A Conversation With Lori White by KR fiction editor Nancy Zafris
Nancy Zafris: This is your first, or one of your first publications, is that right?
Lori White : I’ve had a few stories in smaller journals. This is my first publication in a major literary magazine.
NZ: Let’s talk a little bit about your story “Postcards from the Road” that appears in the summer issue of The Kenyon Review. It’s a short short, and we don’t do many short
shorts. But what I like about this piece is how you manage so many story
threads in such a compressed space, and how the story you seem to be
telling isn’t at all the real story. This real story emerged gradually, a
real feat in a short short, where “gradual” isn’t exactly the operative
LW: Thank you, Nancy. I actually suffer from size-envy when it comes to my stories, so that’s nice to hear. Writing is such a slow, painful process for me. I’m amazed by people who can sit down and whip out ten good pages.
NZ: My question, then, is this: Did any of these story lines take you by
surprise? The brother’s ex-wife, for example, did you have that character
and story line planned all along?
LW: Most all of the threads were a surprise, actually. I had the main character, Nate, in mind for a while. I’d spent the last year of graduate school essentially hibernating in my house, going out only to work or to walk my dog. I would walk around my neighborhood, making sure to pass by this one neighbor’s house at least once a day. I called him “The Hoarder.” I liked to see what was new in his driveway and on his front lawn: broken furniture, cardboard boxes, a fishing skiff, old mattresses. He had four or five cars parked on the street, stuffed to the roof with unidentifiable junk. He also had a brand-new Hummer with Texas plates, the one car he kept clean. I could never figure that out. His neighbors started to get upset. I think a building inspector was even called out. Frankly, I was obsessed with him, talked about him all the time. My friends and my sister started to ask for updates. He became my narrator. But that’s all I knew going into the story. That’s probably what made it work. I’m not sure Nate’s hoarding traits are that apparent in the story, which is ironic.
NZ: What is the writing life like for you? You obviously aren’t earning
a living as a writer, and you also live in Los Angeles, an expensive city.
And you’re still in that slush pile phase. Do you feel ignored and lonely?
How do you balance work with writing?
LW: Your question interests me a great deal, partly because I feel that even though we encourage students—well, at least I encourage my students—to cross genres, such crossing may not always be the best move in the eyes of some literary communities. For the most part, we’re a very specialized bunch. The label “man of letters” or “woman of letters” hardly exists anymore, at least not in M.F.A. circles or in most undergraduate programs or writing conferences, for that matter. My personal experience has been that if you write and publish in more than one genre, especially equally, you might not be fully trusted in any particular camp. If you are a poet who writes essays—aside from academic or critical essays about poetry—certain poets might consider you suspect. Ditto, an essayist who writes poems. Crossing genres, or, worse, never having declared your country of origin in the first place, is seen as suspect by some readers, critics, and fellow writers.
NZ: What are you thinking about when you write? Are you thinking about
publication? Are you thinking about the success of other writers? I guess
I mean to ask, do you feel caught up in a sense of futility, or do you
approach your keyboard with a sense of joy?
LW: Basically, I’m just happy to get to my desk. A sense of joy? Not often, but I hope for it. I try very hard not to think about publication. I’m also trying very hard not to think about my writing. Thinking seems only to get in the way of my writing. I went to Robert Olen Butler’s seminar at AWP this past March, and I was struck by his approach. My best stories have little or no conscious thought behind them at all. And they came very easily, maybe even joyfully. Of course, this won’t always be the case, but I do believe that consciously thinking about what I’m writing, or what I’m going to write, ends up killing the story.
I do get overwhelmed by the futility of writing and publishing, and I do get discouraged. Other writers’ successes, particularly writers I know, can get me down, which is horrible to admit, but it’s true–even when one of my closest friends, who is a very talented poet and writer, gets an acceptance. I’m thrilled for him. But there’s a whiny part of me, a part I’m embarrassed to reveal, that thinks, “Why not me?” That’s where the bigger picture comes in. Eventually. The thrill of successful writing and getting published is over fast. Too fast, given how hard it is to achieve that success. I’ve learned from watching successful writers—including you, Nancy—who seem to have full lives outside of their writing. Their sense of fulfillment supports and informs their writing, not the other way around. I feel very fortunate. I’m happy with my life now, and an increasingly smaller portion of that happiness comes from successful writing. Of course, my hope now is that more successful writing will follow. Oops, maybe I just contradicted myself!
NZ: You graduated fairly recently from a low-residency M.F.A. program
(Antioch-Los Angeles). What was the low-residency experience like?
LW: I didn’t go back to school until I was forty-one. I had been writing only a short time, taking extension classes at Cal State Northridge and UCLA. Time was running out for me. Or it felt like it was. I wanted to give myself a block of time to devote to writing. The low-residency program allowed me the flexibility to set my own schedule, for working and for writing. More important, the silence inherent in a low-residency program helped me prepare for the realities of the writing life. That was one of Antioch’s major sales pitches that appealed to me when I was considering different programs. I also knew that traditional writing workshops weren’t that helpful for me; I usually ended up more confused about my story.
NZ: The low-residency program didn’t have workshops?
LW: The low-residency program reduced the amount of workshop time. It forced me to find different ways to connect with other students. Antioch’s program is unusual in that there is an online component that helps students stay in touch between residencies. But e-mail is limited; it’s so hard to decipher tone. I lucked out. I made a close connection with another student during our first residency. We decided to talk once a month—he lives in Detroit. We took turns calling each other; our conversations averaged about two hours. We gradually became comfortable sharing our vulnerabilities about school and writing. This relationship was crucial to my low-residency experience. It kept me from feeling too alone. And it continues to help me. We still talk every month and see each other at least once a year, if not more.
NZ: Many people drop out, for lack of a better word, from writing once
they get their degree. A lot of people. Why do you think that is?
LW: I think graduate school gives writers structure, a system of demand and supply. Those two years are intense. I remember one senior from my first residency workshop. I e-mailed her a month after she graduated, and she said all she could do was come home from work and watch TV. Graduate school wiped her out. Once you graduate, you’re on your own. If you don’t stay in shape, writing-wise, after graduate school, returning to your desk only gets tougher.
NZ: So have you struggled with writing since graduating?
LW: Oh, yes. I have Rosellen Brown’s four rules from The Writer’s Process posted above my desk: 1) Show up. 2) Pay attention. 3) Tell the truth. 4) Don’t be attached to results. I keep creating writing opportunities for myself, where I have to show up. Kenyon’s summer writing workshop is a good example. I look at that week as a gift to myself. I have to show up and write. What makes a week like that even scarier is when I don’t have a decent writing practice going in. But all those insecurities come up, regardless. I have to let myself off the hook—not being attached to results has to be my main goal. Otherwise, I’ll drive myself crazy and never get any writing done.
NZ: You’ve also started teaching, correct?
LW: I have. That was my other goal for getting my M.F.A.: I wanted to teach. While this was true, it also gave me an easy answer when people asked me what I was going to do once I got my M.F.A. I got my first class at a two-year college in the San Fernando Valley a month after I graduated. For a while, I taught one class each semester and continued to work part-time at my retail job. Recently, I made a change. I’m only teaching now.
NZ: How has that been? What was it like walking into a classroom for the
first time to teach?
LW: I really enjoy teaching, which is a big surprise. When I got my bachelor’s in English more than twenty years ago, people asked me if I wanted to teach. I immediately answered with a resounding “No!” More of my mid-life crisis, I guess. Teaching is very rewarding. Every day challenges me: psychologically, creatively, and intellectually. And it keeps me thinking—in a positive way—about writing. I’m elated when I have a good class. When a class doesn’t go well, I figure out why and apply that knowledge to the next class. I haven’t experienced the problems many writers feel in regards to teaching. Though I’d like to, I can’t blame my students when I’m not writing.
I got my first class, literally, three days before the semester started. A friend of mine said, “You’re going to have a lesson plan, right?” I said, “What’s a lesson plan?” When I walked into class the first day, I was terrified. I still get nervous before class. When students asked me questions, especially about grammar, I had to get used to saying, “I have no idea. I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Telling my students I don’t know something seems to make them feel good. It takes the pressure off both of us. It also helps build trust. My best teachers taught me what it means to be generous. I want to give the same to my students.
NZ: A great final thought, Lori. Thanks so much.