This is a list of the questions students most often ask me at schools or try to contact me to ask when they are writing papers. I am compiling these answers to help you with your papers and to avoid turning you down – because if every one of you contacted me individually, I certainly would never have time to write another book.
Frequently Asked Questions
- When did you start writing?
- What writers influenced you?
- What’s the difference between writing fiction and writing poetry?
- Do you write both at the same time?
- Do you consider yourself a feminist? (Or, the variation: Why are you a feminist?)
- How and when did you first get published?
- What is your advice to you writers?
- What is your day like?
- Do you ever get writer’s block?
- What do you like to read?
- What kind of place do you live in?
- How many cats do you have?
I began writing both poetry and fiction when I was fifteen, right after my family moved into a house where I had a room of my own with a door that shut – in other words, when I had privacy for the first time. Some of my very early poems are included in EARLY GRRRL, a collection of poems from out-of-print books and some never before collected. It is published by Leapfrog Press.
Like most young writers, I imitated a great deal in my early years. I began with those two parents of American poetry, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Everything truly American since is a descendant of theirs. I read the Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley and Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and imitated them also. My earliest contemporary passions were T.S. Eliot and Murial Rukeyser. We are talking about high school.
Poetry comes far more directly from my life. Basically I get to exorcise my autobiographical impulses in poetry. I explore other people’s lives in my fiction. Often for me fiction embodies the choices I did not make, the paths I did not follow. Poems are built out of sounds and silence. Rhythm and sound values are far more important in poetry than in fiction. Images are central. Poetry to me is more organic, more passionate, more spiritual, more intense. Fiction is about time – what happens if you make one or another choice. What happens next. And then and then and then, as a result of every choice made, what happens? Fiction to me is an art of empathy and imagination. Each novel is like a small world I inhabit for a period of two or three years, and then move on to another small world. The way the I work, I learn each time about different things – areas I would never have studied for my own life.
Usually I do. That is, I may or may not write both on the same day, but in the same block of time, usually I am alternating between poetry and fiction. The only time I am not likely to be writing poems is when I am finishing a late draft of a novel to deadline, when I work so many hours a day that I don’t want to read when I finish, let alone write anything. My eyes are too tired and so is my brain.
About the only time I am not writing fiction is when I have sent off a novel to my agent or to the publisher. Then I write poetry very intensely and no fiction at all.
I’ve written a much more detailed piece about this subject for The New York Times Writer’s On Writing Series that might be of further interest to you. It’s called Life of Prose and Poetry.
Yes, I consider myself a feminist. I was involved in the second wave of feminism when it began, basically around 1966 and I remain politically active and involved. Why am I a feminist? I was born a woman. I can’t imagine not identifying strongly as a woman and not wanting things to be better and safer and more fun and less dangerous for myself and other women.
Like a lot of writers, I was first published by publishing myself. I co-edited the college literary magazine with a friend of mine during my senior year at the University of Michigan. I had won awards by then, but I had never had a poem published. Becoming the co-editor of a magazine fixed that.
You wouldn’t start out in particle physics by trying to invent the field. As a would-be poet or fiction writer or playwright or writer of scripts, you must know what has been written in the past and what is being written right now. You have to read all the time and read a lot. It isn’t that you are imitating what you read after you get out of college, but that you read as a writer does – noticing technique. You constantly learn the “how” of writing from other writers. The “what” is your own, but the “how” is learnable. You never get done noticing the techniques of other writers any more than a doctor can ignore advances in her field.
Ira Wood and I get up early, usually – around six. We have coffee together and plan out the day and fuss up our cats. Then we exercise inside or outside, take a bath, have breakfast and go to work in separate offices. Mine is in the house. His, which is also the Leapfrog Press office, is in town in a large old building on the harbor. How long I work depends on what I am doing. I am lucky to get two to three hours of intense work done on poetry. After that, I tend to read. With first draft of a novel, four to five hours is tops. By the time I am on second draft, I can work six to seven hours a day. When I am doing third, fourth or whatever draft, I work till I can’t go on – eight to twelve hours depending on my energy level, the type of revisions involved, and deadlines.
The advantage of working in more than one genre, is that if and when you get stuck in fiction, you can switch over to poetry, or vice versa. So I manage to avoid writer’s block. Besides, there are so many things in the world that interest me, I have not yet run out.
I read a great deal of poetry for pleasure. I read less fiction, but some. I don’t really enjoy mysteries or thrillers, generally, but I read what’s called mainstream fiction and also science or speculative fiction. I read far more books than magazines, but there are some zines I read regularly, like SCIENCE NEWS, ARCHEOLOGY, NATURAL HISTORY, ON THE ISSUES, THE WOMEN’S REVIEW, LILITH, etc.
I am usually doing research on something or other and sometimes a lot of something for my novels. So much of my reading time is used up by research.
We live on Cape Cod in a house on a fresh water marsh, in mixed oak and pine woods. We have vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bush fruit and grapevines, lots of flowering bushes and flowers.
It’s outside a village. People here work in shellfish farming, the building trades, servicing tourists. There are a lot of artists and writers who live here year round. The summer people tend to be more affluent than the year rounders.
We have four cats now. If you have read my memoir, SLEEPING WITH CATS, you will notice that we have only two of those cats with us now. Dinah, my elderly Korat, died some years ago. We still have Malkah, an orange tabby from a shelter, who is very large for a female and the matriarch of the tribe. Next comes Efi, who is a chocolate point Siamese, very playful and jealous of her prerogatives. She believes Malkah is her mother; Malkah believes Efi is her daughter. They are extremely close and affectionate with each other as well as with us. We have a sable Burmese, Sugar Ray, a sweet gentle lover of a cat, who became top cat when Max was killed by coyotes. Then there is the youngest, Puck, a blue Abyssinian, who has a fondness for mango, cataloupe, ice cream, and all human food. Sugar Ray accepted Puck from the first moment he saw him, when Sugar began to purr. They play together constantly. Sugar Ray tries to teach Puck manners and games. All the cats get on well with each other, although the two males are close and the two females are close. They are all strong personalities, beautiful indoor cats. Because of the coyotes who infest the Cape, they can no longer go outside, as did my other cats for thirty years.
These are the top twelve most commonly asked questions.
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Revised: February 27, 2004