Going Past the Skin into Another Skin
Amy Wright: In your essay “Where the Wild Things Are,” you discuss the rules imposed by pregnancy and the ever-shifting lines we cross and redraw. What rules have you made to protect your life as a writer?
Nicole Walker: That’s one of the darker messages underlying the premise of the book—that boundaries and rules are negotiable, especially when yours have been breached so often. Although I now live in Arizona, I am not a very good border guard. When I’m trying to write, my daughter comes in to ask me how many spiders a lizard can eat. My son crawls on my lap and wants to type instead of me. I distract him with a lizard or a spider. I type a sentence, check my email. Check Facebook. My student calls, she has a thesis emergency. The dog wants out. The dog wants in. Even if I implemented rules, they’d fall apart, is the way I console myself when I get no writing done. Rules, coming already broken, seem like pretending to something I’m not. But I do have habits which can be as useful as rules. I can tell if I’m not writing enough. The regular world frustrates me. I do a good job, most of the time (otherwise known as the beginning of the semester or summer), writing for 2 hours a day. But even in those 2 hours, I check my email 4000 times.
AW: What rules has the life of a writer subjected you to live under?
NW: Other people’s rules. Everything I do is fast. The writing world can be a slow place. Patience to revise. Patience to submit work. Patience to look around and see how caterpillars really move (humpy) and how ravens scavenge (not always. I saw one kill a pigeon). If there’s one way that writing makes me a better human is that it reminds me to be patient. And, as I write more and begin to imagine a more generous way to write, I am beginning to live under, if not the rules of the audience, at least the idea of what one might be interested in reading. I want to inhabit the space of the audience. That way, I get to be two people at once—writer and reader. And another reader sometimes. It’s the way I imagine living longer—being multiple people. Maybe even multiple patient people.
AW: Will you talk more about that act of the imagination? How do you access the interested and disinterested onlooker of your own work?
NW: If writing original work is the most fun, most ID-like, most giddy thing in the world, then re-reading your work is the most painful, most Super-ego’d, most gut-wrenching thing in the world. I used to hate to rewrite because I would immediately either detest what I wrote or read so fast I could still pretend I loved it. Now, revision is becoming something a little less me-centered. I like to twist stories together. I just finished an essay on microorganisms that can convert solar energy into fungible fuel. I combined that story with one about travel and always having to pee. I still let the reader do some of the work pulling together the themes about fungibility, excretion, travel and fatty lipids but like I did in Quench’s revisions, I do a lot more to make it clearer using repetition, white-space, parallel sentence structure— turning tangents into resonating stories to make sure the reverberations are clear for the reader, in the most visceral way. Clarity. If I keep seeing fuzzy, I try to make it clearer for me, which I hope works for the reader too. And that kind of revision is almost as much fun as the original writing. Pulling the thread as taut as possible and then twanging it alongside the other now-taut threads.
AW: I am reminded by your references to Little Red Riding Hood of Kiki Smith’s work. She has expressed an interest in boundaries, as you do in your essay. She discusses the skin as an envelope, for example, which is a wonderfully fragile illustration of the penetrability of barriers. You suggest that fantasy is one way we negotiate hard and fast divisions. How do you think fantasy, or the imagination, functions to move and shake our inner fences?
NW: Along the lines of living longer and getting to be many people, fantasy transports you outside of yourself but it
does so by drawing on your innermost self. The fantasy or imagination doesn’t come like TV. It is not witnessed. It’s accessed. There too boundaries become permeable. The idea of envelope is close but I see imagination as the outing of the inside, of going past the skin into another skin. The energy to get you there comes from an internal place but when it catapults you out, that is really being. It’s as if you have become a tree and now carbon dioxide is what you breathe instead of oxygen and here again, you’re living twice.
AW: In “Skin of the Earth” you wet your finger and taste your father’s ashes. It is a startling image of communion, especially considering the metaphors of drought and liquor that trickle through Quench Your Thirst With Salt. Can you talk about your access to experience as a writer and how choice factors into intimacy?
NW: It’s one bonus to having fluid boundaries. I may not say no to you, but I also may never consider the appropriateness of eating ashes or biting someone on the ear as a Bonnie Tyler impersonator sings “Another Eclipse of the Heart.” Choice seems too high-minded a concept but perhaps willingness to disregard good sense and to act by false syllogism through association—my dad is dead. I must keep him with me. Therefore, I must eat him—is how you write best what you live.
AW: In the same essay you say that physical and psychological needs, real and perceived, are “All promise and quench.” The phrase nicely alludes to the title of your collection as well as to the book’s drive that mirrors our own. As a mother, writer, lover, daughter, professor, you must have varying relationships to ambition and thirst, fulfillment and relief. We know our own wells of want to be bottomless, but have you seen someone else’s, for a memorable moment, fill?
NW: I love this question that focuses on someone else. It’s like thinking of readers—what could they possibly want? I am angsty so I look for others who are not. My friend Misty, who grapples up Eagle Creek in Portland with her bare hands, who works in immigration law, whose daughter eats 47 Cuties a day, who grows tomatoes even in Portland’s half-assed sun, seems almost always satisfied. I am in awe of her belief in the full moment. My friend Rebecca (painter of the cover image on Quench) whose daughter has been in the hospital for four months learning how to breathe—the moment (and it was just a moment, before the anxiety set in) when I got to overhear the nurse say they were taking the daughter off the jet ventilator. That was full. Also. My daughter when she does math.
AW: You say in “The Weight of a Bird” that you used to think of connections as train cars that added up to meaning, but now you think of them “more like Virginia Creeper or spaghetti. It all touches, but where one vine or strand begins and another ends is a knotted question.” What are some of the questions you’re untying lately?
NW: I actually think I’m better at tying up that untying. Even at the end of a mass of twisted Virginia Creeper, there’s still the roots to deal with. One question invites another. But what questions am I making a mass out of? I’m working on a book that wants to be ecological in form as well as premise. I could write a thousand times, “everything is connected,” but that just sounds like new age speak. What I want is to say this: When you’re washing your hands with antibacterial soap, the triclosan that is in that soap goes out to the water treatment plant. It doesn’t reduce. It compounds in solid waste. The solid waste is trucked to the desert. The desert wind blows. And then the leap in logic and time, since the ramifications of pollution seem obvious. So instead I tell a story about a little girl, born two months too early, who is still in the hospital, whose lungs cannot handle any particulate but that’s all that seems to inhabit the air any more.
AW: I’ve been reading several plagiarists lately, some amateurs who are trying to pass junior English, and some professionals who reflect on it theoretically. Have you ever plagiarized anything? And, what’s your take on it?
NW: I’m too chicken to plagiarize. Shame is one of my go-to emotions and I don’t want to go there more than I have to, so I can’t consciously plagiarize. But I love David Shield’s Reality Hunger. At a very dark time in my life, I read that book and it lifted me because that book was not all about the writer.
It was all about the reader. How much pleasure can I give, Shields seem to ask, by putting together all the brilliance of a hundred years. It removed the ego of the writer and put words and meaning first. David’s pleasure, I predict, was in the offering, not that self-rewarding feeling of writing something that you imagine to be original and then fifty minutes later realize that you heard this one before on another station.
AW: Maurice Sendak, author of the children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, died this May. Is he where your autobiography as a reader begins?
NW: That idea of being wild—of being boundary-less, of transporting the imagination from here to there is what I love about writing. I also love the form that really wilderness imposes on the wild. That hawks must eat baby squirrels. That bark beetles decimate drought-stricken pines. That Max must go home for dinner. The wilderness is beyond generous, like any good writer and good reader, but that to be truly fair, there must be some habits, if not rules, imposed on expectation. Upsetting expectations is fun for the writer but satisfying a reader, as your question about the moment of fullness suggests, is the true honor of writing well.