When I first met Midge Raymond, we both had books newly out from Eastern Washington University Press: mine, called Blessing of the Animals; hers: a collection of marvelous short stories called Forgetting English. When we met it was “friendship at first sight” and we’ve been writing buddies ever since.
Her new book, published through Ashland Creek Press, is Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts to fit your regularly scheduled life. As you can tell from the title alone, this book is perfect to carry around with you as you continue to practice “mindful writing in a busy world.” Midge includes 5-minute, 15-minute, and longer prompts, as well as “situational prompts” to be done while out in the world: the grocery store, driving, waiting in lines, etc. She describes how to become an “everyday writer” and also gives great advice on creating your own writing retreats in the midst of everyday life. I’ve already used several of the prompts for writing on my own and with my writing group.
Midge sat down with me (virtually) and answered a few of my questions last week.
Q. In the first section of Everyday Writing, you write about the different writing spaces you’ve created in your life (no matter how small). You tell us that now you’ve “been writing in a sun-drenched studio with a marvelous view.” Can you describe that view for us? What brought you to this place?
A: My writing space changes often because I move a lot — I’ve moved every two to three years, on average, for my entire adult life. As much as I hate moving (who doesn’t?), I do love to adopt a new writing space, wherever that may be: Change is good for the mind, and every time I’m in a new space I come to my writing with a completely fresh approach. The “sun-drenched studio” was a room the house I lived in while I wrote Everyday Writing, and it was a beautiful spot in which to write, overlooking mountains that were snow-capped in winter, green in summer, and sometimes completely obscured by fog and clouds in spring and fall. The most interesting and important thing I learned about this space, however, was that a view doesn’t make the work any easier! It was lovely, of course, but it didn’t help my writing one bit — and sometimes it was even a bit distracting. I find that I get just as much, if not more, accomplished in a library cubby than in a room with a view.
Q: I understand that completely! Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said the best view out the window for a writer is a brick wall? So, I know you’re a busy person–you and your husband John started your own press last year, correct? What creative projects are you working on now? And are you able to follow your own advice about becoming an “Everyday Writer?”
A: Ashland Creek Press has indeed taken up most of my creative writing time for the past year — the first year of any new endeavor is always the busiest, I think! — but things are slowly beginning to settle down to a more reasonable pace. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote Everyday Writing was to figure out for myself how to keep up with my writing even when I was working fourteen-hour days. We all need to find ways to stay connected to our writing, no matter how busy we get. And I do take my own advice, from observing people while I’m in line at the post office to carving out time for five-minute writing prompts. Right now I’m working on new stories and on putting a new collection together. I also have an idea for a novel, but that one needs to simmer awhile before I do anything about it.
Q: How do you know when something needs to “simmer” and when you can start the writing process? and on the other side of the spectrum, how do you know when something is finished?
A: For me, “simmering” also means a bit of writing — just a few notes here and there, maybe even a scene. I’ll start exploring the characters with writing prompts to see what emerges. But the way I know that something must simmer is when I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say, and this, I’ve found, is a part of the process that can’t be forced — starting too early on a project that’s not fully formed in my mind always ends up going in circles and being frustrating. The “simmering” stage is when it’s great to be an Everyday Writer — if I’m aware of everything I see, do, read, etc., then ideas and insights begin to pour in, and the project can begin coming together.
As for the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure I ever feel that a story is finished because I’ve learned that, even after (or especially after) seeing something in print, I still wish I could change it. But of course, we have to let go at some point. If I get a story to a point at which I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do, then I’ll get a reader’s opinion to make sure the piece actually does succeed in the ways I hope it has. Then it feels finished.
Q: A creative writing professor once told me that “nothing is ever finished, it’s just abandoned.” I’m not sure I agree totally with that, but I do know that so much of maturing as a writer involves being able to make decisions about a piece more quickly. I think your book, Everyday Writing, helps us make decisions more quickly on the starting end too. Do you have any “favorites” from that book?
A: I completely agree with you that being able to make decisions about a piece more and more quickly is an asset to a writer. And sometimes getting started can be the hardest part — at least, I often find this to be the case, mostly because I have so many ideas and so little time, and it’s hard to know where to begin! And the problem for so many of us is that if we find it challenging to begin, we simply never get started. So prompts are great for tackling this issue. Among my favorite writing exercises in Everyday Writing are the five-minute prompts, including the “quickies,” which are meant to be simple and fast — yet I find that they usually go well beyond the prompt and into interesting territory. If I have a character or a story idea in mind, I’ll apply this character or notion to one of the simpler prompts (a one-word prompt, for example), and I’m always fascinated by where it takes me. Of the longer prompts, I like the ones that help me jump-start a story or situation, something with a little drama.
Q: Thank you so much for speaking to us at Pen and the Bell! I think Everyday Writing and The Pen and the Bell make very nice companions. Any last words for our readers?
A: Thank YOU for the wonderful conversation! I agree that Everyday Writing and The Pen and the Bell make great companions, and what I love about The Pen and the Bell is the way it invites us to slow down and relax our busy minds — to make space for the meditation and contemplation that is so necessary for good writing. Both books, I think, are useful to the busy writer, whether you’re in need of a jump-start or some quiet time — and my parting words to writers would be to make room for both!
I thought I’d take this opportunity to show you how a writing prompt can go beyond the prompt. While writing with my friend Rae Ellen the other day, we both did this 5-minute prompt from Midge’s book: “Write about getting caught in the rain.” Here’s what came for me:
After a Grateful Dead concert, me and Pat, walking in the rain in Colorado, the words “It’s just a box of rain….” singing through our heads while we clutched each other’s hands. Leaning into one another. Did we really sleep under the VW van? That’s what I remember. Hard to imagine being so young. Hard to imagine the body and heart so flexible. A gymnastic heart. Agile. Easy to stretch. Not like this arthritic heart I have now. Clumsy heart. Heavy heart. Heart that groans in the morning, takes a while to wake up. Heart that needs to be plied with medications. Coffee. Oatmeal, just so. Toast dry, with sugar-free jam. Heart that puts on its jacket in the rain, checks for hourly updates on the weather.
Try it yourself! See what image rises to meet you.
Midge Raymond’s short-story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.