Sunday, April 20, 2014

That Easter When...

I remember the Easter when Dave and I vowed not to be a lazy Easter bunny and put the eggs out the night before. Some creature ate them unbeknownst to us so, come morning, the kids tore out of the house, and walked around the yard looking at dyed shell fragments. We just hadn't seen that coming -- a crime scene. I don't know which kid muttered it first -- the basic hope that the Easter Bunny was still alive, which led us back to faith. The whole bunny part ended up to be more religious than we'd expected (which reminded me of the inter-faith funeral we had for the hermit crab, named Gaggy Headdress... I could go on and on...)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

When I was seventeen and my mother dropped me off at college orientation (and suggested I get a ride to the rest stop on 95 when it was over -- I was her 4th kid and she was kind over being oriented), I met an Argentinian student who heard I was a creative writing major and told me to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I went home -- yes, I found a family from NJ willing to drop me at the rest stop -- and got the book. It changed my life. My feeling was that someone had actually DONE it, pulled it off -- I felt, in a deep way, that I was reading a novel for the first time. Before this moment, I'd wanted to write plays, but after this moment, I thought of the experience of a novel in a completely altered way. I wrote magical realism and then shifted away from it to write my own first novel (based on the interest of an agent; it was realism) and then when I wrote for younger audiences a few books later, it was like coming home to what I first fell in love with. For The Pure Trilogy, interviewers kept asking about my roots in science fiction and fantasy. No, my roots dig into the soil of Marquez. The birds embedded in Bradwell's back are a direct shout-out to Marquez; they wouldn't exist without him. In some ways, none of what I do could exist without his work. The other night -- just before the announcement of his death -- I was at dinner with friends and told the story from his memoir about him as a young man in Paris, spotting Hemingway walking away from him down the street. Marquez shouted out, "Maestro!" And without looking back, Hemingway waved. I always wanted to shout this to Marquez, "Maestro!" to get that wave. I'm so thankful that he was here, that he wrote, that his soul strides on, and that his worlds are still with us.
[Correction: Someone sent me the full account by Marquez written for the NYTimes and it's so much better than the way I recall it here.]

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Is the idea of "finding your voice" destructive to young writers?

I've never really, completely understood the idea of young writers "finding their voices" -- the idea that each writer has one voice that is a noble and true invention of the self that relies on no one else but stakes their own claim in the larger world of literature. I once met a woman at a party my friend threw in New York City, the apartment was a former nail salon; she said, "I only read in French while writing because I don't want another English-speaking voice to influence my own." She might have been twenty-three. So, um... what? Aside from this comment getting tagged forever in my brain as an example of one of the most pretentious, cultivated habits I'd ever heard of -- and a brilliant way to work into conversation that you're both a writer and fluent in French -- I don't remember if I took the time to argue my point -- voice isn't something that is nestled within the writer and unearthed and latched onto grimly for eternity, voice isn't something that can be too easily sullied and so needs protection to remain pure and protected, but the exact opposite. I might have just stared blankly. She deserved blank staring. But last week in Kansas, I met with a student who is a Fulbright Fellow from Rwanda. He wanted to know what I thought about how he could find his voice. Okay, now we're into an interesting discussion because by voice we mean voice on the page therefore we mean, by and large, words, which ones to use and which ones to chuck. So we really started talking about the complexity of his audience -- he was writing for those in Rwanda, to give voice to their lives, and he was writing for the broader audience, including people like me who know so little about Rwanda. Junot Diaz lectures brilliantly on this. I can't paraphrase. It's been too long but after his talk, I was left with the idea that one should write authentically from a very specific human point of view, a single person, in a way that is so deep and true that the parts that sound foreign to the reader are actually the moments the "excluded" reader feels like they're reading something authentic, an invitation into another person's experience. And I've been saying for a while now that it's much easier for me to write a novel if I imagine whispering the novel into only one person's ear, urgently. For me, voice changes each time audience changes, each time the ear shifts from one person to another. If I'd had to "find my voice" and then write in that voice for the rest of my career, I'd have stopped writing. Baggott being Baggott bores me. I can't stop being who I am (though the pen names are a direct attempt and one that I've relied on), I can imagine different ears. Even the term genre is all off to me these days. Genre is another word for audience, really. It's why poetry has all the genres of prose but is lumped under the singular umbrella of poetry -- we assume that an audience that enjoys poetry would be up for all of its genres (historical, memoir, nature writing, fictional/fabulist...) -- true or not. So, this morning, I wondered if this notion of "finding your voice" is actually destructive to young writers. First of all, it makes the idea of influence seem wrong somehow when, in fact, influences are profound and should be nurtured. It also seems to deny the idea that we aren't all born with a voice -- not a speaking one, not a written one. Our voices are accumulations of not just the people around us, the stories they tell (and the stories they hide), and all the writers we've read and loved (and hated) and films we've seen but also all of the noises of the world around as well as their visual stains. We're accumulations. Musicians learn to play in different people's styles. Ditto young artists. I assign emerging writers mimicry exercises and I encourage them to cultivate distastes -- who are the great writers you really don't like at all? I told the Fellow from Rwanda that he knew, deeply and beautifully, the father's voice in his story. THAT was a voice inside of him. I suggested he write a monologue from that voice -- it's one of many. Yesterday -- or so -- Roxane Gay posted a question on Twitter -- what do you want to write? My immediate question was to ask the audience. I have a lot to say to many different people -- the people in my old childhood neighborhood, people trying to survive the MFA, my own kids, my child-self, my future self, my husband, my parents, certain other writers... I don't have a singular voice, but if I did, I'd want a sullied one -- one influenced by as much noise and as many notes as possible, a dirty, loud, messy voice of a voice that shifts and shifts, a shape-changer of a voice. And as I write this, I can't help but think there's something more distinctly female in this desire -- the idea that women are more elastic than men (because they've had to learn that skill) -- and since I almost wrote "a melting-pot voice," there's also something distinctly American in the desire, too, perhaps. Overall, I think my main problem with emerging writers worrying over "finding their voice" is that it's too self-conscious. Writing is hard enough. If you're writing, it's your voice -- no matter the riff, the audience. Just have faith in that and keep digging.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Michael Garriga


This is perhaps the most specific interview on craft, on the specific how-it's-done, that I've ever posted here. Full of very clear insights and ideas on getting at the work, as well as the role of research and a story-rich childhood, Garriga's creative process is one to look at very, very closely -- it's one I'd like to test-drive, in fact. 

And his debut is a work of art. The Book of Duels is unlike anything you've ever read before and one of the most masterful debuts I've come across. Click on the Buy the Book link below to get a look.

But first, here six questions for Michael Garriga. Dig in. 
 


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?

One day, I came across an article that claimed in one year there were roughly 1400 duels in the city of New Orleans alone. I found another article that claimed only 1 in 14 people were mortally wounded in duels. So, that's 100 people killed in duels in one year. This would have been in the 1840s. Then I learned that once Louisiana banned dueling, the duelists would often board trains along with witnesses, doctors, picnickers, etc. and cross the state line into Mississippi, fight a duel, and re-board the train, and go home. This blew my mind. We're only talking about 150 years ago. But my interest wasn't piqued enough to actually start writing until I came across a footnote on p. 763 of The History of Hancock County. It cryptically read, "Philip Lacroix killed Etienne Thigpen in a duel over the ownership of a cow." (Seriously, that's all it said, and that was the impetus for the first duel I ever wrote; it couldn't really be over a cow, now, could it?) That was the proverbial light bulb going off. I imagined that one man had fought in the Civil War and the other had refused: Tell both men’s side of the story, because both men had to think they were right in the course of their actions. So, originally they were only diptych stories. Then I began to read everything I could about the history of duels, and in so doing, I learned that for a duel to be legal, you had to have a witness; hence, the third, different, point of view character was born. I now had a triptych, which I love because of the holy three and because this approach to flash fiction hadn't been done, as far as I know.

That said, I'm reminded of the great painter Chuck Close's quote: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” Not to put myself on par with Chuck Close, but I agree with his sentiments here whole-heartedly. Writing is a daily grind. It is labor intensive.

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

I'm like a shy, self-conscious teenage boy at the Jr High School dance approaching a much taller, much prettier girl. I hesitate. I often recite to myself what I'll say first, pacing and rubbing my sweaty palms one over the other, till I get what I want to say down pat. Still, sometimes I shy away at the last second. Other times, I break that possibly heartbreaking, publicly humiliating moment, and sometimes she laughs at me and her friends laugh too. There's finger pointing. But sometimes, sometimes she says yes and we dance, and who knew, this kid's got some moves after all, moves I never even dreamed of before the dance started.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

After working on this book for four years and then waiting another year for its publication, I was so excited to hear that there were Good Reads reviews. I read the first one, and it was about 90% positive, but there was a line in it that said, "He has a penchant for profanity." Well, fuck you. Of course these characters are cursing; they're about to kill or be killed in the next moment. I dwelled on that one phrase for weeks. I vowed not to read another. Then a buddy sent me the positive Publisher's Weekly review that said things like "Garriga triumphs"--good things--but ended with the line "though some stories are stronger than others." I flipped. Well of course some are stronger than others. Some Shakespeare plays are better than others. (See: That's how crazy I got, putting myself in the same breath with The Bard.) Then I remembered an interview with my great hero, Prince, in which he said, and here I am paraphrasing: "Man, those criticisms are all about the critic. He's describing his aesthetics not mine. Their words don't have a thing to do with my work; it's about who they are, their tastes on that particular day. Plus, if I read a good review and take it to heart, then I have to take to heart the negative ones too. So I just don't read 'em any more." Thank you, Prince. I will not read another one either.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I read more nonfiction preparing for this book than in the whole rest of my life combined. I learned little things like how in the 14th century French Court they would put perfume in the manes of their horses or that Andrew Jackson died with two dueling balls buried in his body. And unlike school, I could just luxuriate over the historical readings for as long as I wanted; I wasn't rushed like I felt in school.

So, I would get an idea for a duel I wanted to pursue--Burr v Hamilton or Don Quixote v The Windmill--and I'd already know the basic plot of the thing, because they are historical or literary facts. Then I'd start reading about that time, those characters; then I'd read things written during that time period. I'd take notes on interesting phrases or foods or trees that were unique to that place; I secured a better understanding of their ideology, mythos, rhythms, and the zeitgeist of the time. Next, I'd write the two duelists, one at a time, trying to inhabit their minds and bodies (a kind of method writing), pacing in my writer's room and speaking like I thought they might. Generally, a nice snappy first line would pop, and then I'd be at the desk writing, printing, revising off the hardcopy draft, typing again, etc. This activity generally went on for days at a time--long walks and talking to myself. I'd edit in my bed, first thing when I woke up. Once I had a decent draft done, I'd start compressing language, taking out any unnecessary words and stripping it down to only the most necessary punctuation to keep the thoughts clear.

However, I also might just stumble across a rumor--Jack Johnson played chess with Rasputin or how Robert Johnson was supposedly poisoned--and that would be enough to spur my imagination. A friend of mine saw the last legal cockfight in America, and I thought, sure, why not have birds fight? Or a bull fight? Or John Henry take on the steam engine? Or for instance, I was reading a lot about tobacco farming for whatever reason, so I decided I should set a duel on a tobacco plantation. I had the landscape and work down cold, then all I had to do was invent a new type of duel (a whip fight).

I love the research for its own sake, but also so I have something new to talk about at parties. But the research is ultimately a conduit to get to the actual writing, the hard work and the hard-won joy.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I have two much older half-brothers whom I love dearly, but I was the first child born to my parents together and so was doted upon. My dad and many of his twelve syblings all lived in an enclave of Garrigas--maybe 60 or so of us in this two block section of Gulfport, MS. They were loud talkers, all story-tellers, each trying to top one another, and they passed me from beautiful aunt lap to beautiful uncle lap. And God they could laugh and be raunchy and tell good whoppers, full of hyperbole and violence and sticking it to the Man. One would tell a story she'd just told last week, but last week that woman wasn't a dwarf, but no one would ever call her on that inconsistency. They let this version stand or fall on its own...take it for what it is at that moment. My mom says I didn't speak until I was almost two and a half years old, but when I did, I let fly with full sentences. I guess I was just waiting for a lull in the conversation before I could get my two cents in. I'm sure my head was rubbed raw. And I've been talking long ever since.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

I wrestled mightily with a duel concerning Cassanova. He even wrote a book called The Duel. I read it. I read about his life. I read about the other duelist's life, the times they lived in, the landscape of Warsaw. I made notes. I paced and paced trying to use their language--my usual prewriting method--and though I think I got the other duelist and the witness, a ballerina they were fighting over, I never, ever even came close to cracking that hard nut Cassanova. He is an illusion. There's no there there with him. And so, alas, it is not in the book.

However, one of the last duels, "The Magic Hour," came to me in a flash and took less than 36 hours to finish (instead of the usual 4-6 weeks). I didn't have to research it, because I lived it, experienced it. It concerns Megan giving birth to our first son, Jaume. They're the two duelists, and I'm the witness, which I felt like during her 31-hour, drug-free labor. Months after Jaume was born, I asked Megan to free associate those final hours, and she did. I went into my room with her notes and wrote her monologue, trying to put myself in her body, which I couldn't, of course, but I gave it my best shot. Then, I wrote mine, which was like a confession. Then Jaume's--which you would think would be hard because he was, you know, six-minutes-old--came in a quick flash of utter love. I showed Megan hers, and she tweaked it and kissed me and said, "Good job, Bub." Then she read the Jaume piece and cried. That's when I knew I had something.



 Michael Garriga's debut, The Book of Duels, was recently published by Milkweed Editions. It consists of thirty-three short stories, each comprised of three separate dramatic monologues rendered in the final seconds before an ultimate confrontation, and that, when taken together, create a multi-perspective narrative. One could use the term “flash fiction” to describe these works because of the layers of association: firing a pistol (as in most of the stories); a flash in the pan (referring to when a pistol misfires and also to those people quickly forgotten); flash forward and flash backward (two narrative strategies that engage the reader at the emotional level); the speed and brevity of these monologues; and the flash of an epiphany or a moment of yearning in the characters, like a flash bulb going off. That is, Flash Fiction can connote a moment when characters’ desire for self-knowledge and -awareness dovetails with their epiphany. In one intense moment, who they are, at the deepest level, is revealed or made apparent to themselves or to the readers. 
The book also contains thirty-three pieces of original art by Tynan Kerr, who also created the cover.

Michael Garriga's work has been published extensively in magazines and journals, including New Letters, the Black Warrior Review, storySouth, and the Southern Review. He has worked as a sound man in a blues bar, a shrimp picker, and a bartender, but currently teaches creative writing in the English department at Baldwin Wallace University. Garriga currently lives with his family outside of Cleveland, Ohio.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Anthony Mossburg

Singer-songwriter, Anthony Mossburg, has recently released his latest CD, and is here to talk about persistence, frustration, the divinity of creativity, as well as some Johnny Cash and June Carter. 

(And he reminds me of what I believe to be a fact: if you can watch Johnny Cash's cover of Nine in Nails'  "Hurt" without crying, there might be something wrong with you.)

Here goes: 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

My current obsession has to be Ben Howard’s music. Whether it be reading his lyrics or just focusing mainly on the music, it is something that I connect with on a level that hasn’t really been reached before. I think that is something that most writers would hope to achieve one day, having someone connect to what you have written, not just by reading, but by feeling it.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

My talk to the downhearted is definitely something that I need a lot of times as well. I think that being discouraged is part of the territory as a songwriter. I tend to see what other people are doing and think that they pushed out their work in one evening with a smile on their face. In reality it is a battle, fighting with ideas, fighting with your expectations, fighting with comparing yourself to others. The list goes on and on. The thing that I have found most helpful in situations like that is to just keep going. Keep pushing through the idea you have. I have come to know that writing is one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it is worth it. You may run in to ninety-nine walls while writing, but that one breakthrough will be worth every struggle.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I handle criticism the same way that I handle compliments. I never want to let one person's opinion (good or bad) dictate how I view myself or my work. Receiving criticism can be a great thing, and most times it spurs you on to push yourself harder and make yourself better, but sometimes it can be damaging. The same goes with compliments, just because one person claims you are the best writer doesn’t actually make you the best writer in the world. To me, it all comes down to knowing who you are; if not you will shift to fit what everyone else wants you to be. I think once you start to find yourself as a writer, then you have a firm foundation to take both criticism and compliments without either breaking you.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

My latest story coming from research happens to be a delicious one, ha! I wrote a song called “Whiskey & Wine”, and the song is mostly about the difference between two people in a relationship, yet how they still make it work. I reference Johnny Cash and June Carter as a couple that portrays this formula. One a rebel, the other more saintlike. While writing this song I really wanted to stay true to who the two were. Even though I had followed Cash’s music for some time, I didn’t know that much about his personal life. I was in a coffee shop working on the song watching a documentary on his life. The documentary was extremely powerful, and ended with his version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. I had been so invested in his life and story that I was a mess by the end of it. I was in this coffee shop with my hat pulled way down on my face so no one would see me balling my eyes out. Sometimes research can be a pain, but in this case it was a very powerful time for me and helped me connect with  my writing and the song that much more!

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

My childhood was probably a little different than most. I was raised by my mom out in the country. I spent a lot of time by myself and have always been a little bit of a loner. Quiet, but always taking everything in. I wasn’t really taught a ton growing up. Most of what I have learned was from just diving in and figuring things out on my own. Growing up that way definitely had its ups and downs, but ultimately I think it was the best situation for me. As far as writing goes, I think it has helped me be very connected and real. I don’t write to impress people or because someone wants me to, I write because it’s a natural way for me to release and vent. I think growing up the way I did was exactly what I needed to learn who I am, not only as a songwriter, but as a person.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I don’t know if I would say religious, however I definitely think creativity is a divine thing. I believe it is a gift that no one can really claim to have gotten on their own. My faith is a big part of my life, and because I believe creativity is a gift, I take it seriously. I’m extremely thankful to be able to have the ability to write and communicate what I feel through writings and song. It is also what I believe I was created to do. Whether my work gets noticed by millions, or just my close friends and family, I honestly believe this is what I’m supposed to do. So, I continue to push forward and grow as a writer, not to “make it," but to be true to what I believe and what I believe I’m supposed to do.

What's your worst writerly habit?

My worst habit as a writer is definitely laziness. I want everything to come out in one take. I would like to be able to sit down and bust out what I am trying to say in 45 minutes, but that isn’t the way it goes. A few songs have come out quickly like that, however the tightening and tuning that they need take much longer. My attention span isn’t the best either, ha! So I could be in the middle of working on one project and then switch to something completely different. It is a constant battle to keep my mind focused and keep from letting my laziness come through.

Anthony Mossburg's latest CD made the “featured” and “bestsellers” lists on iTunes and placed in the top eight of singer/songwriter CDs. 
He's known for writing moving lyrics, creating melodies 
that stick with you long after the songs are over, and for his deep, rich, unforgettable voice. His first single, “Whiskey and Wine” placed in the top 50 for singer/songwriters on iTunes.

CLICK HERE to follow him on Twitter.
 AND

1/2 Dozen for Rachel Zucker

I love listening to Rachel Zucker think, aloud, on the page. No writer, to my mind, is writing more honestly and thoughtfully and ferociously about the complexities of contemporary relationships -- being writer, mother, wife, daughter, poet, teacher... 

In this interview alone, you will receive permissions and warnings and interesting ideas on reframing, on language, on living.


Settle in here. Rethink your life a little.  

 
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I'll start with “otherwise.”

I have two new books out: MOTHERs (a memoir) and The Pedestrians (a double collection of poetry and short prose). There has been a lot of work having to do with the production and publication of these books and, as always, the responsibilities of my family life expand to fill whatever time there is (if I allow that to happen), but I have not been able to write new work for what feels to me like a very long time. Reading is also a problem. Shortly after my mother passed away (15 months ago) it became difficult for me to see. I'd always had excellent vision and suddenly my eyes failed. Even with glasses, reading is hard work and not as pleasurable as it once was.

So, I run. I'm training for a half marathon. I don't actually like running that much and don't think it's so great for my body, but I'm not teaching this semester and not writing and needed a clear goal and clear structure. Two mornings a week I wake up before 6 am, and my friend and I run in the dark in Central Park. I come home and make breakfast and take my youngest to school. On the weekends my friend and I do our long run together—around and around the park. At night I sit with my youngest son as he falls asleep and read online advice about what one should eat before or during a long run. I carefully update my training schedule, marking off the miles I've gone. When I'm done with this race, I won't do another. I'll go back to exercising in a regular but more relaxed way. But for now I need this one thing in my life that is clear, doable, set.

I keep asking myself why writing can't work the way this training does. I set myself a goal and researched how to achieve that goal. There's some variation but not very much. I know I need to run 3-4 times a week, increasing my distance until I reach my goal. Barring injury or illness, I can and will achieve it. Why can't I decide to write a novel this way? Or a book of essays? A bunch of poems? I don't believe in divine inspiration or even banal inspiration. I believe in hard work and perseverance, and yet... I can't seem to do in writing what I can clearly do in so many other parts of my life.

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?


Ha! I just said I don't believe in inspiration before I saw this question! The very word “inspiration” feels inaccurate to me and rather masculine. A kind of breathing into—reminds me of conception. On the other hand, I've never written anything that was un-influenced or that didn't have other books, people, experiences breathing all over it. There are many contagions for each book of mine. Maybe, a slightly less viral way of describing this is that each of my books talk to other texts, people, and experiences.
My memoir MOTHERs began as an attempt to answer the question of why I was so devastated when a friend/mother-figure died. I'd also recently told my students to write what they were most afraid to write. I was most afraid to write about my mother. Once I realized that I felt compelled to do it.

There were several contagions for The Pedestrians. I wanted to write something “happy” and “fun.” I'd just read Destroyer & Preserver by Matthew Rohrer and I wanted to write a book that wasn't on the verge of complete despair all the time (as my other books had felt to me). Also, I was sick of poetry and anything I thought of as “poetic” and wanted to write pieces of prose as straight forward and descriptive and honest as possible. Also, I was a finalist for a job at the University of Idaho. I'd decided that I would take the job if I got it. I remember lying awake all night in the motel room in Moscow, Idaho, thinking “I must take this job, but if I do I will die.” That sounds ridiculously melodramatic, but that's how it felt. I've lived in New York my whole life (except for six consecutive years of college and graduate school) and had often wanted to leave New York. But, when faced with the real possibility of leaving, it seemed to me that I would not know how to function, that I would never feel at home for the rest of my life if I left. I wondered how anyone ever moved from one place to another. The whole “crisis” seemed deranged but fascinating. When I didn't get the job and we stayed in New York I wanted to write poems that were more explicitly about and of New York.

I think my work often starts this way: I have a very strong, extreme emotion—one that embarrasses or confounds me—and I write into or out of that. The writing is not so much an attempt to express the emotion as much as an attempt to figure it out.

There were many other things/people/texts I was talking to while writing these two books. Here are some of them: Arielle Greenberg's new poems (not yet in books), Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (co-edited with Arielle), Home/birth: a poemic (co-written with Arielle), Carmen Gimenez-Smith's Bring Down the Little Birds, Michael Kimball's Us, Abigail Thomas's Safekeeping, the form and history of the fable, being away from my kids for three weeks while I taught in Paris, having whooping cough for three months, Wayne Koestenbaum's work (all of it and there's a lot), Craig Morgan Teicher's To Keep Love Blurry, Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be, Darin Strauss's Half a Life, Juliana Baggott’s Pure, conversations with Laurel Snyder about audience and prose v. poetry, teaching a class on the very long and very short poem…

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

I used to use addiction as a metaphor to describe my writing process. I used to say that writing was the only place where my mind worked without self-judgment, without pervasive noise, and that this mental state was something I needed and craved. It wasn't that I liked writing—in fact I'd describe my feelings as closer to hatred—but not-writing was worse than writing. Only writing provided me with the “fix” of un-self-judgment. At some point I began to compare writing to exercise instead of drugs. I really don't like to exercise, but when I don't do it I feel worse; so I do it. This is pretty much how I felt about writing and how I described it for fifteen years.

Then, about eight years ago I became frustrated and embarrassed by this construction. I don't remember what triggered the epiphany, but I remember sitting alone in a field in Lakewood, Colorado (a suburb of Denver). I'd been staying with my husband's family and feeling sorry for myself about a lot of things including the hard work of raising two kids, the physical and emotional fallout from a recent miscarriage, my frustration with my husband's frustration with not having a career (he was writing novels at the time). We were spending a few weeks with my in-laws and, as always, it was difficult to explain wanting time to “work” when writing was unpaid. It was hard to claim any time away from my kids. Even harder when writing didn't even feel like something I wanted to do or something I liked doing. I felt pretty similarly about my kids. I loved them but I didn't really like being with them (at least not for weeks on end with nothing to do while staying in someone else's home). I had all the things I thought I wanted: a caring husband, wonderful children, several books published, good health... but I felt as if I was constantly complaining about my life and feeling sorry for myself.

“What if I rename the story?” was how the epiphany sounded in my head. “Look,” I said to myself, “You are an able-bodied adult with a lot of privilege and agency. You spend most of your time with your children and a lot of time writing or at least trying to write. You've been doing this for years. So, this must mean, since that's what you're doing, that you are doing it because you love it. Why don't you try saying I love it? Act like you love it. Take responsibility for your choices and find a way to write out of peacefulness and happiness and joyfulness. Go to your writing like you'd go to a lover you craved, like a favorite food. Be that mother. Be that writer.”

So, I'm working on it. Working on being that writer. Once the thought occurred to me, I feel in love with it intellectually. I'm totally committed to it as a philosophy. Unfortunately, I can't say I really feel this way all the time. I have not yet been converted on an emotional level. So, for now I guess I'll say that I aspire to be a writer who loves to write.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?
The same as my advice to someone who has fallen in love with anyone: welcome to a world of pain, the only world worth living in.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. I have not. For years I have tried and it feels impossible for many different reasons. Today I thought maybe instead of banging my head against this particular wall—the wall of trying to achieve a balance—maybe I should rethink the whole goal. Maybe I choose this life because balance wasn’t my priority. Language is so powerful. A few years ago I started saying (often with snide sarcasm) “my life is really full” at times when what I wanted to say was “this is total chaos and I live in a loony bin!” or “this is impossible and terrible!” A “full” life sounds good, no? And when you retrain yourself to (even jokingly) rename the things in your life, it has an emotional impact. The other day—after weeks my own illness and weeks of caring for two of my kids who had been sick—my son (who had not been sick) and I were riding the subway home from a special evening out together. He did not look right and said he was going to throw up. I suggested we get off the train at 72nd street, but he said no. As the doors closed he said, very quietly, and without any trace of human color in his face, “That was a mistake.” As we hurtled toward 79th street (at what felt like a snail’s pace) I thought, “Well, this is exciting!” There were a whole lot of other adjectives I could have used but that one helped me through what happened next.
The truth is that I would like to find greater balance in my life in the sense that I would like to be calmer and more patient and have greater equanimity. But maybe the balance of my writing and “the rest” isn’t even something I should strive for. Maybe trying to balance the two is making me crazy and unbalanced. What if I said, I’m interested in the collision or, better yet, the shifting and dynamic relationship between all the parts of my life. Each part is each the most important part, just as each child is the most important child—there is no balance, only a dance and swirl and shifting puzzle. No, not puzzle. That’s not right. A puzzle is something you solve. A shifting… well, the words matter.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

One of the things I love about writing poetry is that it connects me to place. In graduate school someone told me in order to write great fiction you need to learn how to shut out the world but in order to write great poetry you need to open yourself to the world. I've thought about that a lot even though I'm not sure it's true.

I've often written drafts of what turned out to be important poems while traveling. Writing poetry requires me and reminds me to pay attention and when I'm writing regularly, I feel much more connected to the world around me. But it wasn't until writing the poems for The Pedestrians that I really felt that I was explicitly writing about place, in this case my New York City, as if place were a character. I don’t know what I’m going to do next—how ‘exciting’! I say with a forced smile—I think perhaps I would like to write about placelessness. I have no idea what I mean by that.



Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently, MOTHERs and The Pedestrians. Her book Museum of Accidents was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. She teaches at New York University and is currently a National Endowment for the Arts fellow.


COMING SOON: THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE


THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE -- I got home from Kansas and was greeted by the Advance Reading Copy. Gregory Sherl and I had a blast bringing this book to life. (My name isn't on the cover, but there's an author's note inside this galley that explains my role...) I love this cover -- it's weird whimsy and hint of love story and Aaron Gwyn's quote on obsession topping it off! 
It will hit bookshelves Labor Day Weekend!
More to come! 
(Including some sneak peeks...)