Giving Voice to the Unspeakable: A Conversation with Melissa Grunow
Grunow talks about her writing process, revising, reader criticism, speaking out against trauma, and her new essay collection.
Chelsey Clammer: In her latest book, Melissa Grunow takes all the bravery and beautiful honesty found in her award-winning memoir, Realizing River City (Tumbleweed Books, 2016), and amplifies it in her recently released collection of essays, I Don’t Belong Here (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018). The result is a book that does more than present the reader with the emotionally intense and raw truths about relationships and human connection; it also explores the different and complex ways in which we belong (or not) in the world. Whether it’s finding that physical or metaphorical space we call “home,” or figuring out who we are by experiencing who we don’t want to be, the journey that Grunow takes us through is stunning and engaging. Addicting, even. And insightful, to say the least. With vivid descriptions and writing that cuts straight to the core of experience, I Don’t Belong Here is a testament to the power of the personal essay. I sit down with Melissa Grunow today to talk about her new collection of essays and her writing process.
Ms. Grunow, your first book was a memoir that related a specific time period in your life. I Don’t Belong Here, in contrast, is a collection of essays that explores a number of moments and time periods. How was your writing process for creating a collection of essays different from that of writing a memoir?
Melissa Grunow: I’m not sure that my writing process is different. Whenever I have an idea to write something, it often comes to me in fragments. It could be a memory jolt or a sentence or an image. The idea usually comes at an inconvenient time, as well, meaning I’m not able to drop what I’m doing and write. I used to be certain that I would remember my ideas later, but I’m not that naïve anymore. Instead, I’ll jot it down on whatever I have handy — a Post-it, an electric bill, a napkin — and stick it in a journal. When I am ready to work on it, I have all of these disconnected notes to use as starting points. Sitting down to write without something to grasp is really intimidating for me, and it can shut down my writing before it even begins, so these notes are essential. Sometimes I don’t remember what the note was about, but I can usually make something of it.
The difference between writing an essay collection and writing a memoir happens during revision. I love the revision process because I’m already working with content. With a memoir, the goal is a thematic narrative thread. There needs to be a story that moves through the book with the intention of conveying some overarching message. With the essay collection, I didn’t feel compelled or pressured by structure to make the pieces connect around a central story. I Don’t Belong Here isn’t linear, the essays don’t develop from one to the next, and I don’t even use the same voice or form. Each piece is individually exploring something, whereas the memoir was more concerned with motifs, character development, and narrative arc, as well as many of the other craft elements used in a novel. Essays, for me, permit so much more freedom for the writer, but they also hold a greater sense of responsibility to the reader. Time and space is more limited in an essay, so the appeal to the reader is sometimes more of a challenge than with a full-length memoir.
It’s definitely interesting (and important!) to think about how the reader navigates the two genres because you’re right — it is an incredibly different reading experience. So do you feel like you learned anything from writing your first book that helped you to write I Don’t Belong Here?
When I was writing Realizing River City, it originally began as a memoir-in-essays. The intention was that each chapter could stand alone as a complete piece but when put together would tell a larger story. It was less overwhelming to approach each chapter as its own entity when I was drafting the book because I didn’t have the pressure of writing a book; I only had the pressure of writing an individual piece. The memoir-in-essays form, though, just didn’t work when the chapters were compiled together because there were both points of confusion in the narrative and unnecessary repetition in various chapters. So, during the revision process, I worked to fill in the gaps while streamlining the narrative. Storyboarding definitely helped with that process. Revision for Realizing River City was a long, intensive, arduous process.
I got the idea for I Don’t Belong Here while I was writing Realizing River City. A handful of essays in I Don’t Belong Here started out as chapters or sections cut from Realizing River City, such as “Silent, Stifled Love,” “Meng Li Sha,” and “White Spirit.” I wanted to do something with those pieces, and so I set them aside and returned to them later.
The biggest lesson between the two books, though, was how much I felt silenced by the potential reader. Even though Realizing River City is revelatory and truthful about various relationships I had in my twenties, I still withheld some of the darkest details because I was afraid of backlash. I had this nagging feeling of getting into trouble for something I said or admitted to, so I was much more reserved when I wrote my memoir. After it was published, those in my life whom I expected to be the biggest supporters — most of my family, in particular — were the greatest critics. Every story I told and every detail I revealed were inherently truthful, but it didn’t matter to them that I told the truth. What mattered was that I was too personal, too truthful. So, when I wrote the essays in I Don’t Belong Here, whenever I imagined a voice of dissent, I pushed it out of my mind. Sometimes I had to tell myself that the book would never get published or that nobody would read it anyway just to avoid letting the possible disparagers interfere with my work. I know many writers of creative nonfiction experience this dilemma; however, now that I’ve faced the backlash and survived it, I am only more adamant about telling the truth and not holding anything back.
What I loved most about these essays is the ways in which you seek out and explore so many avenues, so to speak, of what it means to “belong.” Whether you’re talking about a relationship with someone else, looking at the places we consider home, or contemplating the larger cultural and societal impacts on our identities, in each essay you explore what a sense of connection (or its lack) can feel like. What influenced you to write about the concept of belonging?
I was influenced by keen observations of the world around me and the worlds in which I inhabit. In particular, how disconnected I often felt from those worlds, and how I’ve felt disconnected throughout most of my life. The ability to observe, process, and reflect upon is inherent in many writers; I haven’t read anything that really investigates what this means. Feeling isolated (whether it be self-inflicted or socially constructed) is both comforting and maddening. I could scream, or I could write about it. For me, it didn’t feel like I had any other choices. I had to write this book. I had to tell these stories. I had to examine these moments, experiences, thoughts, observations. I want to welcome the reader into these conversations, rather than attempt to make any kind of hard and fast argument.
As I read each essay, I felt like there was a complex aspect underlying each experience you related — that a sense of empowerment can come from feeling like we belong. There are moments, though, where it seems like not belonging might have its own benefits. As you compiled this collection, how did you consider (and perhaps discover) empowerment and what it means in relation to feeling like you belong?
Empowerment gives you confidence, and confidence gives you freedom to see your options and to make the best choices in your life. When you’re on the fringes of anything, that empowerment is compromised, and that’s when you feel backed into a corner or suffering in some way that seems impossible to escape. Science has told us time and time again that humans are social creatures. We may like our moments of solitude or long for the end of the day when we can shut out the din of the noisy world, but eventually we need people again because they empower us. When you don’t belong — or feel like you don’t belong — seeking out others becomes an act of desperation, and those who prey on the vulnerable will be there first to disempower you. Belonging, in and of itself, isn’t enough. We need to belong to places, with people, in families, and so on, that give us the support to be our true selves and to be true to ourselves.
The essays in I Don’t Belong Here cover a wide range of topics and experiences, though I would say that many of the essays look at the different ways that trauma can impact our lives. How do you think trauma fits in with our sense of belonging? Trauma alienates us. It fills us with shame, with anger, with fear. Belonging is the antonym to trauma because when we belong, we feel safe, warm, and comforted. Trauma recovery, though, is the bridge between the two, and that’s why it’s so important to speak up and speak out against trauma.
Putting words to our experiences is hard enough, and so I was really impressed by the way you put words to different events that almost feel incapable of being described. Another theme in this book is that it looks at the concept of the unspeakable. What challenges did you have when trying to give voice to something that lacked one to begin with? In which moments in the book do you feel like you kicked that challenge’s ass and were really able to convey what resists being heard?
I Don’t Belong Here is organized into four sections: Unspoken, Displaced, Suppressed, and Misunderstood, yet as you have noticed, the idea of the “unspeakable” is a common thread throughout most of the 20 essays in this book.
I learned early on in my life that if I stay quiet and don’t speak out about my feelings or ideas, then I will live a peaceful life. I was raised that way. Don’t make a fuss; don’t talk back; don’t disagree; don’t fight. But inside, I was screaming. I had so much to say. My feelings were, and are, valid. Everyone’s are.
My realization, though, doesn’t mean that it made the unspeakable easy to write about. I’m still cautious about expressing an opinion that is counter to popular opinion, and I still worry about how the people in my life will respond to my work. However, I cannot let that dictate my work. If I’m compelled to share something, I’m going to write about it. As I said before, I’ve become better at shutting down the voice of dissent.
As for particular moments in the book where I was able to give voice to the unspeakable, the two that come to mind are sexual assault and mental illness. Women are silenced in this country. We’re dismissed as “emotional” when we speak out against injustices of the system. First, what is wrong with being emotional? If you’re void of emotion, then you’re a psychopath, so the ability to feel and convey emotion and empathy is strength not weakness. My writing is my voice. If I don’t write about it, I’m taking away my own voice. There are plenty of people and entities that already work tirelessly to silence women like me. It’s my obligation to state the unsaid. Otherwise, why even bother being a writer?
Considering all the ways that we belong in the world and the language that we can use to do so, how do you think writing fits in with the sense of belonging?
For me, writing has been the way I connect with others. We hope to connect with our readers, of course, but we also find a community in other writers. I’ve never felt so championed by anyone as I have felt by fellow writers who have become my friends. Writers are a rare breed of humanity. Many of us are introverts, but we’re hugely empathetic and incessantly supportive of one another. I’ve learned to be a better, kinder person because of the writers I know and the brilliant literature they produce. I used to feel so competitive when it came to my writing and judgmental of others, but as the years have gone on, and I’ve connected with so many people in the writing community, I feel gratitude, not envy. As writers, we are all in this together. We’re struggling, fighting, self-criticizing, and occasionally, thriving. When we cheer each other on, we accomplish something greater than ourselves, and that’s what belonging is all about.
What are you working on now?
I’m still dappling in essays, of course. I’m genre jumping for my next big project, though. I’m working on a collection of short fiction that explores the idea of why people are cruel to one another, particularly those whom we love (or who love us). It has some speculative elements in it, as well, which is new for me. The working title is The Ephemeral Everything, and I hope to have the first draft finished by the end of the year. Fingers crossed.