The Truth About Processed Luncheon Meat and Creativity

Add a chunk of pork shoulder, spice it, seal it in water, and voilà, you’ve got yourself some SPAM, the processed luncheon meat. The recipe for my latest published essay was full immersion in my first MFA residency, a few months of marinade in the lessons my instruction provided, a workshop at the writing center where I teach, and finally a stir by a talented writer I’ve come to know through social media.

Voilà! It’s “The Truth About Spam,” my latest literary essay, published by the online magazine clamp.

The Hormel Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. An unlikely place to find one’s muse.

I blogged the other day about a graduating Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing student who has learned how to turn her funny stories into literary essays. Well, “The Truth About Spam” is an example of just that.

When I arrived at my first VCFA residency last summer, I panicked when at the first student reading I heard how gripping the prose was. I had brought a piece I thought was the type of thing one reads at a literary reading, a ponderous essay full of references to Socrates and truth. I knew it would bomb.

So that night, in a creative fever, I wrote an entirely new piece, a silly little piece about my visit to the Hormel Spam Museum on my 2010 road trip. It was a hit. Everyone laughed at the right places. But I knew, as I listened to others’ readings, that there wasn’t much there there. I had to go deeper. Every now and then, I’d pick up the short work and tweak it. At one point I had a revised version workshopped in an essay class at The Writer’s Center I took between VCFA semesters. And this is the result.

The final stir came from Judy Clement Wall, a talented literary writer who I am connected with via Twitter. I complimented her on her short piece when it was published on clamp, and she recommended I submit there. I hadn’t known what to do with “Spam” yet, but the journal’s “space for thought” tagline seemed a good fit for a piece that attempts to braid “fake” meat with the theme of authenticity.

Thank you VCFA, The Writer’s Center, and Judy Clement Wall!

I welcome comments (as always) below, but let’s send some love to clamp as well via comments there, if you so choose. Thanks!

16 thoughts on “The Truth About Processed Luncheon Meat and Creativity

  1. danezeller

    I’m pouring a glass of milk for my wife and she asks me for the expiration date on the carton. It was yesterday. In her eyes, the milk spoiled in the glass as we watched! I wonder her reaction if she asked me for the expiration date on a can of SPAM. She couldn’t believe it, I’m sure.

    This is a great post, Patrick. Your link to Judy Clement Wall sends your readers off to a number of interesting people and their blogs. Good job!


  2. pjreece

    It’s good to read some well-crafted, researched, pro-vetted, commissioned and paid-for prose. Hey, someone out there actually gets paid for writing! I particularly like this:

    “My journey is teaching me that generosity is the twin sister of authenticity.”

    Such a thought takes me right out of my small self… and if that kind of everyday transcendence isn’t the end-all of everything I don’t know what is. Thanks, P.R.


    1. Thank you, Melissa, for this comment and the tweet. You know, I’ve never tasted it either, not even when they were giving away free samples at the museum. And I love all things pork. I may have appreciated the museum and the product’s “authenticity,” but I still didn’t eat it.


  3. Who knew that SPAM could be funny and be molded toward the poignant. It always fascinates me how good writing takes the reader (smoothly) from small concepts to big ones, from the personal to the universal … even via seasoned pork shoulder! Kudos, Patrick.


  4. dignitarysretreat

    Congratulations on the Spam piece, Patrick. I find that sometimes those surprise bursts of creativity that can manifest into good work in a relatively short period of time/effort are part of what makes creative work so much fun and unexpected. The image of the writer is often one of a tortured soul, agonizing alone with their Big Thoughts, but so much magic can happen out of those moments of panic or fly by night inspiration. Isn’t it lucky that you panicked at that first reading?


    1. I have to agree with you on the “burst of creativity” thesis. And yes, it is good in retrospect that I panicked, and good that I was signed up for the second night of reading, so I had 24 hours to scramble! But I think this is also a story about how much of writing is in revision. The creative burst gave me something to work with, but getting it published meant labor beyond that.


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