Dani Burlison on Aiming High but Having Low Expectations
An interview with Dani Burlison, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:
Dani Burlison has been a staff writer for a Bay Area alt-weekly, a columnist for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a book reviewer for the The Los Angeles Review. Her writing appears in the Chicago Tribune, The Rumpus, Utne Reader, Ploughshares Literary Magazine, Hip Mama Magazine, Shareable, Rad Dad Zine, Spirituality & Health Magazine, Chevy Culture Magazine,Prick of the Spindle, Know Journal, Bike Monkey, elephant journal, The North Bay Bohemian, sparkle & blink and others. She is an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Lit Camp and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and has upcoming work in various online and print publications and a handful of anthologies. Her collection of essays Dendrophilia and Other Social Taboos was published in December 2013 and she is currently working on her second book.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
Until almost a year ago, I was a staff writer at an alt-weekly in Marin County and a freelance writer for a few other places. Now I teach creative/autobiography writing to older adults through a community college where I live. I still write articles here and there, including a small travel column that I co-write for The Chicago Tribune. I’m also working on my second book.
Plus, I’m a full-time single mom of two teens. That shit takes a whole special and complicated supernatural skill set. Keeping them alive and relatively well-adjusted this long is my biggest accomplishment to date. I like to think of myself as a sorceress.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I’d say my biggest struggle with work is time management. One minute I’ll be consumed with finishing a scene in a story or meeting a deadline for an assignment and the next, I am sucked into watching back episodes of Live From Daryl’s House or Bad Lip Readings or listening to This American Life or researching airfare to Vietnam or rentals in small quaint east coast towns. Also, when I “discover” new writing that I really love, I get totally consumed with reading every single thing that person has ever written. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with Jamaal May. Not that this is a bad thing at all (he’s amazing), it just keeps me from working on my own book.
Personally, my biggest challenge is that I am highly sensitive. Not as a criticism about my work or anything like that, but in the sense that I struggle with some mild mental health stuff and it sometimes gets in the way of me being happy or productive. I second-guess myself too often. I’m moody. I’m too nostalgic. I am a sucker for emotionally unavailable men. My heart gets broken every day by the horrible things happening in the world, and by watching the people I love suffer. I spend a lot of time thinking about these things and worrying about how fucked up the world is when I should be writing or making dinner or washing my sheets. I hate feeling helpless; it makes me want to sucker punch the world in the throat, but I am usually too tired to go out and find the world’s throat or to engage in a lot of punching, so I stay home and sulk and write bad poetry instead.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Aim high but have low expectations. Expect to spend a lot of time alone. Expect people to want to have sex with you because they have weird delusions about how sexy it is to screw a writer (Side note: one time, when I was writing my column at McSweeney’s, I dated a guy who was a big Dave Eggers fan who only wanted to talk about him while we were on dates. I think he thought we’d eventually have a three-way with him or something. It was super awkward). Expect others to steer clear of you because they think you’re always looking for material (I am). And if you’re very honest about your experiences, expect (some) ex-boyfriends and (some) family members to hate you at some point. Don’t fall in love with another writer. Or an artist. Or an activist. Or a musician. That shit gets complicated. Also, create a community of writer friends for yourself. No one understands the complicated life of a writer like other complicated life-living writers.
Recently, I was talking to my friend Sara, who is this kick-ass artist and musician and I asked her for advice about a certain relationship/dating conundrum I was dealing with around boundaries and expectations and sacrifice and she just laid it out, clean and simple: “Do whatever it takes to get what you want and to be happy.” It was so obvious and I think this advice pertains to writers, too. We have to sacrifice a lot to do what we love and to do what we want, even if we end up with no publishable material and we’re eating lentils for 10 days straight, at least we’re fucking trying and not letting anything stand in the way.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I’m still trying to define “success”. Ask me again in a year.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
This video of my younger daughter and her little buddies dancing to Outkast at my friend’s house about 6 years ago. It gets super hectic:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
One of my daughters recently took part in the National Geographic Geno 2.0 project and we discovered that we are a little Denosovan and Neanderthal.
There is also an odd story in my family about how my mother’s ancestors include Abraham Lincoln and my father’s include John Wilkes Booth. Really, it explains so much about why I often struggle with myself the way I do.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I wanted to be a writer and photographer for National Geographic Magazine.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Now that I am 40 I think my stripping days are over but if I were to give the ole dancing pole one last whirl, I’d definitely need some low lighting and to be listening to The Weeknd.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
My oldest daughter and I are both dealing with varying levels of Lyme Disease so our house is filled with so many bottles of pills.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Have a lot of orgasms? Pretend I’m in bed with Adrien Brody and Ewan McGregor? Seriously, do people really answer this question?
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a collection of linked short stories. It’s kind of like an emotional travel log of sorts, but much darker and experimental than those in my last book. It’s actually quite fun to write.
I was also recently contacted about having my stories from Dendrophilia adapted for a TV series, so I’ve been working on some new stories and providing the screenwriter with a ton of material for potential episodes. Who knows if a network will even pick it up, but the possibility of this turning into something is pretty fucking exciting. I mean, if Jonathan Ames can have a TV show developed based on something from McSweeney’s, then so can I, right?
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I have this fantasy about going back to Kenya or moving to Vietnam after my kids are both off at college in a few years and setting up a nonprofit writer residency program where people can come write about social justice issues and volunteer with the local community.
I’d like to live out that fantasy of “work” while also developing my craft in regards to writing fiction. I really admire any writing that evokes a visceral reaction in me, whether it makes me wince or cry or gives me anxiety or makes me want to throw up or laugh out loud while I am reading in a public place. I’m hoping to develop my work into stories that will evoke those same feelings.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Nearly all of my living exes are here. I kid, I kid. Some of them are really great people who I adore. Some of them are not.
On a positive note, because I am in the North Bay, I am pretty psyched about the Smart Rail. It will have a stop about a block from where I live in Santa Rosa.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I recently started using Snapchat and I usually only send things to my 18yo daughter. Mostly, I take selfies and draw fake blood pouring out of my eyes and mouth before sending them to her and a few of her friends.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Camp fires and rose water and those crazy cinnamon brooms they sell at Trader Joes during Halloween. Also, when I am really into someone, I love the smell of their sweat.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Time travel. Mostly for exceedingly sentimental reasons like having one last conversation with a couple of people I really loved that died in recent years, but also for taking my 25yo self to Hydra, Greece in 1960. There, I would fall in love with a 26yo Leonard Cohen soon after he bought his home on that lovely little island in the Aegean Sea. We would write lyrics together and drink wine and swim naked at night under the full moon. It would be incredible. Our love affair would change the world.