Angela Morales’ work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Best American Essays 2013, The Southern Review, The Harvard Review, and Hobart. Currently, she is working on a collection of autobiographical essays. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated essay “Bloodyfeathers, R.I.P.” appears in our Fall/Winter 2014 issue with a special focus on Skin coming soon!
Anna Schachner: “Bloodyfeathers, R.I.P.” is an essay that manages to combine the tragic story of one student, Bloodyfeathers, with quite a validation, even a celebration, of teaching writing and of writing itself. Were those the initial two impulses of the essay?
Angela Morales: When I started writing this essay, I had really wanted to remember Bloodyfeathers with as much accuracy as possible. I wanted to recall what it felt like having this larger-than-life figure in the classroom, and I wanted to remember how I’d reacted. Was I fair? Did I misjudge him? And how did he feel sitting in a classroom after so many years behind bars? As with everything I write, telling the story is the first impulse, but the second impulse arises from my wanting to understand some intellectual or emotional puzzle. I hadn’t intended for the essay to be a celebration of teaching, but as I dug deeper into the story, it arrived at that. At some point, the essay became bigger than Bloodyfeathers, and I realized it was really more about the human connection made between student and teacher, mostly through writing.
Anna Schachner: I’m referring to “Bloodyfeathers” as an essay. Do you see it as an essay? How did you decide on its structure and form?
Angela Morales: I am just in love with essays—in all their forms—and I’m proud to call this an essay. On the other hand, almost everything I write begins with a story—this thing that happened, this person I met, this incredible event, no matter how large or how small. The impulse is sort of desperate and breathless—I just need to say this!
As for the form and structure, this is what I think happens: At first I’m just trying to get the facts down, get some kind of chronology, some color, some truth. Then, as I revise, the story wants to shift around; it begins to have a mind of its own, sometimes demanding that I follow it, rather than it follow me. Sometimes that means what I get is a more “spiraled” form and then seemingly unrelated events or ideas will pop into my head and then I’ll have to make hard decisions about how much freedom I want to give this thing or decide if I want to keep the essay in a tighter structure, which feels like trying to keep a snake in a jar. Usually, a small battle ensues, (and I realize this sounds completely crazy), but the essays always wins. It’s never my (conscious) decision.
Anna Schachner: One of the challenges of writing nonfiction is that characters in the work are real people. As you were writing, did you think at all about what Bloodyfeathers would have thought about the essay if he were still alive? And did that help or hinder the writing?
Angela Morales: I did indeed ponder what Bloodyfeathers would say about this account. I kept imagining him peering over my shoulder, though I tried to banish him. Over the years, he’s become a rather mythic figure in my teaching memory, and I wanted this account to help me to understand who he really might have been.
Obviously, I had to recreate some dialogue and use composite language; in other moments I can remember, word-for-word, what he said, and what I said. In sum, I tried really hard to not exaggerate his eccentricities (or mine) and to make this a fair and honest portrayal.
If Bloodyfeathers could read this essay, he’d probably want more gory details. He’d probably say that it’s a little boring. He’d probably tell me to spice it somehow and talk more about his prison life or more about his childhood. Of course, when someone is dead, you can’t get their final approval on the draft!
In the end, I tip my hat to him, and I want it to be clear to readers that I admire the man for sitting in the classroom and scratching out his stories even if just for a short time.
Anna Schachner: What did you understand about Bloodyfeathers the person after you wrote the essay that you didn’t understand before you wrote it?
Angela Morales: I definitely understood that in spite of his blustery, hard-assed attitude, and in spite of his large size and sometimes scary mannerisms, he basically wanted to be like other people. He seemed to know more about dominating others, and in prison, he’d had to live by set of rules that didn’t always work on the outside. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that inside that mean looking guy was a teddy bear with a heart of gold, but I did see a glimmer of another life that he might have had, another person he might have been.
Anna Schachner: You write that you believe in the democratic principal behind the community college system, which is no doubt an environment that a lot of readers know. Did your experience with Bloodyfeathers change that conviction at all? If so, how?
Angela Morales: Since I began teaching at the community college, I’ve seen some real academic miracles. I’ve encountered many hard-knock lives—ex-cons, immigrants, veterans, students with disabilities including cerebral palsy and rare, life-threatening conditions. Many of those people have overcome great odds to go on to prestigious universities and into demanding well-respected professions. The community college system gave those people a lift up, and because of these success stories, I am a passionate advocate for low-cost education for the masses.
That said, I do not believe that everyone belongs in college. I’ve seen people avoiding their lives by thinking that college is the only way to go, and I’ve had students sit in my classrooms who didn’t want to be there and would have been much better off elsewhere. Though I wish he’d stayed in school, Bloodyfeathers was fighting a lot of demons. He had his own issues to work out, and he needed to come back when he was ready—not when his parole officer told him that he should.
Anna Schachner: What do you love about the genre of nonfiction?
Angles Morales: The genre of nonfiction is exciting because it can be such a chameleon. All the forms of it allow you to work in a limitless realm, so long as you agree to be honest and forthright, which is not to say that fiction is dishonest—not at all. I believe that all writers have the obligation to be honest, whether the story is true or untrue.
Anna Schachner: Are you happy with nonfiction’s current status in the literary world? Do you think it’s getting its due?
Angela Morales: I am super happy for Cheryl Strayed’s success with Wild. This morning I just saw a trailer for the movie, and it got me thinking about how nonfiction has really made a comeback over the last few years. Memoirs had gotten some really bad press in the recent past, with the debacle of A Million Little Pieces and Oprah smacking down James Frey on national television. But it seems like readers are always longing for good memoir and creative nonfiction, and possibly, more and more, essay collections!
I’m inspired by the success of literary essayists like Lia Purpura, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, and John D’Agata. Also, I think David Shields’ Reality Hunger is fantastic. So, all in all, the answer to the question is, Yes! I think this is an exciting time for creative nonfiction writers and essayists.
Anna Schachner: Who are some nonfiction writers/essayists whom you admire and what do you learn from them?
Angela Morales: Hmm…where to begin?
Edward Hoagland, for his lightning-sharp prose and the unexpected twists and turns of his writing. The Courage of Turtles continues to be one of my favorite essays collections.
Michael Herr’s Dispatches, for its lessons in creating a new language within a language.
Pam Houston, for her ability to basically give the finger to the distinction of genres. Fiction? Nonfiction? Who cares?
Brian Doyle, for his ability to write a mind-boggling sentence like a true word acrobat, and for his ability to always make me cry.
George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging” continue to teach me about the balance between story and analysis.
Sherman Alexie, who teaches me about embracing one’s natural voice and the voices of one’s culture without being enslaved by stereotypes or the limitations of “ethnic” literature.
Richard Wright’s, Black Boy, for its shockingly beautiful prose and for proof that one person’s words and experiences can leave a lasting impact on the world.
E.B. White teaches me to tell it straight. To speak plain English. To be understood. To not make a mess of things.
Anna Schachner: When I was getting my MFA, I once had a professor tell me not to teach, that teaching required the same creative energy that writing does. I didn’t listen to him, by the way, but what do you think? Would you encourage your students who want to write to also consider teaching?
Angela Morales: Teaching, when done right, does require creative energy, though I would not say that, for me, it comes from exactly the same vein as writing. Sometimes teaching actually energizes my writing, and sometimes, when I’m working on an essay that I find especially exciting, I enter the classroom feeling light and almost giddy about writing.
The hardest part, though, is grading papers. A community college teaching load is approximately 4 classes of 28 students, which equals about 900 papers per semester not counting quizzes and drafts. That’s too many students and too many papers to be really effective, but I won’t even get started on that rant. The sheer number of papers takes many, many hours to get through—so many hours that sometimes those piles feel like a large heavy cloud that follows you around and even blocks out the sun for days at a time. Yesterday I went to a yoga class, and in the final meditation, I actually saw a vision of bluebook exams with wings, flapping around in my inner brain. That was deeply distressing!
I’m getting better about writing when and where I can—at stoplights, waiting for my son at Taekwondo, at a random coffee shop. I’ll take what I can get, and even though it sounds like I’m complaining a little bit right now, the truth is, I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. I like meeting people like Bloodyfeathers. And in the end, I sort of like that I have to fight for my writing time. It makes me appreciate it that much more.
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