Transcript: It's Lit: Stepping off the page with Tara Ison
Warning: This podcast contains explicit language. Listener discretion advised.
Chris Clements: Hello and welcome to It's Lit, The Echo's literary arts podcast. My name is Chris Clements and with me here today is Tara Ison, novelist and professor of fiction at Arizona State University.
Chris Clements: Obviously, we think much faster than we read, but with the way you write it seems like you've managed to crystalize that synaptical firing that you're talking about. And I don't think I found a better example of that than just the first sentence of your new short story, The Meat Bee. And I was wondering if you wouldn't mind reading that first one for everyone.
Tara Ison: This is from a relatively recent story called The Meat Bee. This is the opening sentence:
"Honey," he says, "Can you pass me another one?" And this finally sends her over the edge, after a hard-ground hour here. Sweating on a blanket itchy with fierce imagined ants, for there is only one sandwich left of the many she has so painstakingly made. A baguette brick of marbled prosciutto and triple-crème Brie, and for that endless hour of this magazine couplehood picnic she has bloated herself with seltzer and nibbled kale chips, origami’d her sunscreened legs into slimming designs, and watched him smack down all those simple carbs, stuff himself on greasy flesh and dairy fats, while all she can taste are the words that have thickened her tongue for weeks. The sour flavor of words she still cannot get out of her mouth, the words, "You’re fucking Renee, aren’t you?"
Chris Clements: For students that you're teaching in your classes and people who are maybe looking to emulate that kind of frame thought or just looking to perfect and make original their own rhythm in the way they write. What advice do you have for them?
Tara Ison: I think looking at how people have tried to capture a kind of interiority that dips sometimes into stream of consciousness. The idea of stream of consciousness is so tricky and it's so challenging because it's not just what is often called automatic writing. You have not in doing that crafted a piece of prose. You've tried to access your own subconscious and interiority and that's great but that's not what stream of consciousness is in literary fiction, in prose. Stream of consciousness is the illusion of the absence of craft and structure. There's still could be principles of grammar that one needs to adhere to in order for it not to just be a nonsensical ramble.
The reader still has to be able to follow that chain of thought, but whether it's a paragraph or whether it's an entire story, we have to be able to follow language the way we would follow any kind of language. And so I think the challenge is to capture that sense of immediacy and intimacy of stream of consciousness without losing the precision and the clarity and the craft that shapes the rhythm of such a sequence of language that makes it seem like a ramble but it's actually not.
Chris Clements: Switching gears for a second, something I think that a lot of young writers are concerned by, especially in creative writing undergraduate and graduate degrees around the country, is just exactly how essential their degree and their study in academia is for them on their writing.
Because there have been countless authors obviously who never really entered academia, but still managed to come up with a highly original way of writing. Do you consider that immersing yourself in academia is still essential to the process?
Tara Ison: I think it's helpful. I think in some ways it is essential. I certainly don't think it's a requirement. I think a program, whether it's an undergraduate program or something like an MFA can be really invaluable for a sense of community. Yes, definitely, you're getting feedback on your own work, honing your skills of critical analysis that happen when you are giving feedback on someone else's work. I think the structure and the discipline of it is pretty great.
I mean seriously one of the reasons I went back to grad school was because I needed deadlines. I don't like to write. I'm not I'm not someone who loves to write. I hate writing. In fact, I needed to write because I needed to turn a story in for workshop on such and such a day. I wanted that. I think an academic program is a wonderful way to be exposed and turned on to other forms of writing that you might not necessarily seek out on your own.
I don't think it's mandatory. I don't even know I'd necessarily agree it's critical. I don't think it's for everyone. I think that there are a lot of really amazing writers out there who are autodidacts and have read, and thought, and written and done the work on their own to a degree that they're able to move forward professionally as a writer. It's different for everybody.
Chris Clements: I wanted to go back to something you said. You mentioned that you hate writing and I think most writers will understand immediately what you mean. But for people who aren't necessarily associated with that kind of label, what do you mean by I hate writing?
Tara Ison: I mean what I said. I joke like my apartment is never cleaner than when I'm supposed to be writing something, because I would rather clean the bathroom than sit down to write. I will do anything to avoid writing. But you know in a way that's also a bit simplistic. It is a love hate thing. And when I do get myself into a chair, and oh boy, deadlines still help.
I still need deadlines very often, but when I do get myself into a chair, if I stick with it – "I'm not the mood. I'm hungry. I'd rather do laundry." Whatever it is, if I stick with it, I do sort of enter into the zone. I do forget myself. I do lose self-consciousness and a sense of my own existence on the planet because I have entered the world of the story and hours can go by. And that's gorgeous, that I love. And I love that. You can't wait to be invited to the party. You have to show up and then the muse shows up.