In the latest in our Ampersand Interview Series, we spoke with Shawndra Miller about writing to women, creative spaces, and “madness.” Miller was the winner of the 2017 Unclassifiable Contest for the piece “Bleeding the Butterfly,” which appeared in Issue 36.
A&L: Describe your writing space. Where do you write most often? What is your routine?
Shawndra Miller: I write in a corner of our guest room, which is ground level with a nice view of our small back yard. I have my research books and notebooks right there for easy access. My desk faces the window so I can see my little garden and watch neighborhood cats traipse through the yard. Usually my big poodle Opal sprawls on the floor and my cat Edgar either provides entertaining distraction or curls up behind me on my chair.
As far as routine, I tend to work on my writing projects in a very nonlinear fashion, but in a framework of committed time. Mornings seem to be best for focused output in my case. So I will tell myself: This week I’m working on the manuscript 90 minutes a day, right after breakfast. Then my goal is to stay in the chair and keep at it—without distracting myself through email or social media. (I use a blocking program that keeps me from wandering too far into Internetville if I need to check a historical detail or word choice.) What I do during that 90 minutes can vary widely, from generating new scenes to smoothing structural problems to polishing and editing. But it all adds up to consistent work that, over time, yields a book-length work.
I also keep a small notebook handy when I’m out and about, for jotting ideas as they come to me, and a pad of paper for those nocturnal surprises (which are sometimes indecipherable in the morning!).
A&L: In blurring the boundaries of genre and form, how are you able to excavate your subject in ways that a single genre would restrict?
SM: I’m intrigued by the intersection of what we would consider known reality and the felt realities that are harder to quantify. So much truth lies buried, even in what we think we know for a fact. For example, how does a chronic illness arise, what are the reasons for it, and what role might the mind’s unseen workings play in sustaining or ameliorating illness? My book project, of which “Bleeding the Butterfly” is a part, imagines the lives of late 19th-century women who were largely hidden away in the mental institution, in a building that was buried under ground after its demolition. To develop the fictionalized portrayals of “inmates” (yes, they were called that back then), I reviewed intake records from the state archives. From the sketchiest information, I let my imagination roam, informed by contextual research. This gave me the freedom to explore themes that connected to my personal history. The interplay between their fictionalized stories and my own true one created a different kind of tension and a broader window on women and “madness.”
A&L: Do you write with a lot of conscious audience awareness during your first drafts?
SM: Generally, I write to figure things out for myself. If there’s an audience in mind, it’s “women like me”—encompassing all the women I have been so far: the sick women, the impassioned women, the ones who feel “different” in some way, the geeks and lesbians and seekers, and women in midlife coming into their own.