Tools From Fiction Helped Build a National Magazine Award Feature Finalist

From a post on by Madeline Bodin headlined “Tools from fiction build a sophisticated National Magazine Award feature finalist”:

Tamara Dean thinks a lot about the elements of story, whether she is writing for magazines such as The Progressive; essays for Orion or Creative Nonfiction; or a fictional short story for a literary journal such as the Bellevue Literary Review. “I’m an impatient reader,” she says. “I find it hard to stay with moony or philosophical nature writing. I want things to move along. I want my revelations to come with liveliness.”

That thoughtfulness underlies “Slow Blues: On confronting the wonder and terror of nature,” published in the autumn 2020 issue of The American Scholar, and a finalist for the 2021 National Magazine Award for feature writing.

“Slow Blues” is taken from the common name for a particular type of firefly that lives only in the same stretch of southwestern Wisconsin that Dean calls home. Her story — part nature essay, part personal essay and part journalistic report—takes readers on a journey through the same region, where she is drawn by her awe of fireflies. It’s also a journey through her personal struggle to recover from multiple cases of Lyme disease, which left her fearful she might have to leave therural land she loved:

We could find a safer place to call home. But we might sacrifice, among many things, the potential for regular awe. I wasn’t sure I could make the trade.

The structure of Dean’s piece, made up of entwined story strands, is known to essayists as a braided essay, and similar to what some journalists call a woven narrative. It moves readers from moment to idea to information to digression along a route that is neither predictable or random.

“I find it hard to stay with moony or philosophical nature writing,” Dean says. “I want things to move along.”

Dean earned an MFA in fiction writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the tools of fiction are put to good use in “Slow Blues.” “I’ve spent so many years studying and writing fiction,” she says. “The kinds of essays that appeal to me as a reader follow some of the conventions of fiction.”

She also teaches fiction and nonfiction writing in workshops for The Loft in Minneapolis, and independently. In 2008, she published a book on sustainable living, “The Human-Powered Home.” Her previous career in technology resulted in bestselling college textbooks on computer networking. (And she is not to be confused with the other Tamara Dean, an Australian art photographer who also blends nature with very human intimacy. “But I’ve occasionally received email messages meant for her,” Dean the writer says.)

Dean’s grasp of sophisticated and satisfying storytelling is seen in the ending of “Slow Blues.” She concludes the piece, not with the end of the quest, but with the completion of the protagonist’s emotional story arc. It closes on a hopeful note, but with a sense of what has been lost and of the work that has gone into achieving that hope. “I like the idea of the best endings combining an emotional win with a loss,” Dean says. “I want to be immersed in a world of the senses, captivated by a mystery or quest, and brought along on a ride by an empathetic protagonist.”

I asked Dean about her writing process in general and the specifics of writing “Slow Blues.” Our conversation is edited for length and clarity….

You are one of those writers who does it all: fiction, essays, journalism. Which comes first, the genre or the writing? That is, when you have an idea, how and when do you decide what form it will take?
I’m usually sure about what genre an idea belongs to from the start. Ideas that arrive with a big “what if?” factor are likely to belong to fiction. Ideas that I think will benefit from a fidelity to facts or are utterly compelling without any make-believe quotient are likely to become nonfiction.

Journalists typically have been trained not to include themselves in their articles. Do you have any advice about how we can use our personal experiences to generate stories?
What I tell students in my workshops is to go straight for your obsessions, your guilty pleasures. Whatever topic holds the most energy for you right now, even if it seems silly, you’ll write about in a compelling way.

What about getting the most out of writing in the first person? What’s the most important thing a writer can do to use the first person to its full effect?
Be faithful to the voice and stance in every aspect — diction, syntax, attitude, emphasis, etc.


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