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Embrace the Mess: Q&A With Shannon Cain

Bloom: When did you start writing fiction seriously (however you define that) and what were some of the milestones/pivotal moments in getting you there? What were the greatest obstacles?

Cain_headshotShannon Cain: I took my first creative writing class as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, in the spring of 1987. English 304, Intermediate Fiction Writing. I was a 22-year old French Lit major with what I’d have described at the time as a casual interest in writing. The adjunct professor in charge was Edward Abbey. This would’ve been just two years before he died. I hadn’t even read The Monkey Wrench Gang. There were eight of us around an oak conference table in a basement room of the Econ Building with afternoon desert light coming through the high windows, and Abbey, gray bearded and leathery, leaning back in a creaky wooden chair, giving the workshop exactly the kind of gloriously half-assed, half-sober, acerbic and funny attention you’d expect from him. Mostly he just let us talk. I was writing overwrought, oblique, metaphorical, dreamlike stuff. Horrible, truly. One of my stories featured a fantasy sequence in which a young bride stumbles uphill into the arms of her frowning groom and later says, “I do,” despite knowing on her way down the aisle what a huge mistake she is making. Unsurprisingly, I was at the time experiencing my first divorce. Abbey was both blunt and generous in his feedback. He judged my work “too soap-operatic to be plausible” and counseled me to base my stories “upon actual situations and events that you have taken part in or at least witnessed.” But he did take care to tell me I had talent and that I should keep writing. What I needed, he wrote, was “vision—the ability to see the world around you.”

Reading this now it occurs to me that maybe I took Abbey’s admonition to mean, Go live a little, young lady. For the next fifteen years I set aside fiction writing and lived my life. I left that sweet first husband and got in my tiny car and moved to New York City, where I learned about street activism and paying my own bills and running nonprofit organizations and falling in love, etcetera. Before I knew it I was 35 years old, a writer who still wasn’t writing. In January 2000 I got my ass down to the local community college and took another writing workshop. The legendary Tucson writing teacher Meg Files told us to expect a decade’s practice in order to approach mastery. I exhaled at that news and settled in for a long haul.

Postscript: Exactly nineteen years after my workshop with Ed Abbey, I got hired as an adjunct at the University of Arizona, teaching English 304, Intermediate Fiction Writing. There were 23 students in the class. Everyone wrote only two stories, over which I labored feverishly and with great earnestness, to lukewarm reaction. The room was florescent, scattered with chair-desks, and the students were hostile. Unlike Abbey, I wasn’t tipsy but maybe I should have been.

Bloom: You were 39 years old when you started at the Warren Wilson MFA program. What made you decide to enroll in a formal program at that time?

SC: Oh, once I got started writing there was no going back. Writing was home; the path was clear. The workshop, the culture, the conversation. The books, the other writers, the teachers. I started going to conferences and soon enough found myself at Bread Loaf, which happily for me is infested with Warren Wilson people. All the conferencing and workshopping left me hungry for more. An MFA program felt like a necessity to me. I liked the low-residency format for all the reasons I still do, and I liked the people I met from Warren Wilson, and so I applied. The day I started that program is when my education really began. Now I have the astonishing good fortune to serve as faculty for another stellar low-res program, the Bennington Writing Seminars, which feeds me the goodness of the writing life. In Vermont! Plus the continuing education is amazing: the lectures, the guest faculty, the readings, the wine, the dancing.

Bloom: In your interview with Larry Dark, you described your writing process as “erratic and undisciplined and chronically behind schedule. To tell you the truth, I’m a mess.” And yet, you’ve been extremely productive—as an independent publisher, editor, teacher, and award-winning published author. Your CV boasts of numerous publications, fellowships, and prizes, all of which you presumably pursued with determination/discipline. What is your sense of how it all gets done, and with the resulting success you’ve had?

SC: Gosh, thanks, Sonya, for so astutely identifying my shit. I can’t even remember the spiral of insecurity I was experiencing on the day that spawned that response to Larry. Attacks of doubt come that frequently, is what I’m saying. And here you go, demanding to know why I feel like a mess despite external evidence to the contrary.

In part I’ll blame the culture of creative writing we’ve all come to accept that says you aren’t a writer unless you find an hour, two hours, three hours every morning to make a thousand words appear before the family wakes up/before your shift in the emergency room begins/before you go teach your 6 a.m. class. I blame the reverence we hold for the single parent who writes a novel in fifteen-minute increments sitting in the minivan out in the parking lot of the ballet studio. God love her, but c’mon, that ain’t me ,and I’m done comparing myself to her. I blame, too, the Old Guard writers—you know who they are—who pronounce from the head of the workshop table that a writer must write every day. If you don’t, you aren’t real.

Well, fuck that, is what I say today, as I approach 49 years old. And the more I say fuck that, the fewer spirals of insecurity I suffer. I’m glad a daily forced writing march works for some people, but I don’t work that way and likely never will. I go for weeks and weeks without writing a sentence of creative work. I rush right up to deadlines. I delay, I procrastinate. I am the queen of dillydally. I beat myself up for being erratic and undisciplined and chronically behind schedule. And yet. Somehow things get done. I look up from my computer one afternoon and realize I’ve accumulated 75 pages of a new manuscript in the last 90 days, and I wonder how in the hell did that happen?

We writers are hungry for time. We give up money, comfort, experiences, moments with loved ones. So like everyone else I pressure myself to make every moment “count.” If I’m not producing, the time I’ve “given up” to writing has been wasted. Which of course is a tediously Western view of time and worth. What is an hour worth to me? Five hundred words? What if I only produce one hundred? What if nothing happens at all? What if I stare at the clouds for that hour? What if I spend six years writing a novel that I realize one day is terrible and can’t be saved? Were those hours/years wasted, because there was no product at the end? Well blimey, of course not. I lived, I grew, I learned. I created. I dove into the mess that is me and brought up something of interest to look at.

Bloom: You were at the helm of the independent publisher Kore Press, as Executive Director and then Fiction Editor, for several years. What’s your sense of the future of independent publishing?

SC: The years I was affiliated with Kore Press were important and revelatory for me. One of the reasons I was drawn to the organization was its understanding of the relationship between independent publishing and a healthy civic life. As an activist and a person who wants to see the world a better place, I think communication between humans is our only hope, and specifically communication that is pure, by which I mean not influenced by profit (although the profit motive does have its own sort of dark purity, doesn’t it?).

In America our public mind is unhealthy. What do we expect: we’ve been feeding it corporate garbage. But independent literary presses, independent radio stations, independent newspapers don’t produce junk food. There are real people behind those microphones, those computers, those printing presses, who are thinking hard about what it means to be human. They care deeply about what they’re doing, and they care, because it brings them joy and nothing else, and they know that joy is better than a buck anyhow.

As for the future of indie publishing, I’m confident. We’re talking about the human spirit here, and let’s remember that small publishers have been around since Gutenberg. I hereby make the wild prediction that indie publishing won’t die, ever. I’ve found that the kind of individual who is drawn to the small printing press, actual or virtual, is scrappy and fierce as hell. No corporate Armageddon is going to stop her from running off that broadside and nailing it to the door of the dominant paradigm.

Bloom: In your interview with Jenn Northington of Word Brooklyn last year, you said: “I was (and continue to be) interested in the ins and outs and productive complexities of bisexuality. There’s so much to explore there … the duality, the pitfalls, the joys. I’m a social justice activist, too, so I’m all about finding ways to describe other (more generous, kinder, accepting) ways of seeing the world.” Who are some authors—or non-literary influences—who’ve inspired you along the way in this vein of alternative worldview(s)?

SC: I’ve been inspired artistically and morally by great queer writers like James Baldwin and Dorothy Allison and Gertrude Stein, and by that whole rich trove of beauty and perspective and freedom that emerges on their pages, which, it seems to me, can only come from seeing your world sideways. Or at least believing you see the world differently from everyone else. I’m inspired by Audre Lorde and Armistead Maupin and Anais Nin and others who gave themselves the permission—despite all the noise and opposition coming from within and without—to tell the truth, and who tell it lovingly even when the truth is brutal or transgressive. It’s writers like Muriel Rukeyser and Sappho and Michael Cunningham who allow me to write stories which behave as though bigotry against queers isn’t alive and well and that our fight for equality hasn’t been and doesn’t continue to be the defining civil rights issue of these times. Their work busted through the lies and the silence so that, mere generations later, I have the luxury of making a character’s queerness just another trait, as relevant or irrelevant as the wallpaper in her childhood bedroom. In perhaps one of the truest observations anyone’s made about my approach to sexuality, your colleague Ed Porter observes that my stories are less about sexual Independence Day than sexual Christmas morning. For this privilege I can thank Jeannette Winterson and Edmund White and Virginia Woolf and all the others, those drag queens & bulldykes who rushed into the street to fight the state-sponsored hatemongers with their bare hands. I’m just the happy tourist, drunk & horny at the Stonewall, heading for the back room with a boy and a girl in tow.

Bloom: Tell us about the Santa Rita Writer’s Workshop that you run in the Arizona high desert. What made you decide to launch it, and what are some of its unique characteristics/features?


SC: For years I’d heard rumors of a Benedictine abbey in the desert somewhere near Tucson that accommodates writers and where silence is maintained and where the good sisters ask no questions about why you aren’t showing up to Vespers. If you want to come for a stay but aren’t in the spiritual lifestyle, you need a referral. I got the nod from the friend of a friend, and I kept going back, writing many many pages there, among the owls and bunnies and deer and scorpions. The silence of the place is mindblowing. As are the stars. Immediately I recognized the potential of the abbey for a tiny writer’s conference (the retreat house accommodates only eight people), but it took me about seven years to realize the vision. My students in Tucson kept asking for a retreat, and I kept, y’know, procrastinating and everything, until finally, one day last year, there we were, workshopping in this gorgeous little chapel, treating our stories like the scripture they are. We’re doing it again in February 2013, this time extended to three days. The thing is geared toward serious writers of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. Lately I’ve been working mostly with MFA postgrads, many of whom are my fellow Warren Wilson alumni, so our workshops are about as rigorous and insightful as you’d expect. If you know anybody looking to keep that kind of company for a few days, lemme know. A few spots are still open.

Bloom: Do you see yourself as a “regional writer”? If yes, how so?

SC: If you define my region as the United States, yeah, I’m pretty regional. I’ve been in Tucson for 30 years, off and on, but I grew up all over this country. I’ve lived in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, California, Rhode Island, Maryland and Arizona. I’ve travelled to every state reachable by automobile, most of them many times. I’m a tenth generation northern American of western European descent, as white as a white girl can get. My skin is practically translucent. In my mother’s house resides a chair with its legs cut off which we were never to sit upon, because it came across the plains. Imagine: that chair cradled the ass of an ancestor on the entire harrowing covered wagon journey across the continent. Such are the things I used to think about on cross-country road trips in my Prius.

But of course I identify also as an American writer, in that I’m concerned with what happens here, and with our place in history. I figure my true love for this amazing place comes with the responsibility to criticize its culture, shine a light on its hatreds, and hold its leaders accountable. As an American writer I hope to leave a record, sound an alarm, open an eye.

Bloom: You’ve been working on Tucson, the Novel, originally a literary performance art project called Tucson the Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse. (Bloom readers can read more about it here.) In the fall of 2011, you said to your fellow Warren Wilson grad Robin Black in an interview, “Ugh. Please don’t make me talk about the f*cking novel.” Can you tell us something about it now?

SC: Nope, still not ready to talk about it.

Ok. Fine. What can I say? It’s the oldest story in the writer’s biography. She wrote a novel. She worked on it for six years. Decided it wasn’t good enough. Set it aside. A whole lot of other stuff happened along the way, which I’ve summarized on the blog documenting the project. Maybe someday this story or these characters will call to me again, and I’ll find a way to revise it into the thing of beauty I intended it to be. Maybe that won’t happen. (If I sound bitter that’s just the resentment talking.)

Ironically it was the short stories I think that helped me decide to put aside the novel. In the process of publishing the collection and taking it on the road, I reconnected with that earlier work and remembered how scared I felt writing those stories—battling the noise and opposition from within—and realized that fear is probably what gives them their edge. I came to see that the novel didn’t have that edge, and also that it wasn’t scaring me much. For now, that’s a problem I can’t resolve. Some day I’ll be grateful for the years I spent learning whatever I’ve learned from this experience, which as of now is still inarticulable. But for the moment I’m just relieved to have made the decision and moved onto something new. I suspect that this new thing is right because it’s scaring the shit out of me.

Bloom: Tell us about Roadside Curiosities: Short Stories on American Pop Culture, which you edited and will be published in 2013. You also edited Powder: Writings by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq. What is it that inspires you to edit anthologies? Do you enjoy the process?

SC: I love being an editor, both in terms of acquisition and in bringing a selected manuscript to its potential. I like also grouping stories that probably weren’t initially written to address the theme. The first piece in Roadside Curiosities is Lydia Millet’s sidesplitting story “Sexing the Pheasant,” which gives us Madonna as its protagonist: it’s certainly as pop culturesque as you can get, but the story is ultimately about the struggle between hubris and humility. Likewise, the Marine who worked in mortuary services and whose essay opens Powder wrote about her experience as a living human being preparing the dead for burial, not necessarily as a woman. Anthologies can place side-by-side stories that share some key element but really nothing else. Basically I try to find kickass dinner guests and then seat them at the table of contents in a provoking and enlivening way.

Bloom: Advice for writers who feel that they are “a mess”?

SC: Embrace the mess. Kiss it on hard on the mouth. Make grubby love to the mess.

Bloom Post End

To read more about Shannon Cain and her story collection, click here.

One thought on “Embrace the Mess: Q&A With Shannon Cain

  1. My mom, a Warren Wilson grad now with her own novel out (Dancing in the Kitchen, available from Publerati Press), sent me this interview, probably in an effort to get me to not beat myself up about the days I fail to write. It may work. Temporarily. Good job, Shannon. Keep fighting the good fight. We need more like you.

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