On Food and Field Research

On the personal nature of writing, her experiences with digital storytelling, and what you can bring to a table that's already crowded.

Marissa Landrigan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Creative Nonfiction, Guernica, Orion, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Diagram, South Loop Review, and others. She runs a food-themed reading series and has written about food for the Atlantic. Marissa is an assistant professor of English Writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where she teaches creative, digital, and professional writing.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Marissa will be teaching a master class on Research Techniques, in which she will help writers with fact-checking, as well as online and real-world research. Creative Nonfiction’s Chelsea Denard talked to Marissa about the personal nature of writing, her experiences with digital storytelling, and what you can bring to a table that's already crowded. Learn more about Marissa on her website.

CNF: You teach digital storytelling: how would you summarize what that entails?

LANDRIGAN: In one of the articles I have my Digital Storytelling students read early in the semester, museum professional Jasper Visser says "there is no such thing as digital storytelling. There is only storytelling in the digital age…" and I think that summarizes how I try to approach the class. Our primary focus is how to shape a compelling narrative, as it would be in any creative writing class. But in digital courses, we play with composing those narratives using digital tools and technologies like audio and video editing programs, social media, even video game software. Of course, writing in digital media means grappling with new and evolving narrative structures, changing levels of reader interaction with texts, collaborative and generative authorships, and many other new, thrilling challenges to established ideas about what it means to tell a story.

CNF: What is the impact of digital storytelling on the world of readers? Have any of your students astounded you with their inventiveness?

LANDRIGAN: They have all astounded me! Everything I see in these classes feels fresh and new. Students feel empowered to compose creatively using technologies that are familiar, that they've not been taught to value in an educational setting. It's amazing what a student is capable of when you tell her Instagram is a valid form of creative writing. I also think this inclusiveness in terms of "what counts" as a medium for storytelling is having a significant impact on the world of readers, at least in part by welcoming in people who might not think of themselves as readers, like gamers. But what is a video game if not a character- and plot-driven narrative driven by conflict, set in a new world brought to life through evocative detail? My hope is that digital storytelling expands our notion of what a story can be, who can write one, and what it means to read.

CNF: Food and nutrition writing are very popular right now; what would you say to all of the budding foodie writers who want to be published?

LANDRIGAN: Figure out what you have to offer. Everyone eats—so the question any aspiring food writer should ask herself is, what about my eating (or cooking, or relationship to food) is new or different? What can you bring to the table that's already so crowded? And I don't think you necessarily have to have grown up in some exotic locale in order to have a fresh perspective. I never would have imagined myself as a food writer, because I spent most of my life as an awkward, clumsy cook, or an unhealthy vegetarian with terrible nutrition, or an ethical meat-eater: never quite fitting in, and certainly never feeling like a foodie. Turns out, that's what made my food writing intriguing. Find out what sets you apart, and write from within that perspective.

CNF: If you wrote a story about your eating and cooking habits, what would it be called?

LANDRIGAN: I once titled a chapter in my book "No June Cleaver," so that's what immediately comes to mind. I grew up in an Italian-American family to whom food was everything—love, nurturing, connective force—and I was a clumsy mess in the kitchen. For a long time, I thought that I was less of a woman because I couldn't cook the way the women around me did, so I changed my eating habits to set myself apart even more. Though I eventually learned to cook for myself, and eat a diet that more closely matches my family's, I kept a little of my contrarian streak when I decided to start eating meat again. I'm not exactly the picture of domesticity, but I do care about feeding family.

CNF: What do you find appealing about writing in the first person? Do you also gravitate toward first-person narratives as a reader?

LANDRIGAN: Most of my favorite works, whether fiction, memoir, or essays, are written in the first person. I love the first person because it gives me direct access to the innermost sanctum of the narrator's heart. I read because I want to be moved emotionally, to feel deeply, and the first person gets me closest to recreating the emotional experience of the piece. I write in the first person because I want to share, to give of myself the way so many authors have opened themselves to me.

CNF: How do you get readers to care about your stories when they're written in the first person? How do you make the personal universal?

LANDRIGAN: Sheryl St. Germain told me once that she never thinks she is writing about herself—her experiences are just a lens for her to examine some larger idea. Or, as I put it in the classroom: you are the camera. Something else is the subject of the film, and it's up to you to figure out what. My first question is always "what is this essay, this experience really about?" Put another way: why should they care? If I do this, I can envision a much more lively, cinematographic essay. I can see the places I need to recreate with description, I can hear the voices of the characters populating each scene, I can feel the forward momentum of the plot. And, when I need to go inside my narrator's head, I make sure what she's thinking will illuminate the true heart of the piece.

CNF: Have you ever found that writing can become too personal at times?

LANDRIGAN: Absolutely—for both the writer and the reader. I've certainly held bits of a story back from a piece of writing, because I thought it would infringe on someone else's privacy, or because, contrary to popular belief about memoirists, I don't actually want to share all of myself with my audience. But I also try to think hard about whether or not the personal narrative I'm writing needs to be so personal. I don't believe in confessional writing for the sake of simply unburdening myself. Meghan Daum says she doesn't confess in her work, because "confessions are not processed or analyzed."1 I agree—I think for personal writing to have value, I need to have worked through the experience already, and need to have decided that the process of exploring that personal subject has some merit for a reader. There has to be something for her to gain, something to make the exposure worthwhile. And I've scrapped essays that I started writing because I realized that, though I may have needed to write that story, no one needs to read it.

CNF: To what extent do you incorporate research into your first-person narratives? What kinds of research do you tend to use?

LANDRIGAN: Research is, by far, my favorite part of the writing process. Whatever I'm writing, even if it's completely personal, I almost always begin with research, though that can take on so many forms. For a recent piece, my research included reading a series of Wikipedia entries (and their original source material) about the various biological functions of skin. For an essay in progress, my research involved driving around western Pennsylvania to visit old cemeteries. My favorite method is field research: going out into the world, situating myself in a place, engaging in conversations, exploring. Research helps me open up beyond myself, and find the larger context into which I can place my first-person narrative, plus it provides lots of opportunity for action in an otherwise largely-internal form of writing. And it's just fun: the research phase is the time when I just get to look and learn and soak up and wander around and trust it will get me somewhere.

CNF: What’s the best personal advice you’ve been given?

LANDRIGAN: Terry Tempest Williams once told me when she sits down at her desk to begin her writing week on a Monday morning, she puts two things on the desk beside her: a candle and a bowl of water. The candle was for light, for scent, for atmosphere. But the bowl of water? It's there so that, on Friday afternoon, when she finishes the week, even if she feels she has accomplished nothing, she can look at the bowl and see how much water has evaporated in that time. It reminds her, she said, that presence is progress. That's stuck with me for years, and I try to apply it to my writing and my life. Showing up counts, even if you don't always know how, even if you can't see the impact right away.

CNF: Similarly, what’s the best personal advice you’ve given?

I just wrote my Creative Nonfiction students a letter to end our semester together, and it included some advice I stumbled upon when I was around their age: your most spectacular failures should be the site of your biggest leaps in learning. I was writing about almost flunking out of college as an undergrad, to tell them that it wasn't until I came that close to losing it that I really appreciated how much I wanted an education. But then I realized how true it was in so many other areas of my life. Every time I felt like I'd truly, deeply messed up, I knew I was really close to something really important. It's not just a matter of learning from the failure, or learning not to repeat mistakes—it's about seeing the sense of shame that accompanies a failure as an insight, showing you how much you care about whatever it is you're failing at.

CNF: What's the biggest mistake you made as a writer?

LANDRIGAN: Being too impatient. I still struggle with this, though I'm trying to get better. It's a problem in big and small ways. On the smaller scale, it's meant I've sent out essays for possible publication with glaring errors still present, or I've misspelled an editor's name in a cover letter. Both cringe-inducing errors that, while minor, could really have affected my chances of getting published. But in a larger sense, patience is really important for a writer. I've given up on essays that were difficult to write because I was impatient they weren't developing quickly enough. I've sent out essays that needed more time, more work, more patience. And I've been impatient with myself. I sometimes go weeks without working because I don't have the patience to plod along slowly, thinking if I can only write 50 words today, why bother? That's definitely a mistake. Inching along still gets you somewhere eventually.

CNF: What role does social media play in your career as a writer?

LANDRIGAN: Social media is an extension of my writing community. As a post-MFA writer, I've found it invaluable for continuing to read, exchange, share, and support the writing of my contemporaries. I've been able to keep up with the publications of the modern writers I most admire by following them all on Twitter, and I've had excellent discussions of new publications in the comments section on Facebook. On social media,  I've gotten to "meet" writers who live on the other side of the country, or world. I try to treat social media the same way I treated my workshop cohort: I give much more attention to others than I ask them to give to me, and I've found a supportive, engaged, and ever-expanding community of writers as a result.

1. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/18/meghan-daum-interview-golden-age-women-essayists

About the Author

Chelsea Denard

Chelsea Denard is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a Creative Writing major at Arizona State University online. She moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles in 2014, and still has not bought proper snow boots.

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