Writing Personal Truth Through Nature and Metaphor: An Interview with Margie Patlak

Interview by Brian Wallace Baker

Margie Patlak has been writing professionally for over three decades. Her articles have appeared in many popular newspapers and magazines, such as Discover and The Washington Post, and her creative nonfiction can be found in such venues as Hippocampus, The Hopper, and Cold Mountain Review. I recently had the opportunity to interview Margie about her extensive writing career, as well as her essay “Rock of Ages,” which received an honorable mention in JuxtaProse’s 2018 nonfiction contest and was recently published in Volume 20. 

JP

It seems that writers are always being asked where they get their ideas, their stories. I won’t ask you that, but I am curious about what inspires you to write in the first place. What moves you to put pen to paper or fingers to computer keys? 

MP

Usually it is a driving curiosity about a topic and an urge to find more understanding and meaning in what I experience. 

JP

How did you discover yourself as a writer?

MP

Writing always went hand in hand with reading. I continually devour both nonfiction and fiction books, and then feel the need to process and share what I consume by writing about it—what goes in must come out. My commitment to being a writer as a profession though was solidified in graduate school when I was conducting research for my master’s degree in Environmental Studies. I realized I enjoyed the writing part of my thesis more than the research part. Simultaneously, I was supporting myself writing about my university’s research for its magazine. I realized it would take me two years to research a topic and write about it as an environmental scientist, but I could write about someone else’s research and be done with it in two weeks, and then move on to another topic, satisfying my far-ranging curiosity. This led me to write about science for newspapers and magazines. But eventually I tired of writing in the journalistic voice for these publications and wanted to move into a more literary realm and discover my own personal voice. After taking a few online classes in creative nonfiction, I morphed rather late in life into a personal essay writer.

JP

As you mentioned, you have published work in popular newspapers and magazines as well as literary journals. Do you have any advice for someone who would like to write for both the literary and popular crowds? How do these two worlds differ?  

MP

The popular publications and institutions I’ve written for have more restrictive writing styles and word lengths than literary journals, which can limit your creativity, but they pay so much more! So I suggest balancing more creative/literary writing pursuits with more lucrative writing jobs, unless you don’t have to worry about making an income.

JP

You have written about an extensive range of topics. Do you have a favorite topic or genre to write about/in? 

MP

Any topic or genre that gives me a better understanding of the natural world, in which I would include the human body and mind.

JP

How do you reserve time and mental energy for literary writing in addition to your professional writing career?  

MP

I love playing with words! It gives me energy to be creative with my literary writing after spending the day doing more mundane writing or other tasks. But I do need a solid block of time to complete my thoughts and do any kind of decent writing. I try to allot at least three-to-four-hour blocks of time when writing first drafts, although rewriting I can always do in short bursts. Some people play games on their phone when they are bored, but I prefer to rewrite sentences!  

JP

What role does research play in your writing? Do you enjoy the research part of the process?

MP

Usually I spend more time researching than writing my articles and essays. For “Rock of Ages,” for example, I read two books on Maine geology, tapped many online sources on continental drift and glaciology, and attended several educational talks and walks led by a park ranger at Acadia National Park. I enjoy the research end as much as the writing because it helps satisfy my driving curiosity about a topic. 

JP

Let’s take a look at your essay that was recently published in Volume 20 of JuxtaProse. Simply put, “Rock of Ages” is about rocks. It largely revolves around your encounters with rocks on the coast of Maine, as well as your general, life-long fascination with rocks. But obviously it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about the metaphorical meaning rocks have in your life and the strength and wisdom they provide, even as you and your family face tragic loss. How did rocks come to have this meaning for you?

MP

In my first draft, this essay was only about the geology/rocks of Maine. Then I interwove the information about my family and why I’m so intrigued with rocks to make the essay more engaging to the reader, who may not necessarily be drawn to geology. But in the process, I discovered the deeper message coming from the stones I held in my hands. To find that message you have to read the essay all the way to the end.

JP

What do you hope readers of this essay will learn from rocks?

MP

The long time frames in geology that shape the rocks we see, as they put our own brief human lives in perspective. That’s probably the most important thing I hope readers of this essay will grasp, as well as that change is constant but something always remains.

JP

Why do you think rocks have been so fascinating to you throughout your life?

MP

I always liked their beauty, and that I could collect and keep them as reminders of places I’ve been. When I was older, I learned to appreciate their different forms and origins and developed a respect for their age and history. I loved imagining what they had been through over such long periods of time. 

JP

Are there other aspects of the natural world where you find a similar metaphorical depth? 

MP

If you read my other essays, or my book when it’s published, you’ll see I use nature as the ultimate writing prompt: the life cycle of the monarch butterfly morphs into a metaphor for my own family’s migrations and what is passed on from generation to generation, the dramatic tides teach me how fleeting time is and the ephemeral nature of raising a child, and the clouds and weather reveal forces greater than ourselves that take away all illusions of control.

JP

There’s a lot of scientific information in this essay, but you somehow manage to share this information in a way that doesn’t feel technical or tedious. It just feels like a natural part of the narrative. What’s your secret for accomplishing this? 

MP

I broke up the large blocks of geology information into more easily digestible components by interweaving a narrative strand about my family and how they changed over time. This narrative arc echoes the geology sections and brings them down to a more easily relatable human scale for the reader. I also tried to use vivid verbs and translate technical terms and concepts into phrases the reader can readily understand. In addition, I take the reader along on my journey of discovery, first posing both the physical and psychological puzzles I am trying to address before providing answers. This helps build some tension in the piece. 

JP

You mentioned a book you have in the works. I understand it’s a book-length nature memoir called More Than Meets the Eye: Exploring Nature and Loss on the Rocky Maine Shore. Can you tell me more about it?

MP

I started writing this book ten years ago when my husband and I bought a place on the rocky shore of northern Maine and began spending our summers and falls there. I wanted to learn about the nature in Maine, so during each stay I would research and write about what I encountered. But because I was also dealing with the loss of my mother and brother and the decline of my father, my family kept popping up in these personal essays. At a certain point I realized I was writing not just about nature, but about the nature of life and what remains once the ashes are spread; what nature can teach us in that regard. Eventually I ended up with 24 related essays that I compiled into the book, which will be published by Down East Books in the spring of 2021.

JP

What do you think the future has in store for your writing? Are there any current projects you’re excited about?  

MP

After writing long essays for my book, I thought it would be fun to experiment in the flash essay form. I’m excited about an online flash nonfiction essay course I’m currently taking that’s sparking my creativity and taking my writing in new directions, although I’m not sure what my next major project will be. 

To read more of Margie Patlak’s work, visit her website.


Brian Wallace Baker is an MFA candidate at Western Kentucky University. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review and Atticus Review, and his poetry and essays have appeared in Panorama, Outlet, Zephyrus, and Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

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