Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 collections of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including most recently Skirted: Poems (The Word Works, 2021) and the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020). A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, Julie teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. She makes her home in Dania Beach with Angie Griffin and their two cats.
1. What writer do you want to be when you grow up?
While there is no shortage of writers I admire or under whose influence I write, it feels serendipitous to me that this question has arrived the same week I am teaching one of the single most important books I have ever read: Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. Years ago, when I was a Master of Arts student considering possible MFA programs where I might study next, I applied to the University of Pittsburgh largely because–perhaps even solely because–Toi Derricotte taught there. Like Toi, I was a poet who also wrote and wanted to continue writing creative nonfiction, particularly memoir and the lyric essay. Familiar with some of Toi’s poems, I sought out The Black Notebooks as a way to learn more about the second genre of the woman who would one day direct my MFA thesis–though I couldn’t have imagined that happy fact yet. I opened her book, and I wasn’t able to close it again. I mean that literally. I had meant to read just a few pages between classes, and I ended up spending the whole day with it, calling in “unavailable” for everything else. I have now read and taught The Black Notebooks more than 20 times–more, I believe, than any other book I have ever loved. (And I love a lot of books.) I was astonished by the way Derricotte was able to combine creative and critical elements in her work, the way she hybridized (a word I wouldn’t have used then but would certainly use now) intimate autobiographical narratives with painstaking examinations of those experiences. Toi didn’t separate the “story” of her life, crafting it with aesthetic control and haunting detail, from the critical exploration of that life in context of gender, class, place, zeitgeist, and most profoundly and painfully, race. On page 184 of this memoir, Toi writes: “one of my biggest strengths as a writer, perhaps the only really unique thing I can give, is that I am determiend to tell the trut. I think that most people protect themselves, their relationships, their friends, by not quite facing the worst. On the contrary, I go searching for it. Especially in myself. I keep telling the truth even when it is abhorrent. I have a drive to break the secrets, because I think that what we don’t tell others, we often lie to ourselves about. I am determined not to lie to myself.” And she doesn’t–not to herself, and not to her readers. Toi Derricotte’s truth-telling is palpable and incontestable in this book. I aspire to write a book that is as honest, profound, and important as this one someday. I’m not sure if I’m capable of such a feat or who would measure it. But I will always write under her influence, and I will always aspire. Perhaps someday I will publish my own attempt and call it The Queer Notebooks in her honor. Regardless, I will never stop being grateful to the person and poet who made this memoir possible, and I will continue to share the book with new classes and generations of reader-writers.
2. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
I think I tend to love most what I’m working on at present, but I do have a couple of enduring favorites. One is a lyric essay called “Trilogy,” which was first published in Green Mountains Review a few years back and now is enjoying a second life in Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology edited by Debra Monroe. In that essay, I was able to bring together my love of my partner and our love story with my love of writing about mainstream films. (Brief aside: When I was an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh, I had a wonderful job for two years as Research Assistant to the Director of Film Studies, Lucy Fischer. Lucy often asked me to watch films for her and provide notes to help her decide which films she would ultimately write about in her prolific body of scholarship. What I loved most was when the films she asked me to screen were mainstream movies that millions of people had seen. I always knew that Lucy would shine a light on what most people, even those who had seen those movies, didn’t see. I wanted to find a way to do something similar in my own creative nonfiction. I tend to be a loyal repeat viewer of certain movies and have an impulse to write criticism about them that dovetails with personal narrative. In “Trilogy,” I think I finally struck the right voice and balance for such a hybrid.) The other favorite is a novella-length lyric essay that is yet unpublished in its full form called Meditation 39: A Sestina in Prose. I was inspired in part by Brenda Miller’s short-form lyric essay from An Earlier Life called “Pantoum for 1979.” That essay extended a powerful invitation to me that I might choose to adopt a poetic “shell” for a prose essay. Instead of seven stanzas and 39 lines, I arranged my sestina in prose in seven parts and 39 sections. The six words I chose are from the acronym PEMDAS, the order of operations in math–parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. Building something so intricate and architectural, even before the actual writing began, appeals to some part of me–my “left brain” maybe?–that harmonizes quite happily with another part of me–my “right brain” perhaps? At any rate, this project gave me so much room to explore, juxtaposed with so much structure to contain that exploration, and what thrills me most about it is that it was the first time I’ve ever substantially plumbed my history as a teacher of the lyric essay. Instead of films and personal narrative, this long essay pairs pedagogy and personal essay, and once again, I felt like I was writing about something I love while simultaneously learning why I love it. The best of all possible worlds.
3. Who do you trust with your drafts and why?
I trust my partner Angie with my drafts most of all. I trust her honesty implicitly, as I know she will always tell me the truth, even if/when it isn’t easy to hear. I know she will tell me “This isn’t ready” or “You’re missing something.” I know she will offer insight and perspective I wouldn’t always, or perhaps ever, come to on my own. I also trust my friend and colleague Denise Duhamel, with whom I also collaborate, and four long-time professor-mentors–Dana Anderson, Tom Campbell, Cate Fosl, and Annette Allen, who just passed away in December 2020. (How deeply I feel her absence today and every day.) These are the people–typically the only people besides professional editors–who see my work before it is published. Sometimes it is simply a matter of sharing, “previewing” the work with an intimate circle before there is more widespread access for others I don’t know. Other times it is a matter of offering the work up to the people I’m closest to, even if I’m not intending to pursue publication or even if I don’t expect the work to be published. I haven’t written anything that I wouldn’t be willing to show to these six people, and I can’t imagine anything any one of them could say that I wouldn’t consider a touchstone for revision, expansion, or even omission.
4. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
“Let nothing be wasted on you.” This was advice given to me by one of my undergraduate professors, Tom Campbell, a long-time mentor and friend who has been sharing his wise counsel with me for over 20 years. Tom gave me this advice in spring 2001 when I was a student in his Personal Essay seminar. I was preparing to graduate from college in just a few weeks and confronting all the big questions surrounding WHAT COMES NEXT. Tom knew that I had applied to a number of MFA programs after only just finding out what an MFA was during the fall of my senior year. As I recall, the programs I applied to only offered tracks in “poetry” and “fiction,” not “creative nonfiction,” which was the genre I had been studying most consistently and diligently during college. But despite the fact that I had only taken poetry literature courses and no poetry writing workshops, I identified strongly as a poet–I still do!–and didn’t even consider the possibility that there might be programs where I could apply in creative nonfiction. Would I have done so if I knew those programs existed? Would I have gotten in? It’s impossible to know. But I didn’t get in the first time I applied to Master of Fine Arts programs in poetry–not to a single one. Instead, I got into an MA/PhD program in Santa Barbara that would have taken me down a much more critical, scholarly path, and I got into a Master of Arts in English program at Western Washington University–just a couple hours north of where I grew up–with full funding, plenty of multi-genre creative writing courses, and a two-year fellowship as a graduate instructor of composition and rhetoric. That program was going to change my life in extraordinary ways, but of course the “rightness” of the choice was also impossible to predict. Tom’s words conveyed to me that there was always the opportunity to learn and grow, even if the door propped open before me didn’t appear on its surface as glamorous or beguiling as some other door. I thought I needed to do a Master of Fine Arts degree right away. I thought I needed to travel far from home to ensure a transformative experience in graduate school. Maybe Tom’s words weren’t even advice so much as they were an invocation, a blessing. Wherever I went, whatever I pursued, there was something of value to be gleaned. Maybe, in the end, there was no objective “right” choice or “wrong” choice as long as I stayed true to my love of writing, my love of being a student. (And being a teacher is just another way of being a student after all–a meta-kind of student.) I try every day to live by those words. I try not to waste anything, even examples of what not to do, who not to be. Tom’s words have now become my credo.
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?
When I got to Western Washington University in the fall of 2001, two of the many exceptional professors who taught and mentored me there were Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola (sometimes known as Susanne Antonetta). What I didn’t know was that these two prolific, multi-genre writers were writing the first edition of a collaborative craft text while I was their student–a book as profound as it is practical (and now in its third edition!) called Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. When the first edition was released, I smiled to myself when I read anecdotes from class discussions that I recognized–moments where I had been present in the room. But I didn’t just love the book because it came to fruition while I was learning firsthand from its authors. I loved the book because it was a portable creative nonfiction class that I could continue taking for the rest of my life and bringing into all my own creative nonfiction classes, both undergraduate and graduate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Brenda and Suzanne have been team-teaching with me since the first class I offered in the fourth genre. Together they manage to demystify the writing process without draining any of the magic. Their Try It exercises at the end of each chapter–arranged according to sub-genres of creative nonfiction–have been as valuable and generative for me as for my own students. In the third edition of the book, many of their recommended readings are even included in the anthology section, so “exposure and emulation” of other writers’ work–the cornerstone of my teaching practice–is more immediately possible than ever before. Some of my favorite essays, including Brent Staples’s “The Coroner’s Photographs,” Paisley Rekdal’s “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee,” and Ira Sukrungruang’s “Because, the Ferguson Verdict,” are reprinted there alongside Brenda’s and Suzanne’s thoughtful commentary. Tell It Slant is my favorite means of introduction for anyone–student or casual inquirer alike–who wants to discover more about the fourth genre and why self-referential writing is both powerful and universal. Far from navel-gazing, Brenda and Suzanne show how creative nonfiction of all kinds–from memoir to topical nonfiction–builds empathy and knowledge and expands our understanding of what it means to be human. That’s why I love creative nonfiction, and their book models with elegant humility how we always have more to learn from other writers. Tell It Slant is a guidebook-anthology iteration of “Let nothing be wasted on you.”
I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?
“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”