Michelle was asked last month by a much respected writing colleague and friend Andrew Stancek to join a literary blog tour about the writing process, and asked if I'd like to join with Elizabeth Welsh to make it a conversation. Of course I said I'd love to. Both Michelle and Elizabeth are terrificly talented writers as well as stellar editors:
Michelle Elvy, whose very short fiction I first read at Flash Frontier, which she founded and edits with an eye so sharp she can spot a dangling modifier from the other side of the Pacific. She's also wirtes wonderful poems that have appeared in JAAM and elsewhere.
We begin with an easy question…
What are you working on?
Rae: Thanks so much for inviting me in to the conversation, Michelle: where to start with the answer.
Me being me, I’m working on a lot at the moment. I write short and long and graphic fiction, as well as poetry, so I’m currently polishing a collection of short fiction in preparation for submitting to publishers – a third of the stories in the collection have either been published already in journals or won or been placed in competitions – and looking to place a few more in zines.
Long fiction-wise, I’m one of two finalists for the Dundee International Book Prize, for my unpublished novel Some Things the English, and I’m proof-reading that for about the zillionth time in the toes and fingers crossed hope that I can get an agent and get it published soon
I’m very excited to have been chosen by the NZ Book Council to participate in the Graphic Novelists Exchange Residency with Taiwan, which I’ll be starting work on in October. It’s a wonderful collaborative opportunity and a chance to really learn a lot from my graphic fiction peers, both here in NZ and in Taiwan – I can’t wait.
I’m also working on a graphic memoir – but this is probably enough to be going on with!
Elizabeth: I have been working on my first poetry collection for the past couple of years. It has been a slow-moving process, but one that I feel is accumulative and developmentally complex.
I gather, learn, unlearn, move backwards, forwards. At some point – hopefully in the next year – this collection will emerge whole. I will know when it is ready. I also write short fiction, but this has languished of late.
After my poetry collection, I think my curiosity will wend its way back to short fiction. I need time and some rigour to do that though. I currently have two essays on-the-go – one on Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen and afterlives; the other on Katherine Mansfield’s review writing as communication. I consider the essay form an entirely separate category. The challenge, in the essay, is inserting a modicum of creativity and aliveness.
Michelle: Elizabeth, I will look forward to seeing that poetry collection when it emerges. Your flash, to me, is also like poetry (like the story you wrote for the Blue Five Notebook special issue earlier this year). And Rae – I know you’ve had an incredible year, and we’re now in the final weeks before you hear about the results of the Dundee Prize. This is an exciting month for you, with some serious travel miles in the works.
Me? This year I decided to tackle a couple longer projects that have been sitting quietly on the back-burner for several years.
One is a creative nonfiction collection of essays about travel and cultural clashes/observations, based on our itinerant lifestyle aboard our sailboat, Momo. A small section from that just came out in the August issue of Takahē, and other segments are submitted elsewhere; I’m working toward putting them all together as a whole.
I also have a collection of short stories that emerged from my 2012 historical flash project – and those are slowly emerging into a coherent whole. And then there’s a novel in the works – something has developed rather organically, and lovingly, from the 2014: A Year in Stories project. For me, that series (writing a series of interconnected stories, one month after another for a year) ignited something powerful – and it’s also linked to the inspiration I feel when writing about place, belonging, history, culture and how our loose connections bring us home (wherever that may be).
In all my work, the sea figures rather centrally, and New Zealand emerges as a landscape I can’t leave too far behind. I find it both advantageous and disadvantageous to work on NZ-oriented writing while away: I’m geographically farther away, but the research and writing draws me back, which makes me very happy indeed. I’ve been doing that with regard to the Chesapeake my whole life, so in some ways this makes sense. Place is very important in my writing, even when my latitude and longitude shifts so regularly.
I think in a way, for the first time ever, my projects all feel related -- not something I thought about before sketching this down here.
How are you/your work unique? Or, how does your work differ from the work of others in the same area/genre? (April Bradley added this observation to the question: Genre is such a confining word, isn’t it?)
Elizabeth: To be entirely honest, I ascribe to the idea that we are all simply singular drops in a swelling, shifting ocean of creativity (apologies for the analogy; but the meaning is spot on).
Our creative acts are just modifications, extensions, essentially remixes of what has already come before us. There is a great New York Times Op-Doc on this called ‘Allergy to Originality’: http://vimeo.com/51325336. I find this plurality, this additionality incredibly enabling and exciting. Of course, individuals being individuals, my writing will be different (however small that difference is) from the very nature of it coming from me.
But, I guess, I tend to focus less on how I am/my work is unique and more on how we all fit together across creative boundaries. How we burgeon, escalate, multiply.
Rae: Thanks a lot, Michelle - nice to know you're rooting for me all the way out somewhere on the ocean in Momo. Elizabeth, I love your focussing on how we all fit together and our place in a creative lineage of sorts.
This is such a huge question in some ways, I’m not sure I can answer adequately, but I’ll give it a go – thanks for asking.
I work across what are supposedly four or five distinct genres: poetry, short fiction, graphic poetry/fiction and novels, but for the sake of simplifying my answer here, let’s just call them all story. This, I guess, is how my work differs from others, in that I don’t make those genre distinctions, at least they aren’t what I’m thinking about when I set out to make a new piece of art; my work drifts between and across genre boundaries all the time. If I’m writing a piece of short fiction and it calls for images, I give it images; if I’m writing a novel and it begs for the structure of a poem, that’s what I give it.
So, to refer to April’s observation for a sec, no, I don’t find genre conflicting at all. But this may be because I’m the sort of person who likes to put herself into a box to puzzle her way out of: a personality thing? I grew up in a very constrained working-class environment, had few choices, so I let my imagination run riot. I see no reason to wrap myself up in genre any time soon. Thanks so much for asking me to think about it, though.
Michelle: I find this almost impossible to answer. I don’t look over my shoulder as I write and ask: how am I unique?
I write in the voice that feels right at the time. For flash, I allow more experimentation and exploration – voice, mood, etc. It’s fun – and important – to stretch in those short bursts. For longer works, I have a steady voice that’s been in my head since grad school, dating back to when I wrote historical essays – except I think the voice has developed (ahem: matured?). I write how it feels right – and I don’t ask why it comes out, or whether it’s unique. I do ask myself whether the voice and language matches the message: precision is paramount.
I like Elizabeth’s answer. Drops in a large ocean: yes. I recently witnessed an amazing example of bioluminescence in an anchorage in the Ang Thon Marine Park here in the Gulf of Thailand, with pulsing rays of energy going out in oblong-shaped, somewhat regular waves -- and it was the kind of thing that evoked an indescribable feeling of connectedness, as otherworldly as it was. Writing is like that: indescribable but something pulsing that you can’t move away from, when it’s glowing all around you. Whether we are each a unique pulse doesn’t matter. But one thing is true: writing makes me feel like the world is glowing.
Why do you write what you do?
Elizabeth: Largely to give pleasure, joy. Even though these are sometimes considered unimportant.
I wholeheartedly believe in a plurality of voices, and I hope mine is a creative voice that some people want to listen to (or, rather, read). Creation, for me, is about connection, so I strive to reach others through my poetry and short fiction. I try to embrace a clarity and simplicity and to urge others to stop, communicate, listen. Just to be human really.
I am an avid proponent of the concept of wabi-sabi – the acceptance of transience, imperfection, growth. I hope this transmutes to my creative work. I try to remind myself regularly of Henry Miller’s thoughts on writing: ‘Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life’.
Rae: This is another of those deceptively simple questions that’s actually Mariana Trench deep. Why do I write the subject matter that I write? Or why do I write in the genres I write? Or…OK, let’s just start with the first interpretation and see where we end up.
I am drawn to writing about what are essentially class issues, events, opinions and issues that affect working-class and marginalised people and those who have historically had little voice or platform of their own. I write it because, as a working-class woman myself, I wasn’t listened to, wasn’t taken seriously, was patronised and, in certain company, still am.
I write the stories I want to read, about people I recognise: I don’t feel an affinity for middle-class representations in fiction and yet these are predominantly the stories being published. A white working-class woman’s stories mightn’t be much of a leap, but it’s an important distinction to me and it’ll no doubt be important to someone else.
Michelle: For me, writing is about connection. To readers, to other writers, to myself. My own stories (fiction or non) emerge in some kind of random yet natural way, and I do not believe in forcing them or feeling anguished about any of it.
I suppose I write because I feel the desire to express connections between individuals, and to see where seemingly disassociated presences, events or energies may intersect. I wrote about this very question before:
…that a person is an outcome derived from a sum of experiences, events, and stories, all arranged seemingly willy-nilly yet producing precisely and only one result. I think the same is true for the tales we tell. And to tell those stories, to create one precise outcome while the other voices, characters, plotlines, perspectives, nuances, whatever remain lurking at the edges: that is a triumph. The possibility for numerous outcomes — the possibility of anything, really — lives on the writer’s page. To write about that possibility, and to do it with the precision of black on white, word on page, is a thrill.
Is it obnoxious to quote oneself? Dunno. But I stand by what I wrote back then.
How does your writing process work?
Elizabeth: I am a morning worker and night reader kind of gal. Any thinking, constructing, editing or creative act I need to undertake pretty much has to occur before lunchtime. I am a slow worker. This wasn’t always the case.
I used to work quite frantically, but over the past couple of years I have become even more particular about giving myself the space and time to mull, tease out, edit. An absolutely integral part of my process is reading. Not reading for research, but simply the act of reading for pleasure and then allowing myself to think. I was an English and Philosophy student when at university and this has directed – even now – how I approach creating.
I read Confucius’ Analects each night before I go to sleep – it’s important to remember that there is more than self.
I also regularly visit a fragment of tapestry in the V&A to simply look and think about it. I consider it part of my process. It is from Belgium, created by an unknown person in the late fifteenth century. Room 94, I think. There is one singular white unicorn in the centre with thousands of flowers and creatures surrounding it (this type was called millefleurs). The room is always kept dark, because it is filled with old tapestries. It feels hushed and reverential. The light from the white silk thread of the unicorn fascinates me. I try to visit it often and every time I see something more, something startlingly new.
Rae: Elizabeth, I definitely agree about reading as being integral to the writing process. Alison Lock recently asked me a similar question, so I’m going to add to the answer I gave on her blog, if that’s OK with you.
I work in several genres, short fiction, novels, graphic fiction, poetry, graphic poetry, and find I lean towards each at a different point in the day. For example, drawing comics requires less intense concentration than writing fiction, so I will often write fiction first thing in the morning and find I have enough creative energy to draw a comic in the evenings. Poetry finds me amenable in the evenings, also, often as I’m about to fall asleep, though it’s quite emotionally draining to write.
I try not to waste any writing time, and writing in a combination of genres really makes efficient use of my creative energies.
By the afternoon, I’m fidgety and impatient and that’s when the serious editing takes place – it’s amazing how those carefully crafted sentences are revealed as butt-naked Emperors at two pm! Out they go. I am often totally fatigued at the end of each day, and still the ideas pour in.
Michelle: Oh you both have such real schedules compared to my chaos: I can picture Elizabeth editing in the morning, while Rae tears up morning drafts and wraps robes around her Emperor by the time it’s afternoon tea! I also really like how Elizabeth reminds us how reading is so important. My ten-year-old just wrote an ‘argument’ essay about why kids should be allowed to read at night, to ‘read themselves to sleep’ – as opposed to being given a definitive ‘lights out’. Reading and letting the mind settle: yes. You never know where it will lead you – but it will certainly lead you away from yourself.
As for writing: things pour out in a rather chaotic way, in intense spurts of energy. I seem to be at my best when I have a few projects happening at once.
When something is really churning, I may get up in the middle of the night and stay at it for hours. I live in a very small space – a 43’ sailboat – with my husband and two kids, and besides my own writing, my editing work plus various family needs (including my daughters’ schooling) are always present. So finding that mental space is essential. I dream sometimes about having a room of my own – but then I realize that dream would not include life as I know it, and I love life as I know it. So the room stays in my head, and I write when (and where) I can.
Sitting in the evening breeze is important to me, and seems to balance the day’s hot commotion. Longer passages are wonderful for inspired thinking time – which is essential for me. The act of writing is not about the writing per se – but about listening to the things around me and the voices in my head, and sensing those rhythms. When I’m ready to write something down, I steal the time and type fast and furiously (my kids love the story of how I was once shushed in a German archive for tapping my keys too loudly!). I am a multi-tasker by nature, so finding ways to write while the world shouts chaos around me: that’s just normal. But those long hours of apparently doing nothing? Those are part of my normal (and essential) rhythm of life, too.
Elizabeth Welsh is a poet, flash writer and academic editor. In 2012, she won the Auckland University Press-Divine Muses emerging poetry prize with her poem ‘Water Buffalo’. She is currently working on her first poetry collection. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in print and online journals, both in New Zealand and internationally. Weekly, she also enjoys contributing to the online community Tuesday Poem.
For the last five years Elizabeth has run The Typewriter – an online poetry magazine for emerging New Zealand, Australian and Asia-Pacific poets. As editor, she loves reading poetry from new, enthusiastic writers.
As well as editing academic books, she is an academic researcher, specialising in modernist New Zealand and Australian literature; recently, she spoke on Katherine Mansfield at the Sorbonne. She has two upcoming chapter publications on New Zealand short fiction writer Katherine Mansfield and Irish modernist Elizabeth Bowen.
Originally from the beautiful climes of New Zealand, she has been living and working in, as well as exploring the joys of, Europe for the last couple of years. She wakes up daily with a sense of adventure and loves where travelling is taking her.
Michelle Elvy lives and works as a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in New Zealand and currently sailing in Southeast Asia. She edits at . She is an associate editor for the forthcoming Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015), and has guest edited at Smokelong Quarterly and lent her reading eye to a number of competitions. Her poetry, prose, nonfiction and reviews can be found in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has been interviewed about her somewhat unorthodox lifestyle in The New York Times, The Review Review and the Family Adventure podcast series.