By Andrea Davies
When and how did you begin to write creatively? Who were/are your writing influences?
As with a lot of children, for me, learning to read and learning to write were not separate activities. I wrote stories and poems like the ones I was reading, although as I grew older, my self-consciousness about this grew. In high school, I wrote poems on tiny pieces of paper or index cards. It makes me sad to think of that girl and her scraps—I wish I could have at least allowed myself a full sheet of paper.
Throughout college and for years afterward I was very blocked as a writer. Ironically, though, after college I immediately began volunteering at a monthly feminist newspaper, and then working at Gay Community News, a weekly—so everything I wrote was on deadline. Maybe that was the cure, because after all the newspapers, I began writing seriously. I had the electric typewriter I’d gotten as a high school graduation gift and a small wooden desk (still not giving my writing much space), and I finished three autobiographical stories and went off to graduate school, where I wrote a novel about GCN (which is unpublished and luckily unreadable, since it’s on floppy disks).
Influences—I always have trouble with this question, because if I say, for example, Maxine Hong Kingston, it sounds so pretentious. My style is not hers, and I’m never going to produce anything as beautiful and groundbreaking as The Woman Warrior or China Men. One of the things about her writing that inspired me is that she makes no judgments about genre. For a long time I believed I was not very creative, because all my work was autobiographical. Maxine doesn’t have such petty worries. She does it all, memoir, folk tale, poetry, history, fiction. Others? It’s so hard to point to individual writers, since I read all the time and I’m sure it’s all in there, somewhere. The letters and diaries of Virginia Woolf; the poetry of Adrienne Rich; Alice in Wonderland.
You are the author of three memoirs: Lies About My Family, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News, and Hospital Time. Each book deals in sensitive subject matter pertaining to: family, the LGBTQ community, feminism, and taking care of friends with AIDS. Do you have advice for memoirists writing about their families?
I was going to say, kind of jokingly, “Don’t!” It’s treacherous, both psychologically—you’ll inevitably learn things about yourself and those close to you that you probably did not want to know—and personally—IRL. But what memoirist doesn’t write about her family? What else is there?
History, childhood, family—all seem unavoidable to me. I guess I’m enough of a Freudian to believe that there’s no understanding oneself—essential to writing memoir, and probably anything else—without it.
You have a rich history of working with LGBTQ and Feminist advocate organizations from being the editor of Gay Community News in the late 1970’s to the position of editor in chief you currently hold with Women’s Review of Books. Can you give advice to up and coming politically minded writers, specifically those from the LGBTQ and Feminist communities?
I don’t know that I have any “advice” for anyone. I’m now in my sixties, and today’s activists are coming up in such a different world. It’s difficult to convey some of the experience and gestalt of my generation to queers in their twenties or thirties: how utterly marginal we were; AIDS.
Sometimes I think the same issues keep coming up over and over in our political discourse, and I wish we all knew more history. But as we circle around each time, hopefully we go a bit deeper, learn a bit more. Younger LGBT people feel so much more entitled to enforce their demands on other individuals and on society than we did. In the early nineties, our slogan was “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” I don’t know that there’s even a need to articulate that now. This is both wonderful and bizarre: on the one hand, we have marriage and struggles among activists about whether we’re too assimilated; and on the other, laws about who uses which bathroom and daily violence and insult. The wheel is still turning.
Besides writing memoir, you also write fiction. Do you have a preference in genre? Can you describe your process of going from one genre to another; do your themes and writing style/voice change–or not—from one genre to the other?
I’ve been loving writing fiction. It’s fun. I can’t say writing memoir is fun, exactly, although I’m proud of mine, I loved developing the voice, and I learned a lot in the process. Now I’m learning that my imagination is livelier than I ever gave myself credit for, and that I can trust myself to come up with characters and narratives and voices.
But even though the process feels quite different, my themes, now that you ask, seem to be pretty similar: forging relationships and living in community; responsibilities to those around us. As I wrote my memoirs, how to make art was part of the process; in my novel The Off Season, it is explicitly in the text, as the main character is an artist.
As a teacher, what expectations do you have of your students? What is your teaching philosophy?
Writing, for me, is about observing, learning, interpreting—and playing, with ideas and with language, and for that it’s helpful for someone to bounce the ball back to you. The cliché is that writing is a solitary art, but I like having a community—of colleagues, of my writing group, of students and mentors—even a virtual one of the authors I read.
The teacher’s task, I think, is to create a space where students can explore their voices and find their true work. To encourage—to root for, to give a helpful push when necessary, and also (as I recently saw the word broken down) to en-courage, to infuse with courage, because writing, as I’ve said, is not easy, and can lead to depression, grief, regret, shame—as well as, of course, to joy and discovery.
In my classes we ask why this image, why this word, how has the writer created this effect?—in order to figure out where and why the writing’s flowing, and where and why it’s not. The glitches are usually caused by lapses in honesty, observation, discipline, or playfulness: moments of exhaustion, hopelessness, or sometimes laziness.
So as a teacher I have to be super-aware and engaged with what’s going on in the group at all times. It can be very stressful—but that’s also why I like it. I’ve come up with ideas in front of a class that I would never have arrived at on my own—because of the interaction and the pressures of the moment. And I hope this is also happening for the students—that we’re all interacting and focusing and building on one another’s ideas, so that we all take back with us something we can use next time we confront the page.