Why do you write?
Because I’m miserable if I don’t. Cranky as all get out. Story is how I think I’ve always understood the world. I write where I come from: poverty, the trailer park, tobacco fields, the jobs I’ve done, waiting tables, cleaning hotel rooms, factory lines. I write a lot of people who are treated as if they’re invisible. I’ve been that cashier, that waitress, that factory worker and housekeeper. I’ve been invisible. But I wouldn’t change anywhere I’ve been, because I’ve also seen the wonder of that world, the honor, the humor, the music, the community and its bonds, the strength, the nobility of survival, in the people I come from. I want you to see them too.
What books do you read?
Pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I read poetry every day. I run a series on my blog called Monday Must Read where I do brief profiles of contemporary writers—mostly poets, but not all—so I’m reading new poets all the time. Most recently in poetry I’ve read How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and Other Heartstab Poems by Alexis Rhone Fancher and Interrobang by Jessica Piazza. But I also just finished Red Flags: An Outer Banks Story by Charlie Ball, a first novel from a student in the very first fiction class I ever taught twenty years ago at East Carolina University, and I’m working on the novel The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I still read anthropology texts and lots of books about science and spirituality, and sewing 🙂 lots of sewing books. I reread The Ancient Child by N. Scott Momaday every year in November. Gotta bring that beauty into the dark fall.
What inspires you?
Everything. Living. My son bought me a print of the Andy Warhol portrait with the large caption The World Fascinate Me, and that pretty much sums it up. Whether it’s recent discoveries in physics or whatever song my students are in love with, or holding seeds in my hand in the garden stunned that whole food factories are encased within their tiny shells, or fnding a new way to cook spinach, or the way the light hits the trees behind my house or —a recent obsession—Jewish naming traditions, there’s nothing I don’t find fascinating, really. I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life. A lot of people I love have walked on to the next life. I’m exquisitely aware of how quickly it can all be gone. Makes it easy to be fascinated—inspired–by pretty much anything.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
The family laughs about how when I was a little bitty girl, I would climb up on the table to tell stories, make up rhymes and songs. Then I’d make them clap. I’d write ten page stories from my spelling words in second grade. I spent part of my twenties talking myself out of writing, but I was so unhappy until I came back to it. I think, for some of us, it’s not a matter of wanting to be writers. I think for some of us anyway, it’s just who we are.
How do you deal with rejection?
I just keep writing. I always have more than one journal picked out for every piece of writing, more than one place I think it might find a home, so as soon as a rejection comes in, the piece goes out somewhere else.
Who are some writers you admire?
Writers who made me want to write? Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, Linda Hogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekhov. Writers who made me brave: Jill McCorkle, Peter Makuck, James Applewhite, Larry Brown, Sharon Olds, Dorothy Allison, Jan Beatty. Writers who made me jump up and down on the bed because I can’t read them sitting still? James Wright, Cormac McCarthy. 🙂 This is a list that never ends.
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
I sew, weave some, paint badly, sing even worse. Other than writing the most important creative activities for me are gardening and cooking. I have a crazy little hippie garden, and every year, I can’t wait to spend my spring and summer growing and preserving food the old ways, canning and drying, jellies and jams and pickles and relishes. Food, growing it, cooking it, preserving it, teaching other people about it, is not only critically creative for me, it’s one of the ways I pray.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Trust yourself. Trust your heart. Tune out the voices that say No.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Ha, same advice I give myself young or old: Trust yourself. Trust your reader. Learn your craft. Learn the rules. But then trust your heart, and break them. Risk being seen.
What is your writing process?
My writing process is very intuitive. I had a great teacher in grad school named Patrick Bizarro who called it “body writing.” I write in almost-manic cycles, produce copious numbers of pages, these crazy flabby running-off-the-page-overwritten drafts, and I create these drafts really really quickly over short periods of time. Writing is very physical for me, like Pat said, very much rolling through and out of my body. I carry folded drafts around with me, in pockets, stuck in my waistband, so it feels like I’m working even when I’m doing something else all together. I have all this mess of pages, then I spend months, years, revising. I tease my students that when it comes to revision, there are putter-inners and taker-outers, and I’m definitely a taker-outer. Revision for me is alll about cutting. What did Truman Capote say? “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” I took a draft into my poetry class the other night—a prose poem—that started at more than 2000 words. Then I showed them the revised version in my last book of the same poem at under 250 words. Every year I find I’m more ruthless and at peace with revising closer and closer to the bone.
Part of the writing process, though, that I think gets overlooked is the gathering. I think everything is poetry, just waiting to be found. So I spend a lot of time, between these two or three manic writing periods a year, doing lots of gathering—out in the world, road trips, family time, cooking, walking in the woods, out in the garden, reading, listening to music, talking to strangers in gas stations, in the aisle at Walmart, anywhere out in the world. That’s where the poetry, the stories, really exist. So that part of the process is equally—maybe more—precious to me, the sacred responsibility of reflecting the world as I experience it.