Janet Buttenwieser

Former contributor Janet Buttenwieser has just released a new memoir, GUTS, available for purchase from Vine Leaves Press. The memoir hits upon chronic illnesses, loss, and resilience; we spoke with Janet about the process of writing such difficult subjects, as well as her go-to journals, and what's next for her writing. 

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Your memoir reveals a very personal experience of a rare intestinal illness. This is an intimate subject that not many people talk about, specifically when it deals with their own illnesses. Why did you choose to write about your experience with this illness?

In part I wanted to write about this illness because I wanted to make it less uncomfortable for people to talk about. The more we can talk to each other about “taboo" topics, the less taboo they become. I think the more honest you can be in a memoir, the more relatable the story. Many, many people have some kind of chronic intestinal illness. And everyone has experienced intestinal distress at least once in their lives. It really shouldn’t be so embarrassing to talk about. Writing GUTS was also an act of solidarity with the millions of people with invisible illnesses. Educating those around you about your illness can get exhausting. Perhaps my readers with chronic illness can give GUTS to their friends and family and say “read this, and then you will understand my experience a little better."

As all writers know, the blank page is daunting and more often than not, mocking us writers. For some, staring at the blank page is the hardest part of writing. What are you writing routines that help you get your writing down on the page?

I’m a big believer in Anne Lamott’s “short assignments,” and focusing on the one-inch picture frame as she discusses in her wonderful craft book, BIRD BY BIRD. When I am working on a longer project and I get stuck, I give myself a short assignment. I’ll find a prompt online or make up one based on something I’m reading and write a short piece. While I was working on GUTS I did this often, and the short pieces were great “palate cleansers” between segments of the book-length memoir. I often tricked myself into thinking I was writing about a totally different subject, only to have those short essays morph into chapters of the memoir. Any lyricism that exists in GUTS is due to those short pieces I wrote while I “wasn’t working on the memoir."

You were published with The Pinch Journal Online in 2014 and with other well-known journals. What are your go-to journals and literary magazines where you submit your work? 

I’ve only been writing and publishing in journals for a few years, so I don’t have a go-to list per se, but I can speak to how I decide where to submit. Any magazine that has sent a personalized reaction is the first place I submit new work, and nearly everywhere I’ve been published is a place that rejected me before they published me, including The Pinch. I look in the back of Best American Essays and Facebook writers' groups where I have membership and see where writers I admire are placing work. I always aim high to begin with, and only submit to publications that I would be proud to list on my bio.

You are a published author! You have a book published! What advice would you give to us hopeful writers trying to do what you have accomplished?

Persistence pays off. It’s what everyone says, but it’s really true. Write the story you want to write and make it the best that you can. And then make it even better by putting it aside and by getting lots of feedback. Publish short pieces, whether they are excerpts from the longer work or not. When the manuscript is super-duper polished, send it out, and be patient. Remember that agents and editors are inundated with queries, and that, just as with publishing in a journal, it’s a matter of fit with a particular agent/editor/press. Someone out there is going to fall in love with your book. It will happen.  

In your opinion, what does literary success look like to you?

When a reader I’ve never met before contacts me to say they were moved by something I wrote.

We have to know, what is your favorite book of all time, and why?

That’s impossible to answer! Instead I’ll say the best memoir I’ve read in the past 10 years: THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran. The subtitle is “a family love story,” and it is indeed, a love letter to her family and her brother Sean whose suicide at the age of 15 is the main (but not the only) subject of the book. It’s a perfectly sculpted work of art. Every sentence is gorgeous. Finneran weaves together past and present masterfully. I’ve read it at least 10 times, and I learn something new each time.

Editing is a huge part of writing. Were there any sections of your memoir that you regret having to completely cut or change? Was it difficult to edit your work since it is your life story?

It took me 9 years to write and publish GUTS, and in that time I had several excerpts published as essays. Some pieces of those essays did get cut from the book, but since they’ve had a life in journals, it wasn’t hard to let those sections go from the final manuscript. I think it’s difficult to edit one’s own work, memoir or not. One of the main subjects of GUTS is my friend Beth, who died when we were both 38. I started writing GUTS in the immediate aftermath of her death, and those parts were hard to edit at that time. But one of the advantages of the re-writing and submission process taking place over several years is that I did eventually have emotional and temporal distance from the events surrounding her death, so eventually they were easier to edit.

What was the hardest part of publishing GUTS?

It was hard to be patient through the years of submitting and rejections, and hard to realize I needed to dig back into the work after a lot of revisions. But that work paid off — the manuscript that Vine Leaves accepted was “nearly print-ready” according to their acquisitions editor, and indeed the editing process was smooth and pretty painless.

So, what's on your horizon next?

I’m focusing on shorter projects for awhile, and trying my hand at fiction. After years of writing about the same few people and settings, it’s tons of fun to make stuff up.