Gaynell Gavin is the author of Attorney-at-Large and Intersections, both published by Main Street Rag. Her creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry appear in many journals and anthologies, including North Dakota Quarterly, Prairie Schooner and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She was a 2012 Solstice Nonfiction Prize finalist, a 2011 Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award finalist, and a Notable Essay Citation recipient in The Best American Essays 2009. She joined me today to talk about her writing process: enjoy!
- When did you start writing?
I started writing as a child in elementary school. My teachers and parents, especially my mom, were very supportive and encouraging. The first story I consciously remember writing, constructing a written narrative, was in fourth grade. It was written in first person from the point of view of a grain of wheat that was baked into a loaf of bread. In early adulthood, I only wrote creatively occasionally, due to the demands of single parenthood, law school, and practicing law. After my son was grown, and I had a more manageable work schedule, I started writing, submitting work for publication, and having work published more frequently.
2. Are you a pantser or a planner?
I am a pantser-planner hybrid. Writing is definitely a way of thinking for me, so much of what I write comes to me as I do the writing, but I have done at least some mental planning beforehand, although I do not have a rigid formula. Sometimes I have done research beforehand on something I want to write about, sometimes I do research as an essay, story, or poem progresses, sometimes both. For example, a few years ago, I wrote an essay that began with a faint early childhood memory of Sputnik, which just came to me. It was a long-buried memory that surfaced as an image, a memory that I realized I love. I remembered standing in my cousins’ backyard with them. Our parents were there too, and we were looking into the night sky for a glimpse of Sputnik, which prompted me to do some research on Sputnik. A more recent essay, largely about prairies, their destruction, preservation, and restoration is much more heavily researched. I do not always use all my research directly because sometimes what I think a piece of writing is about when I start it turns out not to be about that after all.
3. Can you give us an idea of your writing process?
I have to sequester myself in a quiet place, such as my home office or another room in the back of the house, and I need time, the more, the better usually. I guess what all writers need is time to write and a place to do it. As Virginia Woolf reminds us:
Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them. It does not care whether Flaubert finds the right word. . . .
Mostly my writing process consists of trying to surmount those obstacles. Although I agree with Woolf’s assessment, paradoxically, I also believe Muriel Rukeyser was right that the “universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
4. Which authors have influenced your work?
Having read eclectically, voraciously, and probably rather maniacally, for most of my life makes this question somewhat unanswerable, or at least makes a complete answer impossible, but I’ll give it a try. In school, I mostly loved the reading assignments—work by Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck, then later Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and also the playwright, Ibsen, among others. Those assignments led to reading more of their work on my own, so I was drawn to writers who demonstrated mastery of craft well before I would have known to use the term “mastery of craft.” Reading those writers was good for me because it engaged me on so many levels: aesthetically, affectively, critically, thematically, and in terms of craft. When I was a senior in college, I took a women’s lit class, and those readings engaged me in all the above ways, but they also demonstrated female mastery of craft and articulated female experiences. To the Lighthouse hooked me on Virginia Woolf, and Surfacing hooked me on Margaret Atwood. Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker made me really think about intersections of gender and race; but the one who truly resonated with me, especially through her novella, Tell Me a Riddle, was Tillie Olsen. A generation earlier, that single mom in “I Stand Here Ironing” would have been me. I just happened to be born into a better support system. My father’s widowed mom pretty much was that woman, and my dad grew up in extreme poverty. Unlike most writers, Olsen came out of similar poverty. She came out of the working class, like my parents, who managed to establish my dad’s business, which prospered. Although our family moved into upper-middle-class affluence, I watched my parents struggle to do so for about the first twelve years of my life. I still find Olsen’s work remarkable. Later, the novelist Alice McDermott became a favorite of mine. When I read At Weddings and Wakes, I said, “I’ve been to these weddings and these wakes.” The Irish poets, Patrick Kavanaugh and Evan Boland have also been important to me. Not only do I love their work, but also Boland broke a huge barrier when she refused to accept the literary devaluation of maternal, domestic experience in poetry and wrote about it anyway. She has also written about Kavanaugh’s influence on her, as he resisted the devaluation of rural experience and wrote about it. I am the great-granddaughter of Irish immigrant farmers, my maternal grandparents farmed also, and some of my relatives still farm, so when I read Kavanaugh, I said, “I’ve seen this Irish farm in Illinois.” In a way, Boland and Kavanaugh gave me “permission” to write about whatever I choose. The writers on my acknowledgments page in Attorney-at-Large have certainly influenced me also, not only through their work, but also by mentoring me. I won’t repeat that page here, but with much appreciation, I mention three of those writers: Lisa Knopp, Hilda Raz, and Sue William Silverman.
5. What are your plans/future projects/new releases that we should be aware of?
Attorney-at-Large was just released, so it is very new, but I do have a creative nonfiction book about ¾ done. It was a recent book contest finalist, but in retrospect, I realized that I submitted it prematurely. The title—at least for now—is What We Have, which is also a chapter title. It is about place, landscape, landmarks, and human attachment to place.
6. Any tips for new writers?
Read, write, and if you want publication, submit. There are lots of other tips available, such as on marketing and networking, but I think these three are the important basics that have to be done despite the obstacles in Woolf’s warning. Also I think good creative writing courses and writing groups are very valuable. It’s not that you cannot get where you’re going without them, but they can help you get there a bit more readily, and the support they can offer is helpful.
7. Any tips for old writers?
I think the above tips for new writers are pretty good for all writers. One of my 2013 New Year’s resolutions is to follow my own advice!