I first met Rebecca at a fortuitous holiday party in the neighborhood, when our mutual friend introduced us by saying, “You both write. You should talk.” We did talk and now I count her among the few writer friends who have seen me Pilox at Women’s Workout World. This is a testament to her kindness and grace, which is evident in all her essays and stories that I’ve been lucky enough to read.
I hope you will be as inspired as I was by her thoughtful interview about her own diligent writing practice, finding inspiration in other art forms, and how gears and gauges are like words and sentences.
What do you write? How do you write it?
I write nonfiction and sometimes fiction. Fiction always feels like giving myself a break from nonfiction because I tend to write essays that require months of picking away at research. But no matter what the genre is, I write slowly. That’s probably a matter of not making as much time for writing as I could, but I also like to think the story or essay is always there with me, walking around with me, and when I spend that much time with it, I finally get to know it better and realize what it’s missing.
There was a short story I was working on for three years, off and on, and it never felt finished. Then last January I was with my in-laws and while I was looking at a book of M.C. Escher’s artwork, I found an image that brought the story together and became central to its meaning. Then on the flight back I was reading Zadie Smith’s essay, “That Crafty Feeling” in her collection Changing My Mind, and it made me realize some super annoying things I was doing in the story that definitely needed to go. I revised the story again, sent it out, and Apeiron Review published it.
There’s definitely a hidden snare, there, too: Everything can be improved, and you can’t wait forever for the right piece of information to drift along. But I do find it comforting that if a story or essay isn’t coming together right now, I may have the resources later.
What are sources of inspiration that you return to?
Inspiration means two things to me: first, what sources tend to spark ideas, and second, what sorts of things help when I get stuck. Social history sparks ideas. I like to know all sorts of nutty things people were up to in the past. I’ve been reading a lot about Romantic era scientists and poets lately. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’s chronicle of the relationships between the poets and scientists of that era, makes me want to write at least eleven books.
When I get stuck, I turn to visual art, live lit, and poetry. I feel more inspired to write after I’ve browsed an art museum or gallery or spent an evening at the Uptown Poetry Slam. It helps me loosen up, not take myself so seriously, and just be part of the conversation. Poetry on the page helps too—I guess it moves me out of perfectionism and into joy.
Can you tell us a little bit about your day job and how you got there?
I’d been an adjunct for five years, up until 2013. I loved teaching, but it took everything I had. Weekends, evenings, and early mornings all went to lesson planning and grading. I wrote one story during the whole five years and it was for my mom, for Christmas, because she specifically asked me to write something. Eventually I gave up teaching and began freelance tech writing. The projects came in bursts and between bursts I could work on projects of my own. That was ideal for a while, and then the projects came in less frequent bursts, so I started working for my sister’s company, marketing orchards and small farms. Right now, I am doing that and working in a university writing center, which has brought many of the aspects I loved about teaching back into my life.
How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?
I love this question. Is it okay to give a shout-out to my dad, who turns 60 this week?
My dad will spend all day working on pharmaceutical packaging equipment, facilities maintenance, autoclaves, or whatever else he’s assigned, and then he’ll come home, eat dinner, and head out to the barn to fix old cars. He just loves the materials. He loves lifting large metal things on jacks. He loves gears and gauges and catalytic converters and pumps.
I think I’m the same way about sentences and words. I love these materials. Any day I get to spend with the written word is a good day. I believe that good, clean writing brings beauty into the world—whether it’s good copy for a good cause, a clear pharmacology report for a pharmaceutical company’s investigational drug, or a gripping essay in Harper’s. The marketing job allows me to do lots of writing, and that feels fulfilling. It is a challenge to find time to work on my own projects, and it’s easy for work to just spill over into everything. (I work with social media. That’s dangerous.) Working from home several days a week is good, though. I had been waking up early and spending a few hours writing, and my goal for October is to get back to that.