Blog editors, Joanna Cleary and Maria Prudente, talk about their writing lives and its challenges, writers who inspire them, the importance of an artistic community, and, of course, blogging and their plans for the Inklette blog!
Maria Prudente: Hi, Joanna. I’m going to start us off here and begin with sharing a little about me. I grew up in the suburbs of a tiny university town in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I tacked up pictures of New York City behind my bed. I always knew I wanted to be an actress, so I moved a few weeks after I graduated high school to begin my conservatory program in musical theatre. It was super intense. I barely remember eating, sleeping or talking to people, really, but it helped me get started on my career at 19 and, I never looked back. When I was younger I made everything so romantic and that included how I viewed my life as a performer but being an actor is tough. Your dreams build and break within an instant. A couple of years ago, I found myself emotionally and creatively depleted. I wanted to create myself all over again. My brain was hungry and I longed to fulfill the academic in me. Now, I’m at Columbia in my second year studying Creative Writing. Before I go more into detail on that, I want to know about you and your life at the University of Waterloo where you are studying English and Theatre, correct?
Joanna Cleary: Correct! I grew up in Toronto, Ontario (that’s in Canada, eh) and, much like you always knew you wanted to act, I somehow always knew that I wanted to write. Even though I didn’t start to write creatively until I was a teenager, my childhood was consumed with books and visits to the library. I found there was a specific sense of peace within the worlds that the written word created, one which I couldn’t always find in real life. Because I spent multiple periods in my childhood struggling with anxiety, retreating to these worlds offered me a break from my own problems. I found that reading, and later, writing, helped me understand myself and the world around me more deeply. As I began to branch out into writing plays as well as poetry and the occasional rambling short story, I realized I want to create worlds that do for other people what the written word did for me growing up; I want to help people escape, reflect on who they are, and find the strength to return to reality more prepared to cope with it. This brings me to a question I have for you, Maria – how did you first get into writing?
MP: I started writing as a kid. It offered me a sense of relief. You mentioned struggling with anxiety which I can completely identify with and it all began in my childhood. Growing up I could put on this face of being very normal and, you know, playing flashlight tag with the other kids in the neighborhood, but, I also felt like an outsider. I was the only kid with a single parent who also happened to be sick. I spent an unusual amount of time worrying. I was alone a lot. We didn’t have as much money as the other families. When you are a kid, your imagination is what keeps you company but, I found that writing was a more immediate way to express myself. I could create the worlds of other people and writing allowed me to consistently return to those worlds.
JC: I completely agree that your imagination keeps you company when you’re a child, but, especially as you grow up, writing can offer a more direct way to create the worlds you want to make real. Having always been an introvert, I also felt like a bit of an outsider many times during my childhood. I often felt as though there was something about other people that I didn’t quite understand, or that I was afraid of. Reading and writing helped me cope with this, as I didn’t need the people in books to understand me; I was happy just to co-exist in their worlds. Growing up, I often became extremely irritated when watching book-to-movie adaptations that didn’t create the exact world I had imagined for the book in question (which was most of the time, if not always). However, as I continued to grow older (and realized that I may have a slightly obsessive need for control), I realized that subjectivity is one of the most empowering aspects of art. Nobody can ever completely control how another person writes, as we all have unique writing styles, as well as writing ideas, that can’t ever be truly micromanaged by others. With this in mind, I began to delve into writing as a form of emotional expression that created the worlds I knew I imagined and nobody else did, at least not in the same way. Do you find writing to be an immediate form of expression for you as well?
MP: Absolutely. Today, it’s still a great relief to put a word to a feeling. The writing program at Columbia has challenged me in such a wonderful way. It’s humbling to sit in a workshop and listen to people read your work aloud without you, the writer, being able to explain it or justify your choices. I admit I am hypersensitive. I have all but cried when a piece gets gutted because one tiny moment in the story doesn’t click with them. I try not to sit and self-loathe. I’m getting better but some days can be harder than others. I do care a lot but I try to pick what’s necessary to think about for revision and what isn’t. I try to stay focused on improving content and less on perceptions of my work over all. Some things will resonate deeply with people and some things won’t. How do you deal with workshops and critiques of your work? How do you move forward?
JC: I can be extremely sensitive to feedback if I feel that my work is misinterpreted. For instance, if I write a piece that specifically intends to play with the conventions of typical narrative structure and people spend all their time talking about how they don’t understand the lack of a proper beginning/middle/end, I’ll struggle not to dismiss feedback as having missed the entire point of what I was trying to do. My childhood desire for control clearly has not diminished in the slightest. However, the creative writing and play development workshops I’ve participated in throughout my university education have taught me that everyone has something useful to say, even if I may not agree with it. For instance, comments made by people talking about the lack of a conventional narrative arc in a piece without a clearly defined beginning/middle/end may help me understand that I need to be clearer about my aesthetic intentions. As a creative writing professor once told me, we’re usually the most defensive about criticism we know is true. Hence, I always try to keep an open mind when listening to feedback, even if my gut reaction is to shut down. If I succeed, I often find that people offering feedback can help me as much as my initial sources of writing inspiration. Speaking of which, can you speak to which writers influence you?
MP: When I was eleven, I stole “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides from my brother’s bookshelf and read it over and over. I became obsessed with that story the same way the boys in the book grow obsessed with the Lisbon sisters. I read the
“The Marriage Plot” on a trip to London and had to stop reading because I was irritated I hadn’t written it myself. I like the darkness to Eugenides’ work. I’m a massive fan of playwrights. After getting the chance to put their work into action, it’s hard not to feel creatively committed to them. From Shaw, Strindberg, and Chekhov to John Osborne, Ariel Dorfman, Mamet, Rabe, LaBute. I think Leslie Jamison should be required reading for nonfiction writers on how to master work that combines the personal with research. My list keeps growing as I keep learning. Who are you favorite writers?
JC: I love e.e. cummings, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton, Sarah Kay, Lauren Groff, and Hanya Yanagihara (in no particular order). One of my favourite hobbies, however, is picking up a writing collection or visiting an online magazine, going to a random page, and reading what’s on there. I love discovering new artists as much as I love revisiting familiar ones. Becoming suddenly acquainted with the unique style of a contemporary artist I have never heard of before often inspires me to continue writing when I feel stuck. It’s important to remember what makes you want to write and what you want to write for. I often find simply being exposed to the sheer desire to write and the energy that the written word can have compels me to write for those moments and emotions in my own life that can’t be expressed in any other way. What about you – what you you write for/against? What compels you to write?
MP: I do feel this urgency to write about what repulses me. I had a professor encourage this notion to our small group of maybe six writers last summer. It’s tougher in non-fiction. In that particular class, I started writing about being a hypochondriac and having contamination OCD. I’d had some distance from it so I understood that I could imbue some humor into it because on some level it is funny. It also feels deeply selfish. I was a nervous wreck to share that with my class but they encouraged me to go even further. That same summer I had this assignment that I didn’t like. We had to do an art review and I was having a tough time picking one piece so, I ended up writing this ultra-cynical meta-critique on several paintings and simulations. It ended up being this dark-humor commentary on corporatized art in Chelsea. I had clearly made a mistake choosing Chelsea Galleries and yet it worked! I would say that I am like most non-fiction writers: I write to understand. I have to ask because we are co-editors for Inklette, do you have any prior experience writing blogs?
JC: Almost none! Aside from a writing a few Inklette blog posts over the past few years, blogging is a new medium for me. This is why, after having been a poetry reader/dditor ever since I joined Inklette, I wanted to try and form of writing with which I have less experience. I’ve always been interested in creative nonfiction and I love reading blogs because they are often intimately related with the idea of knowing writers as people. I believe that is essential to the empathetic interpersonal bonds that writing creates. However, I know that you have a blog because I’ve shamelessly stalked you on it. Tell me more about your blogging experience!
MP: Oh gosh! Sometimes I forget that it’s out there and I suddenly feel naked. I didn’t know you posted for Inklette before, that’s so cool! My blog, Pink Moon, is a year old. It is a mixture of the political and the poetic. It’s not meant to be polished, it’s messy and honest. I insert my voice in the kinds of work I post there but, for Inklette, I think the work should primarily be about telling the stories of others and exploring shared conversations. Supporting other writers, learning about them and reading what they have to say is so important for our growth as writers.
JC: I agree – community is essential to the life of writing, which is why I’m thrilled to be working on the Inklette blog with you. As for everyone reading, we hope that you’ll stick around for more messiness, opinions, art, and random tidbits coming your way.
MP: Agreed! Stay tuned!
JOANNA CLEARY is an undergraduate student double majoring in English Literature and Theatre and Performance at the University of Waterloo. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The /tƐmz/ Review, The Hunger, Pulp Poets Press, Every Pigeon, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Subterranean Blue Poetry, among others.
MARIA PRUDENTE has written about feminist ethics for Manifest-Station and is featured in Grey Wolfe Publishing’s upcoming anthology of nonfiction short stories. Maria is a professional stage and film actress. She received her training from the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from the American Musical & Dramatic Academy with a concentration in Musical Theatre performance. Maria is the Content Editor at CountrySkyline, LLC and proud member of Actor’s Equity Association. She lives in NYC where she studies Creative Writing at Columbia University.