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A “Gorgeous Mess”: Denise Frame Harlan On Life and Writing

“This is the life of a mother/writer. It’s a gorgeous mess.”

Hi, Denise! Thank you for your willingness to be interviewed. Tell us about yourself.

I turned 50 this month! After eight years of writing, I have an essay in The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God (Wipf and Stock, 2010), alongside some of my favorite writers of all time. I teach The Great Conversation, Gordon College’s First-Year Seminar class, each fall semester. I’m spending the summer revising and submitting essays to literary journals, and I’m teaching a summer workshop for high school students to polish their college application essays.

You can find a number of my stories online, through links at If I were to select works of special interest to you, I might choose Long-Distance Friendships in Comment Magazine. Organic Fuji is about one day of work as personal assistant to a blind woman. Other links are on my website.

I am a 1984 graduate of Taylor. I lived in Olson Hall. Dr. Case’s older brother was one of my best college buddies.

The Spirit of Food has garnered a lot of positive attention. What has it been like to be a part of that project? What has been the impact of the book been as you’ve heard from readers?

I’d been hearing little rumors about a food-writing book my faculty mentor (Leslie Leyland Fields) was putting together while I was a 1st year MFA student. I did a little editing of my friend Brian Volck’s wonderful piece on tomatoes and history. I heard Nancy Nordenson read her story about traditions that fall and traditions that stand. I knew Alissa Herbaly Coons was writing about a health crisis that changed her food commitments.

The MFA program requires both a creative thesis and a critical thesis. I gave a craft lecture on food writers MFK Fisher and Robert Farrar Capon for my critical thesis, and several audience members wept at Capon’s description of the final supper at the end of time. Food is a door, an icon.

When Leslie asked if I knew anyone with a “cooking conversion story,” I said that was THE story of my life, but I couldn’t possibly write that. She did the right thing in my moment of doubt: she told me I WOULD write that story, because her book needed it. I pulled out 45 pages of half-assed drafts, and knocked that down to 13 pages. Leslie took out another five pages of text, and Andrew David was marvelous about the final edits, bringing the final page count to eight pages.

In my chapter, I talk about learning to eat during my college summers in Colorado. And I talk about learning to cook, after hearing a passage from Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb in a theology class. I gave up theology and took up the wooden spoon. (Lauren Winner’s chapter discusses the same book, Supper of the Lamb.)

I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to have an essay in a book with Wendell Berry and Andre Dubus, Jr.  My dear friend Byron Borger at Hearts & Minds Bookstore proclaimed mine the best chapter of any book, anywhere, pretty much, and he put an exclamation point on that sentiment with a very large photo of me in the book review!

I feel a little sheepish about that review, still (move over Wendell, move over Andre, and be very intimidated). But it’s a good review, a personal review, and I did write about people and scenes Byron knows well. If Byron had written an essay about some of my favorite friends, I would’ve reacted in the same way, gushing with love and affection.

I like how elegantly the story reads, now. I can read it aloud in twenty minutes, and I like it more every time I read it. Reading one’s work aloud is one of life’s great pleasures. I hope to do that again, soon.

Talk about your time at Taylor.

How I Almost Didn’t Get to Taylor

My dad worked in an auto factory and my mom upholstered furniture. They were both deeply suspicious of religion. They had no idea what to do with a child who was bookish, shy, and loved Jesus. When I was a teenager, I cut through a neighbor’s backyard to see if the new pastor in town really blared rock and roll music from the parsonage—and it was true! That pastor was Mark Beeson, who now serves at Granger Community Church, way north of Taylor. Back then, he was just Mark, with the bell-bottom jeans and long hair.

When I was 15, Mark drove a van-load of us to a rock concert in Taylor’s chapel. The crowd-buzz was just beautiful, vibrant, and it made a permanent impression on me. That same year, my parents divorced and the church kept me sane. I spent two summers working at Epworth Forest, in love with Christian community living.

Taylor would have been a natural choice for college, but TU had a rule against dancing, and this was the height of the disco era. I didn’t even consider Taylor.

How I Got to Taylor, and How I Did Not Study English

After a year at an urban college in Indianapolis, I decided dancing was not as important as Epworth friendships and green, open space, so I transferred to Taylor. I took only one course in the English department, a Jan-term course on Christian Mythic Authors, which I chose because I already knew seven of the ten texts. Most of my literature-heavy courses were with David Neuhouser, who was just beginning the Honors Program. I worked in the library, where  Roger Phillips and Lois Weed kept me well-supplied with books tailored to my tastes.

My friends, I was never an English major. I was the psychology student who skipped classes to read novels! Psychology seemed so practical. How silly I was! It’s so much easier to understand human nature through the characters in literature, because we are not trying to change their behaviors, or save them. Our only responsibility is to see clearly, with as much love as we can muster.

I thrived at Taylor. I felt safe, and cared-for. I relaxed and made the first real friendships of my life. As a dorm chaplain, I prayed with people. In my memory of Taylor, my hiking boots were always wet, because I loved walking in the rain. I knew half a dozen students I’d run into on the streets of Upland, my fellow rain-walkers.

You grew up in Farmland, Indiana but have lived away from the area for many years. Do you think of yourself at all as a “Midwestern writer?” How did your upbringing influence your work?

Because the voice in my head speaks in the cadences of Farmland, Indiana, I will always be a Midwestern writer. I’ve spent the last 15 years raising a family on the Atlantic coast, north of Boston, where my husband teaches at a specialized school for kids with severe dyslexia. This part of the country values “fitting in,” a skill which I’ve never learned. I think it’s the terrible mismatch of location and identity that sparked me to take up writing.

But the upside is that the New England coast is just gorgeous. I’m looking out over marshlands and rivers, today, enjoying a cool ocean breeze. At one point I was officially employed by a magazine in New York, while officially taking classes in Seattle, and serving on the editorial board of a craft magazine in California. I did most of the work at my kitchen table, after the kids went off to school.

Some of our student writers at Taylor wish to hone their craft at the graduate level, and ask for advice on programs. You chose Seattle Pacific’s low-residency MFA. Could you discuss your time in that program?

First, one should never ask a memoirist to write about herself: I will try to write briefly, even though I’ve been writing long for years on end.

When I turned 42 (a scant eight years ago), I took a well-paid tutoring position at a nearby college, getting me out of the house three evenings a week. My youngest child began morning kindergarten, which provided a four-hour window of quiet each morning. And I started to write letters. I needed to miss my 20th reunion at Taylor, that fall, so I wrote to the six friends I missed most. My tutoring job required me to talk about introductions, conclusions, and polishing a piece of writing. Without much effort, I started a blog, adding introductions and conclusions to scenes that strung from my college years to the present.

One day I got a phone call from Ladies’ Home Journal, asking if I would like to help other “everyday women” start blogs. I began writing stories for magazines and online publications, and I received an extraordinary wave of support from editors and friends.

A friend in publishing insisted that I could find the next level of writing skills in an MFA program, and I remembered an ad in Image Journal, which announced a low-residency program through Seattle Pacific. I was astonished to get an acceptance letter from Greg Wolfe, whose work I’d been reading for 20 years in the pages of Image Journal. At that point, most people I knew gave me votes of confidence. One woman gave me ten days of childcare for the summer residency. One gentleman gave me a MacBookPro, so I could maintain my magazine work while I traveled. I knew a masters in Creative Writing would allow me to teach, and I was eager to get started.

About the SPU MFA program, briefly

As a mother of small children, working a part-time magazine job, I worked harder than I’d worked in my life, in order to read 62 books and write 100 pages for the grad school deadlines. I remember waiting for Labor Day fireworks to begin, with a headlamp illuminating my paperback of Dante’s Paradiso, reading passages aloud to my kids. I pulled out manuscripts to revise at the playground. As I worked, I thought about the writers I’d met—my writing heroes—over dinner at residencies. They all talked about revision in a way that made me see I’d never really done that. Revision has changed my writing forever.

I needed to miss my 25th reunion at Taylor because I’d just spent every possible cent traveling down the Continental Divide from Idaho to Santa Fe, for my final ten days as an MFA student. After my graduation ceremony, my brother pulled me out onto a starry terrace to ask me what I’d need to do to remain connected with The Glen Workshops, which hosts the MFA summer residency. My husband, who has struggled with the frustration of my student loans, dined with poet Luci Shaw, whose works line our shelves. She told him gently how to be a supportive spouse to a writer. Over the Rhine provided the live soundtrack to the evening. It was like a dream, but better.

The SPU MFA program transformed my writing, and it transformed my life. (I would be happy to talk about this more, if students have specific questions.)

How do you balance the need to write and the responsibilities of raising a family as well as being in community with others?

There is no balance.

Poet L.L.Barkat describes a day when she has failed to get a plumber for a clogged sink, so she hauls the grimy dishes out into the backyard and sets up a washing station on a bench, complete with a garden hose. Her house is a mess. Her time is a mess. Her yard is a mess. And her children start giggling and spraying one another with the hose. This is the life of a mother/writer. It’s a gorgeous mess. Read about it in Rumors of Water.

I have given up television, movies, news, most community involvements, most church responsibilities, housecleaning, gardening, mental health, my gym membership. Writing costs—it costs me, and it costs my family. And when I don’t write, that costs us even more.

Most of the creative people I know live in the same conundrum. Money difficulties cause such pressure. You will find a thousand people who tell you how to balance it all, but the real writers I know lead mostly unbalanced lives. I want to be honest about it. I don’t regret it.

What authors and books would you recommend for readers who are interested especially in the intersection of art and faith?

Read Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, which defies all categories of art and faith. Read L.L.Barkat’s God in the Yard.

What advice would you give Taylor English majors and other young writers and readers who are just embarking on their literary journeys?

I posted this in Where Does the World Need Me? (Comment Magazine, December 2010):

….I return to Frederick Buechner’s quote, “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Since the world’s deep hunger is present everywhere, why not focus on finding your great gladness? By this I don’t mean “why not just live for pleasure,” but what do you already know about what you love? Can you make beauty? Then be an artist. Do you love to read? Then study literature. Figure out how to survive financially while you do these things. It’s kind of a beautiful thing that the economy may not allow new workers to expect much money. In some ways you may be spared the idolatrous pull of “a good-paying job.” Travel if you have the opportunity, and if you can afford to volunteer in a needy part of the world, do it while you are unencumbered by job and family needs. If travel doesn’t appeal to you, return to a place you love, or a place that brings out the best in you. If you do not have a sense of your Calling with a Capital C, then find small callings that challenge and satisfy you. Trust that you will figure out what’s next when you need to.

….Go someplace you love, find work you can tolerate, and invest yourself. Anywhere will do, as long as it gives you life.

If you truly have no place to go, apply to work at the YMCA of the Rockies, outside of Estes Park, Colorado, and if anyone asks you why, tell them it’s because Denise Frame Harlan always wished she could work there, in that small hospitality center in the mountains, and in a life free from worries about food and housing.

Wherever you go, the world needs good friendships, good neighbours, good lay-people in the pews of churches, and kindness and steadfastness. Buechner suggests that you choose neither the hair shirt of difficulty nor the soft bed of luxurious life. Anywhere in the middle will do.

Thank you, Denise, for these life-giving words! We are thrilled to share them with today’s creative writers here at Taylor, and with readers everywhere.

Learn more about Denise’s work at


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