considering habits and setting the table: an interview with poet Bronwen Tate
Hi, all! I’ve got a great interview with poet and scholar Bronwen Tate today. I wanted to talk to her initially because she’d written to me about using Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space in her workshop with her MFA students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC, and I loved her practical and encouraging approach to helping writers develop a writing practice.
Bronwen is the author of the beautiful new book, The Silk the Moths Ignore, National Winner of the 2019 Hillary Gravendyk Prize, just published by Inlandia Institute. A citizen of the Chickasaw nation, Bronwen received an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford University. She is the author of seven poetry chapbooks, and her poems and essays have appeared in venues including Denver Quarterly, Bennington Review, and the Journal of Modern Literature. Her work has been supported by Stanford’s DARE (Diversifying Academia Recruiting Excellence) Fellowship, as well as by fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center and Vermont Studio Center.
She also writes a really lovely and smart newsletter Ok, But How? The most recent one included a great bit about what writers can learn from The Great Canadian Baking Show, with my favorite bit being that when we talk about writing, “we need a shared understanding of goals.” As Bronwen puts it, “When a writer shares intentions, we can talk about where the work is relative to those intentions, what’s already there and what’s still potential (or where a writer might swerve with a happy accident).”
Below, we talk about Helen Sword’s four habits and how pre-deciding can help alleviate the stress of writing. If you’d like to hear more about her approach to teaching with the four habits, you can watch the video talk she just delivered at the Creative Writing Studies Organization conference and/or read her talk here. And you can read the excerpt of Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space that was published in LitHub.
What is your writing life or writing practice like now?
It varies a lot term by term and during the summer. At the moment, with the book coming out in a couple of weeks I've been doing sort of a fair amount of things that are in support of the book. I’ve been writing little essays that are connected to it, or that kind of thing, so that's been taking some of the time. But I feel like I always want to have my finger in something new and something raw, where it's sort of more of a play space. So I've been doing a half hour a day, where I type up handwriting from over the summer. I did a bunch of free writing of kind of creative nonfiction stuff over the summer, and so as often as I can, first thing in the morning before I open up email or anything like that, just getting my notebook where I wrote that, and typing it up. So that feels very low stakes to me because it already exists, I don't have to think anything, but then often in the course of typing it up, a little bit more comes. Or I feel like there's something also where it's just like, the fact that I'm not completely neglecting it, even though I'm busy, lets my subconscious kind of keep on it a little bit so I'll be in the shower and I’ll be like what if I framed it this way? or like oh, this connects to that thing, and so it really is, even though it's busy, this just kind of like keeping a finger in that.
I think that's such a good practice, and that's encouraging because it's just a good reminder of how much you can do with half an hour a day, right? That it's not four hours, it’s not eight hours, but it’s moving your writing forward.
I think that was something I really had to learn, doing a PhD with kids, was that incremental progress can work.
Do you want to expand on that at all? Were there things that you felt like you learned from that process? What did you learn writing a dissertation and how did that shape your writing practice?
I did an MFA before I did a PhD and then, when I came to the PhD and sort of throughout it, there was all this sort of like can I really be a scholar? what does that look like? what does that mean?
And other questions as well, like so what does it mean to make an argument? and what does it mean to make a claim? and can I trust that just spending time with something will add up to something? And I think there's something with any kind of a big project where it's like you don't know where it's going and there's a lot of questions like, are you even making progress on it or not? or is it just like continuing? So I had all these ways that I would kind of get myself to be okay with staying with the not-knowing. One was that I knitted all these sweaters while I was reading, so I knit like 15 or 20 sweaters that way.
And so, that was a way where, you know, the reading is going into my brain or I'm taking some notes, but is it actually leaving a concrete trace of progress? With the sweater I could be like okay I finished a sleeve, it's going somewhere.
Another thing was when I was in one of my early chapters, I did a 100 day streak thing that was just sort of like Okay, can I just suspend judgment about how this is progressing and just say, my commitment right now is to do at least half an hour every day and see how it goes. So that was a way to say okay I'm going to trust this process long enough to assess after.
I can say also around the dissertation was also a time when I really came to trust a writing group and where my sort of social life around writing really took on a lot of meaning for me. There were challenges as well for sure, but this peer writing group was the thing that made it.
You did an MFA at Brown and then you did a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford. I’m always interested in disciplinary writing practices and also values, and so I’m curious how those things intersect or not, for you, either in terms of how you think about writing and writing practice, or in your actual writing life. It’s so hard, I think, to keep up a scholarly writing agenda and a creative life, and you're doing that, so how?
I mean sort of, but part of it honestly is just the lag in scholarly publishing. Things are finally coming to press now that I mostly wrote while on maternity leave for my kid who’s six. That's just the cycle of some of it.
I also did a year of teaching as an adjunct in New York City in between, and I think that also informed how I approached the PhD. Partly because I had taught five classes a term, students who were really rough as writers and really interesting people. I also had at least some sense that the job market was terrible going in, and I was open to a lot of different possibilities of what teaching might look like, or what, you know, my writing life might look like. Sometimes I laugh a little bit, but grad school seemed more stable to me than things like freelance writing and I, honestly, I think it was partly just stuff like health insurance. I felt like to be a responsible person I needed to have health insurance and some sense of stability. But now I'm in Canada, and I'm sort of like Oh, what if I had been in Canada all along and I didn't have to worry about health insurance? would I have considered other paths? because in some ways, the odds of getting a tenure track position and the odds of making it in freelance seems like definitely not necessarily better for the job.
Do your scholarly work and your creative work feel really different to you? Like, do you feel like it engages a different part of your brain or like a different mode of thinking? Or does it feel like they're more working in concert and examining similar kinds of questions?
Sure, I mean not so so far away. I think they're both grounded really in attention. I probably won't keep writing scholarly articles. I’m not trying to publish my dissertation as a book, so now it's mostly articles that are already mostly written or that are close enough that I feel like I might as well see them through. It's a question of what investment or new investment I have in the work. There is a part of me that's like--you know this article on Harryette Mullen that just came out, where I'm like, I read that book so closely, and I wonder will I ever go that deep into someone else's work again?
But I think there's also a lot of other sort of exciting ways to that work, like reviewing or essays about reading and writing in contexts that aren’t peer-reviewed. I mean, part of the issue with peer review honestly is that there's so many people trying to publish and so few people who are in a stable enough job that they can do the free work of reviewing. You know, so you send something and half the time the journal like might sit on it for 18 months before they even send it out. And then somebody doesn't have time to get to it.
I think with both creative work and scholarly work, for me there's a mix of exploring intuition, free writing and then phases of like, okay, now what's there? what does it mean? what if I structured it this way? and I think that kind of two modes thing is really present in both kinds of writing, where there's a need to trust and mass phase, and then a phase that’s like, all right, what did this mean and why did I do this? what if I did it this way? And that's a much more analytic phase.
That's really helpful to hear you describe those as both being parts of the process. I think that I sometimes want to rush to the second, even though it doesn't work and it makes me unhappy.
Most of the dysphoria in writing for me is when I'm trying to have ideas and make them look good. If I can only have ideas sometimes and then make them look good other times, that’s better.
You’ve talked about using Helen Sword's book with your MFA students. So could you describe what that book is and how you use it?
I actually probably heard about the book or got it from Hannah, a woman in my dissertation writing group, so it sort of came to me through a social way. The book is about how academic writing works and it's based on a ton of interviews with people in all different disciplines. It’s really questioning what does it mean to be successful in your discipline, what does that look like for you?
Then she kind of boils it down to what she calls the House of Writing, which has these four pillars, and she has a little questionnaire, where you can see what your House is shaped like. And the principle of the book is that you can function in a lot of ways, but that the more you strengthen any of these pillars, the stronger things will be overall.
The first of her pillars is behavioral habits. So that's just sort of how you show up, where do you do it, when do you do it, how stable is that for you. In Sword, it’s much less prescriptive than others, like you must write every day, or you must have a certain number or time, but Sword is saying, more or less, recognize what works for you.
Artisanal habits, which I feel like is what we tend to focus on the most in the creative writing courses are things like, how do you get better, or how do you hone your skills, how do you reverse engineer a model or develop a craft.
And the third is social habits. Social habits can have a lot of different parameters, like collaboration, but it could also be accountability groups or feedback groups. Even your sense of an audience is a way that your work can be social, so if you're thinking, you know, this is who I'm writing to and that's why this is meaningful to me, then, that can also be a social dimension of your work.
And then the last one is emotional habits, which is really about, for me, it boils down to the stories that you tell yourself about what you're doing, what it means when you're in a certain phase of a project, and especially the metaphors we use. I'm really interested in metaphor theory and cognitive metaphors and structural metaphors and the way metaphors can really make us think differently about something. So she gets into that some, like the shadow side of a metaphor. You know, if you see a teacher as a shepherd, that might mean good things, but it also might imply Oh, is there a kind of control? or, what are the wolves?
So those are the four things. I first used it when I was back at Marlboro College. Before I was at UBC I taught for three years at Marlboro College in Vermont. There, the way it came about was some students wanted to do Na-No-Wri-Mo, and they reached out to me through the health and wellness committee or something, it was very small college. And I ended up offering a one credit class on cultivating a daily practice. So that was the first time that I used this book as a structure, and there we would just meet in the dining hall on Tuesday nights. We met at a big long table with people doing all different kinds of things. The President of the College came, he wanted to work on writing poems. And I developed these reflective questions and then commitments, or things to try out.
So that was the first time I did that structure and then, when I came to UBC, I knew that I was going to be teaching in this asynchronous, fully remote residency MFA program, which was a lot of like, how do I do this when I'm not actually in a room with them? Nothing is in the moment.
And so one of the things I was thinking about was what it might mean to bring more of those other habits into the shared space and not just those artisanal habits.
So I built the structure that basically for each of the habits, it goes really slowly, the first week we work on behavioral habits. I recorded a little video where I talk about them and then there's like a whole list of things to try and some of them were from Helen Sword’s book and some of them were just like things I picked up along the way, or from other places, like something from Linda Barry.
So there would be reflective questions that are about their current habits. Some of them are just one or two, and some of them are a whole list and they just pick which ones you feel comfortable with or which ones are important to you. For social habits, questions might be like, write about your relationship to audience, or write about how your reading has been more or less social over time, or write about any experiences with collaboration, or any direction that you want to go with social habits around writing.
And then there's this list of things that people might try, and they can pick anything off that list or anything somebody else has mentioned that sounds cool, or that they'd heard about or been meaning to try. And then they make this commitment to try something out, and then the following week they report back on how it went. And I tried to make the report back be very much not like success or failure but more like an experiment, like you tried out a thing, so how did that experiment go, do you want to keep doing it, or do you want to modify it?
So my class that I'm teaching now just did their behavioral habits things, and one of them was like Oh, I want to write instead of reading reddit first thing in the morning. But then, after a week, she said, actually trying to write first thing wasn't working, but instead I'm going to take a walk first thing and then write, and that’s wonderful.
The way the class is designed it's a kind of generative class so they do six weeks of reading a book of poems and writing something somewhat inspired by the formal or thematic workings of that book. I offer an introduction to the book and some prompts that are sort of like, pick any of these things, or just, write inspired by this book whatever way you want. So that's happening, and they don't share the poems each week with one another right away. They talk about their process and their reading experience and their writing experience in the first few weeks.
I really like that. I think the workshop, and maybe especially an MFA in particular, can feel so much like each week you’re kind of taking in your work and looking for approval or permission or something. So I really like that you emphasize getting to know each other before you share the writing.
I think, especially, building trust is so crucial to actually be able to have a workshop experience that isn't just terrifying. So then, so the way the class works there's the six weeks of that, and then they do a thing that I think I got from Elizabeth Robinson originally where everybody sends all of the work they've done so far to another student, and the other student reads it, then writes about what they notice. So it’s not a critique but just sort of like, these are things I see you doing. The student then designs a prompt especially for that person that's both meant to recognize their strengths, but also invite them to try something they haven't tried yet.
Do you have a particular piece of advice or a strategy or a practice or something that you've seen your students do or that you've done yourself around these four habits that you think has been especially impactful? It sounds like even just paying attention to things beyond that kind of artisanal habits is helpful. So maybe, is there a particular kind of habit that you think most writers would benefit from paying more attention to, or a particular technique that you've seen be really successful for a lot of people?
There’s something Jessica Abel talks about, which is pre-deciding. [Ed. note: I interviewed Jessica Abel when I was writing this series at PANK and found it very helpful! Her emphasis on One Thing might be a useful tool for you if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now.]
You know, people often think like, oh I'm not getting work done because I'm a perfectionist or because I'm lazy or because I'm procrastinating, but I think often what kind of keeps people from getting things done is just the weight of decision. You know, it's like, of all the possible things I could be doing, where do I start? And I think that's sometimes why people really thrive in a workshop or a class setting with deadlines, because there's a structure there.
There's really something to be said for setting up some kind of thing, where you don't have to decide over and over again, but you've just decided once. And then you can revisit that, but just to say, I'm going to decide to do this for a while, and you don’t have to decide every single time you sit down.
Someone wrote to me in response to the newsletter [hi, Annie!] that what they were doing was the night before they were writing themself a note about what they were going to write and then they were getting up in the morning and writing that. Does that align with what you're saying about pre-deciding?
Sure. I think there can be lots of different ways to do it. For a while over the summer, I did a Lynda Barry thing, which was that I just put a bunch of words in a cup. And then my thing that I would do in the morning was draw a word and write 10 images that came up from that word and then pick one of them to expand.
So that could be a version. Or it could just be, you know, I'm going to open up this thing and reread it and then add some notes, if I feel like it.
I think it can be really, really open. It could just be like, I'm going to sit with a piece of paper and a cup of tea and see if anything comes up, or I'm going to set a timer and freewrite. I don't think it necessarily has to be an outline or anything.
You’re just making it so all you have to do is enter that space. It's like setting the table for it.
three tasks for today:
Set your intention for your writing for the week. This could be a milestone on an ongoing project, a deadline for a submission or an application, or a target for word count or time.
Consider the four habits—social, artisanal, behavioral, and emotional—and pick one where you’d like to experiment. (And if you want to read more about how Bronwen’s students have done this, you can check out her video talk or read her talk.)
Identify one way that you can use Bronwen’s strategy of pre-deciding. What decision can you make now that will make your writing easier tomorrow, or for the next week or two? It could be anything from just picking a time of day you’re going to write and deciding to freewrite for ten minutes to gathering a bunch of words or photos and using those as a jumping-off point for your writing for the next week or so.
How is your writing going? Which of the four habits are you hoping to develop? How are you going to experiment? I’d love to hear from you. You can always reply to this email, comment below, or find me on twitter (@nancy_reddy) and instagram (@nancy.o.reddy).