Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell


Written By: Jessica Morrell

Christi Corbett


Christi Corbett

Arthur Plotnik is in the House

The Remarkable Cheryl Strayed

The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

Emily Whitman

Christi Corbett

I’ve been following Christi Corbett’s track to success for a few years now. We first met her when her debut historical romance Along the Way Home was but a dream. Now her second title Tainted Dreams is out today(!) so it seemed the perfect time to ask her how she perseveres (she garnered over 70 rejections before she landed her first book contract) and how she gets the writing done with her adorable, but sometime rascally twins around.

Tainted Dreams is a stand-alone sequel.CC Tainted Dreams Here’s the back cover copy:

Sometimes, the end justifies the means…

Kate Davis arrived into Oregon City transformed from a pampered daughter of fortune into a determined woman with a plan–fulfill her father’s dream of starting a horse ranch in Oregon Territory.

She quickly discovers a harsh truth–even thousands of miles from home, on an unsettled land America doesn’t yet own or govern, gender still takes precedence over ability. Refusing to be ruled once again by the stifling laws and societal norms she’d escaped by leaving Virginia, Kate begins creatively claiming what is rightfully hers.

Until a visit to the land office changes everything.

Jake Fitzpatrick guided Kate across the Oregon Trail, and fell in love with her along the way. Now he wants to marry her and build a life together, but a ruthless man from Jake’s past threatens to reveal a dark secret, and destroy everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.

Q: What I notice about your writing career is that you’ve approached it with a doggedness and tenacity. Can you talk about how long it took you to write both your books while juggling raising twins and the other parts of life? And how you get words on the page, books completed?

A: I did everything the wrong way, which is why it took me THIRTEEN years to go from the initial idea for my first book to signing the contract.

I was an avid reader who got an idea for a book, but knew nothing about the mechanics of writing a book. Take the time to learn about three act structure, character development, storyline arcs, or protagonist and antagonist roles? Nope! Not me! Instead, I wrote my first draft fueled by nothing but coffee and serious passion.

Then I got pregnant with twins and put everything aside for two years.

My second draft consisted of opening up the first draft, and adding the jumbled up mess of notes I’d scribbled on sticky notes, torn pieces of paper, and backs of envelopes during the first two years of my twins’ lives.

When my twins were three years old I got serious. I studied writing craft books and learned how I’d done everything wrong. I revised the book from the first word to the last six times, and then when my twins turned four I went to my first writing conference. I landed a literary agent and soon after I met Jessica Morrell when I attended her reading/discussion at Tsunami Books in Eugene, Oregon.

Then, my agent fired me via a one sentence mailed letter.

I pouted for a bit, then spent the next few years learning more about the craft of writing, participating in local writing group, and working with two critique partners (lots of love here to Margo Kelly and Artemis Grey!) who showed me I had a lot more work to do. So I revised it again…two more times.

Then, it was time to send out queries.

I went to the Willamette Writers Conference in August of 2012. Conferences are expensive and I could only afford one of the three days, and getting that money took holding a yard sale. But, my husband and entire family are very supportive, so clutching my yard sale proceeds in one hand and my query letter in the other, off to the conference I went.

I met more amazing writers, got requests for partials from three of the three agents I met with, and then drove home with my dreams soaring—dreams that were quickly dashed when I got rejected by one of the agents and never heard back from the other two.

I didn’t quit. I revised my query letter until I thought it was perfect, showed it to everyone who would look at it, then took that feedback and revised it TWENTY more times (no, I’m not kidding). Then, one minute after I put my twins on the school bus for their first day of second grade I began querying in earnest. A few months into it I had around forty rejections, but I also had six agents and three editors (Medallion Press, Tor/Forge, and a small press) reviewing requested partials/fulls, an R&R offer from an agent, and an offer pending from another small press.

Then, it happened.

CC seeing in print the first time

Seeing her book in print the first time

I got an offer from the one small press I’d had my eye on for months, Astraea Press. And it was my birthday too! I immediately pulled my novel from consideration from all the others who were reviewing partials/fulls/had offers pending, because I believed so strongly in Astraea Press, and the niche they’ve carved out for themselves in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

On June 11, 2013 I celebrated the release of Along the Way Home. It has since made it to #1 on several of Amazon’s Top 100 lists and won the 2013 RONE Award for Best American Historical novel. On May 12, 2015 I celebrated the release of the standalone sequel, Tainted DreamsCC Rone award

Q: Take us through a typical or normal day in your life, if there is such thing.

A: I start each weekday by helping my twins get ready for school. The minute they’re out the door I pour myself a cup of ambition (bonus points to all the Dolly Parton fans out there who know that’s coffee!), and then I spend the next hour checking my email and social media sites while listening to the morning news play on TV in the background. After that I usually do the most demanding household chore that I’ve put off too long—laundry and vacuuming are my nemesis—and then I spend the rest of my twin-free time writing.

Now that my twins are in school it’s much easier than when they were younger. I remember once putting a gate in the doorway of the computer room, and then getting about two minutes of writing done before they had an epic meltdown in the hallway. They were two years old, and I was unrealistic.

Q: Since you’re writing historical fiction what are main research sources?

A: I feel utterly ridiculous admitting this, but I learned the majority of the landmarks and supply list requirements by playing a computer game called “The Oregon Trail” in elementary school. My first two drafts only had the landmarks and supplies I remembered from the game. Of course, once I got serious about research I bought nearly every book available that dealt with the Oregon Trail, and one of my critique partners actually runs a horse ranch so her advice on horse behavior proved invaluable. I also traveled along the Columbia River several times, and visited several Oregon Trail museums.

Q: Has your background in television commercial production helped or hindered you in writing fiction?

A: Hindered. I wrote TV commercials for five years, and never had to worry about describing the physical features of the characters, the color of the clothing, or the storefront of the client’s business because viewers could SEE everything. As a result, it was initially difficult for me to describe people, places, and things in my writing because I was so used to just grabbing the video and slapping it into place where it was needed to tell the story.

Q: Could you talk a bit about your writing process? Do you outline, collage, scribble in notebooks? Do your characters sometimes dictate where the story is going?

A: I already discussed how I did it all wrong to begin with, but forgot to mention how for the fourth draft I discovered storyboarding. My first draft is still random and by the seat of my pants, but then I get serious and do all the research and plot everything out to the last detail. I break down everything by chapters, and track character and storyline arcs with different colored sticky notes.

Tainted Dreams story board

Tainted Dreams story board

Q: What did you learn about yourself while writing your novels?

A: That I’m a visual person, so I need everything spread out on a storyboard instead of files or cabinets.

Q: What were your reasons for writing Tainted Dreams as a sequel to Along the Way Home?

A: I’m going to come off as woefully inept again, but I’m confessing this to show how important it is for writers to have knowledge of the publishing industry. Sadly, having a sequel wasn’t by design, it was another case of me neglecting to do research on word count guidelines set forth by publishers and agents. So one mega-book eventually got cut in half, creating Along the Way Home and Tainted Dreams.

Q: We both have secret (or not-so secret) crushes on Timothy Olyphant who most recently starred in the television series Justified. We both know why you modeled your character Jake Fitzpatrick after him, but I’m also curious about what he stands for in your character? What nonphysical qualities attracted you? And was it easier to write a male character with an actor in mind?  

A: I started writing Along the Way Home several years before Justified began, so the initial character traits for Jake are based upon my husband, Dalen Corbett. Things Jake and my husband have in common are honor in their words and actions, keeping their word no matter the cost, and keeping their wits about them even when everything around them was crumbling to pieces.

However, Jake’s body type, swagger, and overall “look” is all Timothy. For that research, I had a wide selection of pictures I would use as my desktop screensaver.

Q: If you could give aspiring writers advice in 15 words or less what would it be?

A: Never ever EVER give up! Keep learning, keep researching, and above all, keep writing!

Q: What books are on your bedside table?

A: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

A Short Dictionary of Furniture, by John Gloag (This is research for my next book)

Raylan, by Elmore Leonard

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

My Kindle, loaded up with too many books to name.

Q: What projects are next for you? 

A: Well, since I’ve more than proven to you, dear reader, that I don’t do anything the usual way when it comes to writing, I’ve decided to write the prequel to Along the Way Home. The book will showcase how the parents of Kate, the female lead in Along the Way Home, met and fell in love.

In a perfect world I would have written them in order, but doing things the wrong way is so much more interesting!

CC Along the Way Home



More contents: 

2. My interview on Dmae Robert’s Show Stage and Studio is here.

3. Arthur Plotnik

4. Cheryl Strayed

5. Emily Whitman

6. Lidia Yuknavitch


Arthur Plotnik is in the House

I don’t recall exactly when I discovered the word wizard-guru that is Arthur Plotnik. But all I know is that whenever he writes about writing or language or  style everything he says is jam-packed with insights.  Among his books are The Elements of Expression, The Elements of Editing, The Elements of Authorship, and the bestselling writer’s guide Spunk & Bite. Now how could you not appreciate a master who calls a book Spunk & Bite? Like me, you might already marvel at his love of language, his sly twists,wordsmithery, and humor. Which is why when I blogged for Powells I recommended that writers read his books, heed his words and called him a freakin genius-god in the writing world. With his latest book Better Than Great, A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives available for preorder and on sale June 1, it seemed like a fine time to ask him questions that I know you’ll find elucidating.
Q: Could you tell us why you decided to write Better Than Great, A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (that’s a mouthful). I realize that this is designed to bolster a writer’s  vocabulary, but I’m wondering if you might have another secret agenda you’d care to divulge.

 A: I could say it was to liberate humankind from the tyranny of stock superlatives, such as great, awesome, amazing, incredible, and unbelievable. But first, I’d wanted to purge my own vocabulary of these exhausted, one-size-fits-all terms, the ones we use for anything to be emphasized. A plate of nachos: awesome. A trip to Machu Picchu: awesome. New haircut: amazing. The seas parting: amazing. I was tired of words that had lost all force and make no distinctions. I even tired of wishing people a great this or fabulous that.

So I started gathering and shaping playful alternatives for my own use. Soon, in a greeting card, I was wishing friends a “spumescently brilliant, rapturous, pleoperfect, clangorous, jollified, gladsome, ebullient, soul-schvitzing, luminous, boffo, festal holiday season, not to mention a nirvanic New Year’s and annum analeptic.”  The list soon grew into a book idea that everyone called, for their (then) lack of a better word, great.

 Q: You seem to genuinely delight in language. Since words are our humble tools, how can this love of language be passed along to beginning writers?

 A: They have to experience that delight—the heart-juddering frisson of the perfect, unanticipated word or turn of phrase; the savor of sustained lyricism.

The trouble is, our everyday world hardly brims with language virtuosos or personalities who ignite a passion for words. Abbreviated communication forms like texting are anathema to language-love (though a well-Twittered word can still delight). Without inspiring models (mostly from reading), new writers become message-oriented, attitude-oriented, their language rarely acquiring the texture that makes it adhere and resonate. And so if falls to the deft writing coach to guide beginners through model passages—eloquent to funky examples, Jane Austin to Junot Diaz—hoping to plant the love that cannot be suppressed.

Q: What is your explanation of how language stimulates the senses in a reader and your tips for doing so?

 A: Hey, no essay questions!  But the short advice is: Write to the guts. Get something visceral into the equation—something that stimulates the sensual memory, the emotions, appetite, nervous system. Devices for doing so include surprise (we react chemically to the unexpected), sensual particulars, sensations spelled out, or an association with felt experiences.

For instance, how do you describe a color to make it sensed and felt? Some examples: “Hectic red” (Shelley),with that surprising, visceral modifier. “The black of the void” (Gary Shteyngart), evoking fear—the alarm bell of the senses. “A green-green-green that makes you want to cry” (Sandra Cisneros), spelling out the palpable sensation. “Eyes of “anti-freeze green” (Chuck Palahniuk), a particular reference with chilling associations. “Upholstery the color of Thousand Island Dressing”(John Banville)—something you can, ugh, taste.  

Q: Do you have sage advice for when to modify and when to leave the noun alone? And what about adverbs? I’m an anti-adverb editor, but I’m wondering if you’re more lenient than I when it comes to these critters.

 A: Leave nouns alone when, in context, they have all the force and clarity they need. “Memories lurk like dustballs at the back of drawers,” wrote Jay McInerney.  Did he mean affecting memories? Fragile, hidden dustballs? Dresser drawers? Probably. Did he need to say it? God no. On the other hand, when John Lanchester writes, “This grew in me an . . .  an intellectual tumescence,” we do appreciate having the type of tumescence clarified, as well as the evocative image.

Same story with adverbs, which tell us the how (manner) and the how much (degree) of a verb or modifier. He drank copiously (degree). He drank sloppily (manner). He’s a reportedly excessive drinker (manner).  Adverbs evolved to supply extra information, nothing wrong with that. What has given them a bad name is their frequent (or cliché) use when the information and/or force is already there: She’s completely unique. I was incoherently babbling. You are totally bedazzling.  I hungrily wolfed the meatballs.

But when used inventively, adverbs add nuance, tone, and especially emphasis. In Better Than Great‘s introduction, I offer some examples from journalism and literature: kneebucklingly sweet; blissfully deranged; searingly gifted; blamelessly beautiful.  And Jessica, didn’t you once recklessly describe me as a “freakin’ genius-god in the writing world”? With the intensifying adverb “freakin(g),” you were emphasizing the degree of genius-divinity or the strength of your conviction. Maybe it was excessive, but I liked it so much that my wife had it printed on a T-shirt. An adverbial T-shirt.

Q: Years ago you wrote that voice is in “harmony with your roots.” I’ve used that expression many times while talking to writers about voice–crediting you, of course. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about voice in fiction and nonfiction and how writers can develop a consistent, potent voice.

 A: Greater genius-gods than I have opined that voice is the total of all the decisions you make as you choose words and put them together. Just about everything in your education and experience influences those decisions, beginning with your roots and including your homies, your favorite literary models, your aspirations, and your relationship to an audience of listeners or readers. Some writing mavens say that you don’t make or “develop” a voice, but that it simply emerges along with your personality. Rhetoricians from the Greeks on have presented figures of speech ( for example, hyperbole, metaphor, and irony) and other devices as the means to a style or voice.

I’m a little of both schools: the flavor and consistency of your voice will take care of itself; but understanding the elements of rhetoric—which are about emphasis and persuasiveness—help give it force. Good writing guides teach these elements one way or another, and are worth studying to a point. Mainly, they clear the junk from your writing and reveal patterns for styling your own wit and inventiveness into something voice-like. But when you write, don’t think about your voice being heard and adored; what you want an audience to “hear” is ideas, feelings, and story well rendered. The adoration will come.

Q: What’s your best advice to writers on editing their own writing?

 A: Standard advice says: Write first—get the words down—and edit later. I edit partly as I write; it makes me feel better as I go forward, but it’s disablingly slow. Whenever you do edit, though, follow the big rules: Omit needless words, as Strunk & White rightly tell you; say it shorter, making sure the verbiage is never too much for the thought. Kill your darlings—those belabored turns of phrase that call attention to themselves and away from the message. Favor the concrete—particulars—over abstractions and generalities. Pay attention to verbs; choose lively ones and drop in an unexpected zinger now and then. Of a victim falling to his death from a building, Gary Shteyngart writes, “his head knew the ground” instead of “his head hit the ground.” Wow. Don’t overdo any device. And of course, burn and kill all clichés and anything that seems stale; when you talk about voice, freshness is everything!

Q: I’m also wondering if you could start a movement to resuscitate awesome so that it recaptures its original meaning? We’d be happy to aid in the cause.

 A: Yes—in the New Order, “awesome” will be applied only to things inspiring extreme fear or reverence. No more “awesome toilet paper” or other Yelper-ish acclaim for the trivial.

Meanwhile, to prop up the moribund term, Better Than Great suggests such intensifications as: tongue-dryingly awesome, Colossus-of-Rhodes awesome, fall-to-your-knees awesome, awesome on a toot, giga-awesome, industrial-strength awesome, and tera-awesome, which is 10-to-the-twelfth-power awesome, suitable for most divinities.

But in our campaign, Jessica, let’s require anyone uttering “awesome” to stagger backward all atremble,  respecting the gravity of the word. Writers using it casually will be forced to watch hour-long sequences of “King Kong,” fearing and revering the awesome ape. Cruel but necessary.

Q: While attending the University of Wisconsin I enrolled in a class on tree identification. We’d meander through lovely parks near the campus identifying trees and learned the differences between spruce  and pine. Then I moved to the Northwest and am still learning the names of species out here. Can you tell us about your passion for trees as illustrated in The Urban Tree Book? Do you tree gaze in Chicago these days?

 A: When I started that book (with my wife, the illustrator) I was a new convert to tree love, the most passionate kind. Learning enough to write an authoritative guide opened worlds of pleasure on every block. Trees took on personalities. I could all but talk with them. Okay, I do sometimes talk to them. Sadly, these days the conversation is often depressing. It’s like walking through an injury ward: practically every urban tree is fighting off ailments, many of them caused by our carelessness or lack of care. Trees are like writers to some degree: they give so much, don’t ask a lot, get pissed on, and somehow keep giving.

Q: Who do you wish you could meet, living or dead?

 A: Why Shakespeare, of course, the real genius-god. We’d quaff a few pints of grog, talk about words, and have a laugh over the evolution of English into rap. I might ask, “Ay yo, Will—whutup wit all dem mysteries ’bout ya’ll and who scribed ya plays?”  Thus I’d be getting the 411 for a definitive biography with a seven-figure advance.

Q: Pasta or sushi?

A: Basta with the pasta. And make my maki a dal makhani, the summa-cum-yummy Indian dish.

 Q: What’s on your nightstand?A: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, as you might have guessed by now. His eye and ear are Wüsthof-knife sharp in this, his best novel. Also on the table, my Soft Bite guard against tooth grinding, because apparently it’s not enough for writers to grind it out all day

Q: What projects are you working on next?

 A: Launching the new book is a big time-suck, but I’m amusing myself gathering modern metaphors as I encounter them, putting them in categories.  Something might come of it, but here’s what kind of fun they offer in the meantime (from the APPEARANCE category):

“You’ve had a face like a smacked arse since you got here.” —Zadie Smith

“Look at the head on that sheygets, the thing has its own atmosphere, . . .  Thing has ice caps. . . . Every time I see it, I feel sorry for necks.”  —Michael Chabon

“. . . his father’s nose like a skinned animal pinned to his face with the shiny metallic tackheads of his eyes, his mother a shapeless sack of organs with a howling withered skull stuck atop it.” —T.C. Boyle

“He had the complexion of baba ghanoush.” —Marisha Pessl

” … a visage of absolutely uncompromising vapidity and bloodlessness; a face like the belly of a toad.”  —Will Self

The Remarkable Cheryl Strayed

       When I first heard Cheryl Strayed read from her upcoming memoir Wild, I knew she was the  real thing.  She was reading a segment where she describes the beginning of her hike alone along the Pacific Crest Trail and everything is going wrong—her feet hurt, her camp stove doesn’t work, she’s ill and hungry. She stepped off the trail for a bit and wrote about these encounters. Afterward, I realized that she’d captured pathos on the page—her desperation, grief, humor and need all rolled into a sort of raw mix of revelation—not an easy thing to accomplish. After the reading I devoured her novel Torch, recognizing the upper Midwest where we both hail from, the hungry truth of the emotions and relationships shaped on the page. It’s about a working class family in which the mother dies of cancer and all the pain of that loss. She called it Torch because since her own mother died when she was 22, she felt like a torch singer, carrying on after someone leaves. Then I was online one night when she announced on Facebook that she’d won the Pushcart Prize for her lovely, lovely essay about writing and the venerable Alice Munro. Her work has also appeared in places such as The Sun magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Doubletake and The Best American Essays. She’s a writer to watch and learn from. Simple as that.

Q: Since you’re a mother of two and you also teach, I’m wondering how you organize your days and writing time.

A: I work when someone else is taking care of my kids–which means, for the most part, when they are in school. (My son is in kindergarten and my daughter in preschool.) Deadlines tend to dictate my schedule. Unfortunately, I’m the most productive when I’m up against it, like so many of us. I also write well when I can really sink into it and have long periods of uninterrupted time, which is very, very hard to find when you’re a parent of young children. Before I became a mother, I used to go away on writers’ residencies to get serious work done. I can’t do that much anymore because I can’t leave my children for weeks and months at a time, but I do create my own mini-residencies on a fairly regular basis. I hole up in a hotel for 2-3 nights and write like a maniac. I come home exhausted and wired and with more pages than I thought possible.

Q:  You write about loss and grief–fertile territory for a writer. Can you talk about that a bit?

A: My mom died when I was 22 and she was 45. She was my only real parent (my dad hasn’t been in my life since I was about 6) and so when she died I became an orphan. I was a grown up technically, but I still very much needed my mom. Her death profoundly changed my life. I had to find my own way in the word in a really stark and lonesome way. My grief couldn’t help but become my subject matter. It was the story I had to tell. I’ve told it in different ways in different forms over the years, both fictionally and nonfictionally. I don’t really think that I write about grief so much as I write about love. What is grief, after all, but a deep sorrow and longing for those we loved the most truly and fiercely? Sometimes I wonder what I would have written about if my mother hadn’t died. There is so much material in all of our lives. Where would my eye and my heart have landed had I’d been lucky enough to be a woman who still has the love of her mother? The question takes my breath away every time I ask it.

Q: Is writing nonfiction such as your essays and upcoming memoir a different process for you than writing fiction? Along those lines, do you plan the narrative arc of your nonfiction pieces as you would fiction?

A: The two feel very much the same to me, as a writer. What I mean, is that when I’m actually writing I’m reaching for the same feeling on the page, regardless of genre. With fiction I draw on real life and whatever I decide to make up; with memoir, it’s all just from real life. But in each I try to find and reveal the layers of truth within the story. I tug hard on language and metaphor and meaning. I structure the plot and revelation in ways that seem pleasing and clear. You use the word “plan,” but I don’t really plan. I get vague ideas or images and begin writing. I see where the story takes me. It like riding a runaway horse. You just hold on.

Q: What is the toughest part about being a writer for you and how do you get past it?

A:  It’s hard to make a living, or at least a consistent and reliable one. I’ve been fortunate enough to sell a couple of books and that’s helped tremendously, but it’s still an incredibly uncertain existence. And of course money is time–time to write instead of teach or wait tables or write something that’s not your “real work.” This is pretty much a universal experience for writers who don’t have financial support from spouses or parents. I’ve taken serious financial risks in order to write my books. I accrued significant credit card debt in order to “buy the time” to write. It seems somehow untoward to say that, but it’s true. I don’t regret those enormous credit card bills one bit–it came out okay in the end–but writing is definitely not a career path for the financially faint of heart. The other tough part is the writing itself. I love to write. There is no feeling like it when it’s going well. But it’s hard to get to work, to stick with it when it seems as if the whole thing is a failure, which is rather often. I’ve learned you simply have to forge ahead and trust the process. It’s always going to feel miserable, but one mustn’t let misery win.

Q: So many writers are afraid to write what they really want to write, what they dare not say on the page. Could you give us a preview of your keynote speech about writing from the fearless place?

A: Fear is a piece of most of the best things we do. I think if you never experience fear about something you’ve written you’re probably not doing the work you need to do. I’m going to talk about what happens when we embrace fear, when we take it all the way to its darkest, realest place on the page.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

A: An as-yet unpublished novel called “The Empress Chronicles,” by Suzy Vitello Soule. It’s terrific and totally absorbing. Suzy is in my writers’ group.

“A Witness In Exile,” a book of poems by Brian Spears. Not only are the poems great, but there’s a snake and a candied apple on the cover. Brian is the poetry editor at TheRumpus.net.

Erin Belieu’s book of poems, “Black Box.” The first line of the first poem in the book is: “When the man behind the counter said, ‘You pay / by the orifice,’ what could we do but purchase them all?” Erin is such a brilliant literary badass. Plus, she’s one of the founders of VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, which is an organization dear to my heart–I’m on the board of directors.

An advanced reader’s copy of a novel called “Sleight,” by Kirsten Kaschock, which will be published by Coffee House Press in October. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I know it’s going to be amazing. Every word Kirsten Kaschock writes makes me feel like I’ve been stabbed in the head. In a good way.

Q: What project is next for you?

A: I have three things at various stages of completion. One is a collection of memoirish pieces I’ve already written that I’m shaping into a book. One is a long personal essay that’s threatening to turn into a novella-length memoir. One is a novel that I’ve been writing silently in my mind for the past year, though I’ve only managed to get two pages of it written because I’ve been busy writing other things. It’s about a trio of people who live together in a house in Southeast Portland. They’re housemates who span three decades in age, from early twenties to early fifties. One is a radical political activist who spent some time in a cult. One is an orphan from the Midwest like me. One is a trust fund baby who plays guitar in a punk band. The first line is: “Bliss was furious about the eggs.”

The Chronicle of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

      After I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water I felt like my heart and brain had been sandblasted. It’s not your ordinary memoir, if there is such thing as an ordinary memoir. It’s raw and sad and real and scary. And she just takes so many risks as a writer—in not only what she describes, but how she describes it. I don’t know about you, but sometimes after reading such a book I feel that the writer has granted me permission to go deeper, to take more risks in my own writing. To find out more about Lidia visit her here. 

Q: Over the years of teaching and editing I’ve met writers who afraid to tell the truths of their lives in a memoir. Typically they say they’re waiting for their parents or other significant people to die. Could you talk about taking risks in writing and how a writer can toss out their concerns about the fallout, and simply write? Maybe my question is how do you write the truth without feeling too vulnerable?

A: Well I bet you’d agree with what I’m going to say…there is no way to write the truth without feeling too vulnerable.  And that is because that space of vulnerability is precisely where writers have to go, you know?

But at the start of your question is the issue of the people in our lives that our stories may touch.  That is a difficultly.  In my own case, my parents both died.  And the fact is that I would not have written the book had they still been alive.  Particularly my mother.  My mother was in pain all of her life, and this book would have made her sad.  I would not have contributed to increasing her pain – at least not intentionally.  On the other hand, she would also have supported me, she would have told me I was brave.

The other “people” in my book I took different approaches with.  I called or emailed most of them.  I changed the names of a few.  I made at least one “composite.”

But it’s just a veil we throw up when we say we can’t write stories because of how this or that person will react.  It’s a safety veil.  The reason to lift the veil and move through to your story has almost nothing to do with how the people in your life will react.  You can’t control that.  Ever.  The reason to lift the veil is to step with your full self into your own story.
If other people find difficulty with your story, hey, they can write their own stories.

But I did list some good strategies:  contact people you are worried about, change names if you must, use a composite if you can skillfully render events without distorting their truth, and this:  trust art.

Q: Along with writing the truth, I noticed that there were lots of places in your story where you chose not to bring the reader along. Some of your story, such as your father’s abuse, is implied, not dramatized. How did you make decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out?

A:  That’s a great question for this particular book.  I have been quite demoralized and pissed off about the narrow options available to writers on certain topics:  incest, abuse, addiction as examples.  And what I mean about the narrow options is that it seems that it is the market, and not the writer or artist – who determines what kinds of stories can be told and HOW they can be told.  Put simply, when publishing houses and agents and editors get to decide there is a certain market tested way of telling a story, it means how it is told is based on how it is sold.

So one of the many formal choices I created for this book (you’ll no doubt notice quite a few formal strategies) was to concentrate on the body as a character, and on the sensory spaces we all enter in times of fear or danger.  In other words, I tried to create word houses or environments where the reader can feel what it’s like to be afraid or humiliated or damaged, without actually hurting the reader with the graphic details of my particular situation.

It’s my hope that this strategy opens up spaces for the reader to plug in their own archetypal experiences and their own individual stories – the river of sadness or pain moves through us all at one time or another.  It’s not important that my story be bigger than anyone else’s.

It’s just important that we understand each other through stories and art.

So I suppose you could say that I trusted art, I trusted storytelling, I trusted language and image and lyric to “carry” the reader’s body close to difficult things.

Q: How do writers find themes that resonate both for the writer and reader?

A:  I’m fairly Jungian when it comes to questions like this – I believe there are resonant archetypal images and emotions and rituals and … “memories” that connect us all even through our otherness.

But it’s tricky, as your question implies, because all writers are narcissists.  HA!

So one strategy to think about is to move away from “self” and toward artistic production.  Instead of asking myself, well, what happened to me and how can I tell it so that the reader will feel the weight of its importance, I asked, what is the central metaphor(s) of my life experience?  It was the metaphor of swimming that brought me to a place to tell my story that included the reader.  It was letting go of telling the story of my mind and telling the story of my body that opened up a place for the reader to travel with me.  To de-privatize the selfstory.  To de-mythologize the self.

We are all born through water.  We are all made of mostly water.  It’s a much more resonant way to tell my story than to focus on me me me me

Or I I I I or the Lidianess of my experiences.  There is an I, there is a me, but there is mostly a big, huge, generative metaphor that is more important than that.

That’s why I’ve invented so many metaphor exercises for writers…

Q: In The Chronology of Water you started near the middle of the story with the birth of your stillborn daughter then you moved in and out of time. How does a memoir writer find the best chronology for storytelling?

A:  Well I don’t know why ANY memoir follows a linear timeline, to be honest…And I say that because I have done such extensive research in biochemistry and neuroscience on the topic of memory.  Memory doesn’t work anything like we wish it did.  Sad, but true.

It’s narrative that gives memory and experience its “shape.”  I made a very conscious choice to de-emphasize the linear in order to, at least a little bit, emphasize what’s not only true about how memory works, but also what’s true about narrative theory.

Too, I wanted to begin with a birthdeath in order to disturb the notion that birth is the beginning and death is the end, since I no longer believe that either about life or narrative.

Q: What is the most challenging part of writing and how do you face it?

A:  It’s ALL challenging, isn’t it??!!! Why do we do it, Jessica? HA!!  Seriously though, the two biggest challenges for me seem to recur.  The first is simply the challenge to stand up, claim the writing space, and innovate inside of it rather than mimic what’s been inherited.  To say I too, am a writer, and this is what it looks like when I do it and not someone else.

The second great challenge for me is to not get lost inside making art.  There is a HUGE part of me that would simply love to stay inside writing or painting.  To not come out.  To leave the world entirely.  I am more at home inside writing than I am out in the world.  It’s a great deal like being in water is for me—I’m more my self, I’m free, I’m in pure imagination and reflection and generation.

The tougher part for me is being out in the world like people are.  I mean I can do it, but it never feels quite right.  It’s painful and hard for me.  I need LOADS of “recovery” time after being in public.  I think a lot of writers, artists, introverts feel this way.  So I suppose I’m saying my deeper challenges are OUTSIDE of making art.  If I could get away with it, I’d stay in there and pull a few loved ones in with me.  Unfortunately, that’s probably a space of psychosis so it’s good that there are loving people in my life to keep me tethered to the world.

Q: In your memoir there’s a chapter on writing fiction collaboratively in Ken Kesey’s class at the University of Oregon. Besides the lovely aspect that Kesey served as a father figure to you, I’m wondering what he taught you about writing and seeing the world as a writer.

A:  He taught me it was OK to feel more passion about art and nature and animals than I do for most people.  He taught me that the outsider status you need to have as a writer does not require violent alienation.  He taught me that there are many ways to love, and writing is one way.  He taught me that writers go down to difficult places for a culture and bring things back up to it—that we have a vital role to play in culture—and to try not to get sucked into the consumer culture definition of what and who a writer is.  Which is a constant battle, you know…

Q: Can you talk about the role of your critique group in your writing process and life?

A:  YES!! They are the BEST!  HA…you knew I’d say that though, right?  What I had no idea about is how important a writing group like this could be to someone like myself who is at heart an isolate.

This … “thing” we do every week is more than just bringing work in and getting feedback.  It’s a way to feel present as a writer and artist.  It’s a way to regather some of the energy you lose every day just trying to keep up with the dizzy whir of your life, not to mention your art.  I think too even though this will sound a little ju ju, it’s a very important secular ritual.  It recurs.  It collects.  It generates.  It receives and gives.  Every.  Single.  Week.

I love too that we are all very different kinds of writers.  I suspect that our differences are important in terms of the ways we can help each other.  We each “see” slightly differently how to write and why to write and what to write, and we bring all those differences – all of those voices – together.  When you go home, those voices and emotions and ideas are still with you, swimming in your head in a comforting and reinforcing way.  It’s a way to be not alone and alone as a writer.

Q: What’s your best advice for writers in 12 words or less?

A:  If this is what you want, only you can invent its terms of being; write the world of your imagination.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

A:  It’s more of a giant pile that starts at the floor and teeters upward like a paper tower…and the kinds of books in the pile have almost no identifiable connection…I’m a wicked and voracious reader…

Q: What’s next?

A: Well, I just finished a novel based on the Dora/Freud relationship called Dora: A Head Case that I’ll have to find a way to get into the world, and I’m currently working on a novel based on Joan of Arc.  There’s only ever the next book…

  The Esteemed Emily Whitman

 Emily Whitman used to dream of a time travel camp to the past. Now she travels to different worlds as the author of YA novels. Thanks to her journeys, she knows how to greet a Greek god, share her trencher at a medieval banquet, and launch a peregrine falcon into the wind. Emily’s debut novel, Radiant Darkness, was praised for its “originality and flair” by BCCB and was a #1 IndieBound Pick. Her new novel, Wildwing, is a time-travel tale of romance, mistaken identity, and the wisdom of following your heart.
A native of Boulder, Colorado, Emily attended Harvard and U.C. Berkeley. She has taught at the Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference, written for educational publishers, worked in library reference, and faced a room of sixty for toddler storytime. Her passions include cooking, travel, ancient stones and libraries. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.

  Q: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

  A: That’s two different questions, so I’ll answer both. I first considered myself a writer the moment I could write. I was particularly proud of the fact that my poems rhymed and scanned; for a long time I felt this was more important than what they said. I won my high school creative writing award—I’ll never know if it was for my heart-wrenching sonnet cycle on breaking up with my boyfriend, or my pseudo-Broadway musical score featuring that timeless rhyme, “Every hen can keep her rooster hot, but my heart don’t need no booster shot.”

I first considered myself a writer who might actually get work out in the world about seven years ago. I’d left creative writing behind for a long stretch (academics, raising kids, working in libraries) and was dipping my toe back in the water. I took a class on writing personal memoir, joined a group of poets, and then started writing passages for educational publishers. That led to trying my hand at writing a novel, something I’d never expected to do.

Q: I realize that you write professionally, but have you always wanted to write fiction? What about the young adult audience and fantasy appeals to you? 

A: I went to my first writing conference thinking I’d write picture books or early readers (I was leading library storytimes at that point, so I knew the audience). Writing conferences can be transformative! This one led me to realize that the story that really interested me was the Greek myth of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess. In the myth she’s kidnapped by the lord of the underworld and forced to be his bride. I wondered what the story would look like if she were a strong young woman who fell in love and chose to run off to the underworld. That was a long way from a picture book! To tell the story that excited me, I had to start figuring out how to write a novel. 

Why write for teens? Emotional honesty and intensity. High stakes—decisions really matter at that time in your life, and your protagonist’s decisions fuel your plot. There isn’t much extraneous material; even more than in most genres, every word needs to count. I could go on and on. It’s an exciting place to be writing right now, with great authors, vivid characters and passionate readers.

Q: Why did you choose time travel as a device in Wildwing?

A: Time travel let my heroine, Addy, completely reinvent herself. She goes from being a bastard maid, excluded and scorned, to being mistaken for the girl arriving to marry the lord of the castle. How does that change who she is inside, as well as outside? Can she scramble to learn enough about this foreign world to convince everyone she belongs? (I loved Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival for that sense of complete displacement.) Addy can finally see her place and options in her own time from a radically different perspective. I love the sudden shift, the displacement, both as a way to see what my character does and as a story element.

Q: Why did you choose a Greek myth (Persephone and Demeter) as the basis for Radiant Darkness?

A: I  wanted to write about the time when a girl is on the cusp of becoming a woman, when she’s breaking away from seeing herself as a child. There are all these complicated dynamics going on at once—relationships with friends, with the one you love, with your parents. That made me think of Persephone, the archetypal girl leaving childhood and her mother behind. Myths stay alive for thousands of years for a reason. There’s something fundamental and true at their heart. It’s slightly different for each of us, so we tell the story in our own way, but there’s a common core that gives it power.

What is your best tip for writers on how to build an alternate universe?

A: Use specific sense details to make it real, so your reader is seeing-smelling-touching-hearing-tasting it, falling so deep into the world you’ve created, it’s a jolt to look up from the page and leave it behind. That means the world you create needs to be consistent, so you’re never thrown out of the story-world by your conscious mind telling you something isn’t right.

Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you and how do you get past it?

A: Commitment! As in, committing myself to what kind of story this is going to be. I have a tendency to start something from many different angles. The trick for me is recognizing when the voice on the page is the right one, the alive one, and then just keep going with it. I’m really helped by deadlines, even if it’s just preparing five pages for a critique.

Q: What were your feelings when your first novel was accepted/when you first saw the cover?

A: The most fun was letting family and friends know. I remember a real shift in how I felt when I said, “I’m a writer.” Before, I’d felt tentative with the words, like I didn’t quite deserve the title; now it came much more easily. Looking back, though, I think I got similar boosts at many steps along this road: when I went to a conference with my first fifteen pages of the book and got positive feedback; when I decided to write a complete draft by the time that conference came the next year; when I had a critique with an editor who said he’d like to read more; when we both committed to the editing/revising process; when I held the book in my hand.

Q: What is your best advice for writers in 8 words or less.

A: Share writing with those who energize your work.

Q: What do you do when you’re not writing?

A: Simultaneously admire and curse the cat for batting the mouse off the computer desk yet again. Walk down the hill for an espresso. Check in with my kids at college, my parents in Boulder, my sisters, my friends. Eat incredible bread from Little T or Ken’s. Spend altogether too much time on crosswords. Dream of places to travel when time and funds find themselves in happy alignment. Avoid housework.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

A: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Zombies vs. Unicorns. Saturday and Sunday NY Times Crosswords. The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing by Gigi Rosenberg. Entwined by Heather Dixon.

Q: What project are you working on next?

A: I tend to be a little secretive about my writing until it’s got a really firm root, so I’m going to respectfully decline to answer this at the moment. But stay tuned!

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