Issue #58, Winter 2016
How Place Makes Us Human
A conversation with Amaris Ketcham
How Place Makes Us Human
Amaris Ketcham is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s $1,000 “The Weather” essay contest. Her prize-winning essay, “Recorded Lightning,” was chosen by the magazine’s editors from more than 300 submissions, and details everything from the summer she spent working with patients struck by lightning and the common classifications of observed lightning to the lightning design commonly found on Acoma pottery. The essay is written in three sections which take the shape of lightning and echo one another throughout. “When the storm is on top of you, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you take shelter,” Ketcham writes, considering the danger of lightning and the lives that have been lost due to its uncontrollable force.
Ketcham teaches interdisciplinary courses at the University of New Mexico. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Rattle, and the Utne Reader, and is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review.
CNF: You begin the piece with your personal connection to lightning as a young woman who worked with survivors of lightning strikes. Did this essay begin from this personal thread or from one of your various pieces of research?
KETCHAM: I have always wanted to write about that summer in Eminence and the people I worked with there, but I’d never found a way to contextualize it. Then I had the conversation about the tattoo. Everyone has a story about his or her tattoos, usually something personal and meaningful, but then here was a tattoo where I knew the story and the person wearing the art didn’t. I wanted to share the story with him.
CNF: Did you know when you started writing this essay that the form would take the shape of lightning? If not, when did you make that decision and why?
KETCHAM: The shape is actually a response to a “writing problem” and only came about in the final revision of the essay. When I started writing this essay, I was teaching a course on communicating scientific information creatively. One of the prompts I’d adapted was from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s essay in A Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, and it basically asked the writer to develop a list of facts about a subject but to make that list mean something, to make it more than just a list of facts. I was between projects, so I started researching lightning and making my list, but I kept adding more to it—I had too much to say for a list. And worse—it didn’t feel complete to me. So, I put it away and dragged it out a few months later.
In the second revision, I thought lightning should perhaps work as an extended metaphor. I wrote that essay, but it still felt flat. I tried a couple more mini-revisions (you might call them drafts 2.2, 2.3, etc.), but I wasn’t coaxing what I wanted out of the draft. Again, I put it away for a few months.
When I pulled it out the third time, I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to write about memory and lightning; that’s when I separated it out into three sections. In this big revision, I had these sections—the more thematic personal essay section, the lyric thirteen varieties, and the Acoma narrative—all in a row, one after another, but I needed them to connect more. I had a good writing problem: here’s what I want to say but the form isn’t working. The content of the essay is connected and disconnected at the same time. Instead of a linear rationality, like a narrative, the sections echo one another. A good writing problem really forces you to think creatively. That’s when it came to me to place the sections side-by-side in a lightning shape based on the Acoma-inspired design, that the form could also echo the content.
CNF: There are three sections in the essay and they each do something a little different stylistically and narratively. Can you talk a bit about how you developed each of these sections and how you came to order them in the way you did?
KETCHAM: One section is more thematic. It combines mostly personal experiences and probabilities to place some of the experiences in context. Except that my personal experiences really aren’t that personal—I wasn’t struck by lightning, so it’s more like the outskirts of experience. It lands on the physical memory of lightning, which leads into the third section. Between them, we get to ask well, what is lightning? How is it observed and classified? I chose to make the kinds of lightning the actual lightning bolt, gray and therefore already receding, while the other sections exist around it, indirectly confirming the lightning and supporting it. In the third section, there’s a more traditional narrative that takes the idea of memory and lightning to a community experience, while echoing the previous sections.
CNF: There is a lot of room for the reader to make connections between the sections. Are there any explicit connections you tried to make while writing the essay or did you see them only later?
KETCHAM: There are some explicit connections that were very intentional. For instance, I wanted to pull the children through the piece, so they reappear later, rating the lightning. The issues of memory and record arise multiple times throughout the essay, as well as that hint of nostalgia.
CNF: How did the drafting process work in creating the shape of the piece and how did you manage it technically?
KETCHAM: I use Adobe InDesign for many of my projects, so once I had the idea to write a “concrete essay,” I immediately opened InDesign. I drew the design with my textboxes and then had to take care of ugly kerning problems (those big spaces between letters). Between some paragraphs I added more space or deleted words and lines to make lines connect meanings from one section to the next horizontally. Because there wasn’t a lot of breathing room between the columns, I set the middle section to 80% black for visual contrast. I was relieved when asked if I would work with the designer, Seth Clark, to typeset the final piece. I know from experience that typesetting someone else’s concrete poetry can be a nightmare, and I wanted to be able to finesse the piece with the smaller text area and to force a few line breaks here and there.
CNF: Was this essay inspired by any other essays that use the creation of shapes on the page through words? Have you used shapes like this in your writing before?
KETCHAM: I’m not sure I’ve read any other concrete essays before. But I started working as a designer before I began writing, and I think that this piece comes out of that design background. Design shapes words and space to control the message, almost in the same way that poetry or a lyric essay does. They actually share many of the same characteristics. Both strive to communicate an idea or emotion and look for the most effective means to relate that idea to an audience. They use a similar kind of movement and structuring of information: that attention-grabbing lede might be thought of as where the eye would land first on a design, and then the proximity one piece of information to the next creates a hierarchy and flow of that information. In design, you use repetition to keep the audience engaged while contrast surprises the audience and gives depth to the work—you could argue that creative writing does the same thing.
CNF: Do you see any risks in playing with typesetting like this? Do you feel limited in any way?
KETCHAM: Well, you don’t want the form to dictate the content; you want them to work together. Beginning graphic design students will have this idea for a great design and they’ll mock up a beautiful piece of art and then say, “Okay, I’m ready to drop the message in,” only to find that the message doesn’t fit. The first instinct is to cut words or lines out of the message, but really it’s the design that needs to change and accommodate. Ideally the two grow together to produce the right experience for the reader, but it doesn’t always work that way.
I think that for an essayist, too, if writing a concrete essay doesn’t work out, it can feel like a big flop because it is a big risk to take. We tend to associate concrete poetry with children because we use that form particularly (also acrostics and certain rhyme schemes) when trying to get children engaged with writing. So one of the risks is overcoming the potential childishness of it.
CNF: You teach interdisciplinary courses at the University of New Mexico and are also a short fiction writer and poet. How have your multidisciplinary interests informed your writing, particularly your writing of creative nonfiction?
KETCHAM: Part of the joy of teaching interdisciplinary courses is that you can pull in ideas and methods from a lot of different sources and you can be really creative about how you’re putting it all together during the big, semester-long scale but also in the individual class sessions. There’s a lot of freedom in my department—I teach in the Honors College—and it’s coupled with a push to innovate and continue designing new experiential courses. For example, this semester I am co-teaching with a paleontologist; I’m learning a lot about geology and imagining ancient landscapes, and he’s learning about ways of seeing and recounting through creative writing and art.
Some semesters my courses have aligned more with my creative nonfiction interests. Last spring I taught a narrative journalism course with a field site component, and in addition to the more traditional ways of teaching writing craft, I folded in assignments that combined ethnographic methods of investigating language and use of space as well as photojournalism to their research period. I was starting a narrative journalism project and I was able to experiment with integrating my learning with my teaching by designing these research strategies.
CNF: Were there any pieces of research you wanted to include in the essay that didn’t make the cut?
KETCHAM: Yes—believe it or not, the essay barely scratches the surface of information about lightning. Here’s one neat piece that was left out: There’s actually a lightning field in New Mexico, outside of Quemado (“burned”) that was created as a long-term installation by the artist Walter De Maria. He erected four hundred steel poles in a grid over a piece of property that is about a mile long and a kilometer wide. You can stay in a cabin there and are likely to have a wonderful electrical storm to watch if you go during monsoon season. I read about it, but I wanted to be able to go there to really write about it, and unfortunately, I haven’t made it down there yet.
CNF: What other subjects do you explore in your work? Is “Recorded Lightning” connected to your other writing in any way, or is it an outlier?
KETCHAM: I tend to find myself asking, “How does place make a person human?” I return to this question over and over again, whether I am writing creative nonfiction, short fiction, or poetry. When I say, “place,” though, I don’t just mean a location you can point to on a map. To me, a place is more akin to how we think about an ecosystem, as relationships between physical and non-physical elements, or as a system of interactions between living or non-living components and intangible forces (history, culture, etc.). So a “place” can be a community or a physical space.
That said, I write a lot about New Mexico. It’s a beautiful and, at times, unnerving landscape. We’ve got scrubby deserts and hoodoos, mountains and lava flows, valleys of white sand and hot springs. Part of the state is a supervolcano, just like Yellowstone. With over 4,500 species living here, it’s the fourth most ecologically diverse state in the country. There are even jaguars still eking out an endangered existence in the southern part of the state. But it’s also a land that was set aside by the national government to be sacrificed as a violence laboratory, a testing site for atomic bombs and a disposal site for nuclear waste (what they call the “cradle-to-grave” nuclear industry). If you go to the Trinity Site, you’re in a military base and what is essentially a wildlife preserve for oryxes. If you visit the neighboring national park, you’re also hiking through a missile testing range and asked not to disturb any strange objects you might find because they might be undetonated bombs. The contrast that New Mexico offers is unique and a little terrifying. While “Recorded Lightning” doesn’t sit squarely in that landscape (it takes a little field trip to Kentucky), it inhabits that same emotional space.
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