This week’s guest writer, Melanie Bishop, was one of my first writing teachers at Prescott College, a small liberal arts and environmental school in Arizona. Here’s what I remember about my writing classes with Melanie: There would be ten, maybe twelve of us sitting around a table, a common manuscript in hand, intently discussing craft. We were just as engaged in that room as the members of any graduate seminar I’ve taken since. These wereour manuscripts we pored over, and often, we held daring literature in our hands. That semester, we wrote about losing our parents, about being abused, about abortion, parenthood, and the calloused hands of our blue-collar fathers. We wrote about the way a horse dies and the burden of burying its body. We wandered through our childhood houses, recalled the yards or parking lots or basements or patches of forest where we lost our virginity, punched our boyfriends, found our dead brothers, or realized that everything was going to be okay. We got lost in dark caves and relished the sunlight when we finally climbed out, blinking at the brightness of the southwestern blue sky (I remember that one particularly well; it was mine).
Twelve years later, some of the names of my classmates have faded from my mind, but I still remember our stories. Those stories have stuck with me. Inside that classroom at our small, weird school in the mountains, we were no longer students but people finding our footing as writers. Sure, it got heavy sometimes. I remember Melanie prefaced our very first workshop in her memoir class with a disclaimer: She was not a therapist; she was not trained to navigate other people’s psychological turmoil; yet, she understood that writing out the hard stuff can send us to dark places. She also told us that writing out the hard stuff can help lighten the burden, and she helped us take these outpourings and shape them into art. She taught me how to attain emotional honesty without being maudlin or confessional or overblown. In Melanie’s classroom, we didn’t just absorb information and learn about craft–we changed. She did what the best of teachers do: She gave us the space and autonomy to realize our own goals. Many of us are still writing.
And so, it’s with great pleasure that I’m able to give back a little of what I was given many years ago in that classroom. Melanie has guided so much student writing out into the world, and so it’s no small satisfaction to be able to bring Melanie’s writing to Vela readers, to provide a space for her story. I recently got back in touch with Melanie after learning of the release this January of her young adult novel,My So-Called Ruined Life—the first novel of the Tate McCoy series. That exchange led to our featuring Melanie’s essay, “In the Form of Birds” on Vela this week. In this piece, Melanie recounts her two very different experiences with grief after the death of each of her parents. “It’s not done with me, this gnawing pain, this savage regret, this missing the mother I love,” she writes at the end of her essay. “But there is evidence that it can lift or transform.”
Loss and grief are also the subjects of Melanie’s upcoming book-length memoir, Some Glad Morning. She’s also currently marketing a short-story cycle called Home for Wayward Girls, which has been a finalist for five awards over the past four years. Her fiction and nonfiction has been published widely in literary journals, including Glimmer Train, Georgetown Review, and Greensboro Review. She taught at Prescott College for twenty-two years and now leads community writing classes, hosts writing retreats at Vagabond’s House Inn in Carmel, California and Boulders in Santa Cruz, and runs a freelance editing business called Lexi Services. For more details on these, see Melanie’s website.
In the midst of all her ongoing projects, Melanie was gracious enough to sit down and answer some of my questions on the relationship between writing and grief, the craft of memoir, and her upcoming projects. In her responses, you’ll find not just Melanie the writer, but Melanie the teacher, too.