An intense kinship with language: In conversation with Julie Marie Wade
Julie Marie Wade’s writing shows a lyrical command of and logophiliac passion for the written word. Her award-winning prose and poetry demonstrates a dexterous variety of writing styles, including experimental memoir, prose poetry, and lyrical nonfiction. Wade’s work discusses sexual identity, especially as qualified through a Christian lens, body image, and gender politics. Just after launching her latest book When I Was Straight at AWP, she took some time to answer a few questions for Late Night Interview.
NICHOLE L. REBER: Your love of words is apparent. This logophilia manifests as passionate and playful and gives insight into why and even how you write poetry. Sometimes it feels as if you’re dissecting words– letter by letter, not etymologically– like a dentist cleaning teeth, around and between each tooth, seeking meaning with each tooth, each letter. For example:
“I almost turn back, but there’s a word I love, in my real life of old books and warm blankets and one particularly beautiful girl. I wrap it around my waist like a lasso. Scopophilia. Let me down gently, into this dark. Let me rejoice a while longer, in this love of looking.”
Can you address this?
JULIE MARIE WADE: I love the simile you use of the dentist cleaning teeth, inspecting each individual tooth! I do indeed feel that kind of intimacy with language and always have, for as long as I can remember. As a child, this interest in words, this sense of intense kinship with language, made me an ideal competitor in school spelling bees. I eventually became so good at spelling that I competed in district and regional bees, but for me, the experience was always more about the opportunity to pronounce words, hold them in my mouth, taste them, smell them, repeat them, hear them repeated back to me, than it was about winning the prize. Even if I knew how to spell the word when I first heard it, I liked to ask the moderator to provide a dictionary definition or use the word in a sentence because this process allowed me to linger with each word before I had to let it go. When I first read A. Van Jordan’s persona poetry collection M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A nearly ten years ago now, I was overwhelmed by the realization that Jordan got it. He captured how visceral and visual young MacNolia’s experience of language is. For instance, “We watch ten letters/ Lift off the page and spill/ From my mouth like a magician pulls/ A prism of scarves from his ear:/ i-r-i-d-e-s-c-e-n-t.” It wasn’t just about memorizing words; it was about knowing them deeply, as intimately as a beloved, or inhabiting them as if they were a sacred place.
I’m always suspicious of single-pronged explanations, but one factor in my logophilia might be the fact that I am a synesthete. I love this word, too, from the Greek meaning “perceived together,” but I didn’t learn it until college. My roommate was a science major, and she had been studying this perceptual condition in which, for some individuals, two or more senses seem to conflate and overlap. I recognized myself in her description of the experience and began to read more about the synesthetic phenomenon. For me, all letters and numbers are vividly colored. Words take on a particular glint or shade based on the colors of the letters they contain, though the first letter’s color tends to overshadow other letters in the word. I always assumed that everyone’s letters and numbers were colorful, and this belief was temporarily ratified in high school when I arrived late to English class and flustered because, in a very uncharacteristic move, I hadn’t even started the book we were reading for class. I was working on my own book (a preposterous novel), and my obsession with that project had prevented me from doing the required reading from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Ms. Kaz, our American literature teacher, perhaps sensing my lack of preparation, asked me to say what the scarlet letter was, and I answered without thinking, “A”— since my “A”s are deep red. When she nodded, I assumed that we all shared this tacit understanding that “A” was indeed a scarlet letter. If Hawthorne’s scarlet letter had been “B,” I might have begun to recognize my synesthesia earlier!
NR: The first section of Wishbone is one of prose poetry, with a heavy focus on the latter. The second section is in the mode of fiction. The third is a lyrical narrative with some experimentation. How did the idea originate of taking sections of Wishbone from such different perspectives?
JMW: I’ve actually never thought of the first section of Wishbone as prose poetry or the second section as fiction, but I like the idea that this book can be read as a multi-genre triptych! Your description makes me seem far more dexterous in my deployment of genre than perhaps I really am! Truthfully, I’ve always talked about the book as “experimental nonfiction” or “lyric nonfiction” as a way to indicate that it is formally unconventional (“experimental”) and linguistically lush (“lyric”). I began writing Wishbone not knowing that it would ever become a book and not realizing at first that there were books comprised of experimental essays like my own. The first essay from Wishbone (which appears in the second section of the book) is called “Dreaming in Alpha,” and I wrote it as part of an Imaginative Writing workshop my senior year in college. (The title was given to me by a friend from class, and a wonderful writer herself, Kara Larson.) Though the essay was well-received in class, there was considerable discussion about the genre to which it belonged— how such a piece could and should be classified. I had the sense that I had written something provocative— meeting each of my parents shortly before they met each other when they were both working at the Sears store in downtown Seattle in 1963— but I wasn’t sure if there was an audience for something so hybrid and difficult to classify. Happily, though, I encountered Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May 1937” soon after, and Lucille Clifton’s “june 20,” and then I read Bernard Cooper’s memoir Truth Serum, which commences with the stunning micro-essay “Where to Begin,” and much later, Anne Panning’s essay, “Remembering, I Was Not There,” and I realized there was room for this kind of exploration across many genres. In 2006, Cream City Review put out a call for submissions of “surreal memoir,” and I remember thinking, “Aha! That’s it! That’s what this project is!” I sent “Dreaming in Alpha,” and it was accepted for publication, and by then I knew I was ready to begin to assemble my essays into book form. I’ve continued to think of Wishbone as a work of “surreal memoir” ever since, particularly that second section you mention, because the phrase captures my impulse to inspect experience from every possible angle, including the time before I was born and the ways certain family dynamics were inevitably set in motion long before I arrived on the scene. The more I read, within and across genres, the more permission I was given to conceive of the book that Wishbone ultimately became.
NR: Last year Wishbone sold out its first press by Colgate University Press. How did it come about that Bywater Books is reintroducing the book later this year?
JMW: The one-word answer is “Serendipity”! The two-word answer is “Lawrence Schimel”! Lawrence is my most recent publisher at A Midsummer Night’s Press, who has ushered my new poetry collection, When I Was Straight, beautifully and expertly into the world. As we were corresponding about final publication details for the project last autumn, I mentioned to him that the first press run of Wishbone had sold out, and I asked his advice. Lawrence suggested I contact Bywater Books, since they have been purchasing the rights to many “lesbian classics.” Wishbone, first published in 2010, is hardly a “classic,” but Lawrence pointed out that as a Lambda Literary Award winner, it is already part of the contemporary lesbian literary tradition and deserves the opportunity to reach a wider audience. I queried Bywater, and they responded promptly. We set up a phone interview, during which I was wholly inspired by Kelly Smith’s explanation of Bywater’s commitment to keeping lesbian literature in print. Many books I love have gone out of print over the years, and a disproportionate number of them are written by women authors. A disproportionate number of those are written by lesbians and trans-writers. (I’m thinking specifically here of Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.) Since I want to be part of an ongoing literary conversation that includes gender identity and sexual orientation, the last thing I want is for Wishbone to slip through the cracks and be forgotten— or to become so prohibitively expensive that only a few folks with money to spare can afford to purchase it used through online booksellers. Fortunately, the editors at Bywater found Wishbone worthy of acquisition, and so the book will be released again— and with a new cover— in December 2014!
NR: You relay some painful, harsh, and sometimes abusive actions and statements from your childhood and later into early adulthood in the bildungsroman that is Wishbone—sometimes so piercingly that, without going into spoiler details, it made me curious about how you had the guts to do so. In an issue of Creative Nonfiction, Philip Lopate offered a comic suggestion to this question:
“Befriend only people who are too poor to hire lawyers to sue you. If you plan to write about friendship, make lots of friends because you are bound to lose a few. For the same reason, try to come from a large family.”
What’s your advice on writing about other people?
JMW: Well, it may not have been guts so much as naiveté that permitted me to write so candidly about the past, at least when I first began! It never occurred to me not to write about other people, since others are inevitably part of our own experience. I began writing memoir very young— too young, some people might argue, to lay claim to the genre at all. But memoir simply means “memory,” and we all have memories that haunt and provoke us, memories that we consider “formative” in our development, and I was encouraged as an undergraduate to inspect and probe those memories as both a psychology and a creative writing major. My favorite classes in the social sciences were developmental, abnormal, and adolescent psychology as well as a survey course in sociology. I savored all the qualitative exercises we did that helped us find direct connections between the course material and our own lives, from keeping personal journals and ledgers to creating imaginative case studies. I also remember a compelling sociology assignment where we were asked to interview family members about their shared memories of a particular event, and I saw firsthand how differently my family reflected upon their experiences. Even when they agreed about where and when something had occurred, the greatest differences I noticed were in their interpretations of why a certain event had unfolded the way it did. Also striking were the details that certain people seemed (advantageously) not to remember— details that cast their own behavior in a negative light. Sophomore year I enrolled in a creative writing class called “Autobiographical Writing” with an inspiring professor named David Seal. On the first day of class, Dr. Seal read us a passage from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling in which the author discusses Plato’s “The Myth of Ur.” The professor then instructed each of us to write why we chose our parents. (Talk about an exercise in “surreal memoir”!) I was immediately hooked.
I think I always wrote with the understanding that there were multiple interpretations of any remembered experience and that no truth could be written with a capital “T.”
The calling of a memoirist, in my experience, is first psychological— investigation of the self through memory, reflection upon the self toward the betterment of self— and then, as Jeanette Winterson and Patricia Hampl both have suggested, the second part of the memoirist’s calling is the translation of that examined experience into art (e.g. aesthetic decision-making, the principles of craft). To help establish this relationship with my own readers, I epigraphed a line from Anais Nin as the first, free-floating sentence a reader of Wishbone will encounter: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” I excerpt the same statement and place it at the top of my creative nonfiction syllabi every year. This statement is my credo. It reflects everything I believe about autobiographical writing, and it is the best advice I could offer anyone who wishes to work in what Paul John Eakin calls “the self-referential arts.” In other words, write to gain understanding, not to pass judgment. Remember that everything you think you know is filtered through your own limited perspective. And yet, paradoxically, writing is also one of the best ways to expand our perspectives.
NR: Please describe, maybe even exemplify, your drafting process.
JMW: I work on a lot of projects at once. As my friend Debra Dean says, “Some writers are monogamous with their projects, and others like to play the field.” I like to have a lot of work going at once, in various stages of development. I have ideas for essays that linger for months or even years before I put anything beyond stray words and spider diagrams on the page. Usually, these ideas cluster around an abstraction that is enormous and seemingly untouchable— love, marriage, estrangement, forgiveness, etc. Over time, I begin to place cursory notes from particular experiences, snippets of conversation, etc. under the relevant topics, and then when it’s time to write, the essay itself materializes rather quickly. I guess this might be summarized as a longer-gestation-quicker-delivery model. Poems typically originate with images or a promising refrain that arises as if out of nowhere, and then I keep touching back to it (like a tongue to a loose tooth) until eventually the poem is ready to be made. It’s a kind of cross-training experience for me where, in the midst of working on a series of poems, I might suddenly realize what I need to include in an essay I’ve been thinking about for a while, and vice versa. After writing a few poems or essays that seem to “fit together” intuitively, I often have a sense of a larger book project to which the material belongs. That’s when I put a working title on an electronic folder and begin channeling future essays and poems toward those prospective books. Inevitably, I write some material that doesn’t belong in any existing folder, so I set it aside in a Miscellany folder until I recognize the poem’s or essay’s kinship with other work.
Right now I have a folder for a new poetry manuscript called Quick Change Artist on my desktop. I’ve only written maybe nine or ten poems that fit with this title/concept, but just recognizing that these poems engage the motifs of mistaken identity and morphing from one person or role into another keeps me inspired to write more poems along those lines. I have an essay collection called The Regulars in progress, which is focused on idiosyncratic family rituals. I’ve only written a couple essays so far, but each of these helps me envision more fully the essays yet to come. My memoir, Other People’s Mothers, is very close to being finished— so close that the final three chapters/ self-contained essays are already outlined on paper; the other nine essays have been written and revised; five of them are already published in literary journals. Still in the generation phase is an experimental collection, The Western Family— I envision this project as a poetry-prose hybrid— that focuses on coming of age and the zeitgeist of my youth through food. The further along I progress in any project, the more I discover about its shape and scope, and the more directed my writing becomes in service of formal and thematic cohesion.
NR: Many beginning writers, myself included, are looking for tips on how to be more productive. What three tips would you offer?
JMW: Assign yourself writing prompts— with deadlines— based on texts you read and encounters you have. (Keep a record of these prompts, so you can reuse them in their current or an alternate form.)
Treat everything you write as one in a series, and then write several more variations on the question or theme. (For instance, since you mentioned Phillip Lopate earlier, after he wrote “On Shaving a Beard,” I would have encouraged him to write, “On Brushing My Teeth,” “On Mowing the Lawn,” and “On Coming to the Breakfast Table in My Pajamas.” I doubt, however, that the prolific Lopate needs my encouragement!)
Emulate respectfully and relentlessly. The best way to find your own voice and style is by channeling the voices and exploring the styles of others. (A great starter text for emulation in prose is Michael Martone’s “Contributor Note.” For poetry, I find Kevin Young’s “Ode to the Midwest” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Problems with the Story” can be especially galvanizing.)
NR: Finally, since it’s contest season and you’ve earned a stack of awards, perhaps you can offer some writerly advice for LNL readers. Can you give us an anecdote of how winning a contest advanced your career?
JMW: I don’t think any single award (unless it is a VERY BIG AWARD) advances a writer’s career, but cumulative awards over time make a difference, particularly if you’re looking for a tenure-track creative writing job. Slow and steady truly wins the race in terms of coming to greater prominence as a creative writer and in terms of securing an academic job. This is another way of saying that it’s better to publish (with or without prizes) in respectable journals on a regular basis than to have the equivalent of “one-hit wonders” sprinkled throughout your vita with many large gaps in between. A productive baseline will go a long way in service of your career as a writer, and the other accolades become a kind of icing on the cake.
Since most contests have submission fees, those of us who aren’t independently wealthy have to make savvy choices about where to shell out money for the (admittedly remote) possibility of winning a prize. I make these choices by considering who the final contest judge is and what I know about that writer’s work. I also factor in prospects in addition to money and publication, including the opportunity to give a reading or participate in a writing conference if my work is selected. In 2010, I was thrilled that my essay, “Skin” (subsequently published by Sarabande Books in Small Fires: Essays, 2011), was chosen by Karen Salyer McElmurray as the winner of the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize. This award came with a $1000 honorarium and publication in Arts & Letters literary journal, but most exciting was the opportunity to travel to Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville to give a reading from the winning essay and spend a few days with graduate students in the MFA program. I credit my extraordinary experience at GCSU with solidifying my desire to teach in an MFA program myself. I am still in touch with most of the students and faculty members I met on that trip, and they continue to support my work as I look for opportunities to support theirs. I learned recently that Karen is teaching Wishbone in an upcoming class at Hollins University, and Rebecca Hazelwood, one of the graduates of the GCSU MFA program, invited me to write a guest essay on a poem of my choice for her Structure & Style blog.
I’ve never believed in networking for networking’s sake, but some of the most significant relationships in my life have been brought about through literary happenstance. Case in point: when the poet James Allen Hall was a doctoral student at University of Houston and the nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast literary journal, my literary hero (and James’ dissertation director), Mark Doty, selected my essay, “Black Fleece,” for the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize. This was my first creative nonfiction publication ever, and I submitted the essay because I hoped and dared to believe that Mark Doty would find its form and content appealing. Later, because of this connection to the Houston writing program, I was invited to speak with James and Mark on my first AWP panel in Austin in 2006. The award came with money and publication, but more importantly, it opened another door for further participation in an ongoing literary conversation at AWP. And most importantly of all, winning that contest brought about a friendship with James Allen Hall, who has enriched my writing life and my life beyond the page incomparably.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of the poetry collection When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night’s Press, March 2014). Tremolo, her chapbook-length essay, was selected by Bernard Cooper as the 2012 winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. In addition to a great many other awards, she is the author WISHBONE: A MEMOIR IN FRACTURES (Colgate University Press, 2010; re-released by Bywater Books, November 2014), winner of the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir. She has a PhD in Humanities and teaches creative writing at Florida International University in Miami.
Nichole L. Reber is recovering from two hospitalizations abroad, deportation, and a veritable Red Sea of wine consumption. She now lives in the land of cowboys and Indians in Southwest America.