A couple of weeks ago, I was recruited to participate in the Virtual Blog Tour that's been making the rounds, in which writers answer questions about their creative process. I was first tagged in this little venture by Mo Duffy Cobb, a fellow creative nonfiction writer I met while in graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Mo writes beautiful essays, many of them set on her native Prince Edward Island, and is hard at work on a travel memoir. I should also mention that she is a fine raconteur.
As fate and serendipity would have it, I was asked to participate again--later that same day--this time by Karen Salyer McElmurray, an award-winning, multi-genre writer, gentle soul and dear friend whom I have known for years. Karen is the author of the memoir Surrendered Child, the novels Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven and The Motel of the Stars, all of which are highly recommended. I often teach the opening to her memoir, which is so well-crafted, both lovely and devastating.
1. What are you currently working on?
I'm deep in the weeds at the moment with an essay collection that is centered around the theme of exile. It examines how one can be an exile to--and be haunted by--place, family, religion, sexuality. One of the essays, titled "Bastards and Ghosts" after a line in Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, centers on the love-hate relationship we all have with where we're from--in my case Kentucky, Appalachia--and how place can both form and damage us. This essay will be published next year in the anthology Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.
I also just finished editing an anthology that will be published by Cleis Press in spring 2015. Titled The Women We Love, it explores the relationship between gay men and significant women in their lives. Contributors include Hilton Als, Jericho Brown, Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Fenton Johnson, Robin Lippincott, Terrence McNally, Kevin Sessums, Edmund White and more. The women profiled include Maria Callas, Flannery O'Connor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf and other notables, as well as mothers, grandmothers, sisters and a childhood librarian.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The essay collection I'm working on it at least partly prompted by my identity as a gay man and my attempts to come to terms with both that part of myself and where I'm from. But it's also inspired by my love of history, of England, of music, of female icons. Those aspects of myself are all embedded in these essays, so in that respect it's original to me and to my experience.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write to contextualize my experience, both for myself and in the hopes that potential readers might find a slice of themselves in the writing with which they can identify. I write to investigate, to learn, to preserve, to imagine. To engage with history and place and spirit and craft. To find those moments of poetry and emotional truth.
4. How does your writing process work?
I'm a big believer in the Muse--to paying attention and listening to what fascinates and moves me. If inspiration beckons, I've learned to answer, to try to sit down and write immediately. As writers, we've all had those moments when you get an idea at midnight, just before bedtime, and you put it off, thinking, "I'll do it first thing in the morning." And then when you get up, it's either gone or changed in some way.
I once heard Rosanne Cash say in an interview that creative material--mostly songs, in her case--is "there in the ether and you just have to have your skills good enough to get [it]." It's songcatching, to use a folk music term, but it can certainly apply to other art forms like poetry and prose. Cash says that when she gets an idea for a song, she has trained herself to quickly get it on the page in fear that if she doesn't it will be given to someone else--like Lucinda Williams--who will grab on to it.
So I try to keep all that in mind, to write when things are hot. But I believe in just showing up--in showing your self and the universe that you are serious by practicing your craft--in putting in your time at the writing desk and moving through the world with intention and awareness, always open to ideas.
The key to this blog tour is to keep it going, so here are the three writers I'm tagging:
Silas House is both my partner and an incredible writer whose work moved me even before I met him. His bestselling novels include Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo, and his most recent books are the young adult novels Eli the Good and Same Sun Here (co-authored with Neela Vaswani). Silas has written three plays, and we collaborated on one book of creative nonfiction, Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal.
Cyndi Williams is one of the most talented people I know. A set designer in Nashville, she is also an incredible photographer and writer. Her stories have been published in The Louisville Review and Appalachian Heritage, and her photography in The Bitter Southerner. She's currently hard at work on a short story collection. All of that, plus she's a damn good cook who makes perfect Southern biscuits.
Marianne Worthington's poetry slays me with its lyricism and craft. Her chapbook Larger Bodies Than Mine was awarded the 2007 Appalachian Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers' Association, and she created the Motif anthology series, editing three of its volumes. She is co-founder and poetry editor of Still: The Journal, the first online Appalachian literary magazine.