Brittany Perham on Being Attentive Only to What You Are Making
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
In my writing life, I try and try to keep a daily schedule, and I fail and fail. This isn’t the “biggest” struggle in my writing, but it is continual, and it is one that I can name.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Do it. Everyone can and should make art. You don’t need to be part of an institution or have an advanced degree to create. If you want to make money, that’s a different story. But then, that’s not about the actual writing, the actual creation. Making money is a necessity too, but it’s a different necessity.
Now in terms of writing and creating: this is the more interesting question, and it isn’t about money or about profession. All of us can create, and doing so is always worthwhile, in whatever form one chooses. I’m teaching a class now on the creative process — it’s a new class at Stanford called Creative Expression through Creative Writing. I love this class; it’s very different from the craft-based, genre-specific workshop we’re all familiar with. In the first week, my students and I were talking about our own definitions of creativity and our own desires for writing and making art. And you know what? Many people said they were taking the class in order to remember how to write for the joy of it.
I think it’s sadl, true that many of us lose the joy in creation that we initially feel as young people. We’re trained to write on task; our writing is judged and graded, and serves a particular purpose as we move forward as students. And there is certainly something useful about this: training is beneficial and necessary for most things, including writing. But there’s something sad about this too, to lose that moment of flash and spark that happens when creation sets off something in the brain. This feeling — call it inspiration, joy, a connection with the sublime — is thrilling and terrifying and wholly necessary. It’s something we’re built for as humans. All of us can, and should, experience this, even while we’re learning to train ourselves academically or otherwise. We should experience it regularly.
I was happy to have that conversation with my students, because this is a problem that I face in a real and daily way. The business of writing — the publishing, the applying, the prize-winning, the networking — gets in the way of the joy. These are all based on judgment. When I was young, before I knew anything about that world, I wrote (and drew and painted and made linocuts and designed clothes) because I felt wholly absorbed by the process. The regular me — the one that was often fastened down by anxiety and fear — would disappear, and a different me — the one that was attentive only to what I was making — would take her place. This was an amazing, transformative act for me. A life-changing, and life-saving act. It is the single reason that I am a writer. So I’m working, too, to reclaim that feeling. As part of this, I’ve gone back to the visual arts, forms that are freer for me because they are freer of my own self-judgment. By returning to the visual arts, and by talking to my students in class, I’ve also been able to return to my writing in a new way. Or maybe I should say, an old way, because I’m trying to approach writing as I once did, and to access that intangible thing — call it joy, or stillness, or the deep-breath of the brain.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
It depends on the day, the hour, in which you ask. I feel successful when 1) I feel I’ve accomplished something in my writing that day, or 2) I come out of a class I’m teaching (or taking) feeling like my mind’s expanded a little bit. Actually both scenarios create the same feeling: if I’ve had a good writing day, I feel my mind’s expanded a little bit. I do not feel successful when I have to deal with the business of writing. Applications, submissions, Facebook, etc.: none of that makes me feel successful. None of those things makes me feel as though my mind has expanded!
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I don’t watch YouTube very much. Maybe because sitting at the computer is associated with the business of writing and teaching — email, submissions, Facebook — it rarely makes me feel better. I do like to sit down with a fashion magazine — especially Vogue. I even like the advertisements, and the magazine smell — perfume sealed under paper, which never smells anything like actual perfume. Good fashion photography is really quite beautiful — the body made alien in a shibori dress or jacquard corset, or lost in a taffeta pouf. Fishnets, feathers, a good leather jacket — I find clothes very soothing.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My great-grandmother was named Jeanette. Jeanette’s father was finishing his training as an osteopathic doctor, and to support his family (Jeanette and her sister Mirah, and his sick wife) he worked as a state inspector in the brothels of New Orleans. This was about 1900. Jeanette would go with him because her mother was too sick to look after her and Mirah. Jeanette told my grandmother (who told my mother, who told me) about sitting with the women while her father worked. They curled Mirah’s blonde hair, they let Jeanette put on their dresses and bounce on their beds and try on their heels. Even later, when she would have been old enough to stay home alone, she followed her father on his rounds. Maybe this is because, by this point, the women were teaching her to use rouge and kohl, because they gave her cuttings of ribbons and lace, because they were teaching her dirty words and how to use them. Jeanette, according to my mother, imagined the women might have come out of a story from the Arabian Nights, which she loved as a child.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Indiana Jones. Well, actually, Kent Weeks, who was excavating then in the Valley of the Kings. Kent Weeks had this major discovery: a vast tomb belonging to the sons of Ramesses II, maybe the greatest discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun. I was reading everything about it and I knew, then, that I was going to be an Egyptologist. So I wrote to Kent Weeks, and he wrote back, which made me want to be an Egyptologist even more. Later, in college, I studied (along with English) archaeology and Egyptology. For a couple of summers I interned at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I would never voluntarily be in the wilderness for a week. “Cabin,” “tent,” “backpack,” “hiking” — these are all horrifying words to me. I think this is because I was sent (though my mother might disagree with that verb) to overnight camp when I was eight or nine years old. I spent the duration of the experience crying. I’m not talking about a day or two of crying, followed by blissed-out days of canoeing and making gimp key chains in the mess hall. I’m talking about the full-scale, every-day and every-night kind of crying. My memory of this time is like an impressionist painting, everything revealed only by the gradation of the light. No solid lines, nothing representational. And I think I was only “sent” to this nightmarish place for a single week! But that week was intolerable. I wanted my mother to come back. I wanted this without relief. I wanted this more than I have ever wanted anything. And that homesickness feeling is one that has never quite gone away. If there is a hell, and if I am condemned to it, I will be perpetually eight years old and stuck at overnight camp in the wilderness.
What are you working on right now?
I have two projects going, though I can’t clearly see my way through either of them. I’m trying to be okay with being in the uncertainty, the dark forest, but it’s difficult. Right now, I’m ready to reveal very little about them, being that I’m in the dark forest. Still, you could say that both projects are kinds of hybrids, but between exactly what and exactly what else is unclear. You could say that I’m interested in the mixing of forms and genres — the visual and the written, for example, and poetry and prose — and you’d be right. But really I feel there are and should be very few boundaries between these forms, especially between poetry and prose.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I read interviews often, and I always love the part where the writer lists her own beloved writers. So here are some of mine, those that I love now, those that I loved in childhood, and those that have changed me at very particular moments, past and present, in no particular order: Lydia Davis, Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Hart Crane, Marcel Proust, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Herrick, Paul Celan, Chris Van Allsburg, D.A. Powell, J.D. Salinger, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Madeleine L’Engle, Jane Kenyon, John Ruskin, Alice Munro, Thom Gunn, Jack Gilbert, Elizabeth Hand, Randall Mann, Louise Glück, Gwendolyn Brooks, J.M. Barrie, Susan Steinberg, Thomas Hardy, John Berryman, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Kirstin Valdez Quade, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Marilyn Hacker, Anne Carson, Anna Akhmatova, Deborah Digges. There are more.