Writing Process Blog Tour

by Lauren Westerfield

From the cover of "Gray's Anatomy," 1974.

From the cover of “Gray’s Anatomy,” 1974.

The past few weeks have been unusually blessed. First, I got a delightful out-of-the-blue email from Mary-Kim Arnold, who I had the happy fortune to work with at last year’s Tin House Writer’s Workshop. This would have been a lovely surprise under any circumstances. As it was, she pretty much rocked my world by requesting my help in her latest literary coup, succeeding Roxane Gay as Essays Editor of The Rumpus. Not long after that, I heard from Mary-Kim again—this time with an invitation to take part in this thing, MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR. At the time, I didn’t have an active blog. This was about two weeks ago. I did, however, have the longstanding intention to START a blog—a place to house my ideas and snippets and research and observations towards this anatomical memoir project that I’ve been dancing around for the past year.

So, thanks to Mary-Kim, I am now a) an Assistant Essays Editor at the Rumpus; b) authoring this blog, The Lyric Body; and c) privileged to read, re-read and share MKA’s stunning work, which can be found in The Rumpus, The Pinch, Tin House, HTML Giant and elsewhere.

I’ve started to think of her as my literary fairy godmother.


 

MY WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOUR

1. What are you working on?

Mainly the so-called “anatomical memoir:” a sprawling, half-imagined container for all the essays I’ve been working on over the past year. Most of these are personal, with elements of memoir and research revolving around empathy, memory, anatomy, illness, aesthetics and identity. Oh, and my mother. (Just a few things, right? Way to narrow it down, I know.) I’ve got this scheme to use the human fetal development process as a structural device for the pieces, breaking the book into 9 sections that each bear a thematic focus to mirror which parts of the body are “getting made” from one month to the next.

Partially in order to flesh out these themes, and partially in an effort to get out of my apartment, meet other writers and explore some fresh material, I’ve been taking classes through WWLA (Writing Workshops Los Angeles). So far, it’s been an amazing and super productive experience—one that has me dipping a toe into the world of flash nonfiction, thanks to some great exercises and feedback from the group.

Finally, I’m coming back from a lengthy freelancing hiatus and ditching the bulk of my copywriting, editing and ghostwriting gigs for article pitches. It’s awesome and scary and totally overwhelming: few things give me a bigger thrill than sending off a pitch, or landing an assignment (or that moment right AFTER landing said assignment when I realize I know nothing and have so, so much research to do)—and then getting giddy because I love research, because digging for ideas beneath the surface is breathing past the ribs and down deep into the diaphragm, where the breath does work, where it expands and opens me up to possibility.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Who knows? I love how wide open the genre of creative nonfiction has become in recent years. But I do know this: the more I come to understand myself as a writer, the less I imagine in my work to be “experimental.” I have a thing for artists and revolutionaries—I always want to sidle up next to them, to surround myself with their energy. But my work is not rebellious. I would say it is, instead, an attempt at reconciliation: between the world of mind/body consciousness and the very humanist, empirical world of intimacy, of biology, of facts, of objects. Right now my primary goal is to unite a lyrical sensibility + holistic perspective + grounded, gritty details…to balance beauty with the will to edit myself, as Maggie Nelson once said, “into boldness.”

3. Why do you write what you do?

I’ve spent the last eight or nine years fascinated with (and exasperated by) the trick of balancing intellectual stimulus and physical health. So often in my life, it has been one or the other. Writing this struggle down on paper, trying to make sense of it, to use words as a means of knowing my body better, yields the closes thing to unity I’ve felt thus far. I know there is so much more to read and explore and delve into; but for now, my preoccupation is getting this balance thing, its mysteries, its questions, down on paper.

4. How does your writing process work?

Erratically, I’m afraid. Though lately, I’ve been much more consistent. I’ve surrounded my workspace with books and images exploring the body: “Gray’s Anatomy;” “The Body: Photographs of the Human Form;” “The Anatomy and Physiology Learning System.” I’m doing my best to write daily, even if that sometimes means writing every other day, or maybe cramming in a 1,000 word power session at the end of the week. WWLA keeps me accountable (we have weekly assignments and end up submitting between 25-35 pages of additional work in each class); so for that, as well as teachers like Chris Daley and Margaret Wappler, I’m eternally grateful. I write best in the morning, or on a deadline, or in the evening alone in my apartment with a Session IPA and an open window and some Cat Power or Beats Antique playing in the background (which may or may not be happening right now!). When all else fails, a long walk through the greener, shadier side streets of my Silver Lake neighborhood is the perfect cure for a foggy brain.


Now I pass this along to the next three.

I met Tonya Canada three years ago, also at Tin House, this time in a workshop led by Stephen Elliott. This woman is fierce. She loves sharks. She talks back. She holds her own against a bottle of cab. Best of all, she writes essays that are hilarious yet poignant, as eccentric and yet utterly human as her subjects, as sharp and fast paced and ridiculously smart as she is.

Last year’s workshop marked the advent of mid-week karaoke. At first, I was skeptical. There were white guys rapping badly, with long bouts of empty airspace in between. Then Thaddeus Gunn took the stage and rocked “La Bamba” like nobody’s business. I became an instant fan. Several days later, Gunn held me rapt again—only this time it was at the participant readings where he shared his flash essay “Slapstick,” a piece as crisp and devastating as “La Bamba” had been joyous. Read his fiction and nonfiction at Brevity and Smokelong, and keep an eye out for new writing up soon at Tin House.

Kim Young is a poet and a beautiful human who I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my latest creative nonfiction class through Writing Workshops Los Angeles. From day one, I was struck by her voice, her pacing, her gift for intimate detail and depth of inquiry. Kim’s books include Night Radio, winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, and Divided Highway. She is the founding editor of the poetry journal Chaparall, and teaches as CSU Northridge.

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