Jessi Lewis grew up on a blueberry farm in rural Virginia. Her essays, short stories, and poems have been published in Gulf Stream, The Pinch, Yemassee, Appalachian Heritage, and Flyway, among others. Her novel manuscript She Spoke Wire was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
Her essay "For the Soup" will appear in the Winter 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 14, for special savings and discounts.
Note from the Nonfiction Editor:
I loved finding "For the Soup" among our submissions because it is a well-written story that takes chances. Turning a time and a place into a compelling narrative portrait is difficult to do, but this essay reminds us that the memory of people can linger and we, if we allow ourselves to, can meet them at certain volumes of mind and memory.
In “For the Soup,” you deal with the death of a relative and the impact it continues to have afterwards. How did you approach writing about such an emotional topic, and what did the drafting process teach you?
This draft was all about taking time. If I slowed myself down, I could process what it meant to confuse memories with hauntings and hauntings with the creaks of an older home. My grandmother helped to raise me, so writing this was an inherently overwhelming experience. That's why it took a few months longer to write this than most of my essays, and it certainly took longer than my short stories. The most difficult part was allowing myself the time to process what was unfurling in front of me. This is also why it is structured as it is. I needed to ruminate on each element, and I hoped that the reader would experience this slow burn too.
You creatively discuss this idea of communing with the past, exploring how some people continue to sense the presence of loved ones long after they’re gone. How much knowledge of the topic did you have before you wrote the essay? Did the events in the essay prompt you to explore this idea?
I am a touch obsessed with hauntings and have been so since I was a kid. At the time, I was certain someone (or thing) was turning on the sink faucet when I was taking a bath. But now I'm more amazed by the idea of the mental barriers we have and how our minds can use familiar ghostly sightings for comfort in grief.
The essay made me search beyond pop culture and folklore to seek out those people trying to walk the line of researching that which we cannot necessarily explain. Ghosts, real or imagined, represent the kind of longing we can't define in our everyday justifications. We need help.
You incorporated personal experience, outside knowledge, and a topic that is laced with a lot of sharable emotions into this essay. What advice would you give to writers who are starting to tackle the essay form?
I can say that I rarely try to include research in essays. It has to be effective for the topic, for the purpose, and for the audience. That's the only advice I feel I can give. So often, breaking up the pace and structure of a personal piece just doesn't work. It's an unnecessary sacrifice. As I negotiated the concept of hauntings, part of the purpose was to include other people who negotiate this and other cultural ways we leap between fearing what we see and trusting what we see. This kept the speaker's voice from seeming potentially unbalanced for the audience. I'm not alone in my grief and visions—it's part of who we are as beings who love and lose.