Over the course of the development of my book, Body on the Wall, I became good friends with Don Mitchell, one of the partners of Saddle Road Press. He took the photograph used on the cover of my book, did the cover design, and we coordinated all of the production work together via email, with him at his home base in Hilo, Hawai’i and me in Sonoma County, California. A few weeks ago, he invited me to be part of the “My Writing Process Blog Tour.” The idea is that writers answer four basic questions, and then tag-team on to a new group of bloggers, spreading the love. Here’s the link to Don’s post, which aired last Friday, on his site Mono Kakata: Being the Other or, more simply, Don Mitchell.
Now it’s my turn to answer the questions.
Question 1: What am I working on?
A couple of years ago, as a journalist I went to a women’s prison at Chowchilla through a program called Get on the Bus which brings children and their guardians to visit their mothers on Mother’s Day. There are far fewer women’s prisons than men’s, and often they are in remote locations, so it can be very difficult for the children to secure transportation on a regular basis to see their mothers. I rode the bus with the kids, spent the day at the prison, and was one of only a couple of journalists there. I had full access, and the women were surprisingly forthcoming, partially because I had a camera, and I promised to send pictures afterwards to the caregivers. It was very intense, and I heard many gut-wrenching stories, but mostly it was feel-good. The mothers were so thrilled to be with their kids. One of the standard questions I asked was “How long is your sentence?” The range was wide, and part of the reason I asked it was because I learned that often these women hadn’t seen their children in a year, two years, even more. But one woman, when I asked the question, answered, “Life.” She was surrounded by her teen and young adult children. I said, “May I ask what you were sentenced for?” She said she didn’t want to bring it up in front of her family.
I got home, wrote my piece for the newspaper, but couldn’t let that one go. I had her name, and her home town, so I did a search. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I knew she had probably killed someone, perhaps in a domestic violence incident, a gang-related thing, who knew? But when I found the news article, it sucked my breath out. She had beaten to death a young foster child in her care. I wasn’t ready for it. I found myself over the next two weeks in a period of intense grief, sobbing, angry, bewildered. I knew at that moment I would have to write about it.
The project has been building since then. Initially, the book was going to be just about this death, and my own grief, in a series of poems, in some new, experimental style that I must create. But I also felt I needed to know more first about prison. So I started reading – and as I did that, I began to uncover the whole plight of women in prison, the institution of our prison system. And remembering all the other stories I had heard that day, as well as the experiences I had had when I used to bring NA meetings into the San Francisco County jail for women inmates. The first poems I wrote ended up being not about that little girl as a victim, but about prisoners as victims. I realized they were part of the same book. I needed to write that part first, before I could get to the more personal journey I had traversed with my own sense of betrayal, my own wounded little girl. It’s emotionally exhausting, but I’m very excited about it.
I’m also working on an anthology right now, with two other women, Ann Hutchinson and Kate Farrell. It’s a collection of writings from the project I created and have facilitated for the past five years, Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence, sponsored by the YWCA Sonoma County. We have selected the pieces, and are in the editing phase. We hope to have the anthology ready in time for our October events, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The book’s working title is Cry of the Nightbird.
Question 2: How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I am both a poet and a writer of creative nonfiction. Speaking just of my poetry, I would say that it differs in that it is spare, straight forward. Non-poets often tell me, after a reading, “I can understand your poetry!” with surprised delight. And I don’t mind that. I am not out to write convoluted, esoteric verse. My poems push more towards truth-telling, finding kernels of insight, moments of “aha!” I tend to lean towards the serious side. My mother recently told me that not many people would really want to hear my poetry, unless they were at a domestic violence workshop or something. Ouch. Hey, but that’s OK. To each their own. My sister said, “It made me cry. And that’s what poetry is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you feel.” Thank you, Catherine. Not all of my poems are dark. I also write love poems, funny poems, just day-in-the-life poems. It’s those uncomfortable ones, though, that people seem to remember, and either really like, or get fidgety and say, “Nope, this poet’s not for me.” Like I said, that’s fine. There are plenty of other poets out there writing feel-good poetry who they can turn to. Me, I’ll continue writing what I have to write – the poems that need to be spoken, whatever form that happens to take on any given day. Same with my creative nonfiction work – it can run the gamut, but tends towards the intense side. I can’t help it. It seems to be my wiring.
Question 3:Why do I write what I do?
At the most personal level, I write because things are inside of me that need to be expressed. If I didn’t write them, I would implode. It is the way I have of processing my feelings and experiences. A poem is like a container. I can take whatever happened, manipulate it, order it, structure it, and in the end, there it is — a neatly wrapped package. The emotions are now tied into a bundle, and I can move on.
I also write at a more socio-political level. I definitely feel there are issues, causes, topics in our daily life that should and must be addressed. I think a poet has just as much a responsibility to tackle these as an op-ed writer does. Domestic violence, discrimination against gays and lesbians, over-crowded prisons, homelessness, racism, war, violence in general, petty unkindnesses…these are all fodder for my poetry mill. Sometimes those who are the victims are unable, for one reason or another, to write for themselves. I don’t want to co-opt their voices, but I do want to at least draw attention to the issues, give them a place at the table.
And finally, I write for the sheer joy of it. I love words. I adore the magic of language, the play, the fun. What would I do with myself if I didn’t have this avenue of expression? Go mad, I am simply sure of it.
Question 4: How does your writing process work?
OK, this is always a tricky question. Because it assumes an actual process! I am not someone who sits down at my computer every day for three or four hours and writes. I am not a good person when it comes to routines – I don’t eat meals at regular times, follow an exercise regimen, clean the house in an orderly fashion – it’s just not the way I’m wired. So when it comes to writing, the first thing to know about me is that I am a percolator. I think about things for a long time. Whether it’s a single poem or a larger project, things brew. It may not look as if I’m working at all, but I am. It’s in the background, like a computer doing a scan while you’re busy reading email. Then complete lines or stanzas just pop up. I keep a notepad by the bed, and try to have one with me all the time during the day. When I do sit down at the computer, I’ll have scrawled lines on numerous pieces of paper, and the bones of a piece are all there. I know where I’m going. I start typing, and that first draft has the rough elements. I go back several times, do the cutting and refining. I often talk out loud when I’m doing this. I tend to be very verbal anyway, and the act of speaking the words helps me with the way it is coming together. I am a terrible procrastinator, so I do find that deadlines help. It pushes the process, assists in cutting out some of that “just sitting around musing” time. Because I’m a very skilled muser.
Now you’re in for a treat. Next up on the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” are two fabulous women writers: Teresa LeYung-Ryan and Crissi Langwell. (I was supposed to have three bloggers, but everybody I asked demurred, and I finally gave up, so you get two. Teresa and Crissi, I am sure, will get three, so follow their posts, and you’ll be in for a great ride.) Here’s their info. They’ll be making their posts next Friday, May 16.
Teresa LeYung-Ray is the author of Build Your Own Writer’s Platform & Fanbase in 22 Days: Attract Agents, Editors, Publishers, Readers & Media Attention NOW. http://writingcoachTeresa.com Teresa’s novel Love Made of Heart: A Mother’s Mental Illness Forges Forgiveness in Daughter Ruby is used in college courses and archives at the San Francisco History Center. She blogs at http://lovemadeofheart.com/blog/
Crissi Langwell is the author of Paranormal Fantasy novels A Symphony of Cicadas and Forever Thirteen, two of three books in the trilogy “Forever After.” She is currently in the process of writing the third installment to this trilogy. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their blended family of three kids, and several whiny fur-kids. She writers about her stories, writing, and life in general over at crissilangwell.com.