Anna Oberg: Excavating the Past Room-by-Room

Creative Nonfiction Co-Editor Coty Poynter interviews writer Anna Oberg. Read Oberg’s essay “Devonia Street” here.

I know I have arrived at the ending, when I feel the thing in me that has been holding its breath has exhaled.

—Anna Oberg

Devonia Street” is a very intimate essay that revolves around this idea of revisitation, be it past or place. Most of us often turn away from or deny the difficult memories rather than turn toward them. But you’ve done so in such a way where to confront those harder moments of life almost feels like the reader is a guest in the house. What compelled you to write this particular essay?

It’s true—we often turn away from hard memories. With this essay, I kept coming back to the difficult moment of my great-grandfather’s death, because it felt like a story that needed to be brought to light. Many times as I was writing, I had to shut the computer and go do something else. I think it was the way I was picturing Creed’s suicide, as if I was in the house, inside my grandfather Carl’s head, that put me on edge. It felt like I was conjuring something I didn’t necessarily want to know the answer to, but could not turn away from. It was unnerving. Any time I feel unsettled in this particular way, I know I need to write about it.

“Devonia Street” began as an answer to a writing prompt I was given in a community writing class. In essence, I was asked to write about a place I remembered well, somewhere that could become the setting of a fictional story. Without a lot of thought, I began describing my dad’s parents’ house as I experienced it as a young girl. It was my sense of their home that brought me to this essay. I thought of the house in order of its rooms. Then, as I walked the rooms in my mind’s eye, I thought of who was in those rooms, and ultimately landed on my grandfather, Carl, who was always an enigma to me.

After I had written about the setting from my own memories, I started talking to my dad about his memories of Devonia Street. I tried to approach his answers through the same lens—as if he remembered Devonia Street, his grandparent’s house, the way I remembered Carl and Jewel’s house on Morning Drive. I asked him to describe room by room his memories of Devonia Street and what happened in each room. His memory had gaps, the same way mine did, and it was interesting to hear what he knew and what was ultimately gone to him.

Memories, over time, can become hazy or incomplete. Even the most impactful moments of our lives can become points of confusion, riddled with gaps and lapses. Do you have any methods you use to access or flesh out these memories? How did you come to think about the relationship between absence and memories?

As I began sewing the narrative together, I tried to remain true to what was known as fact, and what was obviously filtered through the lens of my dad’s (or my) imperfect memory. My dad verified some of his memories by fact-checking items with his older sister. She remembered more details from their childhood than he could retain at a young age. Ultimately, telling a story from memory is very similar to writing fiction. There are always questions, doubts of whether you remember correctly or if the person you are asking remembers accurately. There are wide gaps that must be filled, bridges to build that can only be constructed by leaps, surmising what must have been true. I came to write this piece as non-fiction because the scaffold I built it on was based on the fact of the houses. These structures still stand. Even though my grandparents are dead and gone, I can remember their place as it still is. The reality of the setting helped me confine the narrative to the truth of what my dad and I remember.

In “Devonia Street,” you thread past and present narrative lines into a cohesive whole. What drew you to this choice? And how did this essay evolve as you worked on it?

I wrote “Devonia Street” as two separate pieces at first. I was working on an essay about my memory of my grandparents’ house, along with a separate, flash piece about my great grandfather’s suicide. Once I talked to my dad, though, I began to quilt the two together with the strands of our conversations. I began to think of my memories and his braiding together to form the whole of the piece. The story I was writing became a story of how we both remembered places of our youth and the people in them.

How long did it take you to write this essay, and how many drafts did go through?

I took between three and four months to finish this essay, which is quite a long time for me. I usually complete an essay in three or four weeks. I kept having to stop, as I wanted to treat my imagining of Creed’s suicide with care, and really wanted to remain true to the stories my dad was telling me. I went through probably ten drafts of this essay before I figured out the way to weave together its elements in a manner that was the least confusing.

Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?

My process is a combination of a rigid routine and complete chaos that gets my words to the page. I set aside writing time each morning from 5:15 to 6:30am, before my kids wake up. Usually I write during this time, but sometimes not. With this essay, I kept getting little ideas at random times, so I wrote paragraphs on post-its between customers at the bookshop where I work. I’d take home fist-fulls of tiny papers, unpacked like confetti from my bag. Then I tried to fit them into the pages I already had. This essay in particular was always a broken narrative, skipping around between places and people. So it made sense that I wrote this way, in little pieces at a time to make the sum of the whole.

I know when an essay is finished when the last paragraph satisfies me, when I feel like I have completed a circle. This essay was no different. I know I have arrived at the ending, when I feel the thing in me that has been holding its breath has exhaled.

What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?

I like to use memory as a jumping off point. Whether it’s a memory of an event, or of a photograph I took, I like to enter the story through a frame. A past action or happenstance often guides me into the narrative, the way it did here—with the structures of the Devonia Street house and the house on Morning Drive. I’m most inspired by what has already happened. Many of my stories spin out from a point that has already been established as true—then my own curiosities and wanderings guide me down the path toward a complete understanding of what it is I’m writing.

What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?

Right now, I’m reading My Body by Emily Ratajkowski. I’m entranced by the ways she remembers and owns the story of her body. I think it will be a book I re-read in the future, to learn how she writes about such an intimate topic with so much control and authority in her voice. What I have read so far is inspiring me toward boldness with my own words.

What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

The best advice I’ve received about writing is to go through a draft and cut out every single adjective. Then, in the next draft, weigh the possibility of each one to see if it is needed. I feel like my writing improved by leaps and bounds when I began to take this advice.

What’s the most difficult part of your writing process?

The most difficult part of my writing process is the middle of a piece, when I’m far enough in to know how I want it to turn out. I envision what I want the finished essay to be, the feelings and emotional tone it will convey. But I’m still too far away to know how I’ll get there. This part—the middle—never gets easier, despite knowing it is simply part of the process. I try to let each small step past the middle build my momentum until the end.

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