Dispatches | December 06, 2013

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 Working Writer is Luanne Castle.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself:

There are so many directions I can go with the question “tell us a little bit about yourself.” One of the first things I learned about writing memoir is that you have to choose which story you’re going to tell in each book.  A memoir writer has to leave out far more than what she puts in.

In one possible story, I am retired from teaching college English, free to write what I want instead of “papers” for conferences and lit crit journals. But my interests in teaching are still with me today: poetry, children’s literature, Holocaust memoir, and American literature from a variety of cultures. This is the woman who highly values logic.

In another story, I’ve been writing and reading poetry since I was a little girl. This is the woman who just put together her first poetry manuscript, called Doll God. It’s also the woman who loves theatre and dolls and art.

A third story is that I am my father’s daughter, a girl who grew up in the ‘burbs, first over a bomb shelter and then in front of the city dump. The memoir I am writing is called Scrap, which alludes to many things, including my father’s business as a trash collector.

Blogger is my identity in another story. I write three blogs: http://dontwelookalike.com/http://thefamilykalamazoo.wordpress.com/, and http://writersite.org/. I started writing the adoption blog Don’t We Look Alike with my daughter. Both my children were adopted from Korea when they were babies. I enjoyed the experience of blogging so much that I shortly afterward started a genealogy blog for my family and then one about writing, which focuses on creative nonfiction and poetry.

Yet another story has me working part-time out of my home for the healthcare business my husband and I own. I’ve done this most of my adult life, all throughout teaching and raising my kids. My mind is always split between creativity and organization.

There’s also the perpetual student story. I have a BBA undergrad with marketing and history double major. Then an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing (split between poetry and fiction). I received a PhD in English from the University of California at Riverside. Since I retired in 2005 for a medical reason, I have taken online courses and attended workshops and conferences, all about writing. I’ve completed the coursework for a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from Stanford University and have the tutorial (and final) portion ahead of me next year.

What else do you want to know? I’ve been married to my husband for 38 years. I’ve lived in Michigan, California, and Arizona. I have four cats and advocate for animal rights.

My son works as a counselor and my daughter is a musical theatre performer. I know from her resume that this is where I ought to tell you something unique and funny I can do. Then you can ask me about it. I used to be able to stand on the tips of my toes, but I can’t do that any longer.  Here’s something I find interesting: I found newspaper articles online where I learned that my great-great-grandmother caught fire when she tried to help a neighbor. She jumped into a cistern and put out the fire. She survived for many years after fire, although it seemed touch and go at first—at least according to the articles in the paper. I like to salvage stories like this for posterity. I’m the keeper of the flame of our family history. All the photos and stories from both sides of the family have come to me, and I am sharing them on The Family Kalamazoo.

How do you balance your time with so many writing projects, especially the blogs where publication is often much quicker than the traditional way?

I wish I were better at balancing my time between writing projects. Instead, I get jealous on behalf of my writing. When the toilet breaks, although I’m glad to get a plumber out right away, I’m also irritated that every moment I have to spend dealing with it is time spent away from the writing. I try to schedule appointments in the morning so that I can write in the afternoon. I’ve even been known to lie, telling someone that I have an appointment that afternoon and can they schedule two mornings from now, greedily trying to grab that afternoon slot to write. It’s as if writing is my secret lover I’m always trying to make time for. I’m crabby when I’m away from it too long and crabby when I spend too much time writing.

List-making is also something that helps. I live my life by lists. When I say it, I fear it makes me sound too OCD, as if I operate by rote and routine. It’s always sounded like a lack of creativity to me. The truth is without lists I couldn’t keep a thing in my head as a list tethers the insides of my cranium to something recognizable, making a bit of order out of utter chaos.

I use two lists. I start a new legal pad list every day. Whatever odd chores are left from the day before, I copy over and begin fresh. Then, I also have my pre-printed list with items like memoir, revise memoir, send out poem, brush cats, and cook dinner. Yup, if I didn’t remind myself to prepare dinner, I would forget.  If I can’t check off that I worked on “memoir” for the day it acts as a little pressure to put that first the next day. Another way it helps is that I see it in front of me each day. I tell myself, “OK, time to go work on Scrap.” Then I do so as soon as I can.

Since you write in so many different formats, poetry, memoir, blogging, etc, do you feel that these styles shape your voice according to the form, or that your voice shifts to fit the form?

The form I write in determines my voice, to a point. In creative nonfiction, I struggle to bring out what I want to say, layering in as I revise. So I often start out with a framework of scene, perhaps heavy on dialogue (as I am letting the characters guide me) and light on scene setting and reflection. The voice builds as I add in filters over the original frame.

In poetry, I have to work at not falling into my poetry habits. Once I feel a particular style is effective, it’s easy to resort to that style the next time around. I have to keep fighting those “tics.” I try to remember to push the boundaries, try something new, and question everything that feels too easy.

Blog writing comes naturally to me. Unlike with CNF, I don’t struggle over the wording. Unlike with poetry, I don’t worry that it’s easy. It’s my everyday voice and sounds much as I do when I speak.

Can you tell us a bit more about Doll God and Scrap? 

Doll God – Poetry collection

This is my first full-length collection of poetry. A few poems date back just over twenty years, but most of them were written in the last five years. They explore some of my obsessions: dolls, spirituality, fairy tales, and artistic creation. For me, these topics are all connected. Many of the poems are not about dolls, but the ones which are offer guideposts to the manuscript. Dolls have their origins in idols. When dolls were first created they were a tangible representation of spirituality or religion. Fairy tales have a similar connection to both creativity and spirituality.

These obsessions of mine are ways to look at the real work of poetry for me—that is how it deals with loss. There are many losses in the book, but they are prismed (or dispersed, if you don’t like to see a noun turned into a verb, although I think “prismed” captures the image better) through ways to understand: the multiple meanings of dolls, the old stories seen anew, and by inscribing the miracles.

Scrap – Memoir

Growing up in the sixties in southwestern Michigan, my family lived first over a nuclear bomb shelter and later in front of the city dump.  For some time, my father owned a garbage collection business. Other than my mother who did the books in our basement, Dad was the only employee, driving the truck, dumping the dumpsters, and getting new customers.

He used to bring me treasures he scavenged on his route. He also used to bring home his moods which ranged from jokey to inexplicably angry. The book explores the father-daughter dynamic within the context of our personalities and family history. It uses some of the techniques of mystery novels—most notably revisiting scenes of the “crimes.”

Scrap is emblematic of my attempts to salvage the scraps of memory and story and re-purpose them.  A longtime recycler, my father taught himself to shape scrap metal into sculpture when he retired. Images of fragments, discards, re-making, and fighting all fall within this notion of “scrap.”

The big argument in CNF seems to center around “truth v. Truth”, and how honest we can be with something as faulty as memory. As you’re working on Scrap, is there any tension between telling the narrative accurately and telling the message you hope to express? I really enjoyed that line you had earlier about keeping the flame of the family history, and I am curious what that means to you?

I’m the oldest grandchild on both sides. My mother was twenty and my father twenty-six when I was born, so when I was little, the memories of the “old days” were still fresh with my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles. In those days my ear was open to adult conversations, much more than they realized. And many family stories were intentionally passed on to me. My maternal grandparents were wonderful storytellers. My brother and cousins don’t know a fraction of what I know about the family. I’ve collected the vintage family photos and other heirlooms from the everyday lives of my ancestors. I don’t know if I’m the keeper of the flame because I was in the right place as the oldest grandchild to collect the stories or if my curiosity encouraged my relatives to share with me. Probably both. If I don’t share this information it will be lost to future generations.

When it comes to writing a compelling memoir, it’s important to focus on one central story. Once I knew the central story for Scrap, and that the main characters would be my father and me, I had to find the meaning for readers in this story. Ultimately, I decided that my story has a lot to do with knowledge and understanding as keys to forgiveness.

There is a tension between keeping the story accurate and adhering to this message because real life is messy and just when I think my story has played out in real life, something happens that feels like a setback or seems to change the course of the narrative. But when I take the long view I can see that these are blips on the plot arc I originally identified.  It’s up to me to decide what clutters or confuses the story or sends the reader the wrong message–and what can be emphasized by more attention in the scene to details of setting and characterization.

While many smaller stories come together to tell this narrative, many more must be excluded. As a memoir writer, I have to be hard on myself and not let an anecdote creep in just because I find it particularly engaging or because I don’t want to lose it. The place for those stories is on my genealogy blog, which is an ongoing family history project—or perhaps in a future book.

Any memoirs you are particularly fond of?

For years my reading was focused mainly on fiction and poetry, but a few memoirs slipped in every so often. I loved Audre Lorde’s Zami and taught Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I also read, taught, and even wrote about various Holocaust memoirs. The first time I thought about memoir as an important genre was when I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. The book’s creative structure cracked open the world of the memoir for me. After that I began to study memoir writing. I started reading every memoir I could get my hands on. The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, were early favorites because I felt very close to the narrators. The favorites started piling up: Mark Doty’s Firebird, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to The Dogs. Every other time I finished a memoir, it became my new favorite. As I began to narrow in on the shape of my book, I found The Bill from My Father, by Bernard Cooper, very important.  I just finished Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man, which taught me so much. I can’t stay with one particular favorite because each memoir has been an instructor, helping me refine my skills. But if I had to choose a book to take to Gilligan’s Island with me, I would most likely grab Zami or The Liar’s Club off the shelf.

Luanne can be found on Twitter for Writer Site and Don’t We Look Alike  as well as the respective Facebook pages for Writer Site and Don’t We Look Alike.

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