Live at the Red Ink Series: On Making Choices in a Writing Career
Danielle Evans, Eula Biss, Sejal Shah, and Christa Parravani
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next discussion, “Desire,” will take place on March 11th at 7pm (via Zoom) and feature Jo Ann Beard (Festival Days), Katherine Angel (Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again), Dantiel W. Moniz (Milk Blood Heat), and Jeannine Ouellette (The Part That Burns).
The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel, “Choices,” which featured Danielle Evans, Eula Biss, Sejal Shah, and Christa Parravani.
Michele Filgate: I’d like to start off by asking what choices mean to each of you in your own work. What choices do you and have you considered when choosing to be a writer, when you sit down to write, and as you revise your writing?
Crista Parravani: I started off as a photographer, I did choose to study writing as an undergraduate and then I had a career as a photographer and then life happened, and I found myself in the middle of an event that caused me to be so thin that I was unable to use a heavy camera anymore. So I sat down and started writing again, which I hadn’t done since I was an undergraduate; so the choice was sort of made for me because my body would not accommodate the photography that I loved, and I found that writing fed my creative life the same way that photography did. And I didn’t look back, I got stronger, and continued to make the choice to write because I found it to be more fulfilling.
Eula Biss: I guess one of these mid-life realizations is that choices foreclose other choices, which I think at this point in my life I’m not even finding that necessarily sad or anything like that, it just seems like a fact. And it’s true in writing as well, when you make choices on the page, as you get deeper into the work you are constrained by your own choices. And that’s part of the great puzzle and struggle of a long work, is the deeper you get into it, the more choices you’ve already made, and the less choices, in some cases, are available to you. That’s part of how I feel I know when I’m done with a work, when there are almost no moves I can make anymore because I’ve made all the choices, and I’m constrained within my own decisions.
I guess I feel a little bit the same way about, you know, the choice to be a writer. When I was younger, I might have used the word sacrifice or something, but I don’t; at this point that doesn’t feel like an appropriate word. I think I feel like choosing to be a writer did foreclose certain other choices for me, and but that’s a necessary part of the process. When I was younger in my twenties, because I worked full-time and was trying to write, it meant I had no social life. I wrote evenings and weekends. That’s not true anymore, I have more time, more flexibility at this point in my life. But that was part of what the choice to be a writer meant, it was pouring time that I didn’t really have into this endeavor, or stealing time from other parts of my life. I was just reading Lewis Hyde, he was talking about the term ‘starving artist’ and he was saying we shouldn’t take that term literally—you are not literally starving, but an artist who is early in their career, early in their work, is usually starving some part of their life in order to feed the work. I think I was starving my social life when I was in my twenties in order to feed my work as an artist. But I know writers who have starved other areas of their lives in order to feed the work. Like Sejal, what did you starve?
Sejal Shah: I struggled with genre and legibility. My first book is a collection of essays, which has an opening and closing poem… I began as a poet like you, Eula, and I was thinking about the years I was teaching, the years I was a full-time tenure track professor of fiction in New York City at Marymount Manhattan College. I didn’t finish essays or stories during most of those years. I lived in New York City for an important amount of time in my life that’s not really visible in my book, so I’ve been thinking about putting together a narrative, the omissions and the silences and the erasures that are [inevitably] there. An essay in the beginning of my book called “Skin” was once a short story in my [unpublished] fiction collection. For writers of color, publishing seems to believe that we can’t make things up. Well in that particular piece, I took out a couple of sentences and then moved it over into nonfiction. However, it’s not that simple. I think you can do things in fiction that are magic, that are harder, that are different. It’s a different set of moves than nonfiction.“I feel lucky to be able to choose the different ways that I make a life as a writer, but I don’t know that I feel like I chose wanting to write.”
Danielle Evans: In the first draft, choice belongs almost entirely to characters. I think of choice in terms of what it can tell me about where there are possibilities or tensions. It’s about figuring out where the narrative possibilities are by figuring out what choices characters make. And I think my choices as a writer come in more in revision or second or third draft questions when I’m trying to make decisions about what I want the story to be. I feel like the story has to belong to itself for the first draft, and then I can sort of decide what I want to emphasize or downplay or what kind of rules I want to assign the story once I can sort of see what I think it wants to be. It feels like the question of wanting to write is like a first draft question, right, I didn’t choose that, the question of what kind of writer I’m going to be or how I can make that into a life is a choice, and also a choice that I’ve been lucky enough to have the structural conditions to have that be a choice.
Part of why it took ten years between my first book and my second book is that my mother was dying for four of them and I chose to be a daughter, and that was a more important choice than having a second book faster. But I think that there are people for whom the choice to be a writer is precluded by structural circumstances in ways that are much more long term and profound. And so, I feel lucky to be able to choose the different ways that I make a life as a writer, but I don’t know that I feel like I chose wanting to write.
MF: Eula, in Having and Being Had, you write: “I would still have plenty of work…even without my job. I would have the work of writing, the work of research, housework and yard work, and the work of caring for a child. Work, in fact, is interfering with my work, and I want to work less so that I can have more time to work…I want to give my life to labor, not work.” But being able to dedicate a life to something that you are passionate about is a privilege. I appreciated how you examined your own privilege and discussed money in this book—something that often feels like a taboo, especially in the publishing world. How has this relationship shifted for you over the years, and what advice do you have?
EB: Yeah, I think it is really important for us to acknowledge the choice to be a writer is, for most of us, it’s the choice to do something that is undervalued or unvalued totally. And so this creates all kinds of problems. One of them is it advantages people who are able to support themselves in other ways or are already economically advantaged. But I think there is also a radical, flip side to that. There are places where classist structures in our society are reproduced for writers, but then there is also, I think, radical potential of choosing to do something that you know you will never be compensated for fairly. And it’s like stepping outside of the value system that is the dominant value system in our society.
For me, it was similar to (and again this is an area where some people don’t have choice and many people don’t have choice) but for me it was similar to the choice to be a mother. Mothering is also something that is undervalued and undercompensated. Anyone who is taking care of a child, whether they are a parent or not, is undercompensated in our system. And so, choosing to do that, I feel like in some ways you’re rejecting the dominant value system; you are refusing it. But you also have to pay the rent and feed yourself. As much as I think, there are things that to me are very ideologically exciting, there are these practical problems that make it near impossible for some people to afford the luxury of the ideological excitement. And I think at this point where I arrived at a place where I felt financially secure for the first time in my adult life, I wanted to kind of investigate or interrogate whether what I was doing was a necessity, a luxury—both? And in what ways was my own class privilege enabling my art making, and in what ways could my art making undermine my own class privilege or give me a different vantage point? That’s what I was interested in in this book, among other things.
MF: Danielle, in your new collection of stories and a novella, The Office of Historical Corrections, there’s a story called “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” that centers around a male artist who apologizes to all of the women in his life he has harmed and creates an exhibit out of it called Forgiveness. In another story, “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain,” a man who is about to get married makes a decision and the way that his fiancée responds at the end of the story is surprising. In an interview with Poets and Writers you talk about a theme in your book, and I’m quoting you here: “When is it a burden to stay angry, and when is it a burden to forgive? How do we, especially as people with any kind of marginalized identity, confront constantly being asked to forgive people who’ve given no indication that they really understand what they did wrong or believe we deserved better?” These are important questions, and I’m wondering whether the questions inspired the stories to begin with? Where do you start from when you begin a short story?
DE: I don’t start with a clear sense of question, but part of knowing that a story is close to done is when I can sort of see its questions clearly, and part of knowing that these stories were a book and were in a conversation was figuring out where their questions circled back or overlapped or where they were looking at the same theme in different ways. So I do think that part of it feels like less conscious choice and more kind of revelation of where my obsessions are. I had written about half of this book and I was calling it all kinds of different things. It was supposed to be my third project and so I wasn’t really actively thinking about it and so I would sort of label it in different ways, then I’d realize the label didn’t apply.
For a while I was calling it “Present Tense Project” and I realized that was false, because not all the stories are in the present tense. But the stories all seemed to have something in common, although I kept saying it was the wrong thing they had in common. The story you mentioned was the second to last thing I wrote, and that was in some ways at the time the kind of clearest expression of the question I think a lot of the stories—even though in some ways it’s a very different story than a lot of the work in the book, it felt to me like it sort of kind of crystallized the question the stories kept asking over and over again, and that was when I was able to see the thematic throughline of the stories, and also part of the structural throughline of the stories which is also maybe about choice—in that I think a lot of these are stories about what we do with the emotional thing that we don’t have control over, be it grief or anger or somebody else’s power or something structural.
In my first book the stories followed a more conventional arc, and they were a lot of coming-of-age stories where there was a choice somebody was making and the emotional consequences of the story were attached to that choice in some hopefully unexpected way. Whereas here, I think often the emotional plot is like a flat line. Here is something I can’t do anything about, here is some grief or rage or sense of kind of structural powerlessness, and here are the things that I can control. So the story is about choices being made but the choices are being made to evade or distract from, or kind of create a semblance of order in the face of some kind of larger thing that isn’t surmountable. And so it’s a different choice structure than I think I was used to thinking about in terms of fiction.
MF: Christa, in Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood, you write: “When we talk about choice, we’ve been forced to abandon nuance. There are stories of women who need to have an abortion because their baby is incompatible with life, or because their lives are at risk. We hear those women, and we should. That quandary is neat, obvious. No woman should die to give birth. But what about the healthy pregnancies, the unwanted ones?”And in another section of the book “The very reasons I wanted that abortion—exhaustion, lack of funds, dimming sense of self-determination and confidence—were the things that made it nearly impossible for me to get one.” Can you talk about how complex/nuanced the choices surrounding women’s bodies are, and how you thought about it as you worked on this book?
CP: Yes, thank you. That’s a multi-faceted question. I want to add too that the choice to write this book was one out of necessity in a way that I never expected a book to be, for me. It broke all of the rules that I had for writing for myself, which was distance, and don’t write about your children, and all of the things that I thought I would never do. But then I found myself in this predicament where I was the mother of two children, a daughter who was six years old and a daughter who was one, and I found myself unexpectedly pregnant in the state of West Virginia where I am a professor in creative nonfiction, and I did not make enough money to have a child. And I learned all about the laws that curtail reproductive access in the United States and in red states, and I was not able to have my pregnancy terminated. And I learned all about the ways in which the curtailing of reproductive healthcare harms children; states with curtailed reproductive health care have higher rates of infant mortality, higher rates of maternal mortality, and I felt that with that knowledge, my son was born with some serious challenges and he was not properly cared for after he was born. And as I was not properly cared for, I felt that I must say something because it felt like my responsibility as a writer, and I had never imagined writing a book out of that kind of urgent need. And as a mother of three small children, my publisher said, can you write it in four months? And I could not believe that I did! I had to give up everything in order to write the book. I had no free time; I don’t know how I did it. I really wanted to be able to articulate something that I had not known about before. So I made the choice to write this book and I’m glad I made that choice.
I had an abortion when I was 20 years old in college, and that abortion allowed me to disentangle myself from an abusive relationship, and it allowed me the career that I have now. As a first-generation college student, and somebody who has never had the money to have a life outside of work, it allowed me to imagine an intellectual life for myself beyond anything that I could have imagined. When I had an abortion when I was twenty years old, it was hard, I cried. I had a year where I wanted to drop out of school; I failed my classes. I want there to be a world in which we have complex conversations about what reproductive choices mean for women and how motherhood impacts work. Like now, we have a pandemic, I have no childcare, I don’t know how I’m here right now—but I am. So when I wrote that passage I was thinking about that; I was thinking about all the ways we can reinforce women’s agencies by discussing the ways in which the choices we make to parent or not parent, you know to have a termination of pregnancy or not, are all complex and deserving of our attention in that way.
MF: Sejal, in your essay collection This Is One Way to Dance, there’s an essay called “The World Is Full of Paper” about studying with poet Agha Shahid Ali when you were an MFA student. The essay is written with love and admiration for what he taught you, but there’s also a postscript from five years after you finished this piece. You write: “There was little room for my voice in Shahid’s workshop, and the cutting away of my words did hurt. I was not entirely honest when I said it didn’t. I don’t teach that way now. I appreciate what Shahid did and who he was and loved him for it, but I also learned that was not the way I wanted to help my students find their voices.” What made you change your mind about how to teach, and what approach do you take both with your own work and the workshops you lead?
SS: That essay was first published in The Margins, the journal of The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and it was published in 2013, on the 12th anniversary of Shahid’s passing. My essay grew out of these notes that I wrote for his memorial in 2002, and then I moved. I didn’t save those notes; I just had a printout. I didn’t find them again until several academic jobs and states later.
I wrote most of the essays individually, not thinking of them as part of a book. So part of what was a challenge for me in that essay was where do I situate the reader in time and who am I working on this book in 2019? What do I know about my relationships to my mentors, about sexual harassment [from another faculty member] that was not even in my book, because of what patriarchy and programs were like? I did an MFA in fiction. My mother didn’t attend college and [for me] as the kid of immigrants, I had her question in my mind: How are you going to support yourself as a poet?
I loved Shahid, but also one of the things I realized for myself as a teacher, is that you don’t know if the thing you said to someone twenty years ago or what you wrote on their workshop [draft]—you don’t know if that is going to stop a person or if it’s going to help them grow. In fact, I almost had as an epigraph these words from Sheila Heti’s novel [How Should a Person Be?]: “We don’t know the effects we have on people, but we have them.” And in the end I decided what was more important to me was not [even accidentally] stopping someone else’s creative growth, but nurturing it. When I left academia, when I left teaching high school and was teaching students who were older than me, people with jobs and kids, what was most important to me was encouraging them to see the strength in their writing and to move toward it. Not to discount any weaknesses, but inspiring forward movement was my perspective when I was thinking about my book as a whole and my values as a teacher.