Kimberly King Parsons is the author of two forthcoming books, a short story collection titled Black Light and a novel, The Boiling River. Of her mentor she writes: “Victoria Redel is the critically acclaimed author of five works of fiction and three collections of poetry; she’s received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts and has contributed to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine, Granta, One Story, and the Harvard Review. Her writing is stunning, marked by brilliant rhythms and the ability to convey complex emotional relationships (particularly those between women) in crystalline prose. Above all, she’s a teacher who inspires me endlessly, through her work and her dedication to emerging writers. I had the great fortune to take classes with her during my MFA at Columbia University. Her reading list was a revelation, and her tricks and tips about process have stayed with me to this day. Though we now live on different coasts, it was an honor to reconnect for this interview.”
It’s my pleasure to bring you the latest installment of The Mentor Series with a conversation about granting yourself permission, making time for the work of writing, and the choice that all writers who are also mothers must make.
– Monet Patrice Thomas, Interviews Editor
Kimberly King Parsons: The first time I met you was in 2006, when I was an MFA student assigned to interview you for the Columbia Journal. I was so intimidated, both because I was in awe of your work (your story collection Where the Road Bottoms Out was enormously influential to me—that Grace Paley blurb on the back cover: “Only a poet could have written this prose.” Holy shit!) and because you looked so cool and devastatingly stylish in your author photo. But then I met you on the steps outside of Dodge Hall and you were so warm and kind and open. You talked about how you had a little Post-it note on your desk that said, “You have permission.” You’d given yourself permission to be whomever you needed to be on the page, and I walked away from that interview feeling empowered and excited by the possibilities of language. I can’t even put my finger on how you did it, but you made me feel like a writer, like I could become whatever I wanted to so long as I got out of my own way. Are there any mentors who did that for you, or were you always so fearless and certain in your work?
Victoria Redel: First of all, Kimberly, I need to start by congratulating you on your story collection. I read it in one great gulp and literally did some whooping out loud during certain stories. It’s intense and funny and the writing is stunning.
It is kind of you to say that way back in 2006 our conversation made you feel like a writer. What could be better for an interview than to embolden a young writer and make her see that it’s within her grasp? But the hard truth is that whatever permission I might have encouraged in you, you had to find (and DID!) in your own work. Permission to go to our true work, our necessary work, is scary and it’s hard to summon in oneself. I could say a great deal about how worry, shame, and judgment crowd in around us when we are each alone at our desk and keep us from writing the very sentences we need to write. It takes a kind of generous stamina and a willingness to write in ways that won’t be self-flattering or pretty. I had that sentence taped above my desk and, also on an index card, I’d hand-scrawled the third section of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” The card is still on my desk, it’s so tattered and yellowed that it’s hardly readable. Here’s the section in full:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
I hardly ever feel fearless or certain. I have to continuously coax, cajole, wrestle myself to lie down in that foul rag and bone shop and find any scrap of fearlessness. And so many days I don’t write anything authentic or worth keeping. A key aspect of permission is the permission to fail and fail a lot. Maybe, deep into a book, when I’ve already risked so much, I have days beyond fear and those days of writing are so rich with possibility and pleasure. I hope I never have a sense of perpetual certainty because then I’d have my head so far up my own ass that the only permission I would have achieved was to be a fatuous bullshitter. Permission and certainty are funny words, right? It has to be rigorous, adventurous, scary, and somehow kind at the same time. Kindness and rigor both take a kind of vigilance as well as a yielding to the unknown. A great person to read about the ladder is Helene Cixous. I’m particularly thinking of the lectures that are brought together in a book called Three Ladders on the Step to Writing. She’s a mentor for me as are so very many writers (alive and dead) I’ve never met but have read closely and been in conversation in my writing life. If I were braver I’d send bouquets of flowers to all the living writers I’ve never met but who change me with their work.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about mentors—many of them have died in these last years. I feel such great appreciation for the books they guided me to, for the seriousness of their commitment to art, for the generous ways they engaged with my work. Much of what I learned from teachers took me years to understand and fully appreciate. Grace Paley was never a teacher but was a terrific mentor. She gave me a way to imagine my life as a writer, a mother, a teacher, and an active citizen. I had the good fortune to briefly assist Adrienne Rich and that meant hanging around a formidable artist and mind. Way back in graduate school at Columbia, Dan Halpern assembled a remarkable group of poets. I was lucky to study poetry with Joseph Brodsky, Derrick Walcott, Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Stephen Dunn. Stanley Kunitz was my last workshop teacher and he continues to be a wonderful influence in my life.
Gordon Lish was my fiction mentor. Lish is known as a writer and editor but he should also be extolled as teacher; in those rooms I watched the astonishing evolution of writers whose work I continue to cherish and am happy to call my dear friends. Gerald Stern selected my first book of poems for publication, and then became a good friend and mentor. Of course there are others. But I want finally to mention my mother. I was nineteen when she had a debilitating stroke and twenty-three when she died. My mother ran a ballet school and regional company and was a demanding and passionate teacher, and artist. At twenty-three I had so little appreciation for the complexities she juggled throughout her life. I am still unpacking these lessons.
Parsons: Not all great writers are great teachers, but you’re one of those rare people who is phenomenal in both arenas. Do you find that you’re able to be productive in your own work when you’re deep in a semester of teaching? Or do you kind of switch between the two?
Redel: I’ve always had the fantasy that the ideal job for me would have been to be a mail carrier. I’d walk all day (I like exercise and I like being outside in all weather); I’d be alone (time to think, compose in my head and stop to write down sentences); I’d carry people’s business around (I’m really a nosy person and that would be voyeuristically fantastic); I’d carry a communities’ sorrow and joy (bills, presents, love letters, foreclosures, the long awaited package… all those secrets!).
That said, I love teaching. I love the classroom and feel fortunate to have worked with interesting people. I’ve taught graduate and undergraduate students for over twenty-five years, but I also taught high school and even middle school kids. The problem with teaching is that to do it well you have to really begin to hear the possibilities in a student’s voice, her syntax, images, stories, and sentences. And to meet them deep in their work. I want to help students break through to where they astonish themselves. And that’s demanding. My head gets filled with so much language that doesn’t belong to me. And it’s hard to dump their words, their drafts, out of my brain and find my own. But if I don’t write at all I get cranky and if I’m cranky I can’t really appreciate my students and thinking seriously and marveling their work is part of what helps students have the courage to write what only they can write. The only solution I’ve found is to get up early and before anything else happens, before I turn my attention to anyone else, sit with my own work. Do I always keep the discipline? Nope. But I also know the way back to myself gets harder and harder if I don’t.
Parsons: One assignment you gave in a seminar back in 2007 was to write a story using only single-syllable words. At first this sounded so terrible—how could we possibly pull this off? And it wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that unlocked something and brought an odd new rhythm to my sentences. The next week we came back to class and read our stories aloud. It was a revelation. I remember being so shocked by the quality of work you pulled out of every single student. The sentences were strange and clipped—I remember one guy had a line like “he who taught us the past” to stand in for “history professor” and it was striking and compelling in a way I hadn’t seen in his other work. In the class you stressed that these exercises were a beginning, no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts—and later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. To this day, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I will use the one-syllable trick. Do you find yourself using tools you teach to unlock things in your own work? And do you have a memory of a workshop or class where something clicked for you as a young writer?
Redel: I love that you still use the exercise. That’s such a smart idea to shift the focus in a problem section of writing by creating a formal constraint. It’s one of my dreams, really, that the exercises I give become part of a writer’s tool belt, something she can pull out to help her come at a problem from a weird angle. The great thing about this exercise is that you can’t fall back on easy language. When a two-syllable word becomes unavailable you have to walk around the obvious word choice and often what results is unexpected, weird, and more specific. And this begins to tilt the whole piece, create new sounds, rhythms, and textures. I give this exercise in every class I teach—fiction and poetry. It always emits initial resistance and then, hands down, yields the most surprising work of any assignment. The exercise also helps because instead of focusing on what you think you “mean” you have to focus on actual language, which we often forget is our essential tool.
Parsons: I want to start this next question by thanking you for a pivotal comment you made to me at a book launch at KGB (I forget who was reading! Maybe Jayne Anne Phillips?) after the birth of my second son. This was years after I’d finished at Columbia; we hadn’t seen each other in a while and you asked about my collection. I moaned that I wasn’t working on it because I was feeling overwhelmed with my two babies, I wasn’t sleeping, and I was breastfeeding around the clock and just couldn’t find the time. You very patiently listened to me, but at some point you put your hand on my arm and said, very firmly, “Look, get back to work. Or don’t.” Something about that set me free—it was exactly what I needed to hear. Like, those are the two choices! Make one! I felt like you were talking to me as a colleague, not a student, and I was so grateful for it. And, of course, you were speaking from experience. You have two sons as well and a life of responsibility like everyone else, but you are so prolific. There’s never time, it’s not easy, but you just do it anyway. Over the years I’ve followed your career and have looked to you as a role model for what is possible when you put your head down and do the work.
I wonder what particular struggles you have at this point, and how your view of your process has changed over the years? Is it still about fighting for writing/life balance? Or are there other concerns occupying your time now?
Redel: God, I sound like a big jerk. But I really do stand by it. The one question more women students have asked me over the years is: How do I juggle my writing life if I have kids? Even if I answer the question whatever theoretical plan you have before the babies are out in the world quickly crumbles. You’re exhausted, the physical demands of a baby are intense and so shocking, the emotional adjustment to the responsibility of caring for a child is stunning. And, I’m sorry to say this, I’ve never met a male writer who has to juggle it the same as any of the women writers. And I’m not only talking about heterosexual arrangements. I’m not saying there isn’t a huge amount that fathers manage. That core question—Can I do both?—isn’t their issue. I have thoughts about why this is, and I’m sorry to say I don’t think this will change even if the most glorious, generous revolution occurs. In any case, each woman writer has to develop her very specific kind of discipline. The advice I gave you demands that a young writer/mother asks herself: Do I absolutely need to do this? Will I enjoy my children less and resent them more if I don’t write? The time frame and flexibility of these questions will differ given a myriad circumstances for each woman. If the answers are yes—then you get strict with yourself. You give up any fancy ideas about inspiration or what lengthy hours and necessary conditions you think you need for writing. You get flexible, right? Strict/flexible—it all sounds contradictory because it is. And throw in patience. It will take longer to complete the book because it will be fitted into and around the demands of daily life. Probably happens slower than you’d wanted. But it happens—you can attest to this—your beautiful story collection and a novel forthcoming!
I’m always figuring out what are the various pulls—delights and obligations—and how I can order my days/weeks. I’ve learned to have a little bit more patience for the fallow periods, the times when I feel so carved out and empty and feel I have nothing. Some days I’m okay with that watchful drifting and waiting and then, of course, I despair and am chased by restlessness. I’m aware of time in different way as I get older and it makes me greedy for everything—more time alone, more time with friends and family, more time in wilderness, hiking in hard to get to places. What it is at this moment of my life, at this moment in our world, I need to write? And that involves a lot of getting out of my way to answer honestly. I guess I’m right back to that foul rag and bone shop.