Month: September 2014

Matthew G. Frank & Amelia Gramling

“I’ve been obsessed lately with seeing how much ‘play’ a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity.”


Junior Creative Writing major, Amelia Gramling, sent an email to Matthew G. Frank after reading his essay, “The Beginning of the End of Humming Bird Cake,” published in Prairie Schooner. For more of Frank’s work, visit his website

Dear Mr. Frank,

I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading your nonfiction piece The Beginning of The End of Hummingbird Cake, and I felt deeply compelled to write to you upon finishing it, to tell you how seismically it, how you, moved me. Your dripping and disjointed prose seems to encapsulate on a conceptual level the metaphors you invoke throughout the piece which culminate in a composition of beautiful, menacing chaos, the likes of which I have yet to encounter in all of my various exposures to iterations of the essayistic form up till now nor do I imagine I am likely to stumble across again. I wonder how a writer born and raised in Chicago could embody a location like One Mile Creek in all its sugary sweet, contradictory and somehow harmonious decay. In my own writing, I am often plagued by the prospect of planting my voice in a particular soil. I may be writing from my front porch in Westerville, Ohio but what I am attempting to convey belongs along the banks of the Mississippi or in the boughs of James Island’s twisting, ancient trunks. How do you reconcile that distance? Can research ever be sufficient to transplant your reader? I was also struck by the fluidity of the body of this piece. Each paragraph could exist in a vacuum, it seems, which lends your essay the impression of a short series of vignettes, and yet, when read as one, it becomes clear that each consecutive paragraph serves to complicate and interrogate the ones before.

Hummingbird cake neither begins nor ends here, rather, through your richness of language, it combusts. In a synthesis of race, violence, exploitation, nuances of culture, and a retelling of the dirty South which would set my Granddaddy’s ear ablaze in order to dissipate, fizzle, come together and repeat on and on and on. I am wondering how spontaneous or methodical your process has to be in order to produce this effect. I see and appreciate the flavor of Hummingbird cake, but as someone who’d never heard tell of this phenomenon before now, how did you come to combine these specific ingredients in a way that is both satisfying and sickening? How do you embrace that edge of almost too much, almost unreadable, and refrain from going over?

Thank you so much for your time and for your work.

Amelia Christmas Gramling



Thank you so much for your beautiful email, and engaged reading.  I’ve been obsessed lately with pushing against the parameters of the essay; with seeing how much “play” a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity.  ‘Can research ever be sufficient…?’  That’s such a wonderful question, and I wish I had the answer.  Of course, it’s all situation-specific, but, given the phrasing of the question (the “ever,” especially), I think the answer is Yes (depending on the intention of the research, the necessary surrender to surprise, the willingness to get lost in the research, to fall in love with it, to argue with it– both with and without the aid of other research; to girdle it in places; to allow it to stand alone in other places; to agitate; to allow it to lead you in new unexpected directions; to couple it with generous and good-hearted imaginative alchemy; the willingness to extend the archival research to that of the observational variety– to actually immerse oneself in a specific place, and to listen to people and talk to people, and bird-watch and river-watch.  To meander.  To digress.  To try and find your way back to something that grows ever-hazier).

Thank you again so, so much, Amelia.  You have no idea how much this sort of email message means to me.

All the best,


Lavonne van der Zwaag & Kari Highman

“Spirituality was always a journey of learning … I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.”

Sophomore Creative Writing major, Kari Highman, interviewed 2012 Alum & Fisher Prize Recipient, Lavonne van der Zwaag, at the Fall 2014 Literary Studies Program event, Don’t Read Alone.

Q: What is your writing genre preference?
A: I like to focus on nonfiction. I like it because you can be more open to being vulnerable.

Q: What was your biggest challenge as a writer and how did you overcome it?
A: My biggest challenge during the senior writing project was learning how to put memories from the past down onto paper and asking the honest questions.  As well as how to find my voice and tell a story that was healing to me.

Q: What was the process of the senior writing project like for you?
A: It was great. My original idea was a general story on spiritual aspects in life … but then it became about my personal journey instead.

Q: How did you decide to change your topic?
A: Spirituality was always very prescribed in my life growing up.  It was always a journey of learning … another step on the spiritual path.  I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.  Writing helped me define some of those things.

Q: How has the experience changed you as a person?
A: Now I’m more able to be comfortable with the differences and how much more of myself I was discovering … how much more “me” it had become.

Q: Any other changes you’re more comfortable with now?
A: I’m OK with the ambiguity of it all.  The whole experience was definitely a monumental moment for me.

Mary Heather Noble & Katelyn Hanzel

“Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe.”

unnamedSenior Creative Writing minor, Katelyn Hanzel, sent an email to Mary Heather Noble after reading her essay, “Luffing,” published in Literal Latte. For more of Noble’s work, visit her website

Dear Mary,

I am writing to express to you my admiration for your essay “Luffing,” which I stumbled upon while exploring Literary Latte this past week. As a 21-year-old college senior with a family that is comprised of an enthusiastically outdoorsy father, an exceptionally indoorsy mother, and a charismatic younger brother, your essay that ostensibly discusses sailing on Lake Erie is a piece that has wholly captured my interest, in that I can relate pretty well to it.The exploration of the relationship dynamics within your family is fascinating, and you just write it so well. You let readers into the struggle that is present, “half wishing for there to be plenty of wind, the other half wishing for none at all,” and you pulled me in with this feeling of being stuck in the middle. I appreciated the peek into your relationship with each of your parents separately, as well as the lens through which I got to see the relationship your parents seemed to have together.I wondered if you would be willing to give me a bit of advice as to how I can take such simple details in my own writing of my own stories and make them more prominent and more noticeable. Sailing and water and wind were such lovely parts of the metaphor that you were alluding to, and I want to learn how I can take the little things and turn them into more emotionally significant things. I’m also curious about where you go to start – where is your ideal writing environment? Finally, how frequently do you pull pieces from your own memory in order to further explore a story, a relationship, or a moment in time?

“Luffing” was such a lovely piece to experience, and I’d like to learn, from one accomplished writer to an aspiring other.

Katelyn Hanzel
Otterbein University


Dear Katelyn,

Thank you so much for your kind words — I’m so glad that “Luffing” resonated with you.  Writing about family can be so difficult, but I think it’s worth it when you know that the experience about which you’ve written really connects with someone else’s.  Makes us all feel a little less alone in the world, you know?

To your questions (and please forgive the list format, but I want to make sure I’m doing my best to answer them):

– On details: I had a mentor in my MFA program who always said, “Specific writing is good writing” — meaning details are what make a story sing, especially if they are images or themes that can carry double meaning.   I think everyone has their own way of finding details to include and highlight in their prose, whether it be from imagination or real life moments — but for me (because I’m a creative nonfiction writer), everything comes from observation and memory.  So I journal a lot, make lists of things I notice or remember, and do free-writing exercises that excavate details from my memory.  My advice?  Get a lot of books with interesting writing prompts, journal a lot, and be mindful in your revision process.  Sometimes the details you want are right there in front of you, and you just need to trim the other stuff to give them room to breathe.  Also, read other writers who are really good at metaphoric details.  I read a lot of Lia Purpura and Abigail Thomas.  Poetry, too.  I think that’s a really good way to develop an eye for distilled language.

– On starting: For me, inspiration starts with a daydream or an idea sparked by something I’ve seen or read.  I find that I’m really sensitive to contrasting images, or things that are unexpected.  That always seems to make me want to explore.  My ideal writing environment?  Well, it depends on where I am in the writing process.  If I’m just beginning something new, then I must have a journal and I must be in a calm place — either alone on my back porch, or writing anonymously in the din of a crowded coffee shop.  Once I have something good on paper, I’ll type it into my computer and just go from there.  So I spend a lot of late hours in my home office, after the kids have gone to bed!

– On memory: I am always pulling pieces from my own memory to further explore the subject of my work, whether it be my own family relationships or big-picture things like connection to place or social justice issues.  So again, I try to work with a lot of prompts that are specifically designed to open my mind and re-create my experiences so that I can get them down on paper.  Some resources with good writing exercises (and these are mostly for creative nonfiction writing):Now Write! Nonfiction, edited by Sherry Ellis, Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind, Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler.

I hope I’ve been able to answer some of your questions. Please feel free to follow-up if you have more. And thanks again for the note — you made my day!

Mary Heather Noble

Lacy Johnson & Lily Mills

“Here is my advice to you: write what is urgent, what you have never said out loud before, what is, in fact, the most impossible to say.”


Junior Creative Writing major, Lily Mills, sent an email to Lacy Johnson after reading Johnson’s essay, “The Other Side,” published in Tin House.

Dear Ms. Lacy Johnson,

My name is Lillian Mills and I am a junior studying Creative Writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. I am writing to tell you how taken away I am with the excerpts of your memoir, The Other Side. I stumbled upon your writing sifting through literary journals online and found Tin House.  As soon as I found your first excerpt I was taken away and had to find any others. The impulse of emotion and raw intensity in which you write with is something that I strive for. The humility you display in your writing is inspiring and humbling and the way you make everyday details so profound is beautiful. You seem to say so much about the relationship between you and your daughter and you and your boyfriend without saying much at all. This is a trait that I hope I can adopt from you and work on as well. I also like these excerpts because they test the boundaries between human relationships and how these relationships are a mirror of how we treat ourselves, and this is something oftentimes we oversee. The craziness and chaos of life you write about does harden us and it is beautiful when we find ourselves again, and this raw honesty is beautiful. I thank you for this.

You test the boundaries between the stereotypical mother/daughter relationships that is often portrayed in writing. Writing sentimentally and also meaningfully about relationships is so abstract yet the way that you seem to explain something in-explainable seems effortless. This is something I was hoping you could maybe give some advice on. I was also wondering if you could help me dive into how to choose between what topics and ideas to write about now and which to save and put away for later? You could have dove into so many more things in your memoir I’m sure, yet you chose the right things to say to get your point across, and this is something I struggle with. I try to tangle too many life experiences too many memories into one piece of writing that what I want to say oftentimes gets lost.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to indulge me and read this little bit of fan mail! I admire your work and your efforts greatly, hope to hear from you soon!

A world of gratitude,
Lily Mills

Dear Lillian,

Thank you so much for this email. I’m so glad that you found something in my work that speaks to you.

Here is my advice to you: write what is urgent, what you have never said out loud before, what is, in fact, the most impossible to say.

I sincerely wish you the very best, and I hope you’ll keep me updated on how things are going. Big love and good vibes coming at you from Texas.