Lucy Black talks to Brenda Missen about Tumblehome, her latest memoir.
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LB: You have written a fascinating memoir about canoeing on your own in the Canadian wilderness. Congratulations on the book and also on the resiliency and courage you document in your life’s journey. Thank you for sharing some personal insights into your writing life. I know our readers will appreciate your thoughts. A woman paddling alone in the wilderness is not a typical story of self-discovery. You were often in quite vulnerable situations. Please explain how you dealt with issues of personal and emotional safety.
BM: I paddle in a state of acute awareness of everything around me. I keep my eye on the weather, the winds and the waves, and don’t take unnecessary risks. I stick to my planned route, stay on portage trails, and wait out thunderstorms. I also listen to my intuition. For me, intuition, “the still, small voice” within, is the voice of the Divine the all-knowing, loving presence that in my experience permeates creation. It connects me with every other living thing, and by paying attention and listening to that voice, I know I will travel in harmony with my environment and be kept safe. On one trip, a young man paddling with a frying pan (seriously!) paused at my shore. The winds were so strong I invited him to camp overnight on my spacious site. In my head I found myself asking, “Will he steal from me?” The answer came immediately: “No.” It was surprising that the question that came was about my belongings, not my personal safety. But my intuition was bang on about him and, as I found out later, in more ways than one. Trusting in my intuition, I let the Divine take care of both of us.
LB: You mention intuition several times in your book. Besides keeping you safe, what other importance does intuition have to your story?
BM: Intuition guides much of my interior journey. It might even have been the catalyst for my decision to write the memoir – which begins with an intuitive thought. The first time I ever camped by myself, a park ranger arrived to check my permit and the thought zoomed through my brain that I was going to marry him. We did become engaged, but it turned out my journey was not to be married to my One True Paddling Partner but to embark on ever-longer solo canoe travels that brought me to a very different, more profound kind of union. Part of the story is my struggle, in the wake of our breakup, to trust my intuition again: I felt it had betrayed me. It took several years – and many affirming experiences canoeing safely on my own – to realize my intuition was in fine working order. What had screwed me up was not the thought but my attachment to it. It was an important lesson, that nothing is chiselled in stone. That, I realized, is why we have intuition – to guide us through the maze of changing circumstances. I hope my story will encourage others to hone and listen to their own intuition.
LB: Ravens and loons feature prominently in your memoir. Please share the significance of their appearances in your journey.
BM: I love ravens and loons, and all birds and animals, for their own sake, but I also attend to their significance from the perspective of the First Nations, who teach that all creatures carry specific “medicine,” or healing messages. One summer I parked myself on an isolated lake for five days to work on my novel, Tell Anna She’s Safe. I wasn’t getting anywhere and, as always, felt guilty and restless. One morning seven loons gathered close to my shore and glided around in a beautiful, seemingly choreographed routine. Later, seven ravens screamed at me from a tree while I tried to write a scene and then flew past me in an elegant, silent formation. Seven is the number of the scribe, of the seeker in solitude, and I felt the seven ravens and seven loons were offering medicine for my writing. They were telling me to quiet the cacophonous squawking of guilt and self-criticism in my head, to become still (even in their motion they were calm, poised), to take the time to get to know my characters, and to enter into the magical darkness of the void (Raven medicine) and my subconscious (Loon medicine) and let the story come naturally.
LB: What is the biggest challenge or hurdle you have had to work through as a writer?
BM: My biggest hurdle as a writer has been writing. I’ve always identified with Dorothy Parker, who said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” I struggle to get first drafts out of me. And computers hinder my progress because they make it so easy to revise the same sentence over and over. Once I do have a draft – even what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” – I’m fine because, as an editor by profession, it’s no problem to spend hours shaping it and giving it life. But those first drafts are excruciating. I think part of the problem with Tell Anna She’s Safe (based on a true story) was that I was trying to tell the story of someone I didn’t immediately identify with. But even Tumblehome, my own story, was a struggle. That may have been because I was new to the memoir genre. I think what has changed – and only in the past few years as I’ve started a new work (Blue Threads Loosened: The Untangling of a Sisters’ Story) – is that I have learned how to write memoir and found my niche. So, glory be, I’ve actually begun
to enjoy writing. But I still love having written.
LB: Are you aware of having taken some deliberate risks in the preparation of this book? Please explain.
BM: Oh yes. The risk I’ve taken with Tumblehome is in writing about real people who are still alive, who might not appreciate appearing in my work. I had a long conversation with my editor about how to protect their privacy. He advised that I could change identifying details but if I changed too much it would be entering the realm of fiction. So there was a fine balance between
protecting people’s privacy and telling the truth (more on truth below). After I changed the identifying details, I found I could tell the real story without censoring myself, and it was incredibly freeing. I also tried to mitigate the risk by revealing only those things that were relevant to my story. As I was doing the final edits, I asked myself, “Does this description/conversation reveal something about our relationship and the ways this person helped me on my journey or is it a personal detail that invades their privacy?” If it was the latter, I cut it, no matter how much colour it added. I hope what comes through is my gratitude for
their presence in my life. At least no one has sent complaint letters – or threatened to sue.
LB: Please tell us a little about the writing spaces or environments that work best for you. Are there particular items that you like to have in place?
BM: I’ve heard of writers who need four bare walls and no windows to limit any distractions from their inner world. I’m the opposite: I need to be in an aesthetically appealing place to motivate me. My office looks out over a river lined with pine and oak. Even better than looking outside is being outside. I had a screened-in gazebo built on the high rock overlooking the water, put a
little desk inside, and ran an extension cord up to the house for my laptop. I call it my “writing house.” Each spring I also go on a writing vacation to a little cabin on PEI’s north shore, where I can look out over the sand dunes and the ocean – and take long beach walks during well-deserved breaks.
For first drafts, which I write by hand (see hindrance of computers, above), I treat myself to a beautiful hardcover notebook, with unlined acid-free paper that takes fountain pen ink beautifully – because of course I also treat myself to an expensive fountain pen, with a fine-tipped nib. I refill the pen with ink from a bottle, rather than using a cartridge, partly for the ritual and partly to reduce the amount of plastic I throw away.
LB: Do you have a writing routine or regimen? What does that include at the different stages in the writing process?
BM: I find myself getting irritated when I hear interviews with writers who say they get up early and put in four hours before going off to their day job, or who write 2,000 words a day no matter how long it takes, or whatever their particular regime is. I know my irritation is really with myself for having no such routine or regimen. I go for months without writing, except in my journal. Partly this is because of my struggle to get a first draft out of me, but it’s also because I’m a self-employed editor, and it’s impossible to switch gears to do such similar work in the same day or week. So what I usually do is buy time to write. Which means I work for other people for a few months, then take several months off to write. During these “writing vacations,” I force myself to put in five or six hours a day, even if part of that is spent editing sections already written. Once I do have a first draft, I have no trouble putting in long hours to reshape and revise, even when working my day job. I become a productive night owl.
LB: In what way is this finished book significantly different from the first draft?
BM: My first draft was very “journally” and rambly in its style and in the way the themes unfolded. This was understandable because the material came straight out of my journals, and there is certainly no literary quality or logical structure to my journal entries. The content itself – the stories and themes I chose to explore – didn’t change. But the stories got reshaped into a much more cohesive structure, and the themes were developed more logically rather than just thrown in here and there. My writing style also changed somewhat. The editor I hired to help me develop the manuscript showed me how to write in a way that propelled the narrative forward – for example, all the “ing” words had to go! (“I paddle up the lake,” rather than “I’m paddling up the lake.”) A friend who read both early and later drafts told me she could not put her finger on what had changed, because the content was the same, but she found it much more readable. That’s when I knew my work was done.
LB: If you were to give a young writer a piece of crucial writing advice, what would that be?
BM: Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait until you’ve figured out what your big opus will be about. Don’t say “I plan to write a novel one day.” Start writing. Write in a journal, write letters and emails, write about an experience you had the other day. Don’t worry about getting published and don’t censor yourself or worry if your writing is good. I’ve kept a journal for 50 years now and
used to feel guilty that I spent way more time chronicling my life than doing “real” writing – I found it much easier and more enjoyable. Then I turned to memoir as a genre and realized my journals (more than 200 volumes now) are an invaluable resource: they are my memory. Old letters serve the same purpose. Which is to say, all of your writing is useable, in one way or another, even if it’s just to help you get good at writing. So just write. Anything, anytime, anywhere. And of course read everything you can get your hands on, too…
LB: Fiction writers often deal with the truth by blending it with imagination and making the
truth more composite. What, in your opinion, should be a CNF writer’s approach to presenting truth in all of its dimensions?
BM: I don’t think it’s possible to present the truth in all of its dimensions because that requires seeing into the minds and hearts of the other people you’re writing about and, really, who can do that? What we can do is strive for honesty. The American essayist Phillip Lopate says we may never be in possession of the truth, “but at least as nonfiction writers we can try to be as honest
as our courage permits.” In early drafts, I tried to fudge the nature of one unconventional relationship, portraying it as a brotherly kind of caring rather than the erotically charged platonic friendship it was. My editor saw through that and helped me find the courage to be honest. However, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t reveal everything about the people I was portraying – only those aspects that were relevant to my story. And I didn’t delve into speculation about their feelings and motivations: I felt that was both beyond the scope of the narrative and an invasion of privacy. So the stories in Tumblehome are true from my perspective, but they aren’t the complete truth. I think it’s the same with all memoirs and worth keeping in mind when reading them.
Brenda Missen is the author of the memoir Tumblehome: One Woman’s Canoeing Adventures in the Divine Near Wilderness (Inanna Publications, 2022) and the literary thriller Tell Anna She’s Safe (Inanna, 2011). Her personal essays, many chronicling her experiences in the natural world, have been published in outdoor magazines and her local newspapers, while articles commissioned through her business clients have appeared in government and other publications. Residing on Ontario’s Madawaska River, she spends as much time as possible outdoors, especially in Algonquin Provincial Park, where she has been canoe tripping on her own for 25 years.