Tabitha Blankenbiller: Beauty and Madness

Tabitha Blankenbiller was born and raised in Washington’s Mt. Rainier foothills and currently lives south of Portland, Oregon. She is married and has raised two wonderful cats.

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Tabitha contributed to All That Glitters, a nonfiction collection edited by Nicholas Garnett, Corey Ginsberg, and myself. The book will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International this year.

My interview with Tabitha follows:

MJ: You’ve been to many places. Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Washington. Portland. Canada. Just to name a few. What is one place that really stayed with you?

TB: I find that Las Vegas loiters around my imagination in the most unique way of all points west. I’ve never lived there; in fact, I’ve spent very little time in the city compared to other journeys I’ve made. It’s easy to laugh or eye-roll the place off for all of its cheesiness, but I think there is something vivid and telling about being in such a constant heightened spectacle. And come on, how can you hate on a place that lets you wander around and sip on a margarita in an Eiffel Tower-shaped jug while you ogle Tom Ford bags? It feels like all American lore boiled down to the marrow. With a stroke of luck you can go from napping on the street corner to lounging in the penthouse, then another wheel spin and back again. It’s absurd and quickly becoming old-fashioned, this rags-to-riches game. We’re beginning to live in a world where there is too much to lose and not enough to win. The few times I’ve been there I’ve had a fantastic time, but there’s a kind of decay to The Strip that you can feel along the periphery. It’s the veneer you can scrape with your fingernail; behind the cakey makeup the cocktail waitresses wear, the trampled flyers and garbage, the dead hotels quarantined and crumbling. The feeling that you can’t stay long, that the mirage will crush you. But I love to spend a few days in the beauty and madness. It’s like brushing up close to the fire.

MJ: Already at seven, you used writing to express yourself, sending a letter to the advice column, Highlights for Children, “about [your] feminist plight.” When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

TB: I’ve been writing my whole life, but it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties that I began to take myself seriously. I wrote from the time I was too young to wield a pen, when I would dictate stories to my mom and she would write them down for me. Right around the time I sent my letter to Highlights I got my first New York publishing house rejection from Scholastic, informing me that they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I think that was kind of a hard punch of reality in grade school. I realized that I didn’t know any real writers and that I didn’t know how to become one. It felt like an unrealistic goal, being a writer, like telling people I wanted to be a movie star or run for president. But as hard as I tried to push writing away, I kept circling back to it. I couldn’t stop being that kid and creating those stories. As an adult, I’d write essays in Outlook emails to myself while working at jobs I couldn’t stand. I kept in touch with my writing teachers and professors from high school and college, who encouraged me to look into MFA programs. I resisted for a few years, but when I lost one of those jobs I hated anyway, I decided to try and build on what had always made me happy. My first residency at the Pacific University MFA, when I was 25, blew my world open. I haven’t looked back.

MJ: You use humor to describe your eating habits and your body image issues. How does one acquire such a voice?

TB: I think it’s survival. You can’t survive in life when you feel self-conscious and apologetic about your body during every waking hour. And there’s only so much you can change the shape you were given. I’ve learned to live a healthy lifestyle, but I’m never going to look like those Thinspiration pictures that clog up my Pinterest wall. Being able to laugh about it is a small way of fighting back at the ridiculous fat-shaming culture we live in. When I was in high school, I saw Margaret Cho perform in Seattle. She was so beautiful and fierce and hilarious, although she’s grappled with the pain of eating disorders and weight fluctuations her whole life. And she said toward the end of her set, “I wonder how many hours I’ve wasted stopping in front of every mirror, every piece of glass, to call myself a big fat fuck. I want those hours back. I could take a pottery class.” I want those hours back too, dammit. That kind of empathy she created inspired my voice. I wanted to make people laugh and think about what they were doing to themselves. I wanted to evoke that same question, “why the hell are we doing this to ourselves?” And maybe, eventually, we’ll realize that the answer is so stupid, and we could just stop.

MJ: You’re the editor of two journals, Spilt Infinitive and Silk Road Review. What do you enjoy about this experience?

TB: Working on journals has given me a better perspective into the selection process. Sending work out over and over again, as a writer, is one of the worst parts of the job. We rarely receive feedback, and when we get that rare “yes”, it’s hard to know what we did right versus the other hundred rejections. What I’ve found from being on the other side is that what gets in and what doesn’t is wildly subjective and random. Editors have bad days where nothing they read feels right. Other times they’re up on deadline for the new issue and feeling generous. Maybe it’s their birthday and they are full of love, or you caught them mid-breakup. Editors disagree on what they like and don’t, and there are winners and losers on the table. Maybe a piece is too similar, or too different from, pieces that have already been selected for an issue. Rejection still hurts, but it doesn’t feel as personal as it did before. In that form letter we send out, we really do wish you well and want you to try again. I swear.

My favorite part about being an editor, of course, is sending out acceptance letters. It’s almost as good as getting one. See? We’re not so sadistic after all.

MJ: What are you working on now?

TB: A few months ago I finished the manuscript for my memoir “Paper Bag,” which is a coming-of-age narrative about the pursuit of perfection’s destructive nature. I just signed with a fantastic agent, so I’m excited to get that rolling! Otherwise I’m writing The Wordstalker column for Barrelhouse, entertainment-based personal essays for PDXX Collective, and other essays to keep sending out into the universe. Basically just chugging along with the writing life, a few sentences at a time.

Tabitha Blankenbiller is a 2012 graduate of the Pacific University MFA program. She works as an editor at Spilt Infinitive and as the senior nonfiction editor at Silk Road Review. As a staff contributor for Spectrum Culture, she specializes in book reviews and tasty culinary musings. Her personal essays have been published in journals including Owl Eye ReviewSliver of StoneMisfit Lit, and Brevity. Her Barrelhouse Magazine feature column “The Wordstalker” chronicles her life skirting the fringes of the Pacific Northwest literati. Her full-length memoir “Paper Bag” is currently being vetted for publication. Learn more and follow her blog at http://www.tabithablankenbiller.com.

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