How the moon feels and the balance of writing
By Monica Prince
Essayist Randon Billings Noble is featured as one of the outstanding contributors in the inaugural issue of the SFWP Annual, a new release from the Santa Fe Writers Project whose debut on October 1, 2017 in print and eBook format everywhere books are sold showcases some of the moving work from past issues of the SFWP Quarterly, SFWP’s online literary magazine that’s been running since 2002.
Her Annual-featured creative nonfiction essay, the research-focused “Moon and the Man,” was first published with Issue 1 of the Quarterly in the spring of 2015.
Monica Prince of the Santa Fe Writers Project asked Noble a few questions to help us learn more about Noble, her work, and her future as a writer.
Monica Prince: Where are you from? Where do you live now?
Randon Billings Noble: I grew up in New Jersey, the part of New Jersey (a west coast friend of mine claims) that’s really part of New England. I now live in Washington, DC – another place that feels weirdly…placeless.
MP: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing? Is writing a full-time job or do you balance it with another vocation?
RBN: I was an English major in college and have an MFA in creative writing. My work has almost always involved writing in some way – I’ve worked in publishing and in academia. Right now I feel like writing is my 2/3-time job and parenting my six year old twins is my other 2/3-time job.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing?
RBN: Reading Harriet the Spy in grade school made me want to be a writer and a spy. And that’s pretty much what an essayist does – observe what’s hidden or concealed, and then write it down for others to see and – hopefully – understand.
MP: What are you working on now?
RBN: I’m working on edits for my essay collection Be with Me Always, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2019.
The essays in Be With Me Always explore hauntedness – not through conventional ghost stories, but by considering the way certain people or places from our pasts cling to our imaginations. In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us, that get under our skin and into our minds and won’t leave until we have at least in some small way embraced or understood them.
But these essays look more specifically at the ways I have been haunted – by a near-death experience, the gaze of a nude model, thoughts of widowhood, Anne Boleyn’s violent death, a book I can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows my thoughts. Some of the essays are traditional in form; others break new ground and are more lyric. But whatever their subject or structure, these essays explore the ways we strive to hold onto our pasts while moving into the future.
The title comes from a line in Wuthering Heights: “Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Like Heathcliff, the essays in Be with Me Always stand at the window, hoping for a hand to knock, a plaintive voice to ask, “Let me in.”
MP: Who are your favorite authors?
RBN: I love the essayists Sei Shonagon, Virginia Woolf, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, and Rebecca Solnit.
For novelists. I go for Tolstoy and the Brontës.
E.L. Doctorow, a former teacher of mine, once said, “If you don’t have anything better to do, read Sister Carrie.” One day I didn’t so I did. I can’t say that Dreiser is now one of my favorite authors, but I do recommend him for times of boredom, apathy, ennui, and other states of generally casting about.
MP: What is your writing process like?
RBN: I get out in the world and look at things. I go to art museums. I street haunt. I try to write away from my desk – at a café, a library, a park – usually by hand at first. Then I come back and write on my computer. Sometimes I let it sit for what feels like a long time. Sometimes – rarely – an essay emerges almost fully formed, in one sitting. Often whatever I handwrote appears in the final, published version of an essay.
MP: What inspires your writing? What interests you?
RBN: As an essayist, I am omnivorously curious. Anything can spark an essay – something I read, something I see on the street, a conversation I overhear. It’s hard to pinpoint a particular theme in my work, but I often write about the different ways we try to find connection without losing a sense of self.
MP: “Moon and the Man” uses various tidbits of research and myth associated with the moon. What drew you to writing about the moon in this way? What was the research process for this piece?
RBN: It really did start with that opening question – wondering how the moon felt having a man walk on it.
Once I started thinking about the moon’s feelings I became curious about its history and its relationship with the earth. Then I wondered, How have people thought and felt about the moon? I looked for the earliest record (the lunar calendar made of bone), and then more “modern” accounts, and then contemporary ones.
MP: How did you decide to use the speaker in the way you did?
RBN: I didn’t make a conscious decision about what speaker to use and how. The speaker is just me, thinking the way I think.
MP: The form of the piece uses paragraphs in a different way. How do you typically format your nonfiction or other forms of writing?
RBN: I don’t have a typical format. I often write more straightforward – more narrative – essays, but I’ve recently taken a turn towards lyric essays, essays that rely more on imagery and intuition rather than narrative and exposition. I love how writing in a particular form can explore – and sometimes exploit – the relationship between the form and content of an essay.
For this piece, it felt rather dense with information. I wanted to give the reader room to pause between each section, to have a moment to savor or reflect before moving on to the next. So I made sure there were defined section breaks, instead of just paragraph breaks.
MP: What genres or forms do you enjoy most?
RBN: I am a monogamous essayist. Within that fidelity – right now, at least – I most enjoy writing lyric essays, especially hermit crab essays (essays that borrow another form – a recipe, a syllabus, a WebMD entry – the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell).
MP: Do you have any advice for other writers?
RBN: Jane Kenyon says it beautifully: “Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”
And this from Annie Dillard: “[S]pend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now … These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
And this line from Maeve Brennan – so powerful, especially when you feel torn by demands of work or family: “You are all your work has.”
Visit Randon Billings Noble at her website, where links to her published writing, teaching practices, and reviews are all available. Follow her on Twitter @RandonNoble to keep up with all her good news. Noble’s brief yet bold essay, “Moon and the Man,” offers a contemplation into ourselves and the moon, and you can read it in full here. Support the SFWP Annual online at Amazon or at a bookstore near you.
Randon Billings Noble’s essays have been published in many journals and literary magazines, including NonBinary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, and others. Her essay, “The Heart as a Torn Muscle,” was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She is the author of Devotional, a lyric essay chapbook, from Red Bird Chapbooks, and her full-length collection Be with Me Always is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2019. Currently, she’s the nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y., the Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular freelance reviewer for The A.V. Club.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, will receive a staged reading as part of the Women’s Voices International Theatre Festival in January 2018, and will premiere as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.