Author Eula Biss kicks off fall assembly series
Eula Biss, author of the 2013 First Year Reading Program book “Notes from No Man’s Land,” came to open up the fall Assembly Series Sept. 9 at Edison Theatre. She sat down with Student Life to discuss her writing process, dealing with the “blank page” and teaching her 4-year-old son how to kayak.
Her book is a collection of essays. Biss said each essay “was really its own project, and for most of the time I was writing this book, I didn’t have the sense that I was writing a book.” Looking back, however, she could see that there are similarities between the essays, although they all had a slightly different course. Personal experience and research are commonalities in all of Biss’ essays. “The impetus for many of the essays came from something that had happened to me or something that I had heard,” she said. She added that a number of them came from questions that she was puzzling over.
As Biss approached the end of an essay, she found intense satisfaction. But getting there can be overwhelming, as it is for all writers. Biss noted, “The process of writing can be so fraught and difficult, and it’s not like I’m having fun. But on a deeper level, I enjoy it. I love it.”
She singled out the title essay, “No Man’s Land,” as a particularly satisfying piece because she lived in the place that she was writing about. “What I was learning about in that essay, I could directly apply, and the lessons that it was teaching me were lessons I could really apply to the life that I was living,” she said. On the other hand, the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” was extremely hard to write because of the emotionally strenuous topic of lynching. Although the writing process went relatively quickly, spending time with that material, she said, was tough.
For writers dealing with the trouble of writing a first sentence, Biss offers some insight. She combats this hindrance by just trying to get something on the page. “I promise myself that whatever hits the page first doesn’t have to stay there,” she said. “Sometimes I’m really writing the middle of the essay, and I hope that by writing, some idea will be generated for the opening.” In addition, she finds that the first and last paragraphs are often not needed. “It’s kind of vestigial—I don’t need it. The first paragraph is a warm-up, and the last is a cool-down.”
Outside of writing, Biss is able to enjoy some free time, although she’s a working mother. She spends time outside and loves to swim, especially in Lake Michigan. Recently, her father brought her an unused, small kayak from his garage. Her vision is for her 4-year-old son to learn to paddle the kayak while she swims alongside him. She’s also looking forward to returning home to Chicago and testing the waters. Though she’s done a little Internet research to see that other 4-year-old children can kayak and believes it’s entirely plausible, she does realize the plan may not work: “I may be pushing it because he’s only 4 1/2!”