In this illuminating conversation, learn insights into writing process, revision, and the benefits of writing community as University of Chicago Writer’s Studio instructor Lauren Cowen interviews 2018 Writer’s Studio Student Prize winner Nadine Kenney Johnstone.
The first time I “met” Nadine Kenney Johnstone, I knew her only as #9, one more than a dozen numbered entries that I received to review for the 2018 Writer’s Studio Student Prize. In a collection of submissions that were particularly strong, hers stood out. The entries varied in subject matter and form—there was fiction, nonfiction, a screenplay, poetry—but each work showcased a reward (or several) that I turn to storytelling to find: writing that transports me, that is palpably believable—whether factual or not—that vibrates with the strong presence of a narrator or voice who is alive on the page, where an honest wrestle for understanding gives rise to intimacy and true emotion. It is writing that comes when a writer applies an ample command of craft to the scouring of heart and mind. Essay #9, “Smoke,” provided all of the above, and then some. Once I learned the name of #9, I sought out her memoir Of This Much I’m Sure, which traces her young adulthood and a journey through IVF treatments that ultimately became a battle for Nadine’s own life. What those works share is a narrator who in spirit and tone is the best kind of guide—a generous, honest, insightful “I.” As it happens, those same qualities were also evident in the Nadine I met and interviewed by phone. We talked about a range of topics: from her writing process and commitment to revision to why, as a seasoned writer and instructor, she continues to take writing classes. As Nadine describes, it was in Randy Albers’s class at the Writer’s Studio that she discovered the “breakthrough” unifying vision that contributes mightily to the winning essay’s cohesiveness, propulsive force, and ultimate resonance.
"I’d been writing different versions of different scenes of this for the last ten years, writing little tidbits just for myself." —Nadine Kenney Johnstone
Lauren Cowen: There is so much that is working overtime in this essay—it is so layered. Can you talk a bit about creating that? Where did the essay start for you?
Nadine Kenney Johnstone: First, thank you. I’d been writing different versions of different scenes of this for the last ten years, writing little tidbits just for myself. I had journaled all these different pieces. But it was in Randy Albers’s class at the Graham School that I landed on a way to bring all those pieces together. He uses the Story Workshop Method®, which we were taught to use at Columbia College. It’s a wonderful approach, a wonderful method, and one of the things you do is this object game where you go around and everyone says an object out loud. Someone said cigarette, I believe, and the idea of smoke, it just popped in my head and it started to seem like this interesting metaphor: if someone is smoking near you it kind of seeps into everything else. You can’t totally avoid it—even if you want to—and that was the impetus, a way of linking all these different little scenes together.
LC: I was fascinated by the way you use that. There is smoke in the literal concrete sense and as this governing metaphor that unifies the material and helps orient the reader.
NKJ: Yes, yes. . . . I teach something in my writing course called the container essay. The idea is that you use one thing as the vessel for the emotional undercurrent. So you have an object, say, or something less tangible, like smoke, and it’s really the thing that holds all together, all the layers of internal tension that are going on. I find it to be really effective. Once you latch onto that container or objective correlative, it becomes much easier to write because now you don’t have to make as many decisions. It narrows your focus and now you can say, “Okay. It has to be related to this theme or this object and everything else goes.” That has been a really helpful technique for me, and whenever I’m trying to remind myself of how to do it, I look at Ann Hood’s Modern Love essays or Megan Stielstra’s essays, which I love. She has a really great way of focusing on a single object or point and using that to showcase emotional undercurrents.
"Once you latch onto that container or objective correlative, it becomes much easier to write because now you don’t have to make as many decisions. It narrows your focus and now you can say, 'Okay. It has to be related to this theme or this object and everything else goes.'"—Nadine Kenney Johnstone
LC: Which I imagine is especially helpful when tapping intense emotions. What was it about Randy Albers’s class or the Story Workshop Method®—for those of us who are uninitiated in it—that allows you to access a way of seeing or organizing material that you might not otherwise have recognized?
NKJ: I had the wonderful fortune to study under John Schultz (creator of the Story Workshop Method®). As I understand it, it’s a way to access creativity from various angles that are a little less traditional but very innate to human beings. (She describes a horseshoe arrangement of chairs where everyone is visible and a variety of exercises intended to help a writer see what comes to mind with great clarity.) They’re really meditations and visualizations [that help you] develop the practice of observing in your mind. So you can go from observing your immediate environment to observing the scenes you want to write. The teacher is guiding you, directing you to notice, asking what are those details? What is that object? That smell? You develop it in your head and then end up having to tell the group. The teacher’s job is to coach you to get your voice out there, to move your body, to gesture. So if you say, “Then someone pushed someone else,” the teacher says, “Okay. What did that look like? Did he gesture?” It is such a wonderful way to develop the brain, oral storytelling, gesture and feel it in your body that by the time you get to the in-class writing portion, it is so developed, you have been so guided and coached to see and experience everything that by the time you get it down on the page, it feels much easier, much more fluid. It’s impossible to have writer’s block when you do a Story Workshop class. . .
LC: And having the right person guiding, coaching—that must be key.
NJK: Yes, yes! It’s so important. When I heard Randy was going to be at the Graham School, I was over the moon. That class was so impactful. Randy is one of the most amazing teachers I’ve ever had. He knows how to coach. He knows how to guide. He really has a way of eliciting those details from you that you hadn’t noticed before. I came up with all these vignettes for smoke and by the time I was writing in class, writing “Smoke” as an essay, a lot of the scenes were just visceral in my head.
LC: It sounds like an incredibly effective way of getting around that executive function, the editors or censors that get in the way. I learned after submitting my list for the winning entry and runners up that all three writers had come out of Randy’s class.
NKJ: I’m not surprised. He’s so encouraging. He has a way of making you feel so supported.
"It’s really a way of keeping myself accountable, to keep developing my craft." —Nadine Kenney Johnstone
LC: You have so much going on—a young son, teaching at Loyola, family, coaching, writing, friends. How do you find time for your writing or to fit in the time required to take a class?
NKJ: I find it so important. I have tried to make myself accountable, and I find that that’s the way I’m most accountable: when I’m taking someone’s class. Right after I graduated (with an MFA), I moved halfway across the country to Massachusetts where my husband’s family is and so suddenly, being without a writing community. . . it was heartbreaking. I didn’t realize it right at the time I was graduating. I thought, “Oh, great. I’ve graduated. I don’t have weekly deadlines. I can get a full-time job. I don’t have to be suffering and broke and all those things.” And suddenly you realize, “Oh my gosh. I had such a supportive, guiding community.” To be able to have teachers and willing readers, it’s so important.
I started teaching workshops [at Grub Street] and one of the wonderful benefits was that if you were teaching one, you could take one. And I did that for quite a while. When I moved back to Chicago, I started taking online classes. And as I said, it’s really a way of keeping myself accountable, to keep developing my craft.
LC: The essay and the memoir provide the reader this wonderful feeling of shared discovery; I’m riding shotgun through the narrator’s struggle for understanding. And somehow you manage to weave past and present, action and reflection, and still, I’m right there. I’m never confused about where I am.
NKJ: It’s definitely a process of discovery for me. I don’t start with outlines. In Story Workshop Method® we’re always taught to follow our intention wherever that takes us, and so with “Smoke,” I’d just write these little vignettes and see where they took me. The initial process is about just getting it all down on the page. So much of the end result depends on what happens in revision. Dinty Moore has this saying: “I’m not a great writer, but I’m an excellent reviser.” And I really like that because I find that a lot of the work I do happens in the rewrite.
"Once I have it all down, I can see all the scenes. I’ll write a line next to each one that says what that scene (or segment) is about, and sometimes, by looking at just those short lines, I can see what the essay is about." —Nadine Kenney Johnstone
Once I have it all down, I can see all the scenes. I’ll write a line next to each one that says what that scene (or segment) is about, and sometimes, by looking at just those short lines, I can see what the essay is about. It helps me look at it and say, “Now, how did I get from here to here?” and “How do these link?” “Is this relevant?” I can see where it’s clunky or confusing, so I do a lot of cutting, adding, moving. I start the process of elimination of, “Okay, this doesn’t belong here” or “Oh, I need to add something else here.” I can chop what doesn’t seem relevant. And once I’ve moved everything around, I ask, “How is it transitioning from one scene to another?” I read it out loud to see how it flows. It doesn’t help if I just read it in my own head. I have to hear it aloud.
Lauren Cowen is the author of three essay collections, including the New York Times Bestseller Daughters and Mothers, and a host of pieces in publications such as Chicago magazine. Her work has also been featured on NPR.
Nadine Kenney Johnstone is the author of the memoir, Of This Much I'm Sure, winner of the CWA Book of the Year award. Coverage of her memoir has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Today’s Parent, MindBodyGreen, Metro, and Chicago Health Magazine, among others. She teaches at Loyola University and received her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago. Her other work has been featured in various magazines and anthologies, including Chicago magazine, The Moth, PANK, and The Magic of Memoir. Nadine is a writing coach who presents at conferences internationally. She lives near Chicago with her family.
If you are also inspired to take part in the vibrant community of writers downtown at the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio, please explore our classes and stay in touch with us on our Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Learn about Randy Albers’s upcoming Autumn Quarter 2019 class, Experiments in Voice and Style: Finding Your Own, and stay tuned for more classes with Writer’s Studio instructors Lauren Cowen and Megan Stielstra.