Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Nora Boxer
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a writer of fiction, poetry, and hybrid work who has also dabbled in the visual arts. I graduated with an MA in Fiction from the University of Texas in Austin in 2010. I received the 2010 Keene Prize for Literature, a $50,000 juried award, for my short story “It’s the song of the nomads, baby; or, Pioneer,” about a pregnant woman who goes off grid in Taos, NM.
Prior to my time at UT Austin, I lived in Taos. I originally went there for a 1-month stay in an Airstream, on the land of a photographer who had a couple of trailers she rented out to writers. I ended up staying in New Mexico for 4 years, and was the editor of the literary journal Chokecherries for SOMOS, the Society of the Muse of the Southwest. During this time I also received the First Annual Writer’s Travel Scholarship from the now defunct www.equivocality.net. This award was granted by a private patron (one of the early developers of WordPress) who believed travel and writing are interrelated, and the prize was a free round-trip ticket anywhere I wanted to go in the world. I spent six months in East Africa working with HIV/AIDS nonprofits.
After UT, I moved to Berkeley, into a tiny house with an even tinier writing studio, where I completed a novel. The book is about a woman in San Francisco’s electronic music scene who is diagnosed as HIV+ and ultimately becomes involved with a women’s tribal activist group in Kenya. Through friends, I was networked to a Bay Area-based agent who I ultimately fired. After the Yes! of the Keene Prize, this turn of events with my agent was disheartening, and not one I would have foreseen. I have yet to try again to secure another agent.
Since receiving my MA, I’ve been a resident at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony; the Elsewhere Collaborative; and Maumau Artists’ Residency in Istanbul, where I worked on a project influenced by travels to Rumi’s tomb in Konya. I’m very interested in residencies and in programming and space that supports other creatives, and wrote a side thesis on these topics in grad school. Recently I’ve begun working locally with the Birdhouse Arts Collective to develop a local residency at the Omni Commons in Oakland though the project is still in its infancy.
I have been freelance-editing manuscripts as a side gig for the past few years as well as coordinating the local county fair poetry contest. My poetry has appeared in several journals, such as Prism Review, Sugar Mule, and OVS. I have worked as a writer-in-the schools and in the nonprofit world, though in the past year I’ve ended up in a P/T administrative gig I dislike. In my 20s I lived for two years at Green Gulch Farm, an American Zen Buddhist center. I currently teach fiction in the adult-ed program at San Francisco City College.
I’ve loved a lot of things about my path as a writer but I am still struggling to “emerge”.
Firing your agent must have been a hard decision. How did you come to it, and what has kept you focused on writing since then?
My agent was referred to me by a friend who used to work in publishing in San Francisco. The agent was also Bay Area–based, and had worked as an acquisitions editor for many years, but not in fiction. He had, however, acquired a certain book during his career that made him sound like he could be a great fit. My sense at our initial meeting was that something was “off” — I didn’t like the comparables he wanted to pitch for my book, and specifically asked him not to use one of them — but I somehow convinced myself to trust the process and to ignore my uneasiness. Fast forward two months and we had only gotten three brief rejections, with no word from the other 10+ editors my agent had sent to. My unease was daily at this point. Then a very nice rejection came in, from Chuck Adams, actually, saying there were many things he liked and respected about my book but that it didn’t quite fit his list. He had referred me to someone at the PEN/Bellwether Prize, Barbara Kingsolver’s Socially Engaged Fiction award, but the deadline had just passed and the award wouldn’t happen again for another two years.
Underneath was my agent’s letter he’d written. It compared me to the book I’d specifically asked him not to compare me to; it had typos in it; and it clearly showed he had little to no personal relationship with the editor he was writing to. At that point I freaked out and all the mistrust I’d managed to stuff down came rushing up to the surface. I called two writer friends, one with multiple books out, and another who’d sent a book around New York a few months prior. They both told me this should not be happening; that I should not have been sitting around waiting for two months; that a good agent will have the connections to push you through to be read much faster.
I called a meeting with my agent and dissolved the relationship. I learned the hard way that a Bay Area agent won’t have the connections needed, like a NY or even an LA agent would. Like many unrepresented writers, I had succumbed to “agent fever” – this kind of panic, scarcity, or confusion about getting representation, like you’re almost begging. I know now it has to be the right representation.
We never even heard anything from the majority of editors my agent sent to. However, I felt like “used goods,” like my book had already been sent around (sort of) and how was I going to explain this to a new agent? Simultaneously, I ran out of money, my landlords repurposed the room I’d been using as a writing studio into a guest cottage (they were extremely kind to have given it to me rent-free for 2 years, with the understanding that this would eventually happen), my back went out, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and I ended up in a somewhat trying job as I re-entered the workforce in a rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.
I’m ready to secure new representation. I’ve gotten over feeling like damage was done. During this time I’ve also had to come to terms with the part of me that wants to stay hidden. Writing is such a private act, and then publishing is such an exposure. But if I don’t get over my fears about that exposure (many of which are irrational) then I don’t get to give to others what I have to offer via my writing. Without giving that gift, everything withers. I’m trying more and more to recognize that it’s not about me – it’s about the work.
The past year has been the least I’ve written in a decade. An old friend has recently offered me the use of his backyard shed to write in a few times a week. I’m headed there right now after I answer these questions, actually. I’m working on a story about gentrification, the loss of wild and creative spaces, and owl wings.
What is your writing “network” (grad students, mentors, etc.?) and how do you sustain it?
I’ve never had a long-term mentor. I was lucky to study with Carole Maso as an undergrad. I took a writing workshop with Martín Prechtel that was highly influential, and I still teach his “language reversals” exercise and work with it on my own. Jim Crace taught me about reworking the opening page until the right rhythm emerges in the language, so that the story can flow through.
I went to the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference in 2011, right after I moved back to the Bay Area, and many of the writers I met there connected me to local reading series and events. I had the good fortune to be in workshop at Squaw with Kelly Luce; we’ve sustained a friendship and it’s been great to see her succeed this past year. I know Robin Romm from my undergraduate days and our paths have continued to cross over time as well; I always enjoy her company. I’ve also stayed in touch with a few folks from a shared residency at Byrdcliffe.
Taos, where I lived from 2004-2008, is definitely the most supportive creative community I’ve been part of. I really felt that the multiple generations of writers and artists in Taos supported one another, rather than competed. I remember applying for the Gift of Freedom, A Room of Her Own Foundation’s big award, and opening up the results email to see my neighbor Summer Wood’s face. It was the best way ever to find out you didn’t win an award, and it was also so Taos. I lived on a property with nine cabins that was just down the road from the D.H. Lawrence ranch. Aldous Huxley had supposedly written one of his books in a cabin, and Ram Dass’ Be Here Now was collated in the main house. There was also a dual outhouse on the property that wasn’t in use but that couldn’t be torn down, because rumor had it that at one point Lawrence was in one side and Huxley was in the other. The late great musician Diane Izzo lived on that ranch too and we became fast friends. I’ve always had friends in other creative disciplines, maybe more so than writers. I’ve also always been attracted to the sense of artistic continuum over time.
How has your working life (exterior) sustained your writing life (interior)?
For the most part I have been able to find a good balance, though I’ve never made very much money. I’ve been a writer in the schools, gone to a number of residencies, and worked for SOMOS. I’ve been editing in various capacities since 2005. I was a Zen student at Green Gulch Farm for two years right out of college, which was an interesting way to enter the workforce, to say the least. The past year has been more of a difficult balance. I’m teaching fiction now at SF City College, and I coordinate the poetry contest at the Alameda County Fair, which is a charming, if surreal job. I’m editing manuscripts from time to time. And I am working (volunteering) to develop a local artists’ residency at Omni Commons in Oakland. However, none of these gigs pay much, so I’m also working three days in an admin job at the moment. I’ve been there a year, and this is the first time ever where I feel like there’s a gap between who I am and what I’m doing. I’m 41; I’d like to close that gulf. My three long-term goals are to write and publish, to teach creative writing in a more full-time capacity, and to be part of creating and administering an artists’ residency. All that energy is sprouting right now in various forms, but the day job is paying the majority of the bills at the moment.
What books have you recently read that have blown you away?
What has interested me most of late is cultural history and/or memoir regarding the formation of creative spaces. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall, Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. I read Shoes Outside the Door, about the early days of the San Francisco Zen Center, but it focused on Baker-Roshi’s affair and was too sensationalized, missing much of what could have been told instead. Still, it was very interesting to learn things I didn’t know about how this space I’d been part of had formed.
Sometime during the tail end of writing my book I heard advice to stop reading novels while you work on your own, and I did. The last novel that really moved me was Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds – he was my classmate in grad school but a poet, and then he emerged with this great novel. Poets always write the best novels, in my opinion! Kevin is another great case for how unnecessary our obsession is with pigeonholing writers into genre.
Writers I love and feel a kinship to include Janet Fitch, Kate Braverman, Anne Carson. The poet Jean Valentine has been a huge influence, and I also love Merwin, and Rumi, whose tomb in Konya I went to in 2013. I’ve also been reading more short stories lately, since I’ve been teaching again. Suzanne Rivecca’s really good. I’m teaching Ha Jin, Michel Faber. Right now I’m reading Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I might teach him next semester.
Nora Boxer can be found online at www.noraboxer.com