In “My Body Knows” (Issue 6), a piece of flash nonfiction, Ellee Achten sees not only bounty, but also danger, at the table. In the interview following, Achten discusses food allergies, moving, and her impromptu workspaces.
Ellee Achten is a writer and editor in Southeast Ohio. As a magazine journalist, she is now exploring the world of creative nonfiction. Assistant Editor of New Ohio Review, she is a Master of Arts student in creative writing at Ohio University. Achten was also a member of the Proximity editorial team for issues 7 and 8.
Though tests say she is allergic to cocoa, Achten will readily confess to daily consumption. So far, so good.
What inspired you to create this piece? My food journey has always been complicated, and only recently have I discovered the many food allergies and intolerances I have. This, of course, changed my life significantly. For the better, but also somewhat for the worse; my health improved when avoiding these foods, but things got complicated. Eating out is an overwhelming experience, starting with a very long conversation with the waiter who has to go talk to the cook, or the manager, or whoever might know the list of ingredients for the dish I am hoping to order. Even then, there are doubts with every mouthful I eat. Dining over a friend’s house makes me feel like I’m overburdening their dinner preparations, so I usually bring something “Ellee-friendly.”
Writing about it helps me weigh the benefits with the challenges, and reminds me (as the act of writing always does) that the search for balance is valuable and very personal.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts) This piece was written fairly quickly, over about a week of a million revisions (shocking for a flash piece for me!). I saw the call for the theme “Table” and wrote this hoping it would fit. Normally, my process is varied for each piece. I have a long essay that has morphed through multiple revisions over two years, a couple half-written (but not yet abandoned!) novels started ten years ago, some essays of different lengths that I wrote in one sitting and revised very little, and a memoire about living in more than two dozen homes before the age of 30 that I started a few years ago and am still actively working on.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? I am a closet photographer. I once owned a manual and then digital SLR camera, but now I am obsessed with my iPhone and Instagram to capture early morning light, soul-warming sunsets, plates of delectables, hikes I take, faces of people I love, and shadow-selfies. I see images in words, words in images; for me, the two are inseparable.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I write anywhere and everywhere – the car, one of three lovely coffee shops or café’s in town, the local campus or public library, at my kitchen table that my husband and I stained a walnut sheen ten years ago when we first married, on the back patio, on porches of various friends, on my couch in many positions with any number of pillows and sometimes a blanket my mother crocheted when I was 11.
If I were to choose, my most preferred space is at the public library a couple of blocks from my home. There’s an overly stuffed, deep red armchair and matching ottoman facing the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the flowerbeds and grass lawn. From there, I watch the young families in my neighborhood walk home with arms cradling their library finds and I remember my youth and the magic I have always found in that sacred space.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? In 2013, I discovered Joanne Beard and The Boys of My Youth. Last week, I discovered Lori Jakiela and Belief is its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. Both show me how to delicately deliver details. Both inspire me to capture memory with the spontaneity of recollection and the careful curation of storytelling.
I am also privileged to have been included in one way or another over the last few years in the workshops at Ohio University’s Creative Writing program. There, among a collection of amazing writers, I discovered Sarah Minor’s essays, which dance along the undefined line between abstraction and traditional delivery of memory, definition, truth, scene, and detail. Through her work I feel a little more bold to allow my own abstract and willfully wistful mind do its own thinking on the page.
And, though she too is part of the PhD program, I met one of Proximity’s own editors – Maggie Messit – at a local coffee shop down the road years ago. We were sitting across from each other, laptops open, two extroverts doing what they do. I have been encouraged and inspired by her as a friend, but, more so, I have seen her as a mentor and learned how to organize a story (no matter how small), how to push my own insecurities, and how valuable it is to look closely at each sentence, each word, each unsaid thing.
But, in considering this question, I was surprised to realize that it’s my husband Joel Prince’s highly artistic opinion and pin-sharp honesty have caused me to not only consider my work in clear light, being self-critical in an open way, but also my ambition to tell anyone anything. Not every story should be told. Not everything told should be a story.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? Simple: I write. Or nap. One of the two. If that doesn’t work, I console myself with large amounts of chocolate.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? I think it depends on what you intend to get out of reading. Do you want to learn how to do better what you’re already doing? Then, find writers with similar aesthetic and push yourself to interact with their work, not just passively absorb it. Do you want to learn how to do something different? Then, find authors who do something different. Do you want to be inspired? Read until you find it.
I don’t have any specifics to offer. Everyone is different. And good or even great writing is everywhere. I only know of the truffles I’ve found in the forest that suit my particular tastes (see above: Joanne Beard, Lori Jakiela, among others). The point, I think, is to be ready to hunt. You’ll find something pretty quickly, I wouldn’t doubt.
How has moving around so much affected your writing? Moving that frequently allowed me to root myself to the idea of home as an abstract connection. (Think: less postal address and the motions of community-building, and more the faces of my family in various environments and the dynamics of interpersonal communication with friends scattered across the country.) Because I learned to build and keep connections to people without the anchor of shared physical spaces, I acquired what I have found to be a richer vocabulary and a firmer understanding of tolerating differences in personal experience. Being unrooted helped me understand rootedness from afar, in a sense.
Yet, this detachment from community was also often isolating and lonely. It often caused me–an extrovert–to look inside my own imagination to spawn adventures and entertainment. I believe this is a common experience for kids who move a lot in their childhoods. Though my family moved so much due to many factors (lack of finances and the construction boom of the 80s being two of those factors), I have friends who grew up in military families who express similar ideas. Except, for me, I didn’t have other “poor kids who moved a lot” to immediately connect with in each new town. So I’d find myself wandering around after my older brother, pestering him into a long and lasting friendship. I would also find friends quicker with each new move, which sometimes surprises people who would assume that every move included a “leaving and grieving” that would cause me to be more hesitant to reach out in the next locale. But every move was an adventure. It was a notebook filled with new stories, new descriptions, new scenery, new faces.
You said you see words in images and images in words–what images do you personally see in the piece you have written? The images I see in “My Body Knows” are directly included in the piece. I see that pimply rash, though I never saw it as an infant, it was a common occurrence until I was in my mid-20s and began to discover the exact foods I was allergic to. I see those glistening bites of kiwi that I ate while watching television in the third-floor upstairs apartment in East Hartford, Connecticut–the commercials blaring while my mother fed me liquid Benadryl by the spoonful. I see those two eggs at the Waffle House off the highway’s exit ramp that I so desperately wanted to bring back into my diet. I was so excited that the allergy test came back negative that I ate them both without preparing for an emergency first. Once the wheezing started as soon as we got back into the car, I held my brand new EpiPen in my lap while my husband drove to the nearest gas station to purchase two travel-size packets of Benadryl.
I also see the countless other allergic reactions that surround this small sketch, that all seem connected to each other. Each throat constriction, itchy rash, or swelling is part of a conversation my body has had over the course of my short life–trying to tell me what it needs and what it cannot tolerate. I’m trying hard to listen.
We asked Ellee to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I’d come back as an herbal remedy for illness. I am fascinated with the idea of one thing being absorbed to the betterment of another.
When and where were you happiest? Almost any coastline I’ve visited in my life. More specifically, Edisto Island, South Carolina. Other than that, any comfortable place to read an Agatha Christie mystery. I recently finished “Murder at the Vicarage” with my toes in the surf.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? The words “hysterical” and “hilarious” – interchangeably – with annoying, drawn-out emphasis on the first syllable. I’ve done this since I was a child.
Also, in text conversations, I find myself adding extras of the last letter. Don’t ask me whyyyyyyy.
What is your greatest extravagance? Shoes. For the sake of my husband, I no longer own more than about 20 pairs at one time. I still remember the astonishment in his blue eyes when we were dating and I counted out my more than 160 pairs in preparation to thin out my wardrobe before marrying him.
I have had and deleted the Zappos app on my phone. More than once.
Which talent would you most like to have? I am a voice teacher with this secret shame: I can barely play more than simple whole-note scales on the piano.
Who is your hero of fiction? Currently, Ms. Marple.
What is your current state of mind? Melancholy with a hint of cilantro. Freshly made guacamole always lifts my mood.
What is your motto? Never have a motto. Just live your life.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.