In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Joanna Manning
Your flash essay “Sweet Just Yesterday” in Volume 23 is a burst of imagery and sensory details. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process and how you kept this essay so compressed?
I write for a living, so I don’t always have the energy to explore the intellectual potential of an idea in a formal essay, but I’m finding a great deal of satisfaction in writing vignettes like this one. Writing them forces me to pay attention to the world. I’m always mining for details—images, characters—that have some inherent meaning or beauty that I can capture. A poet can take an image and make meaning out of it. I’ve never been able to do that. At best I can simply bear witness to the things that tell their own story. A rejuvenating fire is one of those images that can largely speak for itself, I think. The Phoenix myth is already deeply embedded in our collective psyche.
There were a number of things percolating in my mind when I wrote this. It was September 11th, so I was in a reflective mood to begin with, and I think I might have told you at the time that this piece was elegiac, a lament for everything that we lost that day and in the ensuing years. And I was half right—it was an elegy of sorts. But it was one for my father, who had died by suicide several months before. Reading it now, a few years later, I can really see myself struggling to let go of what once was. I hadn’t yet entered the acceptance phase of my grief. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote that this kind of thinking is mere foolishness, like “wishing for a fig in winter.” But there are threads of hope in the piece as well. I always find it interesting to see how my own interpretation of my work can change over time.
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?
You’re probably hoping for something more profound, and this might sound more salacious than it actually is, but I miss touching people. Not just hugs and handshakes among friends but that surprise intimacy of a stranger’s touch—a hand on your shoulder as you pass by each other, that kind of thing. I must not have been hugged enough as a child.
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?
Inheritance comes up a lot. I also wrestle with absurdity in the philosophical sense, that there’s a fundamental tension to our tendency to seek out answers to the Big Questions about the meaning and purpose of life when there are no answers to those questions. This is probably a typical preoccupation of middle age though.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
The late Judith Kitchen had an enormous influence on me, both as a writer and a mentor. Her enthusiasm for creative nonfiction and its possibilities turned me on to the genre in the first place. I originally set out to be a fiction writer, which was a terrible idea because I had no real talent for it, but as Judith and I got to know each other and she began to understand how I viewed the world, she encouraged me to give essays a try. The first essay I wrote wound up being a finalist for a national prize, and when I told her the news she just said, “What did I tell you?” She was an incredibly generous person and the best cheerleader to have in my corner.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I don’t think this qualifies as an art form, but I’ve always loved stand-up comedy and just this year—before all live performances were banned in Washington—I was able to try my hand at it for the first time. It went surprisingly well, and it taught me one important thing that I have been able to apply to my writing life.
In stand-up, the performance is the editing process. Yes, you write and rehearse your set beforehand, but in the end, you don’t know how the jokes are going to land until you tell them to an audience. The feedback is instant, so you know right away what needs to be tweaked. This was the part that terrified me. I really thought that I would take it personally if the audience didn’t laugh at one of my jokes. After all, I’m the one on the stage, so there’s no one else to blame if the set’s not going well.
I can’t speak for all writers, but I know I tend to view my work as an extension of myself, so any critique of the work can easily seem like a personal critique as well. There’s a lot of vulnerability in creative fields. Stand-up showed me, in this really raw and intense way, that the work and the artist are, in fact, separate entities. That’s been freeing for me. Also, even the jokes that got a big laugh certainly didn’t connect with every person in the room. You can hit the mark and still not please everyone. That was an important lesson as well.
What projects are you working on right now?
I just finished a long essay that was an investigation into my paternal grandfather’s life. He walked out on my father and his brothers when they were very young and seemed to just disappear. I was able to find out what became of him, and the essay was my effort at offering him some redemption. It helped me to soften my heart toward him anyway. I think that’s an important part of ending generational pain, don’t you think?
Now that that is finished and being shopped around, I’m at work on a collection of humorous essays. This might seem like a departure from the work that I currently have out in the world, but humor was my first love and is probably my strongest form. I was hesitant to pursue it when I was younger because it wasn’t “serious” enough, whatever that means. Those of us who feel compelled to create things want to create things that will endure. Humor can seem so frivolous. But when I was on stage making people laugh, it almost felt sacred, like I was ministering to them, and I know that joy will endure in some way. Humor no longer seems frivolous at all. I’m able to see the value in it now.
Joanna Manning is a graduate of Syracuse University and the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her columns have appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune and Thrive Global, and her essays have been featured or are forthcoming in Collateral, Creative Colloquy, and The Other Journal: The Intersection of Theology and Culture. She blogs about life and other absurdities at jlmanning.com.