By Susan Lilley
Another stop on the writing process blog tour!
First, a big shout out to Darlyn Finch Kuhn, who invited me into this chain of discussions about writing. Darlyn is a writer I have known for a good, longish time, and I have found such delight in her work, be it essay, poem, or fiction. Her first book, Red Wax Rose, is a fine example of her distinctive voice, which is full of honesty and always rooted in the real. Heck, even Garrison Keillor likes her poems! Her intriguing, memory-webbed novel, Sewing Holes, is due out next year, and I look forward to her long-form story spinning! She is also a local hero for keeping central Florida in the loop about all literary activity. But I hope she does not regret asking me to “speak” about my writing process. I am not sure I have one. Yet, I shall endeavor to answer the preset questions of this rollicking “blog tour.”
1. What am I working on?
As a writer who is tied to all the grimness and glory of the American full-time job, the question I hate the most from fellow writers this time of year is “What are you working on?”
The short answer is “Nothing.” But of course, there is more to it than that. When Darlyn asked me to let her tag me to participate in this chain discussion of writing, I was happy to agree—but a familiar nagging pain assailed me as I thought about what to say about my “writing process.” This feeling is conflict mixed with despair and flushed throughout with shame. As a teacher of literature and writing, I get to deal with my “passion” all day long. But I am also kept from it, hour after hour, day upon day, week upon week, promising myself this or that Sunday or long weekend to claim mental space enough to finish (or even start!) a piece of writing I so long to take shape.
The end of the school year is busy and exhausting, yet there is that hope of some blue-sky time to finish, arrange, clarify. Jump back into the habit of daily writing, submitting, and thinking big for what can be accomplished before I die. (I am not kidding about that.) This summer, my goals are to finalize once and for all a full-length poetry manuscript, to write new work, and continue a series of nonfiction pieces about the crap jobs I had in my youth, a collection that might be called Finishing School. Gosh, I feel better just putting that intention into words. So it is written, so it shall be done! But will it? I have lofty goals every summer. This year I am trying to keep them sane, mainly to avoid more self-loathing and letdown in the fall.
2. How does my work differ from others in my genre?
Poetry is an incredibly wide and diverse world. I love lyric poetry but I tend toward narrative in my own writing. With lyric moments, I hope.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I am responding to the world of the moment and to my own past. It seems natural and sometimes urgent. While raising kids I wrote a lot about them, the lucky bits of subject matter! Now I tend to focus on key phases from the past or on arresting images or verbal wonders of the moment.
4. How does my writing process work?
Here we go.
Perhaps I am being overly dramatic, but I really believed that when my kids were grown and off on into their own lives, I’d have more time to write. I madly scribble ideas in my notebooks when I can and slam the book shut, hoping something will germinate while I am frantically doing life. I call it the “pressing botanicals” process. Sometimes it works. A failed poem that I kept trying to write finally bloomed into a memoir essay a few months ago and is now part of a chapbook of nonfiction pieces. That small victory has helped me stave off waves of hopelessness as I celebrate with friends sharing their well-deserved good fortune of acceptances, book deals, and awards. Don’t get me wrong, I do NOT suffer from envy of their beautiful accomplishments. I am thrilled to the core for them—and it makes me excited to be part of such a vibrant community of creative people. However, I must confess that I have terrible, dark, shameful envy of those who have TIME to do what the hell they want most days of the week. I know people, writers and non, who are busy-busy-busy, but all activity is pretty much of their choosing. I just want to shake them and make them understand how lucky they are. I don’t hate my job either—it has value, relevance, and a big dose of fun. But it takes about 30% more of my time and energy than I can afford to lose and still create. Balance is simply impossible for me to achieve.
For example, morning is my very best writing time. Period. Not gonna change. People who can write far into the night amaze me. Sure, I could write late at night–if there was a gun pointed to my head. But it would take 4 hours to do what I could do in 1 morning hour. But those golden hours are spent rushing to work by 7:30 and wrangling teenagers and helping to make life-long readers (I hope). It’s good work, all right, but it robs my own work in a big way. Therefore, summer takes on immense pressure as well as potential.
But. Do artists need the protection of major solitude and silence to work? I have always been more of a Sacred Fount artist than an Ivory Tower one. As an extrovert, I need the full messiness of life to generate any material worth writing about. If I were left alone too long in the perfect writing room in the countryside, I would probably lose it about a week in and run screaming to the nearest diner or pub and volunteer to wash dishes for coffee and conversation.
Later this summer, I shall strive for the perfect balance at a two-week self-made retreat on the Oregon coast with 4 other writers. All women, all who work, lead busy lives, and have other people’s needs to consider. This will be our time, with just enough delicious company, support, laughter, and of course, food and wine to make an extrovert work like a bee all day and relax with her compadres at night. But before that time, a manuscript must be finished and made ready to send. A few books must be read, and new essays sketched. Then I might have something to report when someone asks “What are you working on?” For now, the writer in me is just trying to survive.
For purely selfish reasons, I now tag a writer and friend who seems to accomplish a great deal, even though she cheerfully admits to over-committing since the 1980s. Over to you, Lisa Lanser Rose. Maybe your process can help me formulate one!
Lisa Lanser Rose is the author of the memoir, FOR THE LOVE OF A DOG, (Harmony Books), and the novel, BODY SHARERS (Rutgers University Press). She holds an MFA from Penn State. Her novel, BODY SHARERS, placed among the finalists for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel, The Washington Prize for Fiction, and the AWP Intro Awards. Recent work has appeared in The Florida Review, Superstition Review, Tampa Review Online, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine: Women Writing Nature, and Ascent Literary Journal. Her essay, “Turnpike Psycho,” won the 2013 Florida Review Editor’s Award. On forums such as The Gloria Sirens and The Border Collie Inquisitor, she blogs about everything from the writing life to herding dogs.