Writers on Writing, Volume 1: Monica Wesolowska
Left Margin LIT loves the writers of the East Bay. This interview series will feature members of our community talking about their writing and the alchemy that happens on the page. For our first edition, meet instructor and memoirist Monica Wesolowska. Monica is the author of the memoir, Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, which was named a "Best Book of 2013" by The Boston Globe and Library Journal. Her stories and essays have appeared in many other venues including The New York Times, The Carolina Quarterly, and Best New American Voices.
On May 20th, Monica will teach a one-day clinic, Your Words Matter: Revision Clinic for Prose Writers, at Left Margin LIT.
You write fiction, nonfiction, and books for children. How do you juggle projects in all three genres? What are you working on right now?
A lot of my life is juggling—teaching, editing, writing, motherhood. Juggling genres feels a part of that. Different stories need to come out in different ways.
Right now, I’m finishing a children’s picture book about a mathematical pattern called the Fibonacci sequence. That was a real challenge for me. At a certain point, I got stuck and was glad to have fiction to work on. That fictional work taught me something I could take back to the Fibonacci book.
In addition, I always keep a folder under my desk for memoir notes. I keep it there for superstitious reasons, I guess, because that’s where I kept the notes for my first memoir. For me, it’s all about writing regularly and paying attention to that moment when something new is ready for words.
You've published a successful memoir about a very tragic experience, the loss of a child. Does writing a memoir feel more "powerful" or "relevant" today than your other writing?
That’s a great question. Writing my memoir was an incredible experience. I’d never written something before that so many readers said changed their lives. After Holding Silvan came out, I definitely floundered creatively. I mean, I’d honored my son’s brief life. What else could matter as much?
And yet, I’m a teacher. Here I am, supporting others, saying every story matters. So I had to give myself some of my own tough love, remind myself that I’m a writer, that I need to process life through words. It’s not that every story has to be a life-or-death situation. It’s that, even in the simplest story, I need to search for the truth. It’s the truth that resonates for others.
This past winter you taught a memoir workshop at Left Margin. How do you balance criticism with encouragement when you respond to students' work?
Fortunately, my enthusiasm for my students’ work is genuine. I want to find the beating heart in their writing and help it beat stronger. Because I start with enthusiasm, I think people are open to my criticism. It’s not that I go easy on students. While supportive, I’m straightforward and tough. My students say they love that balance.
My method is based on solid reading. I show students what they’ve written, what they’ve already created on the page, what it’s suggesting. I’m not interested in pushing others to write the way I write. I’m here to teach people to ask the right questions, to learn to read their own work better, and find their own voices.
You’re teaching an upcoming revision class for Left Margin called Your Words Matter: Revision Clinic for Prose Writers. What would you say to a potential student who’s on the fence about taking your class?
If someone’s on the fence about taking the class, I’d have to ask what’s stopping them. In fact, part of what we’ll be doing in this class is looking at those inner voices that stop us. There can be so many reasons. In addition, we’ll look at the nuts and bolts of revising, the tools I use as an editor, ways to approach your own writing. Ultimately, I'd say revising is all about seeing your own work with new eyes. Actually, it’s about seeing the whole world with new eyes which is a pretty cool thing to be able to do.
What is the best writing advice you ever received?
Well, the first advice I remember receiving is actually advice I rebelled against. Some big writer at a writing conference told me I’d never make it as a writer unless I chose one genre. This was my first experience in my writing life of hearing a rule and deciding consciously to break from it. Since then, many of my projects have come about precisely because someone said I couldn’t do something. Being told we can’t do something forces us to think about what really matters to us. Restrictions spur creativity. So in my classes, I’m always trying to strike a balance between teaching rules and spurring creative rebellion.