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Laura Carnes Williams: The Perfect Prompt Led to Intimate Pandemic Recollections

Nonfiction Co-Editor Coty Poynter interviews Issue #57’s nonfiction author Laura Carnes Williams 

Find Laura’s work here.

I start the writing process off the page. I get an idea and take it for long walks, shaping it into a story, literally step by step.”

Laura Carnes Williams

This essay is intimate, filled with moments of self-reflection. And written, as I imagine, early on in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. What compelled you to write this particular essay during such a strange and unusual time?

I’m a member of The Portfolio Club, a women’s organization in Syracuse, NY founded in 1875, as an opportunity for women to meet, exchange ideas, and educate each other on a broad range of topics (a direct result of the women’s rights movement).

All the material generated each Portfolio year (report papers, general correspondences, meeting minutes, etc.) are collected by our historian and archived in Syracuse University’s Bird Library. This year members of Portfolio were also invited to share a personal account of the 2020 pandemic for the archives. It was the perfect prompt, impossible for a writer like myself to pass up. I liked the idea of Portfolio members being able to read about my experience hundreds of years from now.

As I finished writing the piece, personal essays about the pandemic started cropping up in various literary magazines, and I started to see my essay for its contemporary merits. We did not all experience this pandemic the same. Stories are meant to be shared out in the open, not simply archived for a select few to read.

This essay seems to take on a montage effect — you jump from moment to moment that moves towards a cohesive narrative. What made you decide on this structure? And how did this essay evolve as you worked on it?

I had a lot of big feelings to sort through and topics I wanted to address. This essay could have easily become a rambling rant. Short, concise sections organized around a central idea kept me from snowballing out of control.

As for its evolution: This spring I attended a virtual lecture with Jenny Offill (one of my favorite authors) at The Muse and Marketplace conference, where she spoke about the art of paying attention, finding beauty in the mundane, noticing the intricacies around us in our daily life and funneling it into the craft of writing. It was a topic close to my heart, something I try to practice regularly as a writer. It was certainly on my mind when I embarked on this essay. That’s when I realized, in all the hustle and bustle of returning to “normalcy” I’d missed the advent of spring! This contrast in my awareness became an anchor for the piece.

Over time memories can become hazy or incomplete. Even the most impactful moments of our lives can become points of confusion, riddled with gaps and lapses. Do you have any methods you use to access or flesh out these memories? What are the complications of writing about memories?

For me, extremes of emotions make a more lasting impression on the memory than anything else. I have a tendency to sit with my feelings, not in a dwelling sort of way, but in a way that lets me absorb their truth. I believe emotions are indicators, letting me know if something is working or not in my life. So I ruminate. I discuss issues with family and friends. I journal. I use my feelings to imagine and work toward a better future.

2020 provided a bounty of emotional currency to work with. So much of this essay began with honest emotions (fear, anger, disappointment, boredom, confusion, even joy) and moved from there. Scene, character, imagery, dialogue were perhaps tweaked a little to sculpt the story and provide meaning. Necessarily so. Because what is meaning when the very nature of reality is random and chaotic? When there is no conceivable beginning or end? What is objective truth?

Philosophical musings aside, I do my best to maintain my authorial integrity. It’s the socially responsible thing to do. Otherwise, why not just call it fiction?

How long did it take you to write this essay? How many drafts did you write?

In April of 2021, the Portfolio historian prompted the essay with a deadline of May 30th. (It was nice to have a deadline.) I thought about it for a few weeks (while working on other projects), then wrote the first draft in a couple days. I had my writing partner, Maggie, look at it first, then revised. Next, I had my writing group look at it, then revised. I submitted the third (final) draft to the historian just before the deadline. I sent it to Mud Season Review shortly after.

Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?

I used to sit down at my computer and just fudge my way through a first draft without any sort of plan, but I’ve since discovered I’m much more successful if I start the writing process off the page. I get an idea and take it for long walks, shaping it into a story, literally step by step. I don’t sit down to write until I have something to work with.

I don’t set an alarm, so it doesn’t always happen, but I love waking up at 4am to write. My family’s asleep, I have a stretch of uninterrupted time before me, coffee within reach. It’s all about getting into a good groove and having a story that won’t let me sleep! That said, I don’t force it. I respect the lulls.

On revision: A story germinates in my mind and grows on the page, but it needs eyes to bloom. After a first draft I need thoughtful critique from my writing peers. I love weighing out all of their comments against my original vision as I revise. It really elevates the quality of a piece to consider it from multiple points of view. I don’t consider a story done until it’s published. I go back again and again.  Some pieces really benefit from the passing of time. 

What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?

I mainly write novels and short fiction. Unlike creative nonfiction, which, (for me) starts with emotion, fiction starts with curiosity. A desire to know more. A desire to be more. I want to walk in other people’s shoes. I want to feel what they feel. Through my characters I can do anything. I am not limited to this life.

Recently, for example, I did a retreat in the Adirondacks, where a group of nuns also happened to be staying. Every day they fished and kayaked (often while saying the rosary). Every night they gathered in the lodge for boisterous role-playing games. They seemed so happy, this Sisterhood. My husband saw right away how enamored I was with their lifestyle.  “Do I need to worry about you leaving our family?” He joked. The answer: not in real life. But on the page…

Then, last week, I heard a podcast where it was mentioned that some people are more susceptible than others to being struck by lightning. Like the nuns on the lake, I carried this idea away. Since then I’ve been walking,  thinking of nuns and lightning. A story is coming together. Characters, plot, setting. Theme will come later in the game.

So to answer your question more concisely: I never quite know what my next story will be about. That’s all part of the fun.

What are your thoughts on writers using social media as a platform for engaging and cultivating an audience?

Social media is a great way to connect people, promote work, and keep your finger on the pulse of the publishing world. It also offers a lot of opportunities and resources for writers. Each year, for example, I participate in PitchWars, a mentorship program associated with Twitter. I’m also a member of The Binders, a Facebook group for women writers, which provides a plethora of information, as well as support. All said, I could do a better job managing my social media presence. There are only so many hours in a day!

What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?

I volunteer for the Central New York literary journal Stone Canoe, and summer is our reading period. We had about 150 submissions this year, each about 20 pages. We generally accept only two or three. It’s extremely valuable to be on the other side of the editorial process. I really get a sense of how competitive publishing is, and I get to see what stands out. Voice matters, endings matter, but mainly: a story has to have heart.

I also recently read the novel The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I loved her description of the writer’s journey. Her character did all the things we learn we do as writers to be successful–MFA, NYC, residencies, conferences, agent, book deal, etc. Even after he’d attained all that, he was still considered a failure! In the end it came down to finding the perfect plot. It was a fun read, a real page turner. It offered so much food for thought as a writer, especially in terms of appropriation. Where do we get our ideas? And what is the price of stealing someone else’s story?

What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?

I’m a huge writing craft junkie. I love Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I love going to author lectures, reading interviews, and watching them speak on YouTube.

A couple pieces of advice that stand out: Establish character motivation right away. Kurt Vonnegut said something like, “Even if your protagonist is paralyzed by existential dread, they might want a glass of water.”

I love Elizabeth Gilbert’s craft book Big Magic, particularly the notion of ideas as ephemeral objects, just flitting about the universe, looking for a receptive heart and mind. She also cautions not to sit with an idea for too long, or they might leave you and go to someone else. Thus, I try to stay open, marinate, and then get to work!

By Coty Poynter

Coty Poynter is creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. Born and raised in Baltimore, he continues to live there with his significant other, their cat Pudge, and a hodgepodge of plants. Currently, he focuses on memory and how it shapes us, identity, pain and the resilience of the human spirit through poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Equinox, Grub Street, and Underwood Press. His second collection of poetry, Delirium: Collected Poems, was published in October 2018 by Bowen Press.