Behind the Words: Laura Bernstein

Posted by on Jan 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

With engaging format and a flowing narrative, Laura Bernstein’s essay, Ice-Locked, reflects on the dynamics of mental illness and family. She was kind enough to answer some questions regarding writing about family, her writing style, and how writer’s can benefit from certain craft aspects.


Zac: How do you think the breaks from the essay act in this essay? Did you find that these breaks can be interpreted in many ways?

Laura: Almost all of my work is poetry, but this story begged to be creative nonfiction. Begged, I tell you! Mid-revelation that I wanted to dab my toes into another genre, an NPR story came on the radio about the orca whales. I immediately thought of a haibun–a Japanese form that combines prose and haiku. Although the breaks aren’t haikus, I thought about how each break had a conversation with the prose. I didn’t think about how it could be interpreted per se; the breaks helped me make sense of my own thought process.


The juxtaposition between the dividing of the bedroom and the divide between the character of the sister and the family is balanced very well in this essay. How do you think a writer can balance some of the metaphors or imagery in their own work? Where do you think the line is where it isn’t a successful image anymore?

My students often ask me about page lengths to their papers–if they should end at the minimum or keep on going. I’m sure it’s frustrating to hear “you’ll just know when it’s done.” The same goes for metaphors. Writers should constantly push themselves and see where their metaphors take them. If the metaphor and imagery is written purely to be clever, it’s probably forced. I find if there is real self-discovery–where I learn something new and shock the heck out of myself within my own writing–it’s successful. There’s nothing more thrilling than the surprise of where an image starts and where it ends. The more I write, the more confident I am in continuing, finalizing, and even squashing a metaphor.


How difficult was it to write about a family member who you continue having a relationship with? Did you find yourself wanting to protect your sister as you do in this essay?

That’s a great question. I think it would be more difficult not to write about my relationship with my sister. This story is as much about myself as it is about her. People are usually more surprised that I am writing specifically about my sister’s mental health struggles (as opposed to writing about any other number of topics involving my sister). With that, it’s important to remember my own flaws as I write, so that I don’t look like I’m a hero swooping down and belittling my sister. I’m presenting two human beings who both stumble in their own ways. What’s more beautiful than witnessing a purely human experience?

How would you describe your writing?

Take your favorite trinket and smash it with a sledgehammer. My writing is a set of tweezers, picking up the shards left behind.

What authors most influence you?

My answer might start to sound like a “thank you” speech, so I’ll keep it as short as possible. I’m influenced by my mentors in my past and present creative writing courses: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Paul Lisicky, Patrick Rosal, and Daisy Fried. You asked about metaphor before; Jeffrey McDaniel’s work is a great place to question how far a metaphor can stretch and swell. As I complete my first manuscript, I am reading more and more of Lydia Davis and Maggie Nelson. Finally, when I feel like my writing loses track, I turn to Lucille Clifton for an honest and solid kick forward. There should be a line of “What Would Lucille Clifton Do” bracelets–I would buy several and dole them out to my writer friends.

Zac Zander lives in Connecticut with his dog, Kaki, who is named after the musician not the pants. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University and is working on a collection of essays.

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