My Writing Process | 6.30.14
Sometimes you meet fellow creatives who are both brilliant and heartfelt, both accomplished and grounded. Today, I’m going to share with you a few of these fellow creatives whom I call friends, confidantes and truly gifted authors/poets. I recommend them to you highly, not only for the genius they put into the world but also for the way they put themselves into the world: Rosebud Ben-Oni, Cris Mazza, Vallie Lynn Watson, Michael Nye, Luke Goebel and my writing workshop group at Aspen Writers’ Summer Words workshop led by Andre Dubus III. Rosebud invited me to this party, and she’s asked me to answer a few questions on my process of writing. Heheh. But first, I want to introduce Rosebud Ben-Oni:
Rosebud Ben-Oni is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists’ Collective, 2013) and a CantoMundo Fellow. Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Bayou, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol, The Feminist Wire, Dialogist, B O D Y, Lana Turner Journal, Slice Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and elsewhere. In 2010, her story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize in Camera Obscura. Please read more about Rosebud at rosebudbenoni.com. She is super-talented and she does good things at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. If you don’t know her then that’s only because you are lame. Don’t be lame. Check out her book and her site. @rosebudbenoni
Now, on the Process of Writing…
On what am I currently working?
A drug-infused cult ride through a McDonald’s, a chapel, addictions, more addictions, sex, drive-thru redemption and snake worshipping. It’s a novel. Or it might have been my last book tour. I’m a little groggy on the details.
How does your work differ from others’ works in the same genre?
Richard Peabody described my writing as “akin to doing the tango with a succubus.” Frederick Barthelme said my words “point you, by what’s left out, to a spot on this good earth where the heart might flourish.” Which is to say my work will dance with you and suck at you and will urge you toward some lighter space outside the confines of your dark room. I like this. I value dark and intimate spaces. They are the best way to know yourself and the best way to search out the light, whether or not you ever find it. Makes no matter. It is the journey. This is what I look for in my reading and it’s what I endeavor to inflict on my characters. Why is this unique? I’ll tell you a secret. I am a dancer and a succubus.
Why do you write what you do?
I read to contemplate. I write for the same reason. Contemplation. I have no patience for readers or writers who wish to be led by the hand. If I’m not challenged intellectually and emotionally by what I’ve read or written, I’m bored. And there is nothing worse than a bored writer.
How does your writing process work?
Penelope’s tapestry. I’ll weave it and unweave it. Then I’ll weave it and unweave it again. For twenty long years I’ll weave and unweave the damn thing until it is smarter than me and figures out a way to weave itself. At one point, or several, it will piss me off and I’ll start mixing metaphors and throwing lip curls and beer bottles at it and then I’ll break it all to pieces. A real Sid Vicious. In the morning I’ll build it up again and sit down and get to work.
*How much of this self-interview is true?
Some of it. None of it. More. Or less. It doesn’t really matter what I say about myself as a writer. It makes no difference to the work. If you’re looking for writing advice or formulas, there are none. I mean, people will say things like write everyday (or whatever your rhythm is). And revision is the true art of writing. And they are correct. But most of it, the truly important pieces, you’ll have to work out for yourself along the way. Sorry. That’s the truth of it. Except for socks. I really like socks. I can’t wear shoes when I’m writing and if my feet are cold, I’m too distracted. Everything is lost in the discomfort of cold digits. So that’s my advice. Socks. Keep a pair of comfy socks nearby. They are your path to Pulitzer. I think. But I don’t now. I’m just writing. Oh. Oh. Actually. Here’s something Dubus (III) said in a workshop this last month, quoting Richard Bausch: “Dream dream dream.” Don’t overthink it when in the process of first putting words to paper. I like this. Dream it through. I think Dubus’ words were, “Dream it through, brother, dream it through.” He also meant sister.
Next week, Tune into Cris Mazza, Vallie Lynn Watson, Michael Nye and Luke Goebel…
Cris Mazza | Cris Mazza is the author of Something Wrong With Her, a hybrid memoir published by Jaded Ibis Press in 2014, a companion piece to Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls. She has authored over a dozen other books, mostly novels and collections of short fiction. She is the winner of the Pen/Nelson Algren Award. Mazza now lives in the Midwest and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois Chicago. @crismazzaauthor
Vallie Lynn Watson | Vallie Lynn Watson is the author of the novel A River So Long (Luminis Books, 2012). Her work has appeared in dozens of literary magazines such as PANK, decomP magazinE, andGargoyle. She is an editor at New World Writing, formerly Mississippi Review online. Watson received her doctorate at the Center for Writers, the University of Southern Mississippi, and is teaching part-time in the Creative Writing and English departments at University of North Carolina Wilmington. In her spare time she is earning a hot air ballooning license. @vallielwatson
Michael Nye | Michael Nye is the author of Strategies Against Extinction, his debut short-story collection, was released from Queen’s Ferry Press in October 2012. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, New South, Sou’wester, and South Dakota Review, among many others. His work has been a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in fiction and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is at work on new stories and a novel. He lives in the Midwest and works as the managing editor of The Missouri Review. @mpnye
Luke Goebel | Luke B. Goebel is a fiction writer living in Texas. His first novel, Fourteen Stories: None of Them Are Yours, will be released in September of 2014 by FC2 as the latest winner of the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction.
And Then There Is Aspen…
I must give a special shout-out to an amazing writing group at The Aspen Writers Summer Workshop this June in Aspen, Colorado. A big thank you to Aspen Writer’s for bringing me out and a bow to Vannessa Hua, Alex Wilson, Cara Lopez Lee, Terry Dubow, Tom Bernard, Dennis Vaughn, Lija Fisher, Cristal Thomas, Kathy Conde and, of course, our truly spectacular leader, Andre Dubus III, who I now affectionately refer to as sensei. Also, it was a treat to meet Meg Wolitzer, Melissa Bank and Billy Collins.
Here we are…
And here is the bottle we shot and autographed after our last workshop story.
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press, 2011). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. Her intermedia has exhibited in New York, DC, Baltimore and Florence, Italy. She has won prizes and fellowships from Johns Hopkins, Aspen Writers Foundation, VCCA and Whidbey Writers and has been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, The &NOW Award and multiple times for the Pushcart award. Rae earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is founding editor of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She also teaches and lectures in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa and The Eckleburg Workshops. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. @raebryant | #mywritingprocess
From “Anthropophagi Mosiac”
“Anthropophagi. Absorption of the sacred enemy. In order to transform into totem.”
— Revistia of Antropofagia, Oswald de Andrade
There is no heritage, only ethnography.
If nothing else, seasons are salvation. Yet I was forged in a seasonless climate.
I wasn’t an intention. They had lost a girl two years before that summer, when my parents lived in my Aunt Nena’s house on the U.S.-Mexican border. That summer all sorts of things creeping into my aunt’s home: scorpions, indigo snakes, toads, tarantulas. A summer of my mother veiling her eyes from the sun in salt marshes. Her period was a week late when an armadillo, full-armored, bony-plated, swam towards her where she waded in shallow waters.
I want to hear more, where was my father, if she touched the armadillo, was it an omen after all, what they had named their almost-daughter.
I don’t remember, she shrugs, her elbow deep in a sink of water hot enough to burn anyone else, and it doesn’t mean anything. Stop looking for symbolism. Trust only what gives it to you straight.
As a child I am convinced there is a whole other world hiding in my father’s languages. For years I study, tear apart and search for this world in Biblical and Modern Hebrew, in the Torah, in the commentaries of great men. My father insists on equality. You are raising her like your son, a rabbi comments, and that fact of my lacking, my biology, never leaves me.
I learn early that I’m limited from the start. I will never be a high priest. I am forbidden to speak the most sacred of names. Soon we switched synagogues. Because I was born female.
It does not begin there. It begins with my mother Esperanza, a Mexican, a Catholic, poor, second mother to a family of 9. Esperanza is a hard woman and terribly practical; at seven I fall very ill with a high fever, and she sends me to school. When I’m sent home, she takes me back.
It doesn’t begin there. It begins with her conversion to Judaism before I was born. It begins with my father Yakov losing most of his family when he married her.
She becomes Espie, and he becomes Jack. They attempt new accents and dress styles. They travel all over the Southwest and Mexico. My father shaves his beard, keeps his mustache, and is delighted when others speak Spanish to him.
Your father wanted to be a vaquero all along, my mother says, but not necessarily Mexican. A cowboy in an ideal, universal sense. He wanted love, honor and sweeping countryside. Yet he cannot completely leave behind his old self. He still prays every Friday night, says Kaddish for his parents. His old self appears, the minor cords stripping him of all new adornments. It moves my mother, and she welcomes these moments, the moments that lived before he knew her. This, she says, is part of why I converted.
It does not begin there. It begins when I ask my father about his past, and he says he is a man from nowhere. My mother’s family is large and spread out along the U.S.-Mexican border from Chula Vista to Brownsville. In each of their homes has been a space for us, a space too for this man from nowhere.
Within my father, there is no heritage, only confession to my mother, his priestess who offers not forgiveness but devotion, even when he falls silent again for years at a time.
Reflection is a luxury, my mother has always said, not approving of this essay.
Your father is a man who does, she over a bad connection, and we don’t talk about it. She is tired and cranky from a long day testing students’ Spanish skills at an elementary school. She is soaking her feet in a small tub that my father fills with Epson salts, and waits until he leaves for his shift at Pep Boys. She always calls when he has the evening shift. She wants to talk after all. She has decided that there are things someone should remember.
Only after I was a teenager did I learn about my father’s father Benyamin. This man was already a grandfather when he married my father’s mother, my grandmother Lee, his third wife. My father was born to watch his father die for years in a hospital. After Benyamin’s death, very few family members attended the funeral, to spite his new family. My father, raised by a single mother, poor, isolated. It ends there, for now.
My father’s father left my father only a quote from the Talmud: Eternity means Jerusalem. He did not explain. He didn’t have time.
My maternal grandfather Julian, my abuelo, was a second father to me. Abuelo was my man of lank, my first beloved, a fisherman who taught me to swim in the Gulf of Mexico by throwing me in the water off a boat without warning. It was the first test of love I’d ever know, the first heartbreak, the first reconciliation all rolled up into one sunburnt, watery-eared day.
In her youth, my mother won a beauty pageant in the Rio Grande Valley. She was crowned and photographed. But the newspapers would not run her photo. Because she was Mexican. She is telling me this now, over the bad connection. She has told me many times.
I have inherited my parents’ feeling of being in free fall. In college I turn down medicine and business in favor of poetry. I have no safety net. At 18 I am expected to contribute to the family income. I send some of my scholarship money home. My mother mails the checks back.
My grandfather broke the world down for me: there are dolphins, the divine whose charms and intelligence hide their violence; the sharks, those apex climbers who have exceeded evolution, and the whales, the unknown we should leave alone. Which are we, I’d asked. We are the sharks, he said. Even your quiet, gentle, forgiving father.
Though it is harder to see them, distance-wise, my father’s family in Israel is more accepting of us. This family has seen combat. Some of my cousins, after completing their service in Israel, wash up on the shores of Goa. They want something more of all that is less. Something quiet. They mistake, at times, my father’s silence for inner peace.
In 2002, I move to Har Hatsofim, an Israeli enclave in Arab East Jerusalem. I was in love with an Arab Christian woman. My mother would not talk to me during those years. Not because of homophobia. But because my mixed status had already complicated matters enough. Why bring sexual preference into it, she asked, thinking practically.
In failed reconciliation, I write in “Levantine” for my ethnicity for a fellowship at Hebrew University. I cannot stop claiming space. I gouge out a hermit crab, bury myself in caliche. Those are the days I’d tell Nazim Hikmet: If I do this, then I won’t have to plant trees.
My cultures are endless civil war. Cartels carving up turf. I tear myself up to speak. I’m not talking about only civil war. The warring turf is within me.
I come from a long line of apex climbers. I hit puberty late, and in high school, we are shown a film about the female blue shark, who pushes down her womb to shallow ground during mating season. She is almost unmovable. Her skin is thicker than the males. I will be deterred. I will not submit. I will fight rather than die.
I had my first taste of whiskey in my abuelo’s boat. I’d just eaten a raw clam.
I remember it quivering in a clear plastic dish, cracked on the bottom. The clam bled passing between us. You could die, my abuelo said, in lesser hands; don’t ever trust anyone like this. It was my first raw flesh. I wanted to tear it to bits. I wanted it to scream and beg. I chewed until my own lips bled. Here, he said: drink a little of this; it kills the bad stuff. He gave me a drop or two, and I tasted all the salt and ethanol and spit and morning cigarettes of him. I’m dying, he said, as the sun blazed over us, my mouth dry, my throat tight. Do you know what death is?
No, I whispered.
Death is the ocean, he said.
This is what abuelo left me. He did not explain. He didn’t have time.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 Canto Mundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Recently, her story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize for Best Short Story in Camera Obscura: A Journal of Contemporary Literature and Photography. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her a t7TrainLove.org