Interview with Mary Paumier Jones

The last paragraph of Mary Paumier Jones’s “Meander” leaves readers with a striking picture of the human brain as an illustration of the word the essay explores. “The shape is unmistakable,” she writes, “like a close-packed river shot from above, meandering within.”

Jones attributes her creation of this image to her discipline as a writer. Her mind may be blank, but she still forces herself to write.

“I had the first two parts of the essay, and I knew there had to be a third but I didn’t know what it was,” she says. “I went to sit down at my desk to write, and I really didn’t have any idea.”

In solving this problem, Jones relied not on inspiration but on a process of association, developed by many writers who realize good writing comes from steady practice, not a muse.

“This visual image came to my mind and I knew it was from a book that we have on the brain,” she says, giving a clue to another way writers foster “inspiration”: reading widely and well. “And the image was just of this cross-section of brain which looks like a bunch of little rivers all squished together. It came fairly quickly at the time that I needed it.”

Jones, who is used to writing long works, says “Meander” is one of the shortest pieces she’s ever written. “It was a sort of vacation,” she says. She says it was also one of the easiest pieces she’s written because she was “writing short.”

Jones’s interest in nonfiction began in 1991, when she enrolled in an essay class taught by Judith Kitchen (a contributor to Creative Nonfiction No. 2). “The class really opened my eyes to the fact that nonfiction writing didn’t have to be journalistic-that I could bring a lot of the same things I was learning in fiction to nonfiction.”

She has also found out over the years that creative nonfiction, for her, involves discovering and respecting the material’s own meanings and metaphors. “I would rather look at something that really happened and eventually tease the pattern out of it, rather than impose an arbitrary pattern on something. My feeling is the best writers are discovering a pattern in their material-not forcing one of their own onto it.”