “Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far” by Bristol Palin, which is what that attitude deserves. But let’s say it’s a student looking for summer reading and wondering if nonfiction might be their thing. In that case, I’d recommend anthologies like The Best of Brevity; collections like Ross Gay’s quietly subversive Book of Delights, Jo Ann Beard’s new Festival Days, Sejal Shah’s This Is One Way to Dance, Sophronia Scott’s Love’s Long Line, Jerald Walker’s How to Make a Slave, and anything by David Sedaris; memoirs like Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping; Kiese Laymon’s Heavy; Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Riva Lehrer’s Golem Girl, and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk. And so many more! Including Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and everything by Rebecca Solnit and, and, and.
I have saved the very best until last, the aspirational post that moves, inspires, informs through a combination of story and commentary, Michele Morano’s “Los Mejores Ensayos Americanos,” BAE 2008, a generous, glorious bittersweet chocolate cake of an essay topped with chocolate ganache and a pint of fresh raspberries. This compelling narrative intertwines tales of two cities, two lovers, and a five-month-old baby, Morano’s first, at 43. One lover, a troubled American visiting in Oviedo in 1993 (we previously met him in Morano’s “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” (BAE 2006—she’s a GOLDEN ESSAY GODDESS!), remains intermittently suicidal, a source of constant worry even fifteen years later, particularly after she discovers that his “phone has been disconnected. She fears the worst, as she always has.” Morano is teaching in a study abroad program Madrid in 2008 with the other lover, the baby’s father, also a writer, “the man who is solid and steady and never causes her to worry,” even when she rebels “against the schedule dictated by the baby’s needs, by his hunger, fatigue, desire for stimulation” (ED 12/13/15).