A Conversation with Emily H. Freeman
By Nicole Gomez
While Air Force One descended into Missoula and locals climbed hillsides to assemble signs of dissent, I sat down for a phone conversation with nonfiction writer Emily H. Freeman about life as a transplant to Montana, getting to know your neighbors, the trope of the drunk writer and the concept of radical downtime. Emily has a degree in history, earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has recently moved with her family from Missoula to Dillon, Montana.
Nicole Gomez: Do you find having a background in history informs your writing?
Emily H. Freeman: I think it does. I started out in fiction at the MFA, but we had to take an out-of-genre class and it was then that I realized what my nonfiction peers were reading and this whole world of creative nonfiction that I hadn’t been exposed to. They had all these authors and titles that were so familiar and important to them that I’d never heard of, and I got really excited by it. I think it did connect to my historian brain, in both the searching for truth and the awareness that there is no such thing as truth. That the truth is very much dependent on who’s telling the story.
NG: Perhaps it’s the desire to follow the chain of events in history, and an awareness of cause and effect in how everything unfolded, that makes for such a connection between history and writing.
EHF: With scene as the through-line. It what makes history interesting, when a major world event is tied to a scene, so rather than a gigantic, encyclopedic take on World War II, it’s World War II told through the perspective of this particular group or this particular event. I think that’s what makes memoir today so interesting, in that we zoom into the smaller bits of life, versus the way it used to be done, which was with this overarching approach, like ‘this is the story of my whole life’ with all the important dates.
“You could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”
NG: So, you’re from the suburbs of New York. How did you end up here in Montana?
EHF: We were living in Minneapolis, which is where I did my MFA, and then I had a baby and then I got pregnant again and we decided we wanted to be nearer to family. My husband’s family is in Missoula. We moved to Dillon this summer, but we were in Missoula for maybe six years. He did his undergrad there and so we had some roots in Missoula.
NG: After moving around a bit, how has coming to Montana affected your writing?
EHF: I think it’s affected me in that, when I moved here and I saw how obsessed everyone was with writing by Montanans and about Montana, and I remember thinking, what’s the big deal, it isn’t that interesting. And then there was a turning point after a few years when I was like, “This is the most interesting place in the whole country and you could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”
NG: What makes it the most interesting place?
EHF: I taught a lot of adult education classes in Missoula, through the MOLLI Program and through the Lifelong Learning [Institute], and private workshops with largely older women who wanted to write memoir and write about their lives. And some of these stories that would come out were so fascinating to me. Maybe again it’s just that idea of pinning down history to a really small, specific story. You know, a woman in her 80s talking about being a little girl and having her mom teach her how to preserve eggs to be sent off to the war effort and watching the trains come through and waving at the soldiers. These little things that were like huge novels to me. These quiet, hidden stories that for some reason were just so evocative and interesting that stuck with me. Understated lives. Maybe it comes from being from a showier part of the country where everything is loud and big and competitive and show-offy. Sort of the amazing understated stories here.
NG: And from your perspective as a historian, how would you say that Montanans interpret their history. If there was a narrative that they tell about themselves, what is it?
EHF: I think that they imagine themselves to be tougher and more resilient and more resourceful than a lot of people, but I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think some of it is epigenetic. Whatever pioneer ancestors were tough and resilient and resourceful enough to leave their home country or leave the east coast to come out here and homestead, I think there’s some of their genetic material that’s continuing to present in contemporary Montanans. And in a lot of parts of the state you need to grapple with the elements a lot. But even in Missoula there are a lot of retirees that would take my class and then go hiking and then go to a yoga class. I’m really impressed by how much life and energy they still have.
NG: Being new to Missoula, one of the things that really jumped out at me was how friendly the people are.
EHF: I think they really are. Especially in Dillon – if you’ve never been here, it’s this weird, wonderful little town, like a magical 1950’s time warp where my children can wander around by themselves and there’s no crime and everyone’s super friendly. It’s probably super politically mixed - I think we are in the minority with our politics down here - but people are so friendly, and I think it’s because it’s a pretty geographically isolated town. I am formulating this theory that maybe people are friendly out here because they have to be, because they have to depend on each other. You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm. It’s a friendliness born of geographic isolation that blurs the lines of politics and culture.
NG: It seems like something that’s lacking in our current discourse, with everyone self-segregating to their own bubble. The echo-chamber, right?
EHF: And I think in a lot of places you can afford to only hang out with people who share your views and not challenge yourself. So there’s something really lovely about out here. In another city you can afford to be friends with your left-leaning neighbor and ignore your conservative neighbor, but here you’re just going to have one neighbor, so you’ve got to get along. There’s something growth-inducing to have to make that work. To look for what you have in common, versus looking for what differentiates you from one another.
“You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm.”
NG: You seem to write about nature, like in your recent post in Brevity Blog, and about your family. What other themes interest you?
EHF: When I started writing nonfiction, I wrote about my childhood, which is what most people writing memoir in grad school usually go to, but I’ve noticed that as the years have gone by, the time period I write about becomes more and more recent. Instead of writing about things from twenty or thirty years ago, I’m writing about things from three days ago. I seem to write a lot about addiction, because that’s like a thematic through-line in my family stuff but also in my work. I work for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and teach as a writer in the schools. I was teaching up on the Flathead reservation, and in Missoula, but particularly the reservation schools were the ones that had the biggest impact on me. Dixon is a tiny town that is ravaged by opioids and drugs, and so working with these kids and watching how their lives were just wrecked by this thing, and then connecting it to my own family background and realizing the pervasiveness of this thing has become a major theme in my work. There’s lots of addiction in my family. The details differ, but the effect is the same on families and on kids. The piece that I’m going to read [at 2nd Wind Reading Series] is about an aunt of mine who overdosed last summer from opioids. There’s a weird thematic connection. I was doing all this writing about teaching these kids on the reservation and learning all these hard things about their lives, and meanwhile there’s a parallel story in my own world, which was a totally different demographic but prey to the same beast.
NG: Have you been at work for a while on the piece about your aunt, or is it a newer piece?
EHF: It’s newer. I have more finished pieces but this one feels like the most urgent thing, like something I need to be sharing and reading and working on. I want people to know about this stuff. It’s really easy if you’re removed from it to think that opioids happen to people with tough, working class lives in small, miserable towns, so to be up there and present this as someone who perhaps doesn’t look like the face of the opioid epidemic and say, “here’s something that impacted my entire family” feels urgent.
NG: Did you find that teaching helped your writing?
EHF: I think being a teacher in the classroom with students and getting to know them makes me that much more aware of and sensitive to humanity. Especially with kids, and with kids who are struggling, you take more time to see the goodness in them. Because you have to. Otherwise you’re just writing them off. And so taking the time to force yourself to find a connection with a challenging student, there’s some magic there when you do connect with them, when you get the scowling kid to finally smile. When you’re writing characters, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you want them to be nuanced and not stock characters and teaching shows you that humans really are nuanced. These kids aren’t just good kids or bad kids, they’re infinitely complex, and then you bring that same eye to any character that you’re trying to draw on the paper.
NG: Do you exclusively do nonfiction then, or do you dabble?
EHF: I exclusively do nonfiction…. I think there’s some things you can get away with in nonfiction. I often think about how when there is an unexpected thing, a coincidental moment, that in an essay is gold, but if you read the equivalent in a short story you would think, ‘oh, that couldn’t have happened.’ But life is full of little coincidences. And I find as a reader of nonfiction, I really love nonfiction written by poets because I think there’s this real attention on a word level. I’m not a big fan of memoir that just tells a story and the sentences exist only in service to the larger story. I like writing where the sentences are carefully put-together and intentional.
NG: What advice do you have for other writers? What do you draw on for inspiration?
EHF: It’s hard. When I was in grad school, I was writing, getting things published, agents were getting in touch with me. Things were really getting going and I was really feeling like I could do this. And then I got pregnant, and then we moved, and then suddenly I was a mom of two kids who rarely slept through the night. And I got really bummed out for a while and thought I’d missed my shot. And what’s been really wonderful to realize is that there’s no one moment when you have a shot at this. This is a lifelong thing. You’re never going to stop existing as a creative person. It isn’t age-specific. So I let go of feeling that urgency, like “I have to publish a book before I’m thirty, I have to publish a book before I’m forty.” And now I’m like, fuck it, if I publish a book before I’m seventy that would be awesome. Just feeling less panic about it and getting more in touch with the idea that I am a limitless creative vessel and as long as I continue to pay attention in the world, I am gathering material, and as long as I am paying attention in my relationships, I’m learning how to craft better characters. The idea that life is research, even if you’re not really hunkering down and doing it really intentionally.
NG: You’re sort of always gathering.
EHF: Yeah. And there’s other ways you can be “writing,” in quotes. This is something I’ve often said to adult students who say, “oh, I just couldn’t write,” or “I didn’t have time to write.” To expand your scope of what you consider to be writing and to include writing-related activities. That could be going to a movie and paying close attention to how a narrative arc is presented, or it could be taking a walk and thinking about how you would describe the way the rocks on the path look. Anytime you’re engaged with an attention to detail or an attention to how something creative or literary has been assembled. There’s a lot of ways we can be in touch with our creative practice each day, even if it’s not resulting in a typed page.
“I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships.”
NG: I’ve heard advice that says a lot of writing is done away from the computer, that a lot of the story process and thinking of what you want to say and how you want to say it, can occur while you’re out for a walk or cooking.
EHF: We had this book that had to do with parenting and brain-science around kids, and there was this chapter that was called “Radical Downtime.” It was with respect to kids, making the case that kids today are too overscheduled, that we have to let our kids learn to do nothing. But I took the advice for myself, this idea that if your brain is constantly engaged in the pursuit of a specific task or goal, something will shift in your brainwaves if you let yourself have what this author calls radical downtime. It’s the place where the ideas crystallize. It’s the same idea as why you shouldn’t work out every single day without giving your muscles time to recover. That this highly engaged thinking and doing that we as Americans do twenty-four-seven is detrimental to our creative abilities.
NG: I know for myself that if I make writing a chore on a to-do list, the feeling of pressure when I sit down at the computer gets in the way of any actual good writing. I need my walks to let ideas percolate, to let my mind quiet so I can hear them.
EHF: And our brains are different on different days. Especially as women, there are just times of the month when my cycle makes me spacier. I’m not the same creative brain every morning when I wake up. So if you are someone who does well waking up every morning at six and writing for an hour, that’s great. But if you’re someone who is writing or doing creative work in the context of a messy life for whatever reason – you’re caretaking children or a sick relative or a parent or partner - you can still get work done. Don’t be hard on yourself because you can’t get up at six in the morning every morning and write for whatever reason. Find another time. Keep a notebook in your car. I have so many folded pieces of paper in pockets of jeans because at some random moment a phrase popped into my head and I grabbed a receipt and scribbled something on it. We’re such an advice-giving society right now and we’re constantly in this pursuit of perfecting every endeavor, finding the exact way to do anything. This is how Internet America is right now. And it’s important to find the shape that your writing takes for your life and what fits for you, and to be leery of books that are like, here’s how to write.
NG: On the subject of Internet America, how do you feel about the expectation that writers have an online presence and be constantly available on social media? So many writers tend to be introspective, introverted, and I wonder about the conundrum that poses, the difficulty of trying to maintain real presence, where creative work is done, and an online presence at the same time.
EHF: It’s hard. I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships. I have such difficulty navigating inauthentic relationships. I just don’t have those skills. I desire authenticity. It’s more than that, I need it to function. So with all of that stuff, there’s so much potential for inauthenticity and I’m not good at it. I don’t have the filters necessary to present to the world this cheery, sunshiny face if I’m not feeling it. On a personal level I sometimes wish I did, but on a societal level I think it’s very damaging this widespread, “everything’s okay” kind of thing.
NG: As a teacher, I worry about the generation that’s grown up with this expectation that everything be shared, everything be curated for presentation to the world. I find myself increasingly wanting to protect my private space and not share everything. Also, as a writer you already put so much work into sharing the words that you do choose to share, I want the rest for myself. Or I want to be quiet.
EHF: I like what you said that you choose these little moments of your life to present in your writing. I got this image in my head of one of those Easter eggs that you peer into and there’s this little world inside. An essay or a poem is like the egg, offering a little glimpse into your life presented in this small form. But if you’re offered the whole room full of decorations, like, “here’s everything!”, then why would you be interested in this little chapter I’m trying to show you? Just the way that white space on a page is so powerful. I sometimes feel like a lack of social media presence is like white space around a life, so that the interactions that do happen matter more. But I’m also really private, and maybe that comes from being a nonfiction writer. It already feels like such an exposure when I do open myself up on the page that I then need to be able to close back up very quickly. I can go be “on” when I have to and be great, but then I need to recover, then I need to come home and be quiet, and writing is a little like that. I can share my story with the world and then I need to have the world completely shut out in order to restore myself.
NG: I think that most writers and artists need that.
EHF: And that’s what I like about this town (Dillon). When we moved here, I thought, “I’m going to have more bandwidth for my creative stuff.” There’s just less to do and fewer people to talk to and there aren’t exciting things flashing in your face every moment. Obviously, cities are hubs of creative activity, so it must work for some people to be constantly surrounded by it, but I do think there’s another version of creative people who recognize that they need the down time and the quiet time. And often it’s substances that have wound up facilitating the down time, to circle back to the original conversation about addiction. Sensitive creative people have to shut things out sometimes, whether it’s by saying no to social events and having quiet time at home or through drugs. I like that we’re finally in a time when we don’t romanticize the idea of the drunk writer. I feel like we’re finally getting past that. Of course, there are still a lot of writers in MFA programs who are like, “Of course we drink while we’re workshopping!” but there are a lot of younger people who realize that’s not necessarily a part of the creative process. There’s a whole new generation of women and writers of color and generally aware people who are like, “eh, it’s not that interesting.” There are more interesting ways to disconnect.
NG: So what are you reading now?
EF: I found this tiny section at the local library of poets and essayists, so that’s where I’ve been getting books. I have a book that I’ve been reading and I’ve actually re-read it over the years, and it’s an example of a book of nonfiction written by a poet called The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart. They are essays about growing up in North Dakota, beautifully, carefully constructed essays in that way that poets write where every word is very satisfying. Now that I’m in this more rural area of Montana, I read books differently that are set against a rural backdrop because the landscape is more similar to what I’m seeing. And then I’m reading a book of Ted Kooser poems. I love them because they’re very prosy, like tiny essays, and I tend to like poems that are tiny essays. So pretty much nonfiction and poetry.
Emily H. Freeman earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has taught writing at various schools, universities and nonprofits in NY, MN and MT. Emily's work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons.
Nicole Gomez is a writer from Texas. She worked as a reporter and columnist at the El Paso Times and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is co-editor of CutBank Online.