What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book? (And specifically, why this genre?)
I’ve primarily been a nonfiction writer. I began my career as a journalist. I developed a specialty in writing about adoption and wrote three books on that subject that were published by HarperCollins. I had a second career in higher education that was brief but required writing academic articles. So when I wanted to move from journalism to literary forms, it was natural to start with memoir and personal essays.
When I started some of the essays for The Grammar of Untold Stories, I wanted to tell a particular story—something happened in my life that I thought was interesting or provocative. But the challenge with personal essay is to find relevance that goes beyond the writer’s so that the reader can connect to it in a personal way. The title essay, for example, started as something I was writing for our annual holiday newsletter, and for that purpose it would have been fine to simply talk about what happened when I visited my grandmother’s village in Hungary. But as I wrote, I began to think about the immigrants who were at the time trying to make their way from Syria through Hungary to other parts of the world and the conflicts in the United States around immigration. My grandmother’s story and, in particular, the role of language in both communication and identity, took on greater significance and, I thought, gave the story wider appeal.
Other essays were driven by a desire to write about a feeling. I was influenced by Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing to think about how sometimes, even in nonfiction, the point of telling a story isn’t to tell what happened but to use what happened to go deeper into the resulting emotion. I tried and tried to write the story of my getting fired from my last job, and it just kept coming out bitter and defensive, but in “The Fires of Dismemberment,” I don’t give any details at all about what happened, I just tried to describe how it not only feels to get fired but also the intensity of that feeling.
What obstacles—either inner or outer—did you encounter while writing the book?
When I started writing these essays, I had written enough memoir and personal essay to believe that I had the ability to write literary nonfiction. I was not working and my husband was encouraging me to do what I wanted to do, which was write literary nonfiction, so I had time and support, which many, many writers do not have. I’m so grateful for that. What I lacked was what I’ll call a “professional support system.” I’d taken a couple of nonfiction classes and gone to a couple of workshops over the previous fifteen years, but I didn’t have an MFA or a degree in English that, in my imagination at least, would have provided me with guidelines on craft, a range of structures, a reading list to consult, a greater sense of why something worked or didn’t work. I didn’t have writers who could give me feedback or a mentor I could contact when I had questions or felt discouraged. So I didn’t know, for example, how to decide that an essay was finished—was as good as it could be. I didn’t know what literary publications to submit to. I sent out a lot of work that I realized later wasn’t ready to be sent out.
I signed up for a workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch without having read her work, but I decided I should read her memoir, The Chronology of Water, before taking the workshop, and it just broke open something in me, as did her workshop. From there, I took more workshops with her and met other writers, which led to a writing group that I have found to be invaluable in getting feedback on my writing. Lidia’s also been a great support for me and so many writers.
How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
I didn’t write the book with the intention of “leaving a legacy” or writing a story of my life, but after I’d compiled the essays and read through them, I realized that there was a lot of my life on those pages, and lot of insight into who I am and what I found meaningful and hard and joyful in my life. The title essay describes my search to know more about my grandmother, and I realized this essay collection will live on after me and be a resource for my grandchildren, who are now 5 and 7. So I dedicated it to them, and they were the first people who received copies from me.
Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? Why did you choose the route you chose, and what was that process like?
My book is published by Shanti Arts, which is an independent book publisher in Maine. I was realistic about the prospects of an essay collection by an unknown writer being picked up by an agent or a major publisher, so from the beginning, I looked for a small independent publisher who would take good care of the book. I entered the manuscript in “contests” with publishers who chose one or two new titles a year. I was a finalist in three of those contests, which gave me encouragement to keep searching. But I knew that many small publishers tend to have a particular kind of book they’re looking for—a “brand” if you will—and I needed to find a publisher that would be a good fit for my writing. An author I know on Facebook announced that Shanti Arts was publishing her book, and because I was familiar with this author’s writing, I immediately thought this publisher might be interested.
I was aware that with an indie publisher, I’d have to do a lot of my own marketing—even if I’d had a big name publisher that would have been the case. What was important to me was that the book design be high quality, that bookstores and individuals could easily order it, and that authors who’d previously worked with the publisher would recommend them. Shanti Arts checked all those boxes.
The publisher offered me a contract fairly quickly. The editor collaborated with me on edits and cover design. We had some COVID-related delays that made it hard to predict the publication date, but that was true for many authors at both indie publishers and major houses. Overall, it was a good process for me.
Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
My husband reads much of my writing. He reads a lot of fiction and nonfiction, so while he isn’t a writer, he’s a good reader. He’s really helpful when it comes to “big picture” feedback—he tells me if something is confusing or too detailed or goes too fast or too slow. Now that I’m writing fiction, he gets very invested in the characters and their emotional journeys! He also knows that I don’t want line edits from him—I don’t want him suggesting different words or moving paragraphs or rewriting sentences. (He may not have always known that.) He’s also great at giving me an emotional response to what I’m writing. If he tears up or gets angry at something that happens in the piece, then I know I’m on the right track. I have a wonderful writing group that provides great feedback, too, but it’s nice to be able to have someone right there when I want an immediate response or need to talk through a difficult section.
He’s a painter, so he asks me for feedback on his work. We can also talk about our artistic processes, which is helpful even though we work in different media.
It’s interesting that we can give each other feedback on our most creative expressions without it becoming problematic in the relationship, unlike when we give each other advice on driving or cooking. I think that speaks to the respect we have for each other and for our own work.
Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like? If not, how do you stay engaged in your writing projects?
I’m a morning person. Even in college, I was the person who signed up for 8 a.m. classes. So it isn’t surprising that I write most productively in the morning. I’ve been writing a long time, much of that time either working in a home office or working for myself, so I’ve become very disciplined and fairly acquainted with my own process. Once I was working on a big project and had a tight deadline, and friends were in town and stayed overnight. We had breakfast, and around 8 a.m., my husband stood up and announced he had to get to work and left, then I announced I had to get to work and walked into my home office, leaving our friends to depart on their own. I’m a little embarrassed by that now, but we’re still friends so I think they understood.
Exercise is an important part of my day. I either do that before I write or do it at the end of a writing session. I find it can be helpful to work out right after a writing session or if I’m stuck—the movement seems to allow things to settle and give me an idea of how to move forward.
I know a lot of writers are having difficulty writing during this pandemic, but I’ve been able to continue to work. I’ve written through some difficult times—I’m able to block out both personal issues and unwashed dishes. But I also know that there are times when the writing just isn’t there and when that happens, I just take a break and let things germinate.
How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
I’m working on a novel consisting of three separate stories braided together. I’ve never written a novel and now I’m basically writing three! The stories are set in Iceland, France, and the Pacific Northwest and each one involves relationships between a pair of women and explores identity erasure, betrayal, and faith. It’s a challenge, but this story came to me in a way that was very compelling in its synchronicity, and along the way I’ve had further synchronicity, which has reinforced the idea that I need to write this. So I persist.
Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
I haven’t thought of it that way. For me, being outside and interacting with nature is my spiritual practice. Writing comes from who I am and how I express myself in the world, so in that way it’s more psychological. That said, the psyche and the spirit aren’t separate, so I don’t want to suggest they are unrelated.
What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
I’d be one unhappy person, and I expect my relationships would suffer as well as my health. Writing is very connected to who I am and what I feel I’m called to do in the world. (Can I change my answer now about writing as a spiritual practice?)
Why do you write?
I write because it’s what I feel called to do. There’s sometimes an almost physical need to write, not just a psychological one. The biggest drive, though, is that writing is how I work out meaning and connect with others and live my fullest life. I hope that people read my work and find it interesting or meaningful—or both—because it means I’ve connected with them and contributed positively to someone else.
Raised as a city girl before Title IX provided many athletic opportunities for girls, Lois Ruskai Melina discovered her love of sports and the outdoors as an adult. Her relationship to mountains and water and wildlife and the female body shape her worldview and inform her writing.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Melina received a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Toledo and an M.A. in Journalism from The Ohio State University. She holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University. She has worked as a journalist and in higher education.
Her writing has appeared in literary, mass media, and academic publications. Melina lives with her husband and their two dogs in Portland, Oregon, where she can often be found rowing on the Willamette River. She has a grown son and daughter and two grandchildren.
More about Melina and THE GRAMMAR OF UNTOLD STORIES can be found at: https://www.loisruskaimelina.com/