Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here: Essays, a new book from New Meridian Arts Press coming out on September 1st. She is also the author of Realizing River City: A Memoir (Tumbleweed Books, 2016), winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Awards Memoir category, 2017 Silver Medal winner in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, ad Second Place-Nonfiction winner in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards.
1. Tell us about the concept behind your new book, I Don’t Belong Here.
I Don’t Belong Here is a collection of essays that explores the various concepts of what it means to belong, or in many cases, to not belong. Our identities are formed and maintained by our sense of belonging to different groups—from family and relationships to geography to gender and even to socioeconomic class—so what happens when those systems break down? How is our identity impacted by transit and dislocation?
Personally, I’ve felt more like an observer most of my life, rather than as an active participant in it. While a number of writers feel this way (as our observational skills are part of what makes us writers), I have not read anything that really investigates it. I Don’t Belong Here uses often taboo topics in contemporary American culture, such as abuse, death, mental illness, trauma, isolation, and estrangement, as the catalysts for the exploration within each of the essays. To me, the writing in this book is more of an invitation to a conversation than it is attempting to make any kind of solid argument. It’s an exploration of my lived experiences within the forbidden, one where I invite the reader along on the journey.
2. Tell us about the writing process. Where do you find inspiration?
This is such a tricky question to answer because I have yet to be able to determine if my writing approach can even be considered a process. Sometimes an idea for an essay begins with the topic or content, “I want to write about __________.” Other times, it’s driven by the form, “I want to write a ____________ type essay.” Sometimes it begins with a singular line or memory that pops into my head.
I read a lot, as all writers should, so there is always something ruminating in my mind. It usually comes to fruition while I’m doing something meditative or repetitive. I get a lot of ideas while I’m driving long distances. I also do woodworking, and while I have to think about what I’m doing when I’m building something, it’s a different kind of creativity than writing because I have all the tools I need before I get started. With writing, I often feel like I’m starting each new project ill-prepared. There’s nothing like the whirr of a miter saw and a face full of sawdust to get my mind to a place where it can relax and let the words come. For that reason, I keep Post-Its and pens everywhere I might get an idea. I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to remember something later, so I need to write it down the second it comes to me. I have journals full of these Post-Its, so when I have time to sit down and begin drafting an essay, I have somewhere to begin.
The actual drafting for me can be quick, where I knock out an essay in a couple of hours, or it can take days or weeks. It just depends. The real work begins, though, when I’m revising. The revision process is the most enjoyable and time-consuming for me. Many writers despise revision, but I love it because at least I’m starting with something other than a blank page and a thought scribbled on a Post-It.
3. You write about identity as a woman. Tell us what that means. Who are you writing for?
Politically and socially, women are under threat right now. We are fighting to be taken seriously as patients, employees, entrepreneurs, and everyday decision-makers. We don’t have full rights to our own bodies. We don’t have support for our decisions to be mothers, or not to be mothers. We don’t receive full financial compensation compared to our male counterparts in the workplace, and we are still expected to manage our households. Even in the midst of #MeToo and #TimesUp, our harassers and rapists are given the benefit of the doubt while we are scrutinized by law enforcement. There is a war on women in this country, and anyone who denies that simply isn’t paying attention.
Since I write primarily creative nonfiction, I write from my own perspective and experiences. Even when I grapple with fiction, my main characters are usually women because that’s the perspective I feel I can truly embody. To be a woman is to endure a complex social system that still regards us as second-class citizens, so if I’m going to write about the world in which I live, I can’t avoid writing about the woman’s experience. It’s also important for me to recognize my position of privilege within that system. While I grew up in a low-income family, I’m college educated and middle-class. My job provides me with excellent benefits. I’m white. I own my home and car and don’t have to make difficult financial decisions between paying the electric bill or buying groceries. So while I write about the woman’s experience, I cannot presume that I am speaking for all women. I’m speaking for me, for what I see and live. I hope that whoever reads my work—other women and especially men—make a connection to their own lives and are motivated to consider a perspective unfamiliar to their own.
4. How did growing up in Michigan and how does living in Detroit influence your writing? What are the challenges or opportunities that come with being a writer in this area?
I’m a Midwest girl through and through, though I did spend four years living in New Mexico. The contrasting landscapes, culture, people, and behaviors often find their way into my work. I can’t write about belonging and identity without considering my geography. Being that Detroit is the Motor City and owning a car is almost essential compared to other major metropolitan areas, when I needed to clear my head, I would drive somewhere new. It’s fascinating to drive through different neighborhoods in Detroit and on one block, half the houses are burned or condemned with overgrown lawns and then to turn the corner and the next street over is mansion after well-kept mansion with pristine landscaping. I don’t know of anywhere else where poverty and affluence co-exist in such proximity.
Michigan has a really strong network of authors who all support each other and promote each other’s work. Detroit, in particular, has a number of writing organizations that have provided support and a community for me and others, namely Detroit Working Writers, Springfed Arts, and Rochester Writers. There are also a number of reading series hosted by local writers who know the value in giving authors a chance to share their work with an audience. The writing community in Detroit and Michigan in general is simply exceptional.
5. You are also a storyteller on stage. Tell us about that.
I have a background in theater and, unlike many of my writer friends, I absolutely love speaking in front of people. I’ve also been teaching college English for almost fourteen years, so I got over my fears of audience scrutiny long ago. When I first heard about live storytelling through social media and on NPR, I knew it was something that I wanted to try.
I’ve participated in a handful of Moth StorySlam events, which is a live storytelling competition where you get five minutes to tell an extemporaneous story and are judged by members of the audience. I haven’t ever won, but I did come in second place twice. I’ve done a few other grassroots events in the Detroit area, and even had a chance to give a storytelling performance in Portugal, which was such an honor.
Perhaps the most noteworthy storytelling event for me was the Metro Detroit Listen to Your Mother show a few years ago. I had to prepare a story and audition for the producers, Angela Amman and Angela Youngblood (two AMAZING women!). It was a pivotal moment for me because it was the largest audience I’ve ever performed for—it took place at St. Andrew’s Hall—and I felt (and still feel) so connected to my fellow storytellers.
Before there was literacy, there was a culture of orality, so public storytelling was the only way for people to “read.” There are still texts we read today that started out as oral delivery only. It’s one of the oldest art forms because it connects people. We learn empathy from sharing stories. We develop friendships around shared experiences that turn into shared stories. Families gather together and tell and retell the same yarns for years. It’s inescapable.
As a writer, I don’t always know how readers respond to my work unless they take time to reach out and tell me or they leave a review. Even then, it’s indirect because I wasn’t there when they experienced the work. With storytelling, however, I get to see my audience’s reactions in the immediate moment. It’s an amazing feeling.
Extra Credit: If you could co-author a book with anybody in the world, who would it be? What would the title be and what would it be about?
Oh man, I love this question! I would have to say my brother, Michael. Every time we talk on the phone about our family and childhoods, we have such different memories. It would be a real project to co-author a childhood memoir with him where we each tell our shared experiences but from our individual points of view. As for the title, I’m not sure. I’ll let him make that choice.
Detroit Area Book Launch for I Don’t Belong Here:
September 29 at 7 p.m.
The Grey Wolfe Scriptorium
145 E. 14 Mile Road
Clawson, MI 48107