Proclaimed “one of the finest writers of her generation” by the Boston Globe and “simply stunning” by the New York Times Book Review, Dorothy Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. Her best-selling second novel, the critically acclaimed Cavedweller, won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for fiction. A chapbook of her performance work, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, was selected as a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review. Allison’s small press books include Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature; Trash; and The Women Who Hate Me. Allison serves on the advisory boards of the National Coalition Against Censorship and Feminists for Free Expression.
Dorothy Allison will teach a fiction writing class as part of the 2012 Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.
Centrum: What is the process of writing like for you? How does an idea make its way from initial impulse to finished work?
Dorothy Allison: For me the problem isn’t beginning. I can begin a story without any problem at all. But the problem is that the process of writing novels takes so much time that by the middle of it you’ve got all these balls in the air. The difficulty is finishing, making all those balls come down in that perfect charming manner, complete, and done gracefully. How that is done varies a lot by book. When I teach, one of the things I tell my students is that in my experience the accordion method—expanding and contracting—works. Expand the story, based on language—language is the thing that I fall in love with—then look back on it and take out a lot of that language. Expansion and contraction. I widen widen widen and narrow narrow narrow, cutting out what is not truly serving either the story or the language or the character. I think perhaps that there are easier ways to go about it, but it works beautifully.
The wonder of writing is the magic of focus, and the intrusion of glory. You do all the grunt work, get your scene, build your characters, realize your place, drop yourself into that place through language into those people, and through the intrusion of magic, all of a sudden it all becomes real. It can be a sudden phrase, a realization of how it could go, or the perfect language that you’ve been waiting for, sometimes for years. It’s almost unexplainable. You make it happen by putting everything in place for it to happen.
C: What techniques do you use to put everything into place?
DA: At the bottom line you read. You read enormously. I don’t know any writers who didn’t begin by reading. You train yourself to fall in love with the good stuff. And the good stuff is the writing that is so real you absolutely believe in the existence of the place, and the people. Instead of making up a story, you’re watching or hearing a story from another reality. You’re seeing something that is not only beautiful but astonishingly powerful and resonates with your life. Stuff that resonates with your life is where your best language comes from. My experience is that you start with your real life, and then move on from there.
For example, an old and dear friend of mine died two weeks ago. Without warning, in his sleep, of a heart attack. A little while before he died, we had gone out to dinner in northern California, in Humboldt County, and it was a lovely time. We talked about writers and readers, and all the books we loved, and then at the end of the evening, we talked about the silly kinds of stuff that you talk about, at the end of evenings. And one of the things that came up was, How would you like to die? I said that I wanted to die doing something I love, but in my sleep too, and my friend ended up dying in his sleep.
I started the story by writing that dinner, and I started with the real person. My heart is still broken and I miss him very much. I started the story two or three days after I heard he died. And now I’m seeing it change. It’s no longer my friend in the story, but someone else. Different things are happening. I started it because I was hurting, and there was the comfort of language, but now it’s becoming something else. [In the story other] people are listening to the conversation and it’s about what they are thinking. It begins with the personal and moves out wider. I believe in that process.
It’s hard to talk to young writers about things like this, sometimes. Especially when they have one great story that they want to write: what a shit their mother was, or what a monster their lover was, or how their father never understood them. Yeah, begin there, but wait for the intrusion of the magical, so that you can step away from the people you know to the people that you are discovering.
C: What do you enjoy about teaching writing classes?
DA: The discovery of young writers. Watching them discover their stories. Listening to them. The greatest thing in the world is to listen to someone who’s very passionate about their story, but keeps getting in the way, and to do a critique so that they see their story in a new way. Then you have to send them away with a new-found intensity and focus and see what they come up with. Those who have fully dropped into the story will come back practically shaking, with all this new, astonishing stuff, with alive dialogue. Oh my God, there’s nothing in the world like it. And you think: I did that. I made that person look deeper. I gave them that nudge. It’s a perfect feeling, pushing them in the right direction. It requires enormous focus.
One thing about being a writer is that you’re isolated. You work alone. [Laughing] That’s why we go crazy. The glory of being a writer is in finding a great editor or a great teacher, someone who can see what I’m attempting to do, and go, “Oh, I see,” and push me. Without that person, you lose the ability to really see where it’s going and what you’re doing. You want someone who is really listening, who will say, “I see it! I see it!” and will push you deeper into the story. It’s a huge demand on people, of course, stories in draft are in fact draft, broken in places, perhaps missing connecting tissue. A writer who will really read the story and look you in the eye, and be really present, is difficult to acquire.
DA: I believe that you’re born with talent and ability. But lots and lots of people have talent and ability who don’t know how to train themselves to use it. It’s the same with athletes. You can have the hand-eye coordination and reflexes, but without the work it doesn’t mean anything. And that’s the use of writing workshops. Learning to put in place the situation to trigger the intrusion of the magical. That’s what really good workshops are about.