You can read Sue Parman's beautiful essay, "The Holy Ghost Bird,"in Letting Go: An Anthology of Attempts just released in paperback; eBook available now for pre-order.
Retired professor of anthropology and the author of numerous academic books (including Scottish Crofters, now in its second edition), Sue Parman lives in Oregon where she has won numerous awards for poetry, plays, essays, short stories, and art. Her most recent book combines poetry and art (The Carnivorous Gaze, Turnstone Press, 2014), and her most recent article is a memoir based on her correspondence with Tolkien (“A Song for J.R.R. Tolkien,” The Antioch Review, 2015). Web site: www.sueparman.com
Letting Go is an anthology of true stories. As a writer of fiction, did you find it harder to write a nonfiction story?
I love the power that fact lends to story-telling. Fiction is always grounded in nonfiction (the details of memory and observation), and nonfiction requires the rules of fiction to take flight. A story about a bird requires knowledge of birds; a detailed description of a bird would be boring without the underlying structure of plot and character. Having said this, I think it’s harder to write nonfiction for two reasons: one, you can get so mired in “facts” that you go off the rails of a good story; and two, the details of memory are frequently painful. I found it very difficult to write “The Holy Ghost Bird” because the memories that inspired it were so painful; but it was cathartic to shape it into a story. Fiction can heal.
Birds make great metaphors. Because they fly between the ground and the sky, they can represent freedom, or messengers between gods and men, or vehicles to convey souls to the land of the dead. In New Guinea, men call themselves “dead birds” because of a myth that explains why men must die. In 2012 a short story of mine called “The Spirit Bird” was published in The Grove Literary Review. Similar title to the one in Letting Go, similar emotions of longing and loss, but a completely different story vehicle: a young Muslim widow visits the grave of her ancestors in Sulawesi. Fiction gives us wings.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I find writing to be cathartic and freeing. I love the words themselves (I read the OED as a form of play and source of poems), and I love the rhythm of language and its capacity to build worlds, arguments, persuasions, expressions of love and hope, fury and disdain. I miss letter-writing but am intrigued by the potential of social media for haiku-like utterances. Writing takes me to a liminal zone where I can transform the mundane realities of life into beauty. The pursuit of beauty is paramount—it is the essence of a creative life well lived, whether as a writer or any other occupation.
At the close of a Navajo Blessing Way ceremony are the words to walk in beauty. With beauty all around me may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk. To be a writer is to walk in beauty—immersed in it, gathering it, experiencing it, sometimes capturing it. To be a writer is not poetry or journalism, school or reputation. It’s a way of life, consciously living from one unpredictable moment to another without a skin--a kind of pilgrimage to live out all the lines of one’s body. As a writer, my goal is to have created beauty that leaves people breathless and thinking what, where, how, why, and I am.
How much time each week do you devote to writing?
I write every day. When I was teaching, I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 7 a.m., then went to work. I still get up at 4, but now I can write in chunks throughout the day, and how long I write depends on what project I’m caught up in. Sometimes I get caught up in art projects instead. I worry sometimes that I’m less systematic and disciplined than I was when I was working, but I’m having a lot more fun.
What are you working on?
Last June I joined an art critique group, and after one of our meetings I dreamed of a flower that was shades of brown. I woke up with an art mantra running through my head: “Color gets the credit, value does the work.” I sat down and wrote a short story, “The Brown Study,” that I entered as a first book chapter in a contest sponsored by the Oregon Writers Colony. It won first place, and within two months I had the first draft of a book tentatively titled The Flowers of Rappaccini from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a woman raised by her father in a garden of poisonous flowers who herself becomes poisonous to others. I’m now on the third draft, and have been describing it as a literary-eco-thriller set in the Amazon rainforest.
What has been the most surprising about learning your craft?
At the heart of every creative act lies a burst of spontaneous humor, a form of play. I’ve come to recognize this feeling, this sense of surprise, without which a writing project is flat, uninspiring, and boring. I touch on these ideas in my essay, “An Evolutionary Theory of Poetry,” VoiceCatcher (posted July 29, 2013)
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Are you kidding? Writers take advice?
Do you think workshops have helped you become a better writer?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that workshops, critique groups, and First Readers provide useful feedback, training in getting used to putting your writing up for public view and criticism, and the opportunity to learn from other writers. No, in the sense that unlike an art workshop, you can’t really learn from other people’s techniques; you only catch little glimpses of finished writing. The usefulness of a workshop depends a lot on where you are in the writing process. New writers benefit from discussions of craft—how to construct plot and character, for example. Writers who have finished two or three drafts of a manuscript would benefit from workshops that work on whole manuscripts. I’ve found very helpful information about workshops from magazines such as Poets and Writers, and from fellow writers in local writing organizations (such as the Oregon Writers Colony).
Tell us any secret rituals you have for getting started each day.
I write as soon as I wake up. Sometimes I have an idea from a dream; sometimes from something I’ve been reading, especially nonfiction (e.g., James Prosek’s “Eels”). I write my initial ideas sitting in my favorite chair that looks out a window; I use a yellow pad and pens that vary with what I’m writing (a fountain pen for poetry, a liquid gel pen for prose—I LOVE pens). Once I get going, I write with a computer on a treadmill desk—a great alternative to sitting. But the most important ritual: write. Or as my father used to say, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”
Any writers you like to read to inspire you to write (or if you're blocked)?
I’m an omnivorous reader, from Tolkien to Sci-Fi (The Ship Who Sang, The Foundation Series, Something Wicked This Way Comes) to poetry (Anne Carson, Kay Ryan, Dylan Thomas) to mystery (Raymond Chandler, The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice, Scandinavian noir) to literary (Cloud Atlas, J.M. Coetzee, Dickens) to books about writing (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, The Making of a Story). The OED inspires me to write. The writing on the back of cereal boxes inspires me to write. Michael Frayne’s “Copenhagen” makes me want to write plays; Montaigne’s Essays make me want to hole up in a tower and blog.
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