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5 Qs with Melissa Hart, Author of Gringa

Melissa Hart is a journalist professor at the University of Oregon and the author of two memoirs. Her most recent book, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood, explores the custody battle between her straight-laced father and lesbian mother. Melissa and I discussed the differences between essay and memoir writing, her inspiration, and more.

Urban Muse: Tell us about the inspiration behind Gringa.
Inspiration comes to me in the form of images--in the case of Gringa, I recalled a pack of Spanish flash cards that my mother had when we took language classes together at the local library. I couldn't get one image--a line drawing of a disembodied ear--out of my head. Really, it was that flash card that provided the initial inspiration to sit down and write the first chapter. I'd told part of my story--about my mother coming out and losing custody of me and my younger siblings--in my first memoir, The Assault of Laughter. However, I didn't feel that I'd written the story as eloquently or thoroughly as I could have, and so I set out to write it once more and expand upon it with more sophisticated prose and a greater sense of how the dissolution of my family affected me as a young adult. I'd also been reading memoir and fiction with recipes--Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," Diana Abu-Jaber's "The Language of Baklava"--and as food provided comfort and intrigue for me as an adolescent, I structured each chapter around a key recipe.

UM: Was it difficult to write about events that are so deeply personal?
It is difficult to write about personal events. After almost thirty years, I still have a lot of pain regarding what happened to my family. Many women with kids who came out during the 1970s and 1980s lost custody of their children, and most don't want to discuss this. However, I think it's a critical period of history that needs to be explored, and while I shed many tears during my writing of Gringa, I also feel confident that this book offers insight into LGBT families and their value. The hardest scene for me to see in print is the sex scene in "Young Americans." I didn't want to include it, but my editor thought it was important. It's not erotic--more "theater of the absurd"--but I blush to think that my journalism students and my grandparents have read it.UM: In addition to two memoirs, you've published a number of essays. Any tips on writing compelling essays? How is it the same (or different) from writing a memoir?
Essay writing can be so much fun. It requires a lot less time commitment and research than a book-length memoir; however, many of the writing techniques are the same. You have to go into an essay with a compelling introduction, and the whole piece is guided by a thesis (that is, a topic and a point you wish to make about that topic). I think it's important to include research, so that readers learn something about a subject, and you also need to include sensory details, stylish writing, vivid imagery, and a conclusion that really leaves people thinking. I get a lot of my ideas from what I'm thinking about or learning about at the time--for instance, I've just finished an essay exploring Jim Henson's "The Muppet Show," which was so important to my family in the 1980s, and which my three-year old daughter now adores. The trick was to make it personal, while exploring a universal truth and offering readers insight into the program and its influences on audiences then and now.
UM: Since you also teach journalism, what is the single most important thing that you impart to students each semester?
I think the single most important thing I impart is that publication doesn't have to be this far-off dream that one spends years pursuing. It's something that can happen within a few weeks of learning a few crucial skills, such as constructing a compelling short essay and submitting it to specifically-targeted editors with a succinct cover letter. My Feature Writing 1 students regularly get published in places including The Washington Post, The Oregonian, Horizon Air Magazine, and High Country News. They're amazed that editors are willing to publish their work, but why not, if they've worked hard at multiple drafts and submitted a polished piece?

UM: What books would you say should be required reading for aspiring essayists and/or memoir writers?
M: I'm an evangelist for Sue William Silverman's Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir [ed. note: Sue has also shared her insights on this blog]. It's simply the most thorough and inspiring book I've found for memoir writers, regardless of the level of experience. And I regularly read and assign the "Best American" series to my students; in particular, I like "Best American Magazine Writing" and "Best American Essays." I also really enjoy the writing in the literary journals "Creative Nonfiction" and "Fourth Genre." They're essential reading for memoirists.Thanks, Melissa!

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5 Qs with Melissa Hart, Author of Gringa + writers on writing