Western Washington University Professor of English Brenda Miller has won a Washington Book Award for her new memoir, "An Earlier Life." These prestigious awards are given annually through The Washington Center for the Book, a partnership of The Seattle Public Library and Washington State Library. Ironically, one of the other finalists in the Biography/Memoir category was "My Old Man and the Mountain" by WWU English alumnus Leif Whittaker, meaning Vikings had staked spots in half the slots of that category!
Western Today caught up with Miller and asked her a few questions about the book and her writing process.
WT: How is writing a memoir different from a typical novel or nonfiction work?
'Memoir is based on, as the word suggests, memory. It differs from an autobiography in that the memoir usually doesn’t try to encompass an entire life, but instead focuses on a particular theme that connects these memories. This book is a collection of mostly stand-alone personal essays that accumulate into a memoir about the ways we can lead many different lives in one lifetime, and how we can look back on our 'past selves' with compassion."
WT: It would seem the old adage “write what you know” would be doubly fitting for a memoir, but of course many of anyone’s most personal memories are often painful or difficult to write about. Was dealing with those issues cathartic for you?
"I wouldn’t say 'cathartic,' but my purpose in writing memoir or personal essay is to find out what I don’t already know. In other words to make connections or discovery through the writing itself. My essays are usually characterized as 'lyric' in nature, meaning that I focus more on language, imagery, and form. Sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve revealed until after the essay's been published. For example, one of the essays in An Earlier Life is written in the form of a series of rejection notes. By utilizing the recognizable voice of rejection notes, the essay becomes humorous, though deep emotional material finds its way into the form, almost on its own."
WT: The book focuses on a number of central pillars that have helped you move forward through life, such as your religion and other things that give you joy such as music and your work with rescue dogs. How have these things been anchors that have allowed you to move forward through life in an authentic way?
"For me, authenticity is one of the recurring themes in my work and my life: how to cultivate the most authentic life possible. When I’m working with my foster dogs or singing with the Bellingham Threshold Singers or creating a holiday meal for Hanukkah, I feel a deep joy that signals I’m in touch with my most authentic self. I now also volunteer at Whatcom Hospice House, and I look forward to being there each week, when my focus is fully on others."
WT: What is the one snapshot into your past that you most regret DIDN’T make it into “An Earlier Life?”
"I wouldn’t say there’s anything missing from An Earlier Life. I have three other book-length collections of essays (Season of the Body; Blessing of the Animals; and Listening Against the Stone), and each book represents the work that most engaged me during those phases of my writing life. I have a new book manuscript, tentatively titled Canary: A Broken Memoir, that picks up where An Earlier Life leaves off, detailing my father’s final illness and death last year."
WT: Winning a Washington Book Award is a huge deal and a great honor. How does winning such a prize alter or encourage your plans for that next, as-yet-unwritten phase in your life?
"I was so amazed and grateful to have received the Washington State Book Award for An Earlier Life, especially because the book was published by a small, independent press. It showed me that I don’t need to alter my style to appeal to more mainstream publishers, that I am fine in my 'lyric essay' niche!"