When I met Alissa Johnson, we were young graduate students from the Midwest embarking on a two-year low-residency MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. She was from Minnesota. I was from Wyoming, but had recently moved to Kansas City. Our meeting in Connecticut was the beginning of a solid and lasting friendship — not only in the social sense, but also in the supportive sense as we gradually found ourselves trying to “make it” as real honest-to-goodness writers.
I saw Alissa through a hard and painful divorce, a time during which, as she writes in a brilliant essay, she found herself sharing bunk beds with her own mother. Alissa saw me through not one but two difficult pregnancies. I still have the supportive emails she sent me during those rough times.
Somewhere in the mix, as we tried to untangle the messiness of life and the relentless need to write (and in the process found it is precisely the messiness of life that turns up the gems about which we write), we became accountability partners. We agreed to hold each other to this hard and demanding task of writing, follow up with each other on our respective writing goals, encourage one another often, and read drafts and offer feedback as needed. In the process, Alissa has not only become one of my best friends; she has also become one of my favorite writers. Her wisdom and insight is contagious. I hope you enjoy her words here.
1) Where do you write?
Honestly? The first draft of any piece that truly matters to me gets written while sitting in bed. I occasionally write from the couch, and some revisions happen at my desk. I also become extremely focused about writing when I travel by airplane—there’s something about being forced to wait at the gate or sit in an airplane seat that drives me to write. But when it comes to my bed, there is no other place where I can write as freely.
2) Do you find that place – your geographic surroundings – influence your writing?
Absolutely, but it’s not by virtue of wanting to be a nature writer or a higher ambition to explore the meaning of landscape. My writing is informed by the way I live and the questions I encounter along the way. I tend to seek wild and remote places, whether that is living in a small mountain town in Colorado or traveling to the desert to climb. I get to know these places through climbing, skiing, running, hiking, camping, canoeing, traveling … things that tend to bring me up against challenge and give me a new perspective. Climbing, for example, gave me instant insight into the role that fear plays in life. I thought I’d worked through fear, and there I was, clinging to a cliff and paralyzed. It floored me, so I wrote about it. As a result, that particular canyon, river and rock all become part of the story.
3) Describe your writing space. How did it come into being, and why is it significant?
Are we talking about my bed again? I know this probably refers to my office space, but the reason I write in bed is because that’s where I spent months doing morning pages—three pages of freehand writing prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. At the time, I was confronting the vulnerability of writing head-on. I was writing a memoir for my thesis in graduate school, and I kept feeling the pull to write about topics I hadn’t admitted out loud or even to myself. Like the way I felt like I was dying because the life I’d created felt so suffocating. Or the way I was intensely unhappy in my relationship. I did not want to write about them, and yet I couldn’t write about anything else. When I started The Artist’s Way, I did the morning pages as soon as I woke up (well, after I’d gotten my first cup of coffee). I crawled back into bed and wrote freehand and slowly learned to trust my pen. It didn’t listen to the doubts in my mind. It cut through the chatter and went straight to the truth, and when I learned to trust that, my writing grew. So I suppose it’s ingrained in me now to write in the morning and in bed. The lesson here might be to choose your space for morning pages more wisely.
4) When do you do your writing?
Ideally in the morning before I’ve started to think too much, but when life gets busy, I write any time I can fit it in.
5) Where do you find inspiration for what you write?
Life. Generally speaking, it’s the things that don’t make sense to me that turn into stories and essays. Writing becomes a way of finding insight or perspective.
6) Why do you write?
When I don’t, life feels very empty. Like something major is missing.
7) What are you working on right now? How did the project come to you, and why is it important?
I’m working on a novel that I can’t explain in a sentence or two (yet). It was inspired by the de-listing of the wolf from the Endangered Species List in Minnesota and the subsequent implementation of a hunt. The human relationship to wolves has always fascinated me, but I felt a strong emotional reaction to the news and began writing what I thought would be an essay. Instead, I discovered a new character—a 12-year-old girl whose grandfather was involved in the movement to keep protecting the wolf and died on the eve of its delisting. She takes on his passion as her own. The story evolves from there, as her narrative weaves in and out of the narrative of her grandfather’s longtime friend, who supports the hunt. This is my first foray into fiction, and I have to say, I love it.
8) What is one of the most important lessons you have learned through the writing process?
At some point, writers are faced with a choice: write the story they thought they sat down to write, or write the story that arises. Often (if not always) the story that arises involves some kind of vulnerability. Revealing of personal details. Exploring unpopular opinions. It involves exposure of some kind, even in fiction. If you can overcome that vulnerability, you will uncover and write stories that resonate with readers on a much deeper level.
9) How do you balance time to write with other facets of life that demand attention?
I don’t. Writing ebbs and flows, and I often squeeze it in around everything else. This is true even when I am primarily writing for a living (that, too, ebbs and flows) because the stories I’m most passionate about are never assignments. I’ve learned that if I carve out even an hour and a half to work on my novel, that is victory. It’s not a failure because I couldn’t (or didn’t) devote eight hours to it. I just try to show up at the page as often as I can, and if I have a phase where I don’t, I try not to feel guilty about it. Guilt doesn’t solve anything.
10) Who is your favorite author? Why? How were you first exposed to this writer?
Oh, dear. I don’t think I can pick just one. But I did learn a tremendous amount from reading Alice Munro. I complained to a professor in graduate school because all the really good books we’d read had been written by men. I wanted to know, where were all the women? He sent me a copy of Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love. I can’t remember the name of the short story I read, but it took my breath away. I saw for the first time that the way a writer selects detail and constructs a scene has the potential to convey deep and lasting emotion without ever using words like sad, happy, upset, or cheerful.
11) Do you find that seasons inform your work?
Seasons inform me, so I suppose they inform my work. More importantly, I find that my work has seasons. It ebbs and flows with my interests and my moods, and all the details of my life. It’s always changing, and yet it’s cyclical at the same time because no matter how far I stray I always find my way back.
12) Who have been some of your biggest influences?
My advisors during graduate school were instrumental in helping me find my way as a writer: Mark Sundeen, who most recently wrote The Man Who Quit Money (and likes to take credit for getting me to move from Minnesota to Colorado) and Dan Pope, author of In the Cherry Tree. They read and responded to my work when I was exploring some of my most personal writing, and they always read it respectfully and supportively.
In life, I’ll say my parents, which I wouldn’t have always said. They introduced me to wilderness, taking me canoeing and camping from the age of two. They also told me stories of all the adventures they’d taken so that when I headed west by myself, at an age when most people start families, they cheered for me the whole way. Lastly, Peter Carey (my partner in crime) has introduced me to all things Colorado. He exposed me to downhill skiing and climbing. He patiently showed me the ropes while I worked through my fear and discovered a reserve of courage I never knew I had.