By Brendan O’Meara
So, a good chunk of you know that I host The Creative Nonfiction Podcast (subscribe, review) where I interview the world’s best artists about creating works of nonfiction, like Joe Drape talking about writing an 80,000-word book in six weeks.
But I also have a side-gig where I interview any writer for the app SpareMin. It’s a micropodcast, if you will, and my latest episode is with my friend Caroline Comerford.
Because these episodes tend to be really short (by design), I want to add the transcript below. For those hungry for Creative Nonfiction Podcast transcripts, yeah, I think I’ll bite the bullet and do those too. But for now, you’ll just have to deal with these!
Thanks for listening! Oh, and download the app. It’s free.
BO: I’ve got Caroline Comerford joining me on the line joining me for The Book Show. She’s a writer and teacher based out of Eugene, Oregon. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Caroline, this is really fun.
CC: Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to think about some of these things.
BO: Yeah, it’s always nice to find out a writer’s origin story and what influenced them, so what are some influential books that sort of turned you on to language and made you want to become a writer?
CC: Oh, I’m going to have think about this one. Influential books from an early age…I was always a big reader, a quiet kid like so many of us. I read a lot when I was really young, sort of standard Secret Garden, Little Princess, Anna Green Gable stuff. And I don’t know that I really had a sense that I wanted to be a writer until I reached adolescence and started writing more regularly for myself.
I think one memory I have between the summer between eighth grade and high school I remember spending a lot of time in our over-heated attic reading random books that I had found on my parents’ bookshelf. My stepmother’s books in particular. I remember reading My Antonia in one or two sittings up there in a really hot summer knowing there were pieces of it that I couldn’t really understand. But also knowing that it made me feel something that I couldn’t have felt any other way. I still carry that memory with me. It’s still the same feeling that I get when I read a book where it’s able to bypass my analytical mind. That was a very important book to me growing up and still is.
BO: Was it the story itself, the way Willa Cather used language, what did that unlock for you?
CC: I think it has everything to do with language. The story is beautiful, but the story comes through the language. The idea that language, I think it maybe makes sense to say that when I started writing I started out as a poet, and wrote mostly poetry throughout my college years. That language could unlock things in me thematically, emotionally, even when I didn’t fully understand all of the words on the page all of the time. The way that she weaves words together in that book creates a net of emotional experience and longing, nostalgia, that is so moving and it was through that book that I most deeply experienced the transfer of someone else’s longing and memory to my own experience through language.
BO: In sort of training, if you will, as a poet, and you experienced more with essay and prose, some of the stuff that I’ve read from you, how did poetry help inform your prose-style of writing?
CC: That’s a good question, one I’m not sure I have a great answer to. My work as a poet was very much in my formative years and I don’t think that I, I know I didn’t seriously consider being a poet while I was writing poetry. I needed to be writing, the mentors and people I loved who I found in college were poets and were really generous to me and taught me a lot about sound and especially about how to edit, really, and that actually way that I know that poetry still informs my work. I’m always thinking about what I can cut out, and what sticks. Between the time I stopped writing poetry, which was the end of college, the time I started writing fiction maybe four years later, most of the writing I did, none of the writing I did was directed toward an audience. My relationship to writing, I felt like I needed it to make meaning out of my own experience, and that internal motivation to write was why I was attracted to poetry too. It’s a form that allows for a lot of reflection, a lot of looking at the self, that was something I was trying to figure out then. That carries through to my work a little bit now though I try to be a little more outward looking. A good chunk of four or five years between the time I stopped writing poetry and started taking fiction workshops and went to get my MFA in fiction.
BO: When you’re getting ready to process a thought and put it into writing, how do you approach the warmup, or the writer’s calisthenics, as I like to call it, what’s your routine as you try to work through something and put it onto the page? How does that process manifest itself for you?
CC: I have what I think is a terrible habit to have to sit down and, well, the first part of the habit isn’t so bad. I generally, especially at this point, you are catching me at this second fallow point in my writing in my adult life. It hasn’t even been that long. It’s probably been six months. I’m currently eight months pregnant and I’m teaching full time and I have an almost two-year-old at home and so there is just not enough time for a lot of regular writing.
I get one day a week right now to sit down and write. I need an hour or so just to process my life [laughs]. I sit down and write stream of conscious. I’m thinking about this; these should be my priorities right now; these should not be my priorities right now; I have to get all that stuff out of the way before I can begin to think about what I should be working on. Then the terrible habit I was talking about tends to be, I tend to think too hard about what I’m going to write next or what needs to have with a particular piece before I’ve given it a chance to really form. I’ll have a tendency to really try to start the more analytical revision process before I’ve given myself enough time to think down and tell the truth about what’s happening with my characters and to write scenes.
CC: And to stick with scenes. It’s really hard, especially when I don’t have a lot of space in my life to sink down and stick with what’s going on in the moment with somebody and not let my analytical mind represent some sort of feeling. That’s a challenge for me. I think that’s truly an authentic part of my process. I do need to sit down and think a little bit. I’m always frustrated with how long I spend with that.
BO: Do you find that, at least in this time of your life, you have that one day to do your writing, do you feel liberated by that or pressured by that, because it would seem like this is your game day and if it doesn’t get done this day it’s not going to get done for another week. Is there a sense of pressure or do you think ‘This is my day and I can just binge it out. Let’s rock.’?
CC: Right now because the time is so little and the time is, I recognize that I need that time for personal processing writing and having quiet moments to myself that is, if I really expect much from myself, that’s frustrating. When my son was born a year ago and I found that my time was much more precious and I found that that time was liberating. It was much easier to be productive and a lot of the anxiety about what I was producing or where it was going or how I was saying something, really disappeared for me because I knew I needed to get or I had a clear goal. That was easier because I was writing for four hours every other day really regularly. Now being away from the page for an entire week doesn’t really work for me. I accepted that until this second child is born and established in the world I will have to have less time. I will also be teaching far less next year so I’m hoping that my time will come back around and have a similar experience where having less time will make me get more done and allows me to cut through more quickly that earlier stages in my life.
BO: One more question Caroline, before I let you get out of here, there’s often this stigma that the writer is this tortured artist, which I tend not to buy. I think writing should be fun in some instances, and if it’s not fun then it’s not going to be fun for the reader. I suspect that that’s maybe true with you. Where in the process of writing do you get your joy in being able to sit down and write short stories or essays or even fragments of novels. Where are you most joyful in the process of generating work?
CC: When I let myself be present in scene and in characters. There is joy in the process, or maybe it’s not joy, there’s certainly pleasure in the process of revising and making plans for what your piece is going to be. Going back and revising and fixing things and perfecting things. I definitely get a contentment from that. The joy comes from getting in a really good first draft and the feeling that comes from actually doing that. The feeling of it on the other end isn’t always so great. The feeling of getting it down is definitely joyful and really important.
BO: It’s important to recognize the accomplishment that is having written that first draft. It takes a lot of energy and focus to get to that point alone. Granted you’re just starting, but you have to take that moment to appreciate how far you’ve come, now you this piece of marble to keep on honing and carving and shaving down.
CC: I will say about the tortured artists thing. I absolutely agree with you, I think the less tortured my life becomes the better my writing is … without a doubt.