Interview with Melissent Zumwalt

Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: We love the vulnerability and directness of “Manifestations of Love” and how it details many instances of your comprehension and coping process with an unfamiliar form of unrequited love. Can you talk about any challenges in writing about that subject?

Melissent Zumwalt: The relationship (or non-relationship) that I write about in this piece is incredibly significant to me. There’s a lifetime of material to mine, and I’ve devoted a lot of effort over the years to thinking about those points of connection and disconnection. But turning those moments and fragments into a (hopefully somewhat) cohesive narrative arc with an underlying story presented the most challenge. As a writer, I care very deeply about story and there being a larger meaning. Trying to sculpt that arc from a lifetime of material was the bigger challenge for me, more so than the subject matter itself.

RR: We admire your use of the second-person point of view, especially as it’s a difficult POV to write in. How did you determine this perspective best fit your narrative? 

MZ: I like this question so much because I tried on several different POVs before landing where I did. The piece started in first person (as most of my work does). Then I decided to play around with second person (with the narrator as “you”), to see how that felt. I thought it could make the work feel more like a fairy tale or a quest of some kind and was curious about developing some type of angle in that direction. Right around the same time, I attended a webinar on epistolary writing, and I thought—that’s it! The essay then became a letter of sorts, and the “you” became the character of my brother where I (as narrator) am writing/talking to him. Which felt just perfect, because the essence of the piece is our lack of communication.

RR: What is the biggest hurdle you faced during your writing process?

MZ: In this piece and in everything, just having patience is a challenge for me. I want to improve my craft, now. There are so many projects I want to start on, work on, finish up, now. I just want everything to come so much faster than what it does! Though I am working on learning to trust the writing process, because it has really shown itself to be quite magical.

With this piece in particular, I wrote the original draft in January 2021. In its first form, the piece really did not work well at all! I tried revising it, but it just felt like the work had hit a dead end and I placed it in my DNR (do not resuscitate) file. But there were snippets within that original work that I kept thinking about and I didn’t want to give up on. So, I pulled the essay back out a year later and completely reworked it. I received feedback from readers that there was a lot of emotion in the piece—which felt rewarding—but I also received feedback that in the form it was in, it probably still wasn’t quite the story I was trying to tell. I felt frustrated that after changing the piece so much, it still wasn’t ready and it went back into the proverbial drawer. Still, the heart of the essay kept calling to me, and I pulled the piece out again another year later. Finally, I was able to rework the essay into its true story.

RR: More generally, what has drawn you to the genre of creative nonfiction?

MZ: From a very young age, I’ve always been fascinated by my family—our emotions and interactions, the decisions we make and how we impact one another. Even as a child, I could see the “stories” in our lives. As I got older, I began to understand those networks existed not just in my nuclear family, but through generational lines. And then layered on top of that are the societal structures that have influenced (and continue to influence) the choices we’ve made and the options available to us. These dynamics and complexities are an endless source of inspiration for me. I could try writing fiction (I love reading novels!), but I don’t think I, personally, could come up with anything more beautiful or tragic or funny than what already exists.

RR: We saw on your website that in a past life you were a professional dancer. If this piece were a dance style, what would it be?

MZ: What an interesting question! It would definitely have to be a piece of contemporary dance. Contemporary is such an emotive style and as I’m answering this question, I’m starting to choreograph it in my head! Because contemporary would allow for two dancers to perform intricate partnering work—pushing and pulling, supporting each other and breaking away. Contemporary would also lend itself to an unpredictable rhythm, and physical contortion and awkward or angular shapes. The pain and beauty of the characters in the writing would translate so seamlessly into a piece of contemporary choreography.


Read “Manifestations of Love” by Melissent Zumwalt in Issue 11.2