Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other – do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
All of this changes depending on the phase of life I’m in. I suppose in the “golden period” of routine, when I was working on my first book, I would get up very early and write before work, then work, read, drink, decompress, and start the cycle over again. This changed when I had my son, and I had to fit writing in around his nap schedule. Then he stopped napping.
Last year when the virus was raging I rented a little studio to work in, I needed a space in which to do revisions for my second novel that wasn’t the family home as coffee shops were no longer an option. So I went there for as much time as I had a day. Now, I’m working a new job I started five months ago completely out of my field and I’ve been having a mental breakdown every week. I moved, got married, began doing a lot of logistical life things, and I also have a lot of reading to do in the form of manuscript consultations, so it’s very mood and energy-driven, my writing schedule (the method I try to discourage with my students —I am not following my own rules right now). I have no schedule, because I have no project.
But the project is forming, and once it materializes, I will put myself on a schedule again. I see it as going underground. And when I finish a book I resurface in the land of the living, and after that the logistics I’d been ignoring rush in and I blink like a mole in the sunlight, and relearn the human routines. What I think I’m trying to say is that it’s seamless, my work cycle. I never avoid writing. It pulls me when it’s time. It’s not a chore. I journal a lot, especially in times of chaos. I have eight active journals and I write in all of them.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
When I think “breakthrough” I think of something that kind of shocked me, and I guess that would have to be my 2013 article for Playboy. It’s the most money I’ve ever been paid for a piece and it was a breakthrough somewhat because it was an accident. The editor followed me on Twitter one day and I just tweeted at him out of nowhere. I literally said, Does this mean I can write for Playboy now? I wouldn’t be obnoxious like that now but I was 23, not following any protocol. I didn’t think I’d get a response but he said yes! He asked me to email him and I wrote a pitch.
The piece I proposed was about Kegel balls. It was around the time “Fifty Shades of Grey” was a big hit and I was working in a sex shop and we were selling dozens of them a day, because E.L. James had convinced a whole mass of women they were this ultra-erotic accessory, but in reality they just feel like rumbly tampons. Which I found out by taking them to a vinyasa flow class for a test drive. It was fun, and out of left field, and it solidified that, as a writer, I can literally do anything I want and there will always be an audience for it. That was an important realization to have.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me the ideal state of mind is focused, clear-headed. As far as what it takes to get me there: it’s a space I’ve always accessed in different ways. If I had my way all the time, I’d get up at dawn completely alone, sit down to write with a pot of coffee and not speak to another human until noon. But of course it’s more touch-and-go than that. So wherever/whenever I’m working, I center myself as a medium. Clear myself so the energy can come through me, in whatever form it shows up in. That’s how I see myself in the deep space: as a conduit.
That’s why pieces I wrote that felt forced or were on too strict a deadline came out a little try-hard. It takes as long as it takes. But I’ve found that, to be an artist in general, you have to take your art seriously without taking yourself too seriously. It’s like that line in Practical Magic: you can’t practice magic while looking down your nose at it. You can’t write if you hate writing, if you’re consumed by pointlessness, jealousy, success, someone else’s or your own lack thereof. You can’t write if you feel endless doubt, if you don’t trust your vision, if the act of writing feels like a waste of time, a drain, a slog. That’s the dust in your eyes, and you can’t write like that. You can’t channel divine energy when you’re mired in your own bullshit.
Take your work seriously. It’s a life’s work. But don’t take yourself that seriously. You’re a bag of blood and tissue with electricity running through it. Honor that. Love that. Laugh at that.
Practical things, though: Cutting out all distractions helps. Putting my phone in a drawer. Shutting off the internet. Setting a goal of some kind (word count, write a scene until I’m empty). I look at these flow states as walking a tightrope: touch the sky, don’t look down.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
Absolutely, yes. Before I learned the term “bibliotherapy” there were books I read as medicine, books that saved my life, or at least helped me hang on a little longer until I could grasp the next rung of the ladder that felt within my reach.
Words also cause a lot of pain. Something that comes to mind easily is religious indoctrination, and books whose entire existence is centered on telling the reader they are bad or wrong for existing the way they do. Diffusing black smoke in the mind. And then people need to heal from those kinds of words, and sometimes spend the rest of their lives having to rewrite that narrative. It’s sad. If only we/they had read different books as children. Anything that comes off prescriptive rather than descriptive, I’ve learned to be wary of.
Literature and poetry have always been healing forces. I believe the right books come to you when you need them, but that also brings up the issue of access. Practically/specifically, I believe access to books in prisons needs to be top priority. Prisons and psychiatric hospitals and detention facilities and anywhere anyone is unfree. Literature and poetry need to be available there as much as food, water, shelter, those types of basics. Not crappy mass market bestsellers and self-help books only, the throwaways that always get donated, but good books, all the time, not just at Christmas when people are feeling charitable. Someone needs to be in charge of that, consistently.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I have a handle on this in practice but it always feels hard to explain. The thing is to not use anything as a blanket. Pay attention to what you’re drawn to and why, and if you feel the need to lift from another culture, ask yourself where that impulse is coming from, and get curious about that. It’s like the lush garden dilemma. Interrogate the impulse to use found language (or symbolism, or anything), because if it’s not your own words you’re using, there’s something under there. Is it because you don’t know how to say/do something, or is it because you want to engage with something? If you truly listen in there, I doubt you will have an appropriation problem.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Yes—I think about this often. I love working with all of them. As a young writer, I was fascinated with description—I wanted to nail everything down the way I saw it, put my lens on everything. Overdescription. Aggro-realism.
Some criticisms of my first book call the atmospherics belaboured, too much description, too heavy a pile-on. I don’t disagree with that. I wouldn’t do it that way now, but at the time, I didn’t want to pull back. I liked how the description kind of felt like an assault. I have always loved being made to feel things just by interacting with a text, and I think I just overdid it in practice because I was hungrier for external stimuli. I liked difficulty but not subtlety. Darcey Steinke’s “Jesus Saves” made me physically ill and I loved it.
When I write, I sketch. I think of the work as a canvas, and rather than climax, inciting action, narrative, I think in terms of linework, shading, saturation. Light and shadow. That’s how I look at novel construction. Where to zoom in, where to color, where to sharpen, where to distort.
I think the senses are all dendrites off the central sense-cell. They’re somewhat interchangeable. And our degree of sensitivity to them varies from person to person, but we all have the ability to hear color and taste sound. Drugs come into play here sometimes but they don’t have to. As William Burroughs says, Anything that can be accomplished chemically can be accomplished in other ways.
So it’s all in there already. We just have to figure out how to access it.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Just like I don’t believe in writing in a vacuum, I don’t really believe in art for art’s sake. If the social and political elements aren’t present, they’re either consciously left out for a reason or the writer is pretending they don’t exist. The work will tell you which one it is.
My approach is to be in relationship with life, with art, be engaged in it, but not get caught up in the maelstrom. One foot in the water and one on the land. Like the Temperance card in the Tarot, the water exchange between the cups is the ideal artistic flow state, for me. You have to be in it and outside of it all at once. Completely in, you’re too saturated with the world to make art; completely out, you’re too out of touch with the world to make art. It’s necessarily both—back and forth.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
How it works. I feel like other art forms show you the inside of your own mind more than anything. You get an opportunity to interrogate your biases, impulses, likes and dislikes. With writing, you get a portal into another mind, and in reading, your own mind blends with that mind. It’s a type of alchemy like nothing else, and it doesn’t rely on interpretation as much as claircognizance. It’s a completely singular, completely separate area of magickal exchange.