The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Harris

One of the great writing gifts of 2014 was connecting with Lisa Harris, an alum from Bard College. We are kindred spirits although I graduated from Bard in 1991 and Lisa in 1974. In February, Lisa gave a terrific interview about writing and the creative process. We have been corresponding ever since. Her guest post today is perfect for January as many of us are grappling with order and our intentions for a creative life.

 

In All Weather, Under Any Circumstance
by Lisa Harris ( ‘Geechee Girls-–2013, Allegheny Dream—2014, Ravenna Press)

My friend tells me, “You have a high need for order in your life.” Of course this is a relative concept, but she is also right. Open a closet, what tumbles out? Open a cupboard, what falls? Reach in a drawer to locate the correct pair of socks, only to leap back at the mess, then grab the first pair and shut the drawer. I unintentionally leave trails, not of breadcrumbs, but of wrappers and tissues and apple cores. In my gardens, grass root plants spread. At first I welcome them by letting them grow. But when they begin to overtake the bed, I yank them. Within days, they wiggle out from beneath stones, and push up through darkest mulch, defiantly resurrected.

In my studio, stacked papers appear as orderly, but peruse them, and you will discover unresolved drafts of poetry collections, novels in progress, sketches of life observed, a quagmire of thoughts and an abundance of observation. Order is an illusion that prevails until it is exposed by life. My true compulsion for order shows up when I write: I work to get the words in the correct order, based in my presumptions about sound and word weight, texture and effect. Try as I might to banish the poet in me, I cannot. No matter how many shields I put up, no matter my effort to block out the noise of the world, I am still held captive by cadences and melodies, the search for the perfect verb and noun, in an effort to reveal, compel and heal.

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As writers we are drawn to the tumbling, falling, spilling, wheedling, charging disorder of creativity—in all weather and under any circumstance. If we could ignore it, we would, but we cannot; it is how we live.

Allegheny Dream, my second published novel, has been a work in progress since 1982 when I wrote poems about the former and formative landscape of my life, my childhood memories, my ancestors’ stories, the Appalachian culture of honor—the petty, lovely, and horrible. I had to recreate to release these ghosts and mine the emotional truth while avoiding memoir or autobiography. This novel had many previous forms: Collisions, a novella of linked short stories; Resurrecting the Quick, a hopelessly dark saga; and Boxes, the emergence of what it was to become—a study in shame and sorrow evolving into a picture of love redeemed. Allegheny Dream eventually stepped into the world whole, like its heroine, Eliza Schnable Friday, who used the Civil War, Gilgamesh, Hamlet and her ancestral knowledge as a compass to relocate herself.

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So, here is the clincher. We cannot ignore the weather or circumstance, the earthquake or the mundane. In fact, we have to experience them, survive them, reflect upon them, and then report. We have to go for walks day and night, in the rain and snow and fog and sun; we have to sit and do nothing, or read, cook, play—all as counterpoint to the deep work of imagining, of making connections between ourselves and the gigantic cosmos—listening for the birthing cicada as it crawls from a rotten log, its wings still wet from emerging; watching the English ivy creeping back despite all attempts to discourage it; and feeling the insistent, finite thumping of our hearts.

And what about losing faith and doubting yourself when you are tired, rejection slips are piling up, and you are overextended with responsibilities? You need to do something visceral with Doubt; spit on it, or light a candle and burn it away. Do not let it prevent you from writing.

My daughter gave me a wall hanging, which reads, “Your story matters. Tell it.” Get a wall hanging. Your story, the one that teases you and nags you, that interrupts your sleep and mocks you, the one that cries to be held and demands to be let go, has only you to tell it. Sequester yourself; pick up your tools and begin.

 

Lisa Harris is a writer, artist and educator. She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology. Her most recent novel is Allegheny Dream with Ravenna Press. Find out more about Lisa at http://lisaharriswriter.com/

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One of the things I deeply enjoy about my blog is my commitment to conducting author interviews. My blog allows me to reach out to new and established writers after I hear them give a reading, or learn about them online, and ask for an interview. Every time an author agrees to an interview, I feel excited and inspired. I look forward to checking my email and seeing how they played with and sculpted answers to my questions. Interviewing and helping to promote writers is a passion and gratitude generating activity for me. This is one way I help to build and contribute to a writing community.

At the end of each interview, I always ask an author: What is the best writing tip you’d like to share?

Below, I have collected the most intriguing answers from writers I interviewed in 2014.

Keep this list close at hand. The advice is inspiring and offers a great way to jump-start your new year of fresh writing.

*To see the full interview, click on the author’s name

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Becky Thompson, Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for those Healing from Trauma

-Honor the muse no matter what she needs. If she needs to write while you are driving, pull over. If she wakes you up in the night, thank her. If she is shy or angry, she has good reason. For prose writing, expressing the ideas first as poems helps to keep the language lyrical. Writing after doing an intense yoga practice can bring us into a deeper register. Talking about the writing process is erotic, in the Audre Lorde, expansive sense of the word. Yoga is big like that too.

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Stuart Horwitz, Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method

-Writing is supposed to be a transformation of the self, first. That’s how you choose your subjects, your characters, your formats. That’s how you know how many drafts to engage in — if you are still transforming yourself, you keep going. If you are done getting what you needed personally from it, then you better clean it up in a hurry and get it out into the world, however that happens. That’s also the value of the work. People talk a lot of crap about why they write: they want to change the world; they want to make money, blah, blah. The primary reason is none of those. We want to see if we can do it, and we want to do something we can proud of. Then we have to let the work change us — surprise us and challenge us — that’s when it gets good. Otherwise we should just be doing crossword puzzles.

 

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Cornelia Shipley, Design Your Life: How to Create a Meaningful Life, Advance Your Career and Live Your Dreams

-I never pictured myself as an author, so for me it was important to follow my process and to get help from a seasoned writer and editor to help me think through the layout of the book, make sure the process was clear to readers who would be new to the material and ensure the overall tone and flow was what I wanted. Bottom line as a writer you have to be willing to follow your unique creative process without judgment.

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Randi Davenport, The End of Always

Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.

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Jason Mott, The Returned

-Less talk about writing, more writing. Which is really just my way of saying “keep writing.” Haha.

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Amanda Owen, Born to Receive: 7 Powerful Steps Women Can Take Today to Reclaim Their Half of the Universe

-Write every day. Write plenty of bad sentences so that you can get to the good ones. If I don’t have a terrible piece of writing in front of me after all of my efforts, I feel like I have not made any progress. I need something I can work with, fuss over, and shape. A flimsy idea can be nurtured into something substantial. A phrase can be fanned into a flame that produces a whole sentence. A poorly written paragraph can inform me of a direction that may yield gold.

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Lisa Harris, ‘Geechee Girls

-The best writing tip? Write. Watch and listen. Write. Meditate and travel. Write. Play cards, laugh and watch frogs, and you guessed it, write. Writing is an act of love, an honoring of life. Read!

 

 

I don’t always read the ‘Class Notes’ section of my college alumni publication The Bardian, but I’m grateful I did recently. As soon as I read the blurb about ’Geechee Girls, a debut novel by Lisa Harris, I knew I wanted to read the book and interview the author. ’Geechee Girls is a coming-of-age novel set in Savannah, Georgia, and chronicles two girls (one black, one white) navigating difficult times and difficult circumstances in imaginative and transforming ways.

Bard is a small, private liberal arts college that I graduated from in 1991. It profoundly shaped me. Lisa Harris graduated in 1974 and received her MFA from Bard in 1991. When I read Lisa’s bio, I saw that we had many overlapping interests including an interest in girl’s coming of age stories, female empowerment and creative production across multiple genres.

She says she started writing started when she was nine years old and won the Read Magazine short story prize. She did not write another story though until she was thirty-two (but continued to write poems and still does today). She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology.

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Lisa has received residencies from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation and Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, as well as support from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Ithaca College, and the New York State Council of the Arts.

She is also a collaborative artist and has completed several installations with Carol Spence, print maker; Susan Weisend, print maker; and Nancy Valle, ceramic sculptor.

During the last six weeks, we’ve had a tremendous amount of fun reminiscing about Bard as well as discussing the demands of a creative life. I am in awe of Lisa’s dedication to writing and commitment to the creative process. I am delighted to welcome Lisa Harris to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new novel,’Geechee Girls. Why did you want to write this book?

I lived in coastal Georgia for eight years. Wherever I live, I begin to take in the landscape—until it enters my memory and lives in my bones. Writers are observers, and I watch the world closely. After I left Georgia and moved to New York state, I yearned for the languid humidity, the sweet, rich scent of magnolias, the painted buntings who used to perch in my live oak trees, and the voices of all the people I had listened to—close up and at a distance. I wanted to write a book to bring the world I had been a participant in to readers who have not gotten to live in Savannah and along the Ogeechee Road. I also wanted to preserve my memory of it.

How did you get bitten by the ‘writing bug’? Did you always wish to become an author?

I began writing when I was in fifth grade. I wrote a short story called “King’s Rescue” which won a Read Magazine award, and a poem, “The White Wedding Dress,” at about the same time. I always wanted to be a writer or a detective. Yep, another Nancy Drew fan. I grew up in a family of storytellers and talkers—people who worked to make sense of the world through stories and also used stories to entertain. I received a lot of support and belief from my family. Reading and writing have been good friends to me.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you had to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

Point of view is so important in a story, and I wrestle with it and using tense effectively a lot in my fiction. I have to laugh a little here regarding the question have I ever completely rewritten a story from a different point of view! Yes, and yes, and yes. ‘Geechee Girls  was always in third person—so point of view wasn’t the challenge for me with that book—chronology was—because I wrote the book over a long stretch of time in bits and pieces, in meetings and on planes, at night when I was tired, with a lot of sketches dropped in and pulled out—until, ta-da, I completed it. Every rewrite made it better. Allegheny Dream had three different titles, Collisions, Where the River Meets the Rain, and now Allegheny Dream. It was written from the first person point of view initially and also had the sequencing issues because of my day jobs. In its completed version, it retains the first person point of view in the diary entries, which introduce each chapter, and the majority of the book is in third person. Both books had more than half of their contents published as short stories, so that was a rewriting demand, as well. I had to shape them so they could stand alone, and then reshape them to fit back into the books.

What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching the geography of where your novel is set (i.e. Georgia and Savannah’s Low Country)?

I loved learning more about snakes, birds, and the Yucchi, the first name for the Ogeechee Indians. I did not know that snakes shed their skin in such a way that for a short time they are blind—they wiggle out of their skin as if it is a too tight turtleneck sweater. Echo location intrigued me in bird communication and also the fact of the bird’s extra eyelid. Readers will discover interesting lore about the Yucchi upon reading the book.

What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed (or in your e-reader)? What are you reading right now?

I am reading Pavitra in Paris (Vinita Kinra), background non-fiction regarding Newfoundland and the Vikings for my novel-in-progress, THREAD, Landscapes of the Sacred (Beldan Lane), A Mercy, (Toni Morrison), The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, and the Bible. I read the King James’ Version to help keep my ears smart for beauty in language. I am also reading Julia Hartwig’s In Praise of the Unfinished.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

The best writing tip? Write. Watch and listen. Write. Meditate and travel. Write. Play cards, laugh and watch frogs, and you guessed it, write. Writing is an act of love, an honoring of life. Read!

Lisa Harris is a writer and educator.’Geechee Girls has just been released by Ravenna Press. Her next novel also with Ravenna Press is Allegheny Dream. Find out more about Lisa and how to purchase ’Geechee Girls from her website: http://lisaharriswriter.com/

Photo Credit: Jeff Spence


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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