What was in your mind when you sat down to write this piece, and how did that initial idea evolve as you wrote and revised?
This piece was actually written as part of an ongoing exercise for a class in which each member of my graduate school cohort—fiction writers, poets, and cross-disciplinary artists alike—submitted a short text that the rest of us then responded to in whatever way we chose. This one was a poem by my brilliant friend Erica Mena. It’s a great exercise—one I unabashedly stole from that teacher and later used with my own students—and I think it’s a beautiful way of engaging with someone else’s words.
If I’m being honest, for me the whole thing produced a lot of nonsense, and some truly bad writing on my part. But it also pushed me to figure out how to find my own voice in the voice of another writer, how to find not just the words or phrases that really resonated with me, but the ones I felt I could speak back to in a meaningful way. And I think that’s exactly what was in my mind when I sat down to write—what’s here that leaps off the page and asks to be held onto? What gives off an image I can’t let go of? Pieces often start that way for me, with an image, and this one actually began with Erica’s words, “preserves in the dust.” Dust turned into roads, different roads I’d seen, which lead to journeys and travel, and to how we process and internalize the places we’ve been. With that in mind, I stripped a few other phrases from Erica’s poem (woodbone smooth, billows and rills, milky waters, and others) and sort of scattered them on a page, and began writing phrases of my own.
So I guess in short this whole process consisted of stealing a handful of images from a friend, and repurposing them to suit my needs—in this case, to fit that concept I had dreamed up of traveling and seeing things and of wanting to somehow connect with an unfamiliar place. The piece is actually based a little more explicitly on personal experience than most of my work is. I thought about traveling in central Europe and witnessing these stunning places that people in the states think they know something about, and realizing how totally incapable I was of fully comprehending the spirit of those places, or what had happened there, or how the people I was seeing had lived and were still living. And I guess it’s that thing about new places—experiencing things and trying to hold onto them but not necessarily knowing how to put them all together to make them mean something—that I had in mind the whole time, and that comes through in the piece.
What risks do you feel you took? How did you surprise yourself?
I sort of feel like the risks here were taken for me by Erica, who is fearless with language. I don’t think I could ever have come out with a phrase like “billows and rills,” which is so evocative, and just so beyond what my writer brain knows how to do. My fiction is lyrical and filled with images, and in a way my usual process is similar to what I did here—beginning with a handful of images and building up from there to expound upon and connect them in a way that hopefully makes sense. But here the original images were set out for me—I had a choice as far as which words to steal, but because of Erica’s style, much of the available material consisted of language being used in a way I might not ever have come to on my own. So maybe I took some small risk in choosing the words that I did, in attempting to make them fit the narrative that was coming together in my mind—but I think, actually, that risk is inherent to the original exercise. Our teacher, Gale Nelson, should be credited with making us take those risks, and writing things we otherwise wouldn’t have done.
How much (if at all) do you think about readership during the writing process? Do you have an ideal reader?
Perhaps very foolishly, I almost never think about readership, unless it’s to think, “who in the world will ever want to read this?”
With regard to craft, which choices did you struggle with, and which ones instinctively felt right?
In this piece as in most of my work, I struggled somewhat with the idea of what a story’s shape is expected to be. I was lucky to go through grad school with a group of writers who aren’t very concerned with beginnings, middles and ends, or with how something arcs or doesn’t. They write and are excellent readers of stories that don’t always move in the way we’re often told narrative ought to move, and they’ve helped me immensely not to get hung up worrying about those expectations. So in this piece, when I sat back and looked at it and thought, “Okay, but is there a story here?” it was a little easier to look past that question and to see the other factors driving the piece, like the language and the images and the idea of discovering a place (those are the things that drive it for me, anyway.) What feels most natural to me when writing is to write series of images relating to one another, and that’s a lot of what I did for this piece. For me that’s the easiest thing, and the most enjoyable—just to write down the bright points and lasting images of whatever experience it is I’m drawing from (like lemon trees and a man sweeping and ruined houses.) What’s always a little harder is then to reorder them and string them together or make them speak to each other in a way that is pleasing, that means something.