A Literary Internet Chain Letter (a.k.a. Writing Process Blog Tour)

I recently found a stack of postcards that complete strangers had sent me as part of a grade school postcard chain, showing pictures of where they lived. It’s hard not to feel wistful about getting meaningful mail from strangers, about getting meaningful mail at all, so I was delighted when Anya Groner invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, through which the blogs and websites of our friends might introduce us to the work of strangers. A few notes on my writing process are below, and next Monday, tune in for similar dispatches from these talented writers:

Anna Lena Phillips writes, edits, teaches, calls square dances, and makes things. The concerns of her projects include landscape, living with new technology, prosody, gender, and poetic objects. The author of A Pocket Book of Forms, a letterpress-printed, travel-sized guide to poetic forms, she is a lecturer in the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she is editor of Ecotone and Lookout Books.

From Brooklyn, NY and now a resident of Oxford, MS, William Boyle is the author of Gravesend (Broken River Books). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Mississippi Noir (Akashic), L.A. Review of Books, Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and other magazines and journals.

Teaching my dog to come when called. Ferrying across river currents. Exploratory research for an essay about death row. Writing a story inspired by the style of Bobbie Ann Mason. In other words: taking a breath and restoring my energy before having another go at my novel.

This question is killing me. I often find that I feel pulled with equal strength toward seemingly antagonistic schools of storytelling: minimalism and deep interiority, for example, or grit lit and Virginia Woolf. I hope my work harnesses these tensions to my advantage. A teacher of mine used to growl at students, asking if they were a writer of the room or of the road. I don’t want to have to make that choice.

What influences my fiction seems to fall into three categories: the feelings that animate my own life, in particular fears and desires; the experiences and realities I’ve known, both significant and insignificant; and the various kinds of stories–books, movies, songs–that have held my attention. And then, forgive this cliche, but those damn characters. They really do have a mind of their own sometimes.

I write nonfiction whenever I stumble on something – a person, an experience, a restaurant – that I can’t stop thinking about. The more essays I write, the more I tend to notice these things. I’ve always got a few essay ideas in the queue, but I find I need to let them rest for a while, as if to test whether they’ve got the depth of connection and reflection that is necessary. I can’t muscle through contemplation.

My writing process usually involves a pendulum that swings between a sense of urgency and confidence that allows me to put words on a page (this story must be told! you are the person to tell it!) and a sense of doubt that, as long as it’s kept in check, makes my work better (why on earth would anyone read this?). I don’t write every day. I can’t do it alone. Most of what I’ve published has been made immeasurably better by the work of an editor.

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