Melanie Rae Thon: Advice to Writers and Other Q&A Highlights
I had the privilege to attend a reading, Q&A, dinner, and workshop with the fantastic Melanie Rae Thon. (Don’t know who that is? Check out my spotlight entry.) This entry includes some notes, highlights, and pictures from the reading and Q&A portions of that event. But first, here’s a sample of the reading itself (poorly sound-mastered by yours truly).
Reading of “The Good Samaritan Speaks” by Melanie Rae Thon
Highlights and Notes from the Q&A
Beyond reading a variety of her work, Melanie had some wonderful insights to share during her Q&A. Here are some of my favorites.
On Writing and Lyricism
There’s no doubt that Melanie is a poet. Her most recent novel, The Voice of the River, reads best for me as a book-length poem. When asked about her process and the intersection of poetry and prose, Melanie said, ”Pay attention to the music of the language. […] I’ve always believed in the music of language and the power of rhythm and cadence to carry meaning, as much as the sense of words, at least as much as the sense of words.”
“[...] The fetus can start to hear at 17 weeks in the womb. […] They do these recordings of, like, a mother singing to her child, and you’d think it would be really muffled because of the fluid, and in fact it’s just remarkably, stunningly, gorgeously clear. So when you think about it, the fetus is already processing language—the rhythm, the cadence, the intonation, the anger, the joy, the love, all of those things—long before the fetus has any attachment to signs, to what words signify out there in the world.”
“So I’m always thinking about, How can a work communicate with the fetus and the mother? That it should do both things. And that really deep sense of how rhythm communicates is very buried in many adults, but we still have it.”
When asked about how lyricism and the dividing lines between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, Melanie said, ”I think it’s getting ever so much blurrier.” While her publishers insist on putting a label on her work, she usually just tells them to call it whatever they want to call it. “I think that separation is becoming less and less important. Certainly I see it with my students […] that many people are crossing genres.”
“[…] The other thing is about storytelling, about the way that memory works. To think that there is something we can legitimately call nonfiction is so ludicrous. […] To think there’s anything we can ever know as fact, that we can call nonfiction, just seems like an arbitrary designation.”
On The Voice of the River
In discussing The Voice of the River, Melanie spoke about how her sister talked to her about a missing child, and all the emotional weight that came from their connection. “It was her telling me with all that unspoken subtext, and all the intensity of that, that suddenly the search for a missing child became very, very intimate. It pierced me at that intimate level. So even though I’d been writing about these cases, fascinated by them, involved in them, concerned about them, they hadn’t become mine until that story.”
For Melanie, that was the starting point of writing The Voice of the River. From there, she had a clear objective. ”So when I went out to write Voice of the River my quest was to include every beautiful, transient, transcendent, awe-inspiring thing I’d ever experienced in my whole life. While I didn’t quite make it to that goal. But that was my quest, that was my quest.”
“Wonder” was not just about the positive for her, however. She wanted to include “Everything in that range, from the disturbing to the transcendent.”
One of the major themes (apparent for those who have read the book) had been on Melanie’s mind for quite a while. “I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you: It’s all anybody wants to say at the end. And I was just—I get welled up even saying it now—I was so overwhelmed by that recognition. [...] Most everybody just wants to say ‘I love you.’ And so parts of the novel are written from the perspective of Kai in second person, and they’re called love songs. Mostly when we say ‘I love you’ and it’s the last moment, we don’t have time to elaborate, right? But Kai is in that space between being alive and being something else, and he has time to express those particular loves through shared experience.”
In The Voice of the River, we have a story without a real antagonist. Even the river is shown as a thing of power and beauty far more than it’s shown as a thing of danger. In talking about the idea of an antagonist, Master Thon said, “Isn’t that a crazy notion?” “Everything is part of that living environment. To think that we’re separate [... that] we actually have separate bodies, we live in separate ways. Well, guess what? Only 10 percent of the cells in your body are human cells. The rest are microbes.”
“What’s space, what’s me, what’s not me? And I think that I’ve been really interested in all those questions, from the very biological level to the cosmic level, to really try to investigate that and say, yes, the human drama is important—we mourn our intimate loss, and I never want to diminish that—[...] but the novel is also a celebration. There is life everywhere.”
Advice to Writers
Keep a daily book of wonder.
“A book of wonders, which is just where you go and write every single day. […] Whatever you find most thrilling, most beautiful, most amazing, most transcendent, most disturbing, in that day goes into your book of wonders. […] I don’t ever do it with the thought that I will use that material. I do it for joy.”
Stay aware of how the lyric elements of language impact meaning.
As noted in the discussion of lyricism, above always ask how a work can communicate with both the fetus and the mother?
Allow your prose to be as powerful as poetry.
“One thing that I love about poetry is just the clarity and precision and density of sensory detail, and I’ve always tried to bring that into my writing. I think that fiction should be no less dense than poetry. Why should it be any less potent?”
Use vivid details to tap into mirror neuron responses.
“Watching a tanager swoop, and they’re so beautiful and brilliant, and their flight is really silent. And so I’m watching it swoop, and I felt as if I were flying, which is about having mirror neurons—so when you see something you actually feel it in your own body. So, I’m like, ah! I’m flying.”
While Melanie didn’t talk about this directly, I couldn’t help but thinking about the intersection of writing and this mirror-neuron response, writers can create rich enough sensory details that they tap into this mirror neuron response. One advantage writers have over photographers or filmmakers is that we can choose what our audience pays attention to—guiding them more directly into these sensations.
And lastly …
“There are no rules. You can do what you need to do to tell the story.”
(I think I want to put this on my wall or tattoo it on my forearm or something.)
Here’s the list of writers (especially less-known ones) that Melanie Rae Thon feels she learned a great deal from:
- Mary Oliver (vol. 1 and vol. 2 of poetry).
- Louise Gluck (especially The Wild Iris).
- James Agee (especially A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men).
- John Berger (“Anything by John Berger,” said Melanie).
- John Wideman (especially Fever, which she said spun her head in 360 degrees).
I also had the chance to attend a dinner and workshop with Melanie. For details on that event, check out this follow-up entry.