Ariel Gore interviews me about Bluebeard’s Castle

Ariel Gore asked me some questions about writing Bluebeard’s Castle for her experimental story structure students.

Which came first in this project . . . structure or content?
Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
Or did you have a structural idea and then write the content to fit that concept?
Or something else?
I guess the question is how and at what juncture(s) did you stop and map it out?

Somewhat paradoxically, Bluebeard began by my writing about my illness and hospitalization. I was really trying to write about it once and for all. I even went to Boston and did a series of private rituals for soul retrieval. But I kept being haunted by the fact that my father blamed me–and not just for that. That created a bridge to the Grand Canyon material–which set up a relationship to the Southwest, my home as an adult. At about this point I realized I had something. I also had a few flash memoirs, like the 9/11 piece. I started to fill in the holes–the most interesting was the family history of my grand-father, the garment industry, etc. Many of the poems were already written but uncollected–Firebird, Cossacks…sort of obsessional material. Then I did my father’s decline and death, soon after it happened, linked to Icelandic poems. So the three central sections were written in order. The “Psyche” poems had been written as a suite a few years before, and are a contrast–introspective, female, mythic.

So, basically yes–Did you have content and then build a structure to accommodate it then add the connective tissue?
I was about half way through before controlling the structure. I worked the whole book the way I would a single hybrid piece–listening for musicality and contrast, controlling repetition, leaving some holes for ambiguity.

3 Years In by Miriam Sagan

By the end of 2019, I’ll have been on the current trajectory of my life’s path for about three years. I retired, and by unplanned coincidence, my mom died. I felt shot out of a cannon–in a good way. I was no longer flying to Boston every three months to caretake. I was no longer going to work. For the first time in my life I felt I wasn’t operating with some kind of deficit. I know this can’t last forever–I’m 65 and well aware of aging. However, I planned to make the most of this new stage, and I think I have. However, I am suffering from a lack of feeling grounded.
I’m not exactly sure why. When I retired, I said I wasn’t going to do
1. Home Improvement
2. A lot more writing
3. Self Improvement of the diet & exercise sort
Well, I did not manage to avoid the first–renovated kitchen, concrete garden pathways, raised garden beds, etc. But it’s been fine–worthwhile.
And I didn’t manage to avoid the second, either. At least this year, I published three books and a chapbook. It’s not quite as prolific as it sounds. Writing takes a while, publishing another while…this was kind of a logjam that came to fruition (mixed metaphor and all).
Mercifully, I’m eating and exercising per usual–a regime of several decades.
I don’t like to live exclusively in the creative world. It feels unbalanced. Maybe I’ve swung too far in that direction. For volunteer work, I did a year of hospice, a year of teaching ESL…when my grand-daughter was born I started taking care of her about two days a week. It’s been tremendous, but maybe too close to the creative world. After all, she and the studio I share with my daughter are in the same house. We started photographing her as part of a project…
I struggled for a long time to live an integrated life. Now I want something…looser? I don’t know. I’m worried about all the things I’m usually worried about–Trump, my chronic pain, my friends’ difficulties, the future.
I keep making a To Do list for getting grounded but it has only two things on it:
1. Learn to bake biscuits.
2. Get an African violet.

And how are you these days?

Why “Just Write” Isn’t Exactly Sophisticated Advice by Miriam Sagan

Why “Just Write” Isn’t Exactly Sophisticated Advice

Although I’ve benefited from this advice—and no doubt given it—I’m starting to think it isn’t specific enough. And that’s because advice could be more tailored to who the writer is:

1. A professional or well-trained writer who feels “blocked.”
2. A person who has “always wanted” to be a writer.
3. Someone suffering from writing anxiety.

I have no idea how I learned to write. I can create a romantic version of my experience—dyslexic failing elementary school, strict but kind teacher, discovering poetry, etc. etc. But this may all be hindsight.

And so, “just write” may be good for the person who knows how to write but just can’t at the moment. This approach tends to the quick and spontaneous, to overriding self criticism, and to productivity. However, as a person who “wrote” at least three failed novels, I can say that filling pages really isn’t enough.
To write, a person must also read—and eventually, read as a writer. This involves deepening your relationship to structure, and actually understanding—on several levels—how a piece of writing is made.

For all three of the classic genres—non-fiction, fiction, and poetry—it is essential to know the rules of structure. And love those rules, engage with them, fight them, incorporate them.

So for the person who has always wanted to write—I suggest just that—reading and studying. Then writing. Then the uncomfortable questions—do I like this? Is this for me?

The bottom line is: I wish I’d learned earlier that writing is a relationship. Yes, it is a set of ancient productive craft rules, combined with pure effort. But it can also be showing off, slacking off, rebellion, and acquiescence.

And that is how I’d address anxiety. Get close. Don’t over analyze. Let the creative process soothe you.

Like all relationship, you tend to get what you give. But sometimes what you give may have to be partial, conflicted, or just plain weird.

That should work too.

Tune-Up Cafe of my Dreams

What is Tune-Up? It is a cafe—-500 steps from my front door, to be exact. Go north on Kathryn. Pass the orange wall. Cross the street. Pass the place that had pit bulls and used to fly the Jolly Roger. Pass the carved gate and the garden with beehives and statues of Ganesh.
Turn left on Hickox. Pass the  re-sale shop with the sign proclaiming 25% off. Pass Aranda’s, once just a humble plumbing store but now a tiny general store that sells espresso and has a a huge sign: ARANDA’S: The Store. They also sell breakfast burritos from…Tune-Up, if you don’t want to cross the street.
Cross the street. Tune-Up has a modest porch and outdoor area. Today it is crowded inside, lunch rush at 11:30 a.m. Order at the counter. Specials on the board. Xmas decorations, tons of those cool textured balls of light in blue, yellow, pink, peach, orange, white, red, and turquoise hanging low over the tables. Back room is full. Two happy people in the only booth.
I grab the end of a long table.
Tune Up is my overflow office, meeting space, writing room. I feel deeply “in tune” with it. When I was at the Great Mother conference, and thus prone to liminal states, I had a dream in which my friend Kath said: “I just want to go to the Tune-Up.” I don’t think the dream was just about her.
I order green chile stew. I was meant to live near a cafe and this is the only one within walking distance—although the equally perfect CounterCulture is a two minute drive down busy Baca Street. (I could walk, but it’s a half hour, and I never do.)
Tune-Up was once a restaurant called Dave’s Not Here. When I first moved to Santa Fe in 1984 I helped take care of Phil Whalen, old beat up Beat poet and Zen priest. Phil heard the hamburgers were great at Dave’s, and he was forbidden meat at the Zen center. The hamburgers were great. I ended up buying a house around the corner.
Dave’s Not Here had once been owned by a man named Dave. He went into debt, was reputed to be on the wrong side of the law, and vanished. The new owners would tell creditors: Dave’s not here. That became the restaurant’s name. Of course it eventually got shortened again to “Dave’s” as if he really was there, if only in spirit.
Dave’s Not Here was sold, and some Central American delicacies added to the menu, but the new owner’s still provide a Dave’s Not Here hamburger for order.
At Dave’s there was a mural in the parking lot of a big Diego Rivera woman with calla lilies. That wall is now inside, part of an addition added to the back.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote that she never so much as boiled water until the Nazis invaded Paris. She lived over a cafe. I’m more domestic than that, although I’m happiest out.
When I walk home, the street will look different. Everything changes. Everything is close together.
It is easy to see this at Tune-Up.

What’s the best book on writing you’ve ever read–and did it actually help you write?

I decided to crowd source the question—What’s the best book on writing you’ve ever read–and did it actually help you write?—and got a huge response! There is some repetition here, but I thought I’d leave it in because the responders are interesting writers themselves.
I’ll be blogging the responses over a few days. Readers please feel free to add to this.

Jeanne Simonoff I would have to say writing down the bones by Natalie Goldberg—timed writing is my life.

Bettina Jane Lancaster Ditto -bc of her permission to write “the worst garbage in Amercia”

Michelle Holland _One Writer’s Beginnings_, Eudora Welty. Allowed permission to reach for and describe the intangible in our tangible world — to make connections from inside to outside and trust that an audience would come along for the ride.

Cirrelda Snider-Bryan me own mama loved that book – have and read her copy

Donna Hilbert Because it helped me to be a better reader, it has helped me be a better writer,”How to Read a Poem and Start a Poetry Circle,” by Molly Peacock. I have been waiting for someone to ask that question.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I have urged all of my workshop students to read it.

Stephanie West Allen The books by Donald Maass, and, yes, they were very helpful. He is working on another one and I am looking forward to the read.

Anne MacNaughton James’ Woods, “How Fiction Works.” Since I don’t write fiction, of little use there, but a true eye-opener on ‘voice’ and a huge assist in critiquing creative work from movies to novels to poetry.
The side effect is that I know too much about voice now and tend to complain about some of the hot popular movies and novels – and get obnoxious about it when folks start to praise them. Ruined my enjoyment of some ‘classics.’ But he’s brilliant!
Susan Nalder TO SHOW AND TELL by Phillip Lopate;THE WRITER’S PORTABLE MENTOR by Priscilla Long; YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP by Lee Gutkind; THE SITUATION AND THE STORY by Vivian Gornick; BEYOND THE WRITER’S WORKSHOP by Carol Bly; TELLING IT SLANT by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola. Selected chapters in each of these books; i use them to edit and inspire; some really good exercises; issues in creative nonfiction treated well –

How do you deal with rejection?

How do you deal with rejection?

I like rejection. I’ve taught myself to enjoy it, and you should too. Basically, rejection tells me I’m meeting my submission goals. To explain: when I was a very young writer starting out I heard a famous poet say he had a 10% acceptance rate from literary magazines. This seemed shockingly low, but it was encouraging. I figured I must have a rate, too, and guessed it was 1%. I realized that if I sent out 100 submissions I’d get published somewhere. So I started. Turns out, my acceptance rate was much higher. I saw getting published as just a numbers game, and have ever since.
A birth coach will tell a mother in labor—that last contraction is one you won’t have to experience ever again, each contraction brings you nearer the birth of the baby. Rejection is like a labor contraction—painful, but things are moving along.
I’ve read enough slush—unsolicited submissions—to know that most editors are just making a choice, their choice, which of course is their prerogative. Acceptances aren’t based on Platonic ideals—they are based on one person’s taste, or at most the decision of a few people.
A few years ago, my acceptance rate skyrocketed. My sister Susannah, who does a lot of coaching, said: “That’s a bad sign. You aren’t aiming high enough.” She was right. I set my sights higher and dropped back down to my usual rejection rate. (Which I try to keep at 90% these days—that is, 10% acceptance).
I also take an Indie approach. I’ve run so many magazines, e-zines, blogs, and presses that I don’t feel trapped in a world of other peoples’ standards. I’ve spent much of my life in literary collectives, artistic collaborations, and community groups. That support—and audience—counters the sting of rejection on the days I get irritated by the whole business.

Can I Count Lunch As Part of the Project?

My daughter Isabel and I were recently evaluating a “failed” project. We’ve done a fair amount of collaboration, and are currently focused on collage—mostly words and suminagashi, which is Japanese marbling. We had some chai and sat in the community college courtyard under the redbuds.
First, we addressed the project’s strengths:
1. The collaboration had gone to a new level.
2. We’d made big strides with our largest technical problem.
And, I wanted to add
3. We had fun because we spent the night at the old hotel in Ojo Caliente and had a great lunch at Gabriel’s on the way there.
“You can’t count that,” Isabel said.
“But we had fun! We got to work at Ojo!”
“You always want to count fun…you give your projects points if you get to stay in a hotel.”
“Of course. I count it a lot.”
“You can’t. It isn’t part of the project.”
I caved. From the start with our collaborations, she is ultimately in charge. She’s younger than me, knows more about art, and I figure we should swap out the old hierarchical pattern. Isabel had the final say. Only two strengths. A full evaluation of the audience, setting, etc. A take away directive for each of us, mostly to be clearer in how we communicate with the outside world.
But I just have to ask—would you count lunch? The guacamole at Gabriel’s is truly excellent.

Summer (Virtual) Symposium on Creativity: July 3-August 15–Right Here!

Summer (Virtual) Symposium on Creativity: July 3-August 15

From: Miriam Sagan
To: All writers and visual artists in my extended community

Please answer some or all of the questions below. Send to me on FB or at msagan1035@aol and I’ll blog at Miriam’s Well ( Add a short bio and and links to your work.

Why? Find out what other artists and writers are thinking…find out what YOU are thinking!
My husband Rich started asking me these questions over pancakes so I’m extending the favor (alas, without syrup.)


Have you ever set specific creative goals for yourself?
Such as?
Did you “succeed” or “fail”?
How have these goals changed over time?

How successful have you been at publishing or showing your work?
In the past decade, have you been able to bring your work out into the world?
Are you satisfied with your ability to engage with new technology?

Add any other thoughts you might have on the topic, too!

Did you want to be a writer (or an astonaut) when you were a child?

Did you want to be a writer when you were a child? Are you one now? Why do interviewers always ask this question. Do people ask firefights if they wanted to be firefighters as children? Astronauts?

Sari Krosinsky I always ask that question b/c I’m interested in other people’s origin stories, but now that I think of it I only ask people in the arts. Maybe I should start asking everyone. 🙂

• Paula Marie Castillo part of the whole commodification and separation of artists from the rest:) but I did want to be a writer when I was young!

• Julia M Deisler I suspect firefighters and astronauts are probably asked those questions, too. I’m not sure that teachers and cashiers (just giving examples…) are very often asked if they are doing what they dreamed of when they were children.

• Paula Lozar I didn’t “want to be a writer”; I just wrote. Didn’t think of “writer” as a career path until I was about 10, probably under the influence of “Little Women.” But there was such a disjunction between Jo March’s struggles to “be a writer,” and the fact that writing came as naturally to me as breathing, that I began to doubt whether I was a serious writer. Then there was the whole “starving artist in a garret” myth: writing was all well and good, but you couldn’t make a living at it. So I mentally dismissed writing as something I did for fun, and set out to qualify for a Real Job. (The irony is that, after trying for years to get a teaching job and not succeeding, I ended up in technical writing — and did a lot better financially than I ever would have as a teacher.)