Elegy

Avery Lin describes a young, brilliant female character shunned by great forces. Through expansive imagery, the rosy lipped girl must find security in herself to fight the evil’s of the world

 

A rosy infant once crawled upon a barren Earth,

tread a well-worn path of hackneyed poetry;

yet preserved in that nebulous memory

was a lone amber honeysuckle

by a motionless pond in a verdant carpet meadow

where the eternal thought of Spring

is timelessly encapsulated in stale air.

 

A silver toddler once traversed the gilded threads of this Earth,

balanced on a precarious tightrope

weaving fine gossamer webs

and slippery satin miracles

and a trail of ashen snowdrops bloomed in her wake;

 

A milky girl once walked this Earth

and sugared cherub hands close by plucked stars from the night:

twisted them into wistful notes

strung into a honeyed lamentation on the lyre

more intoxicating than love itself.

 

In memory of her

they brewed a pungent weedy tea;

In memory of her they grew a swollen peach;

In memory of her

they hung a twisting diamond shard,

suspended it beside the quarter moon

and called it their masterpiece–

and so it seized the light at a scintillating crescent angle

and yet it was

a little too sharp, a little too adamantine

whose reflection will never be quite right;

not for an effervescent being.

 

There once was an earthly girl glowed just a little too bright

so they burned her down, like a brilliant star,

with the tip of a searing flame

and ignited her soul,

and it caught aflame;

a white, warm light that was a sea of milk-threads–

woven into the frangible tapestry

of a tangible life.

 

There once was a phantom girl who was the dangling pear

on the branch of the dreamy willow

that exists in the poem only

a fragile image given too much power;

then one day she was stripped raw,

smoldered in molasses sunlight

submerged in incandescent dew: silent pleas that might have

fractured heretic hearts

if only their timbre wasn’t a silver-lined metaphor.

 

Time moved like a ghost

And in their remorse

they plucked a delicate plum for her

and it was wonderful in Spring–in the idyllic garden they made–

but when Summer came,

it was singed white cheeks

and charred pale lips, preserved forever in amber:

 

There once was a girl released into a cruel world by eager hands

when all she knew was love and caress–

so she never could have lived past Spring

not even in the poem: but instead

surrendered to the first stroke of Summer sun

in that transcendent way

of melting stars like butter

or withering skin like prunes

and lost youth like love

 

So when the tidal wave came just for her

(the rosy infant, the silver toddler, the milky girl)

she was not afraid,

felt nothing at all when she leapt off the crumbling surface of this barren Earth:

caught her soul of light in a guileless Mother Sea embrace

that swathed her in a starry quilt

and shuttled her home at last.

 

In the epilogue, we can only ever dwell on younger days

the flimsy, flinty promise of a brighter day

that lingers in still air like the perfumed sizzle of Spring:

exists in a memory, or was it the poem?

 

In the afterlife, it was an eternal dream from which she never could wake,

in which little honeysuckles grew, amber and lonely;

when the weathered Maker and the rosy-lipped Doll

and everyone who once

crawled tread walked this bitter barren Earth

could whisper pretty things and sing lush songs

about a girl who burned–forever.

 

Avery Lin is a 10th grade student and Balanchine ballet dancer. She lives in New York City with her mom and her younger brother. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, watching the Noggin channel and staying up late reading all kinds of fantasy.

Art by Saki Onoe

Not Your Numbers

Sara Jhong warns against the use of standardized test results and other “numbers” as a way of measuring students’ success in “Not Your Numbers.”

I was five when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re born into a first-generation Korean-American family, even at five, you learn to hold your tongue about your ambitions. Instead, I confided in my grandfather—curled around him in his library, I told him what I was afraid to tell my own parents. He looked at me sympathetically as if he knew there would be so much that I’d have to endure to even have a chance at writing, and whispered, “There needs to be someone in this family who is in love with what they do.” I wrapped my arms around him; I think I cried.

I’m sure somewhere throughout my academic career I convinced myself that my writing was inconsequentially a part of who I was. Somewhere along my timeline were moments that led up to it: my third grade teacher putting “incredible!” at the top of all my writing, the speech I wrote in sixth grade that my teacher called “irrefutably beautiful” before I even knew what ‘irrefutably’ meant, the essay contest I won at the beginning of my junior year of high-school. I’m sure five-year-old me unknowingly learned to tie the voice in my writing to who I was. I’m sure I expected to grow into my identity as a writer like toddlers expect to grow into their parents’ clothes when they play dress up, even when they’re so small that the sleeves hang off their arms and trail on the ground behind them.

But on my seventeenth birthday, I lost my first writing competition—a mandated essay given by my school’s junior year English teachers. It was only then that I became solemnly convinced by the itchy feeling of lost ambition that the dream that I intended to grow up into didn’t fit me right around the shoulders and didn’t hug me in all the right places and left me a forgone version of myself. I wasn’t upset because I lost, as I explained to my English teacher shortly after, I was upset because I seemed to have deceived myself for years that this dream that I held so close to my heart was not mine to hold. I was upset because I felt as though a piece of me died: the only piece of me that I loved unconditionally.

Naturally, most people responded to my unsettlement by insisting that this one loss was not a reflection of who I was as a writer: it didn’t invalidate my writing or my love for my craft. Instead, to everyone else, it was just what it seemed to be—a loss. Friends and family couldn’t
comprehend why I was so upset, and truthfully, neither could I. It was only after taking a step back from the situation that I realized that the root of why I was so torn up was because somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that my writing was directly correlated to my worth. So if my writing wasn’t enough, I wasn’t either.

Suddenly, as I walked the halls of my academically competitive high-school, I realized that students from all across the board tied their worth to marks on papers and numbers on scantrons. In the same way that I believed my writing had a direct correlation to my worth, my peers held the same mentality about the numbers on their transcripts. And so did I. I became overtly cognizant of how unhealthy and unstable that attitude could be, but I could not abandon it. Even as I talked to peers throughout many different grade levels, they remarked that they felt the same way, but there was nothing they could do to change it. Having your worth determined by numbers and letters seemed to be a frightening standardization that most students are all too willing to accept as the general norm. As public school education becomes more competitive in the coming years, it will only get worse.

When I entered high-school, my ambition for writing was still there, so I’m confident that age didn’t distort my vision at all. Instead what I’ve come to realize throughout my years of public education is that the moment I began losing faith in that dream was when I started to see myself as a reflection of my grades rather than my passion: two-dimensional numbers on transcripts. The grade at the top of my in-class essay was more important than the writing that went into it—somehow the words on the page seemed to matter less than the single letter at the top of my paper. Who I was as a writer and a student became determined by people who only knew me for forty minutes a day, five days a week, and I let their impression of me and my work become a direct reflection of who I was. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I began hating what I saw in the mirror. It’s no wonder that so many students feel the same way.

School administrators nationwide tell students that their grades do not define them and that they’re more than the letters written on their transcripts. But they also recognize them as seven-digit student IDs and judge them by what can be valued on paper. Even the most well-rounded students get processed through the mass machine of public education and come out the other side two-dimensional. We insist that a set of numbers doesn’t define our children—we’re wrong.

Adam Grant, the author of “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” remarks that grades have little correlation with “creativity… and teamwork skills,” yet students still equate their worth to them, “[creating] an academic arms race,… [where]… students… strive for meaningless perfection.” The root of this problem has nothing to do with misconception—students are, for the most part, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that, in the long run, their SAT and AP exam scores won’t matter. The genuine issue is that it isn’t enough that in the long run, they won’t matter, because in their current state in their existing classrooms, they view their worth as directly correlated by those types of exams. The now is more critical, more consuming than the long-term consequences. Grant even illustrates the concept that in the workforce, more successful people are actually the students with lower GPAs and exam scores, and their high-scoring counterparts usually cannot find the strength within themselves to excel in real-world scenarios. We raise our children through a public education system that has almost no correlation between working in their schools and working in the real world. However, even if students know all this, and I’m afraid most of them do, they are still compelled by the notion to aim for the unobtainable. Because it’s not just their grades on the line, it’s their self-worth too.

Ideally, students would earn grades reflective of the time and effort they put in, but in reality, students who employ lucky guesswork on multiple choice exams are essentially equal to the students who know how to do the accurate work to complete problems. Because there’s no difference between these types of answers or students, students see their efforts as meaningless, or worse, fruitless, convinced they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have grades to show for it. Schools put awarding work ethic, and effort in the backseat behind the actual grades students earn, encouraging them to believe that how hard they work isn’t what matters—at the end of the day, it’s all about the number.

Stanford columnist Annie Jia references psychologist Madeline Levine’s quote that when students “‘feel… they’re only as good as their last performance, [they develop]… the inability to construct an internal sense of self.’” When you base your self-perception on your own and other people’s merits, you’re disappointed continuously, ceding to the same malicious mindset of many students. While academic competition is healthy and constructive for most school environments, the same competition can become debilitating and destructive for students if they don’t understand that their grades are not a determinant factor of their worth. The institution of this mass mentality leads kids to believe that if their grades aren’t as good as their peers, neither are they. Numbers only define this spectrum of self-worth; it doesn’t take into consideration students’ moral standing, personality, work ethic, or character.

When you don’t know the boy in your physics class, but know he has a C; when you’ve never spoken to that girl in history class, but you know her last quiz grade, understand that it’s easy to hang a number over someone’s head to measure their worth; it’s hard to look at people as more than that. Students do it all over the nation, and if we raise a generation so number-obsessed, aren’t we raising a generation that will never be satisfied with their worth or their accomplishments. Aren’t we raising children who invariably go through a cycle of believing that they are not good enough if they don’t have the numbers to show for it? Changing how you see people doesn’t require changing the world—it requires changing yours. Though schools determine students’ merit by grades earned and classes taken, I remind myself that students must be more than that. Because in the end, students aren’t two-dimensional reflections of a number, a letter, or a transcript, but products of passion, ambition, and heart: things that cannot be measured on paper.

Sara Jhong is a high school junior at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She has won awards from previous writing competitions in the past and greatly enjoys the Parallax Journal.

Displacement by Sumin Seo

Scars

Margaret Madole illustrates the struggle of helping friends with mental illnesses survive another day in “Scars.”

When I look at my wrists, I expect to see her scars. It doesn’t matter when I glimpse them—at dance, in the shower, on the bus—it always seems wrong that they are unblemished, perfect and whole in every way that hers are not. I can’t feel any other way, not when we live an hour apart and yet I keep her tucked in my pocket, closer than any neighbor. I never stop checking for her texts; I pause in the middle of phone calls with others just to type my replies. When she asks for a high number, I give it to her without question, and agree that yes, I will send her 93 texts if it will keep her from putting scissors to her skin and making more of those wounds. My English presentation can wait until we’re done—it can wait forever if it needs to. I ask my friends from school, the people who somehow have become less important than a girl who ever since we left camp has existed only within my phone, her soul contained in circuit boards and enclosed in a plastic shell, how I am supposed to care about Thoreau when all the way on the other side of the state, my friend has decided not to eat for fourteen days and there is nothing I can do to stop her. I don’t tell them that I half-expect to be the one who will faint from hunger in the middle of class before the two weeks are up if I don’t somehow talk her out of it. The worry keeps me from memorizing my speech, and yet I can recall exactly what she ate on December second: a single candy cane. Is it any wonder that I expect my frame to be skeletal, my stomach flat to the point of hollowness, my lunch box still full at the end of every day?

It seems unfair, even when she’s in the thick of it, for me to claim I feel anything at all. My wrists are empty, my stomach full, my brain free from the lies of mental illness. I know I cannot tell a teacher, “I can’t do this presentation because my friend is depressed.” Besides, I fear they’ll tell me that I’m wrong, that I should just leave it all to the professionals. They don’t know that I emailed her school counselor and still, when she stopped eating completely not once, but twice, it was me who snapped her out of it the first time and me who led our friend to give the warning that saved her the second time, even though her counselor had been pulling her from class for a period every day. The professionals cannot text her at midnight to keep away the doubts that crop up while everyone else is sleeping. So I learned how to fight with her, to throw every thought onto my keyboard in the hope that just one will click. The words to an anti-suicide speech are typed at the slightest alarming message, before I can even think about what to say. I have already adapted so much that it seems a miracle that my outside does not match my inside, that my figure has not lost its padding to the jaws of unsatiated hunger, that I can wear short sleeves without the fear of exposing white “cat scratches,” and that after everything, the only way we match is the bags under our eyes. It only seems fair that if I feel her anguish, I should carry her wounds.

After a month, her mother sends her to the hospital for evaluation.  There will be no more scars made with scissors, no more delayed meals, no more early morning conversations. Those are not allowed in psych wards. Meanwhile, I remain at home, in school, trapped in my own sort of isolation. A part of me enters the hospital with her as her wrists heal and her hunger dissipates; the rest lingers in honors classes, pretends that everything is all right. I hide how I’m afraid of her coming back with nothing fixed. I resist the urge to ask everyone fretting about their grades if they’ve ever thought about what it’s like to have real problems. I have to right to shout at them. After all, I am safe. I eat regularly. I have no lines on my wrists. But if that’s true, then how come in my worried haze, I can see the scars residing on my arms, bright and clear, marking me forever? Why am I, too, overcome with fear at being removed from everything I care about until some doctor deems me stable? How come, every time I look in the mirror, I am able to count my ribs?

 

Margaret Madole is a 16-year-old sophomore from Connecticut who refuses to be reduced to a collection of nouns in a bio. Other people have described her as a writer, actress, dancer, violist, and girl scout. She prefers adjectives like eclectic, loud, enthusiastic, nerdy, and creative.

Visual Art by Öykü Seran Harman

Wednesday

Grace Meyer’s piece depicts the melancholic demise of a friendship.

 

Ten o’clock is too late at night to meet for a date,

but our young hands ache from pencils and

TV dinners told us we should be together.

 

We walk to the The Oriental Pearl,

where a quiet raisin of a woman

serves us a sleepy bowl of rice.

 

We sit silently as rain slides down the windows.

The waitress wants to go home to her soap operas.

I think about kissing another boy, maybe a girl.

 

You tell me you don’t think things are working out:

I’m distant, we both deserve better,

your dad is hounding you about baseball.

 

You slowly put on your wet coat, smile at me with pity.

I stare at droplets of spilled tea on the waxy wood.

They look like the shapes of continents undiscovered.

 

 

Grace Meyer is a junior at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts. She won a Fine Arts Award for Creative Writing from Interlochen Center for the Arts. When she is not writing she enjoys running, baking, and photographing her dog. 

 

Art by Holli Shelton.

An Interview With Carrie Murphy

Two Idyllwild Arts creative writers were given the opportunity to sit down with poet and freelance writer, Carrie Murphy, to talk about her education, life, and upbringing as a writer.

Carrie Murphy is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of Fat Daisies and Pretty Tilt.  Her work often discusses subjects like sex and feminism along with capturing the mindset and delirium of a teenage girl through pop culture references and real life experiences. In this interview, Evan Lytle and Danae Devine got to dig deeper into Carrie’s life as a part time doula and writer.

 

Carrie Murphy Q&A

 

Q: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

 

A: Actually no, in high school I wanted to be an actress and was involved in theater and did a lot of plays. I studied drama in college but I realized it wasn’t my deal–too many big personalities and egos, so I decided to get my major in English. I had always liked writing as a kid and had entered in a lot of contests but didn’t see it as a career for myself until later in college. It always seemed like this cultural thing that writing has to be the only thing you’ve ever wanted, and I don’t discount people for always wanting to be a writer, and I’m still young, but writing isn’t the only thing I want and I don’t want to restrict myself to it.

 

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your occupation as a doula and how that contributes to your writing, if it does at all? But first, what is a Doula?

 

A: Ok, a doula is somebody who is there for pregnant women to give emotional support and physical training and assistance.

 

Q: Did you need to get some kind of certificate to be a certified legal doula?

 

A: Yes, it’s called a DONA, which means Doula Organization of North America, and so far I haven’t used any of my work as a doula for material because it’s such a personal occupation that I would need special permission from my patients to even base a story off an experience we had together. I don’t see myself wanting to use any of the experiences I’ve had as a doula in my poetry now but possibly down the line I’ll have a good handful of characters and situations I can apply from my doula work.

 

Q: Your poetry seems to have a youthful, coming of age sort of vibe.  Can you say what inspired that or where that came from?

A: Well about 5-6 years ago, I had started to notice that there wasn’t a lot of writing about being a girl teenager grappling with the world. I hadn’t seen a lot of poetry about girlhood–besides the gurlesque movement that combines cute and grotesque qualities like tropes about menstrual blood and ripping penises off–so I started to write about being a teen. Things were vibrant and colorful and little things meant so much more, like even if a guy’s leg touched mine. There is a big misconception that “teenagers are dumb,” which isn’t true for all of them. By my twenties I started to mourn the loss of a teenager’s sense of intensity and being overwhelmed.

Q: Do you find living in New Mexico to be beneficial to your writing career? What made you decide you wanted to go to school there? How was the transition from Baltimore to Albuquerque?

 

A: Well, I actually did my first year of college in New York, then a year in Massachusetts, then I finished up for two years at the University of Maryland where I got my BA. My parents were sick of this constant moving, so wherever I was going I had to stay there, and so I went to New Mexico State University where I got my MFA. I fell in love with the desert, the pace of life. It has its own culture. I graduated from there and decided I wanted to live in New Mexico after college. I don’t really write about it that much, maybe later, but New Mexico is my soul’s home. That is my place.

 

Q: What is “Dirt City Collective?”

 

A: Oh, that’s my writing group in Albuquerque, you know, my “crew.” I say writing group because we’re not just a poetry group. We’re full of all different types of writers that are in the group to support each other’s creative ideas and goals. We host readings all over Albuquerque and book releases and other literary events. Just a cool little group, my homies.

 

Q: So why do you like writing?

 

A: It’s just something I do–I would feel weird if i didn’t do it. It’s something that I’m good at and comes easily to me. If you don’t write everyday, then you’re not a writer. I don’t think that we have to live in a box, I think now we have more freedom to create. I think we’re more concerned about liking our job than just having a job to survive.

Masi-America

This is a review of ‘Pig Park’, an incredibly relatable novel by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, depicting a lovely summer story about the hardships of a failing town just outside of Chicago, and the families trying to keep it alive after its economic downturn.

Pig Park” by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

 

“I thought myself into a circle-or maybe a knot–like a dog chasing it’s tail. I arrived at an impasse. Like I said, even if things didn’t work out, at the very least my friends and I would get to spend our last summer together. It was something like my last meal or–since I’m the Cinderella of crumbs–having a fairy godmother grant me one last wish.”

Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, of El Paso, Texas, has written a lovely summer story about the hardships of a failing town just outside of Chicago, and the families trying to keep it alive after its economic downturn.

After the lard company left Pig Park, many of its inhabitants left with it. The high school shut down, businesses lost customers, and everything seemed to be going wrong until the last man making money offered up a way to save Pig Park. “A pyramid is little more than simple geometry. Two triangles here, two triangles there. I can lead the construction project,” he said and waved his hand. The grown-ups huddled together. Colonel Franco had hit on it with fewer words: a crazy plan had to be better than no plan at all. They were desperate enough that they decided every girl and boy would report to the park to help Colonel Franco with the construction.”

If you’re thinking that manual labor is not the way you’d want to spend your summer, you wouldn’t be alone. But for Martinez’s protagonist, Masi Burciaga, it was the perfect excuse to get out of her family’s bakery and into the sun with her best friend, Josephina. Unfortunately for Masi, Colonel Franco moves all the girls inside temporarily to write letters telling government officials all about Pig Park and La Gran Piramide. Masi, unsure of how to ask complete strangers for their attention and money, writes dozens of drafts before deciding on the two brilliant sentences that she thinks will save her town:

“So a bunch of us want to hang out, build a pyramid in the middle of Pig Park and save our neighborhood. Are you in?”

Pig Park is an incredibly relatable story that deals with everything from boys to divorce, baking to disease, in the eyes of a fifteen-year- old girl one summer where everyone seems to be getting the short end of the stick. Martinez does a fantastic job bringing up all of the beautiful, tiny, everyday details like burnt toast and melted chapstick to relieve the reader of the intense topic of a failing economy and its stressful repercussions within individual families. Pig Park is a great read with a great message about appreciation and rolling with the punches.

“Are we going to be okay?” I looked at my dad. My dad couldn’t give a simple answer to my question because he was hopeful. He was willing to gamble, but it wasn’t just up to him or my mom or me. Our entire neighborhood was on the line. The Nowaks, the Sanchezes, the Fernandezes, the Sustaitas, the Wongs and everyone else had as much of a stake in this. One thing was clear. This wasn’t MesoAmerica. MasaAmerica maybe. Or even MasiAmerica.”

 

By Kathleen Johnson

An Interview with Samantha Dunn

During her visit, the Parallax editors got to sit down and interview Samantha Dunn, fiction and nonfiction writer, about female representation in writing, the writing process, and how to deal with criticism.

Question: What is your main goal or intention you hope to achieve through your writing?

Samantha Dunn: One, to make a living. I’ve survived by the pen. There’s a certain amount of professionalism I have to maintain to keep a roof over my head. But really, that’s a complicated answer for me. I think it can be broken down to wanting to connect with someone other than myself, to break the illusion that I exist solely on my own. There’s an intense loneliness everyone walks around with, but for writers it’s exacerbated. Truly, there’s a sense of putting that voice out into the universe and seeing if it hits anyone, to see if there’s something there. And also to witness others. We are unique entities and we exist in a certain place in time. How many worlds exist in a person? One type of mixture might have happened in 1972 and then again today, but they do not have the same experiences. Our lives are these incredible spinning orbits. What is real, for me, is to witness experience.

Q: How do you feel you have been successful in achieving this goal in your writing?

S: Most days, I do not feel that successful. Like every writer I battle the Who cares? Oh my God what am I doing with my life reaction. I know that, having done this for a while, people have read my works. I have been the recipient of many letters and communications that say to me, very directly, “I’ve read this, and it mattered to me. Thank you for writing this.” Or sometimes they will say, “You suck. You are so stupid. I can’t believe you still breathe air. Who publishes you?” Even that is engagement. If I can piss you off that much,  it means I’ve provoked something. Yay. We’re alive, we’re in discussion. We’re in communication. My big claim to fame, kind of jokingly, is there’s a store called “Title 9,” (which is all women’s sports and fitness wear up in Seattle), and at one point,  they had one of my quotes from my book on their bag. And I thought “Wow! Somebody’s reading.” It is funny. As writers, we are not glamorous. The paparazzi is not stalking us. I was at a faculty dinner one time for the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and we, the entire faculty, were walking down the street. In this group was Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, William Kennedy. Basically, what I am telling is that I was the slacker in this group; I was the one who had not won the Pulitzer Prize. We were walking down the street and no one was even looking sideways at us. And I thought, “Wow, in Hollywood, if the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were walking down the street everyone would be like ‘Woah!’” But, some of the most exalted writers in American literature were walking down the street unperturbed. That’s it. That’s the life of a writer. We are alone a lot. Yet, somehow, the message in the bottle does reach another shore. I don’t know how, but it does.

Q: How did it affect you (or your writing) when people would respond to your work, positively or negatively?

S: Great question. Luckily, a great many of my friends are truly famous. For good or bad, that has not occurred to me yet, even with the amount of attention I have received. I was in People Magazine once. The book was panned. It had my picture and then a lot of bad stuff was said about me and it really froze me for a while because I thought, “Wow, I’m stupid. People are just gonna make fun of this.” But, then, on the opposite end, I did get those letters that said, “This meant so much to me,” and I thought, “You know what. You just have to talk to your people.” Screw all the others. Fuck all of y’all. Just talk to the people for whom it matters. When I start to get into that mindset of “My writing is about me talking to you,” then I am able to maintain that intimacy with that reader. The more I am able to maintain that intimacy, the more relaxed and productive I am.

Q: Were there any events which prompted you to become a writer?

S: Yes, I can give you a little anecdote. When I was in elementary school I won a Campfire Girls’ National competition. I wrote a poem on what freedom is and I was the 2nd prize winner. I was like “Oh! Writer, this is what it is.” But it’s also a much bigger story than that. My mother was a single mom and always very busy and she loved to read. Culturally, her family was working class Irish. They were all storytellers. If I have to psychoanalyze myself, it was me thinking, ‘How can I get her attention?’ I wanted that validation. Her reading something was profound for me. That had a deep impression. It was the thing we did. We told jokes and stories. It was always very lively in my house.

Q: What inspired you to start teaching?

S: There was no reason for me except to seek human contact. I was living the dream. I didn’t have to get out of my pajamas for shit. Yet, there was no way for me to connect on a regular daily basis. My friend, Les Plesko, a very dear friend and a brilliant novelist, taught at the UCLA Writers’ program. He said “Sam, you should just teach a class. It’ll get you out on Tuesdays.” That was why I did it initially. I had no other reason to be around people. But, I loved it. It is like my religion, my church, giving my life resonance and meaning. God, what privilege is that? To be a part in other writers’ journeys to discover their own voice; that’s an incredible privilege. I love it–I don’t teach for the money, honey [laughs].

Q: What inspires you to write fiction? And what inspires you to write nonfiction?

S: I really do believe they’re different, fiction and nonfiction. The muscles we put in are different. I think for fiction, the stories arrive. Nonfiction, for me, has to be circumscribed by fact. It’s what happened. It’s me making meaning about what happened; insight done beautifully. It is the thing that kind of holds the world together. With fiction, the stories arrive on currents. Out of scenes, physical experience, taken off on their own. I wrote a short story called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” that ran in a journal called Black Clock. That story arrived with a voice in my head, a young guy kind of talking. He was talking about tortillas. It was like a rant on tortillas! I sat around and waited for more of that to reveal itself. It’s like dreaming. You just wait for it to reveal itself to you. It arrives in a different way. I don’t have much time for fiction, because fiction comes out of silence, which is not the case for me right now.  Memoirs are the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves and others. No safety net. It’s you trying to make meaning out of what’s going on.

Q: Was there an event that prompted you to write your novel, Failing Paris?

S: The anger at a girl in my workshop class who wrote a story romanticizing Paris. It’s not all puppies and Luxembourg! It’s sexism and racism! The most beautiful and yet the most debase. It’s all of these things at once. It exploded from me, This is how it is.

Q: Do you think your writing is empowering for young women, especially your nonfiction article “My Not-So-Bikini-Body”?

S: I hope it is, but you can’t write hoping to inspire. You can just witness your own experience. David Walcott says, “A writer’s job is to state the condition.” Hopefully, you as the reader will find meaning in it for yourself. I can’t hope for a message. I’m just telling you what it is to be like in this body.

Q: Have you ever felt that there is a lack of female representation in famous, frequented literature?

S: Fuck yeah! If you look at most of the award winners, they are guys! Dudes! Hello! Even this year, Kirkus did a list of “The Most Important Books of 2014.” One of them was written by a woman. If I throw a rock, I hit 15 incredible female writers. There’s still a long conversation to be had about where the female writers are. That’s why people like Cheryl Strayed, whose success has been phenomenal with the book Wild, are really important. That’s a book about a woman going into the woods, not because she had a bad romance—I mean, sure, she went through a divorce. But, it was really about the death of her mother and about the incredible grief she suffered. It was her on a journey of transformation, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It doesn’t terminate with her being swept off her feet by some handsome stranger.  It terminates with her on her own two feet. And the success of that book has been astronomical. I cannot underestimate the importance of that. It is huge. Cheryl’s story hit the vein, but there are amazing stories like this written by women all the time. That’s not to take away stories written by our brothers. It’s not. But, for so many centuries we were not even allowed to write and that still hangs over our heads, culturally and personally.

Q: Who are some female writers that have left their mark upon your work?

S: For better or for worse, Kate Braverman, because she was my first “bad mother.” But, also, when I read Virginia Woolf in college, she kind of blew the top of my head off. I did not know anyone could create a sentence like that. I did not know you could be so intensely personal. Same with Anaïs Nin. I read her, and her sexuality and writing so honestly about what was happening to her, my God! It was an access of freedom that I never knew. Also, Judith Krantz, who was a crass commercial best seller. I read her books when I was fifteen and it was the book, Scruples, a supermarket paperback. But, the heroine was defining her own life and doing her own thing and becoming a millionaire on her own! She was leaving men broken-hearted, she was not being left broken hearted, and I found real power in that. And also, I must say, from college on, Joan Didion has been my Alpha and Omega. I met her once at a reading and I was that geeky girl with fifteen of her books. I had nothing to say when I got up there, and she very politely signed my books while I stood there like a dummy. It was a huge moment for me. She really is the one writer I think I would most like to emulate.

Q: Could you describe your writing process? How do you pace yourself when writing longer pieces and how do you plan them out?

S: Before becoming a mother, I would write everyday.  The morning is the most fruitful for me. I would usually write from about seven o’clock in the morning to around nine o’clock, then throw myself back onto my bed to go to sleep. Then I would get up, write for a couple more hours, and be done for the day. I couldn’t do anything else. So, about four hours of solid writing was the most I could ever get. But then as the projects really start to take shape, really form where you’re almost at the end, it really becomes this all encompassing thing. I would sleep with my laptop, I kid you not. But now, I have a son and a husband. It’s hard. I cannot be precious about my writing at all anymore. I have to write whenever I get the time. Now, if I don’t write between 8:30 and 1:00, it’s just not gonna get done. Because then my son will get home and chaos ensues. There is no space in my brain. There is no space in my life. There is no physical way for me to get to the space I need to. I mean, I have an office that is in a separate building from my house, but it’s still on the property, so they know where to find me, and they do. When I really need to write, I will write in my car.

Q: You discuss intense personal stories in your memoirs and essays. A lot of writers find it difficult to write non-fiction because it is hard to open up about your experiences. Do you have any advice for that dilemma?

S: That’s huge. Because there is this thing of, “Don’t tell.” The rule breaking in the family: you cannot tell. It’s sometimes not explicitly said but you know it. So, I would say don’t force yourself into anything. Just keep writing. Just know, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s stemming from someplace important. If you are crying when you’re writing, it’s important. You have to say to yourself, What the fuck. I don’t care. That’s the space you need to be in, that emotional space.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of uncomfortability as you were writing?

S: Yeah. A lot. Really uncomfortable. Like, Wow. I’m afraid. I don’t know what people are gonna think about this. When my novel went into Kindle, it went into a whole other audience—before it was just in this literary community with people who had read Sylvia Plath. Then it went into this world where people are like, “I’m vegan and I’m anti-abortion. I can’t read this.” Like, what? Or people would say, “Wow. This is really depressing.” Yes, it is depressing. The hateful reactions were kind of my nightmare when I was writing that book, but now it doesn’t matter to me. People who don’t get it are not my people. Because I know the work matters. I have heard from the people for whom it matters. Not all the people but, I know that it matters to some. More importantly, I know that it mattered to me to express it. It’s not autobiography, but it does describe my experience, my emotional experience, and, more than that, it describes what I know is the emotional experience of other women. And that’s important to have out there. Good, bad, or indifferent. Happy, sad, or whatever you want to call it. I believe it is important.

Q: How do you balance talking about the subject and inputting your own opinions on the subject? Do you ever add in other people’s emotions or opinions?

S: Yes. You have to. A writer’s job is to have empathy. I have to, as much as I find it difficult, find empathy for those people in front of Planned Parenthood protesting. That’s our job as artists. For Failing Paris, I really wanted to get into that complexity of choice. Why couldn’t that woman be a mother? Why couldn’t she be there? I wanted to explore all of that in all the ways I could. That deep sense of mourning. The idea for me is how can I create empathy, no matter where it is in the story.