In conversation with Elena Passarello

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Author Paul Collins says that the essay collection “Let Me Clear My Throat” by writer and actor Elena Passarello “sings—and screams, quavers, and falls meditatively hushed.” The book, a series of essays on some unforgettable moments in the history of her human voice, examines the voice as the incarnating instrument of thought, acting as an annotated soundtrack of a woman giving voice to herself. Passarello teaches creative writing at Oregon State University.

As the keynote address for the 35th annual Young Writers’ Conference, presented by the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing and the Department of English, Passarello will read Wednesday, March 25 at Fresno State. The free keynote address, co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities, will be in the Satellite Student Union at 9:15 a.m.

In an interview, MFA creative nonfiction student Jennifer Dean spoke with Passarello about capturing different voices, borrowing from rules and forms, and questioning the reader’s focus on the I.

let-me-clear-my-throatJennifer: In Let Me Clear My Throat, along with meditating on the voice and its role as a human connector, there’s a great deal of technical information about the use of the voice, the voice as an instrument, and how actors use their voices. Did you come by that knowledge through research or from personal experience?

Elena: I spent ten years working as an actor on the East Coast, around Pittsburgh, regional theaters in the Midwest, and actors do spend a lot of time thinking about the voice. The voice and the body are their two main tools and the voice is often the first thing an actor begins to create when building a character. I actually also did a lot of work as a voice actor as well.

Jennifer: And was it your intention to write an essay collection about the voice from the beginning?

Elena: When I went to the Iowa Creative Nonfiction Writing Program, I was really looking to move away from my identity [as an actor]. I wanted to be a writer; I wanted to be like the next Ted Conover. In fact, I didn’t even want anyone at Iowa to know I had been an actor, but what I noticed was that with nearly every essay I wrote for those classes, the voice was my point of entry into the essay. It turned out I was “writing what I knew.” Which, I should point out, isn’t quite the same thing as writing what you love.

Although the collection is about voices and vocalizations [like Marlon Brando’s “Stella” scream, the Rebel Yell, the Wilhelm Scream] a lot of my very favorite voices, like Judy Dench and Tom Waits, for instance, don’t show up in the any of the essays. Writing on those voices just didn’t serve the collection, so they don’t appear in it.

Jennifer: Speaking of writing on voices, there are also brief, first-person accounts from people who work with their voices like The Starlet, The Motor-Mouth, The Zealot, and others. Did those come from interviews, imaginative characterization, or some combination of the two?

Elena: Those essays were a way to inject other voices into the book, and also to work as a kind of palette cleanser between essays. They came from interviews I conducted over the phone, in most cases. I’d call them or sit down and we’d talk for about an hour while I transcribed their speech. My rule for myself was that I couldn’t add any words; it had to all be their own speech, but I did do some creative curating; like, often times the first thing that shows up in the piece was usually one of the last things they said to me, and I would think, “Ahh! There’s the hook.”

Jennifer: I notice you mention creating a lot of guidelines for yourself in your writing—the project of writing on the voice, the rules for curating, there’s even “Monstrous Little Voice,” an essay written in the borrowed form of a questionnaire for a ventriloquist’s dummy in which you ultimately throw your voice on the form to essay on the subject of voice as identity, making it a brilliant and witty piece. What role do rules and forms serve in writing essays?

Elena: Structures and guidelines help me manage the anxiety of “too much.” As nonfiction writers, the whole world is our oyster and sometimes it can be easy to get overwhelmed by choices, by all of that freedom. Generally, I tend to make a structure—a frame of some kind—for my project and then write from within that frame.

For instance, my next project will be a bestiary, kind of like those Medieval books of mythical animals, but my project is focusing on real animals, not mythical creatures, that we venerate culturally, like Dolly the clone sheep, or Arabella, the spider sent to space to see if spiders can weave webs in zero gravity.

Jennifer: So, for you guidelines work a little like a net you’ve woven to take out into the world. Catch some things and let others through?

Elena: Yeah, kind of. I like that description.

BillyIdolRebelYellJennifer: And borrowed forms are a little different from self-imposed guidelines and rules, right?

Elena: Yes. I assign borrowed form projects to my undergraduate students all the time. They impose limits on a writer and I think imposing limits can sometimes create the possibility for more imagination and play. Like in the essay “How To Spell the Rebel Yell,” that essay is very place conscious and vivid because, well, there’s not a whole lot of information on the Rebel Yell itself, but there’s tons of documentation on every blade of grass of every battle in the Civil War, so in that particular essay place appears more because that’s what was available to write about on the subject of the Rebel Yell.

Borrowed forms are great. The structure within them allows for imagination, but—like I tell my students—sometimes, the content demands something other than a series of dictatorial sentences. Sometimes, the content needs space. It can be tempting to use a borrowed form just because you saw a cool essay in a chart and you’d like to try it, but the form has to be dictated by the content.

Jennifer: As a final question, though your essays are in some ways informed by your experience as a voice actor, the gaze of these essays focuses outward and into the world rather than inward toward the self. Do you often hear the plea for “more Elena in this essay” from readers and, if so, how do you respond?

Elena: Sometimes. I’ve noticed that often when the author of nonfiction is a woman, a certain set of questions tends to come up, but in a more general way, I often wonder why it is that the personal has to show up on the page. Certainly, everything I [and many other writers] write about is in some way “about the self,” or coming from personal interests or obsessions, but why is it important that readers know exactly why I wanted to write the essay? Can’t a female author just be a facts nerd who loves doing research on cool stuff and writing about that stuff?

Jennifer: A great question.

Jennifer Dean studies creative nonfiction in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State.

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