Writing life

I was delighted that Lauren Apfel, the debate editor and contributing blogger at Brain, Child magazine, asked me to take part in a writer’s blog hop on process. Lauren is brilliant and incisive and has written any number of essays that I’ve admired, but I discovered her through a piece she wrote for the Guardian on how she wished she’d given her children her surname. You can read more of her work at Omnimom. It was lovely of her to ask me about my process, considering mine could best be summed up as “glacial”.

What am I writing or working on?

I just finished writing a difficult essay on agnostic theism (through a Catholic lens), my yearning for more spirituality, and how I’m navigating the grey area with my children. The piece was a twin at conception, written as a project on contrasting perspectives with Lauren Apfel, who is Jewish, but raising her children as atheists. We soon found that the territory was too complex, and took our essays in separate directions, but the process of working with someone with a different perspective was really instructive. Writing is always a learning process for me, and that was certainly true here: I was forced to examine the history and evolution of my own thinking alongside my desires for my children in ways I hadn’t, at least with such rigor, before. I’ve always been drawn to mystery and uncomfortable with strictures—but what exactly does this look like in terms of religious education of children? Where does the line between reason and belief belong, and how much is it within our power to place that line in ourselves, let alone to influence as a parent? These weren’t entirely comfortable things to answer. It’s an ongoing journey for me, but one this essay had a big hand in focusing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I have a fixed genre. I started out wanting to write short literary fiction when I was in my early twenties, then I had three children very close together, and completely stopped writing for a number of years. Now I suppose I write mainly thought pieces with a personal angle on a range of subjects—creativity, belief, privacy, introversion. Often my kids are a way into the material. Sometimes they’re the entire material: I’m about to start a piece on my son’s night terrors. It is a piece about the value of instinct, really. I suppose if my work is distinct from others, it’s because it always seems to be too much of something else. Too analytical to be literary, too lyrical to be journalism, not focused enough on parenting for parenting venues…

Why do I write what I do?

The first few things I wrote after a long break were connected to my kids in some way. The period during which I wasn’t writing was one of absolute mission-engagement in terms of bringing them into the world. They fascinate me, and my own responses to them are very revealing. I suppose I also like writing about them because it feels very safe. Writing didn’t always feel this way to me; I was drawn to intimidating material when I was very young, but felt like I lacked the internal compass to tackle it. Kids have been purifying in a sense—they’ve given me a new and better lens. There’s a gentleness that I feel in myself when I write about them, an impulse to preserve and protect and explore. It’s an act of love, not a dissection.

The experience of not writing for a number of years, and immersing myself in my life, allowed for a perspective shift that has made coming back to writing satisfying. Initially I was taken with the process of ‘making meaning’, and various kinds of literary architecture. The heart was there, but I tended to circle it, getting lost in the exploration of lost-ness itself. Now I find that I can access the heart more quickly, and build out from there. I do credit parenthood with that shift.

How does my writing process work?

I would describe myself as an occasional writer only, with great periods of drift, but I’m intense about the pieces I choose to tackle. I work at home as a book publicist, and my three kids are still young, two are still preschoolers, so the idea of having a regular process is a bit of a joke, at this point. The truth is, I have too many other things that absorb and distract me, and I love to be absorbed and distracted. Every few weeks I’ll get an idea and a day to write at the same time, and something materializes. I write the brunt of my pieces fairly quickly, and then spend a lot of time picking away at the editing in the margins of my days and nights.

The talented writers I’ve chosen to invite who will blog their responses next are Lynn Lurie and Antonia Malchik.

I met Lynn Lurie in a writing workshop years ago, where we were mutually taken with each other’s stories on photography. Her latest is a forthcoming novella, Quick Kills, which focuses on a photographer, and looks at, among other things, the imprecise nature of consent. I’ve always been taken by Lynn’s ability to convey psychological states in a way that feels both raw and restrained. Along with being a writer, she’s also an attorney who volunteers as a translator and administrator on medical trips to South America that provide surgery free of charge to children. I admire her ability to extend herself in concrete and meaningful ways in the world, ways that go beyond her facility with words. And she certainly has that facility. So happy that next week she’ll be sharing her thoughts on process on her website.

I first encountered Antonia Malchik’s work in the wonderful new online magazine, Full Grown People, where she is a regular contributor. The first essay I read of hers, Acts of Faith, which centers on her visit to her family’s homeland, St. Petersburg, is easily the most heartfelt story of either faith or its absence that I’ve encountered. Her current writing interests are focused on identity and environmental issues, two things I’m also passionate about. Antonia has been a travel writer and a journalist, and is all around fascinating. I look forward to seeing what she does next. She can be found at www.antoniamalchik.com and at her blog.

10 thoughts on “Writing life

    • Ah! I hit post before finishing! You’ve pinpointed something that only came clear to me recently. One of the enormous benefits I find in writing what I do are the number of interesting minds I meet, like yours. So many richly creative people with real depth of thought and consideration about all facets of life. I love the way you think, and the way you make me think.

  1. Wonderful and so wonderfully YOU.

    This: “I suppose if my work is distinct from others, it’s because it always seems to be too much of something else. Too analytical to be literary, too lyrical to be journalism, not focused enough on parenting for parenting venues…”

    And also, this: “There’s a gentleness that I feel in myself when I write about them, an impulse to preserve and protect and explore. It’s an act of love, not a dissection.”

    It is a highlight of my life right now to write with you – in all of the forms our writing together takes – and to know you, more and more every day, through those words.

    • Thank you, Lauren–that means so much to me. The same is very much true on this end–it is a huge and valued highlight. Thanks for bringing me into this blog hop racket:)

  2. I really loved this, Debra! Especially: “The experience of not writing for a number of years, and immersing myself in my life, allowed for a perspective shift that has made coming back to writing satisfying.” We do have to live a bit to be able to write about it, right? Thank you for sharing your writing life.

    • Thanks, Zsofi–Drift has always felt inevitable to me, but it actually does seem to be an important part of the creative process, too, at least for some of us. Thank you for stopping by.

  3. Debra, this was the post that made me want to read more of your words. I love how you describe the impact parenthood has had on your writing. And this resonated deeply: “I write the brunt of my pieces fairly quickly, and then spend a lot of time picking away at the editing in the margins of my days and nights.” I’m off to find your piece on agnostic theism; how to tackle the topic of non-traditional religious identity with children is near and dear to my heart. I’ll be back…again & again.

    • Thank you so much, Dina. My essay on agnostic theism isn’t out yet–but will be later this summer. I read your Atlantic piece the other day, and really liked the complexity you get at there–the shifting tensions between tradition and belief and personal conviction can create such a tangle. I’m so glad we ‘met’!

  4. Pingback: This Writing Life | Commonplace

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s