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"To Delve into the Mania of My Quest": An Interview with Marin Heinritz

Marin Heinritz teaches journalism and creative writing at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The Kalamazoo Gazette, and HippoCampus, as well as The Collagist and other publications.

Her essays, "Out of Body" and "Since you've been gone," appeared in Issue Sixty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Marin Heinritz talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about trauma, the second person, and retreating into contemplation.

Please tell us about the origins of your nonfiction pieces, “Out of Body” and “Since you’ve been gone.” What sparked the initial idea for each, and caused you to start writing the first drafts?

Both of these pieces are part of a memoir about coming of age with cancer. “Out of Body” was inspired by a literal out-of-body experience I had during my first chemotherapy drip to treat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when I was 17. It was a defining moment, or maybe an inciting incident, after which nothing, particularly my relationship to my body, was the same. I had been having difficulty writing into the trauma of cancer, because it was so painful to relive, but that was a moment I needed to get down before the rest of the narrative could unfold.

“Since you’ve been gone” came out of an assignment my dear friend and colleague, Diane Seuss, gave in a poetry workshop: write whatever it is you keep out of your writing. So much of the writing in my cancer narrative was very controlled, and this was the invitation I needed to bring in a little more lyricism. And to delve into the mania of my quest for self healing. I kept it hidden because when I stepped back and looked at my behavior, it seemed like high maintenance at best and absolute madness at worst.

Can you talk about the decision to write “Out of Body” in second person? What kind of effect do you think replacing “I” with “you” might have on your audience?

On top of the challenges of writing about trauma in first person, I was feeling a bit trapped by the confines of third person in journalism and first person in personal essay, the two forms in which I’ve most frequently written. I wanted to stretch some boundaries and play with point of view in nonfiction. Second person seemed to fit the subject of this piece, something I’d rarely spoken of, and never written about. My intention was that it would recreate for the reader the duality I experienced in that irreconcilable separation of self from body. And it turned out to be the key that unlocked the door into the strange cruelties of what happened in the hospital.

“Since you’ve been gone” consists of one paragraph of only about 500 words, and yet the content of the essay spans so many areas of the globe and presumably a wide swath of time. Was it difficult to condense so much material into such a tight package? How do you accomplish this level of concision?

This was one of those pieces that just arrived, as if by some kind of divine intervention. In many ways, the precision came from the opposite of control; I simply let loose—something I have a much easier time doing on the dance floor than on the page.

On your Kalamazoo College webpage, you stated, “Today, the ability to take in information from various sources, process it critically, and then tune it out and listen to your gut is even more crucial as communication technologies pull us into a world of hyper-destructive comparison that moves at an insane pace. Stepping off the spinning top and retreating into contemplation is the practice of writing creative nonfiction, and in many ways, it’s my life’s work.” Could you elaborate on these ideas? What do you do exactly when you retreat into contemplation? And could the vantage point atop the spinning top ever be a benefit to the nonfiction writer?

Oh, certainly! One must spin to have something to write about. And we create from chaos, don’t we? But we cannot constantly live in it.

For me, retreating into contemplation means doing what I must to tune into that inner voice that gets drowned out by the noise of the world. I like the noise of the world much of the time, but sometimes I need to shut it out. I spend time off the grid in a cabin in the woods; I turn off the phone, the computer, the t.v.; I begin my days in silence and meditation. I regularly do a writing exercise in which I write for 10 minutes in the present moment. Deliberately slowing down is necessary for me to remember who I am in my own context and in the natural world. That’s the most honest place I know, and therefore the best place from which to write.

What writing projects are you working on now?

The cancer memoir has morphed under the influence of my mother’s death into a more complex story about how illness shapes identity, specifically femininity—and the limits of care despite the limitlessness of love. She cared for me when I was sick as a teenager, and I cared for her when she was sick and dying; I am weaving those two narratives together. We were the loves of each other’s lives, and I’m the one who has lived to tell the complex tale.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

I loved Joe Wilkins’ The Mountain and the Fathers for its poetry and commitment to the notion that we are of the land though we do not own it. I was blown away by Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams for its profound insights and form, an elegant blend of reportage, memory, and reflection. I also was heartened recently to read Terry Tempest Williams’ An Unspoken Hunger. Her elegance and deceptive simplicity offered exactly the kind of earthy feminism I was in need of at the time.

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