Monday, June 9, 2014

Writer's Life Project, a Blog Hop, or Hoppy Blog

I was awfully flattered to get an email from Debra Liese asking if I'd like to participate in "Writer's Life Project," a blog hop in which writers get to talk about our current projects, our writing endeavors, and how we work. I usually try to resist the urge to casually engage in this kind of conversation because I've learned that the more I talk about my writing projects, the less I do them. But I live in a rural area and have little opportunity to chat with other real-life writers about my work, so this is a rare opportunity.

Debra and I connected after she read my essay "Acts of Faith" on Full Grown People, about my atheism and intermittent longing for faith. (It also has Russia in it. Russia is a great backdrop for a lot of my work.) We've exchanged many emails since then, about atheism and agnosticism and faith and our mutual love of L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon series (if you like Anne of Green Gables at all, you'll like Emily Starr's story even more) and I'm an enthusiastic reader of her work. Her blog about creativity, which is published on Pyschology Today, is titled Ink: Creativity for Cowards. Right up my alley!

Enough babbling. If you want to read my essays, many of them are accessible through my website. The point here is to answer these questions, which I'm thrilled to do because they're topics I think about a lot. So let's go digging in the scrap pile:

1. What am I writing or working on?

Since last year I've been working on Against the Grain. It's a memoir about my experience of modern motherhood, which included a deep depression for nearly a year, and about trying to regain a sense of self without resorting to medication. I resorted instead to what I privately call my "competence project." It started with teaching myself to can and preserve food for winter, in response to thinking about the competence of my pioneer ancestors, and my Russian grandmother, and how I failed to live up to their standards. I branched out to making myself slaughter a rooster (ugh), taking a chainsaw and logging safety class (yikes), and several other endeavors, and have mostly focused on rustic woodworking, which I fell in love with. For this, I switch between woodworking, writing, and volunteering at a local hardwoods sawmill. Think Claire Dederer's Poser crossed with Shop Class as Soulcraft.

At the same time, I dug out an old manuscript: My Russian Condition, a travel memoir about my lifelong relationship with Russia. Finding it wasn't as crappy as I'd concluded it was several years ago, I've been revising it.

I am a regular contributor to Full Grown People, which focuses on personal essays and is my favorite nonfiction magazine (not least because its founder, Jennifer Niesslein, is the kind of editor all writers dream of), so I've always got something new in the works. I'm also working on a very long-form essay titled My Jewish Problem, about my Jewish blood, lack of Jewish identity, and the resilience of anti-Semitism. And I write a lot on sustainability and environmental issues. This week I am attending the Bread Loaf-Orion Environmental Writers Conference, which is very exciting and where I hope to learn a lot.

And until an agent snaps up my mystery novel and finds a publisher excited about the series I've planned on the strength of it, I'll continue tinkering with The Commutative Property of Addition.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In my nonfiction, I focus hard on a few things. One is running a deep plumb line into any idea that comes my way. I get frustrated when reading essays that have beautiful language and innovative metaphors, but in which the thoughts still stay at the surface level. I might not always find the most sparkling phrasing, but I don't let up on an essay or book until I feel like I've excavated the subject from every angle I can personally explore. As a kid, I was deeply devoted to geology and paleontology; my writing has a similar devotion to bedrocks and geological layers and long, long perspectives of time and humanity. I do adore analysis and logic, and using those skills to heighten a piece of creative work is both a challenge and a privilege.

In my mystery novel I'm aiming for the literary mystery sphere, a cross between Louise Penny and Kate Atkinson. Is it different from what others do? It's a very character-driven work, with a strong sense of place. I draw on my past experience as a travel writer, and the protagonist is in fact a travel writer. Her sidekick -- the Nero Wolfe to her Archie Goodwin -- is a mathematician, which I wanted to do because I was a mathematics undergrad and have a deep passion for the subject, and you can't beat it for forcing people to think logically. Plus, they're estranged half-sisters with serious issues and troublesome mothers, which is great fun. I think so, anyway. And it takes place at a paleontology dig in Eastern Montana. All my favorite things!

3. Why do I write what I do?

Is that a trick question? Maybe not. I wrote the mystery because I love reading mysteries, and also, frankly, I thought it might be a good way to make a living as a writer. Still, I couldn't have done it if I didn't enjoy the genre and wasn't enthralled with my characters and the setting.

Nonfiction is more complicated. Like all writers, I write what comes to me, what inspires me. But I also have issues I care about to such an extent that they help define who I am: environmental degradation, women's rights, child abuse of varying stripes, education. My writing can range from journalism-type articles on teaching mathematics to more literary works on psychological abuse or, to pick a recent example, musing on the effect that a lack of sidewalks (and having to drive everywhere) has on both our physical health and our mental ability to think flexibly and find common ground.

I've been driven by environmental issues a lot recently, maybe because I have kids or maybe because I have always believed in having a relationship with the earth beneath our feet and the air we breathe. And it's become clear that even the best scientific research or most poetic writing isn't making a dent in the public consciousness. So my focus is veering: how does a writer help create a geological shift in the way we relate to the planet and to each other?

4. How does my writing process work?

Is that another trick question?

Okay, years ago when I was fresh out of my MFA program, I had all sorts of regulations for myself: how long to write, when to write, how many words to produce per day. I have yet to find a fellow living, breathing writer for whom any of those systems actually work.

In any case, it all flew out the window once I had kids. Because like many people, I started my writing life setup like this, thinking this scene is exactly what it would look like until I ended up with dementia and in a home where my ungrateful children had put me. Lovely, right?

After my first child was born, this is what my work space turned into:

Here is my saving grace: twice a week, for seven hours, I have a nanny come. I know, I know, it sounds like an immense amount of time. Most of it, though, is eaten up with my day job as a freelance textbook copy editor or doctors' appointments or oh-crap-I-forgot errands. I sacrifice as many Thursdays as I can to going to the local hardwoods sawmill because that's where I'm doing my competence apprenticeship and also my sense-of-self restoration and also I really like it. But I get a lot of writing done around those edges anyway. Because I'm copy editing during the days, I'm at my desk, so when inspiration strikes or I stumble across helpful research I'm right there, no other distracting tasks to finish. I just turn off my work timer and switch windows. It makes a big difference. I usually have one of my book or essay documents open, and quickly bypass the inner Censor/naysayer without blinking. That's something I've only learned to do through years of training, like being an athlete. The rest of the time I get up at 4 or 5 in the morning. Because I homeschool and work part-time and am a stay-at-home mom, getting all of it done would require early hours even without the writing. Not that I'm saying I do get it all done. But those early morning hours are when I access my most honest writer self.

And lastly, I have finally, after many years and attempts, found a writing group that fits where I am in my writing and what I'm working on. We meet once a month via Google Hangout and workshop two essays. Everyone in the group is a stellar writer, takes their writing seriously, and works hard to support the endeavors of others. Reading their work inspires me to produce more and make it better.

I could go on forever. Which would be boring. So now I'll hand this off to two writers I've known and admired for a long time:

Karrie Higgins and I met several years ago through Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet microessay contest on Twitter, where we both participated regularly. Since then we've exchanged a book's worth of letters (even some real ones) and Karrie has become not just one of my favorite writers, but one of my favorite people. She writes about psychogeography, family, abuse, environment, the concept of faith, being a gentile in Salt Lake City, and so much more with a plumb line and dedication that frankly leaves mine in the dust. Not only did her stunning essay "Bottle City of God" win Cincinnati Review's Schiff Award in Prose (the issue is coming out soon! Go get it!), but she makes her own ink.

Carolyn McCarthy and I went through the MFA program at Emerson College together. We met in a travel writing class and continued to take several nonfiction classes together. She was one of the best writers in the program, a natural storyteller and observer and with a knack for choosing the most perfect, sparest words for every description. Before coming to the program, she had worked teaching English in Buenos Aires and as a backcountry guide in Patagonia. After graduating, she was granted a Fulbright scholarship to document the way of life of pioneer families in rural Patagonia, a timely project because massive dam projects now threaten the area and that way of life. She was trekking and writing a lot, received a grant for her work from Banff Mountain Culture, and then got a job as a Lonely Planet writer. She's written for magazines like National Geographic and Outside in addition to authoring 12 Lonely Planet guides. Carolyn is an amazing person, one of my most valued friends, and her creative writing remains some of the most memorable I've had the privilege to read. And, she built her own writer's retreat in Chile. Talk about competent.


debra said...

So much to be fascinated by here, Antonia—mathematics, sidewalks, and especially your competence project. I was looking at some of the photos of your woodworking, which is beautiful. It’s interesting, too, what you say about appreciating language and metaphor, but getting frustrated with ideas that don’t extend beyond the surface level. I think I often experienced fiction as a ‘cop out’ in this sense--too easy to say “as long as it sounds good...” but of course, it’s just as easy to cop out in nonfiction as well—no shortage of ways to cop out, I suppose! Aeon magazine really strikes a balance that I appreciate. Loved your changing workspace, and could certainly relate. Thanks so much for taking part!

Antonia Malchik said...

I hadn't thought of fiction that way, except with a murky kind of aversion. I love classics, and enjoy a lot of novels, but with modern works there does often feel like so much contrivance. I don't know. Maybe I just read too much nonfiction. But it's one of the reasons I like genre (fantasy and sic fi, but mostly intelligent mysteries) -- they're not pretending to be real life. I haven't read Aeon -- not on my list!

Thank you again, Debra! I really enjoyed doing this, and reading others' responses.

Antonia Malchik said...

I hadn't thought of fiction that way, except with a murky kind of aversion. I love classics, and enjoy a lot of novels, but with modern works there does often feel like so much contrivance. I don't know. Maybe I just read too much nonfiction. But it's one of the reasons I like genre (fantasy and sic fi, but mostly intelligent mysteries) -- they're not pretending to be real life. I haven't read Aeon -- not on my list!

Thank you again, Debra! I really enjoyed doing this, and reading others' responses.