Friday, June 9, 2017

"I remember being maybe six when I decided I would write an opera!"

Here we are in June! Time to glean some words of wisdom from Writers' Wings client Christie Cochrell as she muses on how and why and what she likes to write!

WW: When did you start writing? Was there something or someone that sparked your desire to write?

CC: I remember being maybe six when I decided I would write an opera!—having been inspired by something dramatic and delightful at the Santa Fe Opera, which children were encouraged to attend. The words were of course easier than the music . . .

My father was a novelist, and typed letters every Sunday morning (and allegedly one of his novels with a towel or blanket over himself and the typewriter so as not to waken me when I was a newborn), so I had always known writing as part of daily—at least weekend—life.

WW: What is your favorite form of writing? (i.e. essay, short story, poem) and why?

CC: I love writing short-short stories because I can (I tell myself) concentrate on a character in some remembered setting full of rich and quirky details without bothering too much with plot and structure—always my weakness.

WW: Do you write in more than one form?

CC: Yes, almost all of them. Even a parody of an opera again, some years ago!

WW: Do you have techniques that help to inspire you to write?

CC: I have a favorite exercise I invented, called "Triplets," in which I pick at random three unexpected and unconnected words (whether noun, verb, and adjective, or three intriguing nouns), and then have to devise a paragraph or longer to bring them all together. It helps me think outside my usual patterns.

As for getting going every day again, I usually have so many things started, and in so many stages, that I can pick up one or another of them where I've left off, depending on where my interest and energy is that day. I've learned that some days my mind is creative, for getting new things down; some clear, for line-by-line editing; and some good only for doing research and collecting ideas and snippets from elsewhere.

WW: Who are your favorite writers and what have they taught you?

CC: I'd love to write like Marguerite Duras or Michael Ondaatje. Clean and pure and achingly translucent. But in fact my father told me once that I had reinvented Faulkner's style, though I hadn't at that point read him; and a professor told me my thesis was like a Bruckner symphony. So I guess the only writer who's directly informed my writing has been Alice LaPlante (The Making of a Story, Turn of Mind), in many classes, who taught me among many other things that we should render and not solve the mysteries that surround us, and that showing and telling are both valid. Peter Mathiessen, at a writer's seminar years ago in Key West, taught me that in the way of Zen we each discover our own truth through writing it, since all writing is a process of discovery. And so we know whether we have faith in what we've written, and whether we should send it out just one more time after endless rejections.

WW: Do you begin at the beginning, middle or end of your work?

CC: Hmm. Beginning, I guess. I jot down whatever seems like an opening into the whole. A key concept or image or situation. Often, in fiction, a place and a character. (I've traveled extensively, and evocative settings are always at the heart of my writing.)  Or a character at a certain place in her life. Or a moment in time, like a blooming Christmas cactus struck by January sunlight. And then see where it goes from there.

WW: Do you write longhand first, directly onto a device or do voice recording?

CC: Laptop, nowadays. (Though scribblings in notebooks are constant and eventually get included.)  And then I have to print out what I've got and edit on paper, then type that up cleanly to print out and look at again.

WW: Are you part of a writing group or class that supports you? Is this something you would advise for another writer?

CC: Classes and workshops have been wonderful, and from what friends say I know that groups are great, especially for feedback, but I'm an unrepentant introvert and feel that what I need at this point is to just get on with the writing, all by myself. Time is always short and precious.

WW: How did you know it was time to share it publicly?

CC: Only when I'm happy with what I've got will I share it. "Happy" means when I just feel there's nothing else I know to do to make a piece better, and there aren't places in it that snag or worry me.

WW: Is your writing a form of activism? If so, in what way and what particular issues activate you to write?

CC: My creed is that happiness, too, is a valid life choice, and my writing is (like Pierre Bonnard's paintings) defiantly light-gathering, inward- and backward-looking, quiet, in contrast with whatever big and ugly might be happening in the world. I must express the gratitude I feel for life, the mindfulness I've come to of the sacred within the everyday—despite. So I declaim serenity and grace: Neruda's "Ode to My Socks." An elderly couple on a Palo Alto sidewalk, the wife with an armful of pug dog and the husband with an armful of orchids on leggy stems. Lost Songs of the Silk Road. Clementine tart, minced lamb with Moroccan spices and eggplant, chicken tagine with apricots. Aromatic wood lotion. Archaeologists dating scarlet macaw bones. The word komorebi: sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees. A 1920s photo of the mistletoe sellers of Paris. Everything it seems we are about to lose.

WW: Who is the greatest support in your writing and how does that impact your ability to write?

CC: My husband is my greatest friend and ally. His nature is blessedly much like my own, and he's content to sit and read quietly all morning while I write (the best time of the day for me), without interrupting or nagging me to do something. "All you do is sit around," my long-ago first husband complained.

WW: Is there any advice you can offer fellow writers?

CC: I absolutely recommend The Making of a Story. Start with lots of exercises, to get the words, your words, down. Write down what feels urgent to you. Use lots and lots of specific detail. Go from there. Keep going!

Christie B. Cochrell is an ardent lover of the play of light, the journeyings of time, things ephemeral and ancient. Her work has been published by Tin House and New Letters, among others, and has won several awards including the Dorothy Cappon Prize for the Essay and the Literal Latté Short Short Contest. She has written three novels, currently seeking publication; one was shortlisted for the Eludia Award given by Hidden River Arts. Her short story “The Pinecone” received Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train March/April 2016 Very Short Fiction contest. 
Her poetry has been published by Red Bird Chapbooks and her flash prose has been published by 101 Words and Dime Show Review.

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