Thursday, May 5, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Crystal Wilkinson

It's my great pleasure to introduce
Crystal Wilkinson
a writer I wish more readers knew
(thousands and thousands more).
Like her advice for those who've fallen
in love with a writer, I suggest you
fall for Crystal Wilkinson
and when you do:
"Fall with all your might."

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Memory and the ways in which we retain memory. My current completed manuscript is a novel about ancestral memory among other things. Of course this concept has been called collective consciousness , genetic memory, or racial memory but I prefer to think of it as blood memory. Faulkner said “The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.” We all have stories that we carry with us through the generations and it doesn’t matter if those stories have been told to us through some oral tradition or if they are secrets. I believe we still carry them in our blood. This theme has carried over into my current novel-in-progress and into the new stories that I am writing. This idea won’t let go of me. Clearly I’m still obsessed.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Run and be prepared for a lonely life.

Not really, but writers are eccentric and self absorbed (well at least I am). Not absorbed with myself as much as the imaginary worlds that are being created in my head.). I often stumble and stutter when I am talking because my mind is well beyond the realm of the conversation on to something else. I am always writing and have to remind myself constantly that I didn't say something that I just thought it or at least thought parts of it. In those writing moments when I am trying to carry on a conversation with the man I love it gets kind of weird. But he's a poet and artist too and he loves me so I guess my advice would be: Fall. Fall with all your might but be prepared. I’m not sure that loving a writer is easy.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

There are only three really. Read. Write. Revise. They sound cliché but if you practice and can master reading as a writer and revising then you have everything you need. But of course they are harder than they seem. Even just writing is hard. Not even just writing WELL but putting your bottom in the chair long enough to get initial words out is hard. In addition to teaching writing at three universities (one full time gig where I head the BFA program and two low residency-type situations), I also work with aspiring and accomplished writers one on one. There is always someone who wants to tell me about his or her idea of writing a novel. They begin telling me that the novel is about this and this and that and that but when I ask to see a few pages they say "I haven't written any of it yet. I don't know where to start." Bull! Stop with the excuses. Write. And when you get stuck go to your bookshelf and read how one of the masters has handled dialogue or scene or point of view or whatever stumped you and then go back to writing. There is no magic. It’s just that simple.

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

I was a strange child (some would say a strange adult too). I spent a lot of time alone and preferred being alone. I was raised by my grandparents on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. One of my early memories, the one I identify as the beginning of my writing life, still comes to me with vivid detail. Behind our house up on the knob was a place that I used to go frequently. It was deep in the woods. I was probably only nine years old and I would go deep, deep into the woods high where I could no longer see our house, our smoke house or any of the outbuildings on the property. One day this question came to me: Am I the only little girl doing this right now? And I began to think about what other little girls might be doing in other places in the world. What they might look like, what their parents might be like, their siblings. What the place where they lived might look like. This is the moment that I think I became a writer. That moment set forth a lifetime of wondering and dreaming and musing about other people and trying to make those discoveries.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I have been a fast food worker, a junior librarian, a customer service representative for J. Peterman Company, a news assistant, an X-ray clerk in a hospital, a public relations administrator, an administrator in a non-profit literacy agency. There are probably a few others that I have failed to mention. I think that they have collectively influenced me as a writer.

Writers, many of my friends among them, who have been waitresses, blues singers, psychologists, census takers, mailmen and construction workers are among the best writers I know. I have always said that I love teaching but that it takes the same part of my brain to look at someone else’s writing and to help that writer to take their work to the next level as it does to write and revise my own work. Some days I feel like the writer part of me has been used up when I return from teaching. Those places out there away from the academy are where the stories are. Those are the places that real life is lived every day. For example when I worked in the hospital I saw a man in the emergency room whose leg had been split open in an accident. I still remember his mangled leg, his face, the anguish of his family. I have never written that story but I remember it. I carry it with me.

What's your worst writerly habit?

Procrastination!! Grrrrr. In a recent interview with The Rumpus Edward P. Jones, who I greatly admire for both his writing and his life as a writer, says of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Known World, “If I had been nudged, it might have taken a little less than ten years. A bit of it is just plain old laziness on my part. I’m not going to pretty it up.” I, too, walk around with the stories I am hoping to create. I try to convince myself that this “head writing” is okay but I can’t quite trust and believe in that process. I hang my head when a great deal of time passes and I committed my butt to the chair. I have bouts of self loathing about it constantly. But when I do sit down to write it often turns into days of writing gleefully (and sometimes painfully) and for that I am grateful to whatever shift in the universe that makes that happen.

CRYSTAL WILKINSON is the author of two collections of stories, Blackberries, Blackberries , winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature and Water Street , a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is from the Knobs region of Kentucky and teaches writing in the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Morehead State University and the MFA in Writing program at Spalding University. Her newly completed manuscript The Birds of Opulence (a novel) is awaiting a publisher.