Dueling Writers & Honing the Creative Impulse: A Conversation with Beth Ann Fennelly

Crooked Letter Interview # 10

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Dueling Writers & Honing the Creative Impulse: A Conversation with Beth Ann Fennelly

This conversation with Beth Ann Fennelly is the ninth in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by the Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd.  The following is a brief excerpt from their recent conversation at the University of Mississippi, familiarly known as Ole Miss.

Beth Ann Fennelly directs the MFA Program at Ole Miss, where she was named the 2011 Outstanding Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. Her work has three times been included in THE BEST AMERICAN POETRY series. Fennelly has published three full-length poetry books, including OPEN HOUSE, TENDER HOOKS, and UNMENTIONABLES, all published by W. W. Norton. She has also published a book of nonfiction, GREAT WITH CHILD. She and her husband, the L.A. Times Book award winner Tom Franklin, co-wrote the novel, TILTED WORLD, forthcoming in October 2013.


Redd: You write often about pregnancy and motherhood. Did you ever think that you were mothering a literary child as you were collaborating with your husband on the writing of the forthcoming novel, Tilted World?

Fennelly: No, not so much. I’ve heard the metaphor a lot that writing a book is kind of like giving birth, but the people I’ve most often heard that metaphor from tend to be men.

[Both Fennelly and Redd laugh]

There are some similarities, but a lot of differences too.

Redd:  I’m interested in the process because I interviewed Steve Barthelme recently who wrote the collaborative piece of nonfiction, Double Down, together with his brother Rick. He talked a bit about this process of putting together that book. Like you said, writers usually work in a lonely space. So this collaborative work is a really intriguing prospect that lots of writers seem to be doing these days. Do you mind going into more detail about the process?

Fennelly: The novel has two point of view characters. There’s a female point of view character who’s a bootlegger. The male point of view character is a revenue agent. So you can see the natural conflict. When we began the novel, I was purely writing from the female character’s point of view, while Tommy was writing from the male character’s point of view. It was actually going pretty slowly, partly because Tommy was out on book tour for his novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. We were making some headway, but not a lot. It actually became a lot more fun and started going more smoothly when we started doing what we called dueling laptops. This is where we would be writing together in the same room, side by side, each on our own laptop. We’d start with the idea: okay we know we need this scene on the levee, and we know this person has to arrive on the scene, and this conversation has to take place. He’d be writing the scene on his laptop, and I’d be writing it on mine. After a while we’d stop and read our parts to each other. Sometimes we’d take all of one person’s, sometimes we’d combine some, or do something different entirely from an idea one of us had gotten from the writing. When we started doing that, the writing became more fun and surprising things were happening.

Redd: When you say dueling laptops, it reminds me of dueling pianos. It sounds like a musical composition in a lot of ways.

Fennelly: I’ve always been jealous of what musicians have when they play together on stage because writers don’t get that. You don’t get the ability to feed off of someone else on stage, or be inspired by someone else, or have that idea of a group making something together. We had that a little bit with writing this novel.

Redd: Much of your solo writing has been done on impulse. I think of Great with Child, for instance. You weren’t thinking toward publication with that epistolary book written to a former student. Likewise, you weren’t thinking toward publication with some of the poems in Tender Hooks; you were just trying to work out the experience of new motherhood in your own personal life.

We’re of course talking to an academic audience at Prairie Schooner. I’ve spent so much time in workshop myself, going through these drafts, meticulously trying to make them work. Let me give you a quote. In opposition to how you approached your early writing you say, “Now when an idea comes to me, it seems to bring with its own form, even line length, somehow. If I’m paying attention, it’s all there in the original impulse.” It seems to me that learning to write well comes through that original impulse. Would you agree, and what goes into cultivating that original impulse?

Fennelly: I honestly think just through practice. I remember, for example, when I was a younger writer, I would see all these people writing these poems about the great myths. I would think, “Oh, that’s what big serious poetry is. I want to write big serious poetry. I’m going to write my Perseus poem.” Those weren’t good poems I was writing, and I think it was because the impulse was adopted, forced in a way to achieve an effect. There was a kind of falseness to the very seed of the endeavor that poisoned the endeavor, somehow. As I went on with my writing process, naturally I became a bit more confident. And part of that was beginning to listen to my own voice, which is how one creates a voice, by listening to one’s own impulses and interests. Not by dismissing one interest as, “Oh, that’s not serious, or that’s not going to make a good poem.” I started paying attention to the very things I was gazing at. Alice Fulton says of a poem, “Attention is a form of homage.” What you are looking at, whether it’s in your life or someone else’s life. If you’re interested in it enough, and you’ve worked hard enough to maintain your writing practice and have your tools sharp, you can build something beautiful from the most common subjects. Realizing that gave me confidence to just pay attention to what I was paying attention to. After I started doing that, I started honing the impulse a bit more. Now I don’t question when it comes; I just start writing.

Redd: What lessons does this kind of attention to an original impulse have, or what can it say toward the modern workshop model, how we’re going about teaching students nowadays.

Fennelly: There’s a lot I like about the workshop model, and I understand it’s fashionable to diss it. I myself learned a tremendous amount through workshopping.

I think the idea is to do it for a while, and then to stop doing it. To learn what you can, what the workshop has to teach you, and then to stop before you get overtaught by it, perhaps. For example, when I teach workshops, I often give my students assignments. It can be an assignment to write in a particular form or to model something after a particular poem, a list of words they have to include, or the number of words in the opening sentence: anything crazy or arbitrary, which might seem like I’m forcing someone to write something they don’t want to write, but I’ve often found that these restrictions can be liberating in a way that the creative mind leaps over to arrive at a solution. It’s just like playing basketball: you don’t lower the net to get the basket; you become a better player to get the ball in. I think suggesting to a student to try to write in this or that way can help them, can help them to perhaps find those impulses that we were just talking about.

Redd: I have been talking to many authors about crossing genres because that’s something I like to do: I write poetry, I write fiction, I do interviews, and I write music. I’m particularly interested — I know that this was impulsive: your writing of the letters — how was your experience of writing the letters about motherhood different from your writing the poetry about it?

Fennelly: As you say, Great with Child, was sort of an accident. I never intended to write a book about motherhood. I certainly would never put myself in a position to give advice to anybody because I think motherhood is so tricky and so full of questions, I wouldn’t presume to be an expert who has answers. But I actually think that’s why people sometimes have responded to that book because it’s not an expert giving expert advice; it’s someone in the middle of it puzzling through it. I guess the difference is –and I’ve thought about the difference in terms of poetry and nonfiction a lot – Why do I sometimes feel like something wants to be an essay, versus why do I feel something wants to be poetry. It might be a difference between feeling something through and thinking something through. The poetic impulse is an impulse of emotion. For me at least, essays are something I want to think through or come to understand intellectually. I’m interested in that very question myself, the cross genre impulse, because sometimes something wants to come out one way and not the other, and you can’t force it into a different way.

I’ve read what other people have said about this. I think Mary Sarton has a lot of interesting things to say in her Journal of a Solitude. One of the things she says is if she was in prison and no one would read anything she wrote again, she’d still write poems, but she wouldn’t write novels or essays. For her, poetry is something she writes for herself, and prose is something she has to communicate to other people with. I think there is something in what she said that I respond to. I don’t think I want to stop writing prose, but there is always an intended audience. Even with Great with Child, someone was receiving my letters. I was writing to someone. When I’m writing an essay, I’m often thinking through something and imagining other people reading it, whereas with poetry I’m really only talking to myself initially.


A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize and finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and interviews have or will appear in The Oxford American, Fifth Wednesday, Fiction Southeast, Deep South Magazine, and Briefly Noted.