“Don’t hold back”: An Interview With Guest Reader Megan Pillow
You write both fiction and nonfiction and you recently published an essay titled “The Settle Point” in Gay Mag that includes nude photographs of yourself. The essay is beautiful and brave — it’s about divorce and motherhood and learning to love your body and so many other things. Can you tell us about writing and publishing this photo essay? I imagine you must have felt vulnerable sharing it. How did you overcome that?
That essay is the scariest thing I’ve ever written. It began as lyric, erotic writing in the spring of this year, and as I worked on it over the months and got responses from beta readers, I realized that I wasn’t giving myself over completely to my subject. When I finally did – when I gave in and wrote it as if no one was going to ever read it – the essay expanded into something completely unexpected, and something I’m really proud of. I think part of the reason that happened is because as I wrote it, I also moved closer and closer to divorce, and I simultaneously began to feel more and more like I was reclaiming my life and my identity. In fact, I wasn’t sure anyone other than the people closest to me ever would. I honestly thought it pretty unlikely that anyone would take it, but I was hopeful, and it feels like a minor miracle to me that Roxane Gay accepted it and that Laura June treated it with such care during the editing process. There were several things that prompted me put aside my fear and try to publish it. One was the responses I got from people who read my divorce threads on Twitter. Several times a week, I would get – and still do – messages from people just like me who are miserable in their marriages, who feel themselves fading away, and who are looking for a way to feel alive and whole again, and I wanted people to see another example of someone who didn’t feel like divorce was a failure but another opportunity for growth. I felt like the essay was a way for me to reclaim myself, yes, but also to show people that even if they weren’t talking about it, there was someone out there who understood how they felt. Another was Maggie Smith’s daily goals, which gave me a sense of community and understanding during the divorce process and which I hoped this essay would provide to others. And of course, the support of my partner Joaquin, the photographer Maya, and my beta readers all gave me tremendous confidence when I wavered. Finally, when I saw the finished project, it made me realize that I really want to do more interdisciplinary work like this, and that the only way to truly commit to that is to get some of these projects out in the world.
What is your writing process?
I’m a sit down and write every day person. That doesn’t at all mean that I work on a piece every day. Sometimes it’s writing in my journal. Sometimes it’s listening to an audio book that gives me an idea and jotting notes for a piece in my phone. I have two kids, and I’m finishing my PhD, so time to write is always difficult to come by, and I try to be gentle with myself. I know that for every day that I’m rushing around and only have five minutes to make notes about something, there will be a day that I’ll stay up until 3 to finish a piece. I know I have to write – I can’t keep myself from doing it – but I also know that I have to be a realist, given how hectic my life is right now. But I also know that writing is one of the things that sustains me and keeps me balanced, so the first step in my writing process is that no matter how tired or frustrated I get, I just don’t give up. I have to keep going. Some days it’s small steps, others big ones. I’m also a late bloomer – I got my MFA in 2001 and published a few pieces around that time, but I stopped writing for a long time. I didn’t publish what I consider to be work reflective of what I really want to be doing until 2017. So not giving up is huge to me. The other fundamental part of my writing process is remembering that, no matter how lonely writing can sometimes feel, I’m really not alone. I’ve found the Twitter writing community to be tremendous, and I found some of my best friends and readers (and my partner) there. Every piece I put out in the world has benefitted from the generous reading, feedback, and support of these writers. The process that works for me – not giving up and reaching out to others – isn’t fancy, but it’s made my work so much better than it ever was when I was in my 20s.
Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to in your work?
I tweeted once that my focal areas are writing about the submerged iceberg of women’s hidden rage and desire. I love writing about revenge. I love writing about sex. And I still believe that tweet. But I also see now that what I tweeted actually contains a lot more nuance than just rage and desire. There’s a lot of mixed emotions within those two – there’s pain and fear, retribution and challenge, there’s joy and satisfaction and growth. I think that what I’m working towards is trying to vocalize all the things that women are told to push down. Sometimes, when I read people’s writing, I feel like I’m reading through a veil, like there’s gorgeousness before my eyes but there’s something on the page just out of my reach that it’s my job to decipher. I appreciate much of that writing – it makes the reader do a particular kind of emotional and intellectual work that I think is extremely valuable – but I see my task as a writer as very different. I feel like mine is to pull back the veil, to make clear the unsayable things. I think the work that I’m asking my readers (and myself) to do is to figure out how to face what they don’t want to (and what I often don’t want to) no matter how painful or exciting those things might be. I know that kind of work isn’t for everyone, and I respect that. But it also feels very good to know what I want to write about and what I want to publish.
What kind of story would you love to find in our queue this week?
I’m certain it’s no surprise to anyone who reads this, but I am forever a fan of stories of abandon. Sure, I admire well-crafted, carefully honed pieces that showcase the power of narrative technique and skillful, restrained language, but those stories don’t get me in the gut or make me gasp or hold my breath while I read them. I love the pieces that take tremendous risks, that tackle incredibly sensitive subjects with bravery and honesty. I want the stories that don’t hold back. I well know that sometimes those pieces are the messiest at first – I feel like when I’m drafting that I’m sometimes up to my armpits in blood and sex and anger and joy – but I love seeing the ways in which writers wrangle to get a story like that to come together. I don’t want people to play it safe in what they send me this week (and I shouldn’t have to say this, but that does not mean I am receptive to any content that is violent, non-consensual, hateful, or degrading. That’s garbage, and it won’t be tolerated). I hope people will open up their skulls and crack open their chests for me. I want to see the most terrifying, most vulnerable, most passionate pieces that people have, the ones that they wrote but they can’t imagine sending. Given what I write about, I hope they’ll know they can trust me to treat their work with the greatest of care.
About the Reader:
Megan Pillow (formerly Megan Pillow Davis) is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and is currently a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky’s English Department. Her work has appeared in, among other places, <em>Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Paper Darts, Passages North,</em> and <em>Gay Magazine</em>. Her fiction has been chosen for the <em>Wigleaf</em> Top 50, and her nonfiction has been honored as notable in the 2019 edition of <em>The Best American Essays.</em> She is currently writing her dissertation and a novel. You can find her on Twitter HERE.
About the Interviewer:
Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow and she won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, matchbook, MonkeyBicycle, wigleaf, and elsewhere.