How did you become a writer?
It was all I ever wanted and want to be. An artist. A witness. At a young age I kidnapped the sky blue Smith-Corona typewriter in my family’s house but even before that I was always scribbling and drawing. As a writer and an artist, I’ve got quite a long way to go and I’m so very glad for that. It’s the attempt of becoming a writer that continues to fulfill me: the imagination and the voice meeting on the page.
It’s hard as hell but I’m not going anywhere. I’m excited for the writers in my life I am fortunate to call my friends. This includes writers I’ve never personally met but with whom I share an intimacy on the page through shared language. There’s great writing happening everywhere. There’s so much to say and to learn. And I don’t want to learn or know it all – but I do want to read and read! I’m fortunate.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My writing influences are very fluid but there are some writers and visual artists that remain consistent companions in my process. Some of the poets and writers I often return to include James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Rainier Marie Rilke, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Marilynne Robinson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Octavio Paz, Audre Lorde, Carl Phillips, William Faulkner, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Lucille Clifton. Also, I often include visual artists as writing influences. It’s difficult for me to segregate genres because I work across forms. So I’d like to include several visual artists as influences, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Joseph Cornell, Lorna Simpson, Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Frank, Romare Bearden, Hank Willis Thomas, and Graciela Iturbide. In a category of his own – Miles Davis.
When and where do you write?
I create during daylight hours, usually in the morning. I revise in the evenings. I read and write at home for several hours a day. I take a lot of walks and showers and baths while I work. I think better near or immersed in water. On days that I teach I spend more time reading because I give a lot of energy to teaching. Then I have weekly studio days where I work at my art studio. I treat my workday with intention. Lately I’ve been on the road so I will often set up my hotel rooms or residency spaces as micro studios and do both writing and visual work. There are Moleskine notebooks all over my house, crammed into my five million tote bags with paintbrushes and cameras. Moleskines under my pillows. Maybe even in my fridge. It’s ridiculous!
What are you working on now?
My first novel is nearly completed. I’m also curating several books of photography. I have some fragments and imagery for stanzas of poems but it will likely be some time before I’ll actually think of them as poems. I want to explore a number of shapes and forms where they’re concerned and if I lock that energy into stanzas prematurely it’s more challenging to move the ideas and feelings around. I’ve also returned to painting, which helps me balance the density of prose.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’ve evicted that phrase from my vocabulary. It’s reactive and doesn’t provide me with enough oxygen. What I try to do is set up a number of spaces where my mind can go when I’m unable to access (what I think) comes next. Usually, when I’m snagged on a thorn, I overload myself with reading, music, visual arts, and films. I double my time out in nature, looking at rivers and trees and light. I coax myself away from panic. Sometimes I can’t. Really, what I’ve begun to understand is that I have to listen and get very quiet when I feel a certain kind of silence approaching. I have a small set of questions I pose to myself about the work itself and about how I’m feeling specifically about the work and then I look outward through the windows of those questions. And I turn to other writers.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read everything, especially the things that make your ego nervous. Be open to words, dreams, memory, sensations, politics, and feelings. Push the alphabet toward your desires and your fears. Push the grammar until it breaks open in (re)discovery. Value your voice and your mistakes. Supporting other writers’ work means you value your own work and presence. Balance community and solitude. Make sure your competitiveness is constructive and useful. Read and read and read. Write to the living and to the dead. Take your good, sweet time.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. Her most recent collection of poetry, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was published in 2015. Currently, Griffiths teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.