Kirsten Reneau

On Writing Prompts, Experimental Forms in Essays, the Importance of Observation, and Her Debut Essay Collection, ‘Sensitive Creatures’

Cover of Kirsten Reneau: On Writing Prompts, Experimental Forms in Essays, the Importance of Observation, and Her Debut Essay Collection, ‘Sensitive Creatures’

I had my first email exchange with Kirsten Reneau in January of 2021. Kirsten was a reader for the University of New Orlean’s press and had read some short stories of mine. We found each other on good old Instagram and started chatting organically. She was always so kind and generous with my work, but the truth is that I was Googling her too, reading her wide array of published pieces. I admired Kirsten’s energy and her work ethic. She was writing her thesis project (which is now her first published collection, Sensitive Creatures!), working as a teaching assistant for freshman composition, and navigating fully-online workshops during the pandemic. She said, “Publishing still looks like magic that I don’t fully understand.” And now she’s on the other side.

I told her I wouldn’t ask her the dreaded post-grad plans question, but that she could feel free to chat and vent to me anytime. We stayed in touch and it’s been a pleasure to follow her journey since graduation. It was an honor to get to interview Kirsten for her debut memoir, an insightful and hopeful collection of essays that explores corporeality, trauma, instinct, trust, desire, and what it means to fall apart and put yourself back together again.  


Brittany Ackerman:  I’m so proud of you for putting your work out there, because look…now you have a book! Reading your collection made me nostalgic for putting together my first book and how I wanted the essays to stand alone yet also thread together and make a cohesive story for the reader to follow.  

I wonder if you can talk about the seed of the book. Obviously memoir comes from your own life experiences, but what was that initial kernel of an idea that grew into what the book is now? Was it one specific essay or an idea about form? Was it something random and strange and inexplicable that you might try to articulate here?

Kirsten Reneau: I was hitting the end of my second year at MFA, which meant I had to start deciding what my thesis would really be about pretty much immediately because I had less than a year to finish it. I had written a lot about animals for my workshops, so I knew I wanted that link in there, but I couldn’t really nail down a theme or time or even general idea. 

Then I was reading about cicadas and this really specific memory about digging up a cicada in my backyard came rushing back to me, and I sat down and wrote the entirety of “How the Cicadas Scream” in an afternoon. It was accepted by The Threepenny Review later that week, which gave me a lot of confidence to run headfirst into a project oriented around assault, how people recover from trauma, and what it means to be in an impermanent state of being, linking essays together with these animals.

BA: As I was reading, I found myself inventing prompts that I could give based on each essay. The collection is so wonderful in that way. It inspired me, and it will inspire others to write their own versions. For example, I’d love to write my own history of sound!

I’m a HUGE fan of prompts—I’ve written some of my favorite pieces this way. Even when a prompt is bad, I feel like it opens up a door in my head I didn’t know was there. This is all to ask if any of your essays were written in response to a prompt? Are you a fan of writing prompts in general or do you tend to stay away?  

KR:  I am fond of writing prompts. I don’t often return to craft books other than On Writing Memoir by Abigail Thomas, which is basically a book exclusively made of prompts. I feel like they’re important to my process mostly because they force me to start writing, which is sometimes the hardest part. If I remember right, the only essay that comes directly from a prompt is “Did Dolphins Cry?”, which I believe was about writing about something that let you down.

I feel more often the longer works come from writing inspired other essays. I am a reader above all other things. A particular form or the way language is used in a piece will set me off with my own ideas and work.  Many of these pieces are inspired by anthologies I was reading while writing, including You: An Anthology of Essays in Second Person‘ edited by Kim Dana Kupperman, Heather G. Simons, and James M. Chesbro along with The Shell Game‘ edited by Brenda Miller and Kim Adrian. I recommend those books to basically everyone anytime craft books come up in conversation.

BA:  I recently took a seminar with Julie Marie Wade on Experimenting with Hybrid Forms. We read two poems from M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A by A. Van Jordan, which is part of a longer work that uses the dictionary entry style as a “shell” in the form of a hermit crab essay.

In Sensitive Creatures, we see so many different kinds of writing that are all unique and break the boundaries of traditional essays. In addition to flash nonfiction, we’ve got a catalog, a quiz, moon phases, mythology, direct address to the self, and more! And I was reminded of the A. Van Jordan excerpts when I read “Forgotten Synonyms for Grief,” which uses dictionary definitions alongside other more personal meanings for each word as a way to access grief.

What are your thoughts on genre, especially when it comes to the larger umbrella of creative nonfiction?

KR: Something I love so much about nonfiction is how it is such a flexible genre. The form can fit around the content but also, the form can inform upon the content. You can write a beautiful, traditional and linear narrative essay, but you do not have to for an essay to be considered nonfiction. Nonfiction is a great genre for hybrid experimentation in my opinion, because you don’t need a traditional story arc or the expected trappings other genres may have.

One of the reasons you can find so many forms in my book is not just because I have fun working with them, but also because it helps me make sense of things. I am working with some big, messy emotions and difficult to talk about subject matter, but by putting it into a strict container, it actually allows for more creativity to bloom and a way to directly handle the essay’s focus. 

BA: You make reading about insects quite beautiful here in this collection. And you describe how insects evolve from one form to another, how they traverse various states of being in their lifespan.

How have you evolved since writing this book? And/or what insect do you feel most akin to?

KR: I feel like nearly a different person entirely since I finished this book. I think this is in part because I finished the first full draft—which is very close to the final draft, give or take a few pieces—on the tailend of everything being locked down for COVID, so there’s a pretty clear cutoff point. I love changing who I am; it’s a lifelong process.

I thought a lot about what insect I felt most like and why for this question. For a while, it was the moth. I read once that moth’s aren’t attracted to lights but actually use the moon to navigate, and artificial lights confuse them. There’s something really tragic but honest about that to me, the confusion and belief that you’re doing the right thing, but what you’re doing is actually harmful for you long-term. 

Nowadays, I think I relate more to crickets. I feel very lucky.

BA: Let’s also talk about the birds! I feel like I’m slowly entering my birdwatching era since moving to Nashville. There are cardinals and blue jays and finches and robins. Heck, I’ve even seen some owls!

The collection features birds like hummingbirds and sparrows, and there’s a lot of writing on plumage and wings and flight. I’m reminded of the Alice in Wonderland riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” to which the answer (which I literally just learned right now from the Internet) is because “it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat.”

Well, how are birds like writers? Or, how are writers like birds?

KR: I love birds. They are so ingrained in our everyday lives and at the same time, so different from all other animals we interact with regularly. They’re really weird creatures.

But we are still the same. Writers are like birds in that they are collectors. So many types of birds like to collect little shiny objects just for the love of it. I feel like to be a writer you must in some way be attracted to the shine of things: collecting moments, little bits of other people to create characters, memories to form scenes. No one has to be a writer to live in this world. We are drawn to it.

I know a different answer to that riddle: Poe wrote on both!

BA: I was tickled to read, “Steps To Making the Perfect Cup of Black Coffee.” I’ll get to the point here without meandering: What is your preferred style of coffee to drink?   

KR: When I’m at home, I like drinking a pour-over coffee with just a little bit of cream if we have it around. I live in New Orleans, where it’s very hot most of the year, so when I’m out and about you may see me with a lot of iced lattes.

BA:  “We learn to cry before we learn to speak.” UGH. Chef’s kiss. And another one, “There’s no such thing as silence”.  

There’s a lot of emphasis on sound and language throughout the collection. Because all of life is noise, in one way or another, what advice do you have for writers who struggle to create sound on the page?

KR: I am fortunate to live in a place where there are lots of ambient sounds. Even as I type out this question, there is a man playing “Lady Marmalade” off a speaker down the street, my neighbor is talking on the phone on our shared front porch, cars drive by, and if I really listen I can hear my clock ticking the seconds. That helps to start with. My advice would be to sit quietly and listen and write about what you hear. The writing can be beautiful and poetic if you want it to be, but it can also be simple statements of fact. Do it at a coffee shop, on your front porch, at the bar. Like many things, it takes practice to pay attention. All of our senses make the world around us, and to hone that skill fleshes out the universe of the essay.

BA: Belle Point Press’s mission statement is one I think we can all get down with: “Stick around and read.”

How has your experience been with Belle Point Press? Can you give us insight into how it works publishing with an indie press? What’s been the biggest “yay” moment for you so far?

KR: I have loved working with Belle Point! I feel fortunate to have Casie, the publisher, in my corner. We’re both passionate about small presses and southern literature, and working with her from edits to cover design to promotional events has really shown a wonderful alignment of the vision of Belle Point. I don’t have a point of comparison, but I feel working with a small press I get a lot of personal support.

The biggest yay moment—it’s kind of small but important—butI did an event at one of my favorite local book stores in town, Blue Cypress Books, and afterwards a person I didn’t know bought my book and asked me to sign it. It was a very surreal and cool moment to realize people were actually interested in the book outside of my own very generous and supportive social circle of writers.

BA: To finish, I’d like to return to prompts! I love a lil takeaway assignment. It’s the teacher in me

Can you give us a prompt inspired by one of the pieces from the collection?  

KR: Of course! My prompt is: Choose an animal you don’t know much about and research it – in some way, bring it back to yourself. How are you like and unlike this? Write two pages about this. 


Kirsten Reneau is a writer from West Virginia now living in New Orleans. She received her MFA from the University of New Orleans. Her essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and other awards, and can be read in Threepenny Review, Hippocampus Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, and many more. She is the author of two chapbooks: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Weirder (Bullshit Lit) and Meeting Gods in Basement Bars and Other Ways to Find Forgiveness (Ethel Press). Sensitive Creatures (Belle Point Press) is her debut full-length essay collection.

Share this