Putting Your Neck on the Line as a Writer

Creative Nonfiction Editor Coty Poynter interviews writer Mike Wilson. Read Wilson’s essay “Memory Unit” here.

“What sticks in our craw as a memory is part of the experience we haven’t brought fully to consciousness.”

Mike Wilson

“Memory Unit” approaches dementia and its effects, topics that can be difficult to write about head-on. The narrative doesn’t look away from Aunt Jo. What compelled you to write this essay?

The short answer is my love for Aunt Jo. I’m also interested in dementia generally because many family members and friends have experienced it. I wonder whether someday I will, too.  I’ve written poetry about dementia, as well as an unpublished novel set in a memory unit with a protagonist who chooses to face dementia with intentionality. 

In this piece, you move through time like an arrow. The overall narrative tracks along with Aunt Jo’s life in the memory unit, with little deviation. What made you decide on this straightforward narrative structure as opposed to, say, fragments? How did this essay evolve as you worked on it?

I deliberately wanted to be a journalist, documenting exactly what happened as it was experienced in time. I didn’t want to reflect on the experience. I wanted to reproduce the experience. As it evolved, I found I needed to cut details that were factually accurate, but took attention away from Aunt Jo.

Do you have any methods when it comes to writing about memories? What are some ways that you prepare when it comes to writing creative nonfiction, particularly those more intimate moments in our lives?

My technique is to put myself in the feeling of what I’m remembering and re-experience it. My goal is to experience what happened the way it really happened. What sticks in our craw as a memory is part of the experience we haven’t brought fully to consciousness. Sometimes its uncomfortable to experience it, but that’s what gives it power. My hero of memoir is Mary Karr, and my bible of memoir is Liar’s Club. 

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

I wrote most of it during a couple of weeks. I did an initial edit, then shared the draft with one of my writing groups. I did some editing based on the feedback. Then, after time passed, I revisited and edited lightly again, like tuning a guitar.

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?

I like to write in the morning, but I can write whenever there’s time and I can summon the appropriate state of mind. I have an office, but I prefer to write in the dining room. It has windows and I like to gaze outside. If I’m dialed into what I’m writing, I can ignore distractions. If not, I need to isolate from external stimuli. I do take advantage of spontaneous inspiration, but I’m trying to develop the ability to write at will. I revise as I write, as if the first draft will be the final draft. Initially, a piece (or a revision) is finished when I feel a sense of completion. However, if a piece is rejected several times, I’ll go through and see what I can change to make it better.

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

Spirituality, feeling, politics. Regarding politics, my book, Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press 2020) is poetry for a post-truth world, about the Trump era (which evidently isn’t over). Spirituality is a lifelong pursuit. Feeling is what drives me to write.   

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

Just finished The Great Circle, a novel by Maggie Shipstead. Her prowess for precise and historically accurate detail is so evocative. Her ability to advance the emotional lines of character development, plot, and social context is humbling. And inspiring.

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

Write. 

What is the most difficult part of your writing process?

Putting my neck on the line.

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