MY JOURNEY TO
COLLECTIVE AS A WRITER-PUBLISHER
THE COLLECTIVE AS VISION Kerry Langan, after reading Visible Signs, observed that in my novel there is a collective of women. She asked me whether that was what had inspired my interest in encouraging the formation of this real collective and suggested I might write something about my own experience of the Collective and my journey to it.
I sat there after we talked and thought about the journey that had brought me as a writer to Visible Signs and then to the founding, with my husband Charles Brockett, of Universal Table and Wising Up Press, the publication of that novel and a collection of short stories simultaneously with the publication of our first Wising Up Anthology, Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation, and, a year later to the Wising Up Press Writers Collective. In some ways the path feels practical, coherent, and direct. In other ways, something better than a dream come true.
Following out Kerry's observation, I went back and reread the closing chapter of the novel, re-experiencing the pleasure and surprise of the women in Visible Signs who, by the end of the novel, have come together in unexpectedly cohesive community and find their individual lives falling into different richer patterns because of it. They did not come together because of art, rather because of the sharp tug out of themselves they experienced through the life and drives of a fierce little Guatemalan girl, Mikela, who dreams only of assuring the survival of her sister and her sister's child. This communal experience, the personal alienation that preceded it, and the tragic and transformative reality of Guatemala itself all play out in the art of one of the characters, Lourdes, who, through body casting, literally uses the women around her to embody her experience in all its complexity. They in turn hold her true to her often terrifying vision, recognizing in her images something that speaks to their own deepest intimations. Again, I wonder about (and also feel I begin to understand) how something that at one time I felt I could only experience through fiction has come now to seem such a practical, coherent and direct step for me in real life.
WRITING & READING I've written since I was thirteen. I can still remember my first poem and the relief I felt at being able to be true myself and my own ways of understanding the world in a way that didn't provoke the incessant, dismissive intellectualizing of my highly academic family. Surprisingly, I received support from my parents and teachers for my writing. The release I felt at being able to speak in the language most natural to me - sensuous image and emotional response, intellectual wonder - and to hear it inside myself and have it heard by others was the second pure high of my life.
The first high was learning to read, in particular learning to read well enough to read stories. I bring this up because as I think about my own direction as a writer and especially as a publisher I think it begins with - and repeatedly returns to - the experience of reading and especially the reading of stories. I have always needed to immerse myself in story, those of others, and, in time, my own. We moved frequently when I was a child and the stories in our heads and in our books - not immediate community - were what held our lives together. Those books were community to me. When I lost myself in a book, I belonged, my experience of life belonged. It was what allowed me to empathize with the characters, put myself into their shoes. Of course I wanted to be part of that larger, more welcoming world. That I could be, just by moving my eyes across the page and letting myself be swept up in the flow of life I found there, astounded me - continues to astound me.
That is one of my core experiences of writing, that the words that seem to come out so haltingly, the stories that seem to have such holes in their telling, when reread have a music and a solidity that always amazes me. I can walk around in them in the way I can the stories of others. In some ways these stories are more real than life because all of me can show up to make them and to respond to them - the desires (often social) that have appeared unspeakable, unsustainable, in the contexts in which I've found myself now are visible and, as I read them, respond to them as a reader, realizable. They can be shared. As the women in Visible Signs came to share their own lives. And in that sharing through art, tantalizingly oblique and startlingly direct, more of us shows up than can in any other way.
PUBLICATION I have written seriously all my life, explored different forms, beginning exclusively with poetry in my twenties when I earned both an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation, then from my thirties on including fiction (novel and short story) and non-fiction. I have had a strong need to complete work, to make it as powerful and polished as I can, to share it with writers, teachers and colleagues whose judgment matters to me.
Publication in and of itself was not a powerful motivator. For someone with extensive academic training in writing and a comfortable measure of artistic recognition through fellowships and publications, this now seems a little puzzling. It wasn't that I lacked ambition for my own development. I remember a cousin of mine reading my first novel and asking, "And what do you do when you finish a novel?"I also remember my answer although I don't remember if I paused before giving it: "You write another one, of course." The first audience I needed to satisfy was myself and unless I did that, the rest felt meaningless because it wasn't, quite simply, the we in me that was in relationship. Many of my writer friends felt that their lives would be changed by their book being published. I think I felt my life would be transformed, each time, by writing it - and that transformation felt very different from the experience of getting or being published, indeed often antithetical.
I do remember, shortly after graduate school, suggesting to friends that we create a publishing collective - so that people would just stop bitching all the time about agents who weren't doing their jobs, publishers they depended on but didn't like or trust. I believe I suggested calling it the White Hat Collective, since everyone seemed to be so miserably enmeshed with villains. The attitudes just felt so out of synch with the empowering and integrating experience of writing, whose great gift was, I kept learning and relearning, to help us absorb what we'd lived so far so we could live the next year, five years, or ten more wisely.
UNIVERSAL TABLE & WISING UP PRESS
I remember where I was sitting in the airport in San Francisco when the idea of Universal Table came to me. I was returning from my last residential session for the program in spiritual direction I had attended for three years, a program where I had been a decided outlier and had frequently puzzled, and at times anguished, over the impact of unreflective community based on assumptions of sameness that for the very life of me I could not share. Acknowledging this and my need for community, I suddenly found my voice, a voice that integrated both the gifts and the spurning of this experience in a way that welcomed more. I realized that this universal table - one that was based on an appreciation of our differences, that found in them our we - was intimately related to my experience of writing. It was something I both needed for myself and needed to provide others at the very same time.
Originally we thought of Universal Table as primarily conducting research and providing workshops, but the first sustained project I engaged in was an interfaith listening and writing project, God Speaks My Language, Can You?, that focused on spiritual autobiography. When, after many interviews, I asked myself how I was listening, I realized the answer was very simple - I was listening as an artist, a creative writer, someone with an abiding trust in story. Our stories. What motivated me was making these stories - often so different from my own - safe for others with different beliefs to hear.
I was always clear that I wanted Universal Table to publish this book. I wanted the generosity of the participants to result in something tangible that I could share with them and they could in turn share with others. It was soon after this, I believe, that I woke up one morning with the clear conviction that we needed to start a press because Charles and I were, at heart, writers - and there was something about the deep reflective process of writing that grounded us, allowed us to explore, invite, and welcome most freely. Charles agreed immediately because he had grown up with a father who was a book binder (and who read every book he bound and still to this day remembers and shares what he learned from them).
It was clear to us that our press would publish the stories of others but an interesting dimension of this clear conviction was that we would also publish my own books, and Charles' books if he wanted, and also anthologies focused on those areas where we felt that our grounds for understanding each other as a society could be stretched, areas that spoke especially clearly to each or both of us - all the ones we list in the collective.
We began our intense apprenticeship in book-making with my novel Visible Signs because we both cared about our fierce little heroine and the issues she raised and thought that she and the ex-pat women who aided her might speak to women in mid-life, on spiritual quests, living abroad, or reflecting on the complexities of cross-cultural adoption - and also because if we messed up on our first attempt at book-making there would be no one to disappoint but ourselves.
Simultaneously, we were selecting and editing the contributions that would form our first anthology, Illness & Grace, Terror & Transformation, so from the beginning my focus as a writer publishing her first book was not split but contextualized by this other experience of inviting in the writings of others on themes of shared importance. That simultaneity has continued - with the writing of God Speaks My Language, Can You? taking place concurrently with the compiling and creation of the next two Wising Up Anthologies, Families: The Frontline of Pluralism and Love After 70 and the creation and publication of my poetry collection, The Sanctity of the Moment, taking place concurrently with the editing, book-making, and publication of the first books of the Wising Up Press Writers Collective: Kerry Langan's Only Beautiful & Other Stories and Kathleen Housley's Keys to the Kingdom.
These interconnections have continued since then, with the active involvement of Collective members as guest editors, writers, editors, proofreaders, and inspiring proponents for various Wising Up Anthologies as well as for books for the Collective. In 2011, as we were editing and producing Maria Nazos's A Hymn that Meanders and Phyllis Langton's Last Flight Out: Living, Loving & Leaving, to which Kathleen Housley was contributing her editorial expertise, other Collective members Kerry Langan and Debra Gingerich were helping guest edit - and Kerry and Natalia Trevino were also contributing substantively as a writers - to Shifting Balance Sheets: Women's Stories of Naturalized Citizenship & Cultural Attachment. In 2012, while editing and producing Kerry Langan's second short story collection, Live Your Life & Other Stories, we have also, with the significant editorial and writing contributions of Anna Steegmann, Debra Gingerich, and Natalia Trevino, created the second anthology for our Naturalized Citizenship Project, Complex Allegiances: Constellations of Immigration, Citizenship & Belonging. THE WISING UP PRESS WRITERS COLLECTIVE
What inspired us to make the Wising Up Anthologies, as we understood the motivation more clearly, was also what inspired the development of the Collective itself. The deeply rewarding challenge of the anthologies is to take all these disparate writings and create for the reader a cohesive, evocative and affirming whole - one that helps us see the We in Them, the Us in You.
Through these anthologies we have encountered writers with fascinating voices, with ways of being in the world that inspire us, and we started thinking about a way to publish individual works that would encourage them and also nurture our own social commitments. We are, as Charles says, more than a literary press. It has been interesting to note that the writers we see as having the most literary promise are often also those who have been most interested in the broader purpose of Universal Table. They, too, have the sense that writing flows from life and its effectiveness is measured most by how thoroughly it flows back into life as well.
In structuring the Collective, we acted on our beliefs that mutual investment of skills, money and time allow everyone to share responsibility and accomplishment in healthy ways. We accept the importance of keeping very high standards for the work we publish, and also the importance of feeling that publishing is an action that we all participate in, not a state we get or are passively carried into. We also want all the members of the Collective, authors and avid readers, and Charles and I as individual writers, and publishers, to experience the pleasure and real synergistic promise of an artistic community that finds itself able to invite others safely, through story, into enriching, affirming, meaning-changing conversations about larger social concerns. REAL PEOPLE MAKE REAL COMMUNITY
But those are ideals, value commitments, stances toward life, personal motivators. The real people involved, their energy, their gifts, and their difference, are what make this experience feel better than a dream. I hope you will take the time to learn a little more about them. Perhaps this approach to writing, publishing, and being in community through writing will resonate with you too. If so, please let us know.