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Interview with author Jennifer Culkin


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I am more fascinated than ever with creative nonfiction. Whether it’s memoir, a collection of personal essays, or creative journalism, the narratives of people’s lives inspire and inform me in ways that straightforward biography simply doesn’t.

Recently I read an amazing collection of personal essays by local author, Jennifer Culkin. Her book, A Final Arc of Sky, recounts her experiences as a critical care nurse and life-flight medic within the framework of her life as a working mother with multiple sclerosis. I found the depth of her narrative astounding and truly appreciated the intimacy of her essays because they illuminated a lifestyle I’ll never be privy to myself.

Today I offer an interview I recently conducted with Jennifer; we chatted quite a bit about the writing life in general, and what follows are insights into her world that readers of the Writer’s Rainbow blog are sure to glean something from.

———

An Interview with author Jennifer Culkin, author of the memoir, A Final Arc of Sky

Writer’s Rainbow: What is the greatest pleasure you take from writing?

Jennifer Culkin: It feels like a form of wrestling to me—muscular, up-close engagement with feelings, ideas and language.  When I sit down, I usually have something sitting in my gut that has arrested my attention in some way, but I don’t know exactly what there is to say about it.  I write in part to discover—with as much precision and specificity as I can—what there is to say about it.  Tremendously satisfying.  It hits any number of sweet spots.

WR: Do you have a particular weakness in your skill set or process that continues to hound you as a writer?

JC: Oh, there are a lot of things.  The worst is that when a deadline is coming up I’m a horrible procrastinator, and ultimately that’s as painful as ripping out fingernails.  But I don’t know how to change that about myself.  I’ve tried all sorts of schedules and mind-games but the writer in me seems to be a balky teenager who wants to sleep late.  Sigh. And I’m a slow writer.  That’ll never change. 

I’d also like to write a novel, but I’m not a great plotter.  I do think I have potential to improve in that area—it could be fun to make the effort to improve in that area.  And I’m sick of my own tics as a writer.  If I’m boring myself, I’m boring the reader.

WR: You’re a busy working mom. Are you an everyday writer, or do you just write when you can fit it into your schedule?

JC: When I work at the hospital, my day starts at 4:30 AM and I don’t get home until about 9:15 PM; work is a fast trot/total immersion for twelve hours and there generally isn’t a minute available on those days, unless I were to try to jam something into a notebook at lunch. 

Usually I do a desultory crossword puzzle at lunch and luxuriate in the sensation of sitting down.  But those long days enable me to work 2-3 days per week instead of 4-5.  I do write something every day I don’t work—whatever I feel like writing unless I’m under a deadline.  When no deadline is looming, I amuse myself.

WR: What’s your favorite writing “situation”—where and when do you like to work best, and with what tools?

JC: I’m a computer girl.  I love the glowing blue-blank page, the tactile click of the keys, and my process is completely dependent on the ability to edit as I go.  I don’t know what will happen if the end of the world comes and the lights go out permanently.  Or if MS worsens to the point I can’t type.  I dread that day.  But I suppose I’d adapt, like people do.  

I have an office-loft that overlooks the living room in my home, and because of the office chair and adjustable computer screen it’s physically the most comfortable place to write for hours—my neck and shoulders thank me.  But the informality of the laptop in other locales also has its little siren call.  Once I’m engaged with what I’m writing—once I’ve achieved escape velocity—I can do it anywhere with any amount of background noise.  Right now I’m sort of half watching the Tour de France.  Boys on bikes!

WR: Describe any writing rituals you might have.

JC: I always feel like writing first thing in the morning, so most days I do, right after I make the killer cup of coffee.  When I’m working on something serious, I put on these old black corduroy pants that have an elastic waistband and I sit down in my loft.  If I’m stuck or feeling particularly procrastinatory, I either journal about it so I can bitch to myself or I deal myself out three Tarot cards and divine my future.

WR: Do you ever play music while you write?

JC: I did it once—listened to Green Day’s American Idiot on my MP3 player while I worked on the “Night Vision” chapter of the book.  It was fun—almost addictive fun—but the voice in the chapter took on punk overtones.

WR: You’re an avid cyclist. Do you ever lose yourself in thoughts about writing while trekking around on your bike?

JC: I love riding because I can think about everything in the universe while my legs are busy.  The feel-good neurotransmitters start to flow and take the edge off everyday anxiety. 

I’ve also noticed that my physical abilities transiently improve when I engage in vigorous exercise.  The physical and biochemical changes that occur during exercise must make nerve impulse transmission more efficient across those damaged areas in my brain and spinal cord.  

It’s also my chance to listen to music as much as I want.  Mudhoney, anyone?  The straight life baby/has taken its toll/confined your mind and/stolen your souuullll…yup, it’ll get you up a hill.

WR: Your book, A Final Arc of Sky, is a memoir about your life as a critical care and life-flight nurse. However, you also interweave in the narrative your discovery of what would be the eventual diagnosis of MS.

I’m interested in the intersection where nursing, writing and multiple sclerosis meet: how does encountering each of these facets of your life inform the others in this trinity? Does nursing inform writing, does writing inform self-care for the MS, does the MS inform you as a nurse?

JC: Hmm, a complicated question.

Physically, for me at this stage, MS is like carrying around a 20-pound backpack all the time.  I’m not so severely impacted that I can’t do things I want to do, but my energy is extremely finite.  It goes, it goes!  It always goes before I’m ready for it to go.  My energy is like the caboose of the train I ran to catch, disappearing into the distance.  And once it goes my neurologic symptoms—dizziness, balance issues, tremor/fine-motor impairment, spasticity, deficits in memory and information processing—get worse, sometimes a lot worse.  Too tired for too long and I’m setting myself up for a flare—that happens about twice a year at present.  

So I have to husband my energy.  I can push myself—I’m the sort who will push herself—but sometimes that backfires.  It’s not always the right answer.  Critical-care nursing in my current setting is demanding physically, intellectually and emotionally, so I know two days a week I’m going to have to go all out for 12 hours, 17 if you count the commute. 

On one hand, I think it improves my endurance in the big picture, like cycling does.  My natural inclination as a person is to put out a huge, focused effort followed by sloth.  This is why 12-hour shifts in an intense specialty appeals to me.  In college and grad school, I was the type who wrote 30-page papers the day before they were due.  But now that sort of effort is often too much for me. 

I manage by working part-time.  I manage by having low domestic standards and expectations of myself.  We’re talking cracked paint and weeds.  I manage by living in the now.  I don’t know what my abilities will be later in the day, next week or next year.  I judge minute to minute what I can do and screw the rest, frankly.  When I truly CAN’T throw my leg over my bike or start an IV anymore, when it’s an absolute, then I will at least know I did it when I could.

Artistically, nursing uses a whole different area of my brain as opposed to writing.  It’s immediate, scientific-analytical, highly social, and cracks along at record speed.  Writing is both a physical and an emotional release from that.  It’s sedentary, solitary, ruminative and painstaking—I can give myself all the time in the world to sort it out and get it right. 

The way they balance each other is almost exquisite.  When I write I’m sitting down, physically resting, and I get a chance to think about what I’ve done.  A chance to think about all the little things that I noticed while I was taking care of patients, and while I was living life, but had no time to dwell on.  And writing is a safe place to explore my feelings about MS. 

My circle of family and friends is supportive, very supportive, but they have their own problems and in my estimation they shouldn’t have to worry about mine any more than I can help.  I don’t want to whine to them.  So I can have my unadulterated say about MS in a journal and it bothers nobody.

WR: You like to journal and it was your journaling that helped bring this book into existence. What piece of advice would you give to the would-be author who is considering a practice of journaling?

JC: You only have to please yourself when you’re journaling.  That’s the beauty of it.  Whatever your practice is, it should feel good—organic–to you. 

 If you have to force yourself to journal, then it might not be the right thing for you, or so says my sulky inner teenager.  Your journal should be a place of release and rest.  I have a lot of writer friends, and everyone’s idea of journaling seems to be different, which is great.  Some people only journal by hand, some people draw in their journals, some people collect tactile bits of life and stick them in their journals.  Some jot down cryptic phrases and ideas for development later.

My own journal is a place of focused play.  Extensive focused play, all in Word documents with weird little titles that clue me in to what I wrote about.  I zero in on something that intrigues me, bothers me, sticks with me in some way, and I tend to explore and develop the theme. 

I love tinkering with the craft of writing, with the language, punctuation and construction—it feels satisfying to do that, and in fact, that is how I become engaged each day in whatever I’m writing, I start by tinkering with what I’ve already written.  So my journal tends to be dense, to read like a piece I might publish, but I can be no-holds-barred honest and the pressure is completely off. 

I don’t journal with the idea that I’ll use any of it, but then I’ll find myself working on something and I’ll realize oh, I’ve already written about that.  I tell a story to myself in my journal, and sometimes I can then tell others the same story, or modify some of it for use.  

Writing is art, and art is not linear.  A journal isn’t linear, either.  So if your natural tendencies as a writer are anything like mine, this style of journaling might be useful to you.  It is time-consuming, though, without any certainty of payoff in the real world.

And a word about e-mails: I have some lovely, talented writer friends who are generous with their ears and their time, and I sometimes exchange pretty extensive e-mails with them.  This is one way I procrastinate, true, but sometimes there is good stuff in these e-mails and I can use it later.  Maybe you’re like me, and you can, too.

And one more thing. I talk myself through stuck places with journaling.  When I write, I have three documents open: the piece I’m working on, a document called “Outtakes” for phrases and paragraphs that need to come out in the short-term but that sometimes find a place later on, and a document called “Notes”.  “Notes” is for talking to myself and figuring out why I’m stuck.  Sometimes I’ll get on a jag in “Notes” and realize I’m not stuck anymore; I can cut and paste a whole section back into the piece and keep going.

WR: You won the Rona Jaffe prize last August for your memoir. Describe that experience.

JC: I was at work, having a busy day in the Emergency Department Observation Unit.  I checked my voicemail at lunch on June 30th last year and there was a message from Beth McCabe of the Rona Jaffe Foundation asking me to return her call.  It was 3pm here, and they’re on the East Coast, so it was too late to call her back, but I figured then I had won.  They never call if you lose; they send a thin letter. 

That was a moment of pure elation.  And over the next several months the Rona Jaffe Foundation was so good to the six of us who won.  They did their utmost to publicize and showcase us and our work, and I’m still using the $25,000 to supplement my income so I can work part-time instead of full-time.  The money is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

WR: What are you working on now?

JC: At this point, I’m a little fatigued, and I’m trying to figure out what might cohere into a second book.  I write most days as I always have, but I’m in a phase where nothing is linear and nothing seems to be adding up. There’s good compost, but no garden yet!

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Creative solutions for the writer who doesn’t want to be yet another Voice in the Dark

Something that’s been coming up a lot with my other clients: marketing issues. These boil down as follows:

  • submitting short work
  • finding agents
  • considering self-publication
  • considering electronic publishing
  • finding venues for reading
  • making webpages
  • building reputations through P2P (person to person) networking
  • online social networking
  • maximizing Twitter

Are you struggling with any of these concerns? They seem so “business-like,” and yet, as a creative person, you have the right foundation for making these things work on terms that mesh with your creative life.

I’ve co-hosted a writers’ marketing group for years and many of the things we learned as a group can be applied across disciplines.

I’m no marketing guru, per se, but I know how to find ways to balance the creativity life with the necessary work of promotion and networking yourself.

I’m a firm believer that we make or do things to communicate with the larger world; it’s an existential question as to whether it matters to be creative if nobody notices. For me, and for most of the people I’ve worked with as clients, it definitely matters that people notice; otherwise, we’re just voices in the dark.

These days, the marketing models are changing as well, and social networking is becoming a great equalizer, making it possible for people to generate platforms of followers/fans/connections that are responsive to their creative work in a way that the old corporate framework never really supported.

Do let me know if this is an area where you are challenged or want to learn more about, and give me some details of what it is that you are challenged by or what you have already done but would like to do more of. I’m happy to discuss, perhaps even to demystify or de-stigmatize, this “business-side” application of your creativity.

Taking new clients August 1.

TONIGHT IN SEATTLE: Want to learn about being a writing coach?

Tonight from 6:30p to 8:30p I’ll be joining Waverly Fitzgerald and Wendy Call to discuss how freelance independent editors can expand their services to include coaching for writers.

We’ll discuss the distinctions we see between editing and coaching, talk about how we developed our coaching skills, and describe how we work with clients.

Location: The Richard Hugo House on Capitol Hill (1634 11th Avenue, near Pine) in the Alice Room.

 FREE! and open to anyone interested in the topic. Questions? E-mail info@edsguild.org or call (206) 760-EDIT.

Reflections on Jane as she weaves through her second decade [cross-posting from Jane’s Stories]

from See Jane Write!

Reflections on Jane as she weaves through her second decade

by Tamara Kaye Sellman

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with some fine women writers I haven’t seen in a good long while at the recent AWP conference in Chicago. I was there to present on Internet metrics and small press publishing for the CLMP, but happily sat at the JSPF table at the bookfair to show my support.

More

Please consider joining this earnest and vital grassroots organization of women writers nationwide. They exist to see voices into print which don’t always get the attention they deserve: all women, certainly, but especially younger women, women over 50 and women of color. What started out as a safe place for women to meet and to discuss their writing back in 1998 has since become a spunky, service-oriented community with circles in Asheville NC, the Chicagoland area and St. Augustine. I hope to start up a PacNW circle in the future, so if you’re interested in helping to put a Jane group together in the Puget Sound area, please let both me and president Glenda Bailey-Mershon know!

Today’s wildfire (averted?): 7 Habits of Effective Writers, minus women’s work?

I woke up with a frenzy of comments in my email inbox, several which responded a bit negatively to my own comment at the Write It Done blog, where a discussion about the 7 Habits of Great Writers inspired my dissatisfaction with the fact that only one female writer was included in the list AND she wasn’t a mother. (Hey, and I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates.)

I don’t have a bias against women who aren’t mothers. Let me just get that one out in the clear.

Folks who know me through Writer’s Rainbow know me for being a pretty strong advocate for two things: creative time management for writers and support systems for writers (both male and female, folks) who are also caregivers.

I couldn’t help but respond to Leo’s list. After all, number 4 on the list was Truman Capote, who wrote lying down “in bed or on a couch, with a cigarette and coffee. The coffee would switch to tea, then sherry, then martinis, as the day wore on.” How can this be pertinent to the hundreds of thousands of writers out there for which this example is akin to flying to the moon?

Yet, when I posted that the existing bits of wisdom simply weren’t relevant to me and asked for a list of the habits of Great Women Writers who were also mothers, I was called a baby and told to stop whining.

Wow, have we not moved past the notion that good mothers can’t also be good writers? Some, apparently, still believe that women who want something more than what has been prescribed to them for the millennia are just bitches talking out of order.

(Looking at American politics over the last year, I wonder just how much anti-woman sentiment has been unearthed even as we move forward to contemplate the possibilities of women in the upper echelons of power. I predict more and bigger dirtclods to come. Misogyny is like racism: it doesn’t go away, it just gets buried until someone starts digging.)

Please read the original post and respond as you see fit. Below, you will find my respond to the 22 comments after my post. Feel free to comment here or there with additional insights, ideas, etc. Ultimately, if we can ferret out more solutions for getting around the dilemma of having a writing life while being a (working) parent (or caregiver of one’s own parents, for that matter), then it’s all that much better for everyone who needs advice.

And if we manage to start a list of habits from some of our Great Women Mother Writers, that wouldn’t be too shabby, either!

(PS, I do like it that Stephen King was on the list; I, too, have read his book, On Writing, and find it one of the best memoirs of the writing life I’ve ever read. It’s in the Writer’s Rainbow bookstore.)

* * *

“A hat tip to Leo for opening up this dialog.

Some background and replies…

My comment wasn’t meant as a whine, Ernest, and I’m sorry for the poor spirit of your post. Mine was an articulation of the blindspot in Leo’s list; my intent was to help an untold number of writers who really need the support.

The reality is that creative writers (mothers AND fathers) who also care for their children and, now, their own parents, face a completely different reality. It’s not nearly as romantic as “lying down, in bed or on a couch, with a cigarette and coffee. The coffee would switch to tea, then sherry, then martinis, as the day wore on.”

Parents can’t aspire to be most of the writers on Leo’s list because there is a luxury of time that folks like Capote had that most parents (many of them also holding down jobs) simple don’t have. Frankly, just writing longhand is a luxury!

Here’s the deal: Besides being a writer and a parent, I’m also an editor, writing coach and mentor. I posed the question not for myself (you’ll see, below, that writing as a parent isn’t a problem for me) but for all my clients and writing cohorts and anyone else out there because:

• I know that just because something works for me doesn’t mean that it will work
for someone else, and

• since parenthood is a continuously morphing experience, I’m not finished looking for solutions because my schedule is always in constant flux.

I’m a rather prolific writer, actually. I’ve written and published more during my early years as a parent than I ever had in life BC (before children). Dozens of short stories, three times that in poems. Three complete novels. Two in drafts. Two Pushcart nominations, miscellaneous smaller awards and dozens of publications that speak to my writing life. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo. I write short fiction, poetry, nonfiction, blogs, academic work, editorials. I’m currently working on a nonfiction book plus the final revisions for a novel right now (for an agent request). Take a look: www.tamarasellman.com

Listen, I’m not a Great Writer, so my habits are still part of my journey through anonymity like everyone else here. The fact is that giving advice to people who don’t live the same reality is like a gymnast giving advice to a ski jumper on how to get into the Olympics. So there are some commonalities, sure: get a coach, have discipline, find out what works for you, just do it. Rah rah. It’s in all the books, advice that’s typically timeworn, but abstract.

Let’s be realistic: those in the thick of parenting younger children need more options than that. They need practicalities and, well, even some of the idiosyncrasies (such as Joyce’s 4 typewriters and Nabokov’s notecards) to find “their way,” which will likely be outside the box that most other writers can fit inside because they aren’t caring for children (and working on top of that).

That’s not a whine, that’s 13 years of daily life talking, like it or lump it.

FWIW, here are some things that I *have* done over the years to keep my writing life intact:

a/write before 6am
b/write after 9pm
c/write during my commutes to and from the city
d/write during naps
e/writing while children are in school (it’s harder than it sounds when you also work for a living)
f/buying writing time through childcare
g/buying writing time through out-of-town writing conferences (you have
to actually use the time to write, though, so this one requires heaps of
discipline)
h/buying writing time through retreats (usually spent in locations
that inform the work I’m writing on)
i/limit email and internet time to 1 hour a day
j/attend a writer’s marketing group (to encourage submitting)
k/attend a writer’s support and critique group
l/take classes to generate new work

Hmmm, a lot of buying going on. This is what we have to spend, after all: money, time, energy, resources/support. We spend what we can, eh? I can spend money to buy time. Some people barter childcare (resources/support) for writing time. Others burn the candle at both ends (not the best solution).

I don’t have writer’s block because there’s no time for it, by the way. I leave writing projects in the middle of sentences so that I have an easy way to pick up the pace when I re-enter the work. I write various projects at a time so that I am always excited about something. From my training as a journalist, I assign and keep deadlines for projects that are both short-term and long-term. I write myself a 1-year and 5-year writing plan. I compartmentalize big projects so that when I sit down to work at them, I can feel accomplished in getting them done, brick by brick.

So that’s what I offer people who are trying to swing it as writing parents. But it’s still darn hard and I will always be looking for advice from the eye of the storm.

Some replies:

Mary: I like the idea of the Guest Post about great women writers and their good habits. I’ll probably do that on my own blog, though! (sorry Leo).

Allena:
I have paid for childcare to write my books. I’m lucky in that regard because I can afford the $8-12/hour to do this. If you want blocks of time during the school year, you have to go with daycare because all the babysitters are in high school, and they want a 20-hour minimum commitment per week. Are you prepared to pay that? Minimum $640+ a month? Most people can’t. The other option is to find a group of writing mothers and barter childcare for writing time. I live in a community burgeoning with writers, but I could never find anyone willing to do this.
See what I mean by practicalities? Realities for writing parents? Ideas are good, but only if they make it into practice.

Chase:
I’ve become a seasonal writer as well. I write year-round on nonfiction forms primarily, but when it comes to my creative writing (fiction, poetry, etc.), I save that up for the summer. I can do that now, with children who are older and more independent. I couldn’t do that back in the day of diapers and cabinet locks and poison control stickers everywhere. I think there’s a lot to be said about reinventing our relationships with time so that we can work inside our own rhythms rather than the artificial ones imposed upon us by society. That’s where I’ve been focusing my energies of late.

Michelle:
Thanks for mentioning me in your blog. (Y’all should go and take a gander, she gives the writing parent’s life a good go-around. All I can say is, I’m subscribing!)

Update on the Women Into Print Retreat, Asheville, NC ~ May 30-31

WOMEN INTO PRINT Retreat DEADLINE EXTENDED

At the request of those who had trouble getting in their 800-word manuscript (or 50 lines of poetry) by the deadline, we have extended the registration AND manuscript deadlines to Wednesday, May 21, 2008.

Online registration and retreat schedule