Elizabeth Rush

How did you become a writer?

Katie Ford, the fabulous poet, is the person who turned me into a writer. I had been working on a collection of poems that would become my senior thesis and Katie had been assigned to mentor me through the process. I remember handing her the drafts I had labored over for months. She read them and gave them back a week or so later and told me, “this isn’t poetry.” I was a little devastated at first. Then I became determined. Katie sat down with me for an hour every week (now as a professor myself I understand what a tremendous time commitment this is) and she taught me how to edit my own work. How to return to it again and again and again until the language yielded wisdom all its own. She always told me to aim towards exactitude while editing in the mystery. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I read as much poetry as I do nonfiction. One of the biggest influences on my latest book, RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shoreis Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, which recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. She tells the story of the nuclear explosion from the perspective of those who lived through and returned to the land after the event. The entire book is written in the voices of real residents of the region and is the result of nearly a decade of interviewing and meticulous transcription. The cumulative effect is that of a kind of polyphonic chorus, that depicts with incredible specificity what it was like not only to live through this environmental catastrophe but also to bear witness to the end of the Soviet Union. And of course I am always indebted to the work of so very many poets: C.D. Wright, Jamaal May, Robert Haas, Brenda Hillman, Ada Limón, Tracy Smith, I could go on and on. 

When and where do you write? 

I have an office in my house and you can find me there Monday-Friday from roughly 6 am (or 7 am) until 1 pm. Mornings are my sacred writing time and I try, when I can, to defend it fiercely. 

What are you working on now? 

Well, it looks like next year I will be sailing, with the National Science Foundation and the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council to Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. Thwaites is literally one of the most remote regions in the world (only 28 people have ever stood atop the glacier) and yet in many ways the rate at which this glacier melting will determine the future of coastal communities around the world. That’s because Thwaites is considered “the cork” to the West Antarctic ice sheet. Its deterioration destabilizes the whole of the ice sheet behind it. And because Thwaites is so remote we have little data from region and so I will be accompanying three research teams as they investigate how quickly this glacier has retreated in the geologic past and just how quickly it is retreating now. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

Discipline is what helps me push through writer’s block. Writing is my job. I show up every day. Some days are better than others. If I am having a particularly tough time with a piece I tend to wake up super early and get to work. Sometimes writing with a foggy mind––in the space between dreaming and wakefulness––helps me to take chances I might not otherwise. If that doesn’t work I take a long walk or bike ride. Sometimes wringing my body out helps my mind make creative leaps. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Create a writing practice. If you want to be a hotshot basketball player you carve out time to practice. Do the same with your writing. Figure out when your mind is most lithe and write during that time. You need not carve out five hours of every day. Start with an hour or two. Are you best early in the morning? Then set aside the same hour every day and fill it with your writing. 

Elizabeth Rush’s work explores how humans adapt to changes enacted upon them by forces seemingly beyond their control, from ecological transformation to political revolution. She is the author of Rising: The Unsettling of the American Shore (Milkweed Editions, 2018) and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar (Global Directions, 2014.) Her work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Granta, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Guernica, Le Monde Diplomatique and others. Rush is the recipient of fellowships from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project, the Society for Environmental Journalism, the National Society of Science Writers and the Metcalf Institute. In 2016, she was awarded the Howard Foundation Fellowship in creative nonfiction by Brown University where she teaches creative nonfiction.