Book Review: Sirs & Madams, by Joanna C. Valente

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“Sirs & Madams,” by Joanna C. Valente
Aldrich Press, 2014
75 pages
ISBN 9780692278338

Joanna C. Valente’s full-length collection of poetry, Sirs & Madams, debuts with Aldrich Press. The book is a collection of character-centric narrative poems in four seasonal sections. The book reads like a non-homogenized Greek chorus version of “The Virgin Suicides,” and although set in a contemporary time, the poems seem to vibrate with some sort of 70’s afterglow. Even the cover of the book looks like it draws upon an updated version of Carolyn Forche’s A Country Between Us, but modern flotsam like OkCupid and Facebook flits into the poems with the same ease as does a reference to Sly and the Family Stone, vanilla wafers, or “Lady Sings the Blues.” Stylistically, it’s a character-driven narrative that explores generational soul-sickness.

A few dark motifs emerge right away: amputated feet washing ashore, empty spaces, ghosts and guts. The poems circle around three sisters and their eventual deaths, but it is the poems that occur in the autumn section that feel more fleshed out. The sisters never stop reading as ephemeral beings, or as if they exist solely for the boys who are woven into their lives. The poem “Paul & Marianne” explores Paul’s sexuality against Marianne’s desire for freedom:

Paul told her he wanted to be a dancer,
rent an apartment in the city with a dog & a man.

He was tired of fixing cars so his hands would become
rough. For years, all he wanted were hands that could build.

She already knew, said it was no big deal. They drove away,
passing strangers – wishing they had flowers instead of neighbors.

Marianne’s poems are always in motion, as if they can’t be contained on the page, and Valente captures the persona with noticeable consistency throughout each section. The death of the sisters is impending and made clear in the first poem, so there is a strange pull when reading, as if waiting for the sword to fall. The last poem in the winter section, “Driving to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring” reintroduces the narrator and Greek chorus-esque by breaking the fourth wall: “Reader, can you see the crush/of their minutes?” Valente suspends the drama by using this technique, and the sections contribute to the pacing.

The pervasive theme of emptiness is kept from becoming overwhelming by Valente’s deft metaphor; it is not just about “the innards” of bodies, but the bodies themselves in the spaces they occupy. Houses are abandoned, bellies are empty or wombs are full of “ceramic knives.” The feet washing ashore are grotesque apparitions of ceasing bodily function; and the juxtaposition of cold v. heat, letters v. dialogue, suicide v. natural death appear and reappear as placement markers in each section.

The ordering is complex—again like a Greek drama—and Valente makes good use of persona pieces with concrete images to create an arcing narrative. Even with multiple narrators, the poems are able to maintain and propel the story. In the book’s final poem, “Tell Them They’re Dead,” Valente writes: “There were three sisters dangerous/as swans, broken into a hundred versions of themselves depending/on which day of the week.” The book ends as if a reader can expect a sequel, as if the new version of “bad blood” will create a new magic. It’s cleverly done for a debut collection, and Valente is undoubtedly a poet to watch.

Review by Lauren Gordon

Patience After Kids

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I used to be patient. People used to describe me as calm, serene, peaceful. I used to be patient.

But now, I am the mother of two small boys. And I don’t know if it was my children or teaching other people’s children before I had my own, but something happened. And now, I have no more patience.

I’m sure—ultimately—that’s not true. I’m sure if I could step back for a second and observe myself objectively, I would find that for a SAHM of two young boys who squeezes in part-time work from home, I’m still relatively patient. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Instead, it feels like my patience is stretched every hour of every day. It feels like my patience is tested and pushed and yanked beyond its limits. And it is. I am a parent, and that is what kids do. They stretch and push and yank (and sometimes stomp on) so that they can learn and understand. So that they can make sense of the world and their place in it.

I know this. Logically, I know that kids try patience and parents try to regenerate it, like the tail of some placid tropical lizard. No matter how many times that patience tail is yanked off, it will always grow back.

But, oh. There are those days. Those days when the kids seem determined to break me, and I feel like they will. Those days when I no longer have the patience for the 7,000th “Mom” or the 400th brotherly squabble. Those days when I think, “If I trip on one more truck I’m going to lose it.”

And truth be told, sometimes I do. I am far from perfect and far from the serene person people used to describe. Sometimes, I lose it. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I yell. Sometimes—though I’m loath to admit it—I get so bloody drained of patience that I kick toys across the room or slam doors. Sometimes, I just run out of patience.

The anger generated in me these days is a different kind of anger. I’m so drained of patience and energy every day that most of the time I feel like there’s something smoldering somewhere in my body. Like the embers are always lit, glowering beneath the surface, waiting to be stoked. And they are inevitably stoked by something: The incessant whining or the nonstop arguing or the refusal to eat the dinner I took extra care to make.

At those moments, I have this ridiculous cartoon flash when I feel the barometer rising, like steam will come bursting out of my ears at any moment. Like my top will blow right off.

And I don’t like that feeling. It feels bad. It feels un-parent-like. It feels wrong.

But it comes over and over again. I used to have the ability to squash it, to breathe through it or allow logic to chase it away, but I seem to have lost that particular talent. Maybe one day I just used the last dregs of my once endless patience. Perhaps it disappeared under the couch, slowly, like so many Legos. But that endless, regenerating supply of tolerance seems to be gone. And I struggle to bring it back in the moment.

Now, when I feel like the steam has no where left to go, when the embers combust once more, I have to find a way to sneak away to replenish that tolerance. With two small children in the house, that usually means the bathroom. So I find my solace in the shower. It sounds ridiculous and cliché, but it helps. A new squashing, of sorts. It’s one of the few places I can be alone (if I lock the door) and it’s one of the few times I can think a continuous thought.

Something about the water cools those embers and keeps me from burning out. I can find logic in there; there’s perspective in that soggy reflection. And every time, no matter how angry and exhausted and infuriated and done I am, I can think through it in the steam and the warmth. I can douse that ire that threatens to burn out of control. I can wash all that toxicity down the drain with my shampoo. I can breathe again.

Because the truth is, patience does always come back. Some days it takes a while. Some weeks it’s a slow and painfully deliberate re-growth. Some months there’s much more smoldering than dousing. But it always returns.

And a new day begins.

I am not the patient, calm person I once was. I am a mother now. And motherhood seems to have ignited a whole new passion in me. One that may not always be steady and peaceful, but is nonetheless filled with endless love for my boys. Serene, I am no longer. But I do love these kids with a passion.

~ Shannon Brugh

* Photo credit: (Mt. Saint Helens eruption, Wikipedia).

We Are the Minefield

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* Photo: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 

 

Readers, this is just a quick post, but I want to share it, as I’m feeling like we need a little hope today. Why? Well, yesterday’s politics are still ringing far too loudly in my head (and, I’m guessing, in yours). I spent last night feeling defeated by my government, saddened. Today, though, as I sat down to get back to work on a piece of fiction I’m writing (a story that, as it happens, is about a group of invisible, angry girls), I thought again of Justice Ginsburg’s line about the minefield and remembered what yesterday’s fury had obscured for me: we are not disarmed as long as we keep telling our stories. Language can be used to uphold old ideas, yes, but also to explode them. I say this with the many women writers I know and admire in mind. These women are not only writing the texts that will define the next generation of American culture, but also mothering and mentoring the next generation of readers and thinkers and voters and law-makers.

And with that realization, I felt a bit better about our future again. Yesterday’s fury became today’s determination. Keep writing, I reminded myself. You are the mine.

 

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Big Picture: Being Some Body

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It’s a muggy Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a dental chair in my periodontist’s office having a heart attack.

The dental assistant is patting my arm, telling me I’m doing a good job and to just relax. My rib cage is housing a wild, flapping bird of a heart and my breath is choked. “Deep breaths,” he keeps saying. “It’s not a heart attack. It’s not even a panic attack. It’s just the epinephrine from the Novocain.”

My arms are jerking violently of their own volition and I’m crying now. Ugly cry-face in front of this sweet, Midwestern beau hunk kid who ten minutes prior was talking about a seventy thousand dollar motorboat he wants to buy. This is the sixth dental visit I’ve had in four months and they rush together in a blur: a root canal on top of an old root canal, teeth cleaning, two hour exams, referrals, and now this gum grafting surgery for bone loss. These visits have been interspersed with eight visits to a podiatrist who gives me cortisol blocks in my feet and fitted me for orthotics, another visit to my physician for a month-long recurring rash on my arms and legs, a follow-up with a dermatologist…

“The crying is normal,” he says. “It’s a scary feeling.” I want to tell him the crying isn’t about my involuntary muscle movements or my throbbing heartbeat. I want to tell him how tired I am of being inside my body, how this biologically induced panic attack feels like the pinnacle of my fear and exhaustion and aging. “Think of the big picture,” he says.

When the numbing agents kick in twenty minutes later and I no longer feel like Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction” with a needle sticking out of her chest, the dentist begins removing a section of gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. I feel no pain there, just a strange, insistent tugging and what sounds like ripping. I close my eyes behind the dark safe-wear glasses and feel the tense pull of muscles in my neck, my jaw. Even my legs are rigid with the pressure of holding myself so still. My throat aches to swallow the pool of blood that fills it, but I am past basic bodily functions at this point. I am a tight replica of a body without being.

The big picture? That at the rate I’m going, I’ll be walking around on toothpick bones with three teeth in my head and a gigantic bunion I’ve nicknaked “Paul.” I want to tell him it wasn’t always like this, but when I really start to think about it, I realize that might not be true. The moments I have felt alive or good in my body are rare, and that’s depressing when I let it be. Even my first marriage was the result of an impending and necessary surgery because I didn’t have the insurance I needed to cover the operation. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. That marriage saw me through a few surgeries and treatments–multiple laminectomies and diskectomies in my back and neck, a gastric bypass operation, thalassemia minor, a breast reduction, iron infusions, hospitalization. A glamorous check-list of ailments in my twenties that invited doctors to say things like “but you’re so young” or “you’ll recover so fast, you’re young.” One gynecologist said “usually I only see cysts like these in female truckers.” Another said, “You’ve got the cervix of a nine year old!”

There is little you can do about genetics, except wallow in it or rise above it. And here I am now, years later, in a different marriage with a different post-baby body, kicking around with my tiny cervix. This time around it’s bone loss and slipped disks and plantar fasciitis and allergies. How seemingly mundane. I sound old. I sound tired. Chronic pain is the kind of thing that only sufferers can really understand. How it changes the mapping of your brain, how you respond to stressful situations, how truly present you can be in a moment. And it’s nothing compared to the sliding scale of people who suffer to the point of immobility, or are not high functioning, or on pain killers. It’s more like piling the straw on the camel’s post-surgery back. She’s bowing from the pressure. Or is she drowning?

“Sorry about all the blood,” says the dental assistant, “I’m trying to suck it up as much as possible.”

I smile or grimace in response and start to remember an accident my daughter had a month or two ago. It was her bedtime and she got a case of the sillies. If you’ve ever parented a toddler, you know the sillies. You’ve missed the twilight call of the perfect bedtime window and your child gets the second wind. Daylight Savings Time exists solely to screw with parents of small children. So on the brink of new spring hours, my husband asked, “Do you think we should take her up to bed?” just as my daughter started to sprint toward the window seat like a colt.

“Probably,” I hedged, thinking about the walk up the stairs and my sad knees. “You know how clumsy she gets when she’s this tired.”

You can’t write foreshadowing this succinct or accurately. The second the words were out of my mouth, she tumbled head-first and hit her face against the edge of the wooden and tile window seat. Cue the deadly silent scream. I scooped her up, didn’t see any immediate red marks and started to say “I think she’s ok…” just as her mouth began to pool with blood.

Bloody mouths are remarkable things. You’ve never seen so much blood so fast, and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, could only feel my stomach dropping like I was barreling down a roller coaster. I ran to the bathroom and instinct took over as I wetted a washcloth and shoved it against where I thought there might be a cut in her mouth, over her top teeth. Easier said than done with a hysterical child. It’s hard to simultaneously soothe and doctor.

“What can I do?” my husband said, his face white.

“Call the nurse’s line,” I said quickly.

I don’t know how he found a nurse’s line to call in a matter of seconds, but he did. For twenty minutes the nurse walked us through what we were doing and had us look at the wound. I lifted my daughter’s cheek and removed the washcloth to see a three inch gash along her upper gums, as well broken skin on her lower lip where she must have bitten herself. The short version of this story is that eventually she stopped crying, eventually the bleeding stopped, eventually my husband held my hands while I cried, told me how amazing I was to keep my shit together under those circumstances–to do my crying later, when my daughter had been doped up with Tylenol and put to bed.

Is this what it’s like for those mothers who lift cars off of their children, fend off would-be attackers with incredible rage and adrenaline? It doesn’t feel good. It feels enormously frightening to know you might not be enough, that your body isn’t enough. But being conscious of pain and present with it has helped me become much more empathetic to suffering in others, so maybe there is a trade-off here.

I see my daughter learning the world through her body while learning how to be in her body, and in turn, she is teaching me. She loves to try on my shoes and attempt walking in them. When the oven is warm, she presses her face against it and says in a stern voice, “hot!” Water on the windows is a marvel – “rain!” Puddles make noise when feet are stomping. Blankets are great for hiding under. Teddy bears are for hugging. Mama’s swollen, post-surgery chin is perfect for head-butting.

Her body will undergo so many changes that sometimes I’m overwhelmed trying to imagine it all. It will be regarded as property. Laws will be made about it without her consent. It will be objectified, looked at, the subject of countless articles and conversations. And it will suffer pain. It already has. It already does. How to listen to your body, acknowledge the pain, and move on? I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be present in my body, to know when to push it and to know when not, but it still surprises me. And I find myself baffled by how to teach her to love her body when I can barely stand to be in mine sometimes, but maybe that isn’t the point.

I see our reflection in the sliding doors at the super market as I hold her hand while we walk. We hobble together in our way. Her steps are slow and loud, mine are just slow. But when we sit together in the overstuffed chair at home, her body nestles against mine like a puzzle piece. When we lie on the small bed together, we fit just right. That is the marvel–that my body had a hand in creating another body, so perfect and new and strong; that I would do ten more of these gum-grafts and wear ugly running shoes for the rest of my life if it gives me more time to just be here.

When the oral surgery is over, the dental assistant hands me a goody bag with a soft toothbrush and a three page post-surgery checklist. It’s a ten-week long recovery process full of follow-up appointments and special care. “Big picture,” he says again with a smile. “You’re going to be just fine.”

And I believe him.

 

–Lauren Gordon

 

* The image heading this blog post is from the gorgeous series “A Beautiful Body,” by photographer Jade Beall, which features the bodies of real mothers. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out immediately (here, at the Huffington Post site). It’s a stunning and sensitive look at the post-baby body. (KSL)

Interview with poet Joanna Penn Cooper

Joanna Penn Cooper

Joanna Penn Cooper

Here at Rattle & Pen we’re always looking for fantastic new work by women writers to promote, and so we were thrilled to find the poetry of Joanna Penn Cooper earlier this year. Cooper’s poems explore identity, culture, relationship, and motherhood through what feels to the reader like a slightly fractured, slightly dream-clouded lens. Entering her poems, the reader sees the world slant-wise. Details that might usually go unseen rise up to meet the reader’s eye, and to these Cooper knits her own interior observations and inquiries. These poems are all angle. They open not like boxes or windows, but like those origami paper fortune games we all played on the school bus as kids, each peak and flap capable of revealing multiple answers to the questions asked. As author Maureen Thorson writes, “Cooper describes a poetics of populated space, in poems that investigate and create at once.”

Here’s a sample of her work (first printed in the South Dakota Review):

On the Delicate and Non-Delicate Movements of Weather and Time

At 2 a.m. the humidifier sounds like crickets and then I know I should move to the country.

I let my large gray yoga ball sit on my reading chair, even though in times past that would have meant something ominous if I woke up wrong. But I know I’m undergoing a transformation because, when they do show up, the ghosts in this room keep me company now. One will hang around all matter of fact and affable, like a wise old dog, before leaving again, and then I’ll just go back to sleep.

My boyfriend tucks me in for the second time and tries to sneak away to do more work. “Goodnight,” I say, then hold up my arm and make a beak. Then I say, “Remember shadow animals on the wall?” He laughs and turns to go. He knows I’m always trying to start conversations about shadow animals when people are trying to say goodnight.

What do you expect? One lifetime is very short, but it’s hard to realize when it’s happening. Except sometimes it’s easy to realize. Sometimes you’re almost a year later in a room in Brooklyn waiting for a blizzard, when just a second ago you were almost a year earlier in a different room in Vermont sitting on a bed with a Vanity Fair, a pregnancy test, and an empty bag of M&Ms you don’t remember eating.

My friend tells me there’s a word for this made up by a theorist. She can’t remember the theorist’s name or the word. My friend is very intelligent, but we like to half-remember things when we talk. It’s just what we do.

Physics calls it “everything happens at once and all the edges touch.” I believe I read that somewhere or heard it on PBS and didn’t just see it in a movie.

I will be the theorist and I will call it effleurage, which actually means “a delicate stroking motion.” In my theory, it means that and it also means “the mind and body’s flagrant disregard for notions of the consistent forward movement of time.” A delicate and non-delicate motion.

Cooper’s first book, The Itinerate Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis was published earlier this year by Brooklyn Arts Press, and her second, What Is a Domicile came out this month through Noctuary Press. We’re happy to share an interview with Cooper here.

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R&P: Where do poems most often begin for you (if there is a “most often”)?

JPC: Often they begin when a thought, memory, or observation occurs to me in language that sounds odd or interesting in my head. I have a fondness for individual and regional colloquial rhythms of speech and thought, and sometimes I become enamored with turns of phrase that bubble up in my mind during the normal course of the day, starting a kind of chain reaction that makes me want to write it down or follow it. Other times, I’m reading someone else’s work, and the language or subject matter will cause an echo or response for me. Or I’ll be walking down the street and some connection among disparate images or ideas will occur to me. So: Thinking. Reading. Walking.

R&P: What was your manuscript-to-book process?

JPC: This book has been a long time in the making, and at the same time it happened very quickly! The story is that I had another book accepted by Brooklyn Arts Press, but the editor there only wanted the prose poems and not the lined poems. (That book , The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, we ended up calling “lyrical prose,” so What Is a Domicile is—or isn’t?—my first book of poetry.) Anyway, I took the lined poems out of the other book, intending to use them somewhere else. Then, a couple months after my son was born, I wrote a poem a day in April for National Poetry Month. It’s something I’ve done for five years now, as part of Maureen Thorson’s NaPoWriMo initiative. She had the poem-a-day idea years ago, and it’s really taken off. It’s a great way to get over writing humps and just write. I was surprised I could produce anything, but that year (2013), writing every day while the baby was still new and would just lie around and look at stuff ended up being a wonderful way to get my mind moving again, and I got several decent drafts out of it. I had met the editor of Noctuary Press, Kristina Darling, at Vermont Studio Center the previous year, and that spring, she wrote to ask me if I would be interested in submitting a manuscript. I spent some time figuring out how to arrange a manuscript from the older poems, a few poems I wrote when I was pregnant, and the post-baby ones. What emerged is a portrait of a specific time in my life— poems about the first few years of a relationship, about being in a very in-between position in my life in the city, and then about pregnancy and early motherhood. I’m pleased with how it came together and thrilled that Kristina accepted it for Noctuary.

R&P: What/Who are your literary influences? Whose work do you pick up when your own work is stuck?

JPC: Two big influences for me are my mother and her mother, for their habits of speech and originality of thought. In terms of other writers: James Schuyler, Lydia Davis, Brenda Coultas, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Robert Hass. Those are some that I’ve picked up lately to get me writing again. In an essay about Ingeborg Bachmann, Charles Simic writes of the idea of a “living voice,” and I gravitate toward writers who have some version of that—the sense of lived experience, a texture of thought and voice that reach across time and space to make human contact with you. I also enjoy how that living, human quality plays out in the works of many southern writers. Eudora Welty’s stories are a favorite. In the writers I’ve mentioned, I’m inspired by watching the ebb and flow of what I might think of as the stylized and the immediate, polished “craft” and more open, immediate speech-like rhythms (not that those aren’t crafted, too).

R&P: One never wants to presume that poetry is necessarily autobiographical, but is there any dovetailing between your life and your poems? And for Rattle & Pen, where the specific focus is writing and motherhood, can you discuss the ways in which your poetry affects or influences your mothering, and your motherhood affects or influences your writing? Are there conjunctions there (or disjunctions)?

JPC: There is much dovetailing of my life and my poems. I weave together bits of lived experience and imagined details in many of my poems, and I enjoy the way that poetry (for me) allows for reflection on one’s movement through the world and its interpenetration with memory, imagination, and streams of thought. In my experience, being a poet encourages me to pay attention to the world around me and to reflect on connections, threads, disjunctions. At the same time, I’ve found that if I try to stuff too much autobiographical narrative into my poems, they often flounder, so I’ve developed my own methods of coming at stories or life details through indirection and intimation. What’s the Dickinson line? “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I love that poetry can do that. There’s also an absurd quality that has snuck into some of my work more and more over the last several years, in part through the influence of my mentor Paula McLain, who encouraged me to embrace my “fine strangeness,” and in part due to my own frustration with how some of my more straightforward narrative and lyric poems were falling flat. The “fine strangeness” has always been there for me as a family and literary inheritance, and after a while as an artist you have to learn to embrace your weirdness. In terms of motherhood, it’s been interesting to watch my own search for form as I was pregnant and being a stay-at-home mother these past couple years. My son is still very young, so I’m sure the cross-influences will continue to evolve, but so far I’ve noticed that motherhood has caused me to further embrace an essayistic “hybrid” form that I started experimenting with before I was pregnant. I’ve become very interested in a searching, fragmentary form that weaves together bits of prose. I’ve always been a flouter of genre lines, and even more so now. I’m interested to see where that goes.

R&P: Where can readers find out more about your book, your past/forthcoming work, and your readings?

JPC: joannapenncooper.blogspot.com

Writing in the Dark: Week Three of the Writing Process Blog Tour

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Welcome to week 3 of the Writing Process Blog Tour! 

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Virginia Robinson

Why do you write what you do?

Whether it’s in an essay or a poem, I get a lot of satisfaction out of making people laugh out loud and then cry in the same piece. Not bawl or anything; just that cry where they think they’re going to sneeze and then tears drip out of their nose. It’s messed up, but it’s often what I’m gunning for when I write the stuff I end up being most proud of. I sound a bit emotionally unsound right now, but that goal is probably at the core of what I think life is about: laughing hard, and then taking it in the gut pretty badly. And then laughing again when you can.

What is your writing process? 

Well, I fly over the ocean of my life at a pretty high altitude waiting for the water to drain. When I start to see islands peeking out, that’s usually the start—a line, a paragraph, or a metaphor—and I fly closer to that and try to think really hard to get the ocean to drain faster so I can see the whole of the landscape underneath. Sometimes deadlines help with that; sometimes peer pressure does or listening to Emmylou Harris when she’s gotten together with someone playing a dobro. Sometimes nothing does and I write down little scrap-islands and hope I can turn them into poems at some point.

But 99% of the time, I write nothing, even though I’m still flying that plane. I’m hoping this comes off as honest and not lazy and boring, but piecing anything together has always been a very slow go for me, even before I had children or a job. In grad school, I barely made the page requirement for my thesis. And even then, I felt like the manuscript contained some half-baked poems. Some just slipped out right before I fell asleep—some of my best poems, I don’t know that they’re really even mine; the ocean drained really quickly and I got it down, usually just before going to bed. Others just waited and waited at the bottom of the sea for two years covered in water. And I wanted to punch something, they made me so mad with their hiding.

 

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Shannon Brugh

Why do you write what you do?

I’ve always written in one form or another, but it used to be this very tortured, forced experience for me.  I wrote angsty poetry all through my teens, and then in college, I decided I wanted to write short stories.  My short stories were not good.  Once that fact was clearly hammered into my head, I decided maybe I wasn’t good at this writing thing at all.  But I think that’s because I didn’t really understand what it was I wanted to write until I couldn’t stop writing it.  

Part of what drives me to write is also what drives me to read; for me, it’s about connection.  I started writing my book when I was pregnant because there were so many things I wanted to hear and so many things I wanted to tell, and there just wasn’t any other way than to write it.  I discovered, accidentally and frighteningly tardily, that this is my way of working through the world.  I’m able to process and understand things by writing about them, and I hope that I’m able to help other people process and understand things through my writing.  I suppose, ultimately, I write hoping to help us all feel less alone.  I’m reaching out to invisible hands and grasping on to say, “Here.  I’m here, too.  We’re here together.”

What is your writing process?

I write when and where I can.  Almost everything I’ve written has been written in fits and starts, in stolen moments when I can pause just long enough to gather my thoughts and spit them out onto paper.  I’ve written essays in five-minute increments waiting in the car, or in tiny pieces over weeks during the ten precious minutes of silence after the kids are asleep but before my brain stops functioning.  I’ve learned that when I want to write it, I need to get down right then, or it goes away, so I jot things down whenever possible.  I’ve been surprised to find that I’m most successful writing longhand.  Something about putting actual pen to literal paper makes sense for me; it allows my mind the lag time to finish processing and find the right word or phrase.  I keep a notebook next to my bed, in my purse, and in my car so that I can nab those slippery thoughts before they disappear under the muddy little feet of my boys. 

I’m also hideously nonlinear, so I practice what I glamorously call “barf it out” writing.  I’m incapable of outlining or making a distinct plan for what I want a piece to look like before I’ve started it.   It’s just your standard free writing.  I start with an idea and write.  Sometimes I edit a bit as I go, and sometimes I have to stop and refocus, and sometimes I run into a wall and have to take a break.  But most of the time I just let it ooze out onto the paper and deal with the repercussions afterward.  Periodically, I end up writing about a completely different thing than I intended at first, but it’s nice to surprise myself.  It feels good to just let it happen, and wait to fuss over it until it’s more fully formed.  

 

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Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

Why do you write what you do?

I teach fiction writing, and I’ve just asked my students to respond to this question, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot—Why write? Why write this? For me the answer is the one we’ve all come to expect from writers: because not writing isn’t really an option. When I was younger I worried about this answer. How did I know that I needed to write? How could I be sure I wasn’t just romanticizing myself in the way twenty-somethings tend to do? Then I had kids. I went without sleep and quiet and free-time, and I still wanted to write. Story ideas kept interrupting me as I stood in the shower or buckled my toddler into his carseat or rocked my infant in the middle of the night. I still felt compelled to write those ideas down. I still needed—more than ever before, really—the time inside my own head that writing provides me. Writing is the way I understand what I’ve observed and how I’ve reacted; it’s the way I process myself and the world around me. I keep writing—even if very slowly, even if very badly—because what else can I do?

Why do I write what I do? As I said, I’m usually writing to understand. I don’t enter a story knowing where it’s going or what it will be about, but every story I begin ends up being a kind of underground exploration of some bigger question I have about life and relationship and what it means to live in the world with other people. My life has always centered on relationship—particularly the family relationship—and so I have tended to write about families. The stories I’m writing now are almost all circling questions I have about parenthood and marriage, the two defining relationships of my present.

What is your writing process?

 Easy. It looks like this:

  1. Set your bedside alarm for a five a.m. writing wake-up call.
  2. When the alarm goes off, fumble to find it in the dark, then re-set it for more reasonable hour, because shitwhat were you thinking? Five a.m. is too early when you’ve been up until midnight grading, and then up again at two to change the four-year-old’s wet sheets, and then up (yet again!) at three to get the seven-year-old another glass of water. Go back to sleep.
  3. Wake startled, cursing, at ten-to-seven. Chug your coffee. Hustle the kids into clothes and out the door. Forget about your still-wet hair. (No one expects a middle-aged mother to have good hair, anyway. Your strengths lie elsewhere now.)
  4. Relax a little. The lights are all green, and the caffeine is kicking in. The kids won’t be tardy today after all, and you can afford to let your mind drift for a block or two while they chatter between themselves in the backseat. Listen to them, but don’t listen to them; and while you’re managing that, mull over that tricky character you’ve been trying to get right, that story scene you looked at yesterday that just isn’t working. Feel the happy warmth of contentment (or maybe that’s still just the caffeine?) swimming through your limbs.
  5. Of course, once you start that kind of thinking, there’s no reining it in. Pull up in front of the elementary school with your mind buzzing. Kiss the big kid goodbye, still holding the tail of your story. When the kid pauses, though, and says he loves you, let go. Look your boy in the eye. He’s having a rough week, and this is more important than any story, ever. Smile at your son. Say, “I love you, too, Bud,” and watch his face light up. Feel, momentarily, like you might just get this parenting thing right in the end. Or like you’re getting it right now, anyhow. And isn’t that all you can really ask for?
  6. Back on the road, crank up “Let It Go” and belt it from the front seat, while the four-year-old belts it from the back. Her voice is high and full and bright. She loves this song, and her love for it is impossible to resist. “Sing louder, Mom!” she hollers, and so you do.
  7. It’s in the midst of this—this wobbly cacophony the two of you are sounding—that the solution to your story problem hits you like a car wreck, out of nowhere, just as you’re pulling onto the freeway. Interrupt the song to shout, “Yes!” at the dome of your car roof. The four-year-old laughs, and you catch her grin in the rearview and laugh too. You thump the steering wheel with your palm, a little drum solo, and she laughs harder. Her racket and the story’s form a temporary two-part harmony in your head.
  8. Pull onto the gravel drive of her preschool thinking, Isn’t life wonderful? Everything comes together if you can just muster a little patience. The universe is generous and your children are a delight and you are a story-writing genius. As you zip your daughter’s coat and walk her to the school door, indulge in a vision of yourself writing the last word to the stellar scene you have just re-plotted, and tell yourself you’ll sit down to “work out the details” later, when you have a moment. It hardly matters now, because you’ve just done the hard part. The real work is done.
  9. Never find that moment. Spend your morning teaching comma splices and talking about the thesis statement, and realize as you do that you are losing it—that the story you had such a firm grip on earlier is slipping through the chinks in your mind. By the end of the first class, lose your beautiful character solution. By mid-way through the next, lose your scene revision. At the next break dash into the bathroom and stand looking at yourself in the mirror. Think, “I’m losing it. I’m seriously losing it. I’m about to lose it all right here.”
  10. Don’t really lose it, though. Just go back to class. You’re the teacher. You’re the mother. You’re the wife. You’re the last person who can afford to lose anything.
  11. All afternoon, in the snatches of time between classes and the moments before and after student meetings, try desperately to retrieve the scraps of story you found this morning. Feel it brush up against the rim of your mind as you lean over the textbook. Feel the bristled rise of its back just beneath your fingertips when you turn to write on the whiteboard.
  12. By afternoon, however, concede defeat. The story is gone. You are fucked. You will never write anything again (unless, that is, you want to start counting grocery lists and those little sticky note love letters you sometimes put into the kids’ school lunches, and you don’t).
  13. Go home.
  14. Listen only half-heartedly to the report of the day from the backseat during the after school pick-up. Play “Let It Go” again when the four-year-old insists, but this time don’t sing. This time listen hard to the lyrics and read into them the crushing weight of adult responsibility and the impossibility of dreams. Think, Screw you, Disney, you hopeful bastards. At the next stoplight, open the bag of Pirates Booty you’ve brought along for the children’s snack and eat with relish directly from the bag.
  15. Five o’clock, the evening rush. Help with homework, make dinner, eat dinner, wash dishes, bathe children, read bedtime stories. Tuck children into bed, kiss foreheads, shut off the lights. (Repeat.)
  16. When all eventually settles down the hallway, lean against the kitchen counter and scan the To-Do list hanging from the fridge. (This evening routine is your religion now, but somehow it’s also entirely forgettable, so the list comes in handy.) Read LAUNDRY, LUNCHES, LOCK UP at the top of the list and tend to these chores. When your husband says he’s going to bed, wave to him from across the room. Watch his back as he disappears into the dark bedroom and push aside the flash of irritation, the wash of fatigue that flushes through you. You’re not sleeping yet; there are still good hours in this day.
  17. Get into your pajamas and make a cup of tea. (Comfort is a lifeboat against the stormy sea of grading freshman papers.) Dig your computer out of your work bag. Open it with good intentions, but instead check Facebook. Read student emails. Check Facebook again. Read personal emails. Check Facebook again. (Permit this cycle to go on for twenty minutes or a half-hour, then just buckle down already and deal with the grading. It has to be done.)
  18. Midnight. The grading is done and put away. The teacup is empty. Your mind is numb with fatigue and your family has been asleep for two hours. Consider closing your computer—it’s so late. But, then, don’t close it. Not yet. For just a few more minutes, hold off. Instead, listen to the quiet of your house, to the sleeping sighs of your children down the hall and your husband in the next room. Take a breath. Shut off the gooseneck lamp beside the desk and note that right now, when no one but you is awake to see it, the back yard has gone liquid on the other side of the office window. The darkness has gone blue and watery, and it is lapping at the glass. Think one word: Submerged. Let your mind go heavy. Let your house sink and pull you under. Let the water that is outside rush in, incomprehensibly, silently, as you put your fingers on the keyboard. Now hold your breath and write.

Writing Process Blog Tour, Part II

writing-520x359We’re back with more of the writing process Q & A! As explained last week, several bloggers have agreed to answer a series of questions about their writing process, and we here at R & P decided to join in the fun by examining (and then explaining) our own work and habits. This week’s question is How does your writing differ from other work of its genre? We hope you’re enjoying our “house tour,” and we invite you to check in again next week, when we’ll post our responses to the next question in the series.

KSL

Shannon Brugh, how does your writing differ from other work of its genre?

I wrote it? I’m not sure I can answer this one adequately. I still feel like a fraud, to be honest, and I have no idea how I’ve been lucky enough to land here in this lovely world of words. Creative nonfiction is such a nebulous beast. But I think, or I hope, that my work seeks to comfort. Sometimes I’m trying to comfort myself. Sometimes I’m trying to work through something and find some kind of solution. Sometimes I’m trying to tell other people out there that someone else is mulling this same thing over. I’ve always found comfort and camaraderie in books, so I guess it makes sense that I’m trying to create comfort and camaraderie through my writing. *

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, how does your writing differ from other work of its genre?

The answer to this depends on knowing how to determine the genre in which I’m writing, and that has become a problem for me. Obviously, of course, I’m writing fiction, but once I look beyond that broad field and start trying to see what lies between the fences that separate different types of fiction, my vision goes a little blurry. The novel I drafted has an experimental structure, and it’s also heavily lyrical—sort of a long and fragmented prose poem. Part of the reason I’m so struggling to revise it is because I realize the form has crowded out character development and buried plot, and so I have to create some way to maintain this experimental form while also satisfying the usual expectations of a more conventional genre (domestic literary fiction). I haven’t found that magic balance yet, so the draft is still just a draft.

As for my stories, I feel like they, too, are suddenly jumping the genre fence. My first two books of short stories—This Life She’s Chosen and Swimming With Strangers—were both pretty solidly traditional fiction. They were realist, focused on the domestic and relational, and written with mostly linear structure. These newer stories are playing a little bit with dystopian settings, they’re more fragmented structurally, and at least one of them is also historical fiction. Separate from that bunch, I have the one black sheep in the group—the story I reference above, and which might be the beginning of an entirely different collection. This story is traditional in structure and focus, but is more hinged on narrative voice than my fiction has tended to be, and might also be YA (I say “might” because I’m not yet sure how to think about this piece). I also write nonfiction, but most of it feels more like fiction, so it, too, is sitting on the genre fence.

Ultimately, I’m just fine with these ambiguities. Many of the writers I most admire tread close to or cross genre divisions, and part of what makes their work so much fun to read is its unwillingness to follow the rules, to stay inside the usual borders. *

Virginia Robinson, how does your writing differ from other work of its genre?

I wish I could steal Lauren’s answer and say that I’m not sure it does differ. But I have learned that I write from a mostly outsider position. I rarely write about things I truly know for myself; there’s a particular interest there that’s simply lacking when I’m into something enough to have all the pieces in my hands. I write in the gap, from what I know is missing. I write about my mother’s small hometown in North Carolina, but that’s because we grew up outside of D.C., and every time we visited, I saw or heard something new. I wrote about people in the Navy because I was a civilian woman who lived with them or was friends with them, not because I ever did anything like what they did. Even having my first child was kind of foreign to me—she came to us on her own time, and my first experiences of motherhood were of simply being her usher more than anything. I was so bonded to her, but I didn’t have some of the more common attachments to the idea of motherhood, and a reader can probably tell, I would guess.

I should maybe also admit that all I’m really trying to do when I write in any genre is sound like a slightly refined version of the great storytellers in my own life. My brother after three beers is the first example to come to mind, and then some extended family members and friends after two bourbons. And they’re all people who laugh as they speak. I wish I could bottle it, all of it–the laughter, the storytelling, the happy energy in the room, the humanity of it. *

*Again, Lauren Gordon’s answers to these writing process questions can be found on her personal blog, “My Brain is a Cliff, and My Heart the Bitter Buffalo.” (Check out her NaPoWriMo poems there too–they’re fantastic!)