Sharman Apt Russell on Writing

Sharman Apt Russell on Writing

 

Interviewed by Matt Staley

Science and nature writer Sharman Apt Russell teaches fulltime at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico, as well as in the low-residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. She is a contributing editor to Onearth Magazine with articles forthcoming in Orion Magazine and High Country News. Her Diary of a Citizen Scientist will be published by Oregon State  University Press this fall, 2014. Her most recent fiction includes the sci-fi Knocking on Heaven’s Door, the middle-grade fantasy The Council of Beings, and the Young Adult novel Teresa of the New World, under consideration now by publishers. Her other books include Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (Basic Books, 2008); Hunger: An Unnatural History (Basic Books, 2005); An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect (Perseus Books, 2003); Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers (Perseus Books, 2001); The Last Matriarch (University of New Mexico Press, 2000) and others. Her work has been translated into Chinese, Korean, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Turkish, Polish, Portuguese, Italian, and German. She has served three times as a judge for the PEN Best Children’s Books of the year. Her awards include a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, a Henry Joseph Jackson Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award.

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                                                                                          Photo: Sharman Apt Russell

INTERVIEWER

 When did you first, without hesitation, call yourself a writer?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

I am one of those people who wanted to write ever since I was a child. The moment of seeing myself as a writer happened in the fourth grade, after I had just written a story about a pencil who went to a dance. I am still in touch with that fourth grade teacher, who praised and encouraged me. Public school teachers remain my heroes.

INTERVIEWER

What inspires you to write?  What made you fall in love with writing?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

Well, I have written about this very thing recently, and so my answer is going to be a little long-winded.

People write, of course, for many reasons. I probably started to write because I loved to read, and I wanted to be part of that tradition. I wanted to be part of what I loved.

And especially in writing fiction, I love writing because making up stories, imagining new worlds, creating characters, fomenting drama, exploring new emotions is a natural form of pleasure, a natural way to play. I love the ability to be everything in a story—another gender, another race, another age, another person. Suddenly I am a king. Suddenly I am a fox. Suddenly I am a cloud, a storm, the darkening sky, the wind, and then a leaf in the wind.

And all those things are integrated into a shaped whole. Everything in that story belongs to that story for a reason. Everything in that essay is connected to every other part—some aspect of my consciousness, my brain, my understanding of the world. Scientists and mystics both have this understanding as well: everything is really one thing, springing from one thing. As writers, we seek to create a piece of work in which all the parts are interdependent, interconnected, organically linked.  And writing is an actual physical and psychological experience of seeing these connections. The big idea for me is that writing is about the delight we feel in unity, the delight we feel in shaped art, the delight we feel when we imagine something that is whole and complete and complex and that echoes in some way the wholeness and completeness and complexity of the universe.

But I will also say that as a child, and later as a young woman without much economic or social status, writing was a way to be seen in the world. Writing is about having someone else read your work. Writing can depend on that exchange between reader and writer. Writing can be about the desire to be heard, the desire to connect to people, the desire to be part of a larger cultural conversation. And so writing can certainly also be about ambition or the need for approval.

Ultimately in the arc of my life, writing has become a way of thinking and feeling. Writing my thoughts helps clarify them. Moreover, writing in my creative nonfiction is a way to actually generate thought. Writing is not transcription. Most of us don’t have some answer which we then copy onto the page. We are not pedagogues. We are explorers. We write out of a question, a blank spot on the map, and the process of writing leads us to an answer and, as often as not, to more questions. Another blank spot on the map. Another place to explore. We take that journey sometimes through the research, and sometimes through the very act of writing.

Because writing is a dynamic process. Writing takes place in the present, on the page, on the computer screen, in the brain. Neurons are firing. Synapses are snapping. There is energy, action, movement. Writing dislodges things in my mind. Writing sets things adrift. Writing brings together ideas and sparks new ideas.

And as much as writing is about ideas and abstraction and thought, writing is also about feeling. Writing comes from feeling because, perhaps everything does. Writing deepens my engagement with the world.

After so many years of writing, I know that in writing I become my best self. And that is different from representing my best self. I’m not talking about the personas we create in personal essays and creative nonfiction or about what I reveal when I use fictional characters. In writing, or rather in the act of writing well, I have to be as honest as I can be. I have to be intimate with my reader. I have to be vulnerable. I have to get outside my ego and let something else go to work. I have to be willing to allow new ideas to shake up my old ideas. I have to be willing to feel, to let in pain, as well as delight.  Good writing insists on my best self, and through writing, in the very act of writing, is when I struggle to achieve that self.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your typical writing day.  When and where do you write, and do you set a daily goal for yourself?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

I usually get up around 6 a.m. and flip on the coffee machine, which I’ve set up the night before, and pour my cup of coffee and go to my computer and start writing. That’s my favorite and best way to begin the day, every day of the week. I save my creative work for those golden hours of  morning when the mind is fresh and freshly swimming up from the unconscious and dream state. I try not to schedule appointments then or see friends or do anything else. I could write much longer than I actually have time to write. With breaks for exercise and family and friends, I suspect I could write all day long. But I also teach full time at WNMU and part time at Antioch University, and by mid-morning or sometimes noon I usually have to go off and do other things, knowing I’ll be back to that story or that essay the next morning.

INTERVIEWER

You recently had a flash creative non-fiction piece published in the Baltimore Review entitled “Icarus,” which was excellent.  Is this a new writing form for you, and how do you go about crafting this type of project?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

Yes, writing these short prose pieces is new. I usually think in terms of books. I imagine long projects. But my nonfiction books, particularly, are kind of stitched together with flashes of ideas or insights, and in that sense these short pieces can come out of those long projects.

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

I guess the hardest part of writing comes when I am not writing. When I am not in the middle of this engaging creative process, not in the flow, not working on something—then instead I am just left with all the doubts and the self-criticisms.

INTERVIEWER

 You have taught countless aspiring writers over the years.  What is the single most important piece of advice you give them?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

I suppose it would be different for each writer that I have worked with. Mainly I try to be the best and friendliest editor a writer has ever had. I try to enter into the spirit of the work and demonstrate the possibilities of revision. I say clearly that this is all about the writer’s authority, not mine. The writer is in charge, not me. If something I suggest as an editor resonates, if the writer agrees—then great. That increases her authority as a writer. If something I suggest as an editor doesn’t resonate, if the writer doesn’t agree, then great. That increases his authority as a writer. I also model the pleasure of writing. I believe there has to be a deep sense of satisfaction and joy in the process. And I believe in a certain humility. The world doesn’t need our stories. (There are over seven billion people on the planet and lots of stories.) We need to tell them. We are having fun. We are engaging more deeply in our lives.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your writing style in ten words or less.

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

That’s too hard!

 

INTERVIEWER

If you were writing a book about the story of your life, what would the title be?

 

SHARMAN APT RUSSELL

And that’s a great question. But also hard. Ask me again in twenty years.

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