Meet the Porch Instructor: Loie Rawding

Today we feature Loie Rawding, another new-to-Nashville Porch instructor. She comes our way via Colorado, but she’s originally from an island off the coast of Maine. She lives in East Nashville and is teaching “Novel in Progress” (sold out), “The Importance of Supporting Characters,” and “Writing Scenes of Action & Violence” this fall. And she’ll be back in the spring with more. This interview was conducted by our fall intern, Kristopher Carey.

You write in a way that defies genre, even describing your work as “a cocktail of prose and poetry.” For you, how does your style reflect your thematic and narrative goals?

I think the way that I write, first and foremost, has to do with the way that I think and the way that I perceive the world. I move through my day to day in nonlinear tracks; reliving memory, anticipating different futures for myself and my family, and usually splitting my attentions between two or three versions of the present. I am a woman, a mother, an artist, a spouse and while these facets do all coexist, they also forge their own voices that I find impossible to deny in my writing.

I don’t know if I have consistent thematic or narrative goals. I am a project-based writer. My first novel, Tight Little Vocal Cords, began as an exploration of Marsden Hartley’s paintings. I wanted to translate his visual representations into language, a sort of ekphrastic practice but not a mere exposition of what the paintings portrayed, rather an attempt to capture tone and texture. To create a world in language that was in conversation with his world in paint; like talking to a different version of yourself in the mirror, I guess, and this meant using all my tools; poetry, script, epistolary, and prose that was more interested in sound than in plot. It’s a lot of experimentation and it can be pretty overwhelming, but it’s that lack of tether to form that I needed in order to complete the project. Now, I am working on something that is much more constrained in fictional prose. It is a shared narrative between three women, trying to make sense of a violent loss and the echoing repercussions of that loss. Still nonlinear and still a collage of perspective. That’s about as consistent as I get, I’m afraid.

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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.

Meet the Porch Instructor: Yurina Ko

In this new column, we’ll feature brief interviews with the talented writers who teach classes for us. First up: Yurina Ko, one of our newest instructors and a relative newcomer to Nashville. She spoke with our fall intern, Kristopher Carey, on a rainy morning at the Southern Festival of Books, and the two discussed the nature of the personal in fiction-writing, Ko’s plans for her upcoming class “The Personal Essay,” and what you can learn from writing romance novel book-copy.

You’ve described your work as “surreal literary fiction.” To you, what are the grammar and goals of surrealism, and what attracted you to that genre?

Oh man, I probably chose those words because it’s so hard to talk about my own work – to really categorize it – and “surreal” maybe captures a kind of vague stand-in for all the things I don’t want to put names to. In my work, which is largely autobiographical, the world is completely exaggerated. It almost has this tint, as if you’re wearing pink glasses,. To my character, her world is so skewed and the world she’s entering is so skewed that, as you’re reading, you might wonder, “Is this really the way she’s experiencing it, or is this just the way the world actually is?”

You mentioned your work is generally quite autobiographical. Has writing always been a way of processing for you?

I want to say yes, but, honestly it hasn’t. As someone who has grown up in both America and Japan, going back and forth, there was a significant amount of time in my childhood where I was not fluent in either language. That was always a huge struggle for me, to feel like I couldn’t communicate. I think, as a Japanese kid in America, it was really hard to feel like I couldn’t say what I was feeling. Reading, writing, talking: these were things I didn’t enjoy for a really long time. In fact, that’s how I turned to music. It was a way to communicate what I was going through and what I was feeling, but in a more universal language.

There was a point where, in third grade, where the teacher said, “You can write whatever you want.” And I didn’t know what to do, so, in my stilted English, I asked, “What… write?” And she thought I was asking what does writing mean, so she kept using the symbol of taking pencil to paper like, “this is what writing is.” But I literally couldn’t ask the question, and it took her maybe half a year to understand what I was actually asking, and so during that entire time, every time when we had that slot to write something, I was just doodling.

So writing was definitely not something I really did for a while. And when I finally found language as a comfortable thing for me, toward the end of high school and into college – where I really felt like I could use English as a way to communicate – that’s when writing became fun.

Since you’re teaching “The Personal Essay” with The Porch this fall, how might these personal experiences fold into the class?

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I actually have taught undergraduate classes on academic essay writing before, but, those times, I’ve always pushed for them to think non-academically a little bit. I teach essays like those from James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, and Michel Foucault – you know, all these people you might not think of as personal essayists, but who are able to use their writing to communicate their ideas in a very strong way. Through The Porch, I plan to use a lot of the same material but, since it’s not an academic setting, I feel like I can just unleash all of the constraints of academia, and I can teach what I want to teach. So there’s no limit to the kind of essay the students can write. I’d like to show that there’s really an infinite number of ways that you can write an essay, and show that the thing that stays consistent across these writers – no matter the story or the form – is that they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t confuse readers. That the essay is something that can almost be a piece of your identity, structured in a somewhat limited form. And whether that’s short, a five-paragraph essay, whether it’s in fragments – a form that I love – whether it’s an essay full of pictures, whatever the form, I want my students to have some exposure.

Having taught at Columbia and having worked as a freelance writer and editor, what would you say the role of teaching is in creative writing?

For me, at least in my classrooms, I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who thinks that they know what writing is. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I think that the biggest strength in a workshop is for everyone to learn from each other. It’s not a sit-down lecture where the teacher spits out wisdom that the students take notes on and go home with. I want my workshops to be a place where we build the work together. I think my role is more of a moderator; I want to be able to draw out everyone’s stories, and ask questions that challenge their writing and challenge their thinking. I want to be there so that everyone feels safe and comfortable sharing their stories.

Less than a teacher, I’m there as a moderator or – if we are to use orchestral terms – a conductor, making sure everyone is on the same page, on the same tempo, and that they’re in by seven and out by nine. That’s really my main job, to be there to structure. Everything else, I’m leaving open to my students.

So how do you think that kind of ethos – of writer-led workshops and open-endedness – is reflected in institutions of writing?

In academia?

Yeah, whether that be academia or publishing or wherever else writing is systematized.

I mean, I think trying to do workshops as writer-led as possible is going to lead to the best work. If you put limits on writing – a short story looks like this, a novel has plot and voice, blah blah blah – if you set up those kinds of rules, people are going to be sort of shut off. I worry that that happens in a lot of classrooms. But if you keep things more open-ended, asking like, “What do you think a novel or an essay is?” you’re going to get a lot more answers. I feel like I’m constantly learning from my students, so I like to go in without answers. I think doing that will be better for the industry overall. It will reflect in books that tell different stories and different styles; who wants to live in a world where all the books sound the same and follow the same rules? That’s my take.

How has your freelancing experience impacted your process, then?

Well, let me tell you about one type of freelance writing that I’m doing right now. I write the back-copies for romance books.

That’s super-interesting.

Yeah, it’s a gig I got from a friend of a friend in publishing, and I just started this summer. Every week, the publisher will send me some details from an upcoming romance book. There’s always a hero, always a heroine, always conflict, and there’s sort of a pattern that it will follow. Something like “opposites attract,” two people who never liked each other but are forced to spend time together, and magically, they fall in love. All of these follow a very straightforward formula, and I just write the back-copy that makes it sound sellable. I don’t want to say that this is “selling my soul,” because it’s so non-literary, but it’s actually taught me so much about writing. It’s kind of crept over the boundary of genre, and I’m thinking a lot harder about what makes a book readable, what people are looking for, and why people are drawn to formulaic plots.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from genre writing. Something my boss for this freelance job always tells me is, “Don’t reveal so much of the plot. Focus on the emotional connections.” And I feel like that’s a lesson we can all learn. Instead of X leads to Y, this happens then this, princess meets prince, focus on the emotional stuff. Why is the princess drawn to the prince, what kind of psychology did she come from that made her more susceptible to a prince like him? I think these kinds of questions are of use to any kind of writer. I mean, it’s certainly helped me. And it pays the bills!

As a new resident of Nashville, and a writer whose work is very much informed by a relationship to space and place, have you noticed any new themes or reworking of themes in your writing since your move?

Yes, yes, definitely yes. In my current work, I’m exploring a lot of what it means to be Japanese. Because I am Japanese, and the characters are Japanese. There’s a whole world of what it means to be Japanese in Japan, or in a place like New York, where everyone’s from a different place and it’s not really a novelty to be international. That’s what makes New York so exciting, that’s it’s such a diverse city. Now, moving to Nashville last summer, it was the first time living in a place where I was, more often than not, the only Asian in the room, if not the only non-white person in the room. I’ve never experienced that before, and it’s been really interesting. Some might assume that to be kind of a negative experience, but I’ve never had an encounter that left me feeling uncomfortable or that there is prejudice, nothing like that. In fact, I feel like in a place like Nashville, people are just curious to know where I came from, what I’m doing in Nashville, and I feel like I’m forced to feel more comfortable about what makes me different.

In New York, it was sort of a given, like “You’re from Japan, cool, I’m from Spain.” Everyone is from somewhere different. Here, I get to talk about what it means to be from a different place. On top of that, Nashville being a growing city, there are a lot of people moving from places like New York or L.A, and they are also discovering these questions for themselves. I feel like I’m having so many more conversations about what it means to have a home and to look for a new home since moving to Nashville. All of these experiences have definitely crept into my writing, so that I’m forced to think about these questions in terms of my characters. What it means for them to ask questions in a different setting.

As more time passes, I’m coming to terms with the fact that, as I spend more time away from Japan and as Japan continues to change, the more unrecognizable Japan is going to be to me. Even though I’ve only lived here a year, I feel a closeness to Nashville, and I want to call myself a Nashvillian and to call myself a Southerner, and I want to integrate myself more with the communities, and that’s going to come with its joys and challenges. The Porch is definitely helping me with that, too. In the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching, we talked about the places that everyone considers home. That was our big icebreaker, and everyone came from somewhere different. Two people who had lived in Nashville all their lives talked about how Nashville is changing, so even, being here, they notice that their home is changing and that they don’t recognize it anymore. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, in one way or another, you’re forced to think about these questions. So yes, yes, yes, I’ve definitely been thinking about these things since I moved here.

Can you give us any insight into your writing process – do you write at a specific time of day, in a specific mood, in specific places?

Let me tell you, I wish I had a process, but I don’t. Especially since becoming a mom recently, I’ve had to make do with the very limited time I have for myself. I have to hold myself accountable for things like, if I hire a babysitter for three hours, to devote those three hours to my writing. Before baby, I had all the time in the world – well, maybe not all the time, but certainly more than I have now. My process is basically just to write when I have time, which is not much of a process. Sometimes I’m sitting there for three hours and I just can’t get anything out, and other times I’m able to write because I’m inspired and because I feel the energy to.

Maybe one thing that’s changed since becoming a mom, and because I  have limited time, is becoming more okay with writing something that I’m not going to love. Acknowledging that I put something on a page, and being proud of that. I used to be a lot more of a perfectionist with my writing, and I felt like what I wrote had to perfect. It took me forever to just get out a sentence or a paragraph, but now I think I’m a lot more okay with getting out a paragraph that I know I’m going to edit later. So I’m just doing a lot more writing now. That’s really my only process.

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Learn more about Yurina and register for her upcoming class, “The Personal Essay” — only a few seats left for this fall’s edition!