Friday, December 2, 2016

An Interview With Mary Bonina



Mary Bonina


Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a writer?  What writers inspired you when you were young, and at what point did you understand that this was your life’s work?

I grew up in a house with very few books, other than the schoolbooks we brought home. I did have my mother’s copy of A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. I wore that out, reading it. It was my constant companion when I was at home in my early days of reading.  My mother also had a manuscript of original poetry by one of her uncles, my grandfather’s brother, a wedding gift bound in a leather portfolio. They were formal poems and I read them over and over and I suppose knowing that they were written by a living person—someone I knew— must have made an impression on me. I made up for the lack of books at our house in a couple of ways. One was going regularly to the branch library in Main South, my Worcester neighborhood, where I took armfuls of books home every week—as many as the librarians allowed. I particularly liked reading plays – having a dramatic sense even then, I guess. There was a magazine called PLAYS, which I remember was a favorite and which I supposed cultivated my interest in conversation and helped me learn something about dialogue. I also spent time at my Worcester grandparents house many days after school let out. There was a small bookcase there, but the books it shelved helped expand my world greatly. There were copies of Anna Karenina, Pinochio and Heidi. I actually read the Swiss author, Johanna Spyri’s version and not the film version of Heidi, and I read Pinochio before I saw the Disney film. But what I read over and over were Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I was also fascinated pouring over a complete set of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia. My grandfather read a lot and my aunt who lived with them read voraciously and had a subscription to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which interested me, as I got older. So I was exposed there to great variety. Probably the first memoir or autobiography that I read— other than one of the Lives of the Saints, which were foisted on us at Catholic School—was Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY. The writing and the world described left a deep impression on me. I had to read a lot for school and we had to memorize poetry and recite it. In high school I loved Shakespeare. I remember I had an English teacher who was also, amazingly, the football coach. He taught us to write various forms of poetry. One assignment was to create a manuscript of poems in the forms he assigned to us – sonnets, etc. and various rhyme schemes and meters—and then we had to read and record them “for posterity,” he said. It was an amazing thing to do as part of a high school English curriculum. This wasn’t an AP course or a writing course, but a regular English course that all the students had to take.
        I always loved to write from the time in third grade when my teacher read aloud a paragraph “story” I’d written about a trip to Boston shopping with my grandmother. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a writer. In high school we had a daily news show broadcast throughout the school. I wrote and read stories “on the air” for that. I made no secret of wanting to be a writer and the high school guidance counselor in a meeting with my parents told them that journalism was no career for a woman, that I should be a teacher. It’s interesting, since women have made great strides in journalism.


You write poetry, memoir and are about to publish your first novel.  Was there a natural progression from one type of writing to another? Does your experience as a poet inform your fiction and memoir?

No, I don’t think there was a natural progression, though I’m not sure what that would be for anyone. I began writing poetry in high school because I loved poetry – from my early reading and memorizing and reciting—and probably that football coach/English teacher had something to do with that, too. When I was a senior in high school, I read Denise Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet. That was 1968 and students were marching in the streets against the Vietnam War. I was awakening politically and the poems spoke to me. I realized you could write about contemporary subjects and that poetry didn’t have to rhyme or adhere to a particular form. In high school I had studied journalism and thought I wanted to be a journalist. I’ve always written articles since then, but I gave up the singular goal and found others.
       My interest in poetry was nurtured in college courses (I was an English major) and by going to readings by living poets on campus and off. I also took my first fiction-writing class in college, but didn’t really write much. After college I became involved in the Worcester County Poetry Association and was offered a place in two workshops in an NEA-funded program called “Master Poets/Apprentice Poets.”  It is such an amazing thing to me now that as it worked out, one of those workshops was with the poet Denise Levertov, whose work I’d read in high school and which had by then, become very important to my understanding of contemporary poetry.  I was very fortunate to have been helped along by WCPA. It’s amazing to think of the roster of poets who came to read for their series. Galway Kinnell, Alan Dugan, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, and so many other fine poets! Even the now Nobel Prize winner, Tomas Transtromer came to read in Worcester.
         I had always loved to read stories though and at a certain point after college I realized that many of my poems were narrative. I began to feel that I wanted to see what I could do in fiction. I joined the staff of a Worcester cultural magazine some friends had started, The Little Apple. I published my first piece of fiction in the magazine, a story called “The Lilac Joke.”
        After I completed work for my MFA degree and graduated I began a novel. My thesis had been short stories, but I’d never felt like I was a short story writer. I really appreciate short stories, love reading and figuring them out, but I can’t achieve that myself—or haven’t yet. I have the long breath, I guess. You’ve probably figured that out by now. Interesting though that I write poetry, so economic. But I attribute that to my relationship with my dad who was blind. He liked me to be concise in describing things to him, so as not to interfere, I guess, with the memories and images he had in his head from when he could see.
          I worked on that novel I began after graduate school for 10 years and got nowhere, though I wrote hundreds of pages. I was trying to write an autobiographical novel about my own life.  It was a complete failure. I never got the voice right and the characters were barely disguised versions of others in my family. When in the 90’s literary memoir became popular, I read many of them. My husband read one written by a friend of mine and knowing how frustrated I was with that novel, suggested I maybe reconsider and try writing a memoir instead of an autobiographical novel. I sat down and wrote what I called a prologue. I read it to him and by the time I finished I was in tears. He said, “That’s it. It’s the real thing.” I threw away all those pages of the autobiographical novel and began the memoir. I guess I had this stupid idea that a memoir couldn’t be art and I knew I was an artist so I felt I had to only write fiction.
      Once I finished the memoir, it freed me to write fiction. I had a novel I’d begun while doing the revision and I set to work finishing it and revising and revising it. I am now submitting it to agents, looking for representation.
        As far as my sense of poetry informing my fiction and memoir, I believe that my language is probably richer and perhaps I get deeper into things. What I know about imagery, I hope makes my sentences more vivid and sensory and the writing more palpable.         

You earned your MFA from the writers program at Warren Wilson. How did the program influence your approach to your work, and what role did community play in sustaining and nurturing you as a writer?

Yes. Warren Wilson was, I believe, the first low-residency MFA Program in the country. Now there are so many. I enrolled in the program because I couldn’t afford to take two years off to go to graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop or elsewhere. I needed to work and I had a very demanding job in State government at the time, but I was completely motivated to learn what I could about writing from an incredible faculty group of writers; so I became involved in the balancing act that was very good training for a career as a writer—managing to produce creative work while staying on top of family life and the work necessary to support both. That was probably the biggest influence on my approach to work – learning that the struggle to get it done and still live a life was always going to be there.  One of my faculty mentors, Mary Elsie Robertson, said to me at one of our first meetings, “Ordinary life suffers a lot.” I think that when I began at Warren Wilson I thought that I already knew how to write. I mean I read a lot and had written a lot and published a little in the way of creative writing and a lot of journalistic pieces and policy statements and memos for my job. I was a little surprised at first at the response to my first efforts, shocked really. I quickly realized I hadn’t scratched the surface. My first workshop was with Geoffrey Wolff, author of the Duke of Deception – Tobias Wolff’s brother—you know the story – they both became writers, one was raised by his father (Geoffrey) and the other (Tobias) by his mother. Wolff handed me back my manuscript after the workshop group had discussed it. He had written more on it than I had! And in red pen! In another workshop Stephen Dobyns said to me, “You make of words a Gothic cathedral, and this is just a little mud hut.”  So I had a long way to go, it became clear. I was accepted in fiction or poetry, based on the two manuscripts I’d submitted in application, but I was told I had to choose. At the time a student could only be one or the other, but I think you can study both now—though I’m not positive. I became a fiction writer and audited poetry, going to as many classes and lectures I could fit in, though I wasn’t able to go to the workshops. I chose fiction because by then I had realized that I had many stories to tell and that poetry couldn’t hold them all. I also wanted to move beyond the narrative poem and learn more about writing the lyric and I thought that if I began to write stories, that it would be freeing for me and I could explore writing lyric poetry. The faculty at WWC was actually more nurturing than it would seem from those two anecdotes, though they were tough and wanted every student to find a genuine voice and not settle for superficiality in their creative work. It wasn’t about getting published; it was about developing as a writer, learning about process. I loved the lectures, the readings and those workshops, as anxiety-genereating as they were. And many of the students have become longtime friends. The alumni have begun a reading series at the Boathouse in Cambridge and graduates of the program over the years who live locally attend and share their new work with each other. It’s a terrific, nurturing community and we help sustain each other in our work that way, and there are even peer-to-peer writers groups that have developed as an offshoot. The Writers Room of Boston is like that, too. We have readings and gatherings and get the chance to learn about each other’s projects, and that’s an inspiring and supportive environment, which has actually helped me complete work that had gone unfinished for many years.

How would you describe your process as a writer?  What is your approach to discipline?  What would a typical writing day look like for you?

That’s a very detailed answer and I’m going to cut it short—shorter than it should be probably. I revise, revise, revise. I discover what I’m writing about as I go along— and even after having a complete draft, each revision after helps me discover more, helps me get deeper into character or story. I do not plot out stories or novels. I see where the characters and especially the place take me. I am a perfectionist, sometimes to my detriment. After a while I give it up, abandon it and hope it’s good enough.
       My discipline—I usually try to exercise in the morning first thing. I’m a runner and that clears my head and sometimes gets me working on a problem I’m having in the writing. Often I’m inspired. I have a chapbook of poetry called Living Proof and many of those poems were inspired while running. After breakfast I take the subway downtown to the Writers Room. It’s in the middle of the financial district, a seemingly strange place for it; but as I say, those suits wear their black and we wear ours. It’s a beautiful room with individual workspaces – open with lots of light and looking out at some very architecturally beautiful buildings. It’s a silent space, though sometimes there is conversation with others while having lunch in our little kitchen. I usually try to work for about 4 hours, sometimes a little less. When working there, I have the sense of affirmation and expectation. Not pressure but just the feeling that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing for work and being there people expect I will achieve. As someone who does not teach in an academic institution at this time, it gives me a sense also of credibility to be part of The Room. And importantly, it gives me colleagues.

In your memoir, My Father’s Eyes, the narrative is extremely vivid and detailed.  Were you a journal writer as a youth?  What kind of research was required, and how did you handle the fallibility of memory?

I did not keep a journal as a youth, although I remember writing some stories and lyrics for songs. In my twenties I read all of Anais Nin’s diaries though and loved them. Some things in my childhood were fuzzy memories but I generally knew enough that I could use research to learn the truth. That took a few different forms: I did some interviews with relatives to confirm some dates and facts that needed supportive anecdotes.  For example, my agent at the time said to me after reading and accepting the memoir for representation that she thought that I’d thrown away the theme of denial in my father’s family about the loss of sight being so profound. I realized that to someone who hasn’t encountered this, that indeed it was weird that no one until my dad had actually seen a doctor to determine what exactly was the problem with his eyes. It made me actually doubt that this could be so. I called my uncle, my dad’s younger brother and I asked him point blank, was it true that no one, including his mother who was blind, had ever acknowledged the problem with their eyes. He told me a great story then that confirmed it, one that appears in the memoir, about going camping with the boy scouts and not having a flashlight at night and not being able to see. He’d assumed that his problem was only that he didn’t have a flashlight, that if he had one he’d be able to see, not knowing that night blindness was the first stage of retinitis pigmentosa, the gradual deterioration of the retina, the condition that affected his mother and many other family members.
         There were other kinds of research, employing more usual methods, like calling the historical museum to confirm that the first pressurized space suit was created at the Worcester manufacturing company, David Clark. Several facts like that obviously needed to be checked.
          Memory of course is fallible and selective. A memoirist must rely upon methods other than simply plumbing ones own memory, which can fail as much as a fiction writer’s imagination can. I did my best to check facts I wasn’t sure of. Here are some of the methods I used to verify and fill out scenes that were sketchy for me and which a writer can access: interviews with others who might have been around to witness an event, letters if there are any, photographs – these are useful tools not just in the writing of scenes but in order to clarify and refine and fill in gaps and especially for dating scenes – something that helps in understanding motivations For those who question the validity of dialogue in a memoir, I say, It’s true. As I child I didn’t walk around with a tape recorder. I don’t have the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory.  But if I didn’t simply transcribe tapes, how can I explain the use of dialogue in memoir?  I would answer that this way, “A writer can and should be honest with the facts. And it is conceivable that if one knows well the players to whom dialogue is attributed, though the vocabulary may be inexact sometimes, one strives to get the cadence of speech right. We all remember the lines our parents repeated to us again and again, and the rhythms of their speech are etched in our hearts.  We find ourselves saying the same things they said to us, to our children. Regarding descriptions of place, etc., I am blessed with a photographic memory and more than that.  I can actually remember colors and go shopping without swatches and find the exact color I want. I have other kinds of memory too, utilizing the other senses. You can throw a note at me and I can sing it. Of course I don’t remember everything in my life, thankfully, only what matters to me in a particular way. And of course my memory of what went on in the family is informed by my birth order, the role I played in the family in helping my dad, because I was the oldest.

What was the best advice you ever received about writing?

Sit your arse in the chair and just do it, and when it’s done, find the way to share it. And read. Read voraciously—all kinds of writing.

Most writers begin as avid readers.  Which authors particularly inspire you? Are there writers you consider teachers? Who are you currently reading?

I have read widely. I’ve been inspired by so many writers. My mentors and the faculty at Warren Wilson, my friends like Edward P. Jones, John Dufresne whom I’ve known since my youth and have followed their success, reading their work and learning from it. Reading a couple of writers in particular helped me to write the memoir—Edna O’Brien’s trilogy, The Country Girls and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The other Irish writers: O’Neil, Joyce, Trevor, and O’Connor. I learned a lot about writing from reading Annie Dilliard and also from studying the stories and reading all the interviews with Eudora Welty for my degree year essay as a graduate student.  They taught me a lot. I feel that every writer I read teaches me something—even if I don’t like what I’m reading, I’m learning why not, what’s gone wrong in the telling. I’ve read all of Elizabeth Strout’s novels, all of J. Courtney Sullivan’s, Jennifer Haigh’s, and right now I’m reading Edna O’Brien’s The Three Little Red Chairs. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the work of Pablo Neruda were important to me. I’ve already mentioned Levertov and I feel a kinship to the work of Galway Kinnell.

Can you talk a little about any upcoming projects?

I don’t know what’s next. I just finished a novel, my first. I am in the process of sending around my query letter and sample pages, looking for an agent to represent my work, hoping for a good one who will help find a publisher who will get my work to a larger audience.

What encouragement or direction would you give aspiring writers?

Keep the faith. Read, read, read. Don’t get caught up in professional jealousy or in doubting yourself. Realize that every hour you put in, adds up to something. You can write a whole book that way. Just carve out the time, whatever you can, and sit it out until the story or the poem becomes apparent. Then go for it.

Meet Mary Bonina

Bridging Writers Author Series
Monday, December 5, 2016
6:30 - 8:00 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library
717 Main Street, Lancaster, MA


Please join us for the free event. 




Tuesday, November 29, 2016


 SBWC Bridging Authors Series Presents

 Monday, December 5, 2016
6:30 – 8:00 PM
Thayer Memorial Library

       Mary Bonina  – My Father’s Eyes



Literary Nonfiction. Memoir. Set mid-to-late 20th century (with the heart of the   book set in the 1950s and '60s), MY FATHER'S EYES is a loving daughter's memoir of a family coming to terms with a legacy of blindness, and a father's heroic efforts to secure independence and dignity.

  "Not many pages into this gloriously moving book, a feeling begins to grow that it would have been a humbling yet exquisite experience to have sat and talked with Biagio John Bonina. What his daughter Mary Bonina has given us is a solid and lasting portrait of a man who was simple and complicated. (That is not a  contradiction once you come to know him.)... America is a country of grand men  and women who live on a modest scale, and no one fits that category more than he does. Once his eyes began to fail him, he lived even more for his family and its welfare and his efforts and work make him in my mind, the kind of real hero we fail to glorify anymore. So enter this book and come to know her father and his dedicated overwhelmingly loyal daughter, as well as a large stage of family  members and friends who are unforgettable and insanely knowable and    human."—Edward P. Jones 

 "Mary Bonina casts her considerable spell with exquisite sentences and unerring evocative details. She is a writer of inordinate compassion, formidable intelligence, and unflinching honesty. MY FATHER'S EYES documents a family's coming to grips with the legacy of blindness, a daughter's unflagging allegiance to her father, and one man's heroic determination to live a life of independence and quiet dignity despite obstacles that would crush the strongest of us. The book is an inspiration. When I finished reading it, I walked around for days seeing the world through its lens. Yes, it's that good. It's that important."—John Dufresne 

Mary Bonina has published poetry, memoir, and fiction. Her latest collection of  poetry, Clear Eye Tea, is now available (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). She isalso the author of Living Proof, a chapbook (Cervena Barva Press, 2007).    

Bonina grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. She holds an MFA degree in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, where her mentors were some of  the best known and appreciated American contemporary prose writers and poets.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Upcoming Seven Bridge Session



Seven Bridge Sessions 
Presents

Your Story Matters: Giving Memory A Home
with Mara Bright
Saturday, November 19, 2016
10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library



During the workshop I plan to share my process as a memoir writer, covering such topics as how memoir and autobiography differ, what the writer’s obligation is to tell the truth, how the writer handles characters in the memoir who are alive and will recognize themselves, what structure works best for telling the writer’s story, and what the writer includes and what she leaves out.  I’ll answer other questions that arise and encourage response from participants.  


The rest of the workshop will be dedicated to writing to prompts – first a five minute warm-up prompt, which we’ll read aloud without comment and then a longer prompt, which again we’ll share with positive feedback only.  My intention is to honor everyone’s voice and to send participants off fired-up to begin writing their own memoir.

Please join us for this free event. 

For more information on Mara Bright, and this SBWC program, or to preregister,  please click here. For questions, contact us at 




Monday, October 17, 2016



Bridging Writers Author Series
Presents 

Howard Mansfield 
Dwelling in Possibility:Searching for the Soul of Shelter

Monday, November 7, 2016 
6:30 - 8:00 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library




The mystery that attracts Howard Mansfield’s attention is that some houses have life—are home, are dwellings, and others aren’t. Dwelling, he says, is an old-fashioned word that we’ve misplaced. When we live heart and soul, we dwell. When we belong to a place, we dwell. Possession, they say, is nine-tenths of the law, but it is also what too many houses and towns lack. This lost quality of dwelling—the soul of buildings—haunts most of our houses and our landscape. Dwelling in Possibility is a search for the ordinary qualities that make some houses a home, and some public places welcoming.

Howard Mansfield sifts through the commonplace and the forgotten to discover stories that tell us about ourselves and our place in the world. He writes about history, architecture, and preservation. He is the author of seven books, including In the Memory House, The Bones of the Earth, and most recently, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter which The Boston Globe called “a wholly original meditation … that’s part observation of the contemporary built environment, part cultural history, part philosophical account, and at times something like a Whitmanian poetic survey.”  His newest book, Sheds, with photographer Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, was published in June 2016. 

For more information on this program, or to preregister,  click here For questions, contact us at  7bridgewriterscollaborative@gmail.com.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

 The Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative

PRESENTS

Saturday, October 15, 2016
10:30 AM – 12:30 PM
Thayer Memorial Library


            The Pros and Pitfalls of Modern Publishing Solutions, 
with Dale T. Phillips and Ursula Wong

Whether you are writing a novel or have already finished one, this workshop will review the spectrum of publishing solutions available for your book. We’ll discuss the pros and pitfalls of traditional publishing, small press, partnering with collectives, vanity press, and “do-it-yourself” options. Manuscript readiness, editing, contracts, revenue, and what writers can expect from each solution will be included in the comparisons. Finally, we’ll touch on goals and how to decide the best solution for your book.

Ursula Wong lived and worked on the family dairy farm started by her grandparents, who fled Eastern Europe and the Bolsheviks for a better life in the U.S. After losing her father as a young girl, Ursula overcame poverty and went on to become a high-tech engineer. An adventurous traveler, scuba diver, and hiker, Ursula writes gripping stories about strong women struggling against impossible odds to achieve their dreams. Her work has appeared in Everyday Fiction, Spinetingler Magazine, and the popular Insanity Tales anthologies. 

Her award-winning novel, Purple Trees, exposes a dark side of rural New England life. It's the story of a na├»ve girl who loses her parents, and grows up fast to find work and build a future, while the weight of the past threatens everything she loves. 

Ursula taps her heritage in her upcoming WW II novel, Amber Wolf. Destitute after her parents are taken by Russian soldiers, young Ludmelia Kudirka joins the farmers fighting for freedom in a David-and-Goliath struggle against the mighty Soviet war machine. Rich with scenes and legends of Lithuania, Amber Wolf will be available on Amazon in 2016.

Stephen King was Dale Phillips's college writing teacher, and he's published the Zack Taylor mystery series, a supernatural thriller novel, over 60 short stories, story collections, poetry, and a non-fiction career book on interviewing. His stories have been published in a number of anthologies with other writers.


He's appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film. He competed on two nationally televised quiz shows, Jeopardy and Think Twice, losing on both in a spectacular fashion. He co-wrote and acted in The Nine, a short political satire film. He's traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and throughout Europe.

Please join us for this free workshop.
To preregister (recommended) click here:



Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bridging Writers Author Series
2016-2017

PRESENTS

Monday, October 3, 2016 
6:30 – 8:00 PM
Thayer Memorial Library

  Cal Armistead: Being Henry David




Seventeen-year-old "Hank" has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything--who he is, where he came from, why he's running  away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  And so he becomes Henry David--or "Hank"--and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of--Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead's remarkable debut novel about a teen in search of himself. As Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past he realizes that the only way he can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past to   stop running and find his way home.

Cal Armistead has been a writer since age 9, when she submitted her first book, The Poor Macaroni Named Joany to a publisher. Sadly, this literary gem did not make it to print. But Cal continued pursuing her lifelong passion, and wrote copiously for radio, newspapers and magazines (Cal has been published in The Chicago TribuneShape MagazineBody & Soul MagazineChristian Science MonitorChicken Soup for Every Mom’s Soul and others). Although it took years for Cal to try her hand again at fiction writing, her first young adult novel (Being Henry David) was published by Albert Whitman & Co. in March,2013. Cal holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine, works at an independent book store, is a voice-over actress, sings semi-professionally, and lives in a Boston suburb with her amazing husband and a dog named Layla.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Upcoming Seven Bridge Session





Seven Bridge Sessions
Presents

Mining Family Stories To Hone Your Writing Voice,
 with Jill Hackett and Steve Layt

Saturday, September 17,2016
10:30 AM -12:30 PM
Thayer Memorial Library







Mining Family Stories will help you identify your Inherited Voice by distinguishing the environmental influences that shaped your early communications.  What your family discussed and allowed, what the family values were, shape—even today—the way you approach your writing. You will begin a short history of your Inherited Voice—when you were silenced, when you were encouraged, when your voice soars naturally.  Through a series of exercises and sharing, we will identify aspects of your Inherited Voice.  We will also identify juicy family stories that can be used for memoir, and for continuing this exploration of your inherited Voice.

Author, teacher, consultant - Jill Hackett brings her hands-on and academic experience to the issue of women, voice and writing. Steve Layt is the Founder of Glide Path Leadership and a member of staff at the Coaches Collective International (CCI). 

For more information on Jill Hackett, Steve Layt and this SBWC program, or to preregister,
 please visit sevenbridgewriters.blogspot.com. For questions, contact us at 7bridgewriterscollaborative@gmail.com.



Across The Waters
An Interview with Jill Hackett


SBWC: The idea of voice in writing is a slippery one. How do you define voice?

JH: Indeed ‘voice in writing’ is a slippery term.  Its slipperiness is what inspired my research and my book—and the second chapter, Describing Voice, wrestles with definition.  The most useful definition I unearthed was from Donald Graves and Virginia Stuart—a kind of foresenic authorial DNA:  Voice is the imprint of the person on the piece. It is the way in which a writer chooses words, the way in which a writer orders  things towards meaning. As writers compose, they leave their fingerprints all over their work.” 

I began each interview asking the women authors how they defined their own writing voice.  YA author Yoko Kawashima Watkins’ response was one of the most memorable:  In simplicity. A shout from the heart. That’s all, nothing more. Tell the truth, and the feelings.”

SBWC: You’ve said that as a technical writer you were trained to write “in other people’s voice, or in no voice at all.” Can you talk about the process of discovering your own writing voice?

JH: As a technical writer, I was trained to write mute.  Erase the person (and their fingerprints) from the information—e.g., just hand the reader the correct wrench and tell them how to use it.  Ironically, my 20 years as a technical writer strengthened the craft of writing—making me all the hungrier for the art of writing.  It taught me to write to deadline, pound out a first draft, revise, incorporate edits, assess criticism, and integrate necessary unforeseeable major changes in almost finished manuscripts.  Software tools became involuntary muscles that no longer got in the way of writing. Technical writing thoroughly taught me the skill that author James Michener attributed his success to:  “I can put the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair for 8 hours a day, every day.”

As I apprenticed myself to published women writers through interviews, I started to discover the variety of ways that creative work can begin.  Some authors begin with a title.  Some begin with setting.  Some create a palette of words, other writers stream words.  Some have a character lead them into the story.  John Irving always knows he is beginning a new novel when he has written the complete last sentence of the book.  He writes the last sentence first, then plots the whole novel, then writes from the beginning to the end, and never changes the last sentence.   My own strongest writing begins kinesthetically—it is a physical feeling I get when I know a piece is ready to be written.

SBWC: In your wonderful book, I Gotta Crow: Women, Voice, and Writing, you identify “three voice centers,” the voice from our head, the voice from our heart, and the voice from our bodies. Can you talk a little about the value of this distinction for you, and the way these centers might work with or against each other?  Do our internal voices need to harmonize to do our best work?

JH: The three voice centers are: the voice from our head (the rational voice: ideas strike us and set off thoughts and plans), the voice from our hearts  (the emotive voice: feelings, memories, longings, and passions), and our body voice (language of the gut, hunches, intuition)
.
From rational to emotive, there is a range. No writing is purely from one polarity. Technical writers deal with hunches and intuition of how to order their pieces, even while they may strive to erase personality. Poets use the logical mathematics intelligence of the rational  mind to manage meter and form. Each of us has our primary,  favored voice center, but any of the voice centers can lead off effective communication. Each center has its own purpose.

For me, the rational / head voice is useful for plotting, editing, and structure.  Working from the heart works for me when working with dialog and character development.  When my writing is flowing best, I am writing from my gut.  Natalie Goldberg discusses that when she finds herself getting stuck when writing, she drops into her belly.

SBWC: In The Sound on the Page, Ben Yagoda writes, “…it is frequently the case that writers entertain, move, and inspire us less with what they say that by how they say it.”  What role does style play in the idea of voice? Is crafted writing authentic writing?  Is voice learned or innate or both?

JH: I would suggest that Yagoda’s “by how they say it” may not be just style—but perhaps something more than words.  There is information that travels on top of words, which the writer’s voice transmits.  Stephen King discusses this in his book On Writing: a memoir of the craft, where he suggests that writing is a telepathic activity.  The writer creates a scene in their own head which they put on paper and expect their reader to receive months or years later.  
 
Have you ever noticed, when listening to non-fiction books on tape, that when the author reads their own book, it is much easier to grasp the concepts than it is when a professional voice over artist reads it?  King’s writing book is a good example.  I read the book, and then listened to the audio version, and absorbed much more information from the audio than the written book.  Information traveling on top of the words.

Similarly, in written format, “the way in which a writer chooses words, the way in which a writer orders  things towards meaningis more than style, and creates impact, influencing meaning.

SBWC: Voice in fiction is tied to the idea of persona. Is the idea of voice the same for the novelist, short story writer, or poet as it is for the technical writer or the memoirist?

JH: Writing voice echoes” within the reader. Something resounds.  Strike a tuning fork and move it closer to, but not touching, a second matching tuning fork. The second fork will begin vibrating, picking up the sound waves from the  first  tuning  fork. A strong writing voice, likewise, moves something within us.  This resonance, I believe, occurs in novels, short stories, memoir, and poems. 

In good technical writing, the issue is not as much about resonance and voice as it is about clarity and simplicity.  I once had worked extremely hard to present a complex control panel in an understandable usable way.  My editor commented to our manager that this was so simple, anyone could have written it.  To this, our manager replied that it was an excellent piece of technical writing precisely because something so complex was made simple.  I had succeeded in erasing the person from the piece and writing mute—and handed them the wrench. 
  
SBWC: In I Gotta Crow, you explore the ways gender impacts voice.  How do writers historically marginalized or silenced find their authentic voice?

JH: Gloria Steinem said that “especially for any group that has been marginalized, you need a time of being central.”  It is important to find a community that listens and allows the marginalized voices to develop more fully.   Hedgebrook.org on Whidbey Island, Washington state, was founded to support women writers—particularly women advocating change.   Amy Wheeler, the executive director of Hedgebrook, said, “when you understand that storytellers shape our culture, they shape who we are as individuals, as a people, then, who gets to be the story teller is a really pivotal question.”    

The Harvard Project on Womens Psychology and Girls Development confirms this approach.  In a longitudinal study of girls during their ages of 7 though 13, the study found that girls who had an older female relative, who was willing to stand outside the dominant culture, and listen to the girl—these young girls were able to hold on to their own knowing, and their own voice.  The results of this study were published in Between  Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship, by  Jill McLean Taylor, Carol Gilligan, and Amy M. Sullivan.

 SBWC: I’m very much interested in the idea of elision in writing; that is, what we leave out of our stories or essay or poems can convey as much as what we put in. What role does silence play in voice?

JH: Silence is an important language. Not speaking can be an intensely relational act, as is the struggle to find ones true voice. Our voice is shaped by what we do—and do not—voice, and by when we choose to speak and when we choose silence.
The author chooses what is foreground, what is background. Repression is a different kind of silence, and also shapes voice.

SBWC: We grow as people and as writers. How do you reconcile the idea of an authentic voice with changes in our abilities, our interests, and ourselves?

JH: I have wrestled with the myth that, to write and let you read it, my thinking  has to be fully mature, complete, finished—and that five years from now, I’d agree 100% with what I wrote. There is something daunting about the permanence of the written word. A phone call fades, even e-mail is more likely to be deleted than not. But a written note can be taken out and read over and over again, over time. And it continues to speak from the person who wrote it—who I might not be in five years.

Annie G. Rogers, when  talking about writing  her memoir book, A Shining Affliction: Tales of Harm and Healing in Psychotherapy, said that one of the most difficult tasks in the writing  was to go back to the person  she was when she was experiencing  this, and write from that voice. Thats one thing, memoirs. Somehow, change in that  genre  is expected.

But, for me anyway, I have had to work at giving myself permission to grow in my writing. To begin with a piece that I know I will be able to improve on someday, but let it be read, let it go. I struggle with this concept in writing this book. Roni Natov, a professor at Union Institute & University, told me, Just do your best writing. It will change. You are still learning and will always be. That helped.

Then I thought about the other arts—specifically, looking at Georgia O’Keeffes work. Her early pieces, in black and white, are very clearly early efforts with seeds of her later brilliance. Put an early sketch next to a wondrous oil from the end of her career and step back. I can only have admiration for where she began, and where she concluded.

So, I foster my courage and court inspiration by tucking  an earlO’Keeffe near my keyboard. And give myself permission to grow.

  
SBWC: What most surprised you about these discussions?  What did you find most helpful to your own work?

JH:  I was surprised by the generosity of story, and willingness to support and share experiences.  Writing can be such a solitary act, and yet, through these interviews I felt deeply accompanied .  The many different ways that writers began writing was fascinating to me as well as their writing habits and disciplines.

SBWC: If voice is something that is partly learned, how do beginning writers develop voice? What role does reading play?  

JH: When a visual artist first learns drawing, they often start by studying the masters.  A pianist will begin with learning scales (craft) and then classic pieces as their skill allows.  Similarly, it writers helps to read voraciously to hone their ear.  Author Phyllis Hoge mentioned that she can now see the influence of Rilke and Yeats on her early work, when she first began writing poems, because she was reading a lot of their work.

And part of the work of finding one’s voice is peeling back the inherited voice, which has been layered onto us by our families, schools, communities and Zeitgeist.  I interviewed Nancy Houfek, who was head of Voice at the American Repetoire Theatre.  When she trains new actors, she begins by peeling back the learned habits of the environments in which the actors were raised.  She mentioned that mid-westerners had a way of holding their muscles tighter around the mouth than, say, New Englanders.  Getting the budding actors in touch with these habits gave them awareness to make choices—it develops their body into a blank canvas that they can layer as they build their characters for the stage.  And this process helps to unveil their natural abilities and innate skills.

Similarly when we as writers can examine our inherited voice, and understand our cultural shaping, we may be able to find our blindspots, our strengths, and make more powerful choices about the voice we choose.

 SBWC: One element you explore in your book is the idea of “inherited voice”.  How do our personal histories affect our writing voice, and what can writers do to increase awareness of these invisible or forgotten influences?

JH: There are many ways that our inherited voice impacts our writing, and we will be exploring some of these ways in the workshop on September 17th, “Mining Family Stories.”

For example, in family therapy theory, family systems are rated on a continuum from enmeshed (where your mother talks to you through a closed bathroom door) or disengaged (when many things are just not mentioned).  These patterns of communications are learned, and can inform how close you hold your reader, how you have your characters interact. 

SBWC: Strunk and White call the issue of style/voice “high mysteries.” Are there elements of voice that seem indefinable to you?

JH: We know voice when we feel its resonance.  We know when a piece we have written comes through so clearly—writing from the bone.  What is more challenging to define is one definition of writing voice since it is the fingerprints we leave all over our work—and is as unique as each writer’s DNA.