sarah m. wells – an interview


I was startled awake this morning by the incessant beeping of my old-school alarm. We’ve grown lazy—all of us—sleeping in until 8 a.m. many of these last 17 days. But once I got over the affront of the 6 a.m. wake-up, I jumped out of bed, ready to get back into a routine—my routine. Donny and I tag-teamed in the kitchen, readying lunches and scrambling eggs. Then the girls were all dressed and the three of them were out the door into the (still-frigid) morning. I waved. I felt a moment of loneliness. Then breathed a sigh of relief. I went into the kitchen to start my decaf brewing, turned on the light in my tiny office, and gratefully sat down.

And what better way to celebrate this return to routine than with an author interview? I’m pleased to have Sarah M. Wells here at Motherhood & Words today. Her lovely collection of poetry, Pruning Burning Bushes, was released in 2012, and I’ve had it sitting on my desk waiting to be read for months and months. It’s wonderful. Sarah’s poems are full of quiet grace. She writes about growing up on a farm in Ohio, about the natural world and the domestic. Her poems deal with family relationships, with faith, with motherhood, with loss. You’ll want to read them again and again, savoring each one. But Sarah also writes prose, and I love her essays, several of which have been “Notable Essays” in The Best American Essays series.

So please join in my discussion with Sarah!

KH:  Both the natural and the spiritual worlds permeate your poetry. Can you talk a little bit about how both your faith and the natural world (and the farming world) influence your poems?

SW:  When my boyfriend in high school started dragging me to his Lutheran church every Sunday in a valiant evangelical dating maneuver so that we could get married someday, one of the challenges that I faced was what felt like a mutually exclusive relationship between science and God—it did not seem as if religion had room for science, and science didn’t want to make room for religion, at least to this junior in Biology class. But I loved nature. I grew up in the fields and woods of northeast Ohio, like Scott Russell Sanders, and explored creek beds and picked up garter snakes and chased pigs back into their pens when they escaped. I loved to learn the names of clouds, the names of plants, the workings of chromosomes and ribosomes, what the insides of animals looked like. It was all fascinating.

And yet, I felt this peculiar itch and draw toward the spiritual world, as well. Even though I didn’t end up marrying that boy from high school, he was one of several people who spurred me toward faith. It turns out that faith and science are not mutually exclusive, of course; both must make room for the unknown even while seeking to know, even while acknowledging that the more we know and understand, the more mystery and awe occupy our awareness.

I hunger to know and to understand, and for me, exploring the natural world only provokes a deeper sense of awe and wonder about the spiritual world.  This interconnectedness makes writing about almost anything in nature a spiritual matter for me.  Because the natural world is tangible and ever-present, it provides a keyhole view into the less accessible and more difficult to explain spiritual world.  It provides a vocabulary to communicate the mysteries.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “Basically there can be no categories such as ‘religious’ art and ‘secular’ art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore ‘religious,’” and I believe that to be true.  The natural world is beautiful and wonderful and strange; we can see that it is the work of an Artist. I think the spark of artistry and appreciation for beauty is divine and lives in every artist or poet or writer.

Okay, enough philosophizing! 🙂

KH: That’s beautiful, Sarah.

You write both prose and poetry. Do you know when you begin writing whether you are writing a poem or an essay? Does your process change depending on the genre?

SW: Usually I know whether I am writing a poem or an essay, but there are often times the language and music of poetry will invade my prose. When that happens, I get energized and often feel as if the music of poetry is leading the way into my subject-matter instead of my subject-matter dictating what words come out.  Just as when I write poetry, letting the music of language take the lead draws me to revelations and ideas I would never have discovered or explored otherwise.  This unfolding is a humbling gift of grace I get to receive with palms up.  And afterward, I do a little party dance in my living room.

I have been writing a lot of shorter lyric essays lately that I think will accompany some longer, more traditional essays in whatever manuscript comes into being.  My process is very similar whether I’m writing poetry or essays. I revise a lot. I reread a lot. I read the piece out loud and revise some more. Lots of hammer and chisel sweating. It isn’t very sexy.

KH: Adriana Páramo posted a link on Facebook to this essay by Lauren Quinn about bearing witness versus bravery in the act of writing.  Quinn writes, “My motivation to publish stories that reveal my ugliest moments has less to do with bravery than with bearing witness.” She goes on to write, “My suspicion is that these stories get confused as brave because, like most stories, they have a surface layer that tends to obscure the deeper story that tentacles beneath. It’s easier to stay on the surface, to play the victim or call something brave. But part of bearing witness, I believe, is being honest about who I was in the experience and the role I played.” It’s an interesting piece, and in your response to it on Facebook you wrote: “I have felt this way a few times this year and find the use of the word ‘brave’ such a strange choice when I’ve revealed the tender places we don’t usually talk about.” (I know I have called you “brave,” specifically for your essay “Field Guide to Resisting Temptation,” which appeared last year in Brevity. I still stand by that because to me bearing witness IS an act of bravery.) I wonder if you can talk a little more about this.

SW: I prefer “bearing witness” over “brave” because revealing hard subject-matter in writing doesn’t seem brave to me. The definition of brave is “ready to face and endure danger or pain,” and in one instance, “without showing fear.” Maybe there are some stories that are both stories of bravery or stories told bravely, but in the specific instance of “Field Guide…,” I don’t think I was either brave in the season or brave in the telling.  I felt weak in the season and scared to death in the telling. And yet I still felt I had to tell it.  There are some stories that need to be told.  This happened.  I am bearing witness to it.

KH: Hmmm. That still seems brave to me because we risk a lot when we expose ourselves in the way that you did in “Field Guide.” Yet you did it anyway, knowing their might be unpleasant ramifications. We need to continue this talk over glasses of wine next time we meet in person. 

SW: Sounds like a brilliant plan to me!  Especially the wine.

KH: You are the mother to three young children, the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University, and the Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. And you are an incredibly prolific writer. When do you write? How do motherhood and your work at Ashland influence (or get in the way of) your writing?

SW: My job provides me so many opportunities to hear from and learn about other amazing and talented writers.  It is such a great gift to be able to work in a literary environment when you are a developing writer yourself. I have worked at Ashland for six and a half years now. The first year I worked at Ashland, I worked with the poet Michael Miller on his first book of poems with the press.  Michael asked if I was a writer. I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I guess,” and started to send him some of my poems via email.  He is in his seventies and didn’t use the computer at the time, so his wife would print out my poems, he would write notes on them and then mail them back to me.  It’s just about the neatest and unusual mentorship you could imagine—in the last six years, I’ve only met him briefly once, and yet we probably talk by phone once a week.

KH: That is the coolest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

SW: When do I write?  When I’m standing at the kitchen sink, when I’m cutting sweet potatoes, when I’m driving my kids to their grandparents’ houses, when I’m reading someone else’s writing… all day long and often as I’m drifting off to sleep.  Without all of this writing… or pre-writing… I’d never get anything down on the page.  I usually write actual words on an actual sheet of paper or computer (or my iPhone’s notes app, yay, technology!) after the kids go to bed. We’re annoyingly strict about bedtime in our house and aim for 7:30 or 8 p.m. for our kiddos. Once they are asleep and the kitchen is degreased and uncluttered, I will write, but only provided there’s something to say, some idea that has been skittering about during the daylight hours. Otherwise, I feel like I’m wasting time at the keyboard.  Most of the time, though, there’s always something that’s been brewing, and if there isn’t something new there are ideas about what could be revised. And if neither of those things happens, then I drink another glass of wine and drift off to sleep to the hum of broadcasters shouting about football.

KH: I love how you describe that pre-writing. (And that you give it the credit it deserves!) So often we don’t give ourselves credit for the work that happens—brews—throughout the day.

You are working on a memoir/essay collection about the two most important men in your life, your husband and your father. Can you talk a little bit about this? The impetus for the project? What you are discovering about yourself and/or writing as you delve more deeply into it?

SW: You mean my messay collection? Ah, yes. 🙂

KH: Ha!

SW: One of the first essays I wrote and published appeared in River Teeth, “Country Boys, City Boys.” It is an essay that categorizes the two types of men I’ve known in my life while trying to discover my identity in relation to them.  I can’t seem to leave this topic alone.  I am fascinated by the influence that fathers have on daughters, especially when it comes to the kinds of men daughters marry. As I continued to gather essays, some more directly related to marriage or to dating or to my dad, it appears as if I won’t be able to leave it alone.  I have had many revelations as I’ve been writing this project, but one is haunting me right now. All this time I thought I had married a man like my father, but the more I write our marriage stories, I see how much of the way I conduct myself and my life with my kids mirrors my dad’s relationship with me growing up. It turns out I am my father’s daughter to a much greater degree than I thought.  This is a startling revelation given how much I yearned for him to be more present throughout my childhood and adolescence, and it’s made me more aware of the importance of those brief hours between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. when we are all together as a family.

I’m at the point where I feel as if the tiles are in place; I just have to fill in the gaps with some grout. Ask me in four months and probably the whole project will be tore up in a stack of chipped bricks.

KH: I doubt that, Sarah. It sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading it! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can read more about Sarah and her work here. Also, Sarah’s publisher, WIPF & STOCK, has agreed to give away one copy of Pruning Burning Bushes. Please leave a comment below by Saturday January 18th for a chance to win.


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