For our first interview of 2018 it’s back to West Virginia to talk with memoirist and editor Cat Pleska.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
I’m a native West Virginian, 7th generation. I have a BA in English, MA in Humanities, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I am an educator, author, and storyteller. I teach full time in an online Master of Liberal Studies program at Arizona State University (go Sun Devils!). I’ve taught at the higher Ed level for 18 years and have taught writing workshops in memoir and personal essay for many years. I have been a History Alive! character (photographer Frances B. Johnston), an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio (7 years), a book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette, and am a reviewer for West Virginia University Press. I am the president of a small nonprofit, 40-year-old WV traditional press, Mountain State Press. I am a cat lady (bordering on crazy cat lady with 6 cats currently), married to Dan, mother to Katie, and pup mom to one dog.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
My memoir, Riding on Comets, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2015. About 15 years in the writing, it is a tremendous life accomplishment for me. I’ve edited 10 books, several through the Press and for another book company, Woodland Press. Most recently, Mountain State Press published Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, with 35 writers across the country (22 from WV) speaking to the difficulties of unity in these troubling times. I wanted for writers to have a format, a forum in which to practice what they do best when dramatic times present themselves, and they each stepped up to the plate creating poetry, prose, and song to exercise their right to speak out and speak up. I am super excited about my new book project, working title: The I’s Have It, a travel/personal essay collection about my travels in Iceland and Ireland. I hope to have it completed by summer and ready for revision throughout the fall.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
I write primarily in nonfiction—specifically creative nonfiction, as I like personal writing the best. I call myself a memoirist and personal essayist and that is what I’m published in. The occasional fiction piece or poem floats out, but rarely. Because I come from a family of storytellers, and these were tellers of personal stories, not local or regional tales many might know, I was born into the sense of hearing and imagining in my mind the stories of my people first of all. They did not make up stories; rather, they were true stories told on themselves, so to speak, many times to make you laugh or to make you cry. Each time they told a story, which was every time they gathered, the story was the same—the details did not change. So, truth, to me, was always important. When I heard about creative nonfiction back in . . . the early 90s (when I was in college), I was intrigued. I found out creative nonfiction is the truth told with creative techniques (not making it up), but rather the same way one would tell any story: scene, dialog, description. I was blessed with a partial hyperthymesia, which is recall for one’s childhood. Plus, I was lucky enough to simply ask my family for confirmation of details all through my life.
Have you ever had a situation where you were “stuck” in your writing and could see an easy solution if you were writing fictions and could make things up but had trouble sticking to the truth? If so, how did you work around that?
The truth is I was never “stuck” in my writing due to the fact that I was writing nonfiction. The training I had in fictional techniques (this is about using craft, not lying) helped me present what many think are unessential details as essential, because in truth, they are essential. I let the details tell the story of what really happened. So, if I’m writing about going trick or treating, when I was a child, for example, what’s so significant about that event? Well, what’s significant were the costumes I chose: powerful women characters. What else? That I wandered neighborhoods as a 9 year old alone. What else? That when I returned, I stood by the front door, looking through the storm door glass and saw a massive orange streak of lightning pattern across an absolutely clear sky. Then it streaked again. I end the story with me wondering what that phenomenon was and what it meant. I really did wonder this. After that piece is one in which my dad disappears at Christmas, drunk again. My mom worrying herself into a state of ill health over his drinking jags. What happened to him? Was he all right? What was going to happen when he returned—if he returned? Although it is exactly what happened, you can see how that the event with the foreboding lightning occurred in Oct. and then comes the Christmas story, and the reader might see the strange phenomenon as foreshadowing. That is what we do with our lives: we look for cause and effect. If someone is stuck in a nonfiction story, that’s my go to: this happened (why? which may cause me to back up with a story that explains) or this happened next: are they connected? Once you explore using those questions, it becomes clear you don’t need to alter anything to become unstuck. I just relax and let the real details flow, letting them do the work of revelation, metaphor, symbolism.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
My ideas usually come from reading, especially other memoirs/essays, but also from the two professional magazines I subscribe to: Writers Chronicle and Poets and Writers. I also get ideas from any number of other places I read, from newspapers, to literary magazines, to National Geographic, to Smithsonian, to fiction. I often just hear a word, such as the one I used above, hyperthymesia, and that’ll send me off into thinking about its definition and what it really means to be along that spectrum. I’ll do further research and then think of personal instances that might fit to include as scene and exposition. Sometimes my ideas come from conversations with people who’ll say to me: you should write about that. Sometimes I’ll review prompts from workshops I’ve been in. My ideas come from words, and it just goes from there.
How do you find people you trust to provide the kind of feedback you need during the editing/polishing process?
That’s actually been a long process and it was by trial and error. First of all, I was in college taking creative writing courses and then in workshops across the country, so I learned what effective criticism is and who knows how to do it and who does not. It is as hard to learn to criticize as it is to write in the first place. The skills are different, and not all writers hone how to criticize effectively. Sometimes, they don’t even know they should learn, but learning how to effectively criticize means you learn more about your own writing in ways you hadn’t thought about. I was in writing critique groups early on, too. But I learned over the years that not all groups work well. I have been in a few in the last few years that were very effective, but eventually, I needed to just write and find a handful of people who are skilled readers—for me (and as a general rule, close in development as a writer as you are). In turn, I am often a reader for them, but not always. And there are people I read for who don’t read for me, and that’s fine. I select who I’ll read, based on what they write, how they write, and the skills I’ve learned that would be helpful to them. Not every reader is a good reader for you and you must learn that. Having my work critiqued is never easy for me—to hear. But I’ve learned to shut out the protesting ego and just listen. I wait a couple days before I approach the piece for possible changes, re-read what they’ve written and then decide in a cold, clear light of a new day if the suggestions are valuable for my piece or not.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
Since I’m a creative nonfictionist, I don’t make up characters, but I certainly do develop them. You cannot just write about a person and say, well, she’s this or that. You have to show who that person is. For example, when I wrote about my father in my memoir, it would be easy to make him a bad guy since he was an alcoholic. But my dad was also very intelligent, a hard worker, and when sober a really funny, kind man. You have to create the rounded character even though they are not made up. You have to do your homework. I and my family had to come alive on the pages of my memoir and the same goes for any essays I write about anyone. Real people, researched, and fully, roundly viewed. I have no favorites, although I am fond of myself when I was small, say 5. I say that because that was when I became more aware and absorbed the world around me. Things came alive and so did I. My curiosity was profound and my skill as an observer, as an only child in a world of giants, set me off on my life as a writer more than anything else.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
The current essay I’m writing about is the Penis Museum in Iceland sort of tops that list. I visited there, but I’d read about it before I went to Iceland. After being there and being . . . rather amazed (I mean, a sperm whale penis? Wow!) I’m still doing some research. In fact, I stumbled across a video interview with a guy who’s gifting his penis in his will to the museum. Apparently 9 inches, un-inflated, as it were, is pretty amazing.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
This is crucial to do: edit, edit, edit, revise, revise, revise then let people read it to edit/revise again and again. Do not ever put a book out there that you haven’t gotten professional editing for. Avoid that urge that this is all you can do and it’s good enough. Take out a loan if you have to, but get it professionally polished. Realize that not everyone is going to love your book. Or read it. Do not worry about that. Why should everyone? Not everyone likes Shakespeare, the bible, Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t expect 7 billion people will like your writing, no matter how excellent it is. Avoid that expectation and realize there are even some good friends who aren’t going to read it. That’s fine. Don’t sweat it. Concentrate on and be grateful for those who do read it. Be kind. Be confident you’ve got a good book/writing, and you will if you’ve done your homework. Mostly, enjoy the writing. The sales will come.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
I would travel half the year and write the other half. When I was 16, I wrote a letter to a person in which I said, “What I want to do when I grow up is to travel and to write.” And that dream has not changed. I’ve been to 8 countries, 4 continents (including no continent—that’s in Iceland and it literally is not any continent, but is a small stretch of land between the American continent and European/Asian continent), and it’s not enough. I’ve written all my life, have been published since 1990, and it’s not enough. So, 1 million in my pocket would set me free to do and be even more. It would be a tremendous blessing.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
I’m sort of into the Icelandic authors right now, but I have so many books to be read . . . I’m not ashamed nor will I stop as long as a I have a dime in my pocket buying books—lots of them. I do not care one fig they’re all over the place around here. I’ll get to them as long as the eyeballs last.
Why Iceland? Both as a travel destination and as a focus of your reading?
Because I always wanted to travel since I was very young, my heart leaps up when I come upon a chance to do so. In the case of Iceland, it actually hadn’t been on my radar but a conference called NonfictionNow came up and it was taking place in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I both wanted to go to that conference, one that I had never attended, and to Iceland because a little reading about it told me I’d probably love it (I do!). So, I wrote a paper to submit for a round table event and it was accepted. So, off to Iceland I go. The diversity of attendees was quite fascinating and the conversations were enlightening. But it was the land and its people that fascinated me most. What I found there was a land still forming, but which had a history rich and engaging and that Icelandic is a language spoken that the Vikings would still understand from a thousand years ago. It’s a land where the very pragmatic people believe in elves and trolls (about 50%), where the ministry of highways employs “Troll whispers” to help in highway design. Where there are waterfalls that appear to fall to the center of the Earth, geysers flume, and the land is an incredible glowing green (Greenland is ice; Iceland is green—go figure!). These are just some of the elements that attracted me to Iceland, but the possibility of this still forming land and fascinating citizens (they just voted into law that a company cannot pay a women less than a man for an equal job) fire my imagination of what it would be like to live there. So, I write about it, dream about it, consider what it would mean if I lived there. And by the way: Icelanders love literature, have 100% literacy rate, and almost everyone publishes.
What do you think your next project will be?
As I mentioned, it’ll be The I’s Have It, but beyond that is a novel. I once thought I had two novel ideas and for years I’ve danced around with writing them both from time to time, never really getting very far. A few pages on each at best. But in 2016, I was in Shepherdstown at a local diner for breakfast. It was crowded, so my husband and I were sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, waiting for our order. I was watching the wait staff weave around one another behind the counter, as if they were braiding invisible strands of hair. They moved steadily, efficiently and smoothly and suddenly I realized—this came out of nowhere—that I was not writing two novels; they were the same novel and needed to be joined; that is, braided together. Once I realize that, I started writing the book anew. I was happily into my third chapter when a character came forward that I thought was going to be a minor one, and BOOM! She took over. I haven’t been back to it for while, as I’ve got to reconfigure the whole dang thing—in a way. All I’ve written will work but now it has to be meshed in a new way and I have to think about the structure/theme. Hey! It’s what writers do!
What’s different about the mechanics of writing fiction versus nonfiction?
As for the mechanics, there is not much difference. A good story is a good story, and the elements that make for a good story don’t differ, regardless of what genre you’re writing in (exceptions are hard news writing, scholarly writing, some biographies, although the latter two benefit from using the common mechanics of writing story). Having a facility for detail and good memory, in addition to the fact finding and checking, is a good thing for a memoirist and personal essayist, and a fiction writer as well. My early passive training in a family of storytellers caused me to have a facility with language, sensory detail, dialog, description. Just as someone writing fiction, I know I must have an opening sentence in my nonfiction that captures the audience. I know I have to provide details so the reader can “see” in their mind’s eye what’s going on; There has to be a narrative arc, something connecting the main story themes throughout; I have to build in tension; and writers of any genre who wish to tell a story, true or not, need to think about the universality of what they are writing about: why would anyone read it and care? In the end, the only major difference between writing creative nonfiction and fiction is whether or not you’re careful about fact—what really happened. But you have to break down that fact and think: but what does it mean? What do I think about it and know from it? How did it happen and what was the result? Life is story, and if we’re lucky, we get to tell it.