E.B. White wrote from his boathouse. Joan Didion re-reads her day’s work in the afternoons with a drink. Ron Carlson never allowed himself up from the desk unless he knew what was going to happen next.
I know this because writers are infinitely curious about the writing process, as if exposing motivations and working conditions might reveal something to us about art and mastery. Or maybe it’s that writing is such a solitary pursuit. Access to someone else’s secret world of composition makes us feel less alone.
In this vein, a Tufts professor-turned-mentor-friend of mine, Carol Houlihan Flynn, invited me to join the My Writing Process Blog Tour, a meme in which writers answer questions about their writing process and then nominate others to do the same. The result? An ongoing writer/reader community that grows exponentially by the week, demystifying and illuminating the creative process one blog post at a time.
I must thank Carol for the invite and insist that you all go to her website, the-animals.net, and then directly to your local bookstore (or Amazon) to pre-order her forthcoming memoir, The Animals, out this month. I had the privilege of reading an early version of the book, in which Carol brilliantly recreates her family’s history with pigs, dogs, cats, turtles, goats—more animals than you can believe—in order to construct “an economy study of love and loss.” She writes, “For the animals are all, every one of them, down even to the smallest newt, born out of our desire for love. And that is where the problem lies.”
Damn. Buy it already!
After I wrap up, I’ll introduce next week’s writers, who I also insist you read.
So, without further ado, my answers to the Blog Tour questions:
What am I working on?
A new draft of my first book, a memoir-in-fragments about coming of age in rural America in the 1980s–a Material World of Pentecostalist televangelism in which I was “cured” of severe hearing loss by preachers and lost faith in the middle of a mission trip abroad. It’s an all-American tale of salvation and redemption! It’s got miracles! It’s got scandal! It’s got death-defying feats and lots of explosions! Okay, one of those things is only partly true. But who knows? I haven’t finished it yet. We’ll all have to read the book to find out.
Of course, I’m always simultaneously fiddling with other things. Essays, old and new. Travel pieces. Blog posts on Palau. A short story about a girl who reads romance novels, which I like to tinker with when I’m feeling especially distracted…
Also: My freestyle stroke. The perfect homemade ginger beer. Guitar and ukulele. Focusing my wandering mind. Breathing.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
With this book in particular, I am experimenting with structure and chronology and, to an extent, point of view, to explore larger themes I always go back to: religious subcultures, quirky Americana, feminism, the human mind and its wacky impulse to compartmentalize, define, classify, and create hierarchies. I am drawn to ordinary subjects, everyday absurdities, human folly. In general, I’m after something universal in experience. I love research, so everything I write has a lot behind it. And I try to write with loads of empathy.
Why do I write what I do?
1. Because I tried to write other more practical things. Reporting, copywriting, advertising–jobs that offer regular paychecks and guaranteed audiences. But my heart wasn’t it.
2. Because dabbling in sentences—finding the mot juste, rearranging words and images and scenes in service of an idea or effect—is my idea of a good time.
3. Because I grew up in on a lake in northern Wisconsin. I can’t not write about place, which is not setting alone, but character and context, at the heart of all experience, human desire imposed on landscape, or nature’s indifference to it.
4. On that note, once I left home, I found it impossible to be inside other landscapes, cultures, architectures and ideologies and not to be utterly astounded wherever I went.
5. My mind can’t contain it all. Writing is how I process.
6. Because Joan Didion. Because E.B. White, Annie Dillard, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mark Twain. Later, others. But these first.
7. And all of the above luminary essayists because my first semester of college I was assigned The Art of the Personal Essay, the fat anthology edited by Philip Lopate in which writers wrote on every range of subject, in every range of form, employing all the techniques of poetry and fiction inside the art of fact. In a writing workshop, Patricia Hampl suggested the genre ought to be called non-poetry instead of non-fiction. I concur.
8. “Literary nonfiction is all over the map and has been for three hundred years. There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.”—Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”
9. Because although the idea of writing personal narrative mortifies me sometimes—it goes against all my Midwestern sensibilities to write about myself—for now, it’s the shape of the story I feel compelled to tell: the story of a Midwestern family, the American dreams we dreamed, our shortcuts to salvation, our belief in the power of invention and a good sales pitch, the notion that perfection and healing might lie just around the next bend, in the next purchase, in the portrait of Jesus on the mantle.
10. Because my mom taught us to read before kindergarten and filled our chaotic house with books, kept taking us back to the Rhinelander Library even after we were banned (again) for overdue fines and lost titles. The librarians were probably having a bad day (again), Mom said, repeating, “You never know what someone else is going through.” And so even though we lived a hundred miles from anything, in a town of less than 1,000 people, I could read about New York City or the Congo or Wonderland, Holocaust survivors, pioneer women and Hobbits, and I could inhabit those worlds and learn what other people were going through.
11. And thanks to this early conversion experience, I believe in the power of art in general and stories in particular to bring us thismuch closer to understanding that we’re all really the same.
How does your writing process work?
I used to self-identify as a procrastinator, but graduate school served as a cold-turkey recovery program. If I had ten minutes, I used those ten minutes to write. And that’s how my process has worked—fitfully, squeezed into cracks of time—until this year.
In Palau, I have the strange and unbelievable good fortune to write full-time for a year. Whole, long days on a laptop at the kitchen table, sunlight pouring through the open shades and the ocean rising and falling with the hours. And so I’m faced with the opposite problem, if I dare call it that: unlimited writing time!
I’ve tried to create a structure for myself, mirroring Brian’s work days. I’m up at 7. I do a little meditation and yoga. I brew coffee. I write until lunch. I spend more time than I should on the sentence level. I get carried away. I feel some kind of elated momentum, followed at some point by a sense of dread or self-deprecating insecurity. I call my sister. We do simultaneous long-distance goddess poses. I go back to the computer.
Sometimes it’s a slog (strong correlation between my recurring insomnia and slogginess). Sometimes I start to panic that it’s all been a waste of time, or that all my efforts will end in failure. At home, I would go for a run to clear my head. Here, I swim. I keep notebooks all over the place. I read books at a wild clip. These things help. Brian helps, reminding me to see the forest, not the trees. And I always have my professor Kim Barnes’s voice in my head, like a Zen master, her mantra: “Trust the process.”
THE TOUR ROLLS ON…
I’m thrilled to introduce next week’s tour lineup, three outstanding writers, teachers, and overall human beings I feel lucky as pie to call part of my extended writing family—quite literally, in the case of Brian’s sister, Katie. Kim and Joe are part of the great Idaho MFA tribe. They’ll be posting a week from today, so be sure to follow up with them on the 22nd and in the meantime peruse their sites for your next favorite read:
Kim Barnes (kimbarnes.com) is the author of the memoirs Hungry for the World and In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received a PEN/Jerard Fund Award. She is the author of three novels: Finding Caruso; A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction; and In the Kingdom of Men, listed among the “Best Books of 2012” by San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Times. Kim has co-edited two anthologies, and her essays, poems, and stories have appeared in The New York Times, WSJ online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping, Oprah Magazine, MORE Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a former Idaho-Writer-in-Residence and teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Idaho.
Katie Quirk (katie-quirk.com) is the author of A Girl Called Problem. Set in Tanzania, East Africa, this middle-grade novel received a starred Kirkus review, a glowing review by School Library Journal‘s Elizabeth Bird, and a write-up in the New York Times Book Review. Katie’s current project, Richard Nixon Gave Me Chocolate, is a memoir of motherhood, adventure, and coming to terms with not always “having it all,” set in the mountains of southern India.
Joe Wilkins (http://joewilkins.org) is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.