William Carlos Williams takes an interview

“So Mr. Williams, tell me, what do you write?”

Okay. So, WCW died in 1963, twenty years before I was born, and even if he hadn’t, I’m sure he wouldn’t have deigned to speak to the likes of me. I recently read The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, first published in 1948 by New Directions Books. There are many things to be said about the life of prolific writer and doctor Williams…

Observation #1. He surrounded himself with artists…famous artists.

How did he know so many famous people. He went to school with and was a life long friend of Ezra Pound and H.D., dined with James Joyce, partied with Man Ray and bunch of other artists, conversed with Gertrude Stein, doctored Charles Demuth… the list goes on. Literally the index in his biography could be a who’s who of first half of the twentieth century.

Observation #2. He loved and respected his wife very much, but he had misogynistic (and racist) tendencies.

They leak out the sides of his autobiography and sometimes hit you square in the face. Besides numerous condescending descriptions of women and girls throughout his book. There was this stunning passage:

I have had several but not many intimate friendships with men during my life, patterned, I suppose on the youthful experience of my brother…You could count them surely on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand there is Flossie, my wife, who is the rock on which I have built. But as far as my wish is concerned, I could not be satisfied by five hundred women. As I said, at the beginning, I was always an innocent child.

Why, I remember once as medical student falling in love with the corpse of young negress, a “high yaller” lying stripped on the dissecting table before me.

Men have given the direction to my life and women have always supplied the energy.

There is so much weirdness in that passage. I’ll just let you stew on that for a while.

Observation #3. He is an amazing writer and thinker.

Through at times, I felt I did not like the man I was reading, ultimately he has a thoughtfulness and delicacy with words–that made his autobiography a page turner. As a case in point and prelude to my next post–an “interview” with WCW about being a working writer–I’ll leave you this:

And it must be said of a life of confinement, if he survives it, that much of the world’s greatest writings has waited on a removal from the world of affairs for its doing. Concentration is what a man needs to bring his mind to harvest. We may and he will, whoever he may be, change ourselves by our contacts, but to drain off the good we must find quietude. The monk’s cell is ideal for the purpose…it represents a quiet relief from economic pressures: one can write then. Prison, though, is better, or seems to have been so in the past. Aesop was a slave; many a Greek did his best work in exile to Sicily or even the next city. Sappho must have felt mightily confined by Lesbos; Raleigh wrote well in prison: Pilgrim’s Progress came from confinement–as birth does also–but the best of all was Don Quixote, when Cervantes was put in jail…

The poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets. And as they confine in themselves the only “life,” the ability to sprout at a more favorable time, to come true in the secret structure to the very minutest details of our thoughts, so they get their specific virtue.

We write for this, that the seed come true, and it appears to be this which makes the poewcwm the toughest certainty that life experience acknowledges.



Where are they now?

A lot of things worth talking about have taken place in the last year!

Lana Spendl has been tearing up the flash fiction pages: Read her piece “The Virgin” in Prick of the Spindle and look for her forthcoming piece “Soap Bubble Words” in Monkeybicycle.

Paula Carter has been making it waves on the nonfiction circuit both on stage and on the page. Listen to her podcast from Second Story in her piece Lessons from Almost-Mother or read her recent essay in TriQuarterly.


And Angela Narciso Torres published Blood Orange  available via Aquarius PressSmall Press Distribution,  and Amazon.  Watch the book trailer for Blood Orange! Yes, a trailer for a book!

Congrats you lovely ladies and writers on your accomplishments!

Lana Spendl: On the Solitary & the Social

I had the great privilege of traveling to Nepal with fiction writer Lana Spendl a few summers ago, where we walked down streets with our professor, Samrat Upadhyay, who was constantly being recognized as the celebrity author he is. Shopkeepers would run to their nearby homes to grab their copies of his novels and ask for his autograph and how they too could become published storytellers. As we walked around Kathmandu, we discussed the nature of reality or intention–Lana is not often one for small talk. Her stories too have a richness that is above average. You can find her story “In the Bascarsija Quarter,” which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, in The Greensboro Review Issue 91.

She recently agreed to take part in our working writers series. Once again, I’m inspired to put pen to the paper after conducting an interview. Here’s what she had to say:


What do you write?

I write short stories and flash fiction. I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and spent half of my childhood in Avila, Spain, due to the Bosnian war. Most of my stories take place among the churches, mosques and cobbled streets of these two cities.

I’m working on a collection of stories which takes place in Sarajevo about ten years after the peace treaty was signed. This falls around 2005, the year I last visited the city. My stories follow various men, women and children who live in the Grbavica neighborhood in a tall building that overlooks the River Miljacka. The stories portray widely different characters, from a middle-aged alcoholic man who lives with a war widow to a short-tempered female lawyer who is afraid of betrayal and abandonment. I find it helpful to write about characters who are facing challenges different than mine; this allows the characters to remain self-contained and prevents a lot of my personal thoughts and feelings from pouring into the story.

I started writing the flash pieces recently. They offered me a break from the story collection. The collection consists of highly traditional stories written in third person. The flash work has allowed me to go back to playing with first-person narrators. Also, while working with flash, I do not feel constrained by setting or style and play with any topic that captures me in the moment.

In terms of process, I begin stories with an image—although sometimes I picture entire scenes involving tree-lined streets and winds that run the leaves across the pavements—and then I focus closely on one character and record everything he/she does within this space. One action leads to another, and, in first drafts, it is the story that leads me along. In revision, I often rewrite the story from the beginning, and much of what I wrote in the first draft gets thrown out. Sometimes my characters change drastically from one draft to another. A neurotic young man in a first draft may turn into a gruff octogenarian in the second.

What are the sources of inspiration you return to?

I assume you’re asking about literary inspirations. I love Virginia Woolf, Colette, Hermann Hesse, Nabokov, and highly personal philosophical works, like Seneca’s letters or anything by Rousseau or Nietzsche. I also enjoy Russian fiction with an absurdist bent. And I love the sounds and images in Lorca’s earlier poetry.

When I think of Woolf, I think of sunlight, glittery water, rhythm. She gives the most basic elements of life meaning—I’m thinking about her essay on the moth now—and reading even a page of her writing makes me feel more involved with my own life. The Waves is my favorite novel of hers. Colette gives a preciousness to memory. I love her tender treatment of her mother and even the detailed way in which she arranges jars on a table. Nabokov’s style is powerful. Reading him sharpens my own images. Among the Russians, Vladimir Voinovich is a writer I’ve been reading religiously. Hilarious, dark, sometimes cartoonish. I also recently watched the movie Adore. Great character study. It takes place by the Australian seaside, and it portrays the sexual relationships two close female friends have with each other’s sons. The movie is subtle and honest, and after watching it, I discovered that it was based on Doris Lessing’s novella The Grandmothers. I’m reading this piece now, and there is much to admire about the way the narrator plays with point of view and space and the fascination people have with the lives of others. This kind of fascination—the projections we cast on others—is something that interests me very much.

What do you do to pay the bills?
I work full-time as an academic advisor and part-time as adjunct faculty in fiction at Indiana University. I completed my MFA a few years ago and moved into an MA program in Hispanic Literatures. After finishing it, I started a PhD in Spanish Literature. I was drawn to twentieth-century Spanish novels and poetry—they rely heavily on themes of trauma and memory—but since the PhD program was a critical one, I felt that I had to keep on mechanically deconstructing texts and language when all I wanted to do was construct. The creative and critical mindsets seemed to work in opposition to each other, and I decided to leave the program in order to have the space to write.
I was lucky enough to land a position in advising shortly after leaving the program—it was the job I wanted most in Bloomington, because it would allow me to keep on working closely with students and to remain in the academic environment—and I was offered a creative writing teaching position the same summer. I truly enjoy both jobs. They allow me to remain in an environment in which people talk about ideas, and they allow me to help students in matters relating to their education. This is a matter close to my heart. I also enjoy interacting with people all day. It compliments my writing well, since writing is a solitary endeavor and I’m a very social person.

Kate Klein: Embedded Fiction Writer

One very exciting thing about keeping a blog is living in a state of discovery. A few weeks ago, I didn’t know Kate Klein, but now after interviewing her and reading from her stories and reviews from around the web, I have found a new writer I’m excited to hear more from.

Kate & Jimmy

Kate and Hendrix, the parrot

She has shared with me from her experience as writer, fundraiser “virtual forklift driver” , and person living in the real world.

What do you write? How do you write it? If someone in a theater ever yells, “Is there a fiction writer in the house?” I would truthfully be able to come to the rescue—I hold an MFA in the discipline and I’ve had short stories appear in print.  My great passion is writing novels.  One, my MFA thesis titled The Fifth Voice, is resting before a full re-write and another, Eternal Girl, is just about ready to emerge into the “publish me!” world.

I started my career as a journalist, working as a daily newspaper reporter and editor.  Lately, I’ve had a few magazine article assignments, which I’ve enjoyed a lot.

Every weekday morning, I get up early and write for two hours.  Morning has always been my best creative time. At 8:15 or so, I pry myself away from my desk and walk to Cornell University, where I work for the alumni affairs and development team for Johnson, the university’s business school.

Tell us about your day job and how you got there.  How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life? My title is “development assistant,” but that’s not very descriptive; at parties, I tell people I work as a ghost writer and spy, and they understand a lot faster.

My team’s job is to bring money in to fund the business school.  My colleagues go out on the road to ask alumni for generous donations.  They are awesome at what they do—my supervisor nabbed a $10 million gift this quarter. My particular job is to support the road warriors with my writing and research skills, and by manipulating an enormous database, a task akin to driving a virtual forklift through an online warehouse.  After five years in positions similar to this one at Cornell, I’m getting very good at driving the virtual forklift.  It brings out an analytical, problem-solving side I didn’t know I had when I chose English as a college major.

My day job started out supporting my writing life.  The best benefit Cornell offers employees is free classes.  Once hired, I took writing and literature classes that helped me get into an MFA program.  After I finished grad school, however, I went back  to work full time, partly for the money, but partly because I write best when I’m engaging with the world every day.  Right now, for me, “engaging with the world” means going to work, even on the days (and there are many) when I would rather keep working on my novel all morning.

When I get grumpy about a full day in an office, I look around at the other human beings in there with me.  They are by far the most beautiful, saddest, funniest things in the gray, windowless, fluorescent-lit office.

I certainly envy writers who can write full time, but the world needs fiction writers and poets with day jobs, too—especially day jobs that have nothing to do with writing or teaching writing. The world needs writers “embedded” in the medical field and Wall Street and insurance, I think. William Carlos Williams worked as a medical doctor.  Anthony Trollope worked for the postal service.  Charles Ives (a composer, not a writer) was an insurance executive who wrote amazing music, too.

What sources of inspiration do you return to? The people I know well inspire me—besides family and friends, this includes my work colleagues.  Spend enough hours in a small space with someone and soon I start wondering, “why does he do that?  What is she really thinking?” and often, a story is born.

Music and other art forms inspire my writing, as well, but not always directly, although my first novel is about a family of musicians.  Rather, I seldom come away from a live concert or an art exhibit without scribbling lots of notes, and often those notes turn into stories or enhance a story I’m already writing.

I want to write from life in the way visual artists draw from live models.  The more I observe, the better I know my species.  And the better I get to know my species the funnier we call look.  Life has a deep, rumbling laughter underneath it, which bubbles up in the work of Robertson Davies, Flannery O’Connor, Mozart, and Jennifer Egan, to name a few.  If I capture a little of that laughter or even hear it, it’s been a good writing day.

Do you ever go to specific places with the purpose of human observation in mind? 

I don’t go anywhere to specifically observe human behavior–I just see it everywhere! From the years-long tensions I observe playing out in my own family to random encounters in a shop or on the street, I see people operating in dissonance and harmony every day.  For instance, last weekend I walked through the supermarket produce section and saw two big college boys holding a five pound bag of organic carrots between them, one saying: “So that’s twelve carrots a day.”  I have no idea what they were talking about, but I scooted on to the frozen foods isle laughing to myself.  Sometimes I have to keep to myself on purpose because my observation deck goes into overdrive and I have to seclude myself to actually write anything down, let alone shape a story out of any of it.


Follow up with Kate Klein on her blog, Zucchini Me.

Beth Navarro: Insight into the Active Life

Beth Navarro is a writer: she writes for her comic mom blog, Mother-naked. She writes picture books for kids. (Her debut picture book, Grambo, will available in less than a week!) She is writing a YA sci-fi novel. And she spends her job-time writing and editing marketing material. Originally from Illinois (currently the state I live in), she now lives in California (the state I’m originally from). Besides having the a few ideas about the work-life-balance thing figured out, Beth seems to have also figured out the optimal migration pattern. I still have a lot to figure. Luckily, she took a moment to share with us a few insights about how a full life has lead her to a more prolific and inspired writing life. So on to the the interview!

What do you write? How do you write it? 

I write children’s books, anything from picture books to the young adult manuscript that I’m working on right now.  I also write a blog, Mother-naked, about my adventures in parenting. My first picture book, Grambo, is out March 26th on Amazon! Grambo is about a boy who discovers his grandma is not your average grandma. She’s a secret agent! Grandmas rock.

I usually write in long stretches on the weekends. I set up camp on the couch. For some reason the couch is really my spot even though I have a desk that I love. My notes spread out on my left, my laptop on my lap and my tea and snacks on my right. Snacks are important. Working all day I rarely have the energy to write at night. I sneak in time when I can. Truthfully I don’t really let a day go by without writing something. My day does feel off if I don’t. Having less time (job, family, life) I think I am actually more prolific then when I had no kids and worked at a restaurant a few nights a week. Wow, all that time seems so luxurious now that I don’t have it. Since I have a finite amount of time, I really make the most of it.

What are sources of inspiration that you return to?
My two daughters provide endless amounts of inspiration. And books. I can always count on a good book to fill my imagination well. But the one thing that always drives me (and boy is this going to sound cheesy I think) is the idea of connection. It’s such a basic human need that I think we humans struggle with. It’s a theme that comes up in nearly everything I write.

Can you tell us a little bit about your day job and how you got there? How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

I write and edit Medicare marketing materials for a health care company. A friend of mine recommended me for the job and it’s been great! I must have an affinity for the senior Beth Navarrocommunity seeing that my first book is about a kick butt grandma and I work on medicare. I love that parallel. It is challenging having a day job, because I can’t devote every moment to writing. But I also think it’s a good thing. It forces me to dedicate certain time to writing. It helps me to really focus on one thing at time.

To learn more about Beth Navarro and where to find her work, check out her website. While there be sure to check out her logo, created by one of her daughters, and tell me that it is not one of the best logos ever.

Paula Carter, essayist, fiction writer & freelancer: Making it all fit together

Paula_CarterPaula Carter and I met in Samrat Upadhyay‘s backyard; he had invited a handful of former students over for lunch to catch up and gossip about the affairs of the University. Samrat was feeling nostalgic, I believe, as most of his students move on from Bloomington every three years and just wanted to check in on us. Though Paula and I had both been students of Samrat’s at Indiana University’s MFA program, our tenures in Bloomington had not overlapped. Over lunch of delicious Nepali food, Paula and I discovered that not only did we both live in Chicago, we lived in the same neighborhood. We swapped contact info, and so started a new friendship…which often involves me picking Paula’s brain for good ideas. Beyond being a professional writer, fiction writer, and essayist, Paula is a master craftswoman (she makes jewelry and mobiles and refinishes tables) and is adventurer (she’s ready for a triathlon or to go Sup’ing in Lake Michigan or square dancing at Old Town School of Folk). I hope you will find her recent interview as inspiring for your creative life as I do.  To read some of her work head over to the Rumpus for a thrilling essay on margarine or check her professional website.

So what do you write?

Currently, I write both professionally and creatively.  As a professional writer, I freelance and work primarily with nonprofits to create development and fundraising pieces (think high-end grant writing).  I also work with a few magazines and marketing companies.  Creatively, I write narrative essays, short shorts, and fiction.  I’m currently working on a book of very short narrative nonfiction essays.

What are your sources of inspiration for your creative writing?

I have moved so many times in the last ten years and every time I pack up my many shelves of books and cart them along with me and wonder if I should let them go, or at least a chunk of them.  I know people who pass a book along as soon as they finish it, wanting it to find another reader and wanting to clear out the clutter in their lives.  I have the opposite problem: if you lend me a book, you may never see it again.  Most writers are book hoarders, I’m sure, and I am one of them.  Also, book klepto. There is something comforting about looking at a serious stack of books. My heart rate goes down.  Not long ago, I decided to stop feeling guilty about not cleaning out my book shelves and just accept that these books were going to travel with me through life.

I have not yet purchased an e-reader.  It is the physical object of the book that gives me joy; all the pretty colors and weighty titles lined up in a row waiting humbly.  I remember hearing Ray Bradbury talk about writing Fahrenheit 451 at the UCLA library at the 10 cent typewriters.  He would write for half an hour (that is how long 10 cents got him) then run up the stairs into the stacks, pull out an old book and take a deep whiff.  He said that old books smell like nutmeg and some foreign land.  Afterword he would return to the typewriter, put in another dime and keep going.

Theater is my other great love.  One of the things I appreciate about it is that it is collaborative.  Theater requires so many different people and ideas and creative minds to make it come to life.  I recently went to see The Little Prince at the Lookingglass Theater in Chicago.  The level of creativity and imagination at that theater is unbelievable.  If you aren’t familiar with the story, one of the main conflicts involves baobab trees which grow too big and threaten the Little Prince’s small planet.  Rather than use pieces of the set to represent the trees, each time a new tree sprouted an actor’s hand would shoot up through the floor of the stage. It was surprising, funny and fresh. I thought about it for days.  Who came up with that?  When did they decide it would work and who made the floor that allowed hands to break through it?  Being stuck inside my own mind and bumping up against my own limitations can be one of my biggest struggles when writing—in theater there is play and room to experiment before a decision is made.  It reminds me to let go more in my work, have fun, share it with others.

Just going to a show inspires me.  Here are these actors giving it their all for this one ephemeral moment, this one night with this one audience.  When it’s done, it’s done.  For it to come back to life, they have to start the work all over again.  There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Can you tell us a little bit about your day job and how you got there? How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

I have been reading Ann Patchett’s new collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The first paragraph of her introduction says:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.  My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns.  We serve them, and in return they thrive.  It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.”

Oh, to be a novel or a dog.  Patchett puts her finger on what I think it is the biggest struggle for creative people. I have had periods in my life when I had plenty of time to write and usually during those same periods worried constantly about what I could and could not afford.  Then, I have had times when I made a good salary and all those worries were relieved only to be replaced with uneasy and unsatisfied feelings that quickly led to anxiety and disappointment in myself.  Not a good combo.

Most people struggle to find the right work/life balance.  But artists must struggle to find the right work/life/work balance—this seems wholly unfair to me. For Patchett, she tried waitressing and teaching, before settling on freelance writing to pay the bills while she wrote her first few novels.  I have had a similar path (minus the waitressing and the first few novels).

Currently, I am a freelance writer.  I’ve been freelancing fulltime for about three years.  I decided to freelance—rather than work 9 to 5—as a way to have more flexibility, so I could also work on my own writing.  In many ways this has been effective.  I do have considerable flexibility and have been able to focus on my own creative projects in the last few years, in addition to making a living.

However, it has not been without its challenges.  The first year I made $8,000 and lived with my parents. After a few years my income has increased but I have discovered other drawbacks.  All of my work—both my own and professional work—is solitary. At times, I greatly miss working with a team.  As a freelancer, you are primarily on the outside of the action, creating content for one event or article or report, submitting the piece, making some edits and then moving on.  Additionally, when I have deadlines that other people are relying on, it can be hard to continue to set time aside to work on my own projects. No one is depending on them.  It takes real effort to continue to make them a priority.

But, really, I can’t complain. Every job has its issues and every artist has their own struggle to figure out how to make it all fit together.  For the most part, I feel pretty lucky.  I have yet to finish my “first few novels,” but I have almost completed a nonfiction manuscript I have been slowly and steadily working on.  And my cat, oblivious to economic concerns, is in love with this way of life.  I am home all day.