My friend and partner-in-crime, Maria Mutch—the boot-rockin’ ingenious writer—tagged me some weeks ago when she posted her contribution to the Writing Process Blog Tour. She asked me to answer four questions about my writing process, and my first thought was: No! I don’t have a process! But Maria, author of, among many other brilliant works of art, the poignant Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours, possesses criminal powers of persuasion, and she forced me to confront the challenge (i.e., my fears). I’ve known Maria for some years now (we met in a writing workshop when her memoir was still in its infancy), and I know how brave and tenacious she is, and that she would not let me off the hook easily, and so…
Thank you, Maria, for inviting me; my second and resounding thought is, Yes!
What are you working on?
Currently, I am working on completing my thesis in partial fulfillment for my MFA degree in Writing and Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars, Bennington College. My thesis consists of a collection of essays, a few prose poems, and perhaps a song and some photographs. Okay, well, maybe not a song. Aside from my pseudo-scholarly work, I’m also writing one or two essays that address the complexities of conserving historic and open space in suburbia. Unfortunately, that exercise involves dipping into politics, which is something I’m allergic to. I’m sneezing a lot lately.
How does the work differ from others of its genre?
I have trouble with that word—genre. (The hoodlum in me wants to confiscate genre from the landscape of literature and bury its burden deep in the earth). I don’t know how to categorize what I’m working on, so I can’t say how it differs, other than that my essays are my essays—until they become the reader’s—and are of a somewhat fractured nature. (The germs of much of my work were planted on my blog, Suburban Soliloquy.) They are not necessarily crafted with a central theme in mind, however, a thematic concern (danger, uncertainty, fear) does seem to emerge as I piece my thesis together. But I don’t think about these things when I’m writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m not thinking at all, and sometimes I’m thinking so much it hurts.
Why do you write what you do?
Writing has been my passion for as long as I can remember. (These days that’s not too long.) So has photography. I’ve written off and on for years, it’s in my blood—I come from a family of logophiles. But I’m a late bloomer in terms of getting serious about my writing. (Same for photography.) Now, I am in a program that offers me an abundance of inspiration, advice, and the space and structure—which I sorely need— to write. It’s been a fantastic experience and I do worry that, without its structure, my space will become slippery and I will begin to flounder. But I’ve come to realize that I need to write. I write from a place of curiosity, to learn, to know and, fortunately, I always want to know!
I draw inspiration from the natural world, particularly the mountains, seas, skies. Land, sea, sky: they are not mute; they talk to me—we’re in a relationship, share a reverence for one other, which is something I seek to emulate in my relationship with humanity. As most of my writing is personal in nature, it consists of a lot of interior thought—how the outer world affects the inner and vice versa—which is oft obsessed with the interconnectedness of all things, with signifiers and symbiosis. The lens through which I filter my experience of the world informs how and what I write. When I say “lens” I mean that both metaphorically and literally. Which leads me to process…
How does your writing process work?
I wish I could tell you that I rise each morning and write. But I don’t. I’m criminally undisciplined. Sometimes I don’t write for many days. Though I read every day, and am often lost in research (whether in books or the interwebs). Then there’s the walk. It always starts with the walk—a prelude to the actual act of writing. The walk sets a rhythm that allows me to connect with the world and its swells and shifts. I don’t leave home without my iPhone or camera, in the event I want to take photographs while I’m walking. Photography is also a huge part of my writing process. My handwriting is atrocious, I’m terrible at carrying a notebook, and stuff just passes right through me, so I have come to understand that the only way I’m able to take notes is through the lens of a camera. (Although I have, on occasion, scratched something down on found paper in the middle of the night. But I couldn’t later read it.) And photographing, like writing, is also about looking, and I don’t think one can write well without really looking.
The interesting thing about the picture-taking is that, more often than not, I manipulate the photo, apply various filters, so the scene looks how it appeared to me in that time now gone, or how I think it might have appeared to me, or to a deer or a loon or some other living thing that is also looking and processing. Sometimes the result may have a surreal quality. (But then, what is real is relative, and we all have our own unique filters.) The filters may skew figures or wash out color, may highlight little corners that tend to go unnoticed, or may shade areas that don’t wish to be revealed. Mood is set, perspective is established, and the resulting tone and feel informs point of view. And I remember what I felt the moment I was present to snap it, remember what I thought, where I came from and where I’m headed. Barthes said that the “Photographer’s organ is not his eye … but his finger: what is linked to the trigger of the lens, to the metallic shifting of the plates…” I think the organ, the aesthetic organ, so to speak, is both eye and finger. Eye to the world, finger to the trigger and keyboard.
Next up on the tour, look for posts from four fantastic writers (and Bennington friends) who’ve agreed to accept the torch: Megan Culhane Galbraith, Denton Loving, Susan Pagani, and Barrett Warner. Megan‘s work has been appeared in Hotel Amerika, Danse Macabre, Drafthorse, The Notebook (a recent guest editor), and Rosebud. Her essays have been featured on 51% on WAMC-FM and have been twice selected for the Bookmarks Reading Series at The Arts Center in Troy, New York. She lives on a gorgeous farm in upstate New York, and knows how to wrangle a horse and throw a party. Denton, executive editor of Drafthorse, and editor of Motif V.4 – Seeking Its Own Level: An Anthology About Writings On Water, is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag); he’s also the recipient of several writing awards including the Gurney Norman Prize for Short Fiction, and the Alabama Writer’s Conclave Fiction Prize; his fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Birmingham Arts Journal, Appalachian Heritage, Minnetonka Review, Main Street Rag, Nantahala Review, and in numerous anthologies including Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia. And his southern accent woos us all. Susan is a journalist, editor extraordinaire (I know, she’s handled my early drafts), foodie, and fiction and nonfiction writer. She recently coauthored The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food (Heavy Table, 2013), and contributed to Minnesota Lunch (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011). She can write about food and birds like nobody’s business. Barrett, the author of Til I’m Blue in the Face (Tropos Press), and the winner of Salamander’s 2014 Fiction Contest, is an editor of Free State Review. His short stories, reviews, poems and lampoons of U. S. poet laureates have appeared in Atticus Review, California Quarterly, Coal Hill Review, Comstock Review, Freshwater, Southeast Review, and many others. He says he’s lazy but his work says otherwise. These, my friends: I love them (even if they make me look bad). You will, too.