Understanding the Essay: an interview with Patricia Foster, co-editor

Katharine Monger

We are pleased to announce Understanding the Essay, Patricia Foster's fourth anthology, co-edited with Jeff Porter!  Foster's previous editorial work includes Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul (Anchor/Doubleday, 1994), Sister to Sister (Anchor/Doubleday, 1996), and The Healing Circle, co-edited with Mary Swander (Dutton, 1998).  She is also the author of Just beneath My Skin (University of Georgia Press, 2004) and the memoir All the Lost Girls (University of Alabama, 2000), winner of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for Women’s Nonfiction.  Check out Understanding the Essay from Broadview Press today!

M: So many authors write of that moment when the internal desire to create something meets an external reality, often in the middle years of childhood.  As a way of introduction, what drew you to take your first writing class? 

F: In many ways I contradict, or at least, revise the premise of writing as an act of identity in childhood.  I became obsessed with writing in my late 20s when my husband and I moved to Seattle after camping for two months on beaches and in rain forests from L.A. to Alaska.  I’d just finished an MFA in visual art from UCLA and when we arrived in Seattle, we had nothing except for what we’d brought in the car.  One afternoon I picked up Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and lay sprawled across the bed, reading.  After finishing the book, I surprised myself.  “I want to do that,” I thought and went into another room to write a story.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I’d never written a story before.  It was as if I’d been pulled underwater, swimming intuitively with Dewey Dell and Vardaman, Darl and Jewel.   After I finished mystory, I called up the English Department at the University of Washington.  I was told that classes had begun two weeks earlier and that all writing classes were full.  I persisted, getting the names of the writing faculty.  I called each one and asked if I could audit the class (no pay; I didn’t have a job yet).  To my delight, one generous teacher allowed me to sit in on his Wednesday night workshop; he was also generous enough to critique my story.  With that, I was hooked. We moved back to L.A. where I took classes at UCLA Extension, then I came here to the Writers Workshop. 

M: How have your life events, including those “social and economic sphere(s)” and/or “aesthetic traditions,” as you discuss in your essay within this anthology, "Reading "Georgia O'Keeffe," influenced your work?

F: Like Joan Didion, I’m deeply influenced by place.  I come from a land of swamps and lagoons, a galaxy of creeks and bays and rivers that often flood the low lying land.  I grew up in the 50s and 60s in a small Alabama town about seven miles from the Gulf of Mexico, a tropical backwater where honeysuckle vines crawl up garbage cans, circle drain pipes and clot the window screens. It was a conservative, vernacular culture, a storytelling culture, and the fact that I came of age in this culture during the dramatic changes of the 1960s (Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Identity Politics, Vietnam War Protests) deeply affected me.  The conservative values of the culture gave me something to push against.  The intimate talk of stories gave me something to love.  The social changes of the 60s gave me something I now categorize as hope.  Regardless of the genre, I like work that reveals the complications of a hidden life, suggests the texture and mood of place, the implications of a history, a morality.  Work that sucks the air out of my lungs.  I have to remember to breathe.

M: As a follow-up, how has editing anthologies influenced your own creative writing?

F: I don’t know that editing anthologies has influenced my own creative writing.  In many ways, it feels like an adjunct to writing memoir, essays, stories and novels.  What editing several anthologies has done in my writing life is to make me consider the intellectual breadth of a genre (or subject) as opposed to my singular interests. So – ha! – it does make me read more extensively, which is always a good thing for my writing.  I think of anthologies as a way of curating an idea or a group of ideas, collecting individual pieces and assembling them, much like the curator of an art show who brings together various artists under a conceptual or stylistic theme. 

M: Why rise to the challenge of “understanding the essay”?  What do you think pushed you to begin asking these questions—do you think you owe more to your identity as a writer, as a scholar, or to something else entirely?

F: In many ways, my intent for “understanding the essay” (showing its breadth, its stylistic promiscuity) emerged from teaching in the MFA Program in Nonfiction for almost twenty years.  I frequently teach memoir, and there are some very good books that discuss the history and craft of memoir. When I teach the personal and cultural essay, there is an absence of critical analysis or close reading of the essay.   As well, there are few book reviews of collections of essays. One of the ways to begin remedying the situation is to focus on the essay as a genre, particularly a genre in which many contemporary writers are exploring. 

M: What do you hope for the future of this anthology? 

F: Understanding the Essay is meant to give a critical context to the essay as both a canonical and re-emerging genre.  In the past, the essay has been pronounced “dead” and then, like all eccentrics, it is revived as a vital art form, flirting and showing off its new citizenship.  The essay is now showing up everywhere: from The New Yorker to internet blogs to radio essays to undergraduate and graduate classes in most universities where students enroll in both general and specialized courses in creative nonfiction.  I can certainly imagine Understanding the Essay as a text for such university courses – in fact, it’s being taught at the University of Missouri, the University of Idaho, Ohio University and several other colleges – as well as a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the genre, anyone writing the genre.  The essay is a very elastic genre and this anthology promotes that reality.