Where do you find inspiration lately?
It’s hard finding inspiration with what is happening in our world, waking up to a daily fresh hell, isn’t it? But I see and listen to people who still get up and do what they have to do. We all are. I see writers creating incredible work in response to our government and politicians and laws that are creating havoc on even the basic of human rights. I find inspiration in those who don’t fear speaking out and continue to create beautiful writing or art in the ugly faces of society.
Where did you write most of your book? Why?
I wrote my book in scattered pieces within various times over a period of five years. The first two years were during my time working at my job and raising my son. It was hard finding time to write, but I figured it out. I had to sneak sections at a time, which is also why writing flash fiction is so great, but also time management was a must. I read a lot of great writing, so it was easy to be inspired. I had Kathy Fish as my thesis mentor. Before that, I was part of an incredible writing group. Kathy, as well as my writing group, helped me shape a lot of the pieces in this collection and encouraged me by having me read other writers whose work she knew would show me how to shape some of my writing. Eric Baus, Khadijah Queen, and Chip Livingston also helped me with the poetry I was writing. Writers such as Ai Ogawa, Mathias Svalina, Zach Schomburg, Lucia Berlin, and Jean Toomer (to name just a few). But in the quiet moments, when it was just me facing my own words, it wasn’t so easy. There were aspects in my own life I needed to face and write down. That was the hard part. It still is. As writers, it’s difficult not to spill pieces of ourselves into our work. But as I continue to read and learn I realize this is what makes our writing our own. We can emulate, but your voice is unique to you.
What was something surprising you learned while writing this book?
To say I learned a lot about myself sounds cliché, but it’s true, and I think that’s what anyone who is writing should be doing. We should always be learning. Even if we avoid writing about ourselves, or trauma, or a difficult subject, the root of our writing is within us, always. I think as working writers, those who have a routine job and kids and relationships, it’s hard to find time to write. It’s hard to hear our voice in our writing. I read so many amazing writer’s work and yes, I learned techniques in my MFA program as well that I will never forget and am grateful for, but the one thing that stands out to me the most is the courage that so many writers, both passed on or alive, have to be able to put their trauma, their hearts, and their voices out into the world. I learned about humanity, but not through my writing, through reading what others have done. And maybe, I can see little pieces of my humanity in my writing too. Pieces that I have been reluctant to share because it hurts, and it’s hard to trust the world with your heart, isn’t it? But in reading others I felt their pain and their heart, and I always hope to do the same with my own writing. But I am also reluctant with my writing. I know others that are too, and that’s frustrating. If we struggle with being small, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Does our voice even matter? Writing is such a complicated relationship. Trusting the receiving end of our work is probably the hardest part of putting our writing out there. I know my voice and I know what I want to write about, yet, I need to learn to trust that my voice has a connection to something bigger. Writing about trauma and past experiences not only refreshes the moment but also reminds me of what I went through and yes, managed to push forward, but the secret space inside me full of doubt and mistrust says don’t. Writing this book taught me to say fuck it, write it anyway.
Describe your struggles and strengths as a writer.
I think as writers it’s our job to not only use our words as tools to reflect what our world and society are about but also to never choose silence. When we are told to remain a respectful silence to keep our reputation clean from controversy, then we are breaking our responsibility to write about the chaos and heartbreak of our culture, our society, and what is happening in our world. So where is the line drawn? I don’t think there can be a line if we are being truly honest with our writing. This is less a description of my struggles in general terms in answer to this question. It’s more of an obligation I feel struggling with my own voice in my writing knowing that the world can be an apathetic ear when it comes to acceptance of what is deemed not “normal” or “status quo,” despite what many great authors have done in the past and are continuing to do in the future. How many beautiful and important voices have and continue to be purposely muted because of sexual orientation or the color of their skin. How numerous journals and big book presses continue to publish only white writers and white male writers as the norm. How important it is to not only call these journals and presses out, but also to recognize the lack of representation with black, brown, female, and LGBTQ authors as reflective of a labeling system that doesn’t try to push past perpetuating grouping writers of color or sexual orientation together rather than allowing them their own space, individually, like the majority of white writers that you find. As long as agents, publishers, and readers continue to only publish, promote, and read white writers then these voices will continue to lack representation, space, and publishing with their work than those that don’t face racism, sexual bias, or misogyny.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. What works and what doesn’t? What doesn’t, but you keep trying it anyway?
Sometimes I write very sub-conscious thought to paper, which takes more time when going back and editing. Yet, (and I know I’m not the only one who does this,) when you’re just waking up from a dream or a nightmare, and there is that in-between space where you aren’t sure if you’re awake or still dreaming, and thoughts or flashes of imagery come to you, those are what I want to write down. Maybe it’s a matter of not thinking too much about what we write, just get it down on paper and worry about what you want to keep during the editing process. There is a lot to be said about learning new ways to write your voice from other influences as well. Film, architecture (as seen in Steven Dunn’s novel Water & Power), language, music, sensory awareness, and even our own neurological or psychological aspects as well. There is beauty in obscureness, in our struggles that we should call upon as empowerment rather than an obstacle in writing. Having dyslexia was a hidden embarrassment for me throughout school that I now use to my advantage when writing. There is strength in the struggle, we just have to figure out how to use that within and when shaping and using our voice.
When did you realize you were a writer?
The best answer is since as far back as I can remember. When I was around eight years old, I was always writing stories and “novels” in spiral notebooks. My dad bought me an electric typewriter so I could be a real writer, and I started typing up stories faster than I could have ever written them down. But in junior high, I found myself alone a lot and used this time to write stories as well. It was a way to see my voice, and even if no one else read my words, I knew they existed. I knew they were there. That’s when I knew, I mean really knew, I wanted to be a writer (even though I already was, in a sense, even at a very young age).
Any suggestions for fellow writers?
Speak your truth. Whether it’s layered throughout an essay or hidden behind images in a prose poetry piece; speak your truth. We may not always trust the world to accept our words with admiration our encouragement, but there are voices out there that need to hear your words, to feel your heartache, and to share your struggles. These voices may not be the majority, but they are far more important in terms of connecting with those who champion you, who share your successes and understand what you feel are your failures. These are the people you want in your circle. Seek out those writers who are different than you, who have something to say other than what the world wants you to believe is acceptable or “normal.” These are the voices that matter and that will teach the most. Empathy and knowing when to step outside our own comfort space and listen are the two most important things a writer can possess.
Hillary Leftwich is the author of the forthcoming collection Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock from CCM Press (Civil Coping Mechanisms) in 2019. She is the poetry and prose editor at Heavy Feather Review and organizes/hosts At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series in Denver. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming in print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Hobart, Literary Orphans, Matter Press, and others. Found her online at hillaryleftwich.com. Photo of Leftwich by Jay Halsey.