On Nov. 1, Harper Collins released the most recent edition of their annual “Best American Essays” series, which honors the years’ best works in the field of creative nonfiction. This year, University of New Mexico alumnus Michelle Gurule received a notable mention in the book’s appendix for her essay “Exit Route,” initially written as part of her dissertation at UNM and published in issue 53 of literary magazine StoryQuarterly.
Started in 1986, “Best American Essays” series editor Robert Atwan begins the process by selecting 100 essays each year. He then sends them to a guest editor (this edition, author Alexander Chee) who selects 20 for reproduction in the book — the remainder are listed as “Notable Essays” in the appendix. Past guest editors include Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Sontag, Jamaica Kincaid and David Foster Wallace.
“Exit Route,” which won StoryQuarterly’s nonfiction prize alongside the notable mention in “Best American Essays,” concerns Gurule’s father and grandmother as well as her attempt to escape her work at the time as a sugar baby.
Initially written as Gurule’s first workshop piece for her master of fine arts, “Exit Route” evolved after a conversation between Gurule and professor Mark Sundeen, who linked it to another essay of hers about sex work, telling her it wasn’t just an essay, but an entire book.
“This piece is actually really special to me. It started out as something that was about me and my dad and my grandma. Once I added in the elements of the sex work, it really came to life. It started the conversation about me writing the whole memoir,” Gurule said.
Gurule is currently in the editing process of the larger memoir, which she hopes to have completed for shopping to publishers in spring 2023. The mention in “Best American Essays” will hopefully make the process easier, according to Gurule.
In “Exit Route,” as well as her other writing, Gurule returns frequently to ideas of Americana and pop culture.
“I try to play around with American culture. I like the idea of pop culture. I make a lot of references to malls and Taco Bell, sort of Americana-type stuff. It's really fun to play around with. It’s just the world that I grew up in, so it feels like an invitation to have these references with an audience where we can relate together even though we'd never met,” Gurule said.
The publication in StoryQuarterly and mention in “Best American Essays” has heavily impacted Gurule’s career.
“Funny enough, [my] agent found me because of the ‘Exit Route’ piece. I was querying already for like a year and had not been successful … and then she emailed me … This piece was how they reached out to me and asked if I was working on something bigger … We’ve been working on revisions for the last year,” Gurule said.
Gurule first said she became interested in memoir in high school, specifically after reading Augusten Burroughs and Mitch Albom. She said other influences include David Sedaris, Chelsea Handler, Leslie Jamison, Raven Leilani, Sigrid Nunez and Patricia Lockwood.
Gurule received her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from UNM in spring 2021. While studying here, she worked closely with Dr. Andrew Bourelle and Sundeen. It was at Bourelle’s suggestion that she submit “Exit Route” to “Best American Essays,” according to Gurule.
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“I truly had a magnificent time at UNM. I feel so grateful towards the experiences I had there, with both the professors and with my cohort. I left there with really wonderful friends and had the best experience of my life … I'm always telling everyone now when they mention wanting to go for an MFA, I'm like, please look into UNM because it's amazing,” Gurule said.
“Exit Route” can be read on StoryQuarterly’s website. “The Best American Essays 2022” is available wherever books are sold.
Spenser Willden is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @spenserwillden