How Does Writing Work: An Interview

At risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m posting this interview I did for Millicent Hill.  Well, maybe it’s a little self-aggrandizing, but I hope there is substance enough here to offer some insights along with the ego.  For several years, my friend and brilliant poet, Arra Ross, who teaches at Saginaw Valley State University here in Michigan, has set up interviews between her students and the writing community.  She usually emails, asking if I am willing to be interviewed, and of course, I always feel flattered and grateful for the chance to talk with her students. A few weeks later, I receive an email from the student, and we schedule a phone conversation. I enjoy this interview because Arra’s students are always well-prepared and they send their questions ahead of time and these questions are usually thoughtful and don’t feel canned.

  This year, the student, Millicent Hill, was a senior interested in writing as a career, but as we talked, she confessed she was uncertain about her choices, was floundering on how to be a writer, and because of that, some of her questions seemed especially deep and especially provocative.  When these interviews occur, I almost always download the questions and write notes on things I want to say to the interviewers. The actual conversation is always much more expansive, but the notes give me a direction for my answers. In this case, she wanted to know how it all worked.  And because her questions seemed smart, and she had confided her career concerns, I expanded my notes. I share my answers, brief as they are, here with you. I hope, besides making me feel good, these might be offer quiet insights for developing writers.

Here are Millicent’s questions. 

In what things/settings/experiences do you find inspiration to write?  I have learned that I can write just about anywhere if I have a deadline, necessity being the mother of invention, but the inspirational places are my Think House, a small cabin which my husband and I built ourselves of recycled materials on our property. The Think House is where I can close the door and work in a peace.  Barring that place, I can work anywhere it’s relatively quiet, but I do prefer a window with a view of the natural world. Just about any natural view will do, but if I get to choose, water, ocean, or a long green view is best.  That longer view, the better.  A long view inspires how I want to think about my writing. After that, it’s about the project, what it is that I’m trying to do. The actual nature of the goal can be inspirational. 

Do you have to force yourself to sit down and write throughout the day?  Generally I don’t have a problem sitting down and writing anything on the creative side of things—what I call my own work. I long for it.  I love it.  That said, some “assignments” can lose that luster because they aren’t creative, or they don’t hold a place for the lyricism I like to write, or the deadlines are too short for the deep revision that takes time.  Then I get restless and it feels like drudgery and the work takes longer. I become restless and anxious, have to leave the desk and walk around.  But if life gives me the chance, I’ll go to my desk. And even though I tend to be a restless writer, I can stay with it for a long time.  

Or is writing something that happens naturally, and you never find writing to be a chore?  Again, it depends on the purpose of the writing.  For example, I like to do a little journaling every day, not long, sometimes not even 500 words. These Day Pages (also called Morning Pages) are friendly practice. That’s easy. But other kinds of writing take will.  Sometimes responding to students’ work is challenging because I’m searching so hard for ways to inspire them and sometimes it’s not up to me—but I keep thinking if I find just the right words, they will see what to do.  Scholarly writing can be a challenge, but as I’ve grown older, I see that it too is creative—though it didn’t feel that way in the beginning. Is writing your main source of income or do you work a typical day job? If so, how does it affect your writing style and ambition to write? I am retired from the full-time teaching I did for nearly forty years, but I still teach at the Solstice MFA at Pine Manor College outside of Boston.  It’s a low-residency program where I go for two weeks in the summer and two weeks in the winter to be with our students, and then I work with them on line—So I’ve always been a teaching writer.  I’ve always done both.  I think it’s very hard to be only a writer—you have to be good in many genres and you really have to know the business in order to make a living.  So for me, teaching was a way to do both, have an income from a rewarding career, and also write—which was my passion.  Though it took a lot longer, it has been a good balance for me. 

I noticed in your book The Lake Michigan Mermaid, you worked with another writer, Linda Nemec Foster. Did you and her ever have conflicting opinions on writing a piece together? Not really.  Because there are two voices in that book, we were able to set boundaries of sorts.  Since she wrote most of the mermaid poems, and I wrote the girl’s poems, we each made the final call based on our authorship. We trusted that the author of the character heard those poems most clearly. We offered suggestions to each other but we always were careful not to cross the boundaries of those parameters.  We have such respect for each other and for the writing that when we didn’t see eye to eye, we would think about the writing, not our egos, and that took priority, and that usually resolved the issue.   It’s a good way to work, setting those boundaries. 

How did you manage to have it comes to get as one coherent piece rather than two peoples individual perceptions and voice?  If you read closely you’ll see that it is in fact two voices, as it should be. The structure, diction and rhythm of the poems is different depending on who is speaking, the girl or the mermaid. But the story, the narrative drive is what keeps it whole. The reader hears (I hope) an urgency unfolding in the girl as she and the mermaid become closer. 

How did the idea come about to get an illustrator? Almost immediately we thought it was a story that needed imagery, and we thought readers would feel the same. There was a longing to see the troubled girl, the reclusive mermaid, but the challenge was finding the right illustrator. We looked at three different artists before we came to Meridith, who is a fine artist, but who crossed over into illustrations for our project.  We couldn’t be more delighted.

In your memoir Love, Sex and 4H, did writing about yourself and your experiences become tedious?  What happens in memoir is not just that you repeat a story, but that you discover the meaning of memory as you write it. You learn why that memory is important. That’s not tedious, that’s a way of understanding the self, and even of creating an explicit identity on the page, both for you and your reader. 

Were you ever uncomfortable with writing about yourself to the point it made some of the writing difficult? Sure, there are some tough things, especially in my book, House of Fields, but memory is the clay we work with.  So the difficulty is not in revealing but in finding the truth of the memory, the thing at the essence of the memory—and sometimes, I have to admit, it means I don’t look very good.

Have you ever altered scenes to make them less embarassing/more interesting or funny?  I don’t alter the facts, but I do refocus them to enhance a detail or a realization, and sometimes the humor just follows. Word choice is important in creating a mood or tone, and so I pay attention to things like that, choosing carefully, mulling over the right description—all the while trying to honor what happened. Also, if I can’t remember something exactly, I will try to describe what I think was the most likely detail, without making it up entirely.  I usually try to acknowledge this, but then that’s part of the creative in creative nonfiction.  All that said, a writer has to be ethical in what they say and how they depict themselves and others. I don’t recommend writing for revenge, to become a victim or a martyr, and I especially don’t want to make myself a hero. That said, I still recognize I am at the center of the story, so the story is always, to some degree, ego bound.

Has your narrative voice always been the same or has it changed over the course of your writing career? It depends on the audience. I have an academic voice, a memoir voice, an essay voice, and it all depends on the purpose of the writing and how close I am to the audience. As I became a more experienced writer, I came to understand how to manipulate those voices on the page.

When you write, do you have a specific audience in mind, or do you write as a form of therapy or release? Is it simply enjoyable for you?  I write in my journals as release or to work out something, so those are mostly private.  When I write for a reader or readers, I am thinking of them, and writing for people who generally like me and I like them. I mean that. I try to imagine their good will, and I bring my good will to their amorphous presence out there, sitting in their chairs.  They are my best readers.  When I’m uncertain, then I switch to writing for one person—almost like writing a letter, or to the editor, or even to a singular friend, and that usually reinserts the intimacy I want in my voice.

When did the idea of publishing you work become something you were interested in? I always wanted to share.  Funny, huh?  But publishing or submitting for publication came late, after I was teaching from many years. I realized I wanted to share that work with the world, and I wanted the recognition that comes with it.  

Were you more interested in self-publishing?  MY first chapbook of poems is self-published. It’s an art piece, with a hand set letter press, and good paper.  That’s how I like to self-publish.  Broad sheets, folios, yummy tri-folds with delicate paintings.  But generally, I wanted recognition from the writing community so I went the traditional path. I don’t dislike self-publishing, I just think it should be held to the same standards of editing. If you choose to self-publish, make sure to hire an editor, and do all the homework to make a strong publication.   

How do you go about editing your pieces for publishing? I draft deeply four to ten times, sometimes making massive changes and sometimes just line by line work.  I’m looking for the discovery that is perking under the surface. Then I set it aside for a while and low and behold, after a few days, I’ll see more that needs to be tightened or opened up or sharpened or… you get the picture. When it gets to the editor, no matter what, I listen deeply to my editor, balance that voice with what I hear in my own head. The editor is almost always right.

Are there parts of your writing that you wish had made the cut? Why? Unless it’s a whole chapter, once I’ve gone through the pain of cutting a section, then I forget about that part of the story. I just work without it on my radar.  If it is a whole chapter that I really like, I try to repurpose the work as another piece, an essay for some other submission.  

I’ve noticed through Uncoded Woman: poems and The Lake Michigan Mermaid, you tend to use a lot of harbor/maritime/lakes/nature imagery for motivations in your pieces. Do you find that sometimes the inspirations/themes might be too alike?  When I first read that question, I thought, yeah, that language probably is  too similar, but then I thought more deeply about why there are repeated images—because the books were published nearly ten years apart.  SO why are they so similar in their descriptors?  Two answers to that, the first a bit defensive. First, those are two books of six.  The others have different imagery, imagery of the natural world yes, but on shore, land, especially farm.  Thus, the water imagery is not repetitious in the total scheme.  BUT my second answer is not defensive. In our Michigan we should be supremely aware of the water issues, and of the worlds of water, and of how water is a resource but it’s also an aesthetic. We have twenty percent of the world’s water, we have had the Flint water crisis, and we are facing the Pipeline Five crisis.  So the diction of water should be in our reading, our talk, it should be repeated and repeated until it enters our brains and makes us all pay attention.  It should always be on our consciousness, and thus always in our literature. 

Relating to question 8, do all of your pieces fall under one central theme or narration? If there is a theme in my work, it is love of place, and how place shapes identity. It is my search for meaning, of who I am in the context of this amazing region of the Great Lakes which shaped me and made me who I am.  If I’m not in Michigan, then I write the place of where ever I am. I ask: Who am I here, what’s happening to to me, the watcher? How is the eye/I who watches interacting with this particular place it sees, how is the place touching me?  How is it shaping who I am.

What books/magazines do you enjoy reading in your free time?

Magazines I like to read: Orion, Writers Chronicle, Poets and Writers, and sometimes The Sun.  When I read now, it’s quite purposeful.  I read what my students are reading which, because I teach creative nonfiction, is mostly memoir right now.  Reading what my students are reading, especially my grad students, has led to some amazing books, and I am so grateful.  

Thanks to Millicent for such a deep conversation. This is only one small part of our words, but I’m grateful for her insightful questions. I wish her and all of Arra’s writing students the best of luck with their words and worlds.