It can be hard to find time and emotional space within our busy lives to sustain a creative writing practice. At the same time, writing offers a key space to process and make sense of our experiences. Navigating the writing life is a productive challenge, says this week’s guest Lisa Locascio Nighthawk, the Chair of the Antioch MFA in Creative Writing. In this wide-ranging conversation, she touches on the experience of nobody wanting to publish a personal essay, starting her own newsletter to write about adolescence and music, and the way taking your own story seriously can be a political act.
Visit Antioch’s website to learn more about the MFA in Creative Writing that Lisa Locascio Nighthawk chairs.
This episode was recorded May 23, 2023, via Riverside.fm and released June 14, 2023.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University
Guest Host: Mair Allen
Host: Jasper Nighthawk
Editor: Johanna Case
Digital Design: Mira Mead
Web Content Coordination: Jen Mont
Work-Study Interns: Sierra-Nicole E. DeBinion, Carrie Hawthorn, Stefanie Paredes, and Georgia Bermingham.
A special thanks to Karen Hamilton, Amelia Bryan, and Melinda Garland
To access a full transcript and find more information about this and other episodes, visit theseedfield.org. To get updates and be notified about future episodes, follow Antioch University on Facebook.
Lisa Locascio Nighthawk’s debut novel, Open Me, was published by Grove Atlantic in 2018. A New York Times Editor’s Choice, Open Me was a semifinalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and was reviewed in The New York Times Review of Books, The New Yorker, and on NPR. Lisa is also the editor of an anthology, Golden State 2017: Best New Writing from California, published by Outpost19 Books.
Lisa’s stories, essays, and poems have been published in n+1, The Believer, Bookforum, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Tin House, and many other places. Her essay “Byzantium,” was selected for inclusion in Best American Experimental Writing 2020, and she was awarded the 2017 Penelope Niven Creative Nonfiction International Literary Award for her essay “Protest,” which later appeared in The Southampton Review. Lisa is the editor of the ekphrastic collaboration magazine 7x7LA and Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and their cat, Sybil.
Prior to joining Antioch, Lisa held teaching positions at UCLA (where she was a Lecturer of Scandinavian), Wesleyan University, the University of Southern California, Colorado College, and New York University, among other institutions.
S5 Episode 9 Transcript
S5E9 – Lisa Locascio Nighthawk
Mair Allen: Hi, I’m guest host Mair Allen back on the Seed Field Podcast once again, and today I’m excited to talk with Lisa Locascio Nighthawk about a subject I have a lot of experience with. Can creative writing open a door to a more fully lived life? Last year, I graduated from the Antioch MFA in creative writing. Now that I’m working full-time, I’m constantly reminded of something my high school writing teacher, Mr. Jackson, told our class. He said that we were hothouse flowers. As soon as we reached the real world, and no one was reading our writing as an assignment or because they were our teacher, we’d wilt. For me, that was true. When I graduated high school, I stopped writing regularly and it took me more than 10 years to get back to the practice. Completing my MFA gave me two years back in the greenhouse, getting lots of feedback on my writing, but now that I’m busy again, I worry I’m going to lose my regular writing practice. And, in a bigger sense, I’m worried that [00:01:00] I’ll lose the special sense of attention I was bringing to the world, moving through it as a writer. This is why I’m lucky to have Lisa with me in the studio. Hi Lisa.
Lisa Locascio Nighthawk: Hi.
Mair: Lisa Locascio Nighthawk, like a lot of writers, lives many lives. She serves as the chair of the Antioch MFA in Creative Writing, a more than full-time endeavor. She’s the Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She’s also a new parent, and has all the other aspects of being a human being, trying to eat every day, wear clean clothes, and having to drive around Los Angeles. Somehow in the midst of this, she writes. Lisa’s first novel, Open Me, follows a young woman from the Midwest studying abroad in Copenhagen. As it continues, Open Me becomes a claustrophobic narrative, both concretely, the character rarely leaves the apartment she’s living in, and figuratively as the relationships the character has with herself and others become so close, they’re sticky. This year she has also been publishing a newsletter called Not Knowing How, where she uses the track list from the Smashing [00:02:00] Pumpkins album, Adore as an organizing principle, an entryway into a series of personal essays about adolescence and loss. She’s currently finishing her second novel. Writing is an activity that takes time, and time is something not a lot of us have. I’m excited to talk to Lisa today about how she creates space for her work, but also why it’s important, what writing does for her personally, and how the act of writing is one possible way people can work through what it means to be alive. So again, welcome Lisa to the Seed Field Podcast.
Lisa: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
Mair: I’m happy. Lisa, you and I have some crisscrossing identities and some divergences. Since we’ll be talking about writing, about quote unquote, “the self,” I’d like us to tell listeners a little bit about who we are. Culturally, I’m also Midwestern and white. I’m mostly Irish, raised Catholic. I’m gay and non-binary, and grew up with young parents. I’m currently able-bodied and financially mostly stable. As much as you’re comfortable, Lisa, could [00:03:00] you tell us a little bit about where you’re coming from in this conversation?
Lisa: Yeah. So, like you said, I’m also from the Midwest. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I am white. I would describe my cultural identity as very much informed by the privileges and downfalls of whiteness. My mom had a complicated cultural identity that maybe is best described as third culture, although she was not a military brat, but she had just had a very peripatetic upbringing.
And I mentioned that just because, I think I had a self-conscious understanding of what whiteness was inherently from a young age because of that. She was someone who spoke a lot of languages and had lived in a lot of different places and I have spent a lot of time thinking and studying whiteness.
I won’t drone on about it, but I just want to acknowledge both the inherent flattening impact of a white identity and also, the complexities that [00:04:00] exist under the surface that are often traded off for a white identity. And you know, I think I would also describe myself as able-bodied and, for the most part, financially stable.
Although definitely experiencing the challenges of being a parent to a baby and needing to have childcare, which even for someone in a relatively comfortable position, has been a huge financial challenge and I know will continue to be. And, when it comes to my positionality, it’s actually been a really long path for me to feel that it is something that helps as opposed to something that takes away to identify myself as a queer person. I grew up with a very strong sense of my own queerness from a really early age, but it was a queerness that was not really visible in me and did not make my life more complicated in any way. And when I was in college in the early two [00:05:00] thousands, I definitely internalized a lot of messages I received that really gate kept queerness. And, I remember a moment where I had a very sort of sweet and maybe not deeply informed desire to join a queer-straight alliance at my college. And a friend told me, “I think we have enough allies.” And I really carried that in my body for a long time, just not feeling like I was going to do as much good being out there as a queer person, as I would, as someone who was supportive of the project of Queer Liberation. And it is really teaching and other experiences I’ve had through the world of writing that have allowed me to think about and talk about my identity in a different way.
And two years ago, I had a kind of dramatic series of epiphanies and experiences and I wasn’t really sure how to categorize a lot of it, whether it was about my sexuality or my gender identity, but I think I’m good with saying [00:06:00] that I’m a queer person. And I’m in a partnership with another cis queer person and we’re very happy.
So, that’s me.
Mair: I love that. I also had that experience in the early two thousands where someone told me that I couldn’t be politically queer, and they were wrong. And I think that it held me back from working through a lot of stuff. But also, I think about that flattening of cultural whiteness. It comes up a lot culturally in the Midwest too, of that emotional flattening, disconnection to spirituality, and shared humanity. The question that I wanted to ask you is that thinking about all of these cultural factors, and now this other line that we’ve brought in, there are all these parts of myself that I had difficulty accessing for a long time. I’ve been able to articulate a lot of that [00:07:00] through writing in a way that I couldn’t through my day-to-day life. So I’m wondering similarly, and you touched on a little bit, what are some of the things writing has helped you discover or name about yourself?
Lisa: This is a really good question and a challenging one for me, I think because I am lucky and maybe different than a lot of writers in that I embraced and was embraced by a writerly identity when I was really young. So, something I encounter a lot in the writers that I meet is stories of being discouraged from being writers by their families, or feeling that they were not entitled to a writerly identity.
And in my case, I was very encouraged by my family and by my community in thinking about myself as a writer, starting before I was 10 years old. I think what that meant to me, because I mean, what does that really mean? It was that this was a modality of processing experience that was available to me and that [00:08:00] the insights that I wanted to register in writing were important, that they were meaningful. That’s a degree of confidence and selfhood that I think is not available to everyone. I think it’s probably a minority of people who experience that, especially from a young age. And I’ve often thought about that. I mean, in the wake of new parenthood, a lot of people report a feeling of not knowing who they are, feeling displaced in their identity.
I have plenty of problems, but I just have to say that is not one that I’ve really had. I think writing is a part of that. So writing for me has always been such a tool of the self that trying to determine what was discovered through it kind of requires a type of archeology, which is kind of funny because I wanted to be an archeologist when I was a kid.
So I think without having language for this or ambition around it, from a young [00:09:00] age, my writing was very much about my voice and my subjectivity. And I started out writing as a poet and then became a fiction writer. And I’ve always seen those identities as not necessarily separate. A lot of slippage between different kinds of writing.
Most of the things that I’ve come to know about myself have been expressed, perhaps experimentally in writing. And it’s not, from this description, if you’re not familiar with my work, you might think that I’m a great self writer. Like my colleague Sarah Manguso. But that’s not necessarily how I would describe myself. Most of my writing that’s been published is fiction, and I’ve really struggled more recently with the task of writing about the self. I think that the sexuality and gender identity elements of my personality are things that I’ve always explored in my writing, partially as a way of keeping them safe from my lived life.
There were a lot of [00:10:00] inspirations for my novel Open Me, but a big and very basic one is just that. I was in a really unhappy relationship, my first marriage, and what made that relationship unhappy at its core was that my former partner did not want to have a sexual relationship with me. And that was not something that was negotiated or agreed upon in the terms of our marriage.
And so I spent many years trying to understand and deal with that because that wasn’t, that wasn’t what I wanted or how I imagined my life. And ultimately, that kind of neurotic self-focus became a story and there’s lots of other things in that story and there’s lots of other ways that I tried to position it because I was internalizing the message from the culture that the problem was not really a big enough problem to have and was not really a plot.
But I’ve always been kind of at war with the question of plot. What motivates it and what [00:11:00] is worthy of storytelling. I’m always going to be kind of pushing back on that. And in writing my current novel, which hopefully will be finished soon, I ended up creating a plot that was very much about a woman confronting questions around her own sexuality and her attraction patterns.
And a lot of that, even though it’s private, can feel really scary because it is writing into the unknown and presuming that language and story will be there to catch you when you fall. More recently, writing in my newsletter came about because I really wanted to write about my grief around losing my mom and my grief and nostalgia for the life that I no longer live, my life growing up.
And I felt a strong sense of not being heard, like people weren’t interested. And so, you know, I’ve discovered [00:12:00] things about me and my identity and my grief and stuff in writing, but I also think, I’m still figuring out and learning what the public and interactive part of being a writer means to me and what I’m trying to take from it.
Because my relationship to that has changed a lot over the course of my career.
Mair: You spoke to having that modality to work with as a young person to kind of understand yourself in the world? Is there something about writing in particular that you think offers that to people?
Lisa: I often really struggle to imagine, and it’s probably one of my flaws as a fiction writer, I don’t know what it would be like to live a life in which you didn’t have writing to help you. And I guess I can more broadly constellate that as art, but I’m someone who struggles just to write. Some people are really good daily writers or have really good routines. I don’t. I have had to become more regimented because of having a baby and a childcare [00:13:00] situation. So, in some ways, I think that has made me more of a regular writer because it’s taken away the idea that I will just spontaneously write, you know, it’ll just happen. But prior to the sort of thunder dome of, these are the hours in which you have childcare, I was never very good at being like, “I’m gonna write on Wednesdays.” Wednesdays are the days that I write now.
I remember learning about the late poet Lucie Brock-Broido, whose work I really loved. She said that she only wrote like three weeks a year. When I was younger, I didn’t understand that. And the older I get, I’m like, that would not work for me now, but that sounds cool.
I mentioned the act of writing itself because it has always been something I really struggle to actually do. But the act of writing, the recording of words on a page, is only the last step in a process that I think is always going on inside that has to do with perception and reality and [00:14:00] how you understand things.
I mean, I think I have a kind of annoying gift, which is I’m very empathetic and emotionally perceptive and I often watch people having interactions where the two of them can’t seem to understand what the other one is asking of them emotionally. And, as someone on the sidelines, I mean, maybe I’m full of it, but whatever. I’m just like, well, you know, if one of you would just do this thing, then you could just put this thing to rest.
And I think that comes from writing. I think the ability to determine meaning from our experiences. I think people have a lot of tools for that. You know, religion can be one, or ideologies. It doesn’t have to be religious. For me, I think the authority inherent in writing is very empowering.
It doesn’t really matter in this context what somebody else thinks happened because I’m the person who’s writing about it. I also think that has gotten harder as I’ve gotten [00:15:00] older. Both the meeting of the problem of finding the time and the space to write and then the challenge of writerly authority.
And that’s something that I’ve been navigating a lot in trying to write more creative non-fiction in the last couple years.
Mair: I want to take a second, when a fem person tells me they have a gift for empathy and really reframe it as a learned skill set. I think you pointed out that this comes from writing and things like that. But I think if it’s a gift then it’s something that other people can’t practice and learn. And I think that you’re a person who I’ve interacted with and you use those skills and it’s very obvious that it’s a learned skill set. So I want to give credit. That’s something that you’re good at because one becomes good at it.
Lisa: I think that’s a great insight and it’s important to recognize that. I am this way partially because my ex-husband had the observation that my parents kind of made me into a magical storyteller who could [00:16:00] fix their problems and intervene in their fights by telling a story.
And that makes my parents sound very bad. They were not, they’re very good. But, that’s definitely true. I wouldn’t say that’s even a subjective statement. And it’s interesting because one thing that my partner and I have in common, who you also know, is that he also has these qualities, and because he’s a man, I think it is more markedly obvious that they were raised up in him. Maybe the use of the term gift also comes down to how much ownership or empowerment are you taking over it versus, how much does it feel like a burden? For the most part, it hasn’t felt like a burden in my life and in my professional life, I think it is the quality for which I am most valued.
And I also think it is a quality that is so rarely quantified. You can’t really put it in a job description. And because it is feminized, it is less monetized. [00:17:00] I’m very aware of that and I even have some of my own feelings around gender and identity and the dysphoria that I felt for a really long time.
Specifically about my body may have been as much about my identity and wishing that I could engage in some of the other ways that people are in the world that don’t come as naturally to me.
Mair: Yes, I understand that. It connects to a lot of things that we’re thinking about and maybe it can connect to creative nonfiction, too. I was having trouble summarizing this recent series. I read the essays as they were coming out and when you’re reading them, time is very fluid, the subject feels connected, but fluid. This idea that when you’re writing creative nonfiction, you’re still building a character. Even with that, it felt like I was discovering things in real time [00:18:00] with the speaker of these essays. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what inspired you to start this series, what the process was like, because it feels very different having things come out in a series that way.
Lisa: Because my training is as a fiction writer, I think I have spent much less time thinking and learning about the idea that in creative nonfiction, you have to create a character for yourself. I’m sure that happens.
I think that is inherently part of writing, but it’s just kind of interesting because I can say with total honesty that I have devoted almost no conscious thought to that in writing those essays, although I also agree that I’ve been doing that. So that’s just sort of like an interesting, weird writing problem. I just wonder if someone has an MFA in CNF, who’s doing most of their work in that area. Although at this point, obviously I’ve consumed a lot of teaching on that. I just wonder if it’s different for them.
So, my beloved mom passed away [00:19:00] from cancer in February 2020, right before the start of the Covid Pandemic in the United States. And her death was both quick and scary and surprising and also somehow long and drawn out and grueling.
It had to do with basically a missed cancer recurrence that, you know, we thought she’d been in remission from breast cancer for two years following all kinds of other drama, mastectomy, chemotherapy. And then it turned out that the cancer had never actually gone away and had just mutated in her system.
And by the time they detected it again, she had lost all of her mobility and was within three months of dying. I would think most people would describe the experience of their parents’ death as extremely difficult and traumatic. In my case, I was just so close to my mom and I had also always had a fear of her dying that was sort of my elemental, primal fear. [00:20:00] So it was extremely profound and in the wake of it, I kind of only wanted to write about it. I mean, I had already been working on my novel, but like I didn’t really feel drawn into it. And within six months of her dying, I wrote these two essays and I felt really strongly about them.
And one was about my mom’s death and also about all the Chicago style deep dish pizza we ate while she was dying. Which had always been a celebratory food for my family and suddenly became extremely affiliated with sitting in a hospital room at Northwestern. And then, the other one was about this relationship I had with this other writer where this person became my friend and it was at a time when I was really sad and miserable. I remember feeling this kind of inappropriate level of gratitude for this friendship. And then, of course, it got weird and charged and [00:21:00] like, you know, romantic/sexual and then I really detached from it. And then, years later, I started feeling like there was something not good about this relationship, but to this day I still struggle to really characterize what it was. And there are a lot of obvious ways I could interpret it, but none of them are quite right. So I wrote an essay about that and you know, the pizza mom dying essay and to that point in my writing career, everything I’d ever written for the most part, with some exceptions.
Like my first book, which is not published, but most things, especially shorter things, I would write it and then I would send it to some literary magazines, and then eventually someone would publish it, and then I would have a cycle of completion with it. And then, you know, maybe that would be part of a book or I would do something else but that was what I was used to doing and nobody would publish these essays. And, I’ve thought about this a lot because this is now three years ago and seems to have had an outsized impact on my life and my writing practice. And in some ways it feels really silly. And I think there’s things [00:22:00] that you could say about why this happened.
Number one is maybe they just weren’t that good, but also, I think I had become a lot less wide reaching in my seeking publication. I used to send my work to fifty places, and I just didn’t really wanna do that. And I kind of had like a much shorter list of publications that I wanted to publish in.
I might have gone wider, but I just became so discouraged by this experience and it kind of started to center around a sense that like nobody cared. Maybe no one does care and that’s okay. But, anyway, it really got in my head for a long time and I tried to figure out what to do.
And I went back to work on my book and I worked on other projects, but I was possessed of this feeling of just like, this does matter and there has to be a way for me to write about it. Whatever my relationship with writing is, it’s not just about personal writing. [00:23:00] There has always been some component of sharing in it. And so when I was pregnant, I worked really, really hard to finish a draft of my novel before my baby was born, and I always have these extremely punishing and rigid creative requirements for myself. And so I was like, the book will be done and it’ll be under contract with a publisher before I give birth or shortly after.
And then that’ll be done and I can just move on to the next thing. But that’s not what happened. I finished the book and ultimately decided that I needed to do another pass on it, and I had a really outsized emotional reaction to that. Which I’m saying just because I feel like transparency about the emotional intensity of a creative process is important, and from my perspective, and someone listening to this may disagree. I don’t really feel that I experienced postpartum depression or anxiety. I continue to feel pretty jazzed about [00:24:00] parenthood, which can be very exhausting, but the hard thing about parenthood is just living under capitalism and for me, not being able to spend my time as I might like.
At the same time I was dealing with new parenthood, I was in this creative ennui torpor. And my partner finally suggested that I start a journal, which I looked down on with great disdain because I’ve never been a journaler. He was just trying to get me to stop yelling about it, I’m sure, and he also had beautiful ideas about the power of journaling.
And eventually writing there made me start to feel like maybe it was possible, this project of talking about the past and my mom and my life before my life now, which does feel quite distinct, was bigger than one essay.
And you know, I hadn’t really been a newsletter person and I think I probably had some not nice feelings about newsletters and then I just felt like, “well, gotta do something” [00:25:00] and that’s where the newsletter came from. It also bears mentioning, I wrote many of them, the first six or seven, in a week. I sent them out on Fridays and I wrote them from Friday to Friday. And that was a crazy endeavor, but I think that that could be defined in one way as one kind of experiment. And then in January I got sick and it took me a couple weeks to get one out. Since then, it definitely has been weirder. And it’s actually been over two months since I sent one out. As I speak, it might be three months, but I have three more to write and I have a lot of shame and embarrassment around that, but also I’ve just kind of tried to go with it.
I’ve been working on it for long enough that I’ve had time to just think about how what I’ve been doing is different. A lot of newsletters are like, “this is a newsletter and I’m gonna say some things” and so I can create an inferiority complex around that too.
Mair: So [00:26:00] you’re core faculty in the MFA program for three years and now you’re the chair, for a year and some change. And the MFA’s motto is Community Not Competition. And it has this social justice framework. And there are people that I’ve talked to that have done MFAs and they’re like, “What does that mean? What does it mean? It has a social justice framework? How does that fit in?”
And for me, what I really came away with was that it’s an ongoing project, but, part of that project is foundationally that everybody’s story is important and everybody should have the space and time, even within a capitalist system to build the life a writer, if that is what they want, and if they see the world that way. But I also think that can be what you were speaking to, intention with publishing and what is consumable and what people [00:27:00] will then put out into the world.
Lisa: I think that my own experiences as a writer and in the world of writing gave me an inherent attraction to, or interest in, issues pertinent to social justice before I had that frame to talk about them because however, so much as my own writing is connected to me as a person. It comes out of my practice as a reader and what has always entranced me about reading is the opportunity to enter other subjectivities and other experiences, and that to me is just sort of the highest pleasure and most interesting thing in the world.
I used to say this thing sounds kind of sanctimonious, but I really believe it. Which is that intimacy is the highest human experience. Coming to know the inside of another person and their challenges and their experiences feels very [00:28:00] sacred to me, and that quality of travel and transport and empathy that is inherent to reading makes it a tool of social justice because we become much less likely to be complicit in systems of marginalization and oppression if we truly understand the subjectivity of people very different from us.
And, in some ways my own writing is very personal and intimate. And at the same time, it’s absolutely constellated in an awareness of the different categories and classes that I occupy. I don’t think that you need to have an experience to be moved by it or interested in it, but I think that if you don’t have the opportunity to learn about other people and their experiences you become more isolated and ossified in your own subject position.
And I think that’s where a lot of violence and pain [00:29:00] begins. An understanding that my own experience is very different from other people’s experience, and yet that I can connect with them and ideally be a tool of good.
Through conveying the universality of writing’s ability to give voice to these widely disparate experiences that we’re all having on this planet, it has definitely charged my career as a writer with a sense of purpose because I do really believe in the power of reading and writing to destroy hegemony and liberate people from systems of oppression. But what I mean when I say that is that, to some extent, a lot of it is a thought game, right? And we see that with all kinds of tools that are being used to marginalize and to oppress. I mean, populations of people who have become really vulnerable to the way that [00:30:00] algorithms reward high engagement with controversial content.
I know that on some level, those people, and I don’t absolve them of any of their bad actions or beliefs, but on some level, they got there by looking for connection and looking for stories that told them something about their lives. I’ve definitely, on many occasions, learned a story that explained something about myself to me in a way that felt really sacred and important. It’s not always like, oh, here’s a story about a white woman in her late thirties having a baby in L.A. or whatever. It’s often quite different from that. Many of the writers that I love best are people whose lives are really different from mine, and yet there’s some great human commonality in there.
I remember reading Andrei Platonov’s novella Soul, which is a really wild, and sort of Soviet psychedelic misery story that I endorse.
I was reading it in a class taught by Francine Prose at N.Y.U. and there’s a moment where the [00:31:00] characters go out into the evening to have a sigh. And she was just like, “I read that and I thought, that’s me. I’m like that.” And you can engage in time travel, you can engage in repair through reading, and through just writing honestly about your experiences and your story. I think writing is terribly bodied. It pulls us into our bodies, even though sometimes when I’ve been at my computer for eight hours, I do really feel like a jellyfish on stilts, which my mom used to say is what humans are. But it forces us to contend with the experiences that our bodies have, and it also gives us tools for understanding ourselves outside of our personal context. For me, being in charge of a program with a social justice mandate means being the administrator who makes room for and creates space and encourages the expression of these really different subjective experiences [00:32:00] through education in writing that hopefully empowers us in that direction.
And it’s my hope that whether it’s my writing, or my teaching, or my administrative work, that I’m making the world a place that is more hospitable and more curious and more interested in each other and less walled off and separate.
Being the parent of a little baby makes me think about how vulnerable all humans are, and we continue to be vulnerable to failures of understanding even after we’re bigger and stronger. It’s in writing and in other places, in the arts, in education that I think we have the opportunity to become vulnerable to each other, and in that way, really explore the possibilities of a world beyond the [00:33:00] categories that oppress and contain us.
Mair: Going back to how impactful writing can be in real time on the body. In opposition to the idea that the brain and the body are disconnected, really as a site where the brain and the body often come together. I cry a lot when I’m writing in a way that I don’t cry usually. As soon as I’m on the page there’s a connection that’s made, and it’s challenging when we are contending with survival to make space for that. Do you have similar experiences in the body when you’re writing? Then, how do you create space and time and care for yourself and focus on having room for the creative process in your life?
Lisa: I definitely do a lot of that. My writing feels kind of antisocial. By which I [00:34:00] mean, I feel like my writerly self is someone who does kind of need to be squirreled away in a hole. I’m doing all kinds of beastly things. An interview that Lydia Kiesling did with Nicole Chung where she talks about how she’s a parent of two young children and how she came up with this thing where she goes to a super cheap Airbnb in a place where nobody wants to go and just lives on fried chicken for a weekend. And that’s how she does writing. And I felt both recognition and also jealousy, because my current place that I get to write is the Jung Institute of Los Angeles. There was a very sort of magical thing that happened in my life, which is that I wanted to receive Jungian analysis and had never been able to afford it.
And then my friend, who is a painter, Axel Wilhite, told me that it was possible to apply to be a patient of the clinic at the Jung Institute, which means that you’re being analyzed by a trainee and you can receive the therapy at a reduced rate. [00:35:00] And so I’ve been doing that for a little while and I was talking to my therapist about my struggles finding a place to work. And she said, “Well, you could work here.” And it was already kind of magical to be doing therapy in person after a very long time, including long pre-pandemic not, but there’s just this tiny little wonderful library and bookstore, which is open to the public all day, every day.
And so one day a week I go to therapy and then I sit in this room and there’s things about it that are unpleasant. It is actually hard on your body to sit for that long. I just finished this massive revision of my second novel. And there is a kind of boredom that sets in. There’s a sense of lowered horizons almost, where you’re just like, oh, gotta just get through this thing. I have declared to my partner many times in this writing process, “I’ll probably never write again,” or “I don’t really know if I’m a writer in this process.” And that seems a little crazy, you know, like even five minutes later [00:36:00] when I calm down. But it feels very real. And I think a lot of it has to do with the energy that is creative is being moved through the body.
I’ve also, you know, I’ve written about things that upset me very much. I’ve written without looking at the screen, I’ve written feeling pain, hyperventilating, and I also, if I can say something absolutely like megalomaniacal. I believe that the humor in my writing is under remarked upon. So I’ve written lots of things that I think are very funny.
I always just wanna go towards the thing that’s making me feel, even if the feeling is bad. I feel like the worst thing in life for me is not feeling anything. And that is really how I would describe, in some ways, depression and it can lead to this kind of panicky boredom. But I don’t really think that boredom is real. I think that we are full of curiosity and joy, and that [00:37:00] we become separated from those things by the forces that we live with and under. So, my writing is far from ecstatic. I’m sitting down and just joyously leaping out of my seat, thinking about the tree I’m describing or whatever.
But it does feel like the really good thing that I can do, that only I can do in the way that I can do it, and that it is the thing that makes all other things possible.
Mair: So you developed this sense of being a writer early on in life. You have learners and writers that come into the MFA program that probably have these similar moments that you’re speaking to, of “Am I even a writer?” So what would you say to someone who wanted to be a writer but was dealing with that[00:38:00] imposter feeling?
Lisa: So I think it’s really, really important to recognize that people feel or do not feel entitled to tell their stories or to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be your story, for reasons that are really complex, and that also writing is very, very hard to do in line with everything else in a human life. I often just reflect on the fact that the reason that I am in the position that I’m in and run the programs that I run is because I’m a writer. And yet having those jobs makes writing much harder.
But at the same time they’re not just meaningful and important to me. They’re also literally how I sustain myself. I used to joke, kind of, about wishing I was like a dentist or something, because there are writers who are dentists or, you know, I’m just thinking about fields that are really not that close to writing.
Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman, that’s not [00:39:00] my life. My life is one where my work is writing and my work is also helping other writers write, and that can just feel super intense. And yet I am in a more privileged position than pretty much anyone else who comes into the program, just in terms of feeling seated in their writerly identity.
So I think a big thing for me is acknowledging all the parts of life that are not literally and physically writing itself, that are broadly writing. Reading is writing, thinking about writing is writing, experientially, kind of dreaming your way towards the thing that you will write is writing, having conversations about writing is writing.
And it is the work of a life. It’s not just one thing or one book or one project. And then the other thing is, something that some people may know about me is that I’m an admiring scholar of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And some of that comes back [00:40:00] to a section of the Book of Mormon, which is, if this is wrong, please forgive me, but I believe it’s Alma chapter four, verse 27, where, God says, “If you don’t believe in me, just make an experiment of your faith. Just try it out.” I really like that because, I don’t really see a statement like that in other holy books, and I think it’s a great idea where it’s like, well, if you aren’t a writer, as you’re so convinced, why don’t you just try? Why don’t you just see how it goes?
And that doesn’t mean, I think people get the, like, you know, the Dan Brown nightmare routine in their heads, they’re like, every morning at four I’ll be doing the push ups and then I’ll be writing. And then I’ll be publishing the Da Vinci code. Dan Brown didn’t know that was gonna happen when he was writing the Da Vinci Code, you know, that’s just something that happened.
I have to tell myself this all the time, and I don’t believe it a lot of the time, but the only thing you control is like the next thing you do and you can’t say if your writing is [00:41:00] ever going to become a best seller or if it’s ever going to be adapted into a movie or these things that maybe when you’re approaching writing from far away seem like something that you might aim for or dream of, but you can guarantee that your writing exists, which is something that I struggle with all the time, actually making my writing exist.
And that it touches other people and there’s a million ways for it to touch other people. To me, that’s all it takes to be a writer. And then there’s a lot of other things you can do, but you don’t have to do any of those things. You don’t even have to get an MFA, but you definitely could and I think what an MFA is, is an opportunity to take that experiment seriously.
Take yourself seriously and believe in this project, which may well lead to more professionalization as a writer, but also will [00:42:00] lead to so many other things that you can’t really anticipate. And that sense of possibility, that sense of openness, that sense of vastness is to me the opposite of, and also the best weapon against oppression.
Mair: Cool. Wrap it up. Put a bow on it. Good night. Well, I feel like I get to take that answer home and put it in my pocket, in my heart, and hold onto it. So I appreciate that and I appreciate you being here. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Oh, thank you so much for having me. That’s been my pleasure.
Jasper Nighthawk: The Antioch MFA in Creative Writing that Mair graduated from, and that Lisa chairs is offered in a low-residency format with 10-day residencies in Los Angeles every June and December.
We will link to more information in our show notes. We’ll also link there to Lisa’s novel, Open Me and her newsletter, Not Knowing How. We post these show notes on our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.
Our editor is Johanna Case. Our guest host this week is Mair Allen. I am your regular host, Jasper Nighthawk. Our digital designer is Mira Mead. Jen Mont is our web content coordinator. Sierra-Nicole E. Debinion. Carrie Hawthorne, Stephanie Paredes, and Georgia Birmingham are our work study interns. A special thanks to Karen Hamilton, Amelia Bryan, and Melinda Garland.
Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time. And don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity from Antioch University. This has been the Seed Field Podcast.