The Fall 2016 issue of Soundings goes live in the aftermath of the bitterest U. S. presidential campaign in living memory, in a year that has also seen the continuation of violence against people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. The campaign inflamed frightening levels of misogyny and bigotry in our society. At our August residency—in morning talks and in classrooms, at meals and at Northern Pacific Coffee Company—amid the talk of craft and creativity I heard expressions of the impact these times are having on us as human beings and as writers. Our hearts are hurting.
For courage, I turn to an essay by Toni Morrison in which she recounts her inability to write in the aftermath of a previous election. Here’s her call to action, inspired by an artist friend who helped pull her out of her creative paralysis: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” In that spirit, we offer you this issue of Soundings, as an affirmation that our work as writers goes on—that it must go on.
In this issue we feature an interview with our 2016 Judith Kitchen Visiting Writer, Tracy Daugherty. Our contributing writer Colleen Rain drew Daugherty out on the origin of his love for language, which is rooted in his memories of his Oklahoma grandfather’s political speeches. You’ll read about his surprise at learning that the most innovative, wild writing can grow out of a writer’s down-to-earth commitment to hard work, and you’ll enter into conversation with his advice to write toward what you want to know, not just what you already know.
Our faculty essayist Dinah Lenney also examines the question of not-knowing. For her, it is the search that excites her, the process of exploring the unknown. She writes that not-knowing is “a direct line to a deeper, better kind of knowing.” Although Lenney frames her essay in terms of nonfiction writing, her advice to mine this deeper, better kind of knowing speaks to poets and fiction writers as well. To not-know, she says, “is to give the writer a reason, a sense of urgency, and the writing itself a pulse.”
For a different take on discovery, hard work, and learning by doing, turn to Cindy Skaggs’s account of her Outside Experience, in which she confronted her own stereotypical expectations of the writing life, and emerged with newfound knowledge about herself—as well as many pages of new writing.
There’s a passage in Dinah Lenney’s essay that especially caught my attention. She admits that when she was writing her memoir about the murder of her father, she didn’t engage deeply with the verbal and physical substance of a letter from one of her father’s killers until she learned she wouldn’t be permitted to reproduce it verbatim in her book. Thwarted in her expectations and assumptions, she committed to the painful and difficult work of seeing clearly.
This is the work of all of us. Whether we are looking inward at our own experience, or looking outward to imagine the lives of people different from ourselves, we ask hard questions. When writing across difference, we ask ourselves, as Tracy Daugherty puts it, “Do I have the right to do that?”—and we have the courage and integrity to accept the truthful answer. And we don’t allow feelings of fear or helplessness to silence us.
I hope that this issue of Soundings will be your companion this fall as you move forward with your writing life.
—Lisa Morin Carcia, Soundings Editor