In the February issue of The Writer, novelist Dorothy Allison shared her experiences as a speaker and teacher at the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. She also offered insight into her personal writing process.
Allison has taken on complex issues in her work, including class struggle, abuse, feminism and lesbianism. Her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, and her second novel Cavedweller became a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and national bestseller in 1998. Her next book, She Who, is forthcoming.
A southern native transplanted to northern California, Allison looks at writing with grit, humor and joy. Here are our favorite gems.
I’m not sane when I don’t write. I suppose that’s the bottom line. The only way I know to understand the world is to remake it with story.
I like a story to be in a specific spot. Smells and sounds in the background and discomfort. I like a lot of discomfort in my places. I want sweat and snake. You know what I’m talking about? I try to encourage [students] to indulge those approaches.
Business of writing
Try not to read the email. Try desperately not to read the email. Or listen to the phone messages. The hardest thing in the world is to write fiction instead of doing business. Being a published writer there’s just an enormous amount of business. As soon as you engage with it, it short circuits the part of you that writes stories.
The thing about working writers is we train our muscles. And one of our muscles is our butt muscle. You got to be able to sit and write and work for as long as the energy flows.
Top piece of advice
Make writing a place of joy. If you only think of writing as this work, as this onus, difficult thing, eventually you will start avoiding it or at least you will not come to it with the enthusiasm and energy. It needs to be what you want to do, what you love to do. You have to give yourself permission to do scary, wonderful exciting things.