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The Mystery of Writerly Material by Brittani Sonnenberg

Illustration by Daniel Zender
March 14, 2019

The Mystery of Writerly Material by Brittani Sonnenberg

I wrote these two odes to Hercule Poirot in a fit of grief and admiration. Grief over a divorce and a cross-continental move, admiration for Agatha Christie’s famous detective—specifically, David Suchet’s exquisite portrayal of Poirot in the BBC series.

I have mostly written fiction, but in the wake of all that relationship/displacement wreckage I found myself drawn to poems, as if the shorter form were floating pieces of a capsized ship. If I managed to hold onto them, I might bob my way to dry land.

I was interested, too, in writing from a place of love about the loss of love. I had been trying, for three years, to write a novel about divorce. But sustaining a fictional narrative felt forced and exhausting. I decided to give myself permission to write about my most pedestrian obsessions—my favorite TV shows, my horror of free sample stations in grocery stores—and tune into what they were whispering.

What comes easy? What do we find irresistible? What brings us joy? These questions are often viewed with embarrassment by writers, but I’ve come to believe that your writing practice doesn’t need to feel like a medieval hair shirt. Why put on something itchy and abrasive when you could be wearing a mumu? “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” writes Mary Oliver in “Wild Geese,” and the same could be said for our subject matter as writers and the forms we choose—or, even better, those that choose us.

From childhood, I have loved detective stories—Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, the Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown; and as an adult I still seek out spies and sleuths— Smiley, Poirot, Miss Marple, Miss Fisher, Foyle  . . .   Some accuse the genre of being too formulaic, but I think that part of our attraction to these figures lies in their deep trust of their intuition. In this sense, detectives must be mystics to apprehend the heart of the mystery at hand, and all of their attendant oddities—Poirot’s fussiness, Miss Fisher’s flapper dresses, Smiley’s enigmatic silences—evince their eccentric aesthetics. Writers are not so different. Ultimately, the feeling of satisfying writing never comes from proving, or trying to match others, as the greatest detectives know, but in surrendering to the mystery of your own investigative style.

Brittani SonnenbergBrittani Sonnenberg has an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Austin. She serves as a visiting lecturer at the MFA program of the University of Hong Kong and teaches creative writing classes for the Texas Writer’s League, the Writing Barn, and Gemini Ink, as well as private classes and coaching. Her award-winning fiction has been widely published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O’Henry Short Story Prize Series and Hong Kong Noir, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her nonfiction has been published by Time Magazine, The Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. Her comics and poetry have been featured in Austin Monthly, The Visual Poetry Project, and Conflict of Interest. Her novel, Home Leave, was selected as a New York Times’ Editors’ Pick. 

Brittani has contributed to North American Review, Volume 304.1.

Illustration by: Daniel Zender.

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