Well, I’m actually flattered that I was tagged for this blog tour about my writing process and my work in process by the lovely, talented, and incredibly lyrical Emma Bolden, whose own responses to this four question blog tour you can find on her blog here.
I’ve been very lucky that since I decided that I wanted to write, I have met a number of truly talented friends who have been supportive in more ways than I can describe. I am happy to be tagging two of these writers who also happen to keep blogs: Lyn Millner with whom I completed my first MFA at Florida International University, whose nonfiction writing is smart, informative, and often truly humorous, and Sarah Domet, a lovely colleague of mine at Georgia Southern University who writes the most lyrical fiction.
First, a little about Emma Bolden, the astoundingly talented poet/nonfiction writer and lovely friend who tagged me: She is the author of Maleficae (GenPop Books) and medi(t)ations (forthcoming from Noctuary Press). Her creative nonfiction/mixed genre chapbook, Geography V, is forthcoming from Winged City Chapbook Press, and she has four more chapbooks and a lot of poetry published everywhere that matters. She also happens to be smart and witty and her blog is an absolute pleasure to read, with lots of quirky insights and an inimitable sense of humor so I hope you’ll check it out here.
And now to the questions…
What are you working on?
Ugh. I have to answer this with so much guilt. Too much and not enough. I’m working on a translation from the Italian of a book called A Sentimental Guide to Venice, and on letters that Ezra Pound wrote to Diego Valeri, a poet who had the opposite political views as Pound, and I’m also writing short stories, and several essays on creativity, and a textbook, too.
But really, my energy is all going towards a retelling of the Gilgamesh epic (it’s a series of books) that has turned into something between historical literary fiction and fantasy. It is possible this may turn into a young adult novel, too, which ought to reflect my present state of angst and confusion, something that I frequently do to myself.
The novel is titled The Faithful Son. Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Sumer was said to have written his own epics: the premise for this story started when I tried to imagine how Gilgamesh the real person might have tried to exaggerate, misrepresent and convert reality to fit the narrative structure of fiction. For instance, the Humbaba, pictured as a monster, is really some tribal khan whose territory Gilgamesh invades because he needs a new trade route after having fought with the regents of the north, and besides he wants the khan’s cedar, which was precious in Sumer at the time. It’s basically a story about how we write stories, and also a story about how myths are born.
How does your work differ from other works in the same genre?
I’m not really sure that there is a genre for what I’m working on with respect to the Gilgamesh series. My retelling is not quite as dense as Gardner’s Grendell, for example, nor nearly as philosophical or literary or funny. It’s more along the lines of Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, rendering more realistic an otherwise mythicized story, and both of those were novels that defied the conventions of genre.
I’ve also often been told that I have “many voices,” and that my characters have “psychological complexity.” I’ve been told that I’m nuanced, lyrical, layered, and quietly profound, but also “stark.”
Why do you write what you do?
The honest answer is that I don’t know. I never chose a story: the story chooses me. I’ve thought up perfectly great stories to tell, but when I try to write them, they all just shrivel up. The only way that I can make a story go from my head to the page is if the story has come to me as a daydream that invades me without warning, and once it’s there, it just keeps bugging me and bugging me until I have no choice but write it down. In that respect, I am a student of Robert Olen Butler’s.
A book I’m reading now, From The Center To The Page, written by a yogi who is also a writer, advises that every time I sit down to write I meditate on the reason why I write. I think this is wise. Too often I get into anxiety and panic attacks about my career, what I need to do to get noticed and blah, blah, and I end up fighting my own impulses and wasting time with what I think are “reasonable projects” that end up nowhere because they didn’t come to me as daydreams. In that respect, writing is a little bit like the search for enlightenment: you have to learn how to surrender.
But maybe the question is asking me to say what drives me to write those stories? Why those stories and not others? I think that for me it’s all about missed connections. It’s something that’s clearly relevant to my own life, since I’m an immigrant, trying to make a living out of words in English. There have been many supportive people, but also probably equally as many who have dismissed me off hand simply because their logic tells them that I cannot possibly know what I’m talking about, or should know my place, or belong somewhere else, somewhere other than the space they inhabit — because I wasn’t born in this country. That’s been very frustrating for me. And also on other levels, that I think would take too long to write here. So I find that whether I’m writing about a college-age girl missing a crucial game point in basketball or about a Mesopotamian king in 2800 BC, it’s all about the barriers people raise around themselves and each other, and the consequences of missing that one important connection that would make everything ok.
How does your writing process work?
Does it work? 🙂 There are lots of ways to answer this. I’ve been studying a lot the creative process trying to understand for myself. In terms of the day-to-day dynamics of it, for me it’s all about layers, like priming something, then putting on the first layer of paint, then the next, fixing errors as I go along, changing my mind and having to paint over what I had, refocus it, etc. And there’s a lot of thinking that happens outside of the writing, too, and a lot of failure and redo. It’s always messy, slow, immersive, and riddled with states of terrifying anxiety punctuated by the occasional moment of bliss.
I’ll answer this another way: Now that I’m writing both a commercial/genre and literary fiction, I notice a difference in the state of mind that I have to assume in order to have a good writing day. Literary writing is much more trance-like and subconscious, much more about the rhythm of the sentences and the fluidity of the words. The images, metaphors and insights are always born out of the spontaneous flow of the sentences: I can never plan them ahead, or put them in later when I realize that’s where I need an insight. It either happens in the moment or it doesn’t happen at all. That is not to say that I just sit and wait for it to happen. Not! What it means is that I don’t have as much control over a good or a bad day, and that often I’ll work for hours and have to trash most of what I wrote. Also voice is crucial to the process. I have to hear that voice before I can do anything with it, or nothing worth my time will come out. And that’s also tricky, because the voice in my head may change depending on the mood I’m in, what I’ve been reading, and how close I feel to the work in any given moment.
But when I write what I would call a mainstream or commercial piece it’s different. I have to be much more analytical. There’s a lot of planning going on, trying to project the whole thing from beginning to end. It’s much less about the poetry of it, and much more about the story and the moment to moment action of it. I want to clarify: even if I’m writing commercial (whatever that means) I work very hard at making the characters emotionally complex and the narrative intellectually stimulating, but it’s the way that it’s accomplished that’s different. It’s harder in a way, but also easier, because no matter how hard my writing day goes, usually by the end of the day there’s plenty of my work that will be usable at some point. Not so for literary, where it seems more like a good day/bad day either/or proposition with not a whole lot I can do about it.
Ultimately, though, with slight variances, I think the process is what it is: you work hard at it, over and over, and then at some point, if you’re lucky, something will come through. There is a part of it that’s numinous and mysterious, but that is not something I can explain. Everyone who works creatively would know what I’m talking about, I think, because it just comes. If you work at it long enough, it comes.
And next week….
August 4 follow the links to find out what journalist and creative nonfiction writer Lyn Millner and fictioneer Sarah Domet have to say about their writing process and works in progress. And just to tantalize you, here are their bios.
Lyn Millner’s radio stories and essays have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and Weekend Edition and on American Public Media’s Marketplace. Her print work has appeared in USA Today, Health, The Hollywood Reporter, and Boca Raton magazine. She teaches journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla., and she is working on a book about the Koreshans, a group of people who came to the wilds of Florida in 1894 to build a utopian town. They believed we lived inside the earth.
Sarah Domet holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and fiction from the University of Cincinnati. She now teaches in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. Sarah has recently completed her first novel, the first draft of which she completed in 90 days. Sarah’s specialty is in retellings, and she also possesses a truly lyrical voice.