These thoughts are brought to you by Georgia Bellas (aka @mrbearstumpy) for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour and–more importantly–for being sure I followed through. She’s a charming thing with a wide imagination and a deep heart, and her website, including a killer literary/musical podcast are here. A shout-out is also due to the lovely Amanda Miska, because I told her I’d do this months ago and didn’t. Next up will be Kate Gehan, whose whimsical stories and sharp wit can be found on her blog here.
1. What am I working on?
When I walked in to tour what would become my new apartment, I thought, “That’s weird. There’s a teal-painted fireplace in the house where I will finish my novel.” So, in addition to finding my way around a new city and learning the ropes at a new day job, I’m fine-tuning a novel I’ve been taking apart and putting back together for about five years. It follows a young curator trying to open an art gallery in a small city in Kentucky. After a tornado knocks out her showroom windows weeks before opening, she’s struggling to fill the space until pulling strings and favors yields the chance to show the last works of an internationally-renowned artist come home to die. I’m compelled by the different lenses of art, architecture, and unrequited love, and a host of convoluted questions on representation and essence, the function of art within commerce, and what—if anything—is sacred.
But I was a poet first, and, occasionally, I’m working on poems about a bitchy mermaid, and the ocean I left behind in South Carolina, about the interplay between landscape and constructs of the feminine. What a mermaid might do stuck in the middle of a cornfield. The freedom to oscillate between two projects that both manage to hold my fascination long-term, and that are blessedly in different genre forms, offers a breath of fresh air when some aspect of one or the other is getting stymied. When I’m too bogged down in plot logistics, I can give myself permission to revel in language as I draft a new poem, and I don’t have to feel like I’m wasting time.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
This is the question that scared me into a journalism school for two years thinking I didn’t have anything to write about, so I better focus on reporting instead, before I realized that’s a very narrow view of narrative, before I admitted my faith in voice and perspective.
In poetry, particularly, there’s a strong tradition of identity-based work and of confessional work, and these both plagued me for a long time, too. My older poems are largely narrative, about the particularities of the artifacts of my Southern childhood. But I notice more and more that it’s the particularities that fascinate; in the dirt in my back yard last night, I noticed a pair of wire cutters, rusted and embedded in the mud like a dinosaur fossil. That’s not a backyard standard, but half-exposed histories and detritus? That’s how we’ve examined culture for centuries.
My work differs because it’s ultimately a string of somethings I’ve thought about somethings I’ve seen or felt, and I’m compelled at once to contextualize them and to conceptualize them. What the world is and how the world could be. Ask Aristotle about that one.
3. Why do I write what I do?
It’s more fun than playing Solitaire? I know what books I’ve fallen in love with, and I think this has guided my tastes and interests, along with my understanding of what literature is for. I know, too, the world I live in, what’s beautiful about it and what’s horrifying. I’m interested in writing as a cultural record, where history informs the society we build. I think I write, generally, because I like to write, and I love to edit. The plot or the metaphor is nebulous, squishy, and it’s the language that makes it precise—whether lovely or disgusting. It’s the poetry in me, maybe, that loves rearranging syntax and word choice, saying something more succinctly or more with more clarity. The ideas come from curiosity, when a very general idea I’m pondering starts taking on layers of specificity, or I start obsessing like a schoolgirl over a character I’ve invented and then fallen in love with.
But in a broader sense there is, to my mind, a deep importance to literature, to the knowledge share and community building and idea transfer that happen on the page somewhere between a writer and a reader, a sort of transcendent intimacy, and I write toward that, too. It’s a lofty thing to say, and people take strong stances on either side—write for the self and no one else, or write for everyone. I dream of a reader who might know how much I hope for us.
4. How does my writing process work?
Two parts whimsy, three parts pragmatism.
And after battling through these debilitating questions about identity and experience and their relative relevance/irrelevance to making good work, and reading lots of Rachel Kushner (her Telex from Cuba website itself is a well-researched work of art), I’m recently discovering the joys of research. The creepy threat and tragic origin story of Slavic Rusalkas, a kind of water nymph (via Cate Fricke, the fairytale genius). That Clara Bow swam in tubs of salt water, sloshing fabulously across America on trains. When sliced bread was popularized and whether they sold the ubiquitous hotdogs at baseball games and what baseball player a kid’s likely to have idolized in Kentucky in the 30s (thanks to Tim Walker and Michael Nye for that one). How long it would take him to get to Italy by boat during that brief window between the wars. How easy it is to break a showroom window. How hard it is to talk discernably about visual art.
It’s about working when I’m excited to be, and reading when I’m not. A brilliant book can almost always light my fire.