Arkana Editors chatted with artist, advocate, and writer Melissent Zumwalt. Her creative nonfiction piece, “It All Happens at a McDonald’s,” is featured in Arkana’s 12th Issue.
Arkana: What role does reflection play in your writing process?
Melissent Zumwalt: The themes and moments I choose to write about have often been spinning around in my head for years (and sometimes decades!), so reflection on events that happened, what they mean to me and those around me, and how they relate to larger societal contexts, is an intrinsic part of the writing process for me. Although, I don’t typically use a lot of reflection on the page itself. I’m more interested in creating a setting or a moment that a reader can step into and then reflect upon the events for themselves. That’s what I’ve always loved about reading, the ability to enter other worlds and vantage points and imagine what it would look and feel like, what sense I might make out of a situation. Because of this, I think my writing might read a little more like fiction sometimes than memoir. I’ve been experimenting with imbuing a bit more meaning-making and written reflection into some of my pieces lately, though.
ARK: “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” mentions that your dream was to become a professional dancer. What drew you to writing?
MZ: My mom was my first dance teacher, but she was also an inadvertent storyteller (about her own life and our larger family and their past) with a real knack for recounting the ridiculous and the tragic. As I grew up, it was a natural transition to informally telling family stories myself since I’d always seen that modeled. So, I’ve had this love of story as long as I’ve had a love of dance.
But dance is a physical art form and naturally becomes limited by time. I remember a desire to write my family’s stories from a young age, but making the decision to focus on dance in my youth, with the idea I could work on writing “later.” As I’ve gotten older and dance has taken a different place in my life, I’m grateful to have writing as a creative outlet.
ARK: The ending of “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” cuts off after the narrator asks to give money to the man in the drive-through. Why choose to end the piece there instead of after she approaches him?
MZ: If I ended after the narrator interacted with the man, it felt a little too tidy for me—like the completed interaction would signal some sort of resolution. Because the struggle of the narrator and her family, of that man by the drive-thru, of the people of our country (because I think of this piece—situated in McDonald’s—as a snapshot of many), are ongoing and I didn’t want things to feel solved by a single gesture.
ARK: In addition to setting, what themes inspire your writing?
MZ: Family, always family. I am continually moved by the beauty and tragedy and humor of my family. Their dynamics and complexities are an endless source of inspiration for my writing.
ARK: Most of your works are creative nonfiction essays. Do you also write in other genres?
MZ: At this time, I only write creative nonfiction. But in the future, I’m interested to try fiction or autofiction. There are strands of people or events in my life that I’m fascinated by and would like to explore through writing, but I don’t know enough of the historical facts to render them as nonfiction.
ARK: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about? What are you working on now?
MZ: For the last few months, I’ve been working on some flash pieces, trying to gain a better understanding of the form. I love flash, how authors take a seed of a moment or a thought and spin it into something vast and profound.
ARK: Thank you for sharing with us!
Read “It All Happens at a McDonald’s” here!
Melissent Zumwalt is an artist, advocate and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her written work has appeared in the Whisk(e)y Tit Journal, Full Grown People, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Longridge Review and elsewhere. Read more at: melissentzumwalt.com