Lisa Romeo is Cleaver’s Nonfiction Craft Essays editor. Her first full-length work, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press in May.
I had the pleasure of getting to know Lisa in this email interview.
Brendan McCourt: When did you join the Cleaver team?
Lisa Romeo: In late summer 2016. I had been an editor of creative nonfiction for Compose since that journal got started in 2013, and I’d already contributed one piece of flash nonfiction to Cleaver, titled “Break a Leg”.
I love essays that look at how nonfiction writing as a craft intersects with a writer’s life, process, inspiration, subject matter, and experiences. So I jumped at the chance to work on those kind of pieces for Cleaver.
B: What has been your experience to date editing for Cleaver? How has this experience shaped or influenced your own journey as a writer and submitter?
L: I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit! Since we are always open for craft essay submissions, at times the inbox is full, and the challenge is to find the pearls among the submissions. When the flow ebbs, I reach out—via Facebook groups, on Twitter, etc.—reminding writers that we’re here, on the lookout for sharp CNF craft essays.
When I select a piece, I get to work with the writer on suggested edits and revisions I think will tighten, improve, or deepen the work. It’s very collaborative. I’ve found most writers appreciate that we take such care with their work and are always trying to help improve it if we can. Occasionally I consult with our editor-in-chief and, when that happens, I always learn something from her.
I’m a frequent submitter to literary journals, going back about 10 years, and I believe every time a writer gets to work on the other side of the editorial desk, you learn something. Every time I read a piece that grabs me immediately and compels me to read on and on, I make sure to study how that writer put that piece together: what have they done on the page to create that urgency in the reader?
B: Do you have a piece of prose, poetry, or graphic narrative from Cleaver that is your favorite? If so, why?
L: My favorite piece of CNF is “Little Blue Box” by William Scott Hanna. This piece punched me in the gut and hollowed me out. Then, it filled me up in the span of eight minutes or so, however long it took to read from beginning to end. What a journey. I love segmented forms and the way the writer has assembled the pieces here creates a rhythm that perfectly matches the breathless, agonizing pace and emotional intensity of the story he tells. The language is simple and direct but manages to grab you by the throat. There’s a pulsing cadence that pulls you through and seems to mirror the bumpy, scary, unpredictable path these new parents must navigate in the hospital, making life/death decisions. And the final paragraph is just so beautiful. Every time I read it I admire something new.
B: What advice can you pass on to our readers that you previously received, either as an editor or writer?
L: Though this list changes as time goes by, right now I’d say the three best pieces of writer/editor advice I ever received are:
- Try it, see what happens. Meaning, take in the feedback from those experienced, intelligent, caring people whom you’ve asked for help (mentors, editors, beta readers, faculty), and then try the suggested revision(s). See what happens on the page, what happens to the story and to your writing craft. Credit for that advice goes to Leslea Newman, one of my MFA mentors and an amazingly accomplished author.
- Life first, writing second. This advice came to me at a time when I was dealing with fresh and unfamiliar grief, when I had a heavy load of deadlines and could barely breathe emotionally. Richard Hoffman, also one of my MFA mentors and a brilliant poet and memoirist, said this at a time when I badly needed to give myself permission to go through an experience and not force myself to write about it yet. Over the years, this has become more important to me, as a writer of memoir. Taking notes is one thing, but trying to make art from an experience you’re still reeling from, doesn’t often end well.
- So what? Though it’s a bit dated now, the late Carolyn See’s terrific book, Making a Literary Life, encourages writers to be bold, and to hell with the possible downside. “So what, so what, so what?” she says, encouraging us to ask for what we want/need, to try something new, to make literary connections, to submit work even when it feels like too much of a reach. So what if it’s rejected? So what if an overture isn’t returned? So what if it means ten rewrites? The point is to keep going, keep trying, keep reaching—and grow.
B: Do you have in-progress projects or forthcoming?
L: My first full-length book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, will be published by University of Nevada Press on May 1, 2018. It’s the story of reconnecting with my elusive father after his death, through a series of “conversations” and experiences that brought me closer to him than we ever were in life. His absent presence wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I wrote about what it was like, as a woman, a daughter, and a mother, to reconsider everything I thought I knew about our relationship, my privileged upbringing (think horses and luxury travel)—even as I was myself navigating midlife, new sibling dynamics, and our Italian-American death rituals, while trying to complete graduate school and relaunch a creative career.
B: In your opinion, what is the goal (if there is one) of literature? How do you see your own work fitting into that goal?
L: What a big question! I suppose the goal of literature is art, but more than that, it’s presenting/examining/sharing, through artistic means, the whole breadth and depth of the human experience. Gee, that sounds lofty, and personally I have no idea if anything that I do even comes close to that. But I do love to try!
B: Mary Karr wrote that “Memory is a pinball machine–it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off.” How does this sentiment speak, if at all, to your personal experience as a writer of memoir?
L: Pretty accurately, I’d say. Memory is a fallible, hazy, incomplete, and dynamic place; visit it once, and you see one thing, but on the next visit to that same memory, it’s changed. It’s up to the memoir writer to spot that shift, and figure out what to do about it. How does the memory and the remembering contribute to what makes it to the page in memoir? It’s tricky, and there’s no one answer. We’re all feeling our way as we go, guided, one hopes, by a desire to be as faithful as possible to truth (whatever that is).
B: How do you respond to those in the literary community that tout nonfiction as nothing more than glorified journaling? Why is this your genre of choice?
L: Hmm, I’m not sure I know anyone in the literary community that equates memoir writing with journaling exactly, though certainly there are critics, and writers who specialize in other genres who don’t think highly of memoir. That’s okay. I sometimes walk through an art museum, look at a piece, and think, “really?”
Nonfiction is my genre of choice I suppose because I’m a trained journalist, and I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s lives, and personal accounts of experience. It’s what comes most naturally to me.
B: What further words of wisdom can you give to writers with aspirations of writing nonfiction or memoir, or to those approaching the genre for the first time?
L: Read. Read. Read. Read widely and deeply within the genre you hope to write. Read like a writer, analyzing the work. Read the masters of course, but also read authors who are newer to the publishing world—that way you’ll have some role models who perhaps were in your shoes not all that long ago. Read poetry especially to witness economy of words. Read great fiction, reputable journalism, and maybe most important: read outside your comfort zone.
Brendan McCourt is a student of English and Philosophy at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. A Philadelphia native, Brendan primarily writes in short forms, including poetry, flash fiction, and prose poetry. Brendan is also the editor-in-chief for his university’s undergraduate literary magazine Quiddity.