Writers on Writing, Volume 13: Kelly Egan
Kelly Egan's poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Luna Luna, RHINO, White Stag, Laurel Review, and elsewhere. Her manuscript was recently a finalist in the Midwest Chapbook Contest. She lives in San Francisco and has an MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. She likes to think about outer space and visit small towns.
What writing project are you working on right now?
I just recently found my way into a new poetry project after completing, for the moment, a prior manuscript. I am still exploring what the parameters of this new project are, but I know it has a lot to do with topography, dreams, and memory.
I am interested in the way that topography, and perhaps especially very peripheral topography, enters the subconscious, what it has to offer to the imagination, and how it shows up in dreams. I am writing into the remembered topography of my childhood, and I am also writing into a growing obsession with peripheral spaces like highway medians, roadside lawns, and vacant lots. I have been researching some of the natural history of my hometown and trying to see through my memories and family history to the place as it exists outside of my own projections onto it.
The other exciting thing about this project is that this is the first time I am working on a collection that feels like it is all being generated from a unified area of exploration. In my mind, this makes it a true book project, an integral whole rather than merely a collection of pieces, which is how I think of my older manuscript. It feels much more satisfying to work in this way.
What writing project are you procrastinating on?
I have this travelogue/essay-ish thing I initiated during travels to France and Spain in the summer of 2017. As of now, it is long and unwieldy and my struggle is in part to discover what the form of it will be. The trouble is, most of the times that I work in prose, I end up getting very stuck in my head about all the formal possibilities, whereas when it comes to making formal choices in poetry, my intuition feels much more in charge. In some moments, I feel that parts of the piece could just be little prose poems or micro essays, and at other moments I wonder if I should keep it long. Or, maybe it is simply my travel journal and I should do nothing with it but keep it as a memory for myself.
It could be that all these questions are so maddening that they lead to procrastination, or maybe procrastination is less a problem than time itself. In other words, I don't think my brain or my schedule can handle more than one writing project at a time.
Can you tell me a little about your experience being part of Writers' Bootcamp at Left Margin LIT?
Bootcamp at Left Margin has been a lifesaver. I didn’t know I needed it but I tried it at a time when my writing practice was getting very piecemeal and I was delightfully surprised to discover that it was just the thing to help me get focused again.
In grad school, a weekly workshop deadline has a way of focusing you. Back out in the real world and without that deadline, bootcamp has given me the vehicle I need to keep showing up—not just to the desk but to a state of mind where, when I can manage to arrive in it, I usually find there is something waiting for me.
Can you share some specifics?
For me, when it comes to writing, that experience of sitting down and scratching to get in is the worst. It invariably leads to checking email, cleaning, giving in to my day job, looking up Ph.D programs, etc. What I want instead is to sit down and enter my process, enter the poem, enter a type of flow. Almost every time I sit down to write at the bootcamp I find that I am able to sit down and pretty quickly do just that.
I think there is more to cultivating a room of one's own to write in than merely having a physical space to work in and a time carved out of the schedule. As challenging as those two things alone can be to achieve, there is also this particular quality of presence and focus that is the real space to be carved out. For me, the crucial element that bootcamp has offered is the sense of accountability and silent camaraderie provided by being in a room with other writers who are also working on their projects. There is a sense of all of us reciprocally holding up a space for each other to let go of whatever else might me vying for our attention.
You have the longest commute out of all the Bootcampers. Why did you decide to do bootcamp at Left Margin LIT instead of someplace closer to the city?
The commute is rough and it does wear me down over time—but, it also has its merits and, even if it didn’t, the benefits bootcamp offers to my writing outweigh the struggles of the commute.
Having to commute to my writing time makes the writing feel more like a job, makes it a more tangible and less interruptible thing. When you arrive at your place of employment, your mind says okay, I’m now going to work toward this one particular end for the duration of the time I am here. That's exactly the type of mindset I need for my writing, I think, and the commute is a part of creating that mindset, so I'm down.
Of course the commute puts a huge strain on all other aspects of my schedule and intensifies the general predicament of being a modern adult, and a creative one at that in one of the most expensive American cities, blah blah. But every time I do the cost-benefit analysis, I find that the bootcamp is among a handful of other non-capitalistically-determined aspects of my week that, while being the things that add a significant extra overall pressure to the schedule, are also the things that bring me the most joy and satisfaction, which obviously makes them worth it.
Finally, are there bootcamps in SF? I have done some searching, but I haven’t found anything quite like the simple model that Left Margin LIT provides. There are some competitive opportunities one can apply to to earn a place to work, but nowhere I have found where you can simply sign up and show up.
And honestly, the non-vetted nature of Left Margin’s writing space has made me realize just how meaningless the whole vetting thing can be. Anyone who is willing to sign up and show up at a place to write consistently week after week has demonstrated a level of commitment that is self-selective and really all the vetting you need.
How do you overcome writer's block?
I find that deadlines can be extremely generative, and so can workshops or work exchanges with fellow writing peers. Any upcoming situation where I’m going to be presenting my work fosters a type of focus. This focus is probably a combination of a survival feeling of not wanting to fail, a desire to impress, and also just an excitement at the prospect of sharing and connecting in that way.
When I read the work of friends whose writing I admire, it also tends to fuel something in me that I think is a healthy combination of admiration and envy that gets me going on my own writing. It puts a music in my head or just an excitement about what is possible. Reading work I admire can also help, but there’s something about it being the work of people I know that makes it that much more alive to me. Maybe I’m just lucky to know some really great writers.
Bootcamp for me also stands as an important tool for fending off writer’s block. I think when you’re experiencing writer’s block you’re way more susceptible to distraction, which only fuels more writer's block. The space of stillness and mutual accountability that I experience in bootcamp is a great antidote to distraction.
Biking, walking, and traveling have always been useful modes for me. When I break these experiences down to search for the active ingredient I get a sense that it is a combination of novelty and wandering that start to put me in a different headspace, a sort of reverie that often leads to writing.
And, oh! The thing that I almost forgot to mention is the one that has probably been the single most generative thing I have written from over the past several years. Dreams. I have a practice of transcribing standout dreams into my notebook the day after I have them. I find this to be an excellent creative practice. Because of the poetic way the subconscious already works, these transcriptions often end up being already on the way to being a poem.
If you could go back in time, what writing advice would you give your childhood self?
I might advise my younger self to put more effort into finding her people and making things with them. For example, I might advise her to join reading or writing groups or find some way to engage with other kids with a similar interest. I’m not exactly sure how this sort of encouragement might have affected my childhood, but what I am thinking about is the way it could have affected my young adulthood. As a young college graduate, I was always trying to keep writing but it was often very difficult as I felt I was just writing into the void. I didn't yet know the value of what it meant to identify kindred souls and try to create sustained opportunities for exchange. I think that having a better sense of community at this time could have helped both the development of my writing and the development of my sense of self and value in the world.