Travel Narratives: An Interview with Anne-Marie Oomen

Anne-Marie Oomen is author of Love, Sex and 4-H (Next Generation Indie Award for Memoir), Pulling Down the Barn and House of Fields (both Michigan Notable Books), and An American Map: Essays  (Wayne State University Press); and a collection of poetry, Uncoded Woman (Milkweed Editions).  She is represented in New Poems of the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry, and edited Looking Over My Shoulder: Reflections on the Twentieth Century (MCH). She has written seven plays, including Secrets of Luuce Talk Tavern, winner of the 2012 CTAM playwriting contest.  She is an instructor at Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College, (MA) and Interlochen College of Creative Arts.

Anne-Marie took the time to talk with one of our associate editors, Kristen Nichols, to provide insight on the craft of writing in general, and particularly, on the craft of writing travel narratives. These questions were created by professor, and author, Patricia MacNair’s Travel Narratives class here at Columbia College.

Kristen Nichols: Do you plan on writing about each trip you take, and does that change what you do while you are traveling?

Anne-Marie: As I travel, my biggest objective is to remain open and receptive. I do the things everyone does—see the sights, and check out the headliners of a place. BUT I am also in a state of heightened receptivity, where I am aware of the unusual, the moment of stumbling onto the unexpected, of exploring the side trail. That’s where the writing is. My husband, who often travels with me, has a knack for getting us off the “beaten path.” That helps. When you are scanning for it, things happen. And if I’ve got my antenna up, if I’m in that heightened state of receptivity, my writing mind comes to the forefront, and I know, I can actually feel a shift in my attention. Oh, there’s something here; this is important. The incident or moment is grabbing at me, calling me to pay attention, trying to tell me something I didn’t know. That’s the real travel. The connection between that “new” thought and the place I am in. It all depends on remaining curious and open.

KN: How does traveling with people affect your ability to write? Is there anyone you refuse to travel with?

Anne-Marie: I can be with people or by myself, and still write, but I think sometimes when I am totally alone for a period of days, I get too lonely. I like being alone for a while—it’s a necessary meditation for all of us, and often it releases the writing. I think more folks should do it more often, because it also gives us the quiet to think deeply make some real self-realizations. That said, I don’t like loneliness, especially at the end of a day, because it takes me so far inside myself that I forget my audience. That is, I forget that writing is an act of communication with real people like you, and that being alone for too long can isolate and separate.

I usually travel with my husband, who is patient and willing to adventure, but I can also travel with one or two other good friends. More than that and the logistics get too crazy. I have to be nimble in travel, and we have to maintain flexibility and like-mindedness. If you are with people who want to sit by the hotel swimming pool, then you don’t see the child sitting in the shade under the giant rock out in the desert and you don’t hear what she says to the snake that is sunning itself a few feet away from her. You miss that odd moment which is where the writing is. So I have to be with people who will get out of the car and walk the meandering path to that great rock. Make sense? On a practical level, I won’t travel with people who are control freaks because they spend too much time thinking about how to keep things from happening.

KN: Do you think travel writing should lean more towards personal introspection or observation of the literal travels and places?

Anne-Marie: I think travel writing has a huge range and can involve both, should involve, both. That said, I prefer the personal introspection that springs organically from being in a specific place. I really appreciate the connection between the two and love to muck around it that “spectrum” of personal and observational as I write. I’m most interested in what happens to me (or other people) when we touch the uniqueness or individuality of a place, and how it changes us or shifts our thinking or makes us let go of something or helps us find something deeper. I remember reading Rebecca Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” and her descriptions of Iceland were tied to an exhibit of art she went to several times while she lived there, and I thought yes, she’s talking about the art and how deeply it’s effecting her, but she’s also talking about the country and the cold, and her isolation, and her interior being. She tied the place and the art and her own psyche into a literary mosaic. I thought it was amazing writing, and it made me think about those connections: place, art, spirit. For me, the closer I get to places, the more I experience in a place, the grit or the beauty, the dirt or the light, the more I feel my brain growing, trying to understand, and figuring out what can be said. It’s a kind of curiosity that I’ve learned to be aware of and to practice as a discipline of my writing.

KN: Is there a place you have been to but you aren’t comfortable writing about it? Why?

Anne-Marie: The first thing that popped into my head was parking lots. So many creepy, boring, strange things happen in parking lots. But then I thought, oh gosh, that’s actually a topic. I could write about that. I should write about that. And then I start visualize things that happened in parking lots. Geesh, what a topic. Which goes to show that I think there’s something to write about in almost every place, though the trick is finding the entry point for the writing. It has to be rich and there has to be that state of wonder—even in a parking lot. So as to places, right now, I can’t think of a place that would be off limits. HOWEVER, I can imagine off-limits places for others. Here’s a sideways for instance: I have never written about my first marriage and I don’t think I ever will—so in that case, it’s the “place of relationship” that I won’t write about, a place I have no interest in revisiting, and it wouldn’t be good for me to do so.

KN: You write for various formats/genres–essays, poetry plays– is one your favorite? Do you choose the style of writing before the topic, or does the focus of the piece help to form, or help you to choose, the format?

Anne-Marie: Two responses. The first is about practice and confidence. I enjoy writing in all formats, but I think I’m better at some than others. I’m a better essayist/memoirist than a poet, though gosh, I love poetry and read it often, and I keep practicing it even though I’m not so good at it. I write plays because I love drama, and I truly enjoy the collaborative nature of plays, all the ways it becomes a living, breathing cooperative artistic effort among literally dozens of people, each making their contribution to a play’s three-dimensionality. I write fiction only a little; I’m in awe of fiction writers. Of the few short stories I’ve managed to get published, I feel least confident but extremely passionate. How is this thing done? Right now I’m in love with flash nonfiction, and trying to practice that and learn more about its innards. It’s deceptive: easy to flip it out and call it done, but really good flash has these nearly invisible bones that are deeply crafted, elongated and translucent. That’s what I’m obsessed with—even though right now, what I’m actually producing are long essays. Go figure.

The second part of your question is about the topic’s connection to the genre. What a great question. After so many years, I know that when a writing idea starts to come, it begins with one of two things, either a rich phrase (something I read or someone said that has tension or story) or a powerful image (an overwhelming visual with tension or story). If either is going to come to fruition, I’ll start thinking about it as I drive or walk or do the dishes, and I’ll take little notes that I usually lose, and I’ll sort of horse around with it in my mind, sometimes for a while. It starts to grow until I am compelled to the page. Now, after years of experience, there comes a point, early in the process, when I say, Oh, that’s an essay, or that’s flash fiction, or I’ll be, the damned thing’s a play. The topic tells me what it wants to be. I’m not explaining this actual moment very well, and your question is making me think I should write more about this, but it’s a moment where the idea blooms and I feel the language spreading out on the page in its proper shape. Not to get too woowoo here, but it’s like the idea knows its best form, and finally reveals itself.

But here’s a contradictory thing: I often write essays as poems first. I’ll think the idea feels like a poem, and I write it that way, maybe even several drafts as a poem, but then it starts to feel like it wants to be bigger, like it’s trying to break open, like the concision that poetry demands or its single-mindedness is too constricting, or maybe the rhythm stops being the rhythm of the line and starts carrying the rhythm of the sentence, and I’ll think, Oh gosh, it’s another essay. But the poetic elements are in it, and often stay in it—so that practice actually helps the drafting of the essay.

Sometimes, in the drudgery of drafting, usually when the gloss has fallen away from the idea, and I’m starting to apply craft work, I will see the structure start to rise and I’ll get a growth spurt out of that again—and I understand how it wants to be shaped. It’s complicated.

KN: Are there specific authors who have inspired or shaped your writing?

Anne-Marie: This is going to sound so strange, coming from me, but the first writer whose style influenced me strongly was John Steinbeck. His was the first writing that modeled place as interior force, and his work taught me about the link between inner and outer landscapes. I didn’t know all that when I first read him; it was just the way he made place real that fascinated me. Eventually I understood that he was showing how place shaped psyche. If you look closely, you’ll see his influence in American Map. From there, the fiction writers whose styles I admired were Toni Morrison (Beloved) and Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible). The poets: Mary Oliver, Ross Gay, Liesel Mueller, Patricia Smith, and on and on.

I’m currently influenced by women nonfictionists: essayists and memoirists. I’ve read Rebecca Solnit, Terry Tempest Williams, June Jordan, Leslie Jamison, Rebecca Skloot, Kathleen Jamie, Lia Purpura, Abigail Thomas, Jane Hirshfield, Maxine Hong Kingston.

I’m usually reading several books at once. I’m just starting Ta-Nehisi Coates memoir Between the World and Me. I read Lena Dunham’s but was not really impressed: great voice, but gosh, isn’t there more? I just finished Eva Saulitis memoir Into Great Silence, an incredible mix of personal reflection on the years she researched the orca whales in Prince Edward Sound—it blew me away. Just so you know I do also read men writers, I am almost done with Robert Vivian’s Least Cricket of Evening. Gorgeous lyrical essays. As you might expect, it takes me a long time to finish books because I’m reading too many at once.

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