Working Writers Series: Johannah Racz

Welcome 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 interview is with Johannah Racz.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I graduated with an MFA from Colorado State University in 2001 and published in a number of literary magazines around that time (Puerto del Sol, Peregrine, GSU Review, Northwest Review, Sycamore Review). I also won two AWP intro journals awards while I was at CSU, and my thesis/poetry collection was a finalist for the New Issues poetry prize in 2002.

That was quite a while ago now. Since then, I’ve been running my own copywriting/technical writing business, Heliograph Communications, and I’m a single mother of two boys, ages 7 and 10. I’ve gone through marriage, birth, and divorce. I’ve developed expertise in seemingly unlikely areas through my work, such as the manufacture of solar panels and flat-screen TVs. And now I’m struggling to make ends meet–financially and creatively. The upheaval and struggle, though, have been the catalyst for a creative upsurge for me. Over the past few years, I’ve produced a lot of poetry and more recently, memoir. And my motivation to publish has resurfaced.

This is wonderful, but at the same time, it’s a struggle for time and energy to write and to send out for publication. I’m a single mother, a business owner, a head-of-household, a novice drummer, and a poet. I had a realization a few months ago that there’s no reason that I can’t be the writer that I knew myself to be in graduate school. I have known that writing was my calling since age 8, and I am recommitting myself to that.

One idea that I’ve been thinking about recently is the way my writing style and subject matter have changed over time. I imagine that I’m not alone in that. For me, there have definitely been specific themes that have been central during certain periods of my life. I think that natural creative changes are sometimes misidentified as writer’s block, because we start to stereotype ourselves as artists and think that we should repeat our past successes. We identify with the successes instead of remaining open to the creative flow. The trick is to continually go out into the unknown—in form and content—as the creative impulse leads us. When we try to force our writing to look and sound the way it used to, we do become blocked. We create the block. So, faith in the creative impulse is key to lasting inspiration.

And, as a single mother, I’ve become more adaptable in finding times and places to be creative. I can stand a lot more background noise and interruption, because I have to. I have a lot more stamina in general, because the dishes have to get done, the laundry needs washing, and the poems need writing, too. It’s easy to get plowed under by the sheer amount of work that life can be, but that’s when I try to remember to take the reins and get back to the creative.

Paradoxically, writing is the first thing to be sacrificed when life gets busy, but then, it inevitably comes around again as my salvation when I become overwhelmed by life’s tasks and external pressures. Eventually, it insists.

So there’s a million things I want to ask you about, but what struck me especially about your intro was how you noticed specific themes have changed over time: was this in reaction to major life upheavals, reading different material, or perhaps a natural reaction to years passing?

That’s a great question. I think that all three have been influences. Earlier on, during high school, college, and my MFA, when I was just beginning to get acquainted with major writers, that was probably the biggest influence on me. That gave me a kind of framework and permission to speak. I had this creative impulse that seemed to emerge organically from my being, and those influences helped orient me, and give me concepts of form and theme.

I remember reading a lot of confessional poetry as a young writer, Anne Sexton and Plath. And the themes I wrote about, before I really even had any conception of “writing” as it is defined by the world, were always intensely personal. I was born into difficult circumstances, not unlike most of us, and writing was my tool and my weapon and my medicine. As a child, I wrote about family. As I grew, I wrote more about romantic love, and now I find myself writing about more spiritual themes. All of these were in response to circumstances that felt difficult.

I would say that in the past decade or so, there has been a major shift into the spiritual, and the themes that I wrote about earlier kind of come under that umbrella. Issues of family and eros and everyday gestures are part of a bigger cosmology. So, I suppose I feel like my awareness has expanded, and my writing has expanded along with the spiritual expansion. When I say “spiritual,” I don’t refer to any particular religion. I’m talking about the way Mary Oliver addresses spirituality, the spirituality of the everyday, imminent world.

In terms of upheaval, I’ve had the rug pulled out under me many times over the past few years, and it makes you humble, and it makes you more aware of the present moment, I think. Or else, it drives you to drink or to something else to attain numbness. But, I think that when we are able to look at our lives, to keep our eyes open despite the strong wind that may be blowing, there is the opportunity for expansion. I guess I see this as the major influence on my writing in the past few years. Divorce, financial struggle, single motherhood, a kind of “total life devastation,” as one friend described it, have forced me to shift into greater presence and acceptance, and I think that shows in my writing. It’s been an incredible period in my life. Two years ago, I drove a dear friend to the emergency room to find out that night that he had a brain tumor. He died four months later, and I was there as much as possible through the process. A few weeks later, I was present for the birth of a friend’s son. Death and birth. Life has taken me to the edge over the past few years, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating and exhausting, but of course, all of it is a gift.

This might be an odd question but I know that, especially for those who are going into the MFA or who have just left it, one of the criticisms lobbied is that so many of the writers are young and have not “experienced life”, as it were. Do you think there is something to be said about writing from an author who has lives a full, if tumultuous life, as opposed to one who perhaps only has a curious or excessive imagination?

Another great question! I think that everyone who feels compelled to write, and who is brave enough to put something authentic on the page, has something valuable to say. Different “kinds” of writing appeal to different audiences. I’m certainly reading different poetry than I did as a teenager. There is room for all kinds of genius. Sometimes genius comes after or because of life experience, and sometimes, it comes from some kind of spontaneous insight. I think it usually comes from a combination of the two. Life experience, if we let it, can clear the way for those insights. But some of the lucky ones don’t need the drama and tumultuous experiences in order to access something meaningful that they can then translate into compelling writing.

I think those who are just entering or just leaving an MFA are just as much in the “real world” as any of us. It’s just a different experience, a different place in life, and each “place” in life, each stage of experience or maturity, offers a unique perspective. My passion is for the authentic creative urge, and I have reverence for that wherever and whenever and for whomever it takes place.

I think that having children also gives me some perspective on that issue. I see my near-8 and 10 year old boys, and I watch them write and create artwork, and I believe in their creativity just as much as I believe in anyone’s, but perhaps a little more, because they are my little beloveds.

When do you find the time to write with so many other responsibilities – children, owning a business, even drumming?

I have to admit that I haven’t been such a good drumming student of late. That has fallen by the wayside a bit, although I do come back to it periodically, and I am always listening and learning about drumming. My drum teacher, Ray Wasinger, is the friend I mentioned earlier who passed away about two years ago, so there is some grief there that has made it difficult to return to the music in the same way. But drumming is part of my world, and I’m part of it, which has been incredibly enriching, and has brought new friendship and love into my life. So it is dear to me.

But, back to your question: I write in stops and starts whenever I can. I often use my phone to email myself little bits of poems that I come back to when I have a few minutes. I find pieces of time, in between work and mothering. The issue of time seems less challenging, though, than the issue of energy. Sometimes, I am just plowed under and burned out, and the creative impulse just isn’t there, and I go for a period of perhaps a few weeks where I’m not writing, and I’m just dealing with the essential tasks of living. But the writing urge absolutely returns, and I start again from wherever I left off. There is a thread that doesn’t break.

As a business owner and single mother, it often feels like there is no protective structure, and I have to continually make the effort to create that structure for myself, creatively, personally, and professionally, and for my children. That can be exhausting. I remember the comfort of being in an MFA program–there are clear, defined expectations and schedules, and goals, and even though that can be extremely stressful, it does provide a framework to relax into to some degree.

It helps me sometimes to think of myself as a warrior, living and working out on the edge of “the known,” and making it all up as I go. Uncertainty can be exhausting, even though it is an essential condition of life. Writing can be the saving grace there. Like I said before, writing becomes the consistent thing, the thread that doesn’t break, even though it sometimes suffers when I am exhausted.

I love that – a thread that does not break. That’s a powerful image.

I think of a red thread, for some reason. I saw a quote recently–I think it was maybe a traditional Chinese saying–that we are connected to those we are meant to meet in this life by a red thread. Red seems enduring.

I would like to know more (and I think our readers would too) about the experiences of being a single-mother while writing. That’s a unique perspective, and one that I don’t think enough attention is paid.

I feel like there are many women out there with so much to say, but also so much responsibility that it is difficult to “get it out there.” I think that there are a lot of single mothers with a lot to contribute, but without the resources to support them, and we are doing important work, in mothering, and in our work as writers. It’s easy to get resentful when things are hard. And I do. But that is why this series that you are writing is so wonderful–to give voice to those who haven’t had the opportunity due to whatever life circumstances they may be experiencing. And whatever obstacles there might be, there’s always the pen and paper, or the keyboard. Writing requires so few accoutrements, which is why it can be so equalizing.

I think the hardest thing about single motherhood is the invisibility of the job. And the lack of time to pursue publishing and readings and other opportunities in the writing industry just adds to that. The poems pile up in the drawer, on the hard drive, and maybe never have a reader. There is value in the act of writing itself, without audience, but at the same time, we all need to be heard. And as a single mother, there are so many creative aspects that are never seen or acknowledged, including the cooking and the housekeeping and the parenting. All of these things require creativity. And for me, there’s also the work, which is not only the work itself, but the conceiving of my business–its image, its services, and how I carry it all out. All of this happens without an audience. All of it is underground. That can be very difficult and lonely and discouraging. The writing itself can be a solace and a medicine, but then, there is the “professional” aspect of it that sometimes feels missing, when there isn’t time or energy to send out for publication, or isn’t enough time to send out enough manuscripts.

I’ve recently became part of a wonderful group of writers, and we’ve been doing some readings and writing exercises together, and critiquing each other’s work. This has been a godsend. Still, it’s hard to maintain consistency, because with children, as a friend of mine says, they’re always a step ahead of you, and you’re always scrambling to figure out what a certain behavior means, and what they need physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Mothering is the thing that absolutely requires constant attention. There are times where the boys need me more than others, and when they do, that is my focus, although I can’t let the other things go, either. I have to dig deep during these times and just come up with the energy to do everything that needs to be done. Overall, though, there’s a constant shifting of focus among all of the demands, and that’s an art and a talent. I don’ t think it’s possible to master it; it’s just a matter of being present and dealing with what is on my plate at any given time the best I can. Through all of it, the lesson that keeps returning is presence, and the more I experience uncertainty and face the reality of what is, the more it sharpens my perception of the imminent. That is serious creative training. It’s boot camp. To write, we have to notice. We have to experience the present moment as completely as possible.

You can follow Johannah Racz at www.helio-graph.com