Q. Let’s start with a very general question. Of all the things you’ve learned throughout your long and illustrious career…what one truly helpful piece of truly practical advice would you give writers about the process itself? I’m talking about the real “It’s time to get to work” kind of things.
This is probably more along the lines of “getting your mind right.” I think it’s insanely easy to forget that we are storytellers, first and foremost. Many writers seem almost anxious to allow others into their creative space in order to define, qualify, adjust, categorize, limit and pass judgment on the work being done. If someone calls you a poet often enough, you become one. Then when a story you have to tell requires something larger, smaller, wider or narrower than a poem, you tend to abandon the story. Because you’re a poet, dammit.
What’s I’m trying to say is that the story matters much more than the way you choose to tell it. If I consider myself a storyteller--avoiding the labels “novelist,” “poet,” “essayist,” “playwright,” “journalist,” “flash fictionista” and such--no structure has the power to daunt me. I’m free to let the story tell me what it wants to be, what shape it needs--and if it asks for a structure I’m not yet familiar with, I see that as a delicious challenge rather than an insurmountable obstacle.
If you say you’re impassioned about writing, you should want to write in as many ways as possible. Constantly blur the lines between the genres. Just because your boundaries have been established (usually by others) doesn’t mean you have to live within them.
Q. When did you begin writing? And also, when did you realize you could actually be a writer?
I hate to say “I started when I was six,” because that sounds like the opening scenes of an afterschool special, but--I started when I was six.
My father, who came to Chicago from Arkansas during the Great Migration, brought with him something I call “the tradition of the back porch.” At the end of every day, he’d take root in the kitchen and start spinning tales--about his work at the candy factory, about the comings and goings in the neighborhood, stories filled with endless colorful comparisons between “down South” and “up here.” Because of him, I learned to look at the world in terms of the stories it could tell. A master of characterization and dialogue, he made me look at people I thought I knew in entirely different ways. From the minute he opened his mouth, I was mesmerized. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to hold sway over someone like that. And like him, I wanted to use words to do it.
So when I was six, I decided to be a writer of stories. I made my father buy me dozens of spiral notebooks, and I wrote and drew a combination of tales, utilizing the words I knew and the ones I could (hilariously) sound out and misuse. I crammed those notebooks through most of my elementary school years. Thanks to my dad sitting down with me and reading them religiously, I didn’t think there was any reason I wasn’t a writer. Even, in my middle school years, when I finally announced my intention to my mother and she said--in no uncertain terms--”Only white men do that.”
When did I actually KNOW know?
Getting introduced to poetry by getting on stage and doing it was both good and bad. For some time, it caused me to concentrate on the performance instead of the writing at the heart of it. There was a virtual chasm between the “performers” (who supposedly focused on a live audience) and the “academics” (who focused, supposedly, on readers). And there I was, right in the middle. In fact, I was so enamored of “poems in the air” that I began to think I didn’t need structure, that I could live my entire creative life from a stage. This mindset was the result of academia dismissing what we did as no more than theater, with no basis in actual written craft—remember, if you hear it enough, you begin to believe it.
At one point, I found myself (a performer) doing a reading with Reginald Gibbons (an academic), who was then editor of TriQuarterly, a prestigious literary journal. If he spoke to me at all, I fully expected to be dismissed as a poetic imposter. Instead, he asked to see a copy of a poem I’d just read.
I panicked. Since I was so focused on SAYING the poem, it was often written in one big meandering block, with no attention paid to structure or line breaks. I expected him to laugh out loud when I handed it to him.
But he didn’t. Instead, he asked me to write my contact information on the sheet and said “I’d love to publish this.”
AT THAT MOMENT, I knew I was a writer, and that committed writing continually crosses lines and perceptions.
(Interesting note: When I was up for the National Book Award, Reginald Gibbons was also one of the finalists. WHOA.)
Q. Here’s another one you must hear often. Some writers say they feel as if they’re “transcribing” from some inner or…outer…voice. They almost never outline or otherwise “plan” what they write. (BUSTED!) Others find or receive an idea, and they sit down and decide exactly how to express that idea by creating a little “blueprint” for that first draft. Are you more of a drafter or an outliner—or a combo plate? Or is it, as it is for me, “situational?”
Yuck. Blueprint? Really?
Nothing against those perky planners, but if I blueprint, or diagram or storyboard or pre-nitpick, I’m deciding the direction of my story in advance. That doesn’t give the story much opportunity to veer off down avenues that may be more intriguing and better for its overall health. Sure, sometimes the lack of planning leads to mass chaos, but it’s always--in the end--glorious mass chaos. It gives my work permission to surprise me. I’ll never forget the moment my crime fiction writer hubby called me into his office one day. With a stunned look on his face, he said “Mulligan just picked up a gun.”
Mulligan, his protagonist, had never picked up a gun before. He had no reason to pick up a gun. But, much to the author’s surprise, he suddenly had one in his hand. The next step was to figure out why he had picked it up, and what in the hell he was going to do with it.
Now, that’s fun!
Q. Along the same lines…where do your poems/stories come from?
Every damned where. Honestly. Snippets of conversation, news clippings, the past, the present, “My Strange Obsession,” the future, buried hurt, Honey Boo Boo, unleashed joy, etc., etc., etc. The trick is to know that everything, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, contains a story. As soon as I open my eyes every morning, I have to narrow them against the onslaught of ideas hurtling in my direction. I’m sometimes hampered by an incredible sadness, knowing I’ll never be able to write everything that inspires me.
But it takes a while to train yourself to see those stories everywhere. We dismiss so much. And in much of what we dismiss, the best stories lie dormant.
Q. You live in a passionate world of poets and people who love poetry. But poetry remains, for many, a very mysterious genre. Invite us into your world—why should we listen? How should we listen? Where do we begin to listen?
There are plenty of people who love poetry--in fact, many who guide their very lives by it--just not many of them live here in the good ol’ U S of A. In many other countries, the poets are considered the truth tellers, the way to get the news you can’t get by watching the news. What is that William Carlos Williams quote? “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Well, whoopdee-do.
Once in Germany, I was in the Berlin train station when a group of poets returned from a long sojourn through the German countryside. They had their own train, stopping in all these little towns and villages. Bands would be playing, people cheering, flags flying, and they’d get off the train and do poetry. Then they’d head for the next town. Great idea--bringing poetry to the masses.
At the end of this trip, there were so many people jamming Berlin’s MAIN train station, waiting for the return of the poets, that it had to be shut down. People were weeping, waving flags with the poets’ pictures on them. When the train finally arrived and the doors opened, the poets had to be passed over the heads of the crowd. The consensus was “My God, the heroes have returned!” I couldn’t believe my friggin eyes.
Here in the States, poetry is seen as creative adoration or a step toward tenure. It’s frivolous and musical, and couldn’t possible contain any real truth or direction. That’s how we’ve learned to listen to it, and I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The way to realize poetry’s power is to listen to as much poetry as possible until it begins to speak to you in a very necessary way. It’s not a recreational activity for me--it’s the way I move from day to day, the way I process the world. It has that power. But to realize that, you have to clear your mind of that notion that it’s forever be relegated to the dusty bookshelf. The more you listen to poetry--and with the wide range of spoken word available online, there’s no reason not to--the more likely it is that you’ll find the poet or poem that speaks directly to you.
Where do we begin to listen? Lay down your conscious self. Live through the senses for an hour or so. Listen very carefully to a child. Lie on your back in the grass and let the world flood your body. Everyone has a moment in their life when they realized how powerful language was, that it has the power to persuade, to reverse, to urge memory, to unearth. Poetry gives language that power back and then gives it back to us.
Q. Another writer, Tucson local legend Tom Miller, answered the eternal “How do I find an agent/publisher/audience” question by saying, simply, “You don’t. Let them find you.” Do you agree with that? Or are there ways to help that process along?
I’m with Tom, purely through personal experience. I’m sure there’s a “10 Best Ways to Find An Agent/Publisher/Audience” list out there somewhere, and that’s it’s probably worked just fine for hundreds of people. But I found an audience because I stumbled into one, and just happened to be ready to listen. I found a publisher sitting in the audience. I found an agent because someone in an audience suggested one, and that particular agent just happened to be ready to expand her stable--she had all the Pulitzer winners and poet laureates she could handle, now she just needed--well, a me.
I’m not necessarily fond of this question, but I think I made it sound easy--just get out there!--but I think it goes back to the idea that I don’t blueprint. For me, it’s a matter of getting my energy into the right rooms.
Q. I see your name everywhere—appearances, readings…I’m not even sure what all. And you have a family and other responsibilities—how do you find time to write?
I never feel like I have enough time. People are amazed at what a perky traveler I am. Nothing bothers me--delays, cancellations, unexpected hotel stays, long flights--because I’ve become an expert at writing during travel. I treasure the time. Not to mention downtime in queues, waiting for an oil change, sitting in my car waiting for the kid to finish a doctor’s appointment.
And I’ve fiddled with my teaching sked so that I only teach one day a week. It’s a helluva day--fulltime, 10 am to 10 pm--but it frees up the rest of the week for travel and such. And when I’m at home, it helps that my husband is also a writer. He speaks the language. He recognizes the need. I don’t have to explain to him that I’m about to be locked in a room for four or five hours, and not to be alarmed by expletives or the crash or thrown computer equipment. He knows when to deliver backrubs and tumblers of scotch.
AND, from the moment she was wee, Mikaila (granddaughter) has been around writers, so she knows from the drill. When she was little, she was always in the writing room with me. I’d say “I’m going to put a woman in this poem, but I don’t know how she should look. Would you draw her for me?” The key was to make her feel a part of the process. Now that she’s 18 and driving I never see her anyway. Just yesterday, hubby and I were talking about how weird and wonderful it will be to have the place all to ourselves. The problem will be NOT to stay immersed in our separate creative words in lieu of real human interaction.
Q. What “feeds” your muse? That’s almost like that “where do the poems come from” question, but I’m actually asking about things that feed your soul so that it continues to offer up all that good stuff.
Motown music. Working on wacky kids’ stories that play relentlessly with language (sounds like work, but it’s so far from what I usually do, it feels like nurturing play). Sitting in the floor with Brady and Rondo, my two humungous dogs. Reading crime fiction. Cleaning (really), with ‘60s soul music blaring.
Q. What achievements are dearest to you? You know—the milestone moments that made that little girl from the West side of Chicago who is still there inside you grin from ear to ear and whisper, “See? I TOLD you you could do it!”
In terms of writing, three things stand out: 1) Early in my career, reading in Osaka, Japan in an arena filled with roughly 20,000 people. I was in tears the whole time, thinking of how much my father had believed in me, and realizing that he’d never left the country. 2) Bowing my head during a solemn ceremony so I could receive my National Book Award finalist medal. So far from any world I ever imagined myself in. 3) Just recently, winning an award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best debut story in the genre. What I said earlier, about not being daunted by the challenges of any genre, of considering myself a storyteller above all? Bingo!
Best thing ever, though, was raising Mikaila, my son’s daughter. While I was fighting for my creative, and actual, life during the meltdown at the Globe, I was also engaged in a court battle for her custody. I fought for her while I wallowed in the throes of depression, when my future wasn’t clear, where I questioned the very thing I was born to do. Next month, she graduates from high school. That’s my biggest accomplishment by far.
Q. Leave us with a line or two that you wrote for yourself, perhaps in a moment of doubt or a moment of triumph—something we can tack up on the wall near our computers or on the door of the fridge or on our bathroom mirrors. You can also leave us with someone else’s lines, or both. And by all means, if there’s something you’d like to say that I didn’t ask about…go for it!
Someone else’s: “The form that's burned onto my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a goddamn nightmare, and won't stay still unless I feed it. And it lives on words. Not beautiful words. God almighty no.”--Jean Toomer, Cane