Elizabeth is one of those “true fans” and “true friends” I met online via the magic of WordPress. Her writing – her beauty of language and the lens through which she sees and appreciates the world – warmed me instantly, like a cup of sweet hot tea. I am delighted to share Beth’s gems of wisdom and words for this month’s Artist and Writer Interview series.
“Artist and Writer Interviews” spotlights working artists and writers – the spaces in which they work, where they find their inspiration, what makes them unique. I feature one artist or writer each month. If you are a working artist or writer who would like to be considered for this series, or if you want to recommend an artist or writer to interview for this series, please contact me.
Now, I turn the words over to Beth. May you be warmed, as I am, through her.
Where do you write?
I live in the middle of Escambia County, Florida, just outside of the city limits of Pensacola in an unincorporated area called Cantonment. My husband bought 92 acres of land there, a place he called “the deer woods,” way back in the 1970’s, before we met. It has become surrounded by about-to-be-developed land, grocery stores, a Starbucks, urgent care center, Chinese take-out, UPS store, churches, and hair salons, but when you enter our battered farm gate and close it behind you with a chain wrapped around it and hooked on a nail so it looks locked but isn’t, you enter a Longleaf pine and wildlife preserve that has turned this city girl into a nature writer. My desk looks out at a clearing in the woods.
When the weather is fine, I may sit under a spreading live oak to write or on a low tree-branch bench down by the stream-bed.
Do you find that place – your geographic surroundings – influence your writing?
Without a doubt. My husband and I owned a summer home in the mountains of North Carolina for seven years, and the experiences there of coming to know and love the mountain folk in the valley, the struggle to hike to the ridge tops and breathe in that astonishing air, all stimulated and changed my writing. It became more particular. And now, living full-time in the flatlands woods of northwest Florida influences the DNA of my writing.
Describe your writing space. How did it come into being, and why is it significant?
Nearly every morning, I slip out of bed while my husband is still sleeping and pad to my study, where I boot up the computer, then go to the kitchen to make coffee. My husband, Buck, created the study for me when he designed the plans for our home. My step-grandchildren call it “the President’s office,” and when they were little, they liked to hide under my desk.
The space itself has a traditional wood desk, bookshelves on two sides, a fireplace flanked by windows, and double glass and wood doors that open onto a dining room.
It’s significant because it’s not only a space where I can leave everything “as is” and not worry about it, but also because it’s a designated space and honors my efforts. There’s also an informal space upstairs I call “the treehouse” because windows and sliding glass doors make you feel like you’re in the trees. That’s where I keep all the craft books and my stash of Poets & Writers, The New Yorker, and Creative Nonfiction.
When do you do your writing?
Early mornings are my regular time, but since my husband has been writing a book, too, we both tend to write throughout the day, walk together for an hour most afternoons, and then return to our desks for a couple of hours after dinner. Being a post-retirement-from-regular-work writer is like living in a writer’s retreat.
Where do you find inspiration for what you write?
There’s another advantage in being an older writer. At 62, I have a large file cabinet of experiences. There’s always something to be uncovered, whether for fiction or creative nonfiction essays or flash pieces. A walk in the woods almost always helps me connect head and heart to keyboard. Essential inspiration, too, comes from folks I run into in everyday life, from the dedicated young woman with Down’s Syndrome who loves her job at the Publix grocery store, the clerk worried about his job at the post office who helps me when I lock my keys in the van, or our friend Harold, who brings me newly dug potatoes and other treats from his garden.
Why do you write?
I haven’t always written, other than catch-as-catch-can journals. It started with a blog in late 2003. It wasn’t until 2008, while I was enjoying enforced couch time with a broken foot, that I had an epiphany: maybe some of my old blog posts were worth a second look; maybe someone would publish them. That’s how my first piece, “The Pond Builder’s Son,” was accepted at Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. That’s the first time I began to whisper “Writer with a capital W, that’s what I want to be” to myself. When Brevity accepted my short essay, Tenderness, I gained confidence that if I worked hard and learned the craft, I might be able to find homes for my stories for the rest of my life. A big, thrilling thought.
What are you working on right now? How did the project come to you, and why is it important?
I am working on several projects: a series of creative nonfiction essays, a memoir (part of which involves gathering up all the shards of blogs and journals from the past thirty years), and the one dearest to my heart at the moment and the one that feels most daring – my first novel.
Writing fiction is a different venue for truth-telling, but unlike creative nonfiction, at least for me, it requires me to send my inner editor packing. It feels like a wild, organic process, and I love it. Eye of the Storm, my working title, is a coming of age tale about a young woman who gets a huge shock and discovers almost everything she thought she knew about her life isn’t true. As Grace struggles to learn her true identity, a hidden enemy hunts for her, too. It’s set primarily in Pensacola. There’s mystery, romance, a cat and mouse game, even a massive hurricane. In short: fun.
In the process of working with my husband on his own first novel, I have gotten an education about revision, copy editing, writing query letters, and persistence. We’re finishing the “final” final polish on his manuscript and will begin the hopeful/scary process of sending out query letters and samples in about two weeks in a quest to find an agent. Life in our electronic cottage in the woods is never dull!
What is one of the most important lessons you have learned through the writing process?
I’ve learned to keep everything as fodder; a fragment written in a morning writing session may gain life two years later as the basis for a published piece or form the nucleus of a short story or novel.
I’ve learned that when one literary journal or publishing venue rejects your work, to re-polish and send it out again. It may be rejected in one place and find an enthusiastic home in another.
I find great joy, meaning, and value in the process itself. That said, probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is to write every day, study the craft, read like a maniac, and send my work out into the world.
How do you balance time to write with other facets of life that demand attention?
The short answer is sometimes I am better at that than other times. Always, though, real life in the here and now trumps my writing schedule. The time may come when I have nothing but time to write, and I don’t want to amass any regrets about the way I spent my time when the opportunity to love up close and personal was in the room. The tension caused by the balancing acts every artist experiences may even increase our sense of urgency to create. I get some of my best ideas chopping vegetables for soup.
Who is your favorite author? How were you first exposed to this writer?
This is a tough question, but I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. The unvarnished truth is I don’t have a favorite author. I have a gazillion of them! Seriously, I am a voracious book omnivore, even more so of late, as I’ve intentionally exploded my comfort zone when it comes to fiction reading. For example, I’ve recently begun reading science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and Stephen King, who as your last interviewee, writer Jack Kline, noted, writes about “how people struggle and persevere.” Jack is so right. I have been amazed at how much I am enjoying and learning from Stephen King’s The Shining and its sequel, Doctor Sleep. My current favorite, and newest discovery, is Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch, The Secret History, and The Little Friend.
In nonfiction, some of my favorites are Joan Didion, Diane Ackerman, and Kathleen Norris.
Some advisers say: “Quit reading all the craft books; just write.” I love the craft books, and have no plan to give them up. My current favorite is Jeffrey Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: the illustrated guide to creative imaginative fiction.
Do you find that seasons inform your work?
Definitely. Unlike South Florida, we actually have seasons here in the Panhandle. I noticed walking in the woods yesterday that tiny wild blueberry blossoms have begun to unfurl. Renewal, winding down, dying, solace, the harshness of weather and comfort of shelter, memory and the relief of seeing the same vine renew itself each year after seeming to die in the winter, the surprise of a deer or young coyote looking you in the eye seemingly as full of curiosity about you as you are about them, all of these inform the words that spill onto the page.
A major theme in my novel turns on connection to the land. Grace discovers this love within herself after being exposed to seasons in a woodland sanctuary.
Who have been some of your biggest influences?
My piano teacher from the age of 9 to 17, Evelyn Clites. I imprinted on her like a baby duck during a difficult time of loss and tragedy in my own family. Any sense of grace, balance, discipline, or accomplishment I may achieve in life has its roots in those Saturday mornings every week at Mrs. Clites’ piano.
My husband, Buck, who is my inspiration, role model, lover, friend, running buddy, and writer’s group. When we first met, 33 years ago, he would say, “You’re better than you think you are.” Sometimes it made me mad. I didn’t understand what he meant. Now I know he was right. He also said: “Fear is paralysis at the brain stem level,” which always helps me deconstruct my tension and overcome writer’s block. Did I mention he’s my counsellor and guru, too?
Elizabeth Westmark’s essays have appeared in Brevity, Florida Flash: a Christmas Anthology, Prick of the Spindle, Girls with Insurance, Road Trip Journal, The Binnacle Ultra-Short 2009, Camroc Press Review, Muscadine Lines: a southern journal, and Dead Mule, among others. She is working on her first novel, a coming of age story, wrapped in a romance, inside a secret, dipped in danger & deep-fried by a Cat 5 Hurricane. Her website is Cubagirl: a live journal from Elizabeth Westmark.