• April is National Poetry Month!

    Prose writers can click here to find one way to honor their poetry fellows. See what Pacific Northwest poets are doing in April here.
  • I’m a writer, too!

    On 12.01.09, I estimated that I had about 32,000 words left to write to complete my first draft of the opening book in my paranormal mystery series, THE LOST & FOUND.

    Here's my progress updated 2.12.10:

    33% of 32,000 (10,648 wds)
  • INTRODUCING… Writer’s Rainbow Gift Certificates! The perfect gift for the writer in your life!

  • PAC NW LITERATI

  • Archives

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 5 other followers

  • Advertisements

Quick Q&A with Luso-American author Darrell Kastin

I met Darrell Kastin in a previous editorial relationship—I was putting together the “Voyage to the Village” edition of Margin in 2006 and published his story, “Constanca’s War with the Elements,” which is about a woman who sleeps for seven years, prompting her husband’s infidelities and her subsequently “meteorological” reaction. Without realizing it, I loved his story for its ready association to much of the themes of Luso-American magical realism (popularized by writers Katherine Vaz, Frank X. Gaspar, Jose Saramago and Joao de Melo, among others). I had no idea he was of Azorean descent himself, and so I’m thrilled to see that Kastin has published his first novel, The Undiscovered Island, which is set in the Azores and which captures so much of what makes magical realism come alive for me.

QUICK Q&A with Darrell Kastin

WRITER’S RAINBOW: You write both short fiction and novels, among other things. How do you describe the difference between the short story and the novel to a nonwriter in terms of your writing process? Is one easier for you than the other? Is it comparing apples to oranges? Do you prefer one form over the other? What do you prefer as a reader?

DARRELL KASTIN: Short fiction and novels. First, I don’t really see much difference between the writing of either. Except that one takes just this side of forever and the other can be satisfied by demanding a few years from my life.

With a short story I sometimes have only a beginning, sometimes an end, sometimes the entire story. Often I plod along, having no idea where I’m headed until I get there. I am often quite surprised. It’d be akin to moseying along the beach at Santa Cruz and suddenly finding yourself in Texarkana. Strange. How did I get here?

With the novel, I usually know where I’m starting and where I’m headed. I have the ending, but sometimes it’s not exactly the ending I originally had in mind. My second (as yet unpublished) novel, The Accomplice, is a case of this. I was sure I had a perfect ending, but then a couple of new characters came in out of the blue, and as a result I had to change it, slightly, but enough to once again surprise me. Therein lies the fun of it all, never knowing what to expect, or what you’ll find.

Whether I’m writing a short story or a novel my writing process is like dredging up an artifact from a deep murky bog, or better yet chipping away at one encased in some kind of material that has become like rock. I chip away at what is visible, and believe I am seeing the complete artifact hidden beneath. Yet further digging reveals there is more, and more. It is this continual process of digging and bringing up new aspects of the story that for me keeps me guessing, as well as surprised by what I find. But it is also frustrating, in that, like I said, it sometimes takes many years until the entire story or novel is whole. I’ll get ideas after years of working on something, and ask myself, why the hell didn’t I think of this before?

I enjoy novel writing as well as writing short stories. And I enjoy reading both. I’m hard to please when it comes to reading either, but particularly short stories. I want something to happen, but I don’t want to know what will happen; I want characters I can believe in. I like humor, too. There’s nothing like a perfectly wrought short story, like the stories of Miguel Angel Asturias or Twain, or Tommaso Landolfi, Dino Buzzati, John Collier, Shirley Jackson, Saki, Peter S. Beagle or Angela Carter at their best.

The novel, on the other hand, appeals to me for the prolonged journey, the desire to explore a world of the author’s making. It’s got to have what Chandler said makes literature: verve, wit, gusto, music and magic, but it doesn’t have to do it in a mere handful of pages as a short story does. You’ve got more time to pull it off. It’s less exacting work. And it’s easier (at least for me) to forgive lapses, or digressions, etc. The novel seems the most imperfect art form. They’re a dime a dozen, but the perfect ones, the flawless ones, well, how many are there? And plenty of people would disagree with the ones I would pick.

WR: I live on an island (albeit not a tropical one!) and sense there’s something unique about this experience, though I’m not sure I can be objective about it. I’m curious what you think it is, as a writer, about island life that makes it different from life on the mainland?

DK: Yes! There is indeed something quite special about an island. The isolation, the looking seaward. In the case of the Azores, that’s all one can see, except for perhaps another island, which isn’t quite the same as the mainland. I hope in my novel I describe the sensation and thoughts that are generated by living on an island. It certainly makes one feel closer to the sea. And I suspect that it helps awaken one’s imagination, wondering what lies out there.

To my mind there’s always been something magical about an island. That something like that can rise up out of the depths of the sea, molten rock, and that one usually finds fresh water springs, and surrounded by the sea, with always the threat of further eruptions, the thought lingers that perhaps the sea will reclaim what it has given.

WR: The Undiscovered Island is categorically a magical realist novel. You’ve received some monumental praise from one of the world’s best experts on literary magical realism.

“After Ulysses founded Lisbon as legend has it, he sailed off into forbidden waters and landed on the isle that held the fountain of Purgatory as Dante had it. Might this have been the Azores? The Undiscovered Island could confirm the fact, as all of Portuguese history, so legendary as it is, comes to a kind of culmination on these isles. Time is of no avail as its end and passage convene in this novel in what is a romp of detective story, epic, and family quest. What a great read!” ~ Dr. Gregory Rabassa, translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude

What did it feel like to read what Dr. Rabassa said about your book?

DK: I was thrilled! Rabassa?! The man who translated some of the world’s finest Spanish and Portuguese writers? There are few people I admire and respect more. Needless to say I was greatly honored and touched. I still find it hard to believe. His words are far better than any tangible reward I could possibly receive.

WR: The inspiration behind your novel, The Undiscovered Island, comes from your engagement in the cultural history of the Azores where several of your ancestors lived. What sparked your interest in traveling to the Azores? How often do you visit? Who are some of your favorite Azorean authors?

DK: My family held a reunion on the Azores in 1972. My grandmother had retired there a few years earlier, and so my aunts, uncles and cousins all gathered there for the summer. I was fifteen at the time. I felt like I’d stepped back 150 years in time. First off the place was extraordinarily beautiful. And unspoiled. We saw many of the islands, but spent most of our time on Pico and Faial, which were separated by a mere five-mile channel. I saw men on boats heading out to hunt whales, but unlike others who hunted whales these men used hand-held harpoons. I saw (and smelled) the whaling factories. I drank from clear cold mineral spring. I ate cheese, sugar made from beets, and drank coffee––the taste of all of which I still remember to this day. I heard stories about the islands and about our family, which had lived there since around the year 1500. The islands stayed with me. I returned in 1987, and spent 3½ months there. I returned in 2003, and again this last year. If I had my way I’d go back every year, or spend a year there, soaking it up. I’ve always wanted to live there, and hopefully soon will have my wish.

Although I’m far more familiar with brilliant Portuguese authors such as, Luís de Camões, Eça de Queiros, Álvaro do Carvalhal, Fernando Pessoa, Florbela Espanca, Mario de Sá-Carneiro, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, and Lídia Jorge, there are some great Azorean writers like João de Melo, Vitorino Nemésio, and Antero de Quental. The Azorean singer/songwriter and filmmaker José Medeiros has been an influence. Luís Bettencourt is another. Then there’s the poet Natália Correia. Both of my grandparents wrote poetry, articles for the newspapers, and plays. The islands are said to be full of poets, so I guess it’s in the blood.

WR: Tell me about your upcoming short story collection.

DK: My short story collection, tentatively titled: The Conjuror & Other Tales of the Azorean Nights, is due to be published in 2011, also by the Center For Portuguese Studies at UMASS Dartmouth. All but two of the stories take place on the Azores. The other two are about characters who have left the islands and gone to the United States to live. A number of the stories have appeared in literary magazines. They are Magic Realism––even the two set in the US. I hope they adequately capture the quirkiness of some of the Azorean characters. It’s hard for me to think of these stories as fantasy, given that they mirror my own experiences, what I saw or heard. They may be of the islands, but I like to believe that these fables or folk tales also in some small way represent glimpses of the world at large. Perhaps only in something lost, or as yet not regained. I can only hope.

MORE INFO:
Darrell Kastin
||  http://www.darrellkastin.com/index.html
”Constanca’s War with the Elements” || http://www.angelfire.com/wa2/margin/Kastinovich.html
Excerpt from The Undiscovered Island || http://www.darrellkastin.com/novel_excerpt.html
”The Other Realm: Writing about the Azores” || http://ww1.rtp.pt/icmblogs/rtp/comunidades/?k=The-Other-RealmWriting-about-the-Azores-12-By-DARRELL-KASTIN.rtp&post=11924

Advertisements

Quick Q&A with writer and podcaster Mur Lafferty

Initially I thought Mur Lafferty was a friend of mine in real life. Her voice in her podcasts so closely resembles that of a writing pal that I was convinced she was recording incognito. Mur Lafferty is hardly the incognito type, however: she can be found at conventions and conferences, in print, online, and via podcast. Her brilliantly candid and authentic podcast dialog about the writing life, “I Should Be Writing,” should be required listening for all writers.

[Note to speculative fiction writers in particular: You may consider buying a little audio promotional space on I Should Be Writing if you have a new book you’re trying to hawk. I really notice these advertisements when I’m listening to the podcast. For more info: http://isbw.murlafferty.com/advertise-on-isbw/]  

QUICK Q&A with Mur Lafferty

Writer’s Rainbow: You have a pretty rich portfolio of varied literary experiences, many of them falling easily into the “Web 2.0 for Writers” category: podcasts, digital novels, contract game writing. And yet you graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a far more traditional path of study: a Bachelor’s degree in English (with a Creative Writing and Journalism focus) plus independent studies with mentor Doris Betts. On top of all that, you have a long-celebrated relationship with the lively world of speculative fiction. Do you ever feel a little, I dunno, schizophrenic about nurturing so many dichotomies or contradictions within your creative life?

Mur Lafferty: Not at all. I feel rather happy with it─these days with the Internet allowing you to practice storytelling in so many media that only your imagination limits you, I think it shows a strength to be able to diversify. I have an entire playground in front of me; I’m not going to just play on the swings. When I get an idea, I try to implement it, and the Internet allows me to direct my own audio drama, release serialized fiction, do my own game design, collaborate with people around the world, or anything that comes to mind. The opportunity is there─why not take it? 
 
WR: I have discovered a few notable writers’ podcasts after I started listening, a couple of years ago, to Paula B’s The Writing Show. I love-love-love your podcast, I Should Be Writing. It’s inspired me and others I know to consider doing some independent audio work; the genre seems ripe for all sorts of experimentation. But so many writers I know (usually journalists or nonfiction writers) hate listening to their own voices on transcription playbacks. Did it take you a while to become comfortable with recording and editing yourself, and how would you advise other writers to proceed in this sort of venture?

ML: Get. Over. It. If there’s one complaint that is universal, it’s the fact that no one can get over the fact that their voice sounds differently to others than it does to themselves. And since they always hear themselves internally, and only rarely (if ever) hear themselves as others do, they vastly prefer the internal sound. But the fact is, you are not your audience. So just remind yourself that if you don’t like it, it’s not that important, what’s important is the other millions of people with Internet connections who just might like it. I know many people (including, honestly enough, myself) who hate the sound of their own voices, and others say that they love it. Hating your own voice is nearly a universal trait, and just getting over it and moving on is that way to deal with it. If you have a good friend or a little bit of money, see if you can get a producer if you hate the sound so much that you can’t bear to listen when you edit. But really. Save your money. Get over it.
 
WR:  When I listen to you give interviews or answer listener questions for the podcast, I am fascinated by the humility you convey about your own writing life and processes. This is, perhaps, the best reason of all to listen to ISBW; you sincerely advocate for the journey of the serious, yet undiscovered writer. You certainly explore new territory in so much of your own writing. Does this account for the fact that you still think of yourself as a new or emerging writer (even though your peers might consider you an experienced practitioner)?

ML: I guess that is the case. As I wrote recently on my blog, becoming a pro writer is a step-by-step process. You don’t go from being the great unwashed unpublished masses to being in the elite pro writers club. And so even though I have had some success, I still feel like I’m much closer to the starting line than the finishing line. And since I’m still making mistakes and not sure where to turn, I have to give some advice with caveats, still. Also, I never want a real pro or master to look at me and say, “What? One book from a small press and she thinks she’s qualified to give good advice to new writers?” I know full well my credentials and that I have a long way to go. ISBW is the chronicle of my journey.
 
WR: What is your sense of the future of literary podcasts? Do you think they’ll become more appreciated by the mainstream or will they remain the darlings of niche listeners? Do you recommend that creative writers take up the headset and Garage Band or do you think podcasting lingers at the first-generation, early-adopter stage?

ML: Well, I have an admittedly myopic view of the situation at large; I’m usually good at only figuring out what works well for me and where I may be going. But I do know more authors are podcasting, and I also know that Escape Pod (the weekly sci-fi podcast) has more listeners than many (if not all─I’m not sure) of the print magazines have subscribers. Many gurus have said if the print mags don’t embrace some kind of digital delivery then they will be dead soon.

WR: How do you achieve a balance between your own writing life, your podcasting commitments, your appearances at conventions and your personal life? What is your support system, and what are some of your favorite tools and tips for making it all work?

ML: I do this full time─I lost my job two years ago and haven’t found anything since, so I’m able to take the time to work on a podcasting/writing career and be at home for my seven-year-old. My support system is a patient husband and a daughter who loves to play with video and audio. As for making it work, I’m awful at it, as I have trouble prioritizing and scheduling. I keep looking for something that works. I’ll let you know when I find something!
 
MORE INFO:
Mur Lafferty ||  http://murverse.com/ The Murverse
Coming soon || From Mur: “I’m working on some stuff for my agent to pitch to print editors, so my energy is going there, but there are some things on deck for 2010 that include a new podcast serial and a new audio drama.”
Blog: http://www.murverse.com
Podcast: http://www.ishouldbewriting.com
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/mightymur
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mightymur
Superhero Novel: http://www.playingforkeepsnovel.com
Afterlife Novella Series: http://www.heavennovel.com
Zombie Audio Drama: http://www.zombinc.net

Quick Q&A with “…Inappropriate” author Daniel Nester

dnester

Daniel Nester

I met Daniel Nester last February at an AWP panel we shared on the subject of Web 2.0 for the literary crowd. He’s not only a master of literary Internet integration but a funny guy and great writer. To launch this new monthly feature, Quick Q&A, I open with the author of the very recently launched nonfiction book, How to Be Inappropriate. 

 

[Note to fans, inappropriati, and would-be nuisances: When you buy a copy of HTBI and send this PDF coupon, along with the book, to Daniel Nester’s home, he will not only sign your book and return it to you, but include an official How to Be Inappropriate whoopee cushion in the bargain. That’s right: inflate one of these puppies and let the faux farts fly! While supplies last.  Address: Daniel Nester/HTBI, 170 Adams Street, Delmar, NY 12054]  

QUICK Q&A with Daniel Nester

Writer’s Rainbow:  You reference a good deal of pop culture in your essays. Advice previously given to writers has typically discouraged the mentioning the artifacts of popular culture in their works. Does this “rule” no longer apply? What would you say to writers who want to explore pop culture themes in their own work?

Daniel Nester: Who gives this crappy advice? I have climbed this mountain already. Back in graduate poetry school, my workshop members—not by teachers, mind you, but a good-sized cohort of students—considered allusions or mentions of popular culture as somehow beneath the endeavor of writing a poem. What a lot of us did back then—this is 15 years ago—was to write cross-genre-type pieces that would get us off the poetry hook, what I call the bugaboo of addressing the ages.  I remember one night that I was workshopping a piece that mentions—just mentions—the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album.  And there were people who said the mention “took them out” of the poem, that a poem is meant to be forever, but the Beach Boys is somehow fleeting. Set aside that Pet Sounds is one of the landmark works of art of the 20th Century; this was the mindset.
 
Then the late Williams Matthews, filling in for Galway Kinnell that evening, took a stab at the issue. “What did posterity do for us lately?” It just filled me with joy.  Ever since that night, I didn’t worry about whether a piece of writing was going to be immortal because it mentions power ballads.  So that’s my advice is: Go ahead and talk about your world, continue your “search for local objects” as William Carlos Williams calls it.  And don’t worry about whether your work is above or beneath or highbrow or lowbrow.  That’s for other, far more fastidious and precise people to decide.
 
WR: Of course, there are other rules, about “polite living,” that you also—perhaps wantonly?—violate as the author of How to Be Inappropriate (such as, “Do not discuss body parts in mixed company”). It would be easy for the casual reader to assume that all you really want to do with this book is shock them, with otherwise socially unacceptable content, through the use of humor. Could you explain some of the other impulses that led you to write this book? 

DN: It’s not a primary intention to shock, although I can see that happening and that’s fine. It gets people’s attention.  What I wanted to do with this book, at least in part, is to write honestly about moments that I always talk about: embarrassing moments, human moments, too-much-information moments.  It’s those moments when I feel the most alive, frankly.  They’re pastoral in the sense that everyone has moments when they feel prone or naked or ambiguous.  The essay I wrote on mooning, I think, is a good example of this.  Butts are funny, sure, and showing one’s butt to another person is a ritualized practice that spans millennia. There’s more than meets the eye when we talk about naked assplay. It’s a subject that should be interrogated as seriously as movements of symphonies.
 
WR: You’re an assistant professor of English specializing in creative nonfiction at The College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. Do you teach specific themes in your classes that advocate the kind of risk-taking that regularly inhabits your own writing?
 
DN: Yes and no. Of course, I don’t think it’s necessarily taking risks to write about what most embarrasses you, or makes you feel the most tender, or feels the most wrong or heretical. It’s an avenue that needs to be explored, however, and at least presented as an option. Whether one writes about, say, a sexual proclivity in detailed language is not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure; the challenge, it seems to me, is if a writer wants to write about it one some level without going all brass tacks.  That’s usually the case, actually.
 
And that’s why I use the term T.S. Eliot made famous: objective correlative.  If you have a crush on that dude in the other class, or if you have problems with your girlfriend, and you don’t want to write about it, fine.  But if you do, then you have other options than simply describing the situation.  You can describe the scene, the sky, the weight of your stomach.
 
I’ll tell you a story.  One day we were workshopping a student’s memoir piece.  It was a conversation between she and her boyfriend about moving in together to another town, far from college, to be near his work.  This student had a great ear for dialogue; there was back-and-forth, there was some narration, but it was mostly dialogue.  And we all knew it needed something more.
 
So I asked the student, “Where was this discussion happening?” And she paused to think, and then her cheeks turned read, so I knew something was up.  “It happened in the shower,” she said. And I just so appreciated that moment: they were literally and metaphorically naked while this Big Talk was going down! Her revisions were just awesome.  She’s holding her pink razor while she presented her reservations about moving, there’s water, they hand each other towels.  Tiny moments, intimate moments. 
 
WR: Writers are often fearful that someone will find old drafts of their work and discover they’re not as stellar as, say, their breakout novel suggests. However, at your
website, you happily display all the projects you’d once attempted but never brought to a successful conclusion. Why did you do this, and what can other writers learn from it?
 
DN: I do it because some failures have a certain charm, and sometimes the first idea is the best, or at least the first impulse, or the one people react most to.  I wrote my first book, God Save My Queen, as notes to each song by my favorite rock band, Queen, as I listened to them in chronological order.  I thought I was doing research for some straightforward memoir project, but I found the notes themselves were really the project.  I revised them after that, sure.  But it took me years and years to respect the initial impulses of my writing and then help shepherd it to the final stages. 
 
WR: You not only write creative nonfiction, but poetry and journalism. What would you tell writers who are interested in writing outside their chosen forms?
 
DN: Do it!  Creative nonfiction and journalism have been very, very good to me, as far as publication and teaching opportunities go.  Poetry is my first love, sure; I feel like I am more of a fan now than practitioner.  But I would have never gotten to the kind of writing I do now without writing poetry first. I wish I could say that it’s improved my poems, but I haven’t written one in awhile.  But I am thinking about it. I really am.
 

MORE INFO:
Daniel Nester |
http://www.danielnester.com
Coming this fall: How to Be Inappropriate
http://www.howtobeinappropriate.com
Twitter: @DanielNester
Teaching blog:
http://nestersteaching1.blogspot.com/ 

 

Beware the dangers (and pleasures) of WWL!

Beware the addiction of WWL!
[September 2009]
Walking While Listening (to writing podcasts)

One of my favorite new habits is WWL, walking while listening (to writing podcasts). It’s a good habit because it’s about an hour of walking (3 miles) and I can stay in touch with various audio programs that feature creativity, creative writing, the writing life and all things related… Read the September Monthly Dispatch here

Interview with author Jennifer Culkin


Bookmark and Share

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!