Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Interview with Poet and Translator Julia Leverone

In keeping with our exploration of the writing life and all its obstacles, we had a conversation over email with the writer Julia Leverone, whose poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Sugar House Review, Crab Orchard Review, Asymptote, Poetry InternationalModern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere, including eighteen translations of Paco Urondo's poems. She is also pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis and is editor of Sakura Review. Below, we discuss the juggling of a variety of literary hats while somehow continuing to put words to paper. 


TWB: As a poet, translator, editor, PhD candidate, and educator, which one of these hats do you don most often when introducing yourself at a party? Which combination of labels do you most identify with?

JL: This is a good question. It’s inescapable! What do I tell people I am? I don’t know that I’ve ever taken stock of this.

I would say I am most frequently a PhD student. This is easy for me to turn to, because I’ve been an enrolled student since something like age 3. I know all too well how to be one. It’s also (very soon, finally) going to be something I am not, and I’m already moving on from that hat. When someone asks what I do, increasingly I say I teach. It’s true in that it occupies the majority of my time—but I’m still coming around to feeling that it describes me, because it was only in the past few years that I began doing it and, more recently, thinking that I could pursue it with success.

However—and this is when I’m around people who I think could take it (and, sometimes, when I think they should)—I’ll go for the poet/translator hat. It’s what I prefer, or the poet-translator-intellectual trio. These things draw from what’s most important to me to be able to do, for myself and in the world. And they fuel my work as a teacher, an editor.


TWB: Describe the perfect combination of circumstances that makes writing happen in your life.

JL: Writing comes best when I’ve been stricken with something from the outside: a piece of writing, a phrase, a few bars of music or lyrics, or a compelling image or idea. This can arrive at any time, as you know well. But it can also be induced. I can pick up a book or go on a long drive or hike and come out of it ready. After that, I don’t need much time to process the thing that produced the impulse, not to get thoughts onto the page. I do need space and quiet to let my mind play with it just afterwards, that kind of opening John Cleese argues we need. I like writing in the late afternoon. I like the pressure of the diminishing daylight.

Sometimes, of course, I can’t get to a space or to the quiet (teaching/home duties also produce a kind of noise) right away. There’s a pleasure to that, having to chew on something for a few days. Fatally, the attractiveness of the thing can sizzle out, though. Those losses plague me as a poet.


TWB: When there are obstacles to writing (and there are always obstacles), what brings you back to it? What do you do to get yourself back into that space when there are gaps?

JL: Beyond what I was talking about just above, I think it’s crucial to me to be plugged in to a network of others who are also writers. Some forego Facebook or Twitter because of the clutter. I like being able to sift through the feeds for reminders that I’m not alone—and that I’m expected to pull my weight. I am sure that these notions are largely invented on my part; my sense of how I fit in especially so. But I need to feel that I have competition, that other writers are out there doing it, getting it done, and excellently. Recently, I was listening to Susan Bernofsky speak on a translation panel, and she was describing how to manage students’ creative production in the classroom when designing translation workshops. She said something like, “we have to demand of ourselves (speaking inclusively of students and all translators) the absolute best”—and then we revise, and make our work even better. That is our job as writers. Feeling like I am among writers who challenge themselves (yes, it counts when I read posts about moms struggling to write just as much as posts about publication successes!) holds me accountable to do the same.

By the way, going to conferences, though they are so, so expensive for grad students/adjunct teachers, is a major boost for community-feeling.

Too, keeping up a cycle of submissions brings me back. This is probably the most consistent method I have for reminding myself that I am a writer being seen. Getting rejections (and less-frequent acceptances)—even if the work concerned feels pre-historic when those emails come rolling in—helps.

I’m also grateful to have a partner who is a writer (as if that’s the only thing he’s good for!). We’re able to talk poems (and teaching, &c.) and understand each other. We’re sensitive to each other’s writing needs and worries. It skips a lot of negotiating and explanation!

Okay, so there are lots of ways in which I practice returns to the task of writing. Being an editor of a literary magazine contributes to this as well. It’s not reading submissions, but discussing them with Adam Pellegrini and Michael Gossett that renews my critical-creative tools that I bring to revising and planning my own work. Like with all of my other answers to this question, sensing that I should write and need to overcome obstacles to writing—I’m considering, here, the larger/compounded ones—is a matter of being involved with other people who are writers.


TWB: What’s inspiring you right now, in any medium (not just the written word)?

JL: Hmm. Multiple things, always. Spring. Aging. Pine resin. The dirt on glaciers. Those frighteningly massive, shifting flocks of birds that pass over the highway. I’m also preoccupied with the idea of Texas and its wideness. It’s been just long enough, I think, for me to have a grasp on what it means to live here in this state/in the south, but to also not have ready explanations.


TWB: Where are you finding surprisingly good writing? Anything on your night stand?

JL: It’s all about recommendations, for me. Mostly these come through Facebook plugs. I wish I could give you a hot new source to run to! Well, I suppose I can—I signed up for Small Press Distribution e-mails and get SPD Recommends in my inbox regularly, which sometimes I have the time and attention span to peruse, sometimes not. It’s given me a few good leads. Also, writer-ladies, the binders groups on Facebook. There are searchable posts with hundreds of comments below them specifically making book recommendations. That’s how I picked last summer’s entire reading list (note: prose).

Right now I’m reading Kelly Link. I had read Stranger Things Happen for a class once, and ate it up. A friend recently asked for book gifts for her bridal shower to develop her and her new hubby’s library, so I bought her Link because it’s right up her alley, and noticed the author has new work out. It’s baller.

As the editor of the lit magazine Sakura Review, what are your thoughts about what takes a piece of writing from almost published / barely rejected to being definitely published? What’s the difference between super close and all the way in?

I was just reading a submission this morning that nearly made it; great, rich language, incredible images, detectable sense, a fine arc, but she didn’t deliver it at the end. Very often what the submissions we read need is to take themselves away from themselves. To carry the work forward into a complicating, perhaps reflective, but new idea.

I don’t mean to say that those submissions actually need to be wholly different poems in order to be successful. It’s a question of scope. Are they too focused, insistent? Maybe the authors should (literally) step away. Then consider how to have the poems travel elsewhere. The poems we love at Sakura do that kind of leaping that can be so astonishing and, at the same time, unmistakably necessary.


TWB: What do you find most gets in the way of the writing life?

JL: Grading. Oh my goodness, grading. It’s a biweekly monster and it’s unfun, so it’s an easy scapegoat. Also, my dissertation (another beast), but exclusively my anxieties around it—I am finding writing it to be a creative outlet that takes care of my need to be exploratory and precise with language in varying ways.


TWB: How do you get in the zone when you are there? Is it music, is it a space, a series of habits?

JL: I envy people who can fall asleep anywhere and in any way—with limbs in the air, balled up on the floor, in the middle seat on a plane—but I’m fortunately not picky with writing spaces. As I was telling you above, I can zone-induce by picking up a book (of poetry, or whatever the mode is I’ll be writing in—critical works for my dissertation, for example). It doesn’t take much. Usually just one or two leafings and I’ll have found what I didn’t know I was looking for.

You discussed this in your first interview, and I believe others use coffee and taking care of small chores to set off a time and energy in which they can write. I think in a way my preference for the afternoon presumes these steps. Also a factor I’ve noted in establishing my zone is hunger, or at least not being full. Is that too informative, or expected? Even with writing this, I had gone to the kitchen for a banana before I started and have not yet touched it. And I’ve tried, but typically writing with wine doesn’t get me far. I don’t know if I envy writers who can do that.


TWB: We hear a lot of fiction writers say that they read poetry before writing fiction as a way of focusing. It makes sense, they're concise, vivid, and stir you up. As a poet, do you ever seek out fiction for some writerly reason? If so, does it ever carry over into your art?

JL: You know, no, I think that poetry is specially equipped in this case (poetry wins!). It’s a brief form, as you say, and it’s transportable and more immediately evocative. So I read poems to write poems.

That said, I relish fiction or any creative prose for immersion and the lengthy opportunities to allow my mind to develop ideas that do and don’t relate in a discernible way to the text. Of course this type of processing carries over into what I write. It carries over into my life, into what I say to people.


TWB: What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about writing? What do you know now that you wish you could tell yourself back when you started doing it?

I can’t tack down who it was who first told it to me, or told it to me the time that it really stuck, but the advice to not force a poem if it just can’t be one is among the best. That if the circumstances—the language or images in my head, the feelings or interpretations I’m holding around parts of the poem—are just not cooperating, scrapping that writing and letting it remain as a fragment is okay. Repurposing these bits, scribbled thoughts, parts of old drafts, is crucial to making dense, careful, and good poems later on. And it’s important to just write, as well as to trust the process and let a piece do what it wants to do.

I don’t know if I’d tell my teen poet-self anything now, because it’s lovely to have figured things out in stages, and to know I’ll continue learning about writing and doing. Is that selfish? Can it be selfish if I’m withholding from a former me? Besides, I wouldn’t want to throw me off course and rupture the space-time continuum. We’ve all seen that show.

In all seriousness, I bring new meaning to advice with every writing experience. I’m constantly re-contextualizing claims about the writing process and its implications for me, my life. I don’t think that’s rare, but part of being cognizant and a functioning, adaptable human.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Enter the Habit Vortex

Until two weeks ago, I’d been in a serious rut. My son was born in early 2013, and for the first time in my life I could legitimately say that I didn’t have time to write. No new parent does—in addition to not having time, really, for anything… including sleep. Who could blame me? I took solace in this excuse and let writing slide… for a long time. For nearly two years, I wrote almost no new words. When I had the time and enough guilt I would dabble with old stories, old ideas, but everything felt dry and dead. Trying to rework and infuse energy into old stories made me depressed. When I would try to come up with a new story idea, nothing surfaced. Even the most basic narrative escaped me. I couldn’t imagine a character or a conflict. Without any good ideas, I did nothing.

While caring for a baby first and now a toddler, I became addicted to podcasts. They were the perfect way to engage with something and also feed a baby, build blocks, or watch a kid remove all the cushions from the couch. And the best thing is that you can just press pause if you have to change a diaper. I love all sorts of podcasts and I listen to several each day.

A few weeks ago, one of my regular podcasts about personal development was talking about habit forming. The host was talking about his morning routine, how he woke up a little before 6am and had something like 12 habits that he would accomplish before 8am. Most were really simple things like 1) Drink a glass of water; 2) Make an egg for breakfast. But eventually, he had things like 8) Clear my inbox to zero; 9) Write out my objectives for the day. He said something about creating a Habit Vortex or a Cyclone before he lost me.

I know, all that seems really rigid and self-helpy. My inbox has something like 10,000 messages in it, and there’s no way I’m tackling that beast any time soon. But for a guy who just wanted to pick his writing life up off the mat, I thought, yeah, I can start a habit.

On January 13, I got up at 5:45am, I made coffee, drank a glass of water and wrote 500 words. Two weeks later, I’m still doing it. The deal I made with myself is that the words don’t have to be good, but I do have to put something resembling fiction or narrative on the page every morning. I open a new doc each day because I want to have a clean break with the previous day’s work. I don’t edit. I don’t think. My mornings are for new words. Having a finite amount of time is working for me. Sure, I’d love to have a few hours each morning. But for the time being, I only have about an hour before I have to start helping with the toddler and get ready for work. When I’m on a roll, I don’t stop at 500 words. I fill my hour no matter what. But if I’m not making headway, I’m forced to scramble. I have to.

There is nothing remarkable about the 500 words a day that I’ve written. Most of it sucks. Most of it is trash. But after two weeks I have more than 5,000 words, and a few of them are not bad. And that’s something, even if it’s just ideas flowing and characters interacting. And more importantly, I’ve gone from feeling like I was absolutely idea-destitute to feeling confident enough that 500 words each morning doesn’t feel all that daunting.

Enough about me, right?

We’re all coming from different places and have different challenges. Some of you might be trying to submit more work, go to more readings, or read more lit magazines. Whatever your writing goal, I encourage you to help it along by implementing some daily or weekly habit. Make it something specific and easy to digest on a regular basis. If it helps, give yourself a strict perimeter like I did. And if you’re willing, share it with us in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what other people are doing to help improve their writing lives--habits don’t have to be original in order to work.

Marléne, you’re up first. What’s your new writing-related habit going to be?


Tune in next time to find out what Marléne plans to habitualize, what her counter-challenge to Dave will be, and to hear from our first guest(!)—the multi-talented poet and translator (and much, much more) Julia Leverone chats with us about her writing life right now. Now get your butt in the chair, stop reading blogs, and write.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Interview (Not the Movie)

In which we explain why we are doing this.

This dual interview was conducted via faltering internet connections on two separate occasions over two continents with frequently crashing computers and fairly functioning cell phones. It has been edited for clarity and content.

MARLÉNE
Okay, first question. What do you see as your biggest obstacle right now to a satisfying writing life?

DAVID
My biggest obstacle is consistency. Some days I'm good. I make the time, sit down with a cup of afternoon coffee and get to work. But it takes me a bit to get in the groove, so when I write every now and then, I don't really get very deep into the writing. The work that I do seems superficial, cosmetic. I think OK, tomorrow I'll delve deeper, but tomorrow I don't feel like it, or the kid wakes up after one hour, etc.

MARLÉNE
I've definitely struggled with follow-through, but with me it's cleaning—laundry, dishes, mess. What do you think it would take to "fix" that? What would get you to show up and write even if it's terrible?

DAVID
For me, it's stringing together enough days to make it a habit again. Also, being more flexible. I've always been a routine guy. So if the day throws me a curveball, I'm toast. I would like to become a better on-the-fly writer—someone who can turn it on and write, even if you just have 30 minutes. Years ago, I heard someone say that you should ritualize your writing life. I still think about this a lot and strive to ritualize my writing life, but this flipside is that it makes me a little inflexible. How do you feel about routines and rituals? Do you have a special process that helps you clear your mind?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, it pretty much always starts with a fresh mug of hot tea, or a hot tea and a triple espresso depending on how much sleep I’ve had. I don’t ever open up the computer and start writing. I’ll sit and write an email and check on the status of submissions to journals, but then I’ll close all the windows after whatever time I’ve allowed myself for maintenance, 20-30 minutes, and then face the blank screen. If I’m home alone, I’ll put on Bon Iver so I don't feel alone, but I can't understand what he's saying anyway so it doesn't interfere with writing. It's mellow. If I need something peppy I put on John Coltrane.

What about you? I know a lot of people cannot work with music on, but I find I get too lonely not to. Writing is too solitary. I had to train my brain to accept it.

DAVID
I also have trouble with too much silence or solitude. For a few years, I had to go out in order to write. I couldn't work in the house because there were too many distractions. I'd go to a coffee shop or café. The great thing was that this was when we were living abroad so I couldn't really understand what was being said around me, so it was just white noise. The downside was that this was expensive and even though I tried to rotate cafes, I was inherently self conscious about sitting for two or three hours and having just ordered a coffee or two. It wasn't a perfect arrangement, but also not bad.

MARLÉNE
I find I need a mix of both solitude and activity. The trouble with cafés is that it’s often difficult to sustain for several hours, with leaving your stuff to use the restroom, or with parking limits if you have a vehicle. But I need the faces and the noise sometimes for sanity. The key for me is headphones. Too many writing days were derailed by wedding planners having meetings with clients at the next table and I forgot my headphones at home. But if I need to do anything really long-form, it helps to have the solitude at home (if I can resist the dishes and laundry). And I always tip the baristas and try to get to know them if they are open to it because then I don't feel guilty sitting there forever. It's great for good will.

DAVID
I can't listen to Bon Iver. I'm a big fan, and it turns out most of their songs translate well on ukulele.

MARLÉNE
I think writing playlists have got to be an incredibly individual thing. It's quirky like that—it's not something that's one size fits all.

So for you to be in what you'd consider an amazing writing place, what would that look like?

DAVID
I feel like I've tried almost every physical environment. Inside, outside, café, home, morning, night. I don't think there will ever be a perfect writing place for me... though, there will always be coffee involved. What's more important for me is the mental space, finding the mindset that is focused and ruthless. Someplace where I can attack or create the work in a deep way. I will absolutely need a babysitter!

We're both parents. You've been one for a few more years than me. Have you noticed any changes in the subject matter of your writing since becoming a parent? Do you write more mothers or fathers into your stories than you did before?

MARLÉNE
Ok, before I answer that one, I have to reference the retro trailers article I read recently.

I think all of us could get a LOT more writing done if we had access to one of these. Just sayin'. But getting back to your question...

DAVID
I love how it's called "Cuddle up in this."

MARLÉNE
Ok, parenting changing my writing. Yeah, absolutely. It’s gotten a lot darker, weirdly. I feel like I wasn’t quite aware of the implications of being an adult or a citizen before being responsible for the welfare of another human being. Now I get it. Life was less scary, more frivolous when it was just me, and now everything is tinged with importance. There’s a weight that didn’t exist before. Also, I am much more sympathetic and empathetic to female characters and protagonists now. Motherhood, and especially having a daughter, has softened my view of women quite a bit, actually. I didn’t get along with my mother, and I have plenty of self-loathing, so that used to always get in the way when I tried to write from a female perspective. I never wanted to be writing about myself.

What about you? I feel like before, parents in stories were more apt to be one-dimensional, and now they're more complex.

DAVID
I didn't really write much about parents before. I wrote about kids, but the parents would be largely absent. And when I'd write about adults it seems like the conflict always had something to do with the lack of kids. I don't think there was any psychological motivation behind this. I think it was more of a safety measure against writing inaccurate parents.

One of the first things I remember thinking after my son was born was that, Oh, this is how my parents must feel about me. It's like I had no idea.

MARLÉNE
Right. I certainly give mine a lot more credit now, or at least acknowledge a lot more complexity in their motivations.

DAVID
I still haven't written a parent-kid relationship yet, but I hope to soon. It's such an interesting dynamic—especially if you imagine the child not really being fully aware of how the parent cares for him/her.

MARLÉNE 
That brings me to another thing. I know we probably both read a lot of parenting stuff—tips, advice, etc., but what are you reading or want to be reading more of right now in the bigger world?

DAVID
We're getting ready to move again in a few months, so we've been on a decluttering kick. A few months ago we purged a lot of our library. A lot of old textbooks went and a ton of other stuff we really didn't need or had no intention of reading again. But it also allowed a bunch of unread stuff to rise to the surface. I'm kind of a bookaholic in that I love to buy books just as much as I like to read them. So I have a bunch of unread stuff. I have things like In Cold Blood, Everything is Illuminated, the new Chabon, Telegraph Avenue. I'd love to "catch up" on all these things I've purchased sometime in the past. Maybe once we complete our move, I can then allow myself to read something recent!

What about you. Have you read anything recently that's knocked your socks off?

MARLÉNE
I have to confess something awful. I haven't been able to finish a book in ages.
I have the new Chabon, whom I usually love, but I read it while pregnant, and if you know anything about the subject matter, that was a stupid idea, and I have fifty pages to go and never got to the end because I went into labor about the time one of the protagonist’s wives went into labor and that was that.

Everything I pick up lately, I eventually discard. My expectations are too high. I want everything to be both BEAUTIFUL and IMPORTANT and RIVETING.
I am most of the way through Blood Meridian, which was great while I was vacationing in the desert, but now that I'm home with little kids around, it feels too brutal. Without grace or redemption. The only thing I've been able to stick with, which you already know about, is Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which I wanted to hate but couldn't. It's currently my brain candy. I’m reading a lot more journals though to fill the void, and that’s a plus.

DAVID
I'm still reading My Struggle, which I still enjoy a lot, but it does meander a little.

MARLÉNE
I feel like I need someone to grab me by the shoulders, press a book into my hands, and say, "This book will change your life," with conviction.

DAVID
I know what you mean. When you only have an hour or so a day for reading, you really want it to count!!!

So the holidays are coming up, which usually involves a fair amount of family gatherings and whatnot. For me, this inevitably means that I'll get the dreaded questions about my writing. "Publish anything recently?" "How's the writing going?"

Will you be facing something similar? And if so, how do you respond to these lines of questioning?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, I get this every other week. It's excruciating!

Thankfully, I had a small success last week, so my family has boosted their opinion of me from "moron" to merely "quixotic."

DAVID
Awesome, want to share?

MARLÉNE
I'll have a story out in the spring in a local (to me) journal, Reed Magazine. But I also got four rejection letters on Sunday, so the numbers are still terrifying.

DAVID
That's terrific, and it also represents a great lesson: Get a success, any success, before the holiday or family reunion.

MARLÉNE
Fuck yeah.

DAVID
I'm glad to hear you're sending so much out. I've been in a rut. I'm just trying to get some daily writing in at this point. Hopefully I can upgrade to submitting in a month or two.

MARLÉNE
That's why we're doing this, man!

DAVID
True story.

MARLÉNE
Ok, but I didn't answer your question. I do get preemptively defensive about the questions. I talk a lot about the acceptance rates, which are often in the thousandths of a percent.

DAVID
That sounds like a tough topic to breach with non-writers!

MARLÉNE
I have to combat a lot of advice to self-publish. People don't understand that literary fiction is not like more commercial fiction. Readers want a proxy to vet the work. Hence, the journals, the publishers. So yeah, I talk about the rates to non-writers. They seem very confused by the whole thing. They say, "but Fifty Shades of Gray!" and I have to start from scratch. They're like, why don't you just post your work online?

DAVID
Yeah, I've had those conversations too. One of the most interesting things that sometimes happens is that relatives will pitch ideas to me. They'll say they have a great idea for a story, which is sweet but oh so misguided.

When I talk to relatives or non-writers about writing, I'm at a complete loss. I usually try to stay as vague as possible, but I always walk away feeling like a complete idiot.

MARLÉNE
I don't know. Maybe your circles understand literary fiction better than mine do. Even explaining what I write is a circular process, and I do it over and over again. I do have a canned response to that question as well, but I don’t always feel good about it. Like sometimes I’ll just say I write literary fiction, and I’ll get a blank response, and when they ask what that is, I’ll say “writing that aspires to be art.” But usually that gets a blank response as well, and I have to get into Thomas Kincaid and Dan Brown analogies, which feels pretentious and awkward. Often, people want to know what subjects I write about, asking if I write vampire or mystery stories. I used to say I write whatever comes to mind, but recently I decided I would tell people that the only subjects worth writing about were birth, death, and all the sex you could have had in between. That doesn’t quite cover everything, but it gets most of it. I’m also very interested in morality. What it means to be a good person, if that’s even possible. But I can’t get into those things with random people! It feels too personal.

DAVID
No, no, they do not understand what I do either and your conversations sound really similar to mine. I like your writing as art analogy. That's a good one.

MARLÉNE
The hardest part for me is that I'm not making any money, and won't for several years at the very minimum, and that's hard to justify.

DAVID
Absolutely understand. For me, I want to find a place where I don't have to justify it—become someone who needs to write so badly that I don't care!

MARLÉNE
The key is the spouse. The spouse has to be a gazillion percent on board. Mine is more sure of me doing this than I am. It's the only reason I'm still here.

DAVID
A friend of mine once described this "need" as an itch. I have a theory that everyone has an itch, and we all find a way to scratch. And by itch, I mean a way of justifying or finding self-worth.

MARLÉNE
That's an interesting take. Is that why you're still pursuing this?

DAVID
Yeah, for me, it's an itch. It's the thing I want to do. I feel pretty desperate about it because I'm afraid that if I don't have some amount of success I won't ever be satisfied.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, the desperation is ever-present. It's a bit ridiculous. I have to do it so bad now that it would totally destroy me if I couldn't.

DAVID
I think commercial success—selling a book or a series of stories—would make cocktail parties easier. But for me the real thing is satisfying my desire to write well and have someone acknowledge it.

MARLÉNE
Well it's not like musicians record records and put them in a vault. The whole point is to connect with other human beings. And the ego bit, honestly, gets very balanced out by all the rejection.

DAVID
Talking a little bit about success...

Does it motivate you as you write? Do you think it's useful to define what success would mean to you?

MARLÉNE
Hm...It does motivate me. It makes me not want to delete everything anyway. Success is very specific for me. I want to publish enough in journals or book-form to be able to teach creative writing at a university and then continue writing forever. I honestly just want a decent job. I want a community. A built-in literary community. And then to keep at it. That's it. I would feel much more personally validated by a tenure-track position or something similar than a book deal. Although the two are related. You can’t have one without the other.

What about you? Is it more vague?

DAVID
Yeah, and it's hard to articulate. At this point, I don't really have a big plan or dream like you do. Or maybe it's just how my personality works. But I want to publish somewhere good. Someplace that I really respect.

From there, I want to write and publish more of course, but I don't really see beyond that first step right now.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, that is also my first step, but more as a vehicle for the other thing. I want to be successful enough that I don't need to justify it to the in-laws anymore.

DAVID
Sure, I get that.

MARLÉNE
There is this pressure for me to watch the kids full time or have a paying job, not this ambiguous kid-watching/preschool/part-time daycare so I can pursue my interests bullshit.

DAVID
Is the pressure coming from yourself or from your in-laws?

MARLÉNE
Myself, entirely. Because I have planted imagined disdain in other people’s minds for what I do, and I’m working against that.

DAVID
As a guy, I have a totally different set of hang-ups, but I bet I feel more naturally entitled to "take time for myself to write" because it's more unusual for a man to be stay-at-home.

MARLÉNE
I feel like people equate it with me going shopping or horseback riding while someone watches my kids.

DAVID
Right.

MARLÉNE
I feel justified, because my spouse supports me, and the whole Virginia Woolf thing. Room of your own, 200 pounds a year or whatever it was. But I feel like I have to prove that I am worthy of that privilege. Which is why I don’t dick around when someone else is watching my kids. I just work, period.

DAVID
Yeah, okay. Me too.

Shall we finish up with a little pointed questioning about why Writers' Block feels necessary to us?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, but speaking of Virginia Woolf, I feel like I need to do this (Writers’ Block) because if I continue to write alone in a room without having a community then I will definitely end up in some very dark place.

I'm trying to combat that. The dark, depressive writer tendency.

DAVID
And I think maybe some people romanticize that darkness. Pulling your hair out alone in a closed off basement until you stumble out one day with a manuscript!

MARLÉNE
That is so true.

DAVID
The MFA (that we both got at UMD) was terrific because we had this community to exist in. We were all in it together, trying to get better—and most of us not quite there yet. When I started, I was pretty sure that I'd finish as this "complete writer." Someone ready to take the lit journals by storm.

MARLÉNE
Hahahaha, yeah that is very accurate. There’s a certain naïveté that I think nearly all writers need to go through before they can even acknowledge that they suck, and only then can they get better. It’s funny to have realized that almost everything I wrote then was complete garbage compared to the last six months’ work alone.

DAVID
In reality, in the few years since leaving UMD I've felt pretty lost in my writing, and part of me was ashamed of this. Like I shouldn't have to reach out to friends, and definitely not to strangers. Now, I'm ready to admit that I don't have it figured out but that I still want to.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, it's called becoming an adult. Grad school was bit of a delayed adolescence, and now we're parents, and necessarily grownups. And that helps with evaluating the work that's left to do.

DAVID
Indeed. Let me ask you something since you mentioned your recent work outdoing your old stuff...Have you been writing a lot from scratch or do you mostly go back and rework stuff?

MARLÉNE
I don't touch the old stuff. It's dead and stale to me now.

DAVID
Interesting. I want my old stuff to be good so, so, so badly. But sometimes I get lost in these old stories I wrote years ago and get defeated.

MARLÉNE
But I was not able to write for a full year after the birth of my son (because he was extremely challenging and we had some extreme sleep deprivation), and that forced sabbatical gave me some wicked perspective and pent-up creative need. When I came out of it (with the help of part-time daycare), it has been a dam-burst of output.

DAVID
That's awesome.

MARLÉNE
Some of it is clearly exercises, some is worth keeping, but it's the practice that's amazing. It's the realization that I have to write no matter what comes out and I have to write constantly. There can be no breaks. Okay, other than illnesses and holidays (now). So some of the short stories won't do anything, but they are teaching me something. Huge things about practice. It's like freaking piano lessons, which I hated. Otherwise, I'm writing bad poetry surreptitiously on my iPhone while going to the bathroom. And that was awful.

DAVID
No, that's cool. It makes me realize I need more time. Lots more. I'll have to pick your brain about daycare options at some point later on.

MARLÉNE
Totally. It’s why we’re doing this after all. Other people’s brains.

Editor’s note: At this point, the interview devolved into bad zombie jokes, and it was decided that we end here. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments, or just join us again next time.