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"It’s Always Surprising How Much Isn’t Necessary": An Interview with Kelly Miller

Kelly Miller enjoys life in the most eclectic town in Iowa. A small town filled with people from all cultures and walks of life. Writers, artists and musicians can be found everywhere. She writes flash fiction and nonfiction. And works part time with the elderly and autistic children.

Her essay, "Exploiting the Connection," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Kelly Miller talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, Doritos, and her New Year's resolution.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Exploiting the Connection”? What sparked the initial idea and led you to write the first draft? 

The tree actually fell shortly after my mother’s funeral. So there I was on my back on top of a picnic table at a park in the middle of winter and a mixture of feelings and scenes and a knowingness started free-falling through my mind and body. I dug a pad and pen from my backpack and started trying to record it all.

The entire essay is less than 200 words, yet it contains a wide breadth of emotions and circumstances. How did you achieve such an economy of language? Did it require a lot of revision or restraint to be so concise?

The original essay after first edit was about a thousand words. Cutting down is always my favorite part. Also painful when you have to discard your darlings. But with each edit I grit my teeth and ask, Is this line, image, word, really necessary? It’s always surprising how much isn’t necessary. Only when the piece is down to the barest of bones that still pack a punch do I call it finished.

I must ask about your piece’s title, “Exploiting the Connection.” It seems like quite a “meta” title to me, framing the essay in such a light that it’s not so much about the events observed, or even how you observe the events, but about how you use those events to your advantage as a writer and/or as a person grieving a loved one. What does the title mean to you? Did you mean to imply that you’re exploiting a connection as the author of this essay, or during a moment you lived that’s described in this essay (e.g., when you saw the tree fall)? (Both? Neither?)

I almost hate to comment on my idea of what the title means. It’s often people’s favorite part and they all have different theories. I will say you are right about me using observed events let’s say as fodder for my writing. I once wrote an essay about cleaning my mother’s dentures just before she died and how I was thinking about writing the essay even as I was standing in the hospital bathroom rinsing her teeth. Not really proud of it, but for me it’s how life works. Teeth and death and love and Doritos all up against each other. And of course trees falling in the woods. Seen or unseen.

Your bio says that you work “with the elderly, and children with autism.” How has this type of work affected your life as a writer? Do you write about these subjects? Has the work taught you any lessons (about empathy, or patience, or anything) that have influenced the way you write about people?

Working with the elderly and autistic kids has taught me so much. But mostly about silence. Not the kind of silence that is easy to find when you are lone. But the kind that’s hard to honor when you want so badly to do or say something to make everything okay. I have learned to sit. Take a hand. Look into eyes. Breathe.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been trying to write about and honor a relationship that was hugely transformative in my life. I’ve tried memoir. I’ve tried fiction. My New Year’s resolution is to just get it written from my point of view as if no one else will ever read it. I’m hoping this will shut down the critics in my head.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Patti Smith’s “M Train.” Even if you aren’t a fan, pick up a copy. The language, subtle but powerful emotion, and sense of place are all delicious.

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