Sarah Manguso, Lady Bird, the Smell of Wood

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The writer rob mclennan interviewed me a couple of months ago, and the interview posted this week on his blog. It's always a privilege to be interviewed, and Rob's questions made me think a lot about the role of a writer in the world. This coincided with a conversation that my writer friends and I had recently in which we talked about what kind of effect we wanted to make as writers. Some of the group wanted to make people laugh and be entertained, some wanted to teach or help people think in a new way, and others wanted readers to know they were not alone.

I don’t think I ever write with a purpose in mind. I write whatever story calls out to me in that moment. I suppose I trust that its purpose—whether small or big—will figure itself out. What do you think? Should all writing have an intended purpose? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Here is the interview. Thanks, rob mclennan, for this opportunity.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book made me an author, and that was very important to me—for many years, my goal was to have a book. I never would have guessed my first book would be a memoir. 

My most recent work hasn’t been memoir: I’ve been focused on fiction and poetry, though at times the genres mix with each other.

2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?

I actually came to fiction first—bad fiction: I started writing short stories in sixth grade, quite terrible little short stories that I thought for many years were quite good. In high school I started writing poetry and have been writing it ever since. I came to memoir in the last decade when I realized I had stories from my life I wanted to tell.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

This all depends on the project. Some are easy and flow, and I do very little editing. Other pieces I labor over and revise so many times I lose track. Some poems take me less than an hour to write. Some stories I write for years.

Here is a link to the rest of the interview on his website.

The Double Dark Theory of Our Universe

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Years ago, when I was taking one of my first memoir workshops, I remember a classmate reading aloud to the class what she had written. She was very excited about her project—a book about her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. What she read aloud to us was her reaction in the moments after finding out her cancer had returned. Specifically what I remember is a long sentence that went something like this: “I cried, I was angry, I was sad, I was scared, I was confused, I was distraught,” and the sentence went on to include a greater list of difficult emotions.

As a listener, I understood her emotions on a mental level, but I didn’t actually feel any of the things that I knew as a writer she was hoping her readers would feel.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I was preparing an author talk to a group of writers: the Lost State Writers Guild. Because I am usually speaking to a group of readers (who aren't typically writers), my author talk centers around life lessons I have been given, but because this time I was speaking to writers, I also wanted to give more insights into the writing lessons I have learned over the years. 

This meant opening my talk with a new poem. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I always start my author talks with a poem I love, written by someone else, that has inspired me. The one I chose for this particular talk to Lost State was one I had come across by Chloe Clark on Twitter back in April.

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When I first read this poem, it broke my heart open. In the weeks that followed, I read it many times, both silently and aloud, and I began to study it more, to look at how the poet had taken something very emotional and never once used a word of emotion—like “sad,” “disappointed,” or “despairing”—to convey to the reader what was being felt. (Okay, yes, the word “happy” is used, but not to tell the reader that anyone in the poem is happy.)

The writerly lesson is this: when emotions run high (or what some people call “hot”), write cool, meaning don’t describe anger or sadness or crying. Instead, have some distance and coolness in how you convey these.

You can thank Anton Chekhov for this advice, by the way, not me. He wrote, “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder—that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly.” He also added, “The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.”

(Yes, I learned that in school. Thank you, Queens University MFA.)

Thank you, Chloe Clark, for allowing me to read it at my talk and to post it on my blog. This poem is quite a beauty.

And thank you, Lost State, for asking me to speak to your group. 


"The Double Dark Theory of Our Universe" is part of Chloe Clark's book, The Science of Unvanishing Objects: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2018).

The red flower pictured is from the lovely geranium that the Lost State Writers Guild gave me as a thank you. It is gracing my living room window as I type this.

 

 

 

How Poetry Changed My Life

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Some time ago, when I was one year into my master’s degree in journalism with one year left, I decided to quit—not because the program lacked strength but because what I really wanted was to study poetry. I had already begun celebrating my decision to quit when my father called me up.

“You’re already halfway through,” he said.

It’s not as if I couldn’t do the math, but I couldn’t see the finish line that he could see or the future he could imagine. My father understood that a master’s degree in anything would help my career, and he probably surmised what it would take me years to understand: that a journalism master’s degree in particular would strengthen my writing skills and help me land a wide range of communications positions, which in fact it did. But back then, I just wanted to write poetry.

On my father’s advice, I stayed in the journalism program, but I decided that in order to get through my final journalism year, I needed to take all my electives in the English Department. I tried to get into a poetry writing class with one professor, but she wouldn’t let me in. “Your poems are too sentimental,” she told me. 

It was Dr. David Citino who let me into his poetry writing seminar, Dr. David Citino who taught me how to take sentimentality out, Dr. David Citino who made it possible for me to stay in my journalism program and finish. Poetry kept me from quitting.

This is one of the reasons that when National Poetry Month comes around every year, I can’t help but celebrate. Poetry did not just save me from quitting my journalism degree: poetry has been my constant companion and has guided me through upheavals, emotions, and changes and has helped me cope, understand, and let go.

On that note, I bring you a poem (originally published in Streetlight Magazine) by Whitney Roberts Hill

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I saw this one on Whitney's Instagram, and I immediately loved the poem, especially this line: “Sorrow kept/too long forgets to leave.”

You can hear this poem read by Robert McCready here on the Magic City Poetry YouTube Channel.

Thank you, Whitney Roberts Hill, for this beauty.

And thanks to all the poets and to all you readers who came along with me during National Poetry Month as I featured works from contemporary poets. (If you missed any of the poets and their poems, you can find them here: Ada Limón’s “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” Ariel Francisco's "For the Man Pushing His Mixtape on the Corner of Biscayne and 167th," Courtney LeBlanc's "Self-Portrait as a Thunderstorm," and Denise Weuve's "The Haircut.") 

Let’s do it again, same time next year.


Whitney Roberts Hill is a graduate student in the Queens University MFA program and is currently working on a novel.

Part of this blog was orginally published in the Johnson City Press.

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