The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: We appreciated the pun in the title “Heat Index.” What made you want to write an index-styled piece?
Brenda Miller: When I saw the theme “Heat” for your next issue, I immediately wanted to riff on this word with Julie. We’ve been collaborating on essays for about 8 months now, and we’ve written on all kinds of things: Toys, Telephones, Sandwiches. I first called it “_____Degrees of Heat,” thinking that I would put in a number once we were done with our brainstormed exploration. But then I vaguely remembered something called “the Heat Index” and so looked it up. That entry became the first one I wrote, and before too long I realized it could be the title. We wrote many entries individually, and then put them together in alphabetical order to see what would happen. The result, we thought, was astonishing!
RR: “Heat Index” makes use of personal anecdotes, fairy tale-like stories, and historical knowledge. How did you keep such eclectic categories so well integrated as a cohesive work?
Julie Marie Wade: One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed collaborating so much is the element of surprise, even mystery, that characterizes the process. Often, Brenda and I start with a topic that is very broad, and then there’s something of a spurring on that happens with one another as we each add entry after entry to the mix. We don’t really know what’s going to happen or emerge, in terms of the content or the final form, until we reach an ending– and even these endings feel more like stopping points or plateaus in our momentum rather than definitive conclusions. Writing “Heat Index” was also different from our previous collaborations in that it was the first time we generated many possible uses/contexts for the word heat first and then wrote in response to the ones we found most compelling without a set back-and-forth arrangement. In our previous essays, we had always written an entry, then sent it to the other person, who considered it before writing her own entry as a kind of echo or response. “Heat” was a more intense, frenetic collaboration, each of us writing at will–sometimes multiple entries in a setting–and then sending those entries to the other person, who had no real inkling of what she was going to receive. It was only in arrangement that we discovered the cohesiveness of our eclecticism! Had the alphabetical structure not yielded such a satisfying read, I’m sure we would have tried other arrangements, which is also part of the touch-and-go, trial-and-error pleasure of our enterprise.
RR: Some of your entries deal with ways pop culture (movies and viral videos) impacted you and your reflections on them. At one point you criticize the way “adventure stories are always written by men for other men and boys.” How has this specifically affected your own writing?
BM: When I’m writing a lyric essay such as this one–an essay that relies on the accumulation of images and surprising connections–I become hyper sensitive to the input from the world around me. So even as I’m scrolling through Facebook or half-listening to the radio, my writing mind is storing away tidbits that might make their way to the surface in writing. At this point, I’m not thinking too hard about the meaning of these pieces; I’m putting them together the way I might a jigsaw. I think, especially in this information age, that our jobs as writers is to become a particular filter for the variety of experience and information we encounter hundreds of times a day.
JMW: I love this idea of the writer becoming a filter for experience and information, particularly in an era of information overload! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way before, but Brenda has articulated something I also recognize in my own process of collecting, storing, and selecting material to bring into a written work. The line about adventure stories being male-centered is something I added to our collaboration, something I recognized from my own experience but hadn’t found occasion to put into words until now. In this particular entry, I recalled, not only my own experience as a child reading “boy stories” with my father and thinking “where are the girls who get to do these things?”, but also something I read as an adult about how much more willing girls are to read stories with male protagonists while boys become resistant to female protagonists after the age of five or six. This struck me as a salient and poignant detail when I read it, picturing boys and girls growing up reading many more stories centered in male experience than female experience. Even as I didn’t end up mentioning that article directly in this essay, it did provide a kind of extra-textual affirmation for what I remembered from my own childhood.
RR: Your respective collaborations with Denise Duhamel and Lee Gulyas have been very well received. What made you decide to work together for “Heat Index”? Were there any unique challenges or opportunities of writing collaboratively?
BM: As I mentioned earlier, Julie and I had already been collaborating for several months, so we’re always on the lookout for new topics we can explore in a duet. We’ve developed a fine rhythm for working together, always urging each other on. My challenge (and opportunity) has been in keeping up with Julie! She’s a prolific and fast writer. Sometimes, when we both had time, we’d go back and forth in “real time,” creating several sections in one day.
JMW: I want to add that Brenda was my teacher in graduate school at Western Washington University back in 2002. At the time she was offering a class called “The Lyric Essay,” and while I had no idea what a lyric essay was, the words together seemed decidedly enticing. How could I not sign up? Just as Denise Duhamel was a poet I read and admired for years from afar before we became real-life friends, colleagues, and collaborators, I continued to read Brenda’s work long after I was her student, learning from her masterful lyric essays across time and place for more than a decade. Last summer we were reunited in person at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in Washington state where Brenda is a core faculty member and where I had come as a visiting writer. While catching up in the local coffee shop, Brenda suggested we try writing together, which thrilled me to no end. The process has been consistently positive, surprising, and delightful–such an unexpected gift.
RR: How did you decide what topics should be in the heat index?
BM: There really wasn’t conscious choice involved. As Julie mentioned earlier, the writing was, literally, a “brainstorm”: allowing the mind to call up any associations each of us had individually with the idea of “heat.” Part of the fun of these index style pieces is looking up information to bolster the lyricism or personal experience, which adds texture to the essay.
JMW: And of course, even as we decided the order of our entries at the end, I was spurred on by Brenda’s entries in my own writing process throughout. Whenever she sent me something, I would drop everything and read, taking her words as a little nugget of inspiration for the next time I wrote. This is my favorite part of collaborating with someone whose work I admire and whose perspective I trust–opening that next installment like a message in a bottle, or better still, like further detail and direction added to an evolving treasure map.
“Heat Index” appears in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.3
Brenda Miller is the author of several collections of lyric nonfiction, including, most recently, An Earlier Life (Judith Kitchen’s Ovenbird Books, 2016). She co-authored Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. She teaches in the creative writing program at Western Washington University.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of several collections of poetry and lyric nonfiction, including, most recently, Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016). She teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University.