Margaret Renkl on Revising, Relatability, and Resisting Despair in “Graceland At Last”

Margaret Renkl is no stranger to the short essay. Her first book, Late Migrations, garnered widespread acclaim as a unique portrait of the natural world interwoven with Renkl’s life story and family history, told through vivid, brief essays that compel the reader to sit with each sentence. Her second book, Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South, gathers selections from her years as a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. Instead of arranging these sixty installments linearly, the book is divided into six sections, allowing the reader to move back and forth in time and experience a mosaic of the contemporary South through the lenses of politics, environmental and social justice, arts and culture, community, and the natural world. These op-ed essays, each one only a couple of pages long, plunge us into the evolving center of Nashville, Renkl’s hometown, then stretch beyond, where Renkl gives us profiles and stories of various folks around the country. The resulting collection is a poignant perspective of what it’s like to live in, be born into, identify as, love fiercely, fight against, hold space for, redefine, renounce, and celebrate the South.

In our interview, Renkl discusses her poetic past, the art and process of writing an op-ed essay, revisions, and the importance of balance when writing about hope as our country faces some of its darkest moments.

You earned a degree in poetry and for over a decade you wrote poems and taught classes. You have said before in another interview that when you became pregnant, you stopped writing poems in order to freelance, and began writing essays about the same subjects you often approached in your poetry; you said that you “never wrote another poem.” How do you feel your background in poetry has influenced your current forms and writing philosophies?

I don’t think I have much of a writing philosophy, to be honest. And beyond sticking to the word count The New York Times gives me every week, I do my best not to conform to any patterns. Sometimes I feel myself falling into unwelcome repetitions anyway, but I try hard to avoid them.

But I’ve held onto my training as a poet in one sense, I think, and that’s in paying attention to the music of language. Once I’ve drafted an essay, I read it aloud to myself again and again, removing unnecessary words or unnecessary sentences. Sometimes whole paragraphs strike my ear as unnecessary interruptions to the flow of the piece. In addition to painting some sort of picture or telling some sort of story or making some sort of point, I’m listening to the words, trying to get them to sound like they belong to one another.

For the last four years, you’ve been writing an op-ed column for the New York Times. Can you give us a glimpse into the daily life of forming an idea and shaping one of your op-ed essays? Do you have a similar process for each piece?

I keep thinking this work is going to get easier, and it keeps not getting easier. I think that’s because there’s no one process that works for every piece. Sometimes I read news reports going back months and months, across multiple media outlets, to get the facts I need to start forming an opinion, and sometimes I need to read whole books to do that. And that’s before I can even start to write. Other times, though, I’m so mad about something, or so hopeful, or so afraid, that the first draft just pours out of me, and revising is only a matter of tweaking. What I think I’m writing about often turns out not to be what I’m writing about at all. I’m far from the first writer to observe this phenomenon, but it’s true: Sometimes I don’t know what I think till I see what I’ve written.

Essays are the simultaneous unfolding of exploration and expression. When working within the confines of column inches, deadlines, and word counts, how do you know when an essay feels “complete?”

I’m the kind of writer for whom it never feels complete; I just run out of time to keep working. When I was putting together Graceland, At Last I practically had to tie my own hands behind my back to keep from taking published essays right down to the studs again. I know plenty of writers who freeze up when facing a deadline, but for me a deadline is a gift. It means I have no choice but to move on even when I’d prefer to keep tinkering. I like revising much more than I like writing.

Op-eds and relatability traditionally don’t go hand in hand, and yet relatability is a powerful tool for helping someone to see a point. When writing about John Prine’s storytelling within his songs [“John Prine: American Oracle”], you noted, “His primary mode of persuasion is the story, just as the primary mode of persuasion for the biblical Jesus is the parable…a parable trusts the story to do the work of conversion, and it trusts its listeners to do the work of interpretation.” In your own body of work, you don’t approach the op-ed like a lecture. You always tell a story, at times deeply personal, at other times a profile or narrative of someone or something. It seems to be an entryway for people to be able to relate to what you want to say. Were there any artists or other people in your life who influenced your method of quick storytelling and helped you hone your craft?

First, thank you! That’s always what I hope to do but am never sure I’ve done. Maybe my impulse toward storytelling, or scene-setting, is another vestige of my life as poet. I don’t know. All I know is that very few people can be persuaded to reconsider a hardened position, much less to change their minds, just by hearing an argument. To have any hope of getting folks to look at things even a tiny bit differently, you have to tell them a story or invite them into the experience in some other way. That’s why Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

As you note, this isn’t the usual approach to opinion writing, but all the opinion writers at The Times employ these strategies from time to time, some of them far more often than not. Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer who lives in Maine, is almost my spiritual sister — so much so that we need to check in with each other at times to be sure we aren’t writing on the same topic on any given week. Charles Blow and Farhad Manjoo write often about their own experiences as a way into a topic in the news, too, and there are many others who do so to one degree or another. I can’t think of any opinion writers whom I’ve consciously emulated, but there are many nonfiction writers whose work I’ve loved since college. E.B. White comes to mind first, of course. Annie Dillard. Joan Didion. James Baldwin. Willie Morris. The writers I admire today are far too numerous to list, and I’d be afraid of leaving out someone important by trying. This is a golden age for nonfiction, and I feel grateful to be able to keep learning by studying the work of so many writers publishing today.

For many writers, the editing stage can be more difficult than drafting. What advice do you have for self-editing? What techniques do you use during your revision process, or do you have any specific techniques when you’re on a tight deadline?

I’m not the best writer to ask for advice on this point because I truly love to revise. Confronting that blank page, or that blank screen, is infinitely harder for me than fiddling with words that already exist. You pull a little here, lift a little there; fold here and mash there — like kneading bread. What helps me most in revision is to walk away for a while, ideally overnight. I try to go to bed thinking a piece is more or less done and then get up in time to spend some more time with it before I need to file. I always see it more clearly after I’ve been away from it for a bit.

In your recent interview with Silas House, Silas said, “Whenever I’m unable to write, I find myself making pies.” You said later in that interview that you don’t experience writer’s block but rather a “disinclination to write.” What is your activity you turn to when you need to push past that disinclination?

Here is where a deadline is especially helpful: If my editors’ work can’t start till after mine is done, I’d feel terrible if I kept them waiting. But the person who’s waiting for me to do my work needn’t be an editor. When I was writing Late Migrations, I belonged to an accountability group online. We each set our own goals, whether that was a certain amount of writing time each day, or a certain number of words, and every night we would ping each other — “Done!” — and all those pings coming in would remind me to start writing if I hadn’t logged my 15 minutes that day.

Your connection with the natural world is deeply heartfelt and tightly intertwined with how you write about all things, wild and manmade. Where are some of your favorite spots in nature to write or stay inspired?

Here in Nashville we are very lucky in having many parks and greenways, and I move around between them. But I spend more time in my own yard than anywhere else. It’s only half an acre, but for the last 26 years I’ve been filling it with native flowers and shrubs and trees to feed the wildlife, so there’s a lot to see even here at home.

As our world spins faster and faces more challenges on a daily basis, the old saying “Hope is a dangerous thing” seems to be rising in a chorus on social media and we’re seeing two extremes on a spectrum: dark cynicism and toxic positivity. You write in “The Case Against Doing Nothing” that “…hope seems to be all we’ve got.” This theme echoes throughout the entire collection. How do you keep filling your own well with hope in order to share it with others?

To clarify a bit, I do believe that hope can be dangerous. Hoping without any reason for hope is a license to ignore our own responsibility to rise to these challenges. When we just assume that everything will work out, we’re no better than the folks actively subverting improvement.

We need to find a way to balance the natural human need to feel hopeful with our obligation to face even the world’s harshest truths. The trick, I think, is to look for the people who are working to make things better and then try to follow their lead. That might mean putting in a native-plant garden or going to a Black Lives Matter protest or getting rid of household pesticides or giving up single-use plastics or writing postcards to elected officials or driving people to the polls on election day or donating to nonprofits working for good — the list goes on and on. Doing something to help, doing many things to help, is the surest protection against despair I’ve found.

What are your thoughts on being categorized as a “Southern writer” and how do you think Southern narratives are evolving?

I believe there are as many ways to be a Southern writer as there are writers in the South. The more our literature welcomes and supports diverse voices and diverse approaches, the stronger it will be.

Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From The American South
By Margaret Renkl
Milkweed Editions
Published September 14, 2021