Great Writers and What They’re Reading: Laura Gill

By Alyssa Ennis

This interview series is meant to focus on the interactions between reading and writing through the lens of three Spring 2017 Windmill authors. The Windmill editorial staff hopes you enjoy this glimpse into the reading habits and writerly inspirations of our talented contributors.

 

Laura Gill has recently completed her MFA at Bennington College and has been published previously in the Blue Mesa Review. Laura’s piece in the upcoming edition of Windmill, Disorder, is an excellent creative nonfiction piece about growing up and dealing with hardships both real and imagined. Be sure to check it out when the magazine arrives in May!

 

What book have you read recently that you would recommend to people who enjoyed your piece in Windmill?

Laura Gill: What comes to mind is The Balloonists by Eula Biss. It  isn’t a book I read very recently, but it is a book that repeatedly came up when I was workshopping drafts of “Disorder.” While the pieces are different in numerous ways, they are similar (at least I hope) in the bringing together of various memories and anecdotes to construct a kind of whole. I look up to all of Biss’s work, but “The Balloonists” is most directly about her relationship to her family’s narrative(s), and I think if that was something about “Disorder” that resonated for a reader, they might appreciate “The Balloonists” in particular.

 

Is there a book or other piece of writing that inspired you to become a writer yourself?

LG: From a young age, I was told I was “not a reader,” and for a long time, I was convinced it was true, in part because I could never answer this type of question. In many ways, what first inspired me to write were stories from my friends and family—I liked real life, and the storytelling within it. One of my first “stories” was about four of my friends and how their distinct relationships to their parents impacted their lives. While my first inspiration has been the stories of the people I know and love, I have certainly found an altogether different kind of inspiration in the craft of communicating those stories in beautiful, surprising and poignant ways. After a lull in writing post-college, it was Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay that reignited my love for language. While the discovery came later in life, it was nevertheless the spark I needed to get back to the page. Telling stories with friends is wonderful and all, but it’s in the working to translate those stories to some kind of narrative that the purpose comes through.  

 

Since Windmill is a literary magazine, what short fiction/nonfiction/poetry would you recommend? Do you have a favorite short literary work?

LG: Tough questions! So many options! I’ll go with the first of each that came to mind. The first story was James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”— it’s incredible to me how much of a world we get in such a small amount of space, and I love how patient Baldwin is in building us to an ending that feels as moving as any novel’s. The first poem was Marie Howe’s, “The Gate,” about her late brother, and one of their interactions before his death; within one distilled, and rather mundane gesture, she captures an entire relationship and her grief in the loss of it. The first piece of nonfiction was Meghan Daum’s piece, “Difference Maker,” about her ambivalence toward motherhood, and her experience with what she refers to as the “Central Sadness.” The essay is a part of her collection “Unspeakable,” which exposes the truths we’d prefer not to speak about, and the ways in which our silences can wreak havoc on not just us but our relationships with one another.

 

What are you currently reading?

LG: I’m currently reading Middlemarch and Mary Gaitskill’s new book of essays: Somebody with a Little Hammer. I haven’t yet made it very far in either, but I have a feeling that the pairing could be fruitful—in each, the authors investigate the societal constructs that are both the current and undercurrents of their lives.

 

Is there an aspect of reading that you feel helps you improve as a writer?

LG: Every aspect of reading helps me improve as a writer—whether it’s a book I can barely get through or a book I’m devouring, I find the act of reading is integral to the way I write and the topics I feel compelled to write about. As I mentioned, I was not a kid who read all the time and even now, I find I am consistently behind many of my friends in terms of the volume of texts I read. I think it’s in part because I don’t see reading as entertainment so much as I see it as work. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable for me and that I am in some way “above” that component of reading, but when I am reading, I am often considering what is happening on the page, and it’s hard for me to turn off the side of me that either does or doesn’t want to write in that way. I remember my mother giving me Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris—I loved the first page so much that my first response was “I want to do this,” and then my second response was jealousy. I find jealousy to be essential to my life as a reader and a writer, and while many people have told me the jealousy is a base and useless emotion, I think it’s been a valuable guide for me to knowing what I want to accomplish and how I might be able to do so.

 

Do you have a favorite book? What do you say to convince people to read it?

LG: I realize this may appear like a cop out, but the honest answer would be that I don’t have a favorite book. I have always wanted to be a person who did, but I find certain books compel me at different times, and I’m aware of of that fact when I go to recommending or convincing people to read those books. There are a few books I find myself recommending often because I think they changed me in some way, and those are: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, and The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems. To me, these texts are linked by possibility—to read any of them is to see just what language can do.

What’s next on your to-read list?

LG: Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things is next on my list!

 

A Q&A with Raquel Perez de Alderete

By Emily Nguyen

The more social media advances, the easier it is to treat content creators as homogeneous. These writers face the same stigmas, criticisms, and opposition, particularly those aimed at the nature of their medium. Adhering to an “us versus them” mentality, it makes sense that online writers would have similar opinions about the challenges they face. But like the process of writing itself, every creator’s experience is unique even across the same platform.

In the spirit of understanding as many perspectives as possible, I reached out to Raquel Perez de Alderete, a Tumblr writer whose poems under the pseudonym r.i.d regularly reach thousands of notes.

 

How and why did you first start posting your writing online?

Raquel Perez de Alderete: I started posting my writing online because I wasn’t naturally talented at poetry. As a prose writer, I had hit a block in my work. I felt like I could get better by expanding my ability base and studying how to write poetry. Posting was originally just a place to deposit my work where I could keep it all in one place.

 

About how long did it take for your work to start gaining traction?

RP: I believe between nine months and a year. While I had followers as a new blog, it wasn’t until another blog “found” me that people noticed my work.

 

Are you planning to pursue writing as a career (a sole/main source of income)? If so, are you considering traditional publishing i.e. getting an agent/going through a publishing house?

RP: In an ideal world I’d love to be a writer, but I’m also very practical. I have a degree in Education and am planning to be a teacher. But if I could, traditional publishing would be phenomenal.

 

A lot of people look down on self-publishing because there aren’t any “gatekeepers” (agents, publishing houses) to keep out lower quality work. Do you think this is a valid criticism?

RP: To be honest, self-publishing is incredible for that exact same reason. Yes, there are going to be works which aren’t necessarily the next great novel. However, a lot of people who write in ways that traditional publishing frowns on are also getting their work out there. It’s a great way for minority groups to be heard.

 

The publishing industry as a whole is often slow to embrace new technologies. Have you encountered anyone who judged you or made you feel less legitimate as an online writer?

RP: Yes, but I think it’s valid. My popularity isn’t a reflection of my ability. Nothing says that stronger for me than the fact poetry isn’t what I’m naturally good at. Being able to create relatable content might be a trick authors need, but it’s not the only trick they should have. The other reality is that right now, there’s not enough return on investment for authors online. Furthermore, work is too easily picked up and “quoted” without a source.

 

In your experience, do you think online writers feel bitter or tension towards traditional publishing?

RP: I think it’s a hard thing to balance a love of. We feel validated by publishers, but we know that the system is flawed. I like traditional publishing because I like books, and I like writing books, and I like people reading books. It would be ignorant of me to pretend, however, that the publishing companies always have the best interests of the authors at heart. There is a reason that J.K. Rowling felt she had to change her name.

 

What do you think the benefits are of writing on social media/writing sites over traditional publishing?

RP: Wider audience, and, as I said before, it’s an equalizer. I don’t have to edit my content to make it more marketable – which means I don’t have to cut out queer themes or any of my other ideals. A lot of publishers don’t want to be the one who puts out something “risky.” They’re looking to make money. Online writers, however, have proven that there is a market for that “risky” material.

 

Do you think there’s anything that traditional writers might learn from online writers?

RP: I think we can all learn from each other, honestly. Writers are always such interesting people, and I’m sure the lessons other people have, whatever or however they write, are things that could really help me.

 

A lot of older authors have difficulty tapping into the young, online demographic – to the point of lacking social media/websites at all. Do you think it would be harder for someone older to begin their career online like you did, since they might be significantly older than their audience?

RP: A lot of this, I think, stems from the above issue of the internet actively seeking alternatives to popular stories. We have these themes and ideas that are in books all the time and people who are on the internet aren’t looking for something that’s the same as the rest of their other available content. We teach writers almost to stick to what is easy to write, so, for example, they write the hero’s journey and he gets the girl. The internet doesn’t notice it because it already exists in plenty. But if the author is brave and does something interesting and new – makes the hero disabled, for example – they see that the public actually is excited to read something different. I do know adults who started writing online who have experienced success – it’s just about sticking true to who you are and pushing your writing as far as it will go.

 

What do you think are the main factors that might influence someone to choose one (traditional vs online) over the other? Do you think traditional writers and online writers are striving towards the same goal?

RP: Besides seeking content they relate to, I think part of it is accessibility. I love books, I love them, but it is astronomically easier for me to find something online than go to the library. I recognize that’s silly, but if I’m stuck on a bus for two hours, I can’t just get up and go. I usually choose books anyway – I don’t like reading on screens – but there is an element of access which is beneficial to the content. Online content can be adjusted to use fonts that help readers who are dyslexic, can zoom in to help readers who can’t see tiny font – but books are comfortable and familiar. They both have their upsides and I think both are important! Our goal as writers – at least I think our goal as writers – is always the same thing. We just want you to read.

 

Raquel Perez de Alderete can be found on Tumblr under the url inkskinned. She has two books available here and here.

On Creative Nonfiction and The Faraway Nearby

By Courtney Zanosky

“What’s your story?” This is the question that Rebecca Solnit uses to thread together her narrative in the genre-refuting memoir The Faraway Nearby. Ultimately, she brings to light that your story is my story is her story is Frankenstein’s story is a Buddhist’s story is her mother’s story—annihilating the notion that memoir is inherently self-absorbed.

“One of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you…to tell stories rather than be told by them.” As our stories weave like threads into quilts coming together and coming undone, Solnit shows how the story of the world is told. The Faraway Nearby is a masterpiece in storytelling as it illuminates seemingly strange connections; how a pile of apricots rotting on Solnit’s floor is also the story of Leprosy, slowly numbing and alienating a person’s own body like a bad spot spreading across raw apricots. From a journey to Iceland to diving into fairytales, Solnit shows the fluidity of stories—how we make them and how we use them to define ourselves—and how they are not all as disconnected as we may think.

Creative nonfiction, as a genre, is often overlooked—receiving hardly one bookcase of attention at book retailers. A common misconception of the genre is that it is memoir-based, too personal, and unrelatable—as though the story you’ve created for your life is not going to match or be enhanced by the story that the creative nonfiction author has created for her life. Solnit not only pushes against this wall, but she completely dismantles it with this book that is simultaneously memoir, history, and geography—that brings faraway stories nearby. In order to do this, she plays with form in a way that arguably only creative nonfiction can do.

Her narrative is told in chapters, but the chapters progress forward and then move backward in parallel form—creating a mirror image, a portrait, of her story. Moving from the chapter titles of Apricots to Mirrors to Ice to Flight to Breath to Wound to Knot to Unwound to Breath to Flight to Ice to Mirrors to Apricots, her narrative breaths like a wave as it charges forward and then softly recoils. There is movement in the chapters—literally and figuratively—as the title of each starts far left on the page and moves more to the right as you read farther into the narrative. Once you hit Knot, however, the farthest right on the page, she unwinds you with Unwound as she also unwinds the chapters, and they start to literally recoil back to the physical left side of the page as the narrative starts to recoil back to the stories she’s already told. She brings you with her on a journey that starts at a heap of apricots and ends at a heap of apricots—with Iceland, Mary Shelley, Buddhist monks, Leprosy patients, her mother, and Wu Daozi filling in the middle. This use of physical form to reflect narrative meaning is both innovative and effective—demonstrating that stories don’t have a clear beginning or end, but that they are forever wrapped around a history that is almost impossible to pin down.

If that were not enough, Solnit also uses a story of a moth feeding on the tears of a sleeping bird as the physical thread that holds the pages of her memoir together. Running across the bottom of each page is this new, yet same, story that she is telling below the paragraphs and words above. You almost have to read the body of the book in its entirety and then go back and read the entirely new story that is told across the footer space. In the new story, you will find that moths that feed on sleeping birds’ tears are still part of the old story because just as the moth feeds on the sleeping bird, so does Solnit’s mother on her. There is nothing separate. As Solnit writes, “I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others’ paths, quilting it all together in some way that matters even though it can hardly be traced.” In the end, this is not just the story of Solnit and her mother; The Faraway Nearby is the gorgeous nonfiction portrait of us all.

On “The Sparkling-Eyed Boy”

By Courtney Zanosky

 

While Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby exemplified how creative nonfiction is able to reach outside of an author and into the world, connecting together the personal and the universal; the human and the world, Amy Benson’s The Sparkling-Eyed Boy is a lyrical masterpiece that demonstrates how the lines between fiction and nonfiction are fluid—how memoir is based in memory, but how memory is not always exact. In this book that takes the question “What If?” to new boundaries, Benson remembers her first love as he was, as she remembers him being, and how she imagines and wishes they could have been. While many authors turn to fiction in order to work out the “What If?” in their own lives, Benson constantly plays with the border of truth and fiction in a wholly honest memoir that does not make her story better, but just shows the lengths of human wishing, the tendency to imagine that we would have acted in a certain way, and the way we deal with regrets.

I had the humbling opportunity to speak with Benson through email, and while I fangirled for quite a bit, Benson had some interesting points to offer regarding the creation of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy and her personal draw to creative nonfiction. As a recent MFA in poetry graduate who found herself lost and miserable in a Ph.D program, she turned to writing narratives in paragraph form that allowed her to hone the voice that would eventually run throughout this book. Perhaps that is one of the beautiful things about creative nonfiction; it is a form that allows an author to work through emotional turmoil and to explore the past, present, and future in such a way that enables one to see what has profoundly affected the path up to the present. For Benson, that was the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Sparkling-Eyed Boy. The emotions aren’t imagined, but rather they are inherently a part of who Benson is and will be. Nonfiction helped lead Benson through a miserable point in her life and into a deeper understanding of how the past is inseparable from the present. She untangles a part of her life that at the time she didn’t understand—“It’s so unfair that we live what we don’t understand, and then we understand when we can no longer live it.”

In doing so, Benson asks the reader to trust her and to follow her as she reaches out and says, “Imagine this with me, will you?” and, “Here’s an invention that springs to mind… what’s yours?” While an imagined life with the Sparkling-Eyed Boy may seem like it would be a romance novel, it is far from that. Benson doesn’t imagine fireworks and happiness, but she instead takes her own faults and uses them to demonstrate why their lives would have never been able to merge. He belonged to his land in the Upper Peninsula, and she didn’t belong to a land—always seeking the elsewhere. She imagines a love affair in which they are together, but he always returns to his wife. In these honest ways of framing herself, she is true to reality even in the deep scenes that are anything but fact, because, as she admits to herself: “you have no right to imagine, the impulses of his brain, which you will never ­rightly imagine.”

Benson wrote me in an email that she is interested in all of the things that go into the human experience— “the concrete and actual and verifiable” to the “wholesale inventions or experiences rife with the problems of perception and memory.” It is fact that Benson knew a Sparkling-Eyed Boy. It is fact that she visited the Upper Peninsula each summer with her family. It is fact that she left him behind. It is fact that she has encountered him again in their adult lives. But the way she experienced that—the way she perceives and remembers all of those childhood and adult memories—are all rooted in her own human experience. Her experience is an experience that is entirely different than one that you or I may have had in the same situations. She writes, “I am still willing myself to unknown what I know: people grow up; one identity disintegrates as another is forged; people don’t love each other forever; just because I write doesn’t make it so. I am creating the most elaborate shrine to unknowing that I can imagine.” And that is what makes creative nonfiction beautiful and honest, even when it plays with the boundaries of fiction, because there is no concrete formula for life or remembering or erasing the lies we tell ourselves—perception and memory is fluid and ever-changing. Our experiences are always changing. The memory of the Sparkling-Eyed Boy is always changing. We are always changing.

Dear Betsy Part 3

By Rachel Moskowitz

Betsy DeVos is currently the United States Secretary of Education.  Ms. DeVos has no government experience and none of her children went through the public school system. In the past 5 years she has given 5.3 million dollars in political donations, specifically contributing to presidential candidates. In her proposed Bill 610 she suggests the abolishment of the Nutritional Act of 2012 (No Hungry Kids Act), which provides nutritional standards in school breakfast and lunch. For many students, this may be the only meal they have that day, and especially one with nutritional value.

 

Dear Betsy,

How was your lunch? Did you have a nice balanced plate, some fruits and vegetables? Must be nice because one of your bills would eliminate the Nutritional Act of 2012, or the No Hungry Kids Act as many know it. This act provides thousands with breakfast and lunch daily. Without proper nutrition it makes it very difficult for children to focus in school. If a parent cannot provide for their child this child is going to be at a disadvantage before they even get into the classroom. While other students will have had breakfast and are ready for the day this child has not eaten anything and is already behind his fellow classmates.

I believe that schools in underserved neighborhoods should provide breakfast, lunch and a snack to their students that need it. A breakfast as simple as a box of cereal and an apple can change that child’s day. Having the proper nutrition will give them that energy they need for their classes.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is in place to make sure that to children have nutritious school meals every day. NSLP provides funding that makes it possible for schools to offer a nutritious school lunch. Schools receive Federal funds for each breakfast and lunch served, provided that the meal meets established nutrition standards. Programs like this make it possible for a child to succeed, please don’t take this away from them.

I understand that you and your family have never had to go through this and I am glad that you didn’t. But for a large group of families this is a real concern and issue they face every day. I urge you to consider everyone when you propose these bills. All I ask is that you think about those with much less and what we can do to help them succeed not hold them back.

 

From,

A student who was lucky enough to eat breakfast this morning