Interviews | May 05, 2017
An interview with Sophie Beck: the evolution of an essay
This week, we are proud to present a new poem by Emma Hine. Hine holds an MFA from New York University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Gulf Coast, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and Radar Poetry, among others. She works at the Academy of American Poets and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
In this poem, I’m looking at how extreme love and extreme vulnerability can interact in family relationships, and how inherited family stories can serve as guiding principles and personal mythologies. This story about my great-grandmother has become more important to me over time, as my sense of personal vulnerability has evolved to include an awareness of the responsibilities that I may, someday, experience in parenthood—and with this, I’ve developed new gratitude for the sacrifices my parents have made to care for me.
Now that she’s grown up, somehow,
my sister still presses her thumb
into that soft nest of veins where her clavicle
branches, the jugular notch, which she says
is the part of her body that has always felt
most vulnerable. When she was little
she’d hold her hand there and ask,
with terror, if someone might scoop
her throat out with a spoon. Me,
I dream about forces ripping my jaw
away from my skull, leaving just upper teeth
and a tongue flopped under them.
Maybe we all have secret places
where the potential damage feels most real.
Our mother did well—we’re here,
and we love her—but how can I know
what it took? It’s almost mythological.
In a family story, my great-grandmother
nurses her baby, my grandmother,
under a tree. She hears a noise and looks up.
A centipede is falling towards her
from a branch, its back-plates twisting.
She moves the baby’s head
so the creature, segmented and heavy,
lands on her exposed breast. A hundred
pricked toes latch and unlatch.
For the rest of her life she had a centipede-
shaped scar. Someday I’ll have a baby
with a groove in her head for her brain
to bloom towards, a sweet spot I could push
my thumb into and ruin for life.
Sophie Beck’s essay “Pinterest for the Apocalypse,” about her sewing hobby, maker culture, and . . . yes . . . the apocalypse, appeared in our winter issue. Beck, the founding co-editor of the Normal School, lives in Denver. TMR advisor and University of Missouri journalism major Rosie Siefert interviewed her about essay writing and how her original ideas evolve into a finished essay. You can read “Pinterest for the Apocalypse” here.
Rosie Siefert: It took “years” to formally introduce yourself to your sewing machine repairman, Steve, and then “ages” to write the essay. Why? Where did your inspiration come from?
Sophie Beck: I never write the essay I think I will write. I thought I was going to write about the intergenerational aspect of sewing and the psychology of passing down manual skills. My mother and stepmother both sew. I learned from them and they in turn learned the skill from their mothers. My mother-in-law is an incredible seamstress who initially learned from her grandmother.
Someone had mentioned to me that Steve’s grandfather taught him to repair sewing machines, and I thought that this had an interesting relevance to my passed-down skills idea. I’m enough of an introvert that I procrastinate very effectively about conducting interviews. When I finally did talk to Steve, I found out he didn’t learn his avocation from his grandfather at all.
Meanwhile, the essay had shifted. I’d become interested in the “makers,” and the maker movement has little to do with this familial learning process. Sewing fell off dramatically for a few decades, but has recently undergone a small renaissance among young women. These women aren’t usually learning from their mothers; they are taking classes. And their motivations are different. They don’t learn to sew because they need the skill; they learn because they want some skill, and this is the one that intrigues them.
Sewing Machine by Joseph Younis; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode
Why do we cultivate the skills we do? That was the new question. I was working on a separate essay about pop cultural interest in apocalypse narratives, and I started to consider the concepts to be interesting bedfellows. It took me some time to figure out how to make the two parts speak to one another.
Siefert: How did you begin the writing process? Once you began did it come easily, or did you run into roadblocks?
Beck: For me, plugging in statistics about how much clothing Americans buy each year comes first and visualizing my poor sewing machine repairman blown up by aliens comes last.
Research gives me my point of entry. There are approximately 60 sources woven into this essay, ranging from Aristotle to profit figures for Godzilla. Factual data and the adept observations of others are the scaffolding I need before I can start working with my own material. When I have a stack of quotes and concepts on notecards, I treat the draft like a college essay and methodically move through my sources and arguments. That provides the structure. Then I begin lacing in my own experiences and more personal ideas, as well as experimenting with imagined sequences.
When I get stuck, which is often, I revise a lot and rearrange the elements. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the piece incessantly, so I keep a notebook and pen with me all the time. Many people have helpfully pointed out that I could use the “notes” feature on my phone, but I have the heart of a Luddite—a Luddite research librarian, it seems—so I prefer paper and pen.
Siefert: Did you have expectations for the essay?
Beck: A lot of my initial ideas are boring. I’ve learned to hope for a bit of alchemy during the process.
Siefert: Did anything about the writing process surprise you?
Beck: Wasting time bothers me, but not enough to keep me from trying things that may not work. I often write sections that get dumped later on, so it’s pleasing when I try something oddball and it actually works. This essay has quite a few goofy elements in it that I didn’t necessarily expect to come out well. I wasn’t sure that Japan would stay in the final draft, for example. I wasn’t sure high school debate competitions would stay in either. I have a couple of people who give me feedback on my writing, and I just trust them to tell me when something I’ve tried just doesn’t come together.
Siefert: Has your work as an editor changed your writing style?
Beck: Editing changed everything. I work on a fairly eclectic magazine, and the contributors are often experimenting with form and content in very creative and inspiring ways. It’s humbling as a writer, but it also gives me an excellent vantage point on what is being achieved in essay right now. I was a heavy reader before I ever became an editor, but the work I read had already been validated. It was published; it was praised; more often than not, it was old. If I read something that was risky, it had already succeeded.
Editing involves understanding how writers approach risk in real time—the elements are all in play, the decisions are not cemented, the playfulness is in progress. I aspire to be much bolder than I am. I’m mostly a conservative writer, and I hew to very traditional structures. Editing the magazine helps me think bigger. My work has also changed along with form; essays have changed. I think memoir, journalism, fiction, and even academic writing have been poaching from one another quite successfully over the past decade or so and now each is less delineated. Essay, most of all has expanded in definition.
To be honest, becoming a parent has altered my work at least as much as editing has and then some. I had three kids in rapid succession and none of them slept well as babies. I was overwhelmed. I stopped writing because I was so sleep deprived; I felt I had lost my capacity for creative thought. It was all I could do to continue editing, let alone turn my attention to my own work. It was a fallow period for me, which was disconcerting, but by the time everyone marched off to school, I found that my voice and perspective had strengthened.
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