“I always tell my students to write about the things they can’t stop thinking about.”
Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss (Stillhouse Press, 2018)
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
I do all of my writing in my study upstairs at home. I have two desks: a big metal teacher’s desk for actual writing, and an old wooden one tucked in a corner for collecting things like miniature Japanese food erasers or cool stationary or thrift store finds (I recently got a cute vintage recipe box). Even though I work on a laptop, I never stray from my desk or I’d lose focus and start rearranging the Tupperware drawer or something. I almost never work at night, unless things have gone wonky with our family schedule or I’m cramming to get something finished by a deadline. I’m a work day writer, banker’s hours.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Excerpt: “Tender” from Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss (213-215).
Once the funeral was over and everyone had gone their separate ways, I had a hard time adjusting to my life again back in New York. Hudson approached me warily at first, as if I might break. Lily seemed wittier and savvier, singing and dancing and performing every time I entered a room to keep the mood light.
Mark gave me wide berth to cry, retreat, sleep, wander off if I needed to. But where would I go? What would I do? Everything seemed to require more energy than I was able to summon. To make matters worse, I had to start teaching in a couple weeks, and had no idea how I was going to manage being a lively and engaged person in front of students day after day.
All I could manage to do was watch bits of television. The Food Network was soothing, and I came to love Giada DeLaurentis. Even scrappy little Bobby Flay grew on me, and I loved watching him barbecue with his friends and talk about Serrano peppers. But if I ever tried to watch a real TV show, I found it pointless. Who cared if Robin couldn’t get a date on “How I Met Your Mother”? So what if Jim tricked Dwight again on “The Office”? I craved tenderness and sincerity, not wryness or irony. I spent my time with the kids, reading or coloring, and occasionally walked along the Erie Canal listening to violin adagios on my ipod.
Soon there was less than a week before classes would begin, and I knew I wasn’t ready to face it all. I decided to ask for a reduced teaching load, going from three classes to one. It was a creative nonfiction workshop with only nine students, which seemed manageable. With a small class, I could be honest with them if I had to. If I had a rough day, I could step away, or even cancel.
The weeks blurred by. When the snow began to fall and the cold crept into the corners of our old Victorian, all I could manage most days was to wrap myself up in the wedding quilt my mother had made me. Often I’d just lie there, bundled up inside the quilt like an infant, and stare out my bedroom window at the dark bare maple trees.
The students in my class that semester ended up being a significant part of my grieving process. I rarely shared personal information with my students, but this time it felt right. One woman, Ashley, had flashy dark eyes and dark hair and rode horses somewhere east of Rochester almost every day. She wrote so beautifully it buoyed me.
Another student, Matt, brought in essays about his father, who’d recently come out as gay and caused tremendous family problems, especially for his depressive mother. Matt, like Ashley, wrote with empathy and compassion. He took risks and submitted essays about his family that broke my heart in the best of ways.
I’ll never forget sitting in our tiny basement classroom that winter with those students, watching the snow fly outside, talking quietly about what makes a good essay: sincerity, vulnerability, a desire to connect with others through stories of pain, truth and honesty.
Thanks to that workshop, I managed to write a short piece about losing my mother.
I have parasailed in Malaysia –so what? My mother died days later in a high-tech Minneapolis hospital. I flew back: suntanned, frantic. The nurses hung a piece of gauze soaked in peppermint oil above her bed to mask the smell of death. I cannot forget the smell. Or hanging above Penang Bay in my black swimsuit –warm wind rushing my sails, white lip of beach biting into blue. My two bare legs dangled dangerously. From below, my small children watched and waved, squinting. When I landed, legs bicycling through sand, a woman from England congratulated me for my bravery. “I could never do that,” she said. “That’s what I thought,” I said. But up in the sky someone else was already lifting off. A Muslim woman in black burka hung high under a rainbow parachute— free.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I chose this excerpt because it’s about those little pockets of grief that happen and affect all the parts of your life.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I always tell my students to write about the things they can’t stop thinking about. In the case of my memoir, my mother’s death was so unexpected, traumatic, and medically confusing that long after she was gone, I kept trying to figure out what had actually happened. (For context, it was a routine medical procedure and its many mishaps that eventually led to her death.) I studied her voluminous medical files with different colored highlighters in hand, researched the procedure she’d had done, talked to doctors, sorted through boxes of her old letters (both to and from her), scrapbooks, photos, home movies, canceled checks, report cards. I was only beginning, I realized, to figure out who my mother had really been. There were several surprises both in the medical records and in her memorabilia. I couldn’t stop. I was like a dog with a bone. I simply had to figure it all out.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
In terms of the memoir’s order and structure, I discovered the three predominant “strands” of a “braid” as I wrote the book. Strand #1 is what happened to my mother medically and her subsequent death; Strand #2 is what I discovered about my mother’s past life; and Strand #3 is my own life and grieving process as a mother myself. Between those strands are very short pieces about dragonflies—some scientific, some personal, some strange. Once I had all that figured out (there are roughly 35 sections/chapters total), I began braiding the strands together in a way that I hoped would make sense for readers. Even though it was obvious that my mother had died, I wanted to create suspense and concern about how it had happened, a reason for readers to turn pages, per se. I’m not going to lie: putting this book together made me want to tear my hair out. I must’ve had those 35 sections spread out all over the floor of my study 100 times or more. Although I don’t know how to quilt (though my mother did, expertly, and I, her audience), the process of building this book reminded me of how she’d balance colors and patterns, make sure the math was correct in her measuring, pull out huge sections of hand-stitching if they weren’t exactly right, then finally choose the right border and backing to unify the whole thing. So that’s the metaphor I’m going with—writing this memoir was like making a quilt with words.
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?
The way I approach writing has changed a lot over the years, especially since I’ve moved into writing book-length works. When I’m in the process of writing a book, I’m steady with it, stay in touch with it at least a few times a week. I really count on my summers to get a lot of writing done, since I don’t teach then. I’ve never been one of those people who gets up at 5:00 a.m. and writes for two hours. That’s not me. My best writing time is around 10:00 a.m., break for lunch, then write again for a couple hours in the afternoon. I find I can’t stay focused for much more than a four or five-hour chunk of time. At that point, I either go to the gym, take a nap, or drive my kids around somewhere.
What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
Working with Stillhouse Press has been a very positive experience. Meghan McNamara is a terrific editor and marketing director, and has really helped push the book along. There was also a great sense of shared input about the cover. I loved the original idea of the dragonflies made out of maps, but suggested different colors and backgrounds. After several back-and-forths, the cover came out better than I could have imagined. I absolutely love it. I’m grateful for that collaboration, especially since so many readers have told me how much they love the cover.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m about a hundred pages into drafting a memoir that focuses on my late father, addiction, and my relationships with men. I’m at a standstill, though, as this summer my brother died unexpectedly, and I really haven’t been able to focus much on writing. I know I’ll get back to it eventually, after some much-needed healing and grieving time.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
My main advice for aspiring writers is to turn off your phone, put it in another room, and just get down to it. Set a timer for an hour, and don’t let yourself get up until it dings. Odds are you’ll go more than an hour.
Anne Panning is the author of three previous fiction titles, most notably Super America (University of Georgia Press, 2007), which won the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. Several of her nonfiction pieces have also been recognized in The Best American Essays series. Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, is her first published memoir. Originally from rural Minnesota, Panning now lives in upstate New York with her husband, Mark, and two children, Hudson and Lily. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport, where she serves as Co-Director of The Brockport Writers Forum reading series, and is currently at work on her second memoir, Bootleg Barber Shop: A Daughter’s Story, about her late father, a barber and an addict.
Author photo by Michele Ashlee. Cover design by Doug Luman.