The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: The urge to travel and experience life can be a deep-rooted desire, as you expressed in your piece, even when seeking a good place to settle. How has your creative production been affected by the shifts between being rooted in a single place and being on the seas?
Kristan Uhlenbrock: There are advantages and disadvantages to both. When stationary, I find myself with more time to write or pursue other creative outlets, yet my inspiration wanes. When traveling, my thoughts and senses are stimulated ¾ generating observations, ideas, and memories ¾ yet my productivity plummets. I know the push-pull will always be there, but my goal is to find a creative balance. The one thing that stationary life does provide is the ability to reflect on lived experiences. Distance from an experience contextualizes its importance in life, at times with an inverse relationship.
RR: What kind of process do you have in terms of writing? In terms of editing?
KU: Once I have a strong idea for an essay that is just screaming to get out, I prefer to take a madman approach for what I call “Draft 0.” In this version, I write down all the thoughts, emotions, and sidebars of information that may become part of the story. I often wind up with four pages about a five-minute conversation I had with someone, but the process is restorative and leaves me with material to shape. After this phase, I begin to craft the story ¾ adding research and interviews, playing with the structure, building tension, and fleshing out the true meaning. This last point is the one that can surprise me the most. The black and white of words on paper has a remarkable way of cutting through the haze.
As far as editing goes, I find this process to be the most cathartic but most challenging. After completing a solid draft, I start combing through it, looking for improvements in fluidity, syntax, diction, and places to trim. I lean towards the verbose-side of the spectrum, so I search for filler words to whole sections to cut. I also rely on my husband, members of my writing group, and mentors for feedback.
RR: Whether we’re in the midst of a draft or finished with our work, writers often have difficulty feeling completely satisfied with a piece. When you write, what is your greatest and most consistent frustration?
KU: Transitions. I like to play with structures and timelines, which can end up causing me consternation ¾ are the readers following the progression? Transitions can operate as waypoints when jumping around in time, especially in longer pieces. For example, in “Finding Roots,” I used the begonia as both a metaphor but also as a transition thread, the thread was mapping periods of my life to facts about the Rex begonia. I reworked this structure about a half dozen times until I was happy with it. In the end, there were two whole sections of this essay that ended up on the cutting room floor. I undoubtedly struggle with transitions because my thought process is often erratic, jumping from idea to idea or task to task. What makes sense to me may not make sense to a reader.
RR: What would you tell an aspiring nonfiction writer to do in order to be successful?
KU: I still consider myself an aspiring nonfiction writer! Nevertheless, three pieces of advice that were given to me are, 1) write what you know (or are passionate about), 2) mimic the greats until you find your voice, and 3) read. The first piece of advice didn’t resonate in the beginning. Now it rings remarkably true. Recalling some of my work, the stories I attempted with half-hearted interest yielded mediocre results, but the stories about my passions were the ones that show promise (and have been published more frequently).
Points two and three have similarities. Whether it’s the thoughtful, detailed reportage with complex meaning like Didion, the ability to dissect solitary pieces of fruit into art like McPhee or the unadorned vigor of storytelling like Hemingway, examining the work of great writers is crucial to refining one’s craft. An aspiring writer can not only learn various writing techniques but also cultivate a style by reading those who have found success.
RR: “Finding Roots” takes as its catalyst the death of your stepfather. Initially, we assumed this would be an essay about grief, but it actually explores a wider range. What factors influenced the final shape of this essay’s story?
KU: When I started this essay, I set out to examine the tension between settling down and pursuing a vagabond life. I quickly realized that this tension had been growing stronger since my stepfather’s death. So his death served as an inflection point for the story. After his death, I realized there were parts of my life I wanted to change, parts I couldn’t change, and parts I was happy to keep. I used the essay to explore these parts of life as they revolve around grief, where grief is a neutron and life are these electrons and protons circling around the neutron and occasionally whirling off. How these particles interact with each other or behave on their own was another way I shaped the story. The grief was there all along. Grief was the underpinning that manifested across decisions.
Kristan Uhlenbrock’s work in Issue 4.2: