Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Molly Spencer

Poet Molly Spencer
Molly Spencer’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cave Wall, Linebreak, The Massachusetts Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. A native Michigander and one-time Minnesotan, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and their three children. She writes about poetry, the writing life, and parenthood on her blog.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture. Put us there. And that other place you like. Or just send a real picture.

Molly Spencer: Either here:


I'm almost embarrassed to share this. But here is my desk (above). Please note: hair brush and barrette from this morning's hair styling session with my 7-year-old; my 10-year-old's prescription (thankfully remembered this morning with breakfast); emergency ibuprofen supply at the ready; random hourglass, provenance unknown; many love notes from 7-year-old; notes to self about submissions hanging from snowflake made by 7-year-old; husband's rain jacket hanging on my chair — EGREGIOUS VIOLATION!; totem crow. This desk is literally within reach of my kitchen counter to the left, and my kitchen table to the right. 

Or here:


My favorite spot at the library. My happy place.

LD: How do you begin writing? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming? Any strange rituals involving smelling a drawer of fruit? Do you just dive in?

MS: I always begin by reading the work of other poets. Often I’m reading my way through a collection, but sometimes it’ll be a literary journal or just a stack of poems I've printed from various online sources and set aside for later. As I read, I write down interesting words and phrases, sometimes whole lines. Then I use those scraps of language to do some free-writing. I call this process my “morning reading and writing,” and it is the foundation of all my work.

LD: What is your favorite exercise that gets the words flowing?

MS: I’ll often use a word bank of 7 to 10 words – usually a combination of interesting words from whatever I’m reading plus a few from my own personal universe deck (which I wrote about here). I also go through recent free-writes, pulling phrases and words that catch my interest. Then I’ll start writing anything that comes to mind, and try to use the words and phrases that I've identified. Once I've done that, I often load the lines I've written into a list on this site and press the “randomize” button. This process sifts the lines and somehow helps me to see which ones are most important, I think because it releases me from whatever progression originally asserted itself in the writing. By this time I’m often well on my way to a draft and I usually start cutting like crazy to find it.

Another thing I do a lot of is what I call “word work.” For a few words that seem important to what I’m writing, I’ll look up etymology, alternate definitions, synonyms and antonyms. As I’m doing this work, phrases or other words will often come to me, so I’ll jot those down in the margins. Often they make their way into whatever I’m working on. This is also a helpful exercise for finding just the right word while revising.

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?

MS: I don’t find the word “finished” to be a helpful one when it comes to my writing. Instead, I think in terms of: Is this poem send-out-able? Do I believe in this work? Those, for me, are much more helpful questions than, “Is it finished?” because what I've found is that poems have a life of their own and they often come knocking on my door months or years after I last worked on them, insisting upon some revisions. 

LD: What’s the strangest thing you've used to write a poem or a story with and/or upon?
MS: My pant leg. Unless you want to count my children’s minds – I've been known to make them memorize lines that are coming to me as I’m driving.


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