a literary review
the museum talks to Issue Five contributor Allison Coffelt about her essay “The Mud Hut.”
“The Mud Hut” addresses what it’s like for friends and family to see a loved one enlist in the military and go to basic training. What led you to write about this particular topic?
AC: I would say that rather than writing about a topic, in this piece I was drawn to capturing a moment in time, a summer, and the people in that sphere. This essay was very personal for me because I love the Yarnell family so much. I felt like it was an opportunity to capture a transitional time where a decision was impacting the people surrounding it. Sometimes when I write essays, I’m interested in exploring a topic, but usually that interest is rooted in my own curiosity or personal experience. Sometimes it’s rooted in an immersive experience. This was the latter—I was there, experiencing it, and then later I felt like I needed to put it down on paper.
A good deal of the essay relies on dramatic scene. Can you talk about the process of how you reconstructed these passages and your approach to writing nonfiction in general?
AC: This is one of the earliest essays I wrote after I decided to start focusing on creative nonfiction. It’s been heavily revised since the initial draft (which was more than a year and a half ago), but many of the scenes have been left unchanged. I relied heavily on memory and I wrote bits and pieces in vignettes as the summer wound down. I didn’t know where it was headed, but occasionally I would just felt like writing. Later, the scenes began to take shape into an essay.
I ended up showing this essay, actually reading it to the Yarnells at breakfast one morning over the Christmas holidays. I know that’s a little bit controversial, but it felt appropriate in this situation because of how close to family they are. They really loved the essay. They pointed out a few areas where I need fact-checking, Above all, they loved the way the piece painted a scene and held memories for them. They were glad for the reflection and to have a memento of that summer.
In my general approach to nonfiction, I would say my technique varies depending on what I write. In the longer project I’m currently working on, I was very intentional about note taking, recording interviews, and cataloguing photos. Other times, if I have an idea I want to explore, I’ll begin with a more traditional research approach and investigation questions, read a lot on a topic, take notes, and free write. Every now and then if I feel inspiration for a lyric or humor essay, I’ll jot it down and see if anything comes from it. I’m open to different forms of the essay. That could change over time; a favorite might emerge. We’ll see. I let the subject, context, and intent can dictate my writerly approach.
We’re curious to know, what essayists in particular do you admire?
AC: Essayists—that’s tough. There are so many good ones! I’ve recently been reading a lot of Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson, and loving their works. Eula Biss has a new book coming out about vaccines that I’m really excited about. I admire how Maggie’s works are hybrids of essays and poetry or scholarly work because that’s what makes sense to her. I think the beauty of the essay, or of creative nonfiction, is its flexibility.
Let’s see. Who else? I love George Saunders (who doesn’t?) and I tend to be drawn towards essay anthologies (like Philip Lopate’s or John D’Agata’s or the Best American series) for the variety.
“The Mud Hut” portrays a vivid setting. Can you talk a bit about the role of setting in the essay?
AC: Thank you for saying the setting is so vivid. I really care about sense of place in my writing—I think probably because I’m interested in how where we’re born or where we live influences our opportunities and worldview. In the case of “The Mud Hut” and the Yarnell family, the river is its own character. It’s a unique place where we all come together and relax; it’s unifying. Anyone and everyone is welcome in the Yarnell home, and if it weren’t for years of going down to the river together, I would never developed such a strong friendship with them.
In this piece, the narrator is an outsider who has been more or less grafted into a tightly-knit family. Tell us a little bit about how this point of view affects your writing stylistically and thematically.
AC: Since this piece is so personal to me, I’m sure my relationship with the family did have an impact. I think whenever you’re writing, the narrator or storyteller will have some sort of background that impacts the way they tell the story. In this case, I think some of the dreamier moments in the prose were influenced by the fact that it felt like I was remembering, rather than reporting, when I wrote. Thematically, I hope I was able to present a more complex view of the individuals in the essay because I know them so well. I think there might be expectations about how a family from this part of the country looks or talks or acts, but I think I was able to present a multi-faceted situation because we’re so close.
Tell us a little about your current writing interests and any new projects.
AC: For the past eight or nine months, I’ve been working on a longer project that centers on Haiti, international development, and the efficacy of aid. I’ve been fascinated with Haiti for nearly a decade, and I was actually pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector before I decided to go back to school for writing. I think there are worthwhile questions to ask about aid (international and otherwise), the history behind places who receive aid, and who benefits, and how, from giving. Other than that, I’ve been writing a few essays on the side. One of them, a lyric essay called “Inscription,” will be in the April print issue of Prick of the Spindle.
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Allison Coffelt is currently a graduate student in creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. Her writing often centers on social justice issues and sense of place. She is a Midwesterner, who, after some hopping around, is back in her hometown of Columbia, Missouri.