Saturday, June 02, 2018

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Shuly Xóchitl Cawood

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017) and a forthcoming chapbook, None of Them Home (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in Fiction Southeast, wildness, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Zone 3, and Cider Press Review,among others. Her website is

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book made me an author, and that was very important to me—for many years, my goal was to have a book. I never would have guessed my first book would be a memoir.

My most recent work hasn’t been memoir: I’ve been focused on fiction and poetry, though at times the genres mix with each other.

2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I actually came to fiction first—bad fiction: I started writing short stories in sixth grade, quite terrible little short stories that I thought for many years were quite good. In high school I started writing poetry and have been writing it ever since. I came to memoir in the last decade when I realized I had stories from my life I wanted to tell.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
This all depends on the project. Some are easy and flow, and I do very little editing. Other pieces I labor over and revise so many times I lose track. Some poems take me less than an hour to write. Some stories I write for years.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I never know where the writing will take me, so I never have a book-length idea from the start. (I also never know where a poem will go. I just start writing the first words that come into my head or start with a particular idea of what the poem might be about, but that can change as I write.) I don’t plot out my stories or even have any idea where the characters will take me. I start with some people and a conflict, and I write from there. The surprise of where it goes is one of my favorite parts of writing.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings and any kind of public speaking. When I published my memoir last year, I created an author talk that covers my journey as a writer, and I included a very short reading in there. Some people like readings, but other people don’t and prefer to learn more about the author. My aim was to cover both.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Sometimes when I write, I am trying to figure out a question I have about life, and that is very particular to the piece of work.

My only general questions that apply to nearly all my writing are: “Is this relevant?” and “Is it good enough?”

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t have a prescription for writers’ roles, mine or anyone else’s. I hope that writers write about what they are compelled to say, and if this leads them to a role, especially a role they want, then I am glad for them. I think roles often come to us without trying—to inspire, to entertain, to make someone laugh, to help people understand.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
That completely depends on the editor. I love working with an editor who understands my work and sees how I can better attain my vision. Working with an editor is only essential if my piece has missed the mark.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To never give up.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find this very easy. I often move between genres when I get stuck in one. I hop over to another. It shakes things loose.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I try to start most days writing, even if just a little, when my mind is still relaxed enough to be open to anything. I scribble in a notebook, writing down any weird, random thought that comes into my head. Later in the day, I move to my computer and write with more intent and purpose.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I love to read people’s poems. I’m not a big social media fan, but one of things I have gotten out of it is being exposed and introduced to other people’s poems. My recent favorites have come from Ariel Francisco and Whitney Roberts Hill, and during National Poetry Month I will feature some of their work on my blog.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of wood.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I spend a lot of time outside walking, and often when I come across a problem in my writing, I find taking a walk helps me access a solution. I’m guessing that being outside has influenced my work, but it would be without my knowing it. It certainly has influenced my problem-solving.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I like to read widely. I’m not a reader who gets every book of a particular writer. I tend to like individual pieces of other writers. Lately, I’ve been reading a ton of poetry. Some of my all-time favorite poems are Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer” (I used the last lines of this poem as the epigraph in my memoir), Dan Masterson’s “For a Child Going Blind,” and Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.” I just started Neil Hilborn’s poetry collection, Our Numbered Days, and so far, my favorite poem is, “Ballad of the Bruised Lung.” I love a clever poem that makes me laugh out loud.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to travel to places I have never been, and return to a few I have, such as England. I’d like to publish a book of poetry, a book of short stories, and, one day, a really good novel. I’d like to take life more easily. I’d like to become closer to God.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I spent some of my career in college administration, and for reasons that are stories in and of themselves, I ended up not staying in that field, but I always missed it.

My favorite job was at my alma mater, working in admissions recruiting high school students—a great age and a momentous time in their lives, when they are finishing up one chapter and looking at the next big chapter. In my admissions job, I also got to put my writing and editing skills to use. It was the perfect combination for me.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I was almost always doing something else while writing, not just solely writing—admissions, career counseling, financial counseling, communications work—so I don’t feel as if I have had to exclude other things in order to write. I think doing other things helps the writing, although writing is the constant companion. I don’t know what life would be like without it because I have been writing my whole adult life and most of my youth.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, and I loved it for the writing, for how it didn’t fit neatly into a genre, and for its astute observations. The last film I loved was Lady Bird, which was a coming-of-age film that made me laugh and made me cry and made me think about my own youth.

20 - What are you currently working on?
A poetry collection and a short story collection.


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