Gretchen Legler

Interviewed by Brandy Wilson

gretchen_legler.pngGretchen Legler teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Maine at Farmington. Essays from her acclaimed book, All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook, have been reprinted in numerous anthologies, and she has recently completed a book of personal nonfiction about Antarctica, On The Ice (Milkweed Editions, 2005). The recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, she has published essays, stories, and reviews in Georgia Review, Indiana Review, Orion, Women’s Review of Books, and other magazines.

Q: A great deal of your writing is grounded in place, and I saw that you’d developed exercises for writing about place when you traveled to Antarctica. Did you come up with those as you were traveling and writing?

legler_bookcover.pngA: When I got to Antarctica I had a kind of break down and got quite sick. Part of that was the tension of the trip and the tension on my immune system, but I was also feeling completely overwhelmed. I thought, “What have I gotten myself into? I’m here with all of these scientists who think I’m completely irrelevant, and that what I do is irrelevant.” Even the administrators at McMurdo Station were troubled about what I was doing and why I was there. Even though the National Science Foundation has been sending writers there as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program for 20 years, the folks there are still perplexed about what artists do. So anyway, they weren’t helping me much. They got me into this meeting, and said, “Well, how much helicopter time do want? Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? Who do you want to talk to?”

I felt kind of paralyzed, as if I had bitten off way more than I could chew. I wrote to a friend of mine, Patricia Hampl, who’s a nonfiction writer and memoirist, and talked to her and asked, “What do I do?” She had great advice, of course. She said, “Being a writer is the laziest ass job in the world. Our job is to just sit still and pay attention. That’s what you need to do.” So I did.
I created the exercises as a way for me to begin to write about this place that was so overwhelming. When you get completely overwhelmed with something you sit down and you make a list, right? So I sat down and I thought, “Ok, I’m going to make myself a set of exercises.” The first exercise was just “First impressions of a new place,” and by actually writing out the exercise, putting it on my website, then following the instructions in the exercise myself I was able to start getting a handle on writing about Antarctica.

The book started emerging as a series of 500-word pieces that came out of the exercises. Some of them grew into larger essays, but I still, at the point of publishing, had probably 12 or 15 of these little 500-word pieces. My original idea was to stick those in between the longer essays in the book, but the publisher didn’t think that would work. So I took five of them and squished them into one little essay called “An Antarctic Quintet,” and the rest of them got left behind. That was my process.

Q: You write and travel rather than gather material and then come home and write?

A: This project started out as a book. My first book began as individual essays, and I didn’t have any idea that they would at some point be a book. I didn’t have a larger narrative in mind. But with the Antarctic material, I had in mind from the start that it would be a book, and when you start out writing a book-length piece of nonfiction, for me anyway, I would need to engage in a really active process all the way along, starting in the field.

Q: I have more questions about your process, but first I wanted to talk a little about your subject matter. As a nonfiction writer, though you write about nature. You, of course, also address personal and political aspects of your life. Particularly you “come out” in your work. How do you feel about this exposure, especially given the current attitudes towards the LGBT community and LGBT literature expressed in the recent election?

A: My second book, the Antarctica book, got fewer positive reviews than my first one. One of the reasons for this, I think, is because the literature of the Antarctic has predominantly been a male domain. There’s been a powerful master narrative about Antarctica, which is, you go there to engage with and basically conquer the place. Right? You don’t go there and write stories about your love affair, or how scared you are, or how awesome it is, right? There are a lot of Antarcticaphiles out there, and that’s what they want to read—those stories of heroism and discovery—again and again and again. Not only does my book poke a hole in that master narrative, but I also revealed that there are lesbians in Antarctica. My very first piece of fan mail came over the Internet from somebody with a name like “tough bearded guy.” The first line was, “Thanks for ruining Antarctica for me.” He went on to say that knowing that there were lesbians in Antarctica was disgusting to him.
Nobody reacted that way to my first book, which also had a coming out story in it. I think that the myths about the Antarctic landscape are so powerful that putting a lesbian in that landscape really did ruin it for that person. It ruined the picture he had in his head of what Antarctica was like.
I think actually our political climate makes it possible for me to write about being a lesbian. So in that sense, I find the political climate, for me as a writer, to be positive. I know that I can say almost anything I want about being gay and not be afraid that I won’t ever get published. That hasn’t always been true. People with attitudes like this first fan of mine have always been around. It’s okay that he exercised prejudices.
I have another story about the Antarctica book that’s interesting and is sort of the opposite kind of story. I was in the process of writing the book for a very long time for various reasons, and I had an agent who was interested in it. I wrote a draft and showed it to this agent, and she didn’t like the lesbian content. I was upset about that. I asked her about it.

She said, “You don’t want to limit your market. You don’t want to put yourself into a niche market.” I said, “There’s no way I can write this and not be a lesbian in it.” I did another draft and changed some things. Then she said, “Okay I think we can go with this.” In the end, this agent didn’t think she could represent the book, so I sent it around myself. There was a lot of waffling on her part. That was more disturbing to me than the guy who said “thanks for ruining Antarctica for me.” This agent wasn’t just some weirdo who emailed me out of the blue—she had the power of the whole publishing industry behind her.

Q: Would you call yourself a lesbian writer, and how do you feel about those kinds of labels?

A: I’ll take on as many labels as people want to put on me. I’ll be a nature writer. I’ll be an environmental writer. I’ll be a feminist writer. I’ll be a lesbian writer. I am all of those things. How could I be possibly be just one?

Q: I read that you came out later in life. How has it particularly impacted your writing and your professional career? Did you see a change in your writing or how you approached writing?

A: I’m working with undergraduates right now in a beginning nonfiction workshop. Their very first assignment was to do this ridiculous thing in a week. I call it the 10,000 word, 40 page boot camp autobiography. They are supposed to start at the beginning of their lives, come up to the present, and crank it all out. Immediately one student, who is a good student, came up to me in tears and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t be in your class. I can’t talk about those things. I just can’t go back.” There’s another student who I’ve been working with who wrote some interesting things in his boot camp autobiography about wanting to be invisible when he was a kid. That was the pattern of his childhood, this trying to be invisible. I wanted him to try to write about it. He said, “I really don’t want to.” Why’s that? “It’s kind of painful, personal.” I told him the best writing is painful and personal, whether it’s poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. I know it’s hard, but that’s what makes it good.

I was originally a journalist. If you know how to write, being a journalist is easy, especially when you’ve got the rhythm of the words and the deadlines to keep you on track. Then I started doing work at the University of Minnesota in the Creative Writing Program, and I was writing essays where there was this smooth surface, you know. I wrote an essay about fishing with my father.

My teacher asked, “Well what about this relationship with your father?” I said, “I don’t want to write about that. That’s too complicated, it’s too painful, too personal.” But it was when I started doing that, going beneath the surface—Virginia Woolf talks about going behind or beneath the cotton wool of our daily lives—that the writing started to be good. By writing about difficult family relationships, writing about my sister’s suicide, writing about coming out, I learned that not only was it okay to write about that painful material, but once I accessed that complicated material inside me, my writing got better. There definitely is some kind of relationship between my coming out and the writing. Coming out gave me an experience of personal authenticity in connection with myself that translated into truer writing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience of coming out and the effect it has on people’s lives. Before I came out, I would look at women I thought were lesbians and think, among other things, “I can’t possibly be like that, that’s not me.” Then, when I got to graduate school and had so many of my classes with a diverse group of incredibly intelligent women, many of whom were lesbians, I began to think that they were so brave. Look at what they have done, I thought. What could possibly inspire them to do that? To put themselves at risk, to challenge the larger culture by being out and proud? Once you have the experience of coming out, you realize just how courageous an act it is, and just how transformative an act it can be. I wish everybody could have an experience like this, because it is life changing.

Q: You used to write fiction as well. Do you feel like once you started doing nonfiction, you left the fiction behind or didn’t have the interest in it that you did?

A: I wrote fiction for my Masters thesis, and I have a couple of short stories published. I haven’t written fiction since. I do feel that I left the fiction behind. I was struggling with fiction. I didn’t understand how to take real things and turn them into stories. There was something about that transformation that I didn’t get. When you’re trying to work with young writers, you are always trying to help them find their voice, right? My voice was not with fiction. Something changed when I started writing nonfiction. My voice was much more authentic and much more powerful. But the longer I write, the more I think I’m beginning to understand the difference between nonfiction and fiction, and I’m intrigued about trying fiction again. I’m beginning to understand that it’s not a difference in quality or quantity of truth. It’s a difference in form.

The appealing thing about fiction is that the narrator can do so many things. Of course, there are so many things you can do as the speaker or the lens in nonfiction, but somehow you can’t do what a fictional narrator can do with the same kind of authority. I’m beginning to think there are some stories that would be best told as fiction. For instance, right now I am working on a collection of essays about rural life in Maine. A lot of them focus on animals, what it’s like to have goats and chickens, breed them, raise them, and then kill them and eat them.  

One of the essays is the story of a beautiful red rooster, our favorite rooster, who got sick. I didn’t want him to die. I didn’t know what was wrong with him. I put him in a separate cage, and I was trying to keep him alive. But he was clearly ailing and miserable. The essay was going to be about how I decided it was time for him to die.

Meanwhile, my mother is in intensive care with pneumonia, and my father wants her to have a dignified death. There was a lot of talk in my family about how to make that possible, basically, how to help my mother die. Thankfully, she didn’t die, and is doing fine. But where this lead me was to my father.

I wanted to write more about my father—his attitudes regarding death and his relationship to the rest of the members of my family. But I didn’t think I could cram all that into the essay about the rooster.

Instead I thought I might try to write a short story where there’s this old guy who’s trying to sort through things as his wife is dying, and he’s having to renegotiate his relationships with his kids. I just don’t think I can do that from a nonfiction perspective, because it would be way too ‘me’ centered. I want to have a narrator who will walk around this man and try to get a sense of who he is.

Q: I have some nitty gritty questions about your process. Are you an afternoon writer, morning writer? Do you write daily? Do you have rituals?

A: I had a sabbatical recently. The first six months of sabbatical I was building myself a writing cottage, because I had thought that having that space was going to motivate me. I got the writing cottage done and moved in. I was in there every day for a couple of hours. Things were cruising along. I was developing a momentum, but then reality intervened—my mother became very ill and I began traveling a lot to spend time with her. The writing routine completely disappeared like it was never there and I haven’t gotten it back yet.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about discipline, and the discipline it takes to be an artist. I don’t have it right now. It’s very frustrating. I’ve just finished reading a book by Madeleine L’Engle called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. She talks about being called to writing. She’s a very devout Christian, so for her this is a call that’s coming from God. Other people—like Milton, Henry James, Emerson—they were called by their muses. L’Engle feels this call. She hears this call. I feel that call too. It is a voice that says to me, “You really should be writing, why aren’t you writing? You need to be writing.” She says, if you feel this, if you hear this call, it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how qualified you are, or how much you think people want to read what you are writing. You need to honor the call and go sit at the desk, be obedient to the call and come up with the discipline it’s going to take to get yourself to do this work.

The thing that I can say about my process is that it is a very messy process. I do stuff in notebooks, little scribbley things in notebooks, and I think about things for a long time before anything gets down on a typed page. What I’m doing is making the essay in my head. For me, an essay is about connections between ideas, like the red rooster and my mother and father. When I finally sit down it is a very messy process. I’ll just put whatever is in there on the page, as quickly as I can get it down. Then I’ll leave it. Over the years I’ve begun to understand the positive value in leaving it and coming back later. It’s such a luxury to be able to do that. The next time I make it to the writing cottage, I’ll open that essay again. I’ll cut out huge chunks and add huge chunks. It will be a game for a while about what belongs in this essay and what doesn’t. What other connection did I just come up with today that I could stuff in there? At some point it will be good enough to print out, and I’ll read it to myself. It might undergo many more revisions. At some point it will be good enough to show to a couple of readers. Then the fine-tuning will start. It is a very messy, time consuming process.

Q: Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

A: Irène Némirovsky.

Q: What writerly habit would you like to break?

A: Lack of discipline, or maybe I should say lack of obedience to the call.
Q: What was the greatest surprise for you in your most recent writing?

A: How hard it is, how sad…

Q: What kind of child were you?

A: Adventurous.

Q: Worst job?

A: A two bit country club where everybody thought they were so fancy.

Q: If you could have any job what would it be (other than writer/ teacher)?

A: Farmer.
Q: What’s your favorite curse word?

A: Holy Crow … it’s a Maine thing.