Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Stitching and Unstitching” - The Life of a Writer: Anne Whitehouse

We are quite pleased to share an extended Interview with poet, fiction writer, and author ANNE WHITEHOUSE.  Anne has been writing in multiple genres for her entire life - has been developing her craft for a lifetime - and if you are familiar with her work (if not, read some of her books), what she says here will offer insights into her origins as a writer. We are impressed with how Anne continues to challenge herself as a writer and mature as a poet. The life of a writer, as W.B. Yeats describes work in “Adam's Curse,” is one of stitching and unstitching, penciling and erasing - the toils of the writer are for the benefit of the reader.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? As soon as I learned to write, when I was about five or six, I used to create illustrated stories with ballpoint pen or pencil and sometimes with crayon. When I was about nine years old, I wrote longer stories in installments that were read by my younger sisters and my friends. At the age of 16, I read Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man.” The triple use of the word “nothing” in the last stanza made me want to write poetry.

Why do you write? Writing begins in desire and need. I write because I feel incomplete without writing. I write out of a love for literature, reading, language. I write to convey what is authentically mine. I write because of a wish to create something durable and permanent from evanescent experience.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be? It never gets any easier to face the blank page or the blank screen. I thought it might get easier over time, but it really doesn’t. That said, I also write because I love to play with words. For me, writing is rewriting.

What do you think makes a good story? I find it satisfying when the story coheres and comes together on the immediate narrative level and on deeper, symbolic and thematic levels. I am more of a character than plot-driven writer; character is what interests me. I am a student of human nature and a close observer. I try to understand what motivates people. I look for the context. My undergraduate major was Social Studies, an interdisciplinary major in the social sciences. I am interested in psychology, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology. I have also loved myths from a very young age. I was raised on the Bible and Greek and Roman myths. As I grow older, they seem ever more mysterious and inexhaustible. I love literature that incorporates these elements in different ways. For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses has been a favorite of mine for many years for the ways in which he recreates and retells a myth for modern times. His mind is so fertile and his ear is so musical that I continue to delight in his writing, no matter how often I reread it. I also love and revere Kafka, whose writing is more profound in the sense that he creates his own myths. His writing is mythical, allegorical, endlessly suggestive and allusive. I love the major novels and especially I love the stories and tales about small animals and freaks. I admire the way in Kafka that nothing is quite what it seems, and yet his prose is so tactile, so focused and pared down on the sequence of events he is depicting. It develops logically, one thing leading to the next, yet the result is anything but conventionally logical.

What's your favorite genre to read? I have eclectic and catholic tastes. I will read anything that is printed, including cereal boxes when nothing else is available. I love literary fiction, memoir, poetry, history, and biography.  I love art and photography. I love books on natural history. I have worked as a book reviewer for many publications; my bibliography is available on my website.

Who is your favorite author or poet? There are so many I love. I feel a little bit like Roberto Bolaño (another writer I love) as I start to compile a long list of beloved writers. In addition to Joyce and Kafka, mentioned above, I would add Shakespeare (of course), Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, William Butler Yeats, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, John Donne, William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron, Stendhal, Horace, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Marquez, Albert Camus, Yasunari Kawabata, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, T.S.Eliot, Oscar Wilde. I love Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë (I like Jane Eyre better than Wuthering Heights), Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield, Shirley Hazzard, Bruce Chatwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, Machado de Assis, Marianne Moore, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, Pablo Neruda. Writers I love that are somewhat forgotten and deserve to be better known include Iris Origo, Katharine Butler Hathaway, Isabel Bolton, Virginia Hamilton Adair.

I was a tremendous reader as a child; children’s literature is still very important to me. Children’s writers I love (from my own childhood and my daughter’s) are Robert Louis Stevenson, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.K. Rowling, Louise Fitzhugh, George MacDonald, Noel Streatfield, Rosemary Wells, E.B. White, A.A. Milne, Andrew Lang, Maira Kalman, Louisa May Alcott, Lewis Carroll, Hugh Loftis, L.M. Montgomery, L. Frank Baum, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

There are lots of writers I love selectively (in other words, I love some of their works)—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene, Susan Sontag, Truman Capote, Robert Lowell, Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence are a but a few.

There are writers whom I once loved but have not read in decades, and I need to rediscover them again. That includes Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Melville—these are writers one has to feel willing to grapple with. I hope to once again, but I am not ready quite yet.

There are some writers I love for one book: Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Ralph Ellison for Invisible Man, Anne Frank for her Diary, Tobias Schneebaum for Keep the River on Your Right, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag.

I think the generation of poets born in the 1920s and early 1930s was an extraordinary generation—better than my generation. To name a few: James Merrill, William Merwin, A.R. Ammons, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Bly, Jane Cooper, Philip Levine, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton.

Some contemporary writers I’ve read in the past year or so with great pleasure include Donna Tartt, Roxana Robinson, David Moolten, Lewis Hyde, David Castronovo, Alexander Chee, Valerie Martin, A.E Stallings, Ben Macintyre, David Benioff, Alison Light, Garry Wills, Erika Dreifus, Bob Zellner, Joseph O’Neill. I am riveted by Malcolm McDonagh’s plays.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer? Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves inspired my novel Fall Love. I already mentioned the effect Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” had on me. I think that writers aren’t aware of their influences at the time that they are being influenced. I think that if one is aware of the influence, then it’s not really an influence. It might be a model. But influences are more mysterious and unconscious. One only knows in retrospect.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person? As a child, I had The Golden Book of Greek Myths. I vividly recall my shock when I first read the story of Oedipus. And the truth is, every time I read it, I still feel the shock. What a story! Writing doesn’t go any deeper than that. The Biblical story of Joseph is another one. The family is the basic human social structure, and our deepest conflicts and yearnings; our desire, terrors, and taboos, go back to it. 

In a larger context, The Iliad has never been surpassed as the great story of war and society and capricious fate. As Simone Weil wrote in her wonderful essay, “Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is.”

Where/how do you find the most inspiration? I find inspiration wherever I can. One cannot will inspiration to come, but one must allow oneself to be receptive enough to recognize it. It’s a certain kind of attention, a readiness. I think it gets harder and harder every day as our attentions are fragmented and scattered. We’re supposed to pay attention to so many things at once. We’re in touch with everything and everyone but ourselves. It’s hard to go deep, to concentrate. I’m as guilty of the above as anyone else. Some days my mind can’t seem to settle on anything. Yoga and meditation help me to create a welcoming space, a willingness to receive inspiration with a proper sense of awe.

When I am trying to work out something in my writing, and I feel stuck, I try to focus my mind on it before falling asleep. Sometimes it works. When I was taking calculus in high school, I used to figure out math problems this way. I’d have the answer when I woke up. I don’t always have the answer now, but sometimes it helps.

What does your family think of your writing? My husband Stephen Whitehouse says, “I am very proud of my wife’s writing.” My 18-year-old daughter Claire says, “I like my mom’s writing, and I am proud of it.”

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? I start each day reading over what I worked on the previous day or previous few days, in order to get me back into the right mindset. Sometimes I move back and forth between several things I am working on; some days I put all the effort into one thing I am working on. It all depends where I have an insight. I take notes for everything I do, and I refer to them.  I prefer to write in long, uninterrupted blocks of time. I am a social person but not when I am writing. I have found talking antithetical to writing. If I have to talk when I am writing, it breaks my flow of concentration, and it’s hard for me to get it back. This is hard on my family. I need solitude to write. Solitude can be found in a café full of strangers, but it’s not the family living room with everyone sitting around and the television on.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? I don’t do my creative writing sitting at a desk. I sit at a desk at my job, and I sit at a desk at home when I am paying bills and the like, but when I am writing poetry or fiction or anything creative, I usually sit on a comfortable seat. Or I like to sit on the floor. Often I like to spread my legs out in front of me or tuck my legs under me.  I like to be physically relaxed and comfortable when I am writing. 

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Sometimes, in fiction more than in poetry, I write myself down a wrong direction, and I have to discard writing that has taken me weeks or even a couple of months. It can be hard to let go of it, but it is absolutely necessary. You’ve got to be ruthless. In order to write fiction, I have to be able to visualize my characters clearly. It sounds easy, but for me it’s not. I begin with ideas about my characters, but it takes a while before I know them. Knowing my characters, working out their stories, is what keeps me going and what I care about in writing.  If I know everything in advance, I can’t write the story.  If there is nothing for me to discover in the process of writing, then the writing will be dead; it will lack suspense.

I read in amazement of writers who are able to plot their stories out completely and then go back and write them. They make it sound like filling in the blanks, so much easier than my struggles. I know some very good novels have been written this way, and I’ve tried to do it, but my mind draws a blank. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out. I’m still trying. Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of writer, but I have to use the gifts I have and be grateful for what I’ve got.

Many writers, I among them, take comfort from Henry James: We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

What are your current projects? I’ve recently completed the first volume of a two-volume novel about a Southern Jewish family in Birmingham, Alabama, called Rosalind’s Ring. It’s set in the 1950s and early 1960s. The first chapter can be read on the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal. I’ve completed a new volume of poems, The Refrain, almost all of which have appeared in literary magazines (linked on my website).

What are you planning for future projects? About a half-dozen of my short stories have recently appeared or will be appearing in literary magazines or anthologies, and I am planning to put together a book-length collection. I am also working on a new collection of poems. I am beginning the novel that will follow Rosalind’s Ring. And I have a couple of other irons in the fire that I am not ready to talk about yet.

Do you have any advice for other writers? Whatever subject you choose to write about, be sure that it interests you enough and you care enough about it to devote yourself to it the way that you’re going to have to. There’s no doubt about it, the practice of any art requires a great deal of sacrifice. It’s hard for people who don’t feel that need and passion to understand why anyone would give so much effort and love and time—at the expense, often, of one’s family and friends—to what seems to offer back so little, certainly in terms of a financial reward. In the end you’ve got to please yourself, or it’s not worth doing. It’s too hard, and it’s too demanding.

Don’t expect other people to understand why you write, not even people you love. For example, one of my closest friends invariably comments when my poetry is published, “I hope you made money on that, Anne.” I know she loves me and she means well; deep down, she wants me to make money on my poetry, because she doesn’t understand why else I would write it. Yet I can’t quell a sense of despair at her familiar comment. To demand of poetry that it be profitable is to burden a frail, delicate creature with such a weight that it can’t take off, much less fly.  I thank G-d that I don’t have to make a living from poetry; otherwise I couldn’t write it.

My fiction, alas, has proved to be as much a labor of love as my poetry. That’s the way it is, and I accept it. Society doesn’t value literature, not really. Or else, there’s no telling if society will value it. If society does value it, it’s probably for a reason other than a literary one.  As Yeats wrote in one of my favorite poems of his, “Adam’s Curse:”

A line may take us hours maybe
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

I often reflect that the literature that has been passed down to us is what has survived arbitrarily. There may well have been other, greater works that we will never know about, because they were destroyed and their authors forgotten. Think about the tales of Kafka, or Anne Frank’s diary--how easily they might not have survived.  One might indeed invent a hypothetical catalogue of destroyed literature. Perhaps this is something Borges wrote about. It sounds like a Borgesian idea. I hope I’ve written something that will survive in some way, but I feel properly humble. As I wrote of my character Althea, an artist, in Fall Love: “...if the thought of leaving a couple of items to a catalogue of thousands didn't daunt her, then perhaps she deserved to have something survive.

My last bit of advice is practical. Make sure you get enough sleep and are well rested. Writing is a huge mental effort. Some of it is frustrating. You are creating something that was not there and has never existed. You have to stick with it day after day, abiding with it. When my writing has gone well, my mind feels great afterwards, as if it’s gotten a lot of exercise. Some days, on the other hand, it’s hard to accomplish anything. Yet I’ve also come to realize that the frustration is part of the writing process and often precedes the insight. I try to be patient with myself and give myself permission to follow my instincts and inclinations. And if it’s not working, I don’t force it. I do something else, anything else, even dusting the bookshelves.

Something to add: Like Stephen Sondheim in his wonderful book about creating musical theater, Finishing the Hat, I regard teaching as a sacred activity. I was a dedicated and determined student, and I taught for many years, both adults and children. I feel fortunate in having had some wonderful teachers who helped me, inside and outside of the classroom. I am grateful to them all.  At its best, education shapes who we are and helps us to live. Once we have it, it can’t be taken away. I’ve written about two wonderful teachers outside of school who influenced me as a child, Miss Don and Miss Praytor. I had some excellent teachers at Mt. Brook High School. Harvard was a revelation and a transformative experience for me. At Columbia’s graduate writing program, I came into contact with some amazing writers and began to think of myself as a writer as well. As an adult, I would like to credit the remarkable Eleanor Worthen, to whom Fall Love is dedicated, for teaching me how to edit fiction.

Where can we find your work? Please go to my website,
Here I would like to credit the publishers I’ve worked with recently: Poetic Matrix Press, Finishing Line Press, Editions Bibliotekos, Modernist Press, Atticus Books online, and the many literary magazines that have been so supportive of my work. Links are on my website. And thanks to Anzelina Okarmus Coodey, who designed my website, and Ginger Nagy, who keeps up the website and designed my last two book covers. I’m also grateful to Joe Milford for his labor of love on his poetry show, which featured me: The Joe Milford Show and all of those who love literature and labor for it.

My novel FALL LOVE can be downloaded as an ebook free of charge from Feedbooks  and Smashwords  or for Purchase or as KINDLE edition. 

Some other, recent titles, include:

Bear in Mind (Finishing Line Press, 2010), poetry chapbook.

Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press, 2009), full-length book of poetry.

Copyright c. 2011 by Anne Whitehouse
All Rights Reserved