Creative writing's (new?) political imperatives
w/ Sara Nović, Chen Chen, Jacob Victorine, MariNaomi, Gabriel Bailey, Irène Mathieu, Hannah Lee Jones, Lynn Vande Stouwe, Olivia Kate Cerrone, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Marléne Zadig, Joy Lanzendorfer
Michael Silverblatt: In America... during the Civil War, an abolitionist could appear in public and debate with a slaveholder. Now we've come to the point where we no longer believe that we can convince one another of anything. And it's made public discussion much more limited... opposition is seen as confrontation, confrontation as aggression, aggression as a will to suppress. Is that similar to Israel now?
Etgar Keret: It's very similar in Israel, and I must say that, if I have any pride, it's in the fact that I'm able to engage in dialogue with all the groups in Israeli society. I get fanmail from settlers, from ultra-orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs... Just a few months ago, a guy who was apparently a settler—he had a yarmulke and a big gun, which was a clear sign that he was a settler—he ran after me in the street, and I was very scared, you know, I'm known as a liberal Leftist. He ran to me and said, "Are you Etgar Keret?" And I said to him, "Yes." And he said, "I wanna shake your hand." And I shook his hand. And he said to me, "I've read everything you've written, and I don't agree with a word you're saying." So I said to him, "So why did you run all this way to shake my hand?" And he said, "Because I feel you respect me." And I think maybe it's all about that. ... there is something that goes beyond ideology. [–KCRW's Bookworm, 2012]
Q: What role do you feel fiction writers, poets, essayists, in general (or yourself in particular), are called to play in terms of affecting the political weather, this moment? Does writing seem politically pointless? Or do you feel called to action? If the latter, is there an urge to write in service of amplifying a particular voice or agenda? Or to try and diagnose the confusion overall—respecting even the "villains"? Read full
w/ Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Janet Burroway, A.L. Brady, Allegra Hyde, Robert Wilder, Annalise Mabe, Mary Tabor
Peter Brooks' theory of "anticipation of retrospection" says the force that drives a reader through a narrative work—the thing that keeps us turning pages—is that the end of the narrative work already exists—the future is fixed—so we (readers) look forward to looking backward. While reading page 20 of a novel, we know that when we get to page 368 page 368 will throw meaningful light back onto page 20, so we continue. While reading line 2 of a poem, we know line 16 will further illuminate line 2. Or as Brooks puts it: “... everything is transformed by the structuring presence of the end to come.”
Q: If this rings true, does this outlook rub off on readers to the extent that they're more inclined than average to apply it to areas of life outside of reading? To the cultural/political moment, for example? Or even to the way a reader might think about moving through her own lifetime? Read full
w/ Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Melissa Yancy, Kelli Russell Agodon, Gwen Goodkin, Red Harvey, Matt Weber, VoleQueen, Christy Baker Knight
It’s the feeling that I’m at the absolute center of things, instead of off to one side—the feeling that the entire universe is streaming in on me. It’s a feeling of strength, of terrifying health, of much-more-aliveness. ... for me, childhood is above all a metaphor for a way of perceiving the world. –Steven Millhauser
Writers and artists can feel a lot of pressure to have their work taken seriously by harsh people with advanced degrees.
Q: Do you ever find letting childlike simplicity into your work freeing? Is it ever something you aim for? What are some of the obstacles to, or anxieties around, allowing that kind of transparentness into the execution of a piece, or just into the way you allow yourself to perceive, in general? Read full
w/ Chen Chen, Christine Gosnay, Matt Weber, Nessi Gomes, Ruth Awad, Lesley Wheeler, Grace Gonzalez, Lisa Summe, Maria Milewska (a guest-question by Hannah Lee Jones of Primal School)
Q: If you're a songwriter and someone refers to your lyrics as "poetry," do you take that as a compliment, as if somehow you've lyrically "transcended"? Or would you prefer that your songs be heard (or lyrics read) on their own terms—apart from traditional poetry as a basis for comparison?
Q: If you're a poet: Is there a difference in intellectual seriousness between song lyrics and what the literary world would regard as "poetry," or is this just popular perception, a matter of semantics? Read full
w/ Justin Phillip Reed, Terese Marie Mailhot, Tara Skurtu, Robert Wilder, PJ Sauerteig, Joy Lanzendorfer, Jiadai Lin, Justin Nobel, Lexi Pandell, David Hopkins, Oliver de la Paz, Rebecca Sky
Q (if you're single): Call to mind the most attractive & un-writerly person you know. Now imagine beginning a romance with that person. What artistic-temperament-related warnings would you need to dish out, upfront? Do you think that person would be capable of adjusting? And if you had to lightheartedly prognosticate, how would this all play out, long-term?
Q (if you're coupled): How does your partner handle those periods when you need to be in your head, be alone to talk to yourself, to lament the latest publisher's rejection, or otherwise tend to your creative life—how does your partner make room? Read full
w/ Vincent Scarpa, Michele Filgate, Kelly Luce, Angela Palm, Marcelle Heath, Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, Leslie Pietrzyk, Nathan Willis, Claire Fullerton, Rachel Cohen
When asked, in an interview, what it takes to be a writer, Zadie Smith replied, "The serious part of it is having a great capacity to be alone. That really is the key. I have lots of students and friends who want to write, who are very talented, but... the question is whether you want to spend all day alone, and most people don't... understandably." And elsewhere echoed, "It's kind of an extreme life, right? This incredible loneliness and then a performance of your isolation."
Q: If it's a fair assumption that the impulse to write (often) grows out of a youth spent medicating loneliness with reading, how much of writing as an adult amounts to medicating loneliness by performing? Do you see your writing as being performance? If so, is it more "Here's what I've seen," or "I'm here! See me?" And is this healthy? Read full
w/ Janet Gershen-Siegel, Hadeel Salameh, Gabriel Bailey
This Olympics the media decided that Muslim athlete in hijab + American flag + bronze medal = a story.
Not everyone was receptive.
The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) declared last year that one of its principle aims is to "eliminate the grayzone" in Western countries—to, by way of increasingly horrific attacks on civilians, create anti-Muslim hatred in North America and Europe that will force a separation between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Trump's (and his followers') stances seem congenial, leaving the rest of us feeling like the meat between slices of xenophobia.
When so many of your countrymen/women are playing right into the terrorists' ideological hands, it makes you wonder if the two sides (radical Islam & radical anti-Islam) are actually enemies. In spirit.
Q: How should those of us in the "grayzone" be carrying ourselves in action and conversation in order to push against all this? If your answer happens to be love, what forms might that love take? Read full
w/ Keith S. Wilson, Melody J. Nixon, Sarah V. Schweig, Chanelle Adams, April Dávila, Gabriel Bailey, Molia Dumbleton, Scott F. Parker, Hannah Lee Jones, Steven J Pemberton, Melissa R. Sipin
Make AI that can beat any human in chess? Done. Make one that can read a paragraph from a six-year-old’s picture book and not just recognize the words but understand the meaning of them? Google is currently spending billions of dollars trying to do it. –Pawel Sysiak, "AI Revolution 101"
Q: If a super-intelligence, unemotional, unbiased, and pretty much omniscient, could read a novel, story, or poem and "know what it means," bring to bear on that meaning every bit of art and information ever recorded, and spit out an evaluation, how would this affect us as readers? And how does the thought of this make you feel? Read full
w/ Marcelle Heath, Susan Rukeyser, Red Harvey, Paul Vega, Amanda Churchill, Philippa Rees, Sarah Fallon
I suppose, as a poet, among my fears can be counted the deep-seated uneasiness surrounding the possibility that one day it will be revealed that I consecrated my life to an imbecility. Part of what I mean—what I think I mean—by "imbecility" is something intrinsically unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel. [...]
Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But like Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway. What love is ever any different? –Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey
Love might be one reason people stick with ridiculous relationships and things. Another might be force of habit. Another: clinging to identity. Others might be denial or amnesia or worse.
Q: When you keep a relationship you know to be ridiculous or hard to defend, whether with a lover, a project, a business, a pastime, a group or ideology, or anything else, how do you know you're doing so for good reasons like love, and not bad one's like avoidance? Or do you know? Maybe the question should be put in the past tense. Take us there if you want. Read full
w/ Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, Laura Lampton Scott, Penni Jones, Gabriel Bailey, Gwen Goodkin, Monica Prince, Matt Weber, Roshelle Diall, Shermeeka Mason, Nat Rowlin, Rita Robinson, Mary Tabor, Elizabeth Barone
From a concerned reader (July, 2016):
I live in the whitest state in the nation.
Being willing to listen and really hear about life experience very different from one's own is a huge challenge, especially as you can't just say to someone, "I don't get your life. Tell me about it." Why would they? Nobody owes me an hour or more of their time to get the privileged white chick to understand!
I want to do something. Just not sure what.
Seems like the best thing is to treat people as individuals, not as representatives of their ethnicity or their economic status or where they live or where they come from—Just be individuals.
And, you know, there seems so be an assumption sometimes that simply being Caucasian means privilege. There is privilege in it; but more and more it is economic status that is the real privilege, no matter what shade one's skin is.
But that's really what I want to ask if I could strip away the political correctness bullshit. Cuz I DON'T KNOW! ... Perhaps I just need a good reading list, but I'm afraid the people I want/need to hear aren't published anywhere.
I think the heart of my question is how do you acknowledge the need/desire to ask someone about their experience (specifically regarding race in America) without turning it into an "other" situation? On one hand, I want to relate to a person as a person, not some representative of an ethnic group or minority. On the other, I'm asked to be mindful that the person has had experiences that I haven't BECAUSE they are of that ethnic or minority group.
[Q:] How does one approach that duality mindfully? Read full
w/ Leesa Cross-Smith, Tamara Miles, Hannah Lewis Cohen, Kathy Anderson, Gabriel Bailey, Pamela Jeffs, Matthew Cook
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly. –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
So two ways of looking at a dream here:
–Either it happens for you or it doesn't. If it does, great; if not, resign yourself and go drive a bus. Or...
–Live your truth by turning the resolution way up on those thoughts/ memories/beliefs you find favorable, and way down on those you don't.
Q: Pretty much everyone embodies some blend of both when it comes to the relationship between immediate life and distant aspirations, but which do you lean toward most? Which leaning do you consider to be wiser, more mature? How have you learned to negotiate the distance between everyday life and dreams? Read full
w/ Erin Pringle-Toungate, Danielle Kocher, Alex McGilvery, Claire Fullerton, Caroline M. Hardaker, Mary Tabor, Laila Blake, Sara Laksimi
The Tibetans don't encourage meditating right away, actually. They insist that you know something. They say Listen, if you go meditate right away as an ignorant person, you will deepen your ignorance [...] a kind of quietism that a lot of [...] people get into where—they find the world jangly and bothersome, and then they withdraw into a place where they don't have to think about it. It's like a wonderful kind of Prozac. [...] there's no compassion in it. It's a kind of narcissistic thing, actually. Great danger in meditation. [...] Your writing is a kind of meditation. –Dr. Robert Thurman, first American ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk
In the West, meditation tends to be thought of as an act of personal wellness, and some of us might view writing the same way.
Q: If you meditate and/or write to keep yourself well and sane, how can compassion for someone else play a role in that? Does it need to? Read full
w/ Jodi Paloni, Meg LaTorre-Snyder, Gabriel Bailey, Caroline Magerl, Dana Stringer, Sonia Saikaley, Matthew Cook
The distinction for writers is that their solitary trade and calling is at odds with the human need to gather in tribes. [...] During the decade of misery that I spent writing short stories, the anxiety of writing for others often struck me. [...] I needed my agent to like the novel, and I yearned for an editor to buy it. Then I wanted the reviewers, and the librarians, and the teachers, and the bloggers, and the scholars. [...] This dream is vanity, lust and frailty. This dream is also the belief that whatever a writer discovers in her depthless cave is something she can share with others [...] The dream of an audience is, in short, part of what makes us human in weakness and in strength... –Viet Thanh Nguyen, "A Writer's Solitude vs. AWP"
Writers typically need solitude/quiétude in order to perform to their fullest potential, yet most writers today feel pressure to maintain blogs, social media, and email religiously—pretty much cluster-bombing the quiet space in their heads.
Q: If you were to unplug, and fully shutdown all campaigning between writing sessions, until final drafts were final, and only then, how much different (or better) do you think your work would be, and how much more often would that different/better work come about? Do you ever unplug for the sake of your work? If not, what holds you back? Is it fear of obscurity or just plain obedience to habit, at this point? Please explain. Read full
w/ Rae Meadows, Richard Thomas, Melinda Clayton, Owain Glyn, Gabriel Bailey, Claire Fullerton, Mary Tabor, Milton Marmalade
Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show: is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wishes... Life would be wonderful. [...] What usually happens? The show doesn't come off very well. He begins to think life doesn't treat him right. He decides to exert himself some more... Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying. What is his basic trouble?... Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well? Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? –from "How It Works" by Anonymous
Q: How often are you able to create a desired result for yourself by sheer force of will, or by arranging circumstances? Do you ever feel as though the reason you aren't far enough along is that you haven't pushed yourself hard enough, even though you've worked very hard? In your writing life or otherwise: is control all it's cracked up to be? Read full
w/ Jen Sookfong Lee, Saadia Faruqi, Michelle J. Fernandez, VoleQueen, Jennifer Shun, Elizabeth Barone, Danielle Levsky, Gabriel Bailey, P.J. Roscoe, Lyndsey Ellis
Q: Describe a single reading experience that made a lasting impression on you. Were you five years old? Twenty-five? What was going on in your life at the time? What did that reading, change for, or give to you? Read full
w/ Amanda Johnston, Jo Baker, Joey W. Hill, Caitlin Corrigan, Dana L. Stringer, VoleQueen, Rupert Dreyfus, Rae Meadows, Claire Fullerton, Nathan Willis, Andrea McKenzie Raine, Mary Tabor, Amanda Linehan, Elizabeth Burns, Matthew Cook
Q: Do you consider your writing process spiritual practice? If yes, what makes it so? If not, why not? What, in your mind, either qualifies or disqualifies it? Please feel free to either share concrete personal views on this, or approach it as a concept apart from you. Or both. Read full
w/ Lauren Ruiz, Dana Stringer, Christy Baker Knight, Gabriel Bailey, Matthew Cook, Janet Gershen-Siegel, Jennifer Woodworth
One experience pretty common to many so-called upwardly mobile people in the early stages of their careers is that of being, in fact, something rather like a courtier. You attach yourself to people more powerful than you in your field or business, you assist them in often menial, sometimes substantive ways, and your own career and livelihood come to depend, to an extent, on your ability to buoy their egos and provide them with sympathetic and attentive company into which they can retreat from the “combat” of their high-powered jobs.
This is ubiquitous, as far I can tell, and I’m not knocking it. It makes reasonable sense. The evolution of today’s “courtier,” however, seems to me to parallel the rise of therapeutic culture [...] personal trainers and paid companions, stylists and hygienists, formalized mentor-mentee pairings and widespread calming practices (yoga, meditation, jogging—that exquisite torture), which are surely responses to the psychological degradation of ambitious urban work lives. [...] but therapy of any sort strikes me as the mediation of a schism between private, interior life and public, social life—how we want to feel and how the world makes us feel. Treating the symptoms always runs the risk of letting the deeper causes to go unaddressed. -Greg Jackson
Q: How often do you find yourself acting as counsel, coach or confidant (formally or informally) to people in a position to further your career in some way? How do you manage strategically "leveling-up" while remaining sincere in your human relationships?
Or, alternatively, what do you think of the recent proliferation of independent writing coaches, professional muses, and the like? Small entrepreneurial operations aimed at making money off of aspiring writers – do these businesses seem vital and healthy for the creative writing community? Or are they a symptom of something else? Read full
w/ Jiadai Lin, Richard Thomas, Dan Shorer, Gabriel Bailey, Matthew Cook, Ves Ryle, Erik Christianson, P.J. Roscoe, Aimeé Irizarry
The problem with empathy is that it tends to move us to help people who are like us. People who attract our empathy tend to be people who resemble us in matters of gender, matters of class and color and nationality, and we're not that good at imagining the situations of people very different from us. –Larissa MacFarquhar
We may also not be very good at imagining the situations of people we don't like. Do you think this goes for fictional characters as well? We've probably all seen Amazon reviews where the reviewer 1-starred a book solely because he or she was "put off" by the central character. A near-violent negative reaction to a character means, for that reader, the book was bad.
Q: Is it OK to conflate personal preference and qualitative judgement? Is it true that, as Tao Lin put it, "There's no good or bad in art, there's just preferences."? Have you ever met a good book you didn't like? What about a person, for that matter? Do the same rules apply? Read full
w/ Jannine Saunders, Rosina Lippi, Saadia Faruqi, Mary Tabor, Michelle J. Fernandez, Rachel Cohen, Hayley Kiwibird, Claire Fullerton
You may have already seen last year's study by Lee & Low Books aimed at determining what "diversity" within North America's publishing industry is actually like. If it's to be believed, the study tells us that publishing staff are overwhelmingly straight, white, able-bodied women. Common wisdom says people don't go into publishing or writing to make boatloads of money. Same wisdom says that empathy, sympathy, and identification happen more readily when the publisher/author/character/reader are all ostensibly similar people.
Q: Why is the make-up of publishing what it is? Where is everybody else? What does it tell us about North America—culturally, socioeconomically? Should the book world simply be considered a (white) woman's domain, sort of indefinitely? Read full
w/ Tiffany Midge, Cynthia Varady, Richard Thomas, Angela Stevens, Rachel Cohen, Matthew Cook, Rupert Dreyfus, Maia Nikitina
There is a kind of guy-writing that lends itself to scholarly treatment—that, in a kind of guys-jostling-each-other-to-get-to-the-front-of-the-pack, has a certain obvious ambition to it that fosters an imbalance in what gets talked about as canonical. –Jonathan Franzen
Q: When the author's name is Jessie, can you usually tell if it is a guy or a woman, just by reading the words? If so, what differentiates "male writing" from female? Is it "obvious ambition," as Franzen suggests? Something else you normally notice? What's behind these perceived differences? And if you're opposed to the whole idea of this, say why. Read full
w/ Y.S. Lee, Karen Munro, Roz Morris, Jannine Saunders, Kristen McLean, Keith Thompson, Christy Baker Knight, Patricia Bjorklund, Alex McGilvery, Victoria Griffin, Lauren Alwan, Matthew Cook, Gavin Wilson, Leigh Camacho Rourks, Janet R. Gershen-Siegel , Katja Vartiainen, Jiadai Lin
An environmental writer, Derrick Jensen, says salmon don’t need more books written about them. They need clean, fast water and the dams to be busted up. [...] real avant garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves. [...] Cultural diversity can never replace biodiversity, though we’re being prompted to think it can. We live and spawn and want—always there is this ghastly wanting—and we have done irredeemable harm to so much. Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves. –Joy Williams
Q: For those of us living in the "First World", where we feel the effects of environmental destruction less immediately and severely, while at the same time being the world's heaviest contributors to it—if we're going to be writing, should the writing be reflecting this ambient urgency in some way? If so, how? If not, are there decent ways to defend playing make-believe during a crisis? Read full
w/ Terese Marie Mailhot, Jenna Moreci, Natalie Anderson, Jiadai Lin, Makeda Easter, Matthew Cook, Jessica Wise, Dorothy Rice, Cynthia Dagnal-Myron, Claire Fullerton, Rupert Dreyfus, Melinda Clayton, Cynthia Varady, Alex McGilvery, Kim Bailey Deal
Follower counts, blog traffic, Amazon rankings: vanity metrics. Numbers that have cosmetic value, but aren't necessarily meaningful in and of themselves. Q: Have you ever found yourself chasing these numbers just to run up the score? To the detriment of your writing/thinking time maybe? Or, with so many other writers out there doing numbers, does comparing yourself with peers who appear to be "winning" ever become a problem? How do you think about, and deal with, vanity and comparison? Read full
w/ Karen Munro, Elicia Hyder, Natalie Grigson, Matt Weber, Mary Tabor, Red Harvey
In the phrase "I Like Ike," the power shifted. It shifted from General Eisenhower to someone called Ike. [...] From "Ike," you could see certain aspects of General Eisenhower. From "like," all you could see was other Americans engaged in a process resembling the process of intimacy. [...] The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear. In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit. -George W. S. Trow, "Within the Context of No Context"
Q: Who doesn't want to make a hit? Be a hit? It seems in order to accomplish this, things must be reduced. The novel reduced to a shareable ad, let's say. The writer reduced to a public persona. This seems to be a reliable way to "shimmer." But how does the need to reduce-and-shimmer influence the writer and the making of the work? Read full
w/ Danielle McLaughlin, Blake Jamieson, Elizabeth Barone, Lara Blunte, Ann Graham, Tom Lichtenberg, Aimeé Irizarry, Melinda Clayton, R.L. Black, S. Jane Gari
Eskimos do not maintain this intimacy with nature without paying a certain price. When I have thought about the ways in which they differ from people in my own culture, I have realized that they are more afraid than we are. On a day to day basis, they have more fear. Not of being dumped into cold water from an umiak, not a debilitating fear. They are afraid because they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful. A central Eskimo shaman [...] answered, "We do not believe. We fear." -Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams
Q: Given that fiction writing isn't a typical activity for those whose day to day lives are prone to sudden cataclysmic events, and that writing usually requires, if not comfort, at least a degree of safety, the question is Do fiction writers fear enough? Are they too insulated? Would you be willing to share the kinds of fears that inform or influence your work? Read full
w/ Christine Sneed, Johnny B. Truant, Pamela Rothbard, Libbet Bradstreet, Rupert Dreyfus, Kerri Lee Schlottman, Claire Fullerton, Maia Nikitina, R. McNeary, Paula Roscoe
As a writer, how do you integrate your internal idea of success with the external consensus, and operate accordingly? Read full