Ask the Author | Mary Helen Stefaniak

In this week’s Ask the Author, Mary Helen Stefaniak, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, discusses her latest book, “The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life” ahead of a reading at Prairie Lights.


Isabella Cervantes

Mary Helen Stefaniak poses for a portrait in Prairie Lights on Sunday, Oct. 16 2022.

Charlotte McManus, Arts Reporter

Mary Helen Stefaniak is an author and retired professor of English and creative writing at Creighton University. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1984 and is currently an Iowa City resident. She has written five books, and her most recent, “The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life,” will release on Oct. 25. It will be her first nonfiction book. To celebrate the release, Stefaniak will give a reading at Prairie Lights on Oct 25.

The Daily Iowan: Was this a collection of writings you did for “Iowa Source,” the statewide magazine?

Mary Helen Stefanik: Yes. A column that I wrote for over 20 years, really, although I didn’t always write them every month. But I did write them with some frequency.

DI: What was it like rereading and considering these essays again?

Stefaniak: Well, you know, it was mostly kind of fun. Because I left them out, there were five more in the book. There were more than that — but some of them were sort of topical. There was something that was coming up. Usually, those didn’t have a sort of lasting kind of value for a reader. So, there are some others that we just decided weren’t as — sometimes you were kind of rushed to writing, right — although I had the opportunity now to revise them — but it wasn’t really so much were they rushed or not, but were they as good as the others? It’s more like, “Did they have more to them?” So this is my first book of nonfiction. You might have one, for example, about squirrels but with a lot more depth, so that it’s not just about squirrels. So those are the ones that made it in, for the most part.

DI: What do you find that nonfiction does that fiction can’t or doesn’t do?

Stefaniak: Well, it sort of pins it all on the author. You know, that’s the nature of it, and people read nonfiction and they think they’ve gotten to know you. But, of course, that’s the you that’s on the page. It’s not the you that’s sitting across from me. So it’s sometimes — they say that one of the biggest differences between them is that when you’re writing fiction, you admit that you’re writing fiction, you admit that you’re making this even when you’re writing very close to your life. It’s fiction, but you want the tagline to be, “I’m making this, right?” And I’m fabricating here, right? Of course [in nonfiction] you make some things up and do some fabrication. It’s not so much that you change the facts or what people said — things like that. You might reconstruct sometimes what people said, but you want people to recognize that you’re presenting it. You’re not making it up. Even though you might be making it, in both fiction and nonfiction, you’re not carrying a transcriber. But very often a piece will begin for me like, “Oh, I want to write about this in a column because of a conversation that I had with someone,” so it is exactly what we said. So I don’t have to make up dialogue. I wouldn’t. But what if I don’t know what they said?

DI: Right. You said you sometimes reconstruct what people said in nonfiction.

Stefaniak: Well, I think that happens. If you’re writing a memoir that covers an earlier period in your life, you don’t want to just have to summarize and summarize and summarize. You might write a scene where this is absolutely true to what was said, but not necessarily exactly those words. Or there was some throat-clearing, but I left that out.