Archives For Patti Smith

I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time.
But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence
that fuels my writing.

Ann Lightcap Bruno is an English teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence and lives in nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, with her husband and children. Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Memoir (and), Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review Online, Talking Writing, and Alimentum.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is the second in a new partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured fiction writers.

Read Ann Lightcap Bruno’s story, “Open Bar” at Talking Writing. Excerpt:

I want her to say something to make me feel connected to then, to now, to her, to anything. All she can do is fake smile. “See you out there?”

The ladies’ room empties of nearly everyone. I feel like I am in the safe pouch of some animal, its pounding heart beating just outside the door. I rip off the old Bandaid fast and apply the new one. There is a spot of blood on the satin strap of my dyed-to-match sandal, so I blot at it with a wet paper towel. The stain spreads and turns orange. But the dress is long, and the pictures have been taken. It won’t matter.

Read more by and about Ann:

Story: Open Bar at Talking Writing

Essay: Notes on Hunger at Painted Bride Quarterly

Story: Graveside at Elimae

Essay: Defining Gluten at Alimentum

Essay: The Ache of Writing at Talking Writing

How Ann Lightcap Bruno 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 Ann for saying yes! And thanks to Talking Writing magazine for sharing their writers!  ‪

*     *     *

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I remember going, as a child, to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and watching the art students sitting cross-legged in front of the glass cases, sketchbooks on their laps, drawing antelopes and mountain laurel. On my next trip, I took a pad and pencil but was too overwhelmed by my limited artistic ability to try my hand. So instead I jotted down the names of things: fennecs, desert biomes, wapiti, Ursus americanus. Back home in my room, I tried writing poems using the words I had found. I also might have tried to rhyme. The poems were worse than anything I might have drawn, but I liked the secrecy of scribbling lines and shoving them in my desk drawer where no one could see.  Later, during my freshman year of college, I saw a handsome boy from my acting class hunched over his journal, writing intently. So I started writing every day too because I wanted him to notice. He didn’t, but the writing became a habit I couldn’t shake.  I suppose my desire to be a writer was originally just a desire to look cool. But eventually it turned into a real love of words and sentences and stories. It turned into a compulsion to notice the crazy human dramas all around me.

“I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

First of all, I’m not a writer so much as I am a teacher. Teaching is what pays the bills, fills my hours, keeps me honest. I make myself do what I ask of them: take notebooks everywhere, write in small bursts, tackle ridiculous prompts. My great fortune is the opportunity to get paid to read and talk about The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Hamlet, you name it.  “Delicious books,” as my daughter calls her favorites, are really what drive me to write. I want to make something this good. As a kid, I knew that my copy of Little Women was what I would save first in the event of a fire.  In high school Invisible Man rocked my small town sense of self, and in college I disobeyed my father and took two courses where Ulysses was required reading (he had told me to avoid the goddamned book at all costs). In grad school I became enamored of Dickens and his fat, sprawling plots. My own novel is still waiting to be born. In the meantime, I hack away at it and send out little things, stories and essays, during my summers when I have precious stretches of time. I set myself deadlines and make myself submit. I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time. But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence that fuels my writing.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

The poet Michael Harper inspired me in ways he will never know. I took an African-American literature class with him at Brown, and he made each of us visit him in his office. When I entered, he was hunting through towers of books for a copy of Huck Finn (one of his children needed it for English class at the high school where I now work). After telling me I should start coming to class on time, he asked me to give him my impressions of the course so far. I babbled some things about Morrison’s use of circle imagery in Beloved, about how much I loved Ralph Ellison. Later, when he wrote me a recommendation for grad school, Harper was so pleased with the eloquence of his letter that he called me to read it to me over the phone and to tell me he had sent a copy to Ellison (who figured in it prominently). I was giddy for weeks. I am also indebted to the poet Catherine Imbriglio whose class on lyric essays broke my work wide open, rattling my tired tendencies in really helpful ways. My husband also deserves a shout-out, as he is my go-to editor.

“I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith.”

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I am inspired by any writer who held a day job (William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Wallace Stevens). I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties. I also tend to be drawn to the stories of writers with lives far more reckless, colorful, and drunken than mine. Mostly. I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith. In the same acting class with the cute journal-writing boy, I encountered the early rock-and-roll plays of Sam Shepherd – Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth. My favorite acting experiences were playing parts he had written for her. I wore tattered black clothes and dropped my voice a register or two. It was the same kind of identity shape-shifting I enjoy now when I write fiction.  My own life and aesthetic don’t resemble Smith’s in the slightest, but a girl can fantasize. I love her Keith Richard’s hair, her love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, her far-reaching talent. When I read Just Kids, I appreciated the humor and earnestness with which she wrote about her desire to be an artist. Patti Smith embodies the prototypical American notion of self-reinvention in a way that doesn’t seem obnoxious to me in the slightest.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

On the last day of my creative writing elective, I always read my students two passages.

The first is a section from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction where he says,” …in order to achieve mastery [a writer] must read widely and deeply, and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”

The second is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Lurids Brigge, the famous description of the task of a writer that begins, “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” Rilke closes by telling us that it is not enough just to have these experiences or even memories of them; we must allow them to  change “into our very  blood” before we can write the first word.

My point in pairing these passages  is to send them off with the two-fold task of sitting in the chair, and of participating in the world.

As Gardner tells us, we have to read in order to grow as writers. We need to pay attention to the talents of others and read things that unsettle us and inspire us. Furthermore, we must cultivate a practice that forces us to write every day, in whatever stolen chunks of time we have, and to make ourselves work hard at the parts of writing that don’t come easily.

And as Rilke says, we also have to live our lives. We have to wander and observe and argue and love and mourn. And we have to let it all sink into our flesh until we have no other choice but to write about it. If we’re doing it right, the act of writing is also a process of discovery. Looking for the right words, putting the words together to make meaning, can allow us to better understand the whole business of being human.