In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Jackie Trytten
Your creative nonfiction piece “Taking Each Other In” from Volume 23 is a flash essay that our editorial board members said “really earned its place” in this issue due to its lyricism and economy of space. Can you tell us the inspiration behind this essay?
This flash essay was part of a larger segmented essay on fears of what might happen toward the end of my working life. I was working several part-time jobs in education and retail businesses and worried I’d end up like an aunt working at a Woolworth’s, but we don’t have Woolworth’s anymore, so that was a worry, too. I included situations that explained my fears and worries and opinions–ungenerous at times–about the people involved. I applied for a seasonal job at an apple orchard gift shop and heard a mother of a 16-year-old kid tell him to put down on his application that he was good with people. If he was that good with people, did he need his mother telling him? I didn’t get a job there and wondered if he did. There was a young woman I worked alongside at a card shop who bragged about her psychology degree who was openly inpatient with me when I needed to hear cash register procedures two or three times when I had just started a job there. I had other examples of what worried or annoyed me, how these jobs didn’t pay much and limited what I could do and where I could go. One night as I did dishes, I thought about a friend’s father-in-law who had just died and how he took care of his family over the course of his long life. I don’t like doing dishes, but it gives me time to let my mind wander, and I thought I should include some solutions in the essay, rather than just my worries and complaints, to balance the essay and maybe improve my mindset at the time. The idea of a group of us living together when we were older, sort of a Midwestern version of the Golden Girls with no beaches or year-round sunshine spending time together and looking after each other, had been happy hour talk from time to time. It seemed that idea would be a change of feel for the other sections included in the essay.
The ending to “Taking Each Other In” is delightfully surprising and I think I’ve often unconsciously put my hand to my throat each time I’ve read it. I think the ending was a risky move that really paid off. How did you know that you nailed that? Did you make several revisions on it, or did it just work out in one take?
When I write, I usually over-explain with too many details that need to be edited out. So with the idea for this paragraph I again wrote down more explanation on what we’d do together, until I just asked myself what was it I wanted to do with my friends, and I simply wrote the list, and let the reader imagine what the errands and car rides and walks around the lakes and the poetry readings would look like. And then I stopped before I added too much. It seemed so simple and straightforward, and at the same time, said a lot.
After I had written the first paragraph I wondered if it could really happen–would it be a solution to my worries? There are lots of curves thrown at us in life and, like stories, they don’t always turn out the way we’d like. The ending is a reflection on the reality of the living arrangement and balances out the sweetness of the idea that it could work. Sometimes when I write poems and letters, when I get to the end, I think all I’ve provided is information without any personal comment, so I add a few more lines of my opinion. At the end of this one, I hated to say the plan might not work out, but it needed saying.
What do you think flash pieces in any genre need in order to be successful?
Boy, I wish I knew. I’m not an expert on good flash writing, but I know it when I see it, as the saying goes. It needs to have enough in it to make sense, and maybe not enough to make the reader stop and ponder, what if or how can that be. I’m still learning.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
My tiny hungers are very simple. I want to wear earrings again and not worry about losing them because they might get tangled in the straps of my face mask. I want to linger in the aisles of quilt shops and look and caress bolts of fabric while talking with quilters on their projects. I want to sit and visit with my friends over coffee and rhubarb desserts or wine and cheese. They are tiny, but not unimportant to me.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
I read lots of obituaries in papers and funeral home sites. I find out more about people I know, and find a connection because I went to school with their children or parents, or people I knew from the places I lived but never knew personally. I learn who they are or were, what they did, what brought them pleasure or pain. It seems like death shows up in my essays, but I think maybe it’s really their lives I’m remembering and writing about more than their deaths. It just happens that some people I write about are dead, and they had good stories.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I like reading essays that involve several seemingly unrelated topics that the writer winds together at the end. Joni Tevis and David Sedaris are masters who do that exceptionally well. Sigrid Nunez’ The Friend reads like a lyric essay though it is a novel about a woman remembering, and living with the memory of, her dead friend, and living with and helping his dog do the same. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon is another novel that looks like essays at times with information about the history of Israel and the Palestinians, birds, munition manufacturing, and mathematics, and reads as fiction in the story of two men–one Muslim and one a Jew–whose daughters were killed by gunfire. It’s a novel of 1,001 sections, some a line or two long, others a few pages that deftly tie all the topics together. Lydia Davis is another writer who makes me ask, “Is this fact or fiction, and how can I do this, too?” I read them for enjoyment, but I learn so much from their writing.
I used to be a snob about mystery books, thinking they weren’t serious or relevant, and probably weren’t good writing–I didn’t know because I didn’t read them–and then I came across Henning Mankell who writes about social problems in Sweden and his troubled detective Kurt Wallander who deals with them in his city of Ystad. When something annoying used to happen to me, I’d say, “I’m moving to Sweden where things like this don’t happen,” but then I discovered life there wasn’t as perfect as I assumed. I soon found other Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, and Icelandic crime stories with their troubled characters suffering through long winters, living in difficult marriages, and dealing with irritable workmates, and though the stories were good, I also learned political and societal problems can be weaved in to make them serious stories–more than just crime stories. Last summer an old friend (from the essay) introduced me to the Nick Herron Slough House series of spy stories set in contemporary London and full of more troubled characters barely hanging on to their jobs and lives. These are books of good storytelling that make me look to understand how he writes, too.
Gwen Marston and Freddy Moran are two quilters I admire because of their use of color and design and ability to use what’s good and set aside what isn’t working. They lived across the country from each other, so had to work remotely making “parts,” different pattern pieces, that they’d put together when they met to make quilts. They’d audition the “parts” and use what worked, not feeling they had to keep anything. They “liberated” patterns to free up the idea that all squares had to look like old quilt patterns and brought new life to the quilt world. I took several workshops from them and learned to trust myself. They wrote guidelines in one of their quilt books that give advice that works for quilting or writing.
Make what you want to make, and make it the way you want to make it.
Your chances of making a remarkably good quilt are increased when you take chances.
Quilts with energy and surprise are more likely to delight the viewer.
Never point out a mistake.
Don’t be afraid to abandon a project that isn’t working for you.
Work as much as possible every day.
Most important of all–make it.
(From Collaborative Quilting, Freddy Moran and Gwen Marston, 2006)
What projects are you working on right now?
I made a quilt this spring for a niece’s graduation from college. I used a pattern of overlapping circles I had made before so I knew the pattern, and I used black, white, gray and teal colored fabrics. After cutting fabric for a while I thought it needed some more zing, so I added a few spots of peach. Usually adding black and white to a quilt provides somewhere for the eye to rest, but in this case, it’s the peach that serves that function. Making that quilt was just what I needed after this pandemic year–it let me play around with colors, pattern, and design to be creative. I hope it’s what I needed to keep my creativity and work continuing.
Jackie Trytten has been a K-12 and postsecondary educator for over 30 years. She is an artist of textiles, watercolors, and stained glass, and holds an MFA from Hamline University. Her work has appeared in Rain Taxi.