Updated: Aug 29
1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was pretty young— maybe ten years old. I didn’t necessarily say to myself or to anyone else that I wanted to be a writer, but it was at around that time that I began acting on an impulse to write down and retell certain family stories They were usually set in a factory city like Bridgeport, Connecticut and involved people in my large extended Italian family These were generally stories I’d been told or which I’d overheard told by mother, aunts, my two grandmothers. (I didn’t have as much exposure to the stories that the men in the family felt were worth repeating because they weren't always around--they were either at work or outside working in the yard.) Part of the appeal must have been that I sensed that these stories would not have been told or would have been told differently if men had been around.
I kept writing, turning my attention for a few years to stories set in Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s. It took another few years for me to return to some form or another of those early Italian family stories, many of which continue to hold my attention.
2. What do you love most about the writing process?
I try to write every day, which helps keep me attentive to the present moment--even if that's a present moment in a story that happens to be unfolding only in my imagination. This habit of writing daily is a way of continually reminding myself that writing is both about attention to detail —especially the habit of thinking concretely.and with great specificity— but also about learning to trust and follow certain impulses as a way of trying to figure out where the story wants to go. It’s that not knowing ahead of time where the story is going to end up and exactly how it's going to get there that allows me to make certain discoveries. And those discoveries can give me on a daily basis, and the writing in the best circumstances, a certain essential energy.
3. What do you love most about teaching writing or editing and how does it feed your own writing?
Teaching writing can be enormously gratifying. Part of what I get out of it is that I like trying to figure out what might work with this or that particular group of people who are in conversation with me and with one another in a workshop; and then —because I try to meet one-on-one with members of a workshop at least once, sometimes more than once — I try to come up with and make a few suggestions,including suggestions having to do with structure, that might be meaningful and helpful to people individually.
Teaching gives me an opportunity to remember some approaches that have worked for me in the past. If it turns out that only some of what's worked in the past can be useful to a writer facing a particular problem, then out of necessity I might come up with something new—a better or just more fitting idea or approach. This might even end up being something that I can use in my own work but my main job of course is to try to help another writer figure out how to do justice to a particular story. Thinking on this level about the problems that people run into--not just problems but also some of the possibilities that become apparent in the writing of a story--continues to be engaging and interesting to me.
The satisfaction that I can get from teaching writing is pretty close to what I like so much about conducting oral history interviews. Whether in a writing workshop or interviewing people about their firsthand experiences of history, I get important information just by virtue of being reminded of the wide variety of stories that can be told and in some cases urgently need to be told. Paying attention to other people's stories helps keep life interesting. The job of the oral historian is similar to that of the person teaching writing in that you're there to elicit stories, to help make it easier for one story or one moment in a story to lead to the next, to point out how certain stories can't or shouldn't be separated from the historical circumstances and/or the peculiar landscapes that helped to shape them in them in the first place.In both teaching and conducting an oral history interview, my job is try encourage--in an unobtrusive way--the other person to get out of the way of the story, and to trust that the story sometimes knows more than the teller about where it wants to go and what it can reveal.
4. What is one of your favorite writing prompts?
A few writing prompts I've used in the past:
1.) Tell the story you thought you would never tell.
2.). Tell an old story in which you use objects to conjure the place and the time.
3/). Tell a story about someone who is, for one reason or another, no longer around. Use objects you associate with that person to conjure up that person.
4.). Tell a story in a voice that is so particular and so sure of itself that the voice helps give the story its surprising shape.
5.). Tell a story that cannot be separated from the landscape. Think of the landscape as an important character in the story.
5. What's your favorite writing quote and/or the one piece of writing advice you want to share with aspiring writers? :
I especially like this from Grace Paley essay "Some Notes on Teaching: Probably Spoken"
Eliminate all lies.
a.).the lie of injustice to characters
b.) the lie of writing to an editor's taste, or your teacher's
c.) the lie of writing to your best friend's taste
d.) the lie of the approximate word
e) the lie of unnecessary adjectives f.) the life of the brilliant sentence you love the most