Writing is like breathing. We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it. I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing.
Joanne Avallon is a freelance writer living in Rockport, Massachusetts. She was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize from Wellesley College and received an M.F.A. from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Sundog, The Norton Anthology of Microfiction, Smokelong Quarterly, FictionNow, BlinkInk, and other online literary sites. She has read her poetry on National Public Radio. Joanne also teaches American Literature at North Shore Community College and consults for the Clean Air Task Force. She is married, with two children and a 70-pound dog.
Flash Fiction: “All This” & Interview
Flash Fiction: Beauty, Bridge Mix, The Game of Life
Flash Fiction: Mice Cube
Flash Fiction: Kapha
Interview: Smokelong Quarterly
How Joanne Avallon Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Joanne for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I don’t know that I had a choice; as soon as I could write, it seemed to me that I should write. I was a sensitive child and sometimes, for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt my heart was about to burst. I wrote to find out why. Poetry fit that purpose because I could ponder one idea – a few lines of verse – for a long time. When I hit my teenage years, or they hit me, I discovered that I had a knack for telling stories. When I was sixteen, I remember telling a story to my father – a voluble and busy man – and I had him stuck to his chair until I decided to end the story. Now that is power.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I majored in literature in college with a focus on creative writing. I thought then, and I still think now, that it makes no sense to be a student of literature and not write. There were so many English majors in my class who had never actually tried to write what they studied so assiduously. When I graduated, my parents told me that I would starve as a writer and that they would only pay for a graduate degree that would get me a job. So, I followed the steps of Carlos Fuentes and went to law school and became a lawyer. I practiced law long enough to earn the tuition for my MFA in Literature, Writing and Publishing at Emerson College. In the middle of all of this, I got married and had two children. I was pregnant or post partum for most of time I was studying for my MFA. I defended my thesis when I was seven months pregnant with my son and endured endless puns and double entendres about that fecund period of my life. I am glad I got my law degree. It helped to me be a better writer and has come in handy when I needed to earn some money. I did find it hard to write with small children and decided those years would be my “stockpile” years where I would develop my writing without worrying too much about publishing. I am just beginning to get back into the publishing world now.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Frank Bidart, my poetry professor at Wellesley, was tirelessly encouraging and went over my senior thesis, a book of poems, word by word. That thesis won me the Academy of American Poets prize. At Emerson, Pam Painter opened my eyes to the world of flash fiction, which I consider the perfect storm between poetry and prose. In her class, I wrote “All This,” which is in MicroFiction: The Norton Anthology of Short Short Fiction.
My favorite piece of short fiction is Eudora Welty’s “The Wide Net.” I had the pleasure of listening to her read it while I was at law school. When she was done, the reading organizer presented her with a chocolate pecan pie and she said, “A pie is the best payment I ever got for this story.”
I love that story because it is a retort to all the male writers of her generation writing male adventure/journey stories. That story is about a husband’s journey to find and understand his young wife.
Eudora lived in her hometown or nearby for a good long time. I grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts and just recently moved to Rockport. Many of my good friends I knew as children. There is wisdom to be gotten in letting yourself grow old where you once were young. I appreciate Eudora’s eye on small town life and on the way time passes. She also has a wonderful hand with character, drawing them deftly with a few well-written sentences.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
You have no doubt already faced the blank stares of friends in response to your announcement that you are a writer. Writing is like breathing. We all breathe and think we know how to, but only a few of us pay attention to it. I teach yoga as one of my many jobs and much of the practice of yoga is about breathing. When you focus on your breathing – the simple inhale and exhale – you begin to notice how it makes you feel and how controlling your breath can help control your emotions. And then you start wondering about breathing itself and about what it means to be alive.
Such a simple thing leads to huge insights. Writing is simple, too. Almost everyone in our culture is literate but few stop to focus on writing as a craft, to understand the power of it or the importance of it. If writing does nothing else for you than force you to lead an examined life, then it’s a fair trade: work for insight. Be brave and continue.
The other response you will get when you tell people you are a writer is the dreaded question, “are you published?” This is a rude and inappropriate question asked by someone who doesn’t understand your art. Always answer “yes.” If they ask you where, say “The New Yorker” and then ask them what they do for a living. No doubt they will talk happily about their careers, forget your name and walk away thinking they just had a wonderful conversation with a talented writer. Do nothing to disabuse them of this notion.
Life is long. Sometimes writing will come easily; other times it will not. Be patient with yourself, keep working and remember, the journey is the reward.