Friday, February 27, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Lauren Haldeman

A half-dozen with Lauren Haldeman who talks poetry, the creative process  (post-kid), and the role of research while also redefining "love story" and offering some health tips! Her debut collection of poems, CALENDAY, is now available.  

Here goes:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

There were so many different moments that inspired each poem, but there were actually two books, not moments, which helped shape the whole collection of Calenday.

I had been reading and re-reading Ko Un's Ten Thousand Lives for a few years -- I loved the way he created a very personal collection of poems, so intimate and precise, about every person he could remember in his life. His style -- short, narrative, often light-hearted -- really helped to inspire me to start (and continue) writing during the first year of my daughter’s birth. It was a very forgiving style that, when emulated, allowed me the room to write each day, even if it was just for five minutes. And five minutes was (really) all I had each day, in that first year. The fact that Ko Un's poems were so short, but so extensive as the same time, made me feel more at ease. It took off some of the pressure of the whole "I’M WRITING POETRY" aspect of it, so that, in the end, I felt I was just cataloging time, marking little sections of our life in the books. When the poems did arise out of the writing, I didn't need to edit them much -- I used a very light touch when shaping them. Ko Un was a huge influence for that. 

I was also reading Anne Lamott during the first year of my daughter's life, especially her book Operating Instructions. That book REALLY helped me. Her honesty and humor about the many overwhelming aspects of having a baby relieved so much of the pressure, strain and worry from my own experience. You know, there were all these other books and people and commercials around me saying "HAVING A BABY IS THE GREATEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE! BABIES ARE LOVELY SWEET ANGELS THAT WILL FILL YOUR LIFE WITH JOY AND WONDER!" But I did not feel that way, most of the time. I was on the opposite end of the spectrum -- I was just so scared, sad, anxious, alone -- and I was totally panicking because, seriously, what is wrong with me that I was not enjoying this beautiful thing that everyone else said I should be enjoying? But then I found Anne Lamott, and she was saying, basically, "No. This is not all flower petals and soft sleeping puppy faces. This is crazy! This kid won't sleep. This kid won't eat. I am going nuts...." She pulled me out of the abyss. I owe a lot of my own realizations and writing in Calenday to her work. 

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

My first draft usually happens with the same spirit as, say, doing the dishes – I don’t like doing it, I know it has to get done, so I just do it.  There is this stubborn “work” attitude to it. Push up your sleeves, do the work, and finish.

My real joy comes from editing. I take all of the writing from the first drafts and then I edit – this is where I can get into “flow”, where I can play. I love this part. 

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Oh wow – well, let’s see, I actually chose a non-“writer” as my partner. Ben does write, but he doesn’t do it for a living. He is very different than me, in many ways, but we actually work pretty well together as a family unit. And after having our daughter, it began to occur to me that sometimes a marriage feels like a business partnership – there are just so many mundane everyday items to take care of, especially with a child – and the partnership needs to function in a productive way in order to weather that pressure and grind. Ben and I are pretty good at that aspect. He is much more organized than me (he was an Eagle Scout, as he will continually tell you) and he has a very strong basic sense of work, as in, “This needs to be done, so I will do it.” Me? Not so much. I’ve actually learned A LOT from him that has been applied to my creative process; like I mentioned above, I am better now at “just doing” the work that need to be done, whether it is in my art and writing, or just around the house. (Also – as an aside, unrelated – there was an app that completely helped me in this regard too, called HabitRPG. It isn’t for everyone, but for people who work well on a task/reward system it is INCREDIBLE.)

So, yes, Ben and I manage the “family business” well together, and right now, with a four year old in the house, that is the most important thing for us. Our relationship started off in the sort of usual passionate, romantic way, like most relationships, but now, on good days, it has settled into a well-oiled machine that makes the rest of our life and creative work so much easier. On bad days, there is a lot of anger and frustration, of course. On bad days, his every move will annoy me (sorry Ben!) But I’ve noticed we go through cycles with this, and there are more good days than bad ones.

Also, his last name is “Fortune” -- what writer, what lover of words, could pass that up?

(Re-reading this answer over, I realize that the way I describe our relationship sounds a little boring: “business partnership”, “well-oiled machine”, etc. But man, with a kid and a house and two jobs, this way of being makes me redefine what I thought of as a “love story”.)
Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I am working on a new book that, in part, has to do with the First Battle of Bull Run, the battle which officially marked the start of the Civil War. I grew up outside of Washington DC, and so was inundated at a young age with Civil War history – we had class trips to the battlefields, I played many soccer games in the recreation area of Bull Run National Park – it was everywhere.

This fall, I went back to Bull Run to do research for the new work-in-progress. I hadn’t been there in decades. When I first arrived, I went into the museum, thinking that would be most beneficial. But it wasn’t until I actually went out and walked the fields that I starting gathering all this real material, all this ethereal emotional material. That walk was surprisingly intense. It was a grey cold day, and I was pretty much alone out there. You can see the mountains in the distance -- the place is beautiful -- and yet there was all this death, all this conflict, just…hovering.  It was a much different experience being there as an adult than as a child, you know; I just understand more now – about the war, about hardship, about fear, but also about the history of slavery, about emancipation, about those still continuing struggles of race in America. And I felt so sad, out there in the field. It was haunting. And it really wasn’t that long ago that these battles occurred. These battles, in so many ways, are still being fought.
What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I am reading Amy Lawless’s My Dead right now, and it is so good! Also, Andy Stallings’s To the Heart of the World and Bridgette Bates’ What Is Not Missing Is Light – excellent books, in totally different ways. I like reading many books at the same time, and I try to pick ones that have very differing styles or forms. It creates a great mix in my brain.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

This is non-literary and possibly boring, but I am obsessed with Chicory right now, as a replacement for coffee.

About a month ago, my eyelids started twitching at work. I ignored it at first, but then they just KEPT TWITCHING. And I thought, in the deep whispering truth part of my brain, "This is because of coffee." Like any addict, I didn't want to believe it, so I blamed it on dry-eye, stress, my computer screen, allergies. It may have had a little bit to do with those other things, but I slowly, painfully, realized that yes, indeed, the coffee was making my eyes twitch. Heartbreak! After asking around and trying things out, I found chicory. It is good! It tastes like coffee, and you brew it like coffee, but it doesn’t have any caffeine. I brew mine in a pour-over drip for single cup, with some dandelion root mixed in, which oddly makes it sweeter and better. I add milk to it too. And both chicory and dandelion root have all these health benefits: detoxing, liver cleaning, and antioxidants. Chicory also contains inulin, which is a prebiotic (food for probiotics). So it seems perfect! And hey, if you ever want to know more about vague health stuff – probiotics, prebiotics, minerals and vitamins, brain chemistry, adrenal systems – just ask me. I will talk non-stop about it. I dork out on these things.

Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collection Calenday (Rescue Press), 
works as the web developer, web designer and editor for the Writing University website at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Review. She received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. Also, she's a mom and makes paintings. 
You can find her here:

Monday, February 16, 2015

On the Passing of Philip Levine.

Philip Levine (Jan. 10, 1928 - Feb. 14, 2015). I wrote him this fall to thank him for a correspondence over a decade ago. In that first response, he'd talked about his own struggles with writing -- it was astonishing to me at the time, the idea that language and poetry could still be elusive to someone who'd mastered the form; he remains one of my favorite poets, and I've found him as instructive to me as a poet as I have as a fiction writer. (I'm looking for that first letter now.)

This is the beautifully charged response he wrote a few months ago at 86.

Dear Julianna,
How good of you to write all these years later. I love knowing I was of use to another writer. You’re right – it doesn’t get easier except when it does. That’s what probably keeps us going – the strange, mysterious glory of getting it right.
You’re searching for it just as I still am. We are such stubborn maniacs.
I hope you find it again soon – you will. May it be soon.
Thanks, Phil

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wishing You an Urgent Valentine's Day

The most memorable dinner party I've been to was hosted by a couple in this little town in Provence. Just one other couple was invited to the dinner, and the man in that couple knew that he didn't have long to live. He was intense and pointed, and he kind of tore into me -- as an artist -- urging me to write what was important, essential. I told him that I'd done a lot of my heart work, one novel and my first collection of poems in particular. But he kept at me -- what I was saying wasn't good enough, didn't appease him. (I was there working on what would become The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted.) Finally, his wife told him to leave me alone, and he leaned back in his chair, relenting. I was relieved, but he's never really left me. The heart work of writing and the heart work of loving each other goes on and on. Love each other. It's all fleeting. I wish you all an Urgent Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Just found my notes scribbled in the front of Joshua Wolf Shenk's book POWERS OF TWO (on collaboration). I wrote five notes to myself. The last one is about stripping away "decorative & petty striving" and ends "be the monk of this creation" and then in the back of the book, I jotted, "use this fuel to build the hermitage of my head" -- might have been notes for a speech. And then there are drawings of the structures of various sitcoms (looking for a kind of simple molecular elegance) and Sam Shepard's FOOL FOR LOVE. The book is marked-up and dog-eared throughout. A very worthwhile read. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Process as Adaptation

The snow day meant kids were home and loud, and I resorted to writing to music, headphones. I've plotted before to music -- the large sweeping stuff on a big sheet of paper -- but not written. I was in a very image-upon-image scene in a work of fiction that's dark and moody. It was transforming. Today, the house is quiet. I did it again for one section, but then hit heavy dialogue and had to turn it off. The music really disappears from my mind or, more accurately, it's absorbed into the subconscious. I'm about to teach a faculty seminar on creativity -- one point being to be aware of and open to changes and adaptations to your process. The creative process isn't static. It changes for each thing I'm at work on in little ways. What works in one instance, doesn't for another. Just yesterday, I said to Dave, "This might be an afternoon novel." It seems to resist the mornings -- brooding, brooding -- and then the characters start mouthing off. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Story as a Sentient Being

I started teaching a Valerie Martin essay for this quote, "The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality." It seems crucial to young writers at the start of the semester and fits with the way I prepare them for their first story. I've always given the word "unwary" a hard time -- I assume all readers are wary -- I love the essay because of Martin's quote and those of other writers on how a story/characters come them. As I was prepping to teach it again this semester, the essay seemed to be completely new -- in that it takes a turn I never really understood before. (To prep for this, it helps to know that I just saw the film HER for the first time, and last night I saw ADORE, based on the Doris Lessing story "The Grandmothers" -- my, my, Ms. Lessing!) Here's the part of the essay that -- upon reading it anew this semester -- suddenly appeared, "Stories think, and they do it the same way we do. They talk straight sometimes, right to the heart, but they have always a deep, symbolic understanding of reality that can dictate what happens on the conscious level. They speak to us, as dreams speak to us, in a language that is at once highly symbolic and childishly literal. They mirror our consciousness exactly because they are composed through a process both conscious and subconscious." If stories think, they have their own consciousness. They go out into the world and interact -- in dialogue and in a subconscious way -- with humans. Drawing on HER, stories are alive; they have their own intelligence. Sure, I've understood that art can be immortal -- those old unaging monuments of intellect. I've never been drawn to those notions. But this -- this idea that a story is a being, a living conscious being, that's a way of looking at it that I've never quite done before. Explaining this to Dave this morning, I reminded him I'm no fan of birthing metaphors for publication. (They make me a little crazy because I've had four children come out of my body and no one ever says, during labor, "It's just like writing a book! Bear down and push." They don't because it's not and because someone might slap them.) However, the story as a conscious being that the writer's made that then goes off and moves through the world interacting with others, having conversations, moving them or angering them... that does make sense. They gone on without us, as our kids do, into the world. Martin starts this essay with a birthing metaphor, in fact. "Unlike babies, not all stories come from the same place, and not all people who create stories go about it in the same way." I'm not sure I agree. People go about having babies often long before a physical act (which also comes with its variations) -- sometimes, in fact, a child starts as an act of imagination. People start with an image, just as the many writers in Martin's essay confirm. I'd say that miscarriages have been hard for me, the loss of a future imagining of our lives; the physicality of the miscarriage an added bereavement for my body. Maybe this idea of story as its own conscious moving into the world hits me now because my oldest children are moving into the world themselves. I'm actually really stunned that I'm making any of these metaphors about art and birth, as opposed as I've been to them all my life -- and certainly I'm not willing to take them too far. My children aren't stories. They're human, truly, beautifully and miraculously. Maybe, more simply, what I find really startling is how the Martin essay has its own consciousness -- one that, when I came to it this time, had different things to say to me -- ones I'd have sworn weren't in it before. This is also often true of the fiction I teach. It changes on me. Just this week I said of the short story "Owls" by Lewis Nordan -- he's defining love as the place where you can tell all of your secrets, and how beautiful it was -- this time -- that even a parents' failed love, when re-imagined by the child (the imagination as an active creator), prepares the grown-up for romantic love. It fits perfectly with Martin's essay -- as if those two beings are talking and I'm only eavesdropping, "In a world where the ultimate power to destroy all human life lies in the hands of people we can neither admire nor trust, and with the certain knowledge that this extraordinary power is held by people we may even despise, one must assume that the average person is making up stories all the time. Otherwise we would simply go mad from anxiety." We're all storytellers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Against Perfection

A grad student tells me how much it helped him with his novel-in-progress when he heard, "Done is better than perfect." I looked at him a moment and then said, "But there is only done. Perfect is a myth. You know that right?" He looked at me blankly for a moment. I went on to say something like, "Give me a novelist who thinks he's written the perfect novel and I'll give you someone who's delusional or artistically paralyzed." When we teach novels, those we've annointed, we have to be clear -- especially when teaching writers -- that no novel is perfect, especially in the eyes of the novelist who wrote it, but also it can never be perfect because the novel is a collaboration between writer and reader. A reader, just like the novelist who wrote the novel, is also always changing; there are two bodies of water here. What was perfect when read at 22 shouldn't be perfect when read much later; or what is perfect when read in old age shouldn't necessarily be perfect for your grandchild. At least, not to my mind. You all can argue this below if you want. But perfect is damaging. It's the photoshop of what should be beautiful, ugly, sprawling, lifelike. If a novelist actually thought a novel of theirs was perfect, I'd suggest they rip a seam a little, for the sake of the work itself.