Q&A with Brenda Miller - "A Braided Heart: Essays on Writing and Form"

July 15th, 2021

A Braided Heart provides a friendly, personal, and smart guide to the writing life. It also offers clear and original instruction on craft elements at the forefront of today’s emerging forms in creative nonfiction: from the short-short, to the braided form, to the hermit crab essay. An acknowledged expert in these forms, Brenda Miller gives writers practical advice on how to sustain and invigorate their writing practice, while also encouraging readers to explore their own writing lives. Below, she answers some questions about her new book.

What draws you to writing about writing?

As a creative nonfiction writer, I tend to write about what’s happening right in front of me. That, naturally, often happens to be writing or thinking about writing (even when I’m not actually engaged in the act itself). At the same time, I tend to shy away from talking about writing in my personal essays; it tends to make the work too self-conscious or self-referential (which I know is kind of an oxymoron for personal writing!). So, when I decided to put together this book, it was nice to find a home for these essays that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. 

Do you have a favorite form?

That’s like choosing a favorite child! I love all forms, especially those that seem to arise organically while I’m writing—the right voice appearing at the right time. The braided essay comes rather naturally to me, and I also love it when a “hermit crab” (a form borrowed from the outside world) decides to make an appearance. Flash nonfiction is so satisfying when you can create something satisfying in a tiny amount of time. 

Where would you recommend that students of writing begin?

Start small. Describe the tree outside your window, say, and allow that description to lead you to memories and associations that lie hidden in the subconscious. Challenge yourself to write snippets and scribbles, rather than an essay or a book. Allow the writing to lead you places you might not have thought to go otherwise. And read for inspiration. Closely emulate the writers whose voices seem to resonate with your own. 

The final essay, written with Julie Marie Wade, is marked by the Covid-19 pandemic. When did you start writing the essays in this book, and do you think that the timing has affected the rest of the essays?

Some of the essays collected here were written many years ago, often on writing retreats where the act of writing is paramount in my mind. The craft essays have been written over the last decade or so, often starting as craft talks for conferences or for the Rainier Writing Workshop (a low-residency MFA program where I teach). And the epilogue with Julie was written exactly a year ago, as part of our on-going collaboration (a book of our collaborative essays in coming out this Fall). As I look at A Braided Heart now, with this year of pandemic behind us, I think the essays are more relevant than ever, as we’ve come to know ourselves better and have learned what we need to prioritize for our inner lives. 

Were there essays you had to leave out of the book?

There were a couple of craft essays that seemed to be a bit redundant with other pieces in the book, so I left those out. The more personal “writing life” essays I think all made the cut!

What inspired you to write “A Case Against Courage in Creative Writing?”

The opening anecdote in that essay—where I give a public reading of an intimate essay and then I’m startled by the reaction to it—spurred my mulling on the words “courage” and “brave,” especially as they are often applied to memoir. I had to question why those words deflated rather than pleased me, and I eventually put these questions down on the page. I then turned to other writers to see how these concepts applied in their work. I called it A Case Against Courage—rather than the more definitive The—because I felt this was my personal take on the issue and there can be many sides to this inquiry. I’ve found that this piece is one of the most requested articles I’ve written, as it gives writers new to creative nonfiction a different way to think about how and why they’re writing about their own lives.  

What do you hope that readers will take away from A Braided Heart?

Ironically, in light of my answer to the last question, courage! But courage in the etymological meaning of “take heart.” To feel encouraged in their writing and writing lives. To have new perspectives, new tools, new insights of their own. 

Which writers have influenced your thoughts about writing?

When I was first starting to write—before even thinking of myself as “a writer”—Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones was instrumental in providing me with the foundations of a writing practice. Later, a friend gave me the anthology A Writer on Her Work, and it still remains one of my favorite books about writing. Bonnie Friedman, Anne Lamott, Patricia Hampl, and Nancy Mairs have all provided me with inspiration and encouragement along the way. I love listening to podcasts with writers, especially those who appear on On Being or The TED Radio Hour. 

How do you approach reading while working on a book?

Honestly, I’m never working on a book! I write my essays, my poems, I scribble in a notebook, and eventually (ideally) something adds up to a book. But as with A Braided Heart, that book may take quite a while to see the light of day. While I’m writing, I tend to read a lot of poetry; poetry acts as a kind of “tuning fork” to get my writing mind in gear. 

What are you reading now?

Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris, a stunning book of poems, as well as the anthology Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection. I think in this current world, we need kindness and connection more than ever. I’m also listening to a lot of audiobooks, mostly novels, while I spend hours doing paint-by-numbers, my addictive pandemic hobby!

Can you say what you’re working on next?

I have a poetry manuscript I’d like to get out in the world; it’s called As Is, and many of the poems stem from my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve been arranging, rearranging, and editing that manuscript, as well as writing new poems that came out of the pandemic year. I’m also gathering up the essays I’ve written over the last four years and seeing some connections between them, so I think a new book of essays may be emerging, tentatively called Chorus: Essays of Witness. 

Brenda Miller is Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University. She is the author of several essay collections. A collaborative work, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, co-authored with Julie Marie Wade, will be published in October by CSU Poetry Center. For more information, please visit her website.