INTERVIEW WITH LEANNE SOWUL
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “Through the Mirror,” you reflect on your daughter’s growth and development. How often does your family serve as inspiration while writing?
Leanne Sowul: It’s funny that this question is coming to me now because I think I can give a deeper answer than I would have six months ago. Last summer I went through a reflective period where I examined the dominant themes and influences in my writing and tried to figure out an overarching purpose. What’s my unique message? What perspective do I bring to all my writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, long or short? The conclusion I reached is that all my writing reaches into the past in order to make sense of the present and promote growth for the future. Since family is one of the few elements in most people’s lives that span past, present, and future, it’s one of my most dominant themes. I like to embrace the inescapability of family. Whether you believe in nature or nurture or a healthy mix of both, you can’t run away from your DNA or your childhood memories. You can only make meaning of them by connecting them to who you are now. These feelings arise for me as I parent my children and recognize all the ways my parents influenced me.
RR: These pieces address illness, both as a patient and as a parent of a patient. How often do you find yourself turning to writing in order to cope with this type of situation? Was it challenging to write these particular pieces or did you find relief in doing so?
LS: I got my first cancer-free scan at seventeen and was able to move on with my life soon afterward, graduating high school and leaving home for college. At that time, I naively believed that having the ability to move into adulthood cancer-free meant I could bury the trauma in my past. For almost a decade, I was determined not to let cancer “define” me, so I didn’t talk about it, reflect on it or process any of the stress that had accumulated during those years. But pushing it all down only resulted in unhappiness.
In my late twenties, I began journaling, and that led me to writing—first fiction, later nonfiction. Writing became my way of unpacking all of those calcified memories and figuring out how to incorporate them into my story. By the time my daughter was diagnosed, I had a committed writing practice, and that helped me stay centered throughout her two surgeries and all the stress that accompanied the delay in her milestones. Through writing, I find my own resilience and am able to nurture gratitude for all the people who supported me during the tough times.
RR: We really like how these two pieces inflect one another. Did you plan for them to be read as a pair? Do you have other flash pieces that form part of a longer project?
LS: I didn’t originally intend for these to pieces to be read as a pair, but I did write them both during that reflective time last summer. They are both rooted in that feeling of the past echoing into the present, although “Through the Mirror” is about a visual echo and “The Band Room” is about literal, audible echoes.
Right now I’m just writing individual pieces, but as I get better at defining my own style I think they’ll start to fall into place as part of a larger narrative. At some point in the future I’d like to compile a full-length collection, but my longer work is currently focused on fiction, so that idea may have to wait a few years.
When I dug down to define my writing purpose, I found fertile ground for new work, and I’d encourage other writers to do the same. (I chronicled this process for my column at DIY MFA, a resource for writers who are self-educating about their craft in the context of living a full life.)
RR: We see that you also write historical fiction for adults. How do you approach writing in that genre versus flash nonfiction? Is there a genre that you currently write that you didn’t know you’d enjoy?
LS: My work rarely falls into the short story or long essay range—I love writing either very short or very long! Both present a challenge that excites me. Novels provide the challenge of creating strong enough characters and themes to keep the reader engaged over the length of a book. Flash nonfiction challenges me to find a moment in time that represents a bigger story. Educating myself in both areas is so much fun. Since I also have a full-time job and young children, I am a fierce devotee of the Pomodoro method (focused writing for a prescribed length of time). I use my longer morning Pomodoro (before my kids wake up) to work on my primary project—right now, finishing my novel—and shorter Pomodoros throughout the day to serve my secondary project. That could be anything from an essay to a blog post or an edition of my newsletter, The Perspective Post. Some people might find novels and flash nonfiction to be polar opposites, but I think the key is knowing your own story and the message you want to convey to your reader. The form it takes only matters inasmuch as it excites the writer.
RR: We understand you also work as an elementary school band teacher. How has your experience teaching music influenced what or how you write?
LS: Writing “The Band Room” helped me figure out why I became a music teacher. Before that (fifteen years!) I honestly hadn’t thought about it much—I just knew I loved being in band in high school, and I wanted to pass on that experience to other kids. “The Band Room” helped me untangle that vague understanding from the trauma of having cancer, and it gave my job new meaning.
Teaching isn’t often talked about as a creative act, but I feel just as creative when I’m in a classroom as when I’m putting words on the page. I love the feeling of exploring what each kid needs and how she thinks and figuring out how to present the material in a way that makes sense to the group. Writing, teaching, making music and even parenting are just different ways to express the same creativity. They’re all just tools to spark ideas in people’s brains and open them up to becoming their best selves.
Leanne Sowul’s work in Issue 7.1: