Newest Brief Essays

"Women's Hour, YMCA" featured in Kenyon Review Online

"I Second That Emotion" (craft essay) featured in New Ohio Review


Other Brief Essays

"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)


Study with Rebecca this summer

Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, June 18-25


Kenyon Review PODCAST with Rebecca

(on memoir, genre-crossing, writing practice, and more)


Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

New edition includes over 100 writing exercises for all genres.

Word Painting

The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

Q and A from Students and Readers

General questions about Rebecca's writing.

Rebecca McClanahan
Who or what influences your writing?

Anything and everything. I read all the time, in every genre and even strange, odd books that seem to have no genre. I also listen to people’s stories, try to notice the world around me, and collect scraps of phrases, titles, lines, and descriptions that I later work into essays or poems.

Do you have some ideas that you work on and then leave for a while to then come back and write more?

Yes, I often leave a piece because I get stopped, and something in my life must happen for the process to start up again. Or I need to find a research-based answer, or I need to wait a while until I have some perspective on the event or can discover what “other” the idea needs to press against.

Do most of your stories just come to you or do you usually have to dig deep? How do you know that you want to write about that particular story?

Nothing ever simply “comes to me” but once I get a seed for something, the writing itself helps the necessary connections to be made. Knowing what to write about is an instinct, I feel. It’s shaping the material into its best form that requires the digging, the exploration, and the patience.

What are some things you do to remember certain situations?

I talk about this a lot in Write Your Heart Out, in the memory chapter. But I often listen to music from a particular time period (not while I’m writing, though, as I’m too distractable) or consult photographs or early diaries—again, I employ all the research techniques I’ve already mentioned. Sometimes I just write, and the situation becomes real to me again, for our mind remembers more than we give it credit for. We have to trust the process.

What do you do to help you with the end of your stories and essays? How do you know where to end, and if it makes enough sense to your reader?

In early drafts, I almost always go too far with my endings. Since I write, in part, to discover what I need to say, or what the essay is about, I use my early drafts as mysteries to unravel. So when I finally unravel it, or discover the signifying detail or moment, I often tell myself (in writing) what I’ve learned in the process. This is necessary to me as a writer, but that section of the writing—in which I explain what I learned—is almost never necessary to the reader. The reader wants a job to do, wants to complete the text the writer has begun. The reader and writer should be collaborating on the story or essay. So I almost always end up taking off the “big” ending and instead trusting that the signifying moment or the “vibration” holds within it enough power to affect the reader.

What is the publishing process like? And how long does it take to publish a book?

The publishing process can be very, very difficult and discouraging, and I definitely don’t think publication should be the main engine that drives a writer’s energies. There’s just too much that is out of the writer’s hands. It took me thirteen years to write all the essays in The Riddle Song and three years to find the right publisher, then another year or two for the editing and printing process to be completed. Essay collections, in particular, are notoriously difficult to sell, a fact to which my agent can attest, as she is trying hard now to place my newest book of essays. Still, the process is worth it if you can connect, finally, with a responsive reader.

Q&A on the writing and shaping of The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings
---questions from readers in Iowa City, Iowa

Was it hard to think back to your childhood to create the content for all the essays? And did you have to ask a lot of people what had happened in the past?

No, it wasn’t hard to think back. For most people, this process comes naturally, and I’m no exception. But I wasn’t searching for content; I never search for content. It presents itself for review, usually through a present-day event that triggers the memory. All self-propelled writing, I think, involves collisions of some sort; something has to rub against something else for the fire of reflection to spark.

Yes, I did ask people to verify certain time periods or events, or to read what I had written and comment on its feeling of veracity or on its tone or import. I find that this process, though sometimes initially difficult and awkward, often yields up wonderful surprises, and the person about whom you’re writing ends up being an important collaborator in the writing process. For instance, when my father read drafts of “Earth, Air, Fire and Father” which I’d asked him to read not only to clarify technical details like flying or like hog butchering, he not only helped me clear up confusions I’d had but also contributed extra details. The “We saved the squeal on that one, Bud” detail, which is so poignant and important, was his contribution. I loved it, as did my editor, who encouraged me to include it in the final version.

Which of these essays involved the most research, and why?

There are basically three kinds of research, what I call the 3 P’s: people, places, and paper. (I think I got these categories from my friend and fellow writer Joe Mackall). I use at least one form of each in almost every essay I write, and sometimes in poems and short stories as well. “People” research is mostly related to interviewing informants, like I did when I wrote “Hatching” and “Earth, Air, Fire and Father” but “people” also sometimes involves “paper“ research such as studying diaries, letters, photographs, and other artifacts. I did this for “Aunt” and “Weather” and some others. “Places” research often involves actual travel. Sometimes I take notes while I’m there (As in “Life and Death…”) and sometimes the place itself sparks the telling. Revisiting a place—from childhood or earlier sections of adult life—is an important research tool and it can create collisions or intersections between past and present.

How did you decide to pick these family members in your book; did some relatives stick out more in your memory or were they more active in your childhood?

Some characters just naturally seem more memorable at a particular point in a writer’s life. Again (see answer above, regarding “collisions”) something happens in the present-tense life to bring that character back to memory. For me, I think, the character of Aunt Bessie emerged so strongly because when I began writing about her, she had recently died, and I wanted to preserve her memory—a task that is impossible, by the way, but which we writers nevertheless try to do. Also, because she was childless and I am also, and had just realized at the time of the writing that I would probably always be childless, that realization created the necessary intersection for the writing, what I call the “occasion of the telling.” Every narrative essay requires a cast of characters, and many of these characters, though present in a writer’s life, must fall away in the final revision of an essay or book, since everything must serve the whole essay.

I really enjoy how you melt more than one story together and it all seems to make sense. Is there some sort of formula you use when finding relationships in stories to make one essay?

There is never a formula—I sometimes wish for one, but that would be a boring way to proceed, finally. I am fond of layering and of keeping more than one “ball” in the air. This can be a hard technique to employ, and it doesn’t work for every essay, but when it does work, it is exciting. I once watched a plate-spinner at a circus, and it was amazing to watch him keep all the plates spinning at once. For a writer, it’s often hard to “keep all the plates spinning.”

Q and A from Students and Readers
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