Tuesday, November 08, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers is the author of four collections of poetry, The Boys I Borrow (New Issues Press), Drinking Girls and Their Dresses (winner of the Sawtooth Prize), The Present State of the Garden, winner of the Blue Lynx Prize, and Field Notes from the Flood Zone, from BOA Editions.

She is also the author of The Practice of Creative Writing: a guide for students, just out in a fully revised fourth edition. The book contains work by 50 authors and offers a thorough introduction to creative writing across the genres.  Her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was Editor’s Choice at The New York Times. Her essays have appeared widely. She directs the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.  Her website is heathersellers.com.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Georgia Underwater helped me get tenure—that was life-changing, to be sure. And it made me feel valid as a writer, to have a book published.  Also, my mother stopped speaking to me for a time after I published my first book and as painful as that was, the break in contract helped me begin to sort out some important truths about my family.

My recent work, and all of my work, feels like an extension of that first project—I see it all as one big inter-related body of work—in terms of subject matter, theme, and intention. I hope my skills get better with each project.  Lately I’ve been working most intentionally on sentences, rhythm, story-telling crafts, concision and accuracy.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? 

My Ph.D. is in fiction and my first book was a collection of linked short stories. I took as many poetry courses as I could, but in my program, one had to declare a genre, and I declared my work “fiction” mostly because Jerry Stern was not on leave that semester and the poets were and I was a much better reader of fiction than I was of poetry.

We didn’t have “non-fiction” in creative writing then, but my poetry and fiction were absolutely dwelling in that space.   But I did not see genres as wholly separate things, or in a hierarchy.  My first book, self-bound and self-published, by myself, when I was ten years old, contained a short story, a tiny memoir, a one page play and a long poem. I thought every writer worked across the genres. A writer is someone who writes things.

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?

I wouldn’t say fast or slow. I would say “ongoing.” I try to work every day—if I don’t, part of myself seems to turn against myself. I’m more present to the world and those around me if I’m able to write every day. I wish this weren’t the case. But the concentration required is somehow medicine for my poor brain: grounding, focusing, clearing.

Once in awhile, I’ll get down on the page something I really, really like, right out of the gate, and the shaping process hews fairly close to that first “down draft” but usually the first drafts look nothing like the final results. I’m a heavy, hearty, devoted re-writer—rewriting is writing to me. 

I do take a lot of notes on index cards and the backs of envelops and in my phone. I am not great at organizing and then finding these notes when I need them, but I think the act of noting is productive in itself—little breadcrumbs here and there, so I don’t completely lose my way.

I like to read notes by artists and writers, and I love fragments as art objects. And I’m completely surrounded by a sea of notes as I work…notes in books, and printed out drafts and pencils and post-its and lists and outlines and charts. It’s very messy. Writing for me is a layering process.

4 - Where does a poem 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 know many poets say the poem begins with sound, language, and rhythm.  For me, the poem begins with an image I can’t get out of mind or a juxtaposition I like.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like to read. Not too often. It takes, for me, enormous preparation and planning and revision and rehearsing and energy and it’s incredibly anxiety-producing, too.  Reading the work aloud in front of an audience sure does lay bare what is working and what is not working. Some pieces work really well out loud and maybe most do not. That takes some figuring out, right? But if someone is taking one out to dinner afterwards, it seems important to attempt to give over some kind of experience that is entertaining and meaningful. So I like it and I do think it’s good creative training but it’s definitely more demanding than pleasurable.

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’m absolutely not a scholar.  I’m not sure I’m trying to answer questions with my writing. I’m more trying to document what I observe truthfully and accurately.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

So many kinds of writers.  So many kinds of roles.  Against “should.”

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

A good editor is the luckiest thing ever, right? She is your teacher.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

All the advice about outsmarting yourself: You have to figure out how to stay at the desk when you absolutely do not want to, and you have to figure out ways to keep learning your craft so you can improve, and you have to do these things mostly on your own.

You have to be smarter than you are. You have to develop an enormous tolerance for failure. Mostly, you have to stay at the desk.  You have to kind of live there, really.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I am very stay-at-home in my life but very wander-y in my writing pursuits. There is so much fantastic work to read, across genres, and so much technique to learn and practice…irresistible. I don’t think I move among genres, I think they move among me! 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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