» Book Review

From Knowing to Unknowing

An Earlier Life, by Brenda Miller
Ovenbird Press, 2016
174 pages, paper, $14.95

Winner, 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir



In her most recent collection of essays, An Earlier Life, Brenda Miller examines the rich assortment of previous lives she has come through on her way to the life she currently inhabits. “In an earlier life,” she begins, “I was a baker in a bakery on a cobblestoned street. I woke early, in the dark, to do my work . . . In the quiet, I brought something to life.” The image of Miller kneading dough in the quiet hours of morning bringing something new into being is reminiscent of her work as a writer, and she delivers a breathing work of art between the pages of this book.


In “Who You Will Become,” Miller reflects on a sign which always hung in the front hallway of her childhood home, the Hebrew letters for Shalom with its multiple meanings—hello, goodbye, welcome, good and peace. She explains, “In Hebrew, the word for God means, “I am what I am becoming.” This presence is always imminent, always evolving. When we say Shalom, we are in the midst of this transition: hello, goodbye, turning to face the past and future at once.”


With that, she begins a candid examination of her life beginning in childhood and adolescence, through her early adult years and into a time of reconciliation and healing. The theme that one thing—a word, an object, an event—can carry more than one meaning, echoes throughout the book.


Miller’s close observations illuminate the remarkable contained within the commonplace, making the scenes dance on the page, and readers can’t help but pay closer attention to their own surroundings. “In Alaska, you understand how light is now a substance of its own making—tactile, with particles and waves and something else. You understand how light finds the least pinhole and expands.” With these opening lines of “Understand,” readers are suddenly more aware of the light that plays around them. Miller’s vivid account of her physical world brings the geography of the readers’ own into sharper contrast.


Later, in the essay “How to Get Ready for Bed,” she renders the mundane task of shopping for a new mattress into a work of art, a study of all the mattress represents: sleep partners past and future from boyfriends to pets, sanctuary and isolation, and the best description of insomnia I’ve read. “It’s as if you’re afraid of something, but you don’t know what. Maybe you’re afraid of that moment you slip from knowing to unknowing—the moment you’re with your unpartnered self alone.”


Yet not afraid to be vulnerable, Miller allows us to enter the places she stalled, consider decisions that led to trouble or heartache, and experience the consequences of missteps. Even so, she doesn’t neglect to shine a light on the beauty contained in even the darkest places. In “Beloved,” an essay tense with the possibility of violence, Miller describes a day boating on a desert lake with her boyfriend. He’s drinking and flaunting the fact that he could do her harm, that she’s defenseless. The stakes rise when he steers the boat into a secluded cove, “A place,” she writes, “that in any other time, with any other person would be a romantic picnic spot.” Juxtaposed against the visceral sense of mounting danger is this description of her surroundings: “This cool air in the desert, over the water. It’s a land of contradiction, the light bright and subdued at once. You can motor along the wide expanse of the lake, find a small canyon to enter and look for the hanging gardens: plants growing high above the waterline, gaining foothold and flourishing on bare rock, while beneath you—far beneath—a ghost garden mirrors the one above.”


By age eighteen Miller writes in “L’Chaim,” she no longer attends synagogue, but there is a thread running through these essays that suggests a search for spiritual meaning—a desire to understand how each of her ‘earlier lives’ contributed to the full spectrum of her life as a whole. Miller carefully considers each remembrance as if she’s turning them over and over in her hands to consider every plane, seeking the places where light shines through.


As co-author of the craft book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, it’s no surprise that Brenda Miller’s writing is exceptional. Many of her essays are written in second person. Speaking directly to readers in this manner, she calls them to walk alongside her, to share in each choice that moves her to the next experience. A life unfolds full of music and grit and danger. The beauty, and the pain, and the wonder on her journey toward wholeness becomes their own, a life shared.


In the epilogue, “We Regret to Inform You,” readers are treated with an outstanding example of a hermit crab essay—a term coined by Miller and co-author Susan Paola in Tell It Slant. In the form of rejection letters, she highlights a string of her ‘failures’ at various roles and relationships—with her elementary art teacher to the babies she lost in miscarriages to her grad school boyfriend, and finally, an acceptance letter from a pet adoption organization. The letters are bittersweet, sometimes funny, and always insightful.


Miller’s ability to turn angst into art, to interpret the ordinary with extraordinary clarity is unmatched. Her work wakes up the senses—external and internal—and will resonate with readers of poetry, as well as prose. An Earlier Life sings to readers, and they can’t help but hum its tune while going about their own tasks. Like bite-sized treats, readers can consume these essays one taste at a time, or in a decadent cover-to-cover feast—the perfect balance of savory and sweet.


Heidi Sell

Heidi Sell holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s low residency program. Her essay, "Laundry Day," appeared in this summer's issue of The Tishman Review. As a former elementary teacher, she enjoys coaching young writers to help them find their literary voices. Heidi lives with her husband and their elderly dachshund in Omaha, Nebraska.