Soon After First Light: Wendy S. Walters
BY Nicole Saldarriaga, May 26, 2021
Soon After First Light is a series where we talk craft, process, and pandemic with Columbia's accomplished writing professors.
Here, we talk with Associate Professor and Nonfiction Concentration Head Wendy S. Walters about portable workspaces, genre, and different types of creative block.
Wendy S. Walters' current projects address class and racial disquietude in the industrial Midwest; intersections between writing and design; climate change and its reverberations; and organic forms in the essay. She is a Creative Capital Awardee in literary nonfiction and the author of three books, the most recent being Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal (Sarabande Books, 2015). A recipient of fellowships from NYFA, the Ford Foundation, BRIClab and the Smithsonian Institute, she has a broad history of engagements with writing in and about performative contexts. Her lyrical work has been performed widely, including at Carnegie Hall, Joe’s Pub, Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst in Denmark, The Institute for Advanced Study, and the Pittsburgh Symphony. She holds a PHD in Literature from Cornell University and serves as Director of the Nonfiction Concentration and Associate Professor of Writing, Nonfiction in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.
What is a typical workday like for you when you’re in the middle of a project?
Wendy S. Walters: I’m not entirely sure how to answer that question because I think I have had like one workday since March of 2020 that was just work. After I get my son situated with school—I feel like I'm working on so many different projects that there is really no typical workday—what's become typical is that the demands of my calendar and my projects now are so much affected by COVID and all of the constraints that have been put on us that almost every project I'm doing has had to adapt or change for that.
Do you have a routine or ritual that helps you stick to your work?
WW: I'm coming from a position of not always having that open space and time. One of the things the pandemic has made me reflect on is precisely space and time because before we had to sit down and do Zoom chats, I didn't have a desk. I borrowed desks from my family or I used the kitchen counter or I worked outside of the house and I didn't have any space that was actually mine. And it was only this semester that I got a desk.
Not having that fixed furniture really has been a characteristic of my creative life, which has been largely itinerant, I think, except for in the past few years since I've come back to New York. So I think there's a part of me that is a restless person and I like to not be fixed in one place. I like to feel like I can roam around the city. So I miss that.
I think my creative practice is more shaped by desire than just open time. There's things that I just really want to do more so than I have time for them. So I always feel very lucky when I can focus just on work. And I don't think this is a positive quality, but I can just start working at any point anywhere.
That seems great, actually.
WW: I guess, unless you're trying to have dinner with your family or something (laughs). But I'll tell you, many years ago I used to have a very fixed work environment. I had an apartment with an office and I had space to work. I found that I spent so much time on the tailoring of my space that I wasn't really able to always work in it. So I parsed my mise en scéne down to a few objects. I had a little coaster and a teacup, and that was it. That I could travel with, so I could go to a hotel, I'd have my coaster, my tea cup. I could go to my parents' house and have my coaster, my tea cup. I could rent a room from one of my friends who was doing something artistic in some other part of the world, and their stuff would be all over, but I would just put the coaster and the teacup right next to me and suddenly the room was transformed into my workspace. And so I think there was just that sense that I belonged wherever I was, and that was the trigger that just allowed me to work wherever.
Do you ever experience periods of creative block? How do you counteract these?
WW: Writer's block is a funny thing to me because I think writer's block in some ways is a result of not writing about the things that you want to write about. It's different when you're in the middle of a project and it's just a slog and it's difficult—and one's brain has not created the neural pathways. You're really just building new things in your brain. That’s slow. But for me, that blankness or that feeling like I have nothing to say mostly comes when I feel like whatever it is that I want to do will not be valued. Sometimes that takes a while for me to recognize the actual sensation I'm dealing with. Certainly for the kind of work that I do, I feel like I need a certain amount of gumption when I'm about to do something because you know, most of us hear rejection, that's part of the experience; and, a lot of times, if you're working outside of a formal tradition or if you're working outside of a mainstream cultural tradition, or if you're writing about topics that are contentious, there can be a lot of resistance to the artistic aspect of that work. That's the challenge—really trying to figure out what the block is and is the block a feeling like, If I did this, it would be worthless. The question I ask myself more than that, when I feel slowed down, is, Will this project change me?
Was there any resistance to Multiply/Divide because of your use of multiple genres? What was the process of writing that book like for you?
WW: I was primarily working in poetry, and the one criticism I was dealing with was that my poems were too long. I was writing 26 page poems, 30 page poems, book length poems. So I think I got frustrated with trying to publish individual poems because people would say well, two pages is the max. So I thought, Oh, I'll just write it as prose. This was over a couple of years, but I think that I started feeling there were formal gestures I just wanted to engage with.
I think that the pieces in Multiply/Divide fit together for me because they were coming out of a similar time period where I was trying to explore questions of the way that the self relates to the nation and the way that an individual gets framed as a legitimate person or not. So I feel like the joy for me in doing a lot of those pieces was that I could just do whatever I wanted because I just needed to write them and I was just going to do whatever I wanted. In some ways that's when I'm happiest working is when I'm writing something like that. I also feel like it's the way in which one's work is most representative of their own aesthetic. So there are definitely moments where you write something in the language or in the parlance of a magazine—someplace that you want to be published in; but I’m interested in, What do I sound like? What do these questions sound like when they're processed in a way that's compelling to me?
I recently spoke with Margo Jefferson about the differences between the creative processes for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc. As someone who's bridged that gap in your own work, do you feel that the processes are different or similar?
WW: I think genres are like record label bins—they're useful for people figuring out what they like, but they're not incredibly useful for people making work. It's more consumer side than maker side. I've spent a lot of my time teaching in visual arts schools, which I really love doing, and it was really instructive to me after completing pretty traditional training in the humanities. What I liked about being around studio students was that they were challenged to really set out their aesthetic project on their own so well that they could articulate it to the class, and they had to be able to withstand criticism of their work in person.
The writing workshop provides a certain glimpse of that, but it's a different thing when you're actually writing in class and getting critiqued. I think it's the immediate work that has some of the pitfalls and failures that are endemic to each of us as a writer, right? So my ticks will be more obvious when I'm giving a first draft of something than when I've polished it and sent it to a group. That's where, to me, the workshop is a trickier environment because people present themselves in a certain professional way, which is useful because you want to have a professional conversation about a work, but I think there's also value in not being too afraid to show things before they're fully formed—not to everybody, but to your people. That said, back to your question of genre, I feel like the work almost tells me what genre it's going to be before I start it. So I don't even really have to do that work. That is just the work telling me how to respond to it. And if I listen well, then it's just making the shape of the thing visible.
Where do you normally find inspiration for your work? Has this changed for you after the pandemic lockdowns?
WW: I think sadly, the pandemic has revealed many of the crisis points or points of inflection that I've been looking at throughout my work—white supremacy, the problems that are created by really divisive lines drawn in culture, extractive practices, anti-blackness. I feel this has been a time where I hear people connecting with my work—people who maybe hadn't connected with it before. But I also think that the joyful things are really important. Maybe more important than the darker themes, which are easily accessed is, the natural world, but I don't have much access to that right now. It's a strange moment because I feel like there are a lot of things that I used to enjoy that I just don't right now. Listening to new music, for example, is very difficult right now for me. I will say that reading has been a special pleasure throughout the pandemic.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life would you say most influences your writing?
WW: Normally music is a huge part of my connection to the world and I like to see live music. I like experimental music. This is another one of the things that's just been hard with the pandemic. My current project engages a lot of visual art. I enjoy talking to artists about their work, but I don't want to study right now. Prepping my classes and writing the projects that I'm writing is where the studying is happening. I'm approaching other work as a very lazy fan (laughs). Oh, this seems like it would be fun to spend some time with, or just walk around it or take a look at it. Maybe not even figure it out, maybe not even feel sophisticated in the presence of it. Maybe not understand it entirely, but have that sensation of being relieved for a moment from my own thoughts.
One thing that surprised me about the pandemic lockdowns is that the lack of a social life really affected my creative life, despite the fact that I always described myself as an introvert. Did you experience anything similar?
WW: It's interesting because I feel I am of the generation where I built most of my social relationships before social media. So it's weird in some ways to have gone back to talking on the phone with friends. It's a very sweet thing. I really appreciate my friendships in a new way. The time has really been elastic between us. A lot of us spend most of our day focused on trying to keep someone alive—whether it's a parent or a child or both—that is a daily preoccupation. Aside from that is that space of wondering, Oh, when can we do X, Y, or Z, and when will we be free enough to walk in the park with a cup of coffee? I think that the social life that comes from my extended connections has really been a ballast for me during this period.
Some of the socializing, I also have no idea what that's going to even look like in the future.
What are you working on now and what’s next?
WW: I am working on a book about paint, and it’s consuming. It's a non-fiction polemic against paint.
What advice would you give to artists who are just starting to figure out process and routine?
WW: I think everybody has the best time of the day for themselves. And I don't think the best time of the day is always consistent with the seasons. There's the best time of the day in the summer, the best time of day possibly in the spring, fall and winter. I would say to check in with yourself every six weeks or so to see if you are making space for yourself to work in that time of day. I certainly have had periods where I have thought early morning is the best time. In the summer, it’s the afternoon before the late afternoon. So, I try to build my schedule around having space in the afternoon to work. Honor that time, but it also has a lot to do with the rhythms of your own body and the rhythms of your household or your shared space. If you are somebody who lives alone, sky's the limit.