Most of all, I want to produce art which defies the notion that our human lives are somehow experienced in a straight line, birth - life - death. I think this kind of formalism is tired. Our contemporary climate, in art and in life, demands more of our minds and our bodies.
Alongside your writing, you are an artist in all respects, working with paint, sculpture, and other diverse mediums. How do these different ways of making art inform your writing, and vice-versa? Do they emerge from similar emotional spaces?
I grew up dancing and acting; this is where my training as an artist began. From the age of three, I also began scribbling in these miniature composition notebooks, insisting to anyone who would listen that I was writing something really, really good. I initially went to Emerson College in pursuit of a theater degree, but ended up at Pace University in New York (long, long story) and found my community in the English department. Throughout all of these transitions I was experimenting with visual forms: paint, clay, photography. I guess my short attention span made me curious for any mode that could help me make sense of my emotional experience. I think that curiosity is the singularly most important thing we must cultivate as artists, and as such I’m not much interested in any ‘rules’ of the art world or restricting myself within a single form.
When I feel a story or a poem coming on, I often process it through my body first, as a dancer might. I need to move physically as I organize my ideas internally before anything comes out on the page. I also find it useful to collage, paint, or scribble when I’m stuck or between drafts. At this point, the visual art is more of a mediation on or a respite from the rabbit holes that writing can push me down. So, yes, whatever medium I may be working in, the motivation is growing from the same emotional space within. And for me, I cannot express one form without considering the other artistic languages I have at my disposal. I think it’s important for writers to understand that you can be more than this one thing, that by immersing yourself in other modes of art you might find a trap door into your most truthful and necessary stories.
As a self-described advocate for women and for at-risk youth, what do you feel is the role of writing in activism and the experience of marginalized bodies?
This is something I struggle with quite a bit. Writing is essential to accessing the most profound depths of empathy. Without open and honest empathy, it becomes very difficult to productively share in the conversations we are having today about the experience of marginalized bodies. I think writing, perhaps more so than other mediums, empowers and incites action because it activates individual brains in a personalized and singular manner. Language can be manipulated in ways that other forms cannot, and this gives us a unique opportunity to strive for writing that can effectively communicate this messy, sublime existence we both share and do not share.
Activism is trickier and this is what I struggle with, I guess. While writing might empower and incite, without physical action in real time and real space very little is achieved. It can be as simple as teaching our children how to really listen to others, calling out unacceptable behavior, attending a protest, or volunteering with organizations you believe in. Writing might be a key component to the process of activism, but this process does not end with writing or with the individual who receives it. We have to take the knowledge and emotional influence of language and do something tangible with it.
With a background in academia, having formal writing training and teaching experience, what do you feel is the role of teaching when it comes to creative writing?
I think teachers of creative writing have a responsibility to guide their students, rather than ordain. I do believe in a certain level of classical training before breaking all the rules. This does not necessarily mean a college degree, but an understanding of how language works in a formal sense makes for an ideal foundation. For this I like to suggest specific readings and encourage open lines of questioning so that we have a shared understanding of the craft.
In teaching 18 and up, I’ve noticed a dramatic loss of curiosity as we age. There are so many fruitless distractions, so many false prescriptions for our emotional health, that it becomes easier to use what we feel we already know than to actively pursue knowledge. I think I said this before: curiosity is essential to creativity. I might know that I do not enjoy eating seafood, but I still try the damn snails because with this information I now know how to describe the tide pools in my next story. Curiosity opens us to possibility and with possibility comes power.
How will these ideas inform your classes with The Porch?
I also like to encourage a seriousness of intention. And this is as much for myself as for my students. I recently read an interview with Samuel Delaney in which he said, “If you’re going to write something, try to take it seriously.” And I think this is really important, to commit oneself to your craft; challenge yourself to become more than a hobbyist; give yourself permission to prioritize your writing. These are things that become more important the older we get and the more full our lives get. The Porch has given me a unique opportunity to work with adults at varying levels of experience. In class, I often get caught up in our conversations, as much about life as how to write. With so many stories to be told, some of the most important work I think I do in my Porch workshops is to incite that essential curiosity, to suggest that our worth as writers is only as strong as our commitment to exploration, experimentation, and embracing how funny, strange, frightening, lovely, and serious we are all capable of being.
How does your process and mentality regarding your work change with major shifts in your life, like your twins or your rather recent move to Nashville?
On mentality: After the birth of my twins writing became even more crucial to my survival. I always thought of myself as an artist, even when I wasn’t necessarily practicing. But motherhood dismantled my sense of language and, more generally, my entire existence. No big deal, right? So terrifying, but also so exciting! I’ve spent the last three years rebuilding the possibilities of language and training myself to accept that my writing is now almost as important as eating, which might say something about how little I enjoy cooking too.
If I don’t get some writing done after a while I become a monster, so much so that my family will say, “Oh Mama, you need to go work.” And so, I go. I persevere.
About Nashville I will only say this, I am a born and raised New Englander. My transition to living in the south is perpetually ongoing. But when we moved here I began sensing a profound urge, a need really, to write fiction. Exclusively, prose. Something about this place, for me, encourages narrative, above all else. I think Nashville is a place ripe with stories, the air is thick with them. It’s a calling towards fiction I’ve never felt before and I am more than happy to oblige.
My process has always been pretty much the same. I do not write every day, but I write consistently. It’s taken me a long time to accept that I spurn set routines, at least in my writing life. I sort of resent being told a million times that I need to write every day. I’m working through that too.
I typically write long hand, with a pen, in a lined journal. The right hand pages are committed to wanderings of my mind, and personal happenings, while the left hand pages are filled with my creative work. After a time I will transcribe the creative work into a Word doc which doubles as a drafting stage. I will usually take this opportunity as forced revision, in part because my handwriting can get so terrible. Sometimes images and emotions from the righthand side will bleed in.
One thing motherhood has taught me is to ditch the idea that my writing is so, so precious. I used to agonize over every phrase and would often quit if I felt I was writing poorly. Now, every chance to write is a gift and I don’t have time to waste on a phantom idea of perfection. So I set aside that hour and begin writing and I may be thinking, this is crap, this is crap, this is crap, but I write anyway because I’ve learned to search for the pearls that might form from all that waste.
What draws you to the subjects that you’re teaching with The Porch this fall – about supporting characters and writing scenes of action and violence?
I’ve been reading a lot of books that prioritize supporting characters: Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In both sneaky and obvious ways these texts were showing me how crucial it is to create a fully embodied story for those on the periphery as much as for the main character.
A year ago, in my own novel, I rewrote the entire second section in the voice of the Lover because he became too important to deny. In fact his perspective almost entirely circumvented the experience of my leading character, enough to validate a temporary shift in point of view. That these people have the motivation and the power to observe and influence our main characters, producing dramatic and surprising results, made me realize how unfair it is that we often forget to give them credit where credit is due.
As for violence, like sex, I feel that we often mishandle these complicated and difficult scenes. Fear is such a potent place from which we work as writers, I think that it can often cloud how we translate trauma and high impact activity in our stories. Fear of the events we need to write about or fear of screwing it up, it can all hinder our productivity and our honesty. Film captures action and violence so well because it accesses our emotional field with an immediacy that writing cannot. A scene of action, when read, requires a second level of processing that makes it more challenging to pull of.
So, I wanted to face this head on, so to speak, in a workshop atmosphere where we can talk things out and look at writers who are doing it well. I think we have a tendency as writers to be drawn to work that is cognitive, mental, intuitive, or philosophical, but this does not mean that it is (or should be) devoid of action. What’s so incredible about The Porch is that they are excited and open to all subjects, giving me the freedom and trust to explore these weirdo, niche kind of craft elements in my workshops.