Mary Quade, finalist in SFWP’s 2013 Literary Awards Program for Nonfiction, is also a poet. We discussed writing essays and poetry.
SL: Your collection of four essays, Ideal Uncertainties, was a finalist for the 2013 Literary Awards Program for Non-Fiction. What made you decide to enter SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?
MQ: I appreciated the work I read by past winners and the flexibility of the guidelines. I also liked that Lee Gutkind was judging. SFWP struck me as a unique organization, driven by a personal passion to promote writing and writers and clearly committed to their authors. It’s a generous contest in many ways, and I’m grateful to be recognized as a finalist.
SL: These four essays seem to draw on the past as well as biology (insects, eggs). How did they take shape? What was the original muse?
MQ: That’s a tough question because they all came from very different places. One began simply because I thought it would be fun to write about bugs. Somehow, after I thought about the term “true bug” and found it echoing in my mind with the Nicene Creed (“true God from true God”), my confirmation in the Lutheran Church and the early Christian churches of Turkey entered the conversation. Another I started because of my lifelong love of ducks and the mallard duck nests in our barn, but the coincidence of writing about ducklings hatching (and dying) while the Deepwater Horizon disaster snowballed was too compelling to ignore, so an oil spill seeped in. “Steel: Products of Cleveland” initially was as an essay about Superman (I teach a class called Comics and the Nuclear Age), but I’d also been poking around the then-closed ArcelorMittal steel mill, and so that seemed like an appropriate coupling. I’d visited the steel mill before the Anthony Sowell murders had surfaced; writing the essay, I became interested in the idea of what we know of a particular moment in time and what is hidden from us, perhaps to be exposed in the future. Eliot Ness and the unsolved Torso Murders followed. Depictions of scenes from the first Superman comics in 1938-39 sew these elements together. Superman is, of course, the Man of Steel, but he’s also the Man of Tomorrow. In the end, the essay is about hope, I suppose.
SL: You write poetry and nonfiction. Do you have a different process when you’re writing poems or prose?
MQ: Writing poems requires intense attention to language in the moment of creation; I figure out what the poem is about by choosing words, looking up etymologies, developing imagery, finding connections through sound. Poems are born out of the process of careful handling of language. Obviously, language is important to essays as well, but, for me, an essay pulls itself together through thematic connections and resonance between seemingly disparate stories and other content. I engage in research for my poems, but I relish research when writing essays. An essay needs time to unfold and reveal itself to me as I write.
SL: What is your mind set or process as you sit down to write?
MQ: I’m not a reluctant writer. I’m always excited to see what can be done with words. I’m not fearful of a blank page; I’m lucky to have that blank page. I know much of what I write will be bad, and that’s fine. The process I describe in the previous question is the pleasure. The product is only part of the reward.
SL: How do you balance writing with teaching and personal life?
MQ: Teaching takes a lot of energy, thought, and time in front of the computer grading. But it’s a great job. During the school year, I set aside specific time that I use exclusively for writing and guard it ferociously. And then I dive in when I’m not teaching. If I’m not writing, I’m not happy, and so it’s a priority. My husband has always been more than supportive of my writing.
SL: What’s next for Ideal Uncertainties?
MQ: I hope someday it (or parts of it) will develop into some larger whole and find an audience.
SL: Do you have any other projects you’re working on?
MQ: I have a poetry manuscript I’m trying to get off my hands. Any takers? It’s housebroken and doesn’t eat much.
SL: Any words of advice for writers on selecting writing contests?
MQ: I’ll admit, this was the first nonfiction contest I’ve submitted work to, so I’m not sure I’m any expert. But I’ve submitted to many poetry contests. There are a lot of contests out there, so be selective and intentional. Read the past winners. Research the judges. Understand the awards and process the contest uses to choose winners. Think about whether that entry fee would be better spent on a nice dinner or a good pair of socks. If you feel a hope for your writing that won’t be squelched by not winning, then send your best work.