Blog Tour: some notes on “My Writing Process”

Kalfopoulou-RuinThank you Linda Lappin  for the opportunity to continue The Writing Process Blog Tour. For newcomers to Linda’s work, she is the author of numerous books, most recently Signatures in Stone  a mystery novel set in Bomarzo.  Linda is an American writer who has spent most of her adult life in Italy where she teaches and writes. She is a novelist, poet, and essayist, and has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the PEN Renato Poggioli Award, the Hugh J. Luke award for the essay from Prairie Schooner, an Ippy gold medal for historical fiction, and in 2012 a Solas bronze medal award from Traveler’s Tales. “The Genius Loci: A Writer’s Guide to Capturing the Soul of Place” is forthcoming.

Here are my answers to the Blog Tour questions:

Why do I write what I do? I don’t think this is the order of the questions, but I’m starting with this one since I am posting on my blog which is intended to be a space that expresses a plurality of voices, even if this comes through quotes, or references from various media venues. I’m making an exception with this post because my book RUIN, essays in exilic life (forthcoming in September from Red Hen Press), engages with various austerity-related narratives that have also been the focus of this blog. This also relates to why I write what I do. I had not planned on keeping a blog. I think part of my resistance had to do with the fact that I’ve often thought that blogging would lessen the pressure of the urgency to write in a more disciplined, in-depth fashion. But as Greece started to fall apart financially, and friends and acquaintances to say nothing of the larger fabric of the city and those growing numbers of the unemployed and homeless, began to be affected, it seemed like a way to keep something of a lit match in the forest of chaos if only as a conversation with myself in the dark, or with those who were having similar conversations, which I guess, too, is a large part of why I write what I do.  

Another thing about these blog posts, which connects them to the essays in RUIN, is that they engage the immediacy of the moment. Many of the essays in RUIN, as with these posts, were an attempt at keeping ahead of the wave. None of them were easy to write. Since austerity, Athens has changed drastically, the metal mongers as I call them, scavenging for anything they might sell from the trash, the pawnshops everywhere, the begging in the subways of those you wouldn’t expect to be begging, the hideous signs with their flashing lights that announce “immediate cash” for gold and real estate. All of this is part of the changing body of the city that is also composed of the consequences to its human bodies. “Why do I write it?” I suppose because putting words to a page or sentences that become paragraphs and then longer pieces, is a way to make sense on the level of the sentence when even that feels challenged or hopeless. It is not an easy, or ideal, way to write; it makes the process exhausting and often very painful but it is also a way to feel like I managed, even if for a little while, to shape something shapeless.

How does my work differ from that of other writers working in the same genre? I’ll limit this answer to essay writing. I’m not sure how my work may differ, but I can say that certain writers have influenced me, the work of Lia Purpura and David Lazar for example. I do think I have a particular style of putting moments together in the essay that can be (so I’ve been told) rather anarchic. I like the notion of the “braid essay”; or strands that come together in surprising ways. I work toward that, toward ways of allowing this to happen in the work. It’s the way I wrote most of the essays in RUIN. Somehow I think this is a reflection of the kinds of complexities of consciousness, even what I’d call a promiscuity of consciousness that’s the result of the information/sensation overload that we’re constantly exposed to. There’s a certain porousness in this moment which is something I try to express (it is easier for me to capture this in poems), but that simultaneity of convergences which could be viewed as a corruption of concentration is also, I think, indicative of a more general corruption of focus, of causalities, the result of late-capitalism’s excesses? The most interesting notes on the rejection letters I get are the ones that tell me “it takes too much effort to concentrate on where the essay is going,” this is a verbatim line. I took it as a compliment really, though I appreciate the danger of the car crash when there are too many intersections. But it’s that kind of working against the weave of a sort of lax causality that I want to achieve. I also think, politically speaking, it’s reductive over-simplifications that have gotten us into some of the messes we’re in.

 How does my writing process work? I don’t know that I have a “process”; I know the way I work is rather obsessive. That is I don’t have a ritual, say brushing my teeth, having my coffee, combing my hair, and then sitting to work (I think Cheever did that, and maybe Hemingway). It’s more like the reaction of someone who knows if they wait any longer the food will burn and be unrecognizable. I suppose writing is a way to keep the ghosts at bay, actually it’s a way to have less of them. The truth is writing often terrifies me. Milosz has a poem where he describes inspiration as a state of being possessed, and has a wonderful image of a tiger swishing its tail out of nowhere, but there it is, and he, the poet/writer, has to deal with it.

One of the essays in RUIN, “Stolen Culture”, was written over about 2 years. I kept the notes in various states of disarray, scraps in a plastic Sklavenitis supermarket bag. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget something I thought of maybe 6 months before as the essay kept changing. One of my close friends would periodically ask how “the shopping bag essay” was going. That essay overwhelmed me, not only because there was so much anger that I had to distill but also because the subject was so historically burdened. Marianne Boruch has an essay in the December 2013 issue of POETRY on “Melodrama” where she cites a first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s masterpiece “of reserve,” her villanelle “One Art” as being “a very sprawling attempt,” of “Pure melodrama!” Boruch reminds us (as her son reminds her) that melodrama is “a drama carried by melo, song.” Greek again. Part of the challenge and difficulty of dealing with all the drama of writing, let alone the “melo” parts as we’d say colloquially in Greek, is being willing to let it become whatever it is going to become. Greece, or what’s happened to Greece, has taught me to respect those moments of exploded boundaries. I think that’s what some of my writing comes out of, that tension and despair that I can’t do more than put words to paper. And it never seems enough.

What am I working on now? I’m a little superstitious about talking too much about what it is I’m doing when the work is in its raw beginning stages. Not because I want to be coy, just that I’m not sure myself if it will amount to anything, plus it’s a sort of love/hate thing, trying to commit to the fact that what’s happening will keep me from running from it; a little like a beginning relationship when there’s a sense of vulnerability and confusion about how comfortable I might be with the feelings, there isn’t always the choice of control over emotion but that’s the script we’re taught, at least in the western world. I try to resign myself in these moments to the idea that I do the work so I can earn some peace of mind, no matter what the result. So the subject I’m involved with now again engages the city, or cities, mainly Athens, and it uses tango as a metaphor. I’m calling it a fiction because the voice is someone else’s, someone who (unlike me) is rather horrified by a certain lack of structure.

In terms of more scholarly stuff, I still haven’t given up on my Plath project. I’ve published some essays from that monograph-in-the-making, but haven’t sat down to work on it in a beginning-to-end sequence. I have the chapter titles though (!)… they actually help me organize my thinking, and hopefully they eventually do become chapters. When I’m having doubts about my ability to live up to a project, I play a game of tackling small parts, an article, part of a would-be-chapter, and then gradually build from that until I can say that it is no longer in my head but on the page. I am arguing that Plath is a modernist expression of Emersonian ambition, and that much of her demonization by earlier critics like her contemporary Anne Stevenson, was due to a misunderstanding of this ambition. I’ve visited her archives at Smith a few times, and have a lot of source material I now have to sit down to, taxing muse that she is.

Now I would like to introduce the writers who will be continuing this blog tour next week [Feb. 3]: Click on their names to visit their websites.

I am thrilled to introduce the next two bloggers in this tour: Kate Gale, poet, fiction writer, professor, and one of the founding editors of Red Hen Press, and David Lazar, nonfiction writer, founding editor of Hotel Amerika, professor and director of the program in nonfiction at Columbia College.

First David (alphabetically by first name), I want to say when David accepted my first essay in RUIN, “Dislocated States” for Hotel Amerika I felt a little like someone who hears their language being spoken in a foreign country: His books include Occasional Desire: Essays, from the University of Nebraska Press, The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (Iowa), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (Mississippi), and Powder Town, a book of prose poems (Pecan Grove). Forthcoming is After Montaigne (University of Georgia Press). His essays and prose poetry have appeared widely in magazines and journals such as Black Clock, Southwest Review, Denver Quarterly, Sentence and Gulf Coast. Five of his essays have been named “Notable Essays of the Year” by Best American Essays. He has lectured widely on nonfiction and editing, and founded the Ph.D. program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University, and directed the creation of the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago, where he teaches. He is also the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year. David’s website.

Kate is, among many other things, the woman whose energy and generosity of spirit I want to emulate. I am so grateful to her and the Red Hens for their support of my work. She is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, writes for Huffington Post, and is a poet, fiction writer, editor, and librettist. Her new book, The Goldilocks Zone just been released from the University of New Mexico Press (January of 2014). Echo Light will be released from Red Mountain Press, September 2014. Here’s my favorite quote from Kate’s Q&A with Poets&Writers on the beginnings of the press:  “There was this bunch of farmyard animals, all of whom wanted to have bread. So the Little Red Hen said, “Who’s going to plant the wheat?” And they all said, “Not I! Not I!” So the Little Red Hen planted the wheat. But then she asked who was going to take care of the wheat, who’s going to harvest it? “Not I! Not I!” At the end, when she’s made the bread, she says, “Who’s going to eat the bread?” And everyone’s like, “I will!” And the Little Red Hen says, “No, I’m going to eat it myself!” [Laughs.] The story for us was a good image for getting going on something. Fortunately it didn’t keep on that way. Now we have a great staff, a great board, great shareholders, so the burden is not just on one or two people.” Kate’s website.


About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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1 Response to Blog Tour: some notes on “My Writing Process”

  1. Pingback: The Writing Process Blog Tour: The Recalcitrant Poet Edition | Wendy Willis

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