Interview: Lois Ruskai Melina

Lois Ruskai Melina“Rowers usually go out early in the morning because the water tends to be calmer then, so often you’re on the river at first light. It’s quiet. The herons and eagles are out. It’s an amazing way to start the day.” — Lois Ruskai Melina 3/5/21


Who is Lois Ruskai Melina?

Lois Ruskai Melina is a writer, educator, and rower who lives in Southwest Portland. I first met Lois at a Willamette Writers meeting in the Old Church in downtown Portland when she was transitioning from a successful career as an entrepreneur and nonfiction author to other forms of writing. And not long after that we spent time together in a Cynthia Whitcomb screenwriting class. Since then, Lois has found success writing personal essays, expanded into fiction, and discovered the joys of rowing.

Her recently published collection of personal essays — The Grammar of Untold Stories — is now available from Shanti Arts, LLC. And her short stories have appeared in Blood Orange Review, Chattahoochee Review, and Barnstorm. An interesting project Lois and I worked on together was helping to arrange a public reading of poets laureate from the states of Oregon (Paulann Petersen), Washington (Kathleen Flenniken), and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Andrea Scarpino). That was a lot of fun.


The Interview…

J: Where are you from originally… like, where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

L: Not a simple answer. We moved between states when I was 7, 9, 10, and 15. For two of those intervals we lived in Littleton, Colorado, south of Denver, so that’s where I say I grew up. I think that was the landscape and culture that shaped me—the Rocky Mountains and the mile-high sky and the ethic of people who left families and their pasts behind for some kind of promise. I was in the Midwest from the time I was 15 until I was 27, but I always wanted to get back to the West. Even though my husband spent his whole life in Ohio, once he visited the West he was drawn to the wildlife and the open spaces. We moved to Idaho in 1979 and from there to Portland in 2008.

I grew up in a white Catholic family, going to predominantly white Catholic schools, with white Catholic friends. It was narrow in many ways, but Catholicism also exposed me to a social justice ethic, and when I was 13, my parents let me live for a week with a nun from my school who spent the summer teaching migrant workers. I came away thinking I would become a social worker, which didn’t happen, but the experience nonetheless had a big influence on me.

I had three sisters, a mother who never learned to swim or ride a bike, and a father who was athletic but physically disabled. So we didn’t camp or hike or do a lot of outdoorsy things in the mountains. I took every opportunity to do sports—even though I’m not athletically gifted. I was on a swim team, skied, played tennis, and joined a field hockey team, but none of it was very serious, and I wish I’d had more opportunities in those pre-Title IX years to pursue sports. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really began to interact with nature and be more physically active.

J: So it kind of sounds like you were a well-intentioned Catholic kid dreaming of climbing mountains while living in farm country… but you made the best of it until you could find a path back home. That’s a cool story in itself. I know you as a writer and an educator, but it sounds like you may have preferred being a wilderness guide. Was it lack of opportunity that kept you from pursuing more of a sporting life? How did the writing and teaching life manage to take shape? Did the nun you lived with inspire you to teach? Is that too many questions all at once?

L: Well, there was certainly a lack of opportunities for girls to pursue sports when I was growing up, but I also lacked athletic ability, so I don’t think I missed out on a career! Still, I think sports can add an important dimension to not only the physical but the psychological development of a young person, and I wish I’d had that opportunity. I certainly wish I could have gotten into the out-of-doors earlier. Being in nature has become a vital part of my life—necessary for me to maintain any kind of balance. I wish I’d known that earlier.

I started college torn between wanting to become a social worker and a new interest in writing. I quickly focused on journalism. I came of age in 1970, at the peak of the women’s movement, and I believed I could do anything I wanted—I wasn’t restricted to jobs that had been open to women like teaching and nursing, so teaching wasn’t on my radar at all. I was the second woman hired as a general assignment reporter by the newspaper I worked for in 1977. But it wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined to be a woman in male-dominated organizations. I wasn’t prepared for the bias I would encounter, and there weren’t a lot of women around to mentor me.

After we moved to Idaho, I started teaching journalism as an adjunct and entered a PhD program with the intention of a teaching career. I’m not sure—maybe I thought I would encounter less sexism as a teacher. But the doctoral program wasn’t a good fit and I dropped out and started a subscription-based newsletter for adoptive parents, which led to my writing three books on adoption published by HarperCollins. I spent most of my adult life self-employed as a writer focusing on adoption, which brought back my interest in social work without becoming one. Being self-employed gave me flexibility while my children were growing up, but it also gave me control that I didn’t have in patriarchal organizations—my income and my advancement were entirely in my hands.

By the time my children were grown, I’d become interested in writing literary nonfiction. I thought about getting an MFA in creative writing, but instead I started a PhD in leadership studies and closed out my career teaching. The dean I worked for had a PhD in political science and an MFA in poetry. He heard me read an essay I’d written and encouraged me to write, and so I continued doing that while I was teaching. When I retired in 2015, I decided to focus on writing literary nonfiction, and last year I published a collection of essays, The Grammar of Untold Stories (Shanti Arts).

J: That’s an interesting career path. It sounds like it could have taken a variety of different turns along the way, but it seems like freely expressing yourself was pretty important all the way through… and I’d like to come back to that, but I thought I’d mention first that I was struck by the difference in your view of sports and the view I held when I was young. As a guy growing up in a small town in a rural area, my high school had a tough time fielding sports teams so everyone was pressured to participate. I remember especially not liking football, but I played anyway. Do you feel like it was participating in organized sports or simply the physical pleasure of being active that interested you more?

L: I should distinguish between sports and sports culture. The culture around sports has not always been kind, and sometimes both the culture and individual coaches have been quite damaging. I don’t want to minimize or ignore that. But I’m wishing I’d had the chance to be part of a responsible sports culture, where I could have learned about leadership and being part of a team, about how to push myself out of my comfort zone, how to process disappointment—all things I eventually had opportunities to learn, but I think sports can be a good place for young people to learn them early.

Also, I grew up at a time when there weren’t sports opportunities for girls because it was believed—and therefore we were told—that we were too frail to do vigorous physical activity and that it would damage our reproductive organs. Even those women who did find sports were not allowed to play full-court basketball or row more than 1,000 meters. So we were left with this idea that our female bodies were there to be looked at and used to reproduce. It was a stunning and liberating experience for me in my late thirties and early forties to experience my body as strong and powerful. But imagine—I was that old before I had that awareness. What if girls grew up really in touch with their bodies? I hope that more are. I’m now at an age when it’s harder to maintain muscle and my joints aren’t what they used to be. I started rowing six years ago, and I can’t overstate how important it is for me psychologically to experience my body as still being capable, still being strong. I can still push myself and see results, even though, of course, I’m not keeping up with either the younger rowers or the women my age who’ve rowed for thirty years.

J: Everything you’re saying is so true. The importance of exercise and gaining strength and endurance is enormous. Every person really must have the opportunity to experience that in order to be healthy. Personally, I was always aware that women could do anything men could do. Growing up on a traditional family farm meant doing a lot of physically demanding work, and a lot of the neighboring farms had daughters instead of sons doing that work, so I never questioned it. Also the way you describe the psychological impact of getting stronger as you get older is exactly what I’ve witnessed with my wife, Lisa, as she’s committed more and more time to backpacking. But rowing, I’ve never tried that, and I’ve never heard a rower describe it. So what’s that like? Is it as hard as it looks like it would be?

L: Rowing is a full body workout, and that may surprise you. I certainly expected it to be primarily an upper body workout, but the main muscles that move the boat are the leg muscles. Unlike a rowboat, the seat moves and your feet are stationary–the shoes are attached to the boat. You slide the seat forward until it is just about at your feet and then drop the oars in the water and drive with your legs. The arms just give you a final push. And that makes sense because the leg muscles are much stronger than the back and arms. I kayaked for about twenty years, and I loved it. Now, when I’m in a kayak, I think, “Why am I trying to move this boat with just my arms? This is so inefficient!”

Rowing is quite technical. The boats are light and they tip easily, so in addition to learning the mechanics of rowing, you have to keep the boat balanced. Boats that are rowed by one person, called a “single,” can flip over easily. When you row in a boat with other people—in boats that have two, four, or eight rowers—you have to sync your own movements to the movements of the other rowers and move in unison or it’s a really rough ride. The focus required for the mechanics and to come into harmony with the other rowers creates a meditative experience. Whatever is stressful in your life—you leave it on the dock because you can only think about the movements necessary to move the boat through the water. Rowers usually go out early in the  morning because the water tends to be calmer then, so often you’re on the river at first light. It’s quiet. The herons and eagles are out. It’s an amazing way to start the day. This past year, going out on the river in a single a few times a week really helped me cope with the stress of the pandemic. And I’m sure it helped me continue to tap into my creative energy.

J: Rowing sounds like a great workout. And the image your words conjure—you rowing alone at sunrise—also fits the way you’ve described your career. It seems like you’ve pushed yourself pretty hard, and also focused on taking control of your life. Would you agree with that observation? How do you see it?

L: Yes. I would agree. And—to continue the sports metaphor just a bit—I would have benefited from a coach. The dean who hired me into my last job—the one who encouraged me to write—was the first person I could describe as a mentor, and I think I would have benefited from being able to consult periodically with someone about my professional development. But, I had a solid career. I did work that I loved and some of it made a difference.

J: Mentors can have a significant impact, and good ones are hard to find. I could see you being an excellent mentor. Is that a role you have considered or have experience with?

L: Thank you. That’s a great compliment. I’ve worked alone most of my career, so not a lot of opportunity. In my faculty position I advised students, and I hope that I mentored them in that role.

J: Now, I’d like to jump over to your latest book, which I’ve been wanting to ask you about. It’s a collection of personal essays titled The Grammar of Untold Stories, and I’d like to hear how you got started writing personal essays, and if you could kind of explain to me your view of what a personal essay is, that’d be really helpful.

L: I’m not sure I know the formal definition of a personal essay. I think of it as a short story, but nonfiction. Usually, I start with a personal experience, but I think the story has to connect to some kind of larger question or awareness in order to engage the reader and have relevance beyond “This happened to me.” The essay writer can use the same tools that the short story writer can—metaphor and image and poetics—to tell the story. As the writer, I know the basics of the story I’m going to tell when I start, but how I tell it and what it conveys beyond my own experience is what I find creative and challenging.

I trace my interest in personal essay to an evening with some professional colleagues some years ago. After dinner, one of the people read a short personal essay he’d written. I had never known there was such a thing. I knew about novels and poems, but I didn’t know the scope of the literary world. I don’t remember if I thought I might explore that kind of writing—I was involved in a lot then so I probably didn’t give it much thought. In 2000 I published a book on Olympic swimmers—I followed nine of the top female swimmers in the United States for eighteen months leading up to 2000 Olympic Trials. I was happy with that book in a lot of ways, but I also finished it thinking, “There are better ways to tell stories.” A year later I sold the newsletter I’d been publishing for adoptive parents and enrolled in some creative writing classes. I got sidetracked into an academic career, because I was afraid I wasn’t good enough at creative writing. But as I said, I kept writing during that time, and when I retired, decided to focus on it, as I probably should have done sooner. (And might have if I’d had a mentor!)

Because my background was journalism and then academic research and writing, literary nonfiction was a logical place for me to start. It’s only been recently that I’ve started writing fiction.

J: How does it feel for you to be moving into fiction, which is a different form of storytelling?

L: With fiction, I’m not constrained by what actually happened, what the characters actually looked like or said or did. But having so many more choices can be a little daunting. When I get an idea, I may not know where the story begins, how it ends, who is involved. I have to get to know the characters before I can represent them on the page. Of course, the characters and the plot and the stakes can change as you write, so trying to pull all those possibilities into something manageable is a challenge.

I’m currently working on a novel that involves three pairs of women in separate narratives that converge. So I’ve bitten off a lot because it’s like three novellas in one. But I have a solid first draft and ideas about how it needs to be revised, so I’m just carrying on.

J: I could keep asking questions forever, but should wind this up. So here’s one final question. What suggestions might you offer a person in a life situation similar to what you experienced when you felt like you would have benefitted from having a mentor?

L: I’m finding myself a bit stymied by your question. Because I started my career working in journalism at a time when women were just breaking into the field beyond a few prominent pioneers, I developed a mindset that I couldn’t show vulnerability. I did ask the one woman hired before me to whom she turned when she needed help with a story, and she said, “I don’t. I just figure it out myself.” So my sense was that I had to look like I was sure of myself even when I wasn’t. I worked on a morning newspaper, and I didn’t ask a male colleague to walk me to my car when I got off work after midnight because I had to project this air of independence and competence. I didn’t have children then, but I’ve talked to women from that time who said they didn’t even acknowledge having children at work. If they’d been up all night with a sick child they kept it to themselves. They were afraid it made them look vulnerable. Then I started my own business, writing the newsletter for adoptive parents, and again, I was on my own. Later on, when I would have been willing to ask for help, I was working remotely, and it was difficult to form that kind of relationship.

I would like to tell young people, especially young women, that it’s OK to ask for help when they need it. There are professional organizations, leadership development programs, lots of resources people can turn to even if they don’t want to look uncertain within their own organizations. I think people are allowed to be more vulnerable today. At the same time, we are seeing reports from a lot of women that during the pandemic, when couples were working from home and also trying to supervise children learning from home, the burden fell disproportionately on women. So women are still expected to do more than we often feel able to do and worry that if we admit we can’t do it all, that we’re giving in to stereotypes about the fragility of women. So, one thing we can all do is look at the cultures of our organizations and also the organizations where we’re clients and support efforts for people to be imperfect and make mistakes and grow. Whether you’re a rower or a writer or a health care provider or a teacher—if you’re someone who has experience and wisdom to share, be accessible and humble so that others can approach you.