In the latest interview in our new series, Ampersand, we spoke to Dawn Davies about writing spaces, writing habits, and guilty pleasures! Davies was the winner of the 2016 Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction for her essay “Mothers of Sparta,” which appeared in Issue 33.
A&L: What is the toughest bad writing habit that you have had to break, or do you advocate for embracing bad habits?
Dawn Davies: I could give you an alarming and deeply revealing list of my bad habits, but let’s not go there. I’m constantly playing Whack-a-Mole, beating them down to where I hope they give up and go away. Sometimes it works. Maybe some people have bad habits they can work around, or work with, but if I let a bad habit linger, it turns into a monster and derails my productivity/health/sleep cycle/insert-your-own-life-function-here. #OCD.
My bad writing habits tend to collect around lack of confidence. I have caught myself, while in the middle of writing, saying things like “This is bunk. This is too grubby. This is just no good. This idea is too much. Who will this matter to besides myself?” The insecure side of my inner voice tries to pull my creativity back, and it has gotten in the way, especially when making stylistic decisions that make my work identifiable as mine, and especially when I am at the beginning of shaping something new. My initial inclination is to take an idea just a little too far…the metaphor will be a little hostile, or an image will be a little violent or visceral, or a theme will be just a tad “out there.” That’s not bad, but my worry-wort inner voice likes to tell me it is. I used to be afraid of the raw stuff, but now I believe people respond to this when they read my work. If I do what the worry-wort wants, which is to question the “grubbiness,” I run the risk of beating the ideas themselves down, and not the bad habit of second-guessing them. I don’t want to tame my work to where it feels beaten down, or tepid, or over palatable to readers. I want my work to be a wild thing. Now I work on not questioning my “in the moment” decisions, and I am getting better at getting the ideas down as fast as they come, without questioning them. They are just ideas. Not tattoos on my face.
A&L: What is the best thing (related to writing) that you ever spent money on?
DD: The best writing-related tool I ever spent money on was a tote bag, though it was my parents who spent the money on my first one. When I was three or four, we filled the tote bag with books from the public library and took the books home. I devoured them, then we went back to the library the next week and did it again. I read as many books per week as they would let me check out, and I did this for years. As soon as I got old enough to ride my bike to the library, I could go whenever I wanted, so I read even more. It was true freedom. I read all the time—in the shower, when cooking, in the car, on vacations, in the middle of the night when I should have been asleep, at school when I should have been studying. I did this long before I knew I wanted to be a writer. I think my exposure to so many books helped me when it was time to write. I still struggled when learning, but I may have struggled a bit less than others who had not been exposed to four thousand books. A committed reading habit makes writing easier, though honestly, I’m always learning. It’s not like you learn to write and then you’ve learned it. You must keep learning to evolve.
A&L: What sort of thing did you write about when you began?
DD: I was about nineteen when I first started “seriously” writing, though really, writing is always so entertaining that I enjoy doing it, so it doesn’t feel serious. When I’m working, I’m still playing. Before nineteen, in high school, I wrote parodies of writers I was reading (Brautigan, Poe, Vonnegut, Fussell, Irving), and before that, in middle school, I wrote radio show scripts that I produced alone on my cassette player, and before that, in elementary school, I wrote little jokes I tried to get published in Reader’s Digest. I now think the writing I did as a child was important, and it was all serious work, especially the parody writing, because it was good practice. I didn’t recognize it as work, though, because I had fun doing it and I had no expectations to fulfill. I try to remember that feeling when I write today. I try to keep my writing life like a playground, where I can mess around and try new things.
At nineteen, I would ride my bike to the library and hand-write stacks of pages that vaguely resembled novels. I threw most of them away, but recently found one, and it was full of ideas that college students might find interesting while drunk at a party. Young women with vague identity and life-purpose problems, or young women with unrequited, somewhat shallow love issues. Or quirky, dysfunctional families that represented interesting character studies, but had no identifiable problems.
I recently found some old poetry I wrote around that age, and realized two things: first, my past and my present have not much changed as I still should not write poetry, and second – that my poetry at the time was similar in content to the novels. A lot of unrequited love and “coupling” problems, the kind that a nineteen-year-old might suffer through. Not to demean anything that nineteen-year-olds experience, but I don’t think the angles I chose to write about were deep enough to be interesting to anyone other than me at the time. I hadn’t yet figured out how to write about universal things while writing about specific things. I did notice similarities, though. My tone is still the same, and my characters—both fiction and my nonfiction persona—are still often wrapped up in their own interior monologues. The inner voice (See Question #1) rears its head again.
A&L: What is your guilty reading pleasure? What is your non-guilty reading pleasure?
DD: The first thing you should know is I am a re-reader. For fiction, my guilty reading pleasure is plot-heavy genre novels. I love a good plot. I read legal thrillers, detective and spy stories, and police procedurals. I don’t feel guilty about reading genre fiction, though I suspect this is the type of secret plot porn about which others might feel guilty. I love commercial fiction. I think page-turners that whisk you away are fun, and fun is important.
My more lit-worthy reading is variable, though I am currently in a weird sort of masculine phase, which should imply nothing about my love for women writers. I read and support them. I’m just in a phase. I have recently been on a Colson Whitehead binge. I have a long-time obsession with The Intuitionist and Sag Harbor.
I read a lot of war books. I don’t know why. When I want to be blown away by tone, I read Paul Fussell, who is my go-to essayist, and who also happens to write very deeply about war. He is wry, and funny, and sad, and informative all at the same time, and he can sustain these feelings even within more academic essays. I have read most of Fussell’s work and he never fails to disappoint technically and tonally. His essay structures are masterful from the seed to the skin and all the flesh in between.
Lately, when I want to write sweetly, I read E.B. White. He can write beautiful observational essays that have very subtle conflict. I can’t do that yet. When I want to get out of an essay funk I read John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay anthology. It helps to remind me of all the ways in which the craft can be stretched, the risks mid- and late twentieth century essayists took with their work, and the ways these risks have changed the craft.
When I want to read essays that are like music, and I need to think about the art of weaving in an essay, I read James Baldwin. This is a constant for me; Baldwin is one of my go-to writers.
When I want to see how far I can bend something I am working on, in both fiction and nonfiction, I have lately been turning to Italo Calvino, usually Cosmicomics, or Fabio Morabito’s Toolbox, which is a lovely, weird book. For fiction, I have spent some time lately with Shirley Jackson, Carol Shields, Charles Portis, and Toni Morrison, though I have read and re-read Morrison and Shields for years. I feel a great comfort re-reading books I love, and I learn from the re-reads.
A&L: Describe your writing space. Where do you write most often? What is your routine?
DD: I try to write every day, but sometimes I don’t. I use non-writing days to think about what I’m working on. I roll ideas over in my mind, try things on for size, consider options. I play with my options so much in my head that when I finally do write, I think it is easier because I don’t have as much to try out on paper.
My writing space is dull. At home it is a small, plain wood desk that faces a wall. It’s not fancy It’s not decorated. There is nothing special on it. It’s in a common room. I sit on a wood chair with a blanket on the seat. I can block out sounds of the house if I don’t hear any actual words aimed at me. I learned to do this when my kids were little, because I didn’t have an office and I wrote either in the laundry room standing up with my laptop on top of the dryer, or in the bathroom, sitting on top of the toilet. Those were the only places I could go where no one would bother me, unless I wrote in the middle of the night, which I also did. After scraping out that kind of writing existence, a plain, wood desk that faces a wall feels like a luxury.
Now, in the mornings, I make breakfast, my husband and I take the dogs for a walk, then he drives to work, and I work out. Once I exercise, I can sit down and concentrate. I turn off my phone and try to get in two to three hours before lunch. Then my husband comes home, and we eat salad and walk the dogs again. Then I ride my bike to the public library and work there for another three hours, or for as long as I can stand to sit still. I wrote a terrible book there when I was nineteen. I wrote my most recent book there, and it turned out better. Even with progress, some things never change. I still like the public library.
A&L: Bonus question: Describe your writing life in 140 characters or less (the length of a Tweet).
DD: Writing is a #playground. An essay is #anotherplanet. Fiction is a #realworld. Art (yours and mine) is a #wildthing to be protected.