I feel very fortunate in that I was always drawn to language, as a form of expression, even as a child. My older brother was a great writer, a poet, and I’d mimic him and create verse and rhymes as a child in order to learn to write. He turned me onto some of the great classics, especially J.D. Salinger’s writing, which contains much knowledge about how to write. I spent many, many years reading the great novels. David Copperfield, for example was a Bible to me in my late teens. Dostoyevsky also had a major impact on me, and, as said, Salinger, in a more American, modern way.
My writing roots definitely spring from the South. I was born and raised until age ten in a small town in Mississippi and that has had a value to me, immensely. So many of my favorite writers guide are from the South. The South’s literature is rich and filled with originality, color, texture and earthiness.
I have been also fortunate in that once I see, or find or feel an image, then the building begins to create itself. My first successful short story, that ended up at The Paris Review, began with an idea I heard from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi concerning “desire, impression, desire.” I thought that if two people loved each other enough, it could bring them back to each other even over long time spans, lifetime after lifetime. I compiled two characters, one mainly myself, as I almost always write in the first person, and one was a girl who was drawn from a few females I’d admired or loved. The truly amazing gift here, not my gift but a given gift, is that once thought of: done. The story began to simply unfold before my heart and eyes and I followed the characters and memories that surfaced.
The critical ingredient in all of this, for me, is an openness and a form of honesty that allows me to let go, let the words and sentences write themselves as I simply follow along. It’s not always as simply, or as easy as that may sound. But, generally when I get an idea, then the book is done, and it’s just a matter of writing it down as I see the characters and can draw on my own experiences and imagination and possibly a desire to love. I say love, as I love my characters and often have to witness them do things I do not want them to do, but there they are, living out their own lives.
I love language more than story. I have been criticized about this but it’s true. The New York Times called my first novel, The Red Truck, more like a long prose poem. I feel deeply that form does equal content.
I am not a disciplined writer at all. I often go months without writing fiction. I cannot type and this has slowed me down. I handwrote my early books and the pain of two-finger typing them into the computer was horrible, and yet it is where much, if not all of the editing occurred, so perhaps it was a good thing. The House of Gizmo, an unknown, unpublished book I wrote, took me three years to type from several notebooks.
Now, as to punctuation! What a joy it is to me, the varieties and the creativity punctuation gives us. I taught for years at Indian Hills Community College, and one year at the University of Iowa undergraduate writing workshop and generally I’d stumble onto my favorite ‘lecture,’ punctuation is more fun than sex. I think the young people enjoyed that discussion. “The joy of the semi colon, imagine, a partial stop, with so much promise ahead, etc.!” Each aspect of punctuation contains easy references to this type of fun.
I am disciplined only in that, once I get going on a book, which I am now, I fall for my characters and especially this time, the writing is coming out as something so raw and real, even frightening. I am literally running after these people, listening, and observing and trying desperately to keep up with them. They are alive, they have their own personalities and souls, and it’s simply my job to trust them, to not betray them by writing what I think they should do, to be honest with what I see and feel they are doing — and to be open: allow, allow them to breathe and live freely, and then the great fun is on, the joy of writing down what I see in the language and form that I love.