Margaret Renkl is the author of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. She is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, where her essays appear each Monday. Her work has also appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Oxford American, and River Teeth, among others. A graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Carolina, she lives in Nashville.
Margaret Renkl writes a weekly column for The New York Times and was the founding editor of Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. In Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, Renkl’s lush essays invite readers to come with her to the American South, to her past, to nature she observes with lyricism, and to the challenges of life passages.
Shannon Brady: Congratulations on publishing your first book! This is a creative take on memoir—connecting family sketches, nature essays, and introspective contemplation. Your pieces range from a paragraph to a few pages long, and a few are adaptations of essays that first appeared as part of your New York Times column. How did the idea come about to write a memoir in this way?
Margaret Renkl: Thank you! I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all, to be honest. I had returned to writing after a long absence because I found myself brokenhearted over so many things: the sudden death of my mother, my mother-in-law’s wrenching last months with Parkinson’s disease, global warming, the political cataclysm of the 2016 election—so many tragedies, both personal and universal. The only way I could find to survive it all was to write. I was bearing witness; that’s all.
Then one day I realized that the individual essays were working together, in a way, to tell the story of what I loved and why I loved it. And once I could see the connections already there, I could write new bits to fill any gaps.
SB: The nature pieces were a nice and unexpected breath between the family pieces and greatly reflected the drama of the family sections. The cover and other interspersed nature art images by your brother, Billy Renkl, also enhanced the collection. I imagine this was quite a puzzle to piece together. How did you choose to weave your written tapestry?
MR: Each essay—and also each piece of Billy’s art—can stand alone, discrete, and that’s probably the only way I could’ve written this book. Given the circumstances of my life at the time I started writing, I’m sure I would’ve given up completely if I’d set out on the monumental task of writing a book. Writing a micro-memoir, and then another and another and another, is a whole lot more manageable than writing an actual memoir.
But putting the pieces together was indeed a puzzle. I kept laying them all out on the floor, hunting for some sort of organizational principle that never appeared. It was actually Joey McGarvey, my editor at Milkweed Editions, who solved the problem for me. She suggested putting the family essays in chronological order and then placing the nature essays wherever they could pick up a thread or amplify a theme in the nearby family essays. And that strategy ended up unlocking the whole puzzle for me.
SB: The poetics of your nature essays mirroring your family history work so well. I saw that you have a poetry background. Your investigations of the natural world are both specific and transcendent, and your prose is lyrical, which made me wonder if your early poetry was nature-based and how you became a nature essayist?
MR: You’re making me think of something I haven’t thought about in decades: the very first poem I ever wrote that seemed truly grown-up to me—or the work of a grownup, at least—was a poem from my first year of college. It was an elegy for a beloved teacher who died the summer before I left for college, and it used very compact language to describe a walk in the autumn woods as a way of capturing the feeling of grief. Thinking about that poem reminds me that much of who I am as a writer today was already there in 1980. There’s even an essay in Late Migrations about that teacher.
But I became an essayist years and years before I returned to nature as a subject. When I first moved from poetry to nonfiction, I was writing essays about my children. I didn’t turn back to nature until my parents were gone and my children were nearly grown, and I don’t think that’s an accident. One unexpected side effect of the empty nest, for me, has been the chance to revisit parts of myself that I’d nearly forgotten during my years of child-rearing and eldercare.
SB: On the family side of your exploration, there is a strong current of female caretaking and sacrifice, which reflects a larger social dynamic. Some of the sections about your early years depict your mother depressed and unhappy with the monotony of mothering and caretaking, exacerbated by not being allowed to work outside the home. Are there ways in which you feel your experience, or that of other mothers today, is similar? Do you feel that your world and your options were dramatically different than what was available to your mother?
MR: I do believe there are people who find caring for small children almost entirely a delight. My brother Billy, for instance, would gladly have stayed home with his children because he would have found a way to make art during naps and after bedtime and on the weekends, too. But our mother did not feel that way, and I did not feel that way. My children are the greatest gifts of my life, and I desperately wanted to cut back on work once they were born. But I wanted to maintain a professional identity, too, and I wanted to do work that challenged and engaged me. I think my mother probably wanted the same things, but the solution that was available to me—working from home as a writer and an editor—wasn’t available to her.
It’s also not available to most people today, men and women. My mother wasn’t able to work because her culture suppressed professional options for women. These days our problem is that almost everyone must work very long hours just to make ends meet, and caregiving—whether for young children or needy elders—becomes even more difficult in that context. I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t long for a workplace that provides the kind of flexibility and support that makes working and caregiving more compatible.
SB: In your essay, “No Exit,” you write, “…the end of caregiving isn’t freedom. The end of caretaking is grief.” I have not said a final good-bye to my parents yet, but I have seen them grapple with the loss of their own parents after years of shared caretaking. The grief is evident, but with the early childhood heaviness and the weight of the years of caretaking, is there a bit of freedom too? What is it like to have some space and time back? Have you found it easier to share the story of where you came from and be honest and open about your parents now that they have passed?
MR: “No Exit” was the very first essay I wrote for what turned out to be this book. I began it during the final month of my mother-in-law’s life, when two of my children were still at home, so I was still deeply immersed in both caregiving and grief. Four years later, the circumstances of my life are quite different. My 90-year-old father-in-law is still in our care, and our two younger children still come home from college for summers and holidays, but I do have more freedom now.
Do I feel more freedom to write honestly about my childhood now that my parents are gone? I don’t know. My parents were always very, very proud of me. They supported me no matter what I was writing, no matter how honestly I wrote, even when they themselves figured in the poem or the essay. As the publication date of Late Migrations approached, I kept thinking, over and over again, of how proud of me they would be. I wish so much that they could read this book.
But I do think I was probably more honest than I would’ve been if they were still alive. I don’t have any patience with nonfiction writers who take liberties with the truth to tell a better story, and I’ve always taken great care to be absolutely truthful in my writing, but it’s possible to be honest in your writing and still opt not to write about certain things.
SB: The essays about your family read as a truthful homage. You invite the reader into the conversation by connecting your family and past to larger concepts, which then link to nature. In addition to writing about family and nature, you cover politics and culture for The New York Times, particularly as they’re related to the American South. How do you find your stories?
MR: Even at the Times I think of myself as more of an essayist than a columnist because I write about whatever catches my interest. The world is never the same from one day to the next, and human beings are never boring, so there’s no danger at all of running out of stories.
SB: You have worn many hats—writer, editor, teacher, mother, wife, caregiver. Do you have a routine or any suggestions for other writers who may be struggling to balance writing and life?
MR: I think many younger writers would look at my own writing trajectory and feel nothing but despair: I have been writing for most of my adult life, and yet here I am, a 57-year-old debut author. Few young writers would be happy with a timeline that unfolded so slowly. But I never felt any anxiety about it, or any restlessness or rush. I always figured that life should come first, in most ways, or I would have nothing to write about anyway.
I wonder sometimes if I would have written a book much sooner if I’d been more single-minded about my work, but singlemindedness is just not one of my traits. All I know is that I’ve defined myself as a writer ever since I was a little girl. I feel happier and calmer when I’m writing. I feel more myself when I’m writing. That’s always been my real motivation for writing.
So my only advice for writers is to write. Just find a way to do it. When I returned to writing after a five-year break during the worst of the eldercare demands, I started out with the tiniest possible goal: writing for 15 minutes every day. And that worked for me. But I know a poet who can’t get any real work done unless she’s on vacation, alone. I know writers who can write only if they’re away from their houses—in a coffee shop or a library—and others who can only work at home, very late at night, when there are no distractions available.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where or when or how long you write. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing by hand or by keyboard. It doesn’t matter if you know where the writing is going. It doesn’t matter if you have an agent or a book deal or tenure-track teaching job. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written 20 books or zero books. To be a writer, the only thing that matters is the writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Keep writing. Let the rest of it work itself out in its own time.