Interview Platform: The Muffin
Interview Conducted by: Margot L. Dill
Welcome to Lisa H. Owens who won second place in our latest creative nonfiction essay contest! Her essay is titled, "What You Can Do in 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds." You can read it here, and you don't want to miss it. It's powerful, and we discuss below why she was motivated to write an essay about George Floyd and his treatment by the police officers who were arresting him. But first here's a bit more about Lisa:
"Growing up, my family moved around—a lot. I attended a total of nine schools-in six cities-in four states before my first year of college. My first attempts at writing became a series of short stories inspired by the antics involved in making those numerous moves—from north to south and east to west—with my oddball family. Two local newspapers picked them up; running one story per month in a humorous memoirs column for a couple of years and that had me hooked. I continued to write, entering contests and submitting a piece periodically to The New Yorker magazine and am quite proud of receiving a few rejection emails, which was a step up from the old, 'If you haven’t heard from us in three months, we won’t be using your story...' scenario."
"Most recently, I have completed my first book, a compilation of letters to my sister-in-law describing my first year as a new-hire flight attendant in the magical city of Boston called, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. Now the hard part, finding a publisher. I have two wonderful children (now in their 30s) and reside in North Texas with three rescue dogs and a WFH job as an environmental compliance manager. I am continuing to write part two of my book, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. You can read a variety of my pieces (poetry, humorous memoirs, and stories dealing with more serious subject matter) at lisahowens.com."
WOW: Welcome, Lisa! Congratulations on your second place win. Why did you want to write a piece specifically about what happened to George Floyd?
Lisa: The idea of writing a piece about George Floyd came to me, as I stood in my living room bowing my head to observe the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence—the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck—called for by Al Sharpton on the televised memorial service of George Floyd on June 4th. As I stood up (from the comfort of my sofa) with my eyes closed, my mind began to wander. I opened my eyes. Only one minute and thirty seconds had passed. I closed my eyes again. I began to fidget. I had laundry in the dryer to fold. I opened my eyes. We were at three minutes now. I walked out to the garage, retrieved my basket of clean clothes, and sat down to fold. The clock continued to creep along toward the eight-minute mark. I couldn't wrap my brain around what an eternity nearly nine minutes must have felt like to George, as he begged for mercy. Next, I found myself thinking about how much a person could really accomplish in that time-frame. Once upon a time, I used to run a mile in around eight minutes.
WOW: Thank you for describing that to us. Honoring Mr. Floyd's life in that way was very powerful. Why did you decide to write the piece in a list form?
Lisa: The list formatting was born out of the thought process: What are some things we can do in around nine minutes? This piece really called for the bullet point formatting. I wanted to keep it simple and to the point.
WOW: It definitely works. The bullet point list is extremely powerful and makes your point well. Did you research all those different points, such as how many times you can hand-write I love you?
Lisa: Yes! I did research every point on the list. I used Google mostly, googling things like: 9 minute Guinness Book world records and picked the most outrageous one I found (2013 eating 141 hard-boiled eggs). At one point, I was going to cook Totino’s Pizza Rolls and read the baking instructions. One serving (10 rolls) in 9 minutes at 425º. I thought the list should start with light, fun facts and slowly become more serious in nature. I was absolutely blown away when I connected the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center Tower on 9/11 (0846 am EST) with the amount of time George was denied a breath of air. As far as the specific points like heartbeats, typing, handwriting, and reading, I needed a range so researched the high and low of each category using a one-minute time-frame (example: the lowest number of human heartbeats in one minute; then the highest number of human heartbeats in one-minute; then used the average for each). I had to ask for help with the math involved to calculate the totals at 8 minutes and 46 seconds. There is a weird formula involved when converting base ten numbers to time, and I didn’t know what that formula was! I wanted the numbers to be accurate, and math was not my strongest subject in school.
After I completed the cerebral parts of my story, it was time to do the one thing I dreaded. It was time to watch the video filmed by Darnella Frazier. I’m not going to lie. It was hard, and like everyone else in the world with a soul, I cried and asked, “Why?” I was shocked to see Chauvin with his hand in his pocket...at least that is how I interpreted it. Nonchalance. Nothing out of the ordinary for him. A normal day on the job.
WOW: Just hearing you describe it is extremely heartbreaking. I think the order you put the items in really makes your point. Let's switch gears a little: It sounds like you have a very interesting book and that you are looking for a publisher. Tell us more about that book and your process.
Lisa: It is my first book titled, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. It is an epistolary memoir; a series of letters written to my sister-in-law when my husband (her brother) and I separated after being together for thirty-four years. It mainly highlights (in hilarious detail) navigating a new job and a new city (Boston) as a naive new-hire flight attendant from the Deep South and a series of fated events that ultimately led up to the night I met Melinda’s older brother for the very first time. When I began the first letter, I had no idea it was going to turn into a book. I was literally going “old school,” writing a physical letter to Melinda telling her I still love her and all of my in-laws whether her brother and I are together or not—but it turned into something else. A letter almost every day for several months talking about my life before meeting the man of my dreams—in the past; but then I began to throw in a letter here and there to talk about what was happening currently in my life with the pandemic, the George Floyd marches, the Confederate Monument standoffs, and the challenges of being alone after thirty-four years. I sent the completed book to Melinda because if she wasn’t on board, it was dead in the water.
She loved it and said, “I laughed and cried about a million times, as I read it.” So, I am excited about how it came together (with the help of Chelsey Clammer’s professional editing) and can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I have promised myself that I will submit to one publisher or literary agent every day and not get overwhelmed.
WOW: That book sounds fantastic! And we know that if Chelsey helped you with it and it is also coming from you, it is going to find the perfect home! What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Lisa: I am getting ready to begin the continuation of the book because there are so many crazy stories and situations that occurred once Melinda’s brother and I began dating! I may call it, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. We’ll see!
WOW: We can't wait to see what the future holds for you! We are so glad you decided to enter the contest, and best of luck with your writing!
CREATIVE NONFICTION ESSAY WINNER, SOCIAL JUSTICE ESSAY
Interview with Lisa H. Owens conducted by Margo L. Dill for "The Muffin"
November 7, 2020