Lia Woodall [photo credit: Mimi Snow] is an award-winning essayist who experiments with form to explore her experiences of twin loss to suicide and the roles played in her family of origin. Her hybrid chapbook, Remove to Play, was the 2019 contest winner and recently released by The Cupboard Pamphlet. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from Best American Experimental Writing 2020 (digital edition), under the gum tree, Literal Latté, Sonora Review, Crack the Spine, and South Loop Review. She is working on a collection called Leaving Twinbrook.
Find her on Twitter @liawoodall
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I don’t feel that my first chapbook has changed my life, certainly not in any manner close to what the pandemic is doing to our collective world and individual lives. To me, it’s additive. Another small step in my writing journey, which only began around 2007, on the cusp of entering my fifties. I don’t think I fully understood how a chapbook was different from publishing essays in literary journals, which made me feel that I had contributed to a conversation among a community I was getting to know and feel a part of. That I had done the work to read and observe, to learn and grow enough to participate on a different level. That brought me a feeling of accomplishment and value that I anticipated experiencing with Remove to Play, too. But actually getting to hold it in my hands and feel the smooth texture of the cover, to put my finger through the die cut hole on the cover image and know where that emptiness leads me, to realize that it stands on its own, not just through words and story, but also in this more permanent form, those are emotions I hadn’t anticipated feeling. These are the cairns of encouragement that help to keep me trudging along my writing path, wherever it is taking me.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I didn’t. When I discovered the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary center in Denver where I lived for many years, I signed up for a short story workshop. The idea of a novel intimidated me, but I thought I could handle a shorter form. I was wrong about both. I quickly learned that the short form is just as, or maybe more challenging, to tackle and that the content that kept percolating up in my drafts was more memoir than fiction. That emerging voice felt urgent, so I switched to memoir and creative nonfiction workshops and felt at home. I haven’t read very much fiction since, but after I complete my collection of memoir essays, I look forward to taking on the short story form again. I love it.
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?
Most of my essays are in the incubator for a long time, often for several years, waiting to be hatched into a particular form that allows me to struggle with and make sense of the content without being overtaken emotionally by it. The form is critical. It operates as a distraction, sometimes even formalistically, that turns my writing experience into an expression of art, of architectural blueprints that build something, rather than a wallowing or rant of complete emotional defeat or flailing. This sounds like a very rigid approach; but it is, surprisingly, filled with connective tissues of synchronicity and discovery and braided and juxtaposed ephemera, with opportunities to morph or break the form altogether in a final reflection.
I have also had the experience of writing an entire essay after reading a particular book or essay or from a writing prompt. A portal just opens up and I’m off.
One thing is clear. My writing, although never linear, has moved along the spectrum towards experiment and hybridity. That may circumscribe my readership, but my creative horizon is boundless.
4 - Where does a 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?
When I first began writing and participating in workshops, I grew to like writing prompts and homework assignments. And deadlines. As I said earlier, I was intimidated by the idea of a book-length project and gravitated more to short pieces, and flash essays as I learned more about them. I am fascinated with the process of constraints and how liberating they are. And although I’ve been a rule-follower all of my life, I approach my writing as a rule-breaker, or more accurately, a rule-experimenter. That isn’t to say that I don’t study and use craft. I absolutely believe in that and also the essential role of revision.
I’ve found that as I work through the form for an idea or a memory that I’ve been carrying with me for some time, some of the short pieces I’ve been collecting over the years try to squeeze themselves into that form. They want to speak up, to be included, to converse or argue or layer. Juxtaposition and white space become important. At this point, I have completed essays that are also in conversation with each other so a book or collection is taking shape. My obsession story is about losing my twin brother, Larry, to suicide in 1991. My working title is Leaving Twinbrook: a Memoir of Duality. We grew up in a suburban neighborhood in Maryland called Twinbrook. Sometimes the universe gives you a gift and direction.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy both attending and giving public readings. I love hearing an author’s voice in my head as I later read their book. As my writing has become more hybrid and visual, it has been more difficult to put together a reading. How to perform the pages? I’m very challenged by that, but I’m determined to figure it out. As a writing mentor of mine, Richard Froude, shared with me, he looks at readings as opportunities to have the material spliced and reorganized to fit the environment and moment, even to bring in extraneous writing of his that may feel relevant or compelling in fresh ways. Again, this idea, as best as I understand it, of performance. Remove to Play accommodates this well, as its pages are already set up to move around and be read in any order, like the moving pieces of the slide puzzle itself. There are new surprises and smaller story lines erupting onto the stage when I do.
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?
I have two guiding principles in my creative nonfiction writing experience: write my truth and write towards compassion. Truth in CNF is different than the truth I advanced in legal briefs when I practiced law. Those required comprehensive research, case citations, and arguments developed by equating or distinguishing a set of facts. Ultimately, my role was to advocate for a particular narrative, but the truth was determined by the factfinder, either the jury or judge. In my CNF writing world, in some ways, I get to be the jury and the judge, too. There are still competing narratives (memories that don’t line up just right or are challenged by other family members) and research (I’m less interested in formal citations and gravitate instead ephemera that will become connective tissue in a braided essay, for example), but the ruling or judgment doesn’t feel like a gavel resounding some permanent and impersonal pronouncement. It’s less resolution and more reflection; less answers and more questioning. I’m exploring who I am and how I’ve arrived at this place in my life, with and without certain people whom I love.
That brings me to my second guiding principle: write towards compassion. This also allows me to be more truthful, to see and portray the characters in my life, whom I love deeply, as multidimensional and to reflect more intentionally about our life/dance together, even when we have stepped on each other’s toes. Compassion allows me to take inventory of my role in whatever conflict has erupted, to be my most vulnerable self and my most forgiving of others and myself. I’m not suggesting that I always succeed in this, but it is the lighthouse beam calling me in.
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?
This is a tough question for me, probably because I’m not close to actualizing what I’m about to say. I think the current role of the writer is to educate, to amplify stories and voices that are hidden, suppressed or ignored throughout our world(s), whether it is through journalism, memoir, fiction or poetry. Not everyone is culturally credentialed to do so, so a word of caution there; but if one isn’t or can’t write those stories for whatever reasons, then reading and sharing them is paramount. I believe that if I am reading, I am also writing. To me, learning, musing, dreaming—finding the connective tissue is part of the actual writing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I can’t say enough positive remarks about working with Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook, the co-editors/publishers at The Cupboard Pamphlet. They are editors extraordinaire. Any suggested changes, and let’s just call them improvements, were accompanied with rich explanations that made me open to and confident about their edits but also demonstrated their close reading and understanding of my work and their knowledge of language. I found their dedication, effort and professionalism impressive and rewarding.
I have also had a more mystifying experience with other editors, whose demands of study and/or the turnover of student boards meant infrequent to no communication and publication without any opportunity to read proof pages. That was a less satisfying and frustrating process that I did not enjoy and my work did not benefit from in becoming its best version.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t think it was meant as advice, and I received it as permission. In a workshop with Cheryl Strayed in 2012 at Lighthouse Writers Workshop—I highly recommend their summer Lit Fest—she said that she didn’t have a daily practice of sitting her butt in a chair and writing for a certain number of hours. Instead, she called herself a binge writer. I really needed to hear that. All the shame and competitiveness of having a daily writerly practice just fell away when she shared that. It made all the difference not to feel guilty when I went through periods of not writing and to trust my most productive self.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Give me a deadline that I can write towards with a theme that resonates with me. When I’m not driven that way, I’m dreaming and musing and reading.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Same place I do often to get started. I use a lot of images, photographs, childhood trinkets, talismans, music and art. Often, they are both portal and potential content. I also will read or re-read particular authors. I have certain books on my shelves that are just waiting for me to open, which I will do when I’m ready to explore and savor something calling to begin a new essay, one I’ve been musing over for some time. When I’m reading, I make margin notes when something the author is sharing resonates and speaks to or with something I’m working on or going to write in the future.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I saved this question for last because I knew it would make me nostalgic and mushy. And also torn. Home is a word, an idea, an experience I struggle with. I think I’m pretty bad at making a home, although it is a deep desire of mine. So, where is home for me and what brings me there in terms of fragrance? Consistently, I think of rain, the kind that is also musical, pattering on metal roofs, drumming on wood siding, pooling in the leaves of the tulip popular tree we had in my childhood front yard. It is the smell of cleansing and rejuvenation, of reading indoors on scratchy sofa cushions on a canceled beach day in Nags Head, of lifeguard whistles demanding us out of the pool before the lightning arrives and the reboot of temperature after the downpour, of mom making the rounds after lights out to batten down the windows when the wind picked up. Rain smells distinctive depending upon the reagents that catch it: the ocean salt off the Outer Banks, the chlorine of Park Forest, our neighborhood pool, or the dirt floor holding up the oaks and maples at Camp Seneca in summer. Rain is a whisper into memory, a breath of brooding, a house/keeping pace with longing.
13 - 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?
The term ekphrasis resonates with me: an attempt vividly to write a description of a visual work of art, often dramatically. I have an expanded view of ekphrastic writing. Mine extends both past the painting and the limited react-and-respond interaction with the page. It embraces thee influence and inspiration to find the connection, the synchronicity, between the visual work and the internal story being asked to live outside the body. Like the quote from Clyfford Still on one of my (many) coffee mug(s) that I take to my writing desk: “It’s intolerable to be stopped by the frame’s edge.” So, I am open to many kinds of portals that allow me to enter my stories. Whether it is a particular Broadway song I listen to for days before beginning, a charm bracelet I stretch out on my desk, a photograph I hold and stare at, a geometric shape I investigate, learning about twin crystals in nature or a painting that speaks to me at a museum. And having experienced their efficacy and promise, many of them have now become part of the hybridity. I’ve learned that these portals have value beyond their invitation to cross a threshold. Now I recognize and incorporate them more as part of the essay’s conversation and form.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A few to date include Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Nick Flynn, Lidia Yuknavitch, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Tyehimba Jess, Carolyn Forché, George Saunders and Sue William Silverman. In more direct ways as mentors who expanded my writing world, I’d add: Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Richard Froude, Reneé D’Aoust, BK Loren and Lindsey Drager. So many more as readers and workshop participants over the years. There are many writers and texts I’ve yet to discover that will thrill me in ways that my own writing will grow.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
In my writing life I do want to finish my collection of essays and have it find its way into the world. Then, I’d love to return to the short story form, where I had started to explore some of my mother’s family stories (Johnstown flood, train culture and telegraph towers, TB asylums). And I want to write a musical. As most musicals are, it would have to be a collaboration as I have no music background and can’t sing a note. But I am deeply moved by the form and the idea of producing something on stage.
16 - 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?
This question assumes facts not in evidence (that I didn’t do anything before becoming a writer, granted later in life) and begs the question: what is an occupation versus a career?
That last snipe refers to my first law school class in the evening program, which was comprised mostly of returning students who had established careers. I knew the professor well because I had worked for the law school for a couple of years as the Dean’s secretary—a job I got because I knew shorthand! The professor had previously let me know that he didn’t care for my political opinions and advocacy so I expected to be grilled that first night. As he called roll, we were to share our current career. When he called Dawn A., she answered Homemaker to which Professor K said, “Well, that might be an occupation, but it’s certainly no career,” then called the next name. At the end of roll, he went back to the names he hadn’t checked off and called them a second time. He mistakenly called on Dawn again. This time she responded, “Professor K, I was present the first time you called my name. You just didn’t give me any credit for being a Homemaker.” And just like that, I knew I wouldn’t be grilled that night, and Dawn and I would become good friends.
To answer your question more directly, I was an attorney, in and out of the practice of law for twenty-some years. I loved law school, and had dreams of teaching law one day. Larry’s death and the fallout it had on my family and my family of origin, and, of course, me, greatly disrupted my desire to continue in law and created doubt that I had any aptitude for it. I have a great deal of unexplored grief over the trajectory of my professional life, which I’ll write about some day. That part of my identity flat-lined when my twin brother killed himself, even though I went on to have successful experiences when I did practice law and some wonderful mentors.
I think I’ve found the form for that essay, the board game Careers, which I had as a child and played with my siblings, and later with my children. I still have it. But I’m not ready to engage with that story yet. The grief is monumental in a way that surprises me each time I come across the boxes of law school or professional material I’ve kept. (I’ve moved three times in the last five years so I’ve bumped up against that grief a lot.) I think it represents the anger I was not allowed to feel, certainly not allowed to express, in my birth family system. I learned to internalize any anger and convert it into sadness, so those materials and work story feel risky, emotionally. It’s not yet time to shine a bright light on it and transform it into art.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
As you know now, I did do something else. I actually enjoyed the legal writing I did, getting to construct an argument with supporting legal authorities. I love footnotes! But, even though lawyers do have to be creative and think outside the box, the writing is largely formalistic and dry. As I arrived on the doorstep of the empty nester void, I felt pulled to explore creative writing, something I had enjoyed throughout my school years. Finding this new community, being stretched in so many ways, I was hooked. So, a dozen years later, I finally can say those words, I’m a writer, without feeling like I have to qualify or justify how I spend my time being one. I’m very fortunate not to have to rely on being a writer for an income and I have no expectation of making oodles of money. The rewards are growing in a community I love and challenging myself with the next project. The biggest compliment I could receive is for someone to teach my chapbook so it could contribute to the larger literary conversation I find so appealing.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am not a literary snob. I feel that is the worse form of self-promoting and excludes people who would contribute to the conversation. I would just say that I hate to finish a book that I’m enjoying and the last great book I read may be the one I’ve just started. I’ve just begun Robin Hemley’s Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood, which feels important and relevant in these times. I have always enjoyed the deeply-researched and immersive way he delves into subjects.
I really love films and enjoy a broad spectrum. Feels like a very long time since I saw a new release. Not sure that I have seen a great film lately, but very good ones that surprised me in a good way for their fresh storytelling include: JoJo Rabbit, Parasite, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I started a new essay in late 2019 that I’d been contemplating for several years. My working title is called Center/Fold because it’s in that form. Spanning the four inside pages is a prone body image of the Visible Woman, a model kit that I got for Christmas when I was 9 ½ years. I loved putting her together, the skeleton, the organs, painting the veins and arteries on the clear plastic sarcophagus of a body and fitting the organs neatly inside. Except, they were never snug. I learned later that my mom had removed the uterus from the kit before she wrapped it and put it under the tree. This revelation has festered in my own body for most of my life, wondering what her message to me was back then: did she not trust me with such knowledge, did she not want me to understand my own body, did she not want me to be a mother, did she resent being mine, did she think that uteruses were the cause of all female ailments? So many themes are trying to gain access to these pages. I will write about each of them and then edit out the strands that belong somewhere else. Pretty excited finally to be working on this one.