Priscilla Long on Unconventional Writing Forms for Journalists

The National Magazine Award winner talks about her essay on genetics and why journalists could benefit from reading poetry.

Priscilla Long
Priscilla Long (photo by Michael Cain)

Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, essays, fiction, and history. Last spring, she became the long-shot winner of this year’s National Magazine Award for feature writing. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Seattle Review, Chattahoochee Review, and others. She is also the author of Where the Sun Never Shines: a History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry.

Felix Gillette: Back in May you won a National Magazine Award for feature writing for your story “Genome Tome,” which appeared in the American Scholar. Your story beat out finalists from the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, and GQ. Were you surprised to win?

Priscilla Long: I was quite thrilled and I was also surprised. I had read the other four nominees. They are wonderful pieces. My piece is a bit of a maverick. It’s not the conventional feature piece.

FG: “Genome Tome” is an essay meditating, in part, on the Human Genome Project. You organized the story as a montage with 23 chapters — one for each chromosome. What inspired you to write the story?

PL: I’m interested in the whole cloning conversation that’s going on around the country, because I’m an identical twin. We are nature’s clones, we — or at least, I — feel that we have something to say on this subject. Often the conversation is as if cloning is making a duplicate person. And, of course, identical twins are not duplicate persons.

Also, in 2002 the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery here in Seattle had an exhibition that was called “Gene(sis):Contemporary Art Explores the Human Genome” curated by Robin Held. It was a visual art look at the Human Genome Project. So I went to that several times, and that sparked it off.

FG: How did you come up with the format?

PL: I’m a poet, and I’m very interested in forms both in poetry and in prose. Of course, we have 23 pairs of chromosomes, so the 23 chapters reflect the 23 chromosomes that we have. The Human Genome Project has tremendous implications. For example, the understanding that we all come from Africa. We’re learning more and more about where we come from and what our inheritance is. It’s very personal to everyone. It involves one’s own family and one’s own life.

It was inspiring and fun to work on. It took me about three years.

FG: How did you team up with the American Scholar?

PL: It was an over-the-transom submission. Of course, you cannot assign a piece like this. I really am so grateful to them for recognizing what it was, the different parts of it. It has an ancient Arabic form of a poem, a ghazal, in it. One chapter has 23 questions. Another chapter is a memoir. Another is about chimpanzees. They immediately took it up. They were very excited about it.

FG: In addition to writing poetry and essays, and editing a Web site on the history of Washington State, you also currently teach writing in Seattle. What’s your teaching philosophy?

PL: I have four tenets. The first one is basic productivity. All of my writers write every day. There’s so much to learn, a sporadic work habit doesn’t work. That’s one. And then, we do a lot of craftwork by looking at masterworks. I also teach the art of the sentence. The art of the paragraph. Diction. Working with language. We do a ton of that.

I work with adult writers. These are either professional writers, who want to go more literary, or [amateur] writers who are becoming professional writers. We work on deep structures and forms. We invent forms sometimes. We also look at all kinds of traditional forms. Forms are proliferating. Collage is becoming not uncommon. We look at that a lot.

My philosophy is that as long as somebody is working, I absolutely do not tell somebody that they don’t have it to be a writer. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in talent. It’s a falsehood.

FG: There’s no recessive writing gene.

PL: Exactly.

FG: “Genome Tome,” is full of playful lyricism, including my favorite line, about Alba, a bunny rabbit who’s been injected with a gene that produces florescence. You write: “Alba’s jellyfish gene makes Alba glow green.” All of which made me wonder: Do you think people in the news business could benefit from taking a course in, say, writing poetry?

PL: I absolutely do. Many of the best essayists writing today in the country are poets. Seamus Heaney is a great essayist. Heather McCue is a great essayist. John Updike is a poet. Mary Oliver is an excellent essayist. One of the reasons is that they’re using their language skills, echoing sounds and so on, in their prose as well as in their poetry.

Some journalists have a wonderful ear too. And they use all kinds of moves that are more literary — like using sentences with lists in them. Which is a rather literary move. It’s not that the reader thinks, “Oh, these sounds are great.” There’s something about sounds that draw you into the material. So absolutely, I think that journalists can benefit from reading poetry, especially lyrical poetry. It really does help your ear.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.