Stone Age HAA The Holy MAA

Stone Age HAA The Holy MAA

Writing - Noise - Magic

Monday, March 31, 2014


Before Hubble, we didn’t know whether or not black holes existed in nature. Now we know they are at the heart of every known galaxy. We didn’t know other planets existed, and now we know they litter the universe, dripping with carbon and water.  Because of Hubble, we know the age of the universe: 13.8 billion years.

Thank you Hubble. Happy twenty-fourth birthday to you. Now we don’t have the money to send people out to fix you anymore, and maybe you're too far away to reach anyway, and so off you go, alone.

I grew up on lush, tree-lined Twelfth Street northwest in Canton, Ohio. Just up the hill from an elegant and mysterious park established in the gilded age. My neighborhood was borderline lousy—I was not allowed to go south of Tenth Street. But the century-old maples made us feel safe. Early memories, and middle memories streamed throughout my childhood are grounded by the oceanic whispers of the patient maples and their cool shadows twitching with sunlight on the sidewalks. The trees breathed through long hours, long years.

Canton is the second most dangerous small city in the United States. My father told me this week that the telephone company didn’t want to maintain the trees anymore, so they cut down all the trees on my old street. I don’t know how that worked exactly, cutting down trees in private yards, but they did, and my dad said it looks desolate, barren.

I can never show my daughter where I grew up because I grew up under those trees. Living, pulsing, patient trees. Where are they now?

What about the squirrels and birds who lived in those trees? And the people behind the windows? Children and old people and caretakers who couldn't stop the slaughter of the trees?

My parents don’t live on that street anymore. They live out in the country, in the woods. It’s a secret, where they live.

I’m never outside in dreams, always in houses, moving through rooms. I’m never in Outer Space—just Art Deco elevators, unknown eaves, dripping basements.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Tamara Guirado's short story "Dog Children" was included in Best New American Voices 2005 and her short story "Above Asmara" won a Robie McCauley Award from StoryQuarterly and was subsequently included as a Special Mention in the 2009 Pushcart Prize Anthology.  She was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fiction Fellowship at Stanford University, a Carl Djerassi Fiction Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. She currently lives in New Orleans.

ARH: Hello, Tamara! Please tell me how you first started writing, and if you were into any other forms of artistic expression at the time.

TG: Well...I started writing when I was a little kid.  My mother saved a piece of paper where I'd written "10 novels before I'm 12" which listed the basic premise of each book---and yes, at the time I was also a visual artist---everyone thought I'd grow up to be a painter like my mother. The other kids used to ask me to draw the difficult parts of their pictures.  Most people in my family can draw a little.  I've lost that skill---although perhaps I could still do a pretty good unicorn or pig.

I was also really into pop-up art---in third grade I did very little in the class room other than draw pictures, cut them out, then prop them up on construction paper with little glued supports---making little worlds.  The teachers were incredibly nice about it---I don't remember anyone ever asking me to stop.

But while I declared myself a writer early and even went off to the Caribbean at 18 to write a novel called Rats in the Baobab Tree, I didn't actually write all that much until I did an MFA.

ARH: Where did you do your MFA? What did you work on there, and are there things you learned from your MFA that still come back to you now?

TG: I did an MFA at Mills College in Oakland.  I wrote some stories and part of a Young Adult Novel.  More than anything, I’d say that I was turned onto some great writers.  I had two teachers---Cecil Pineda and Ginu Kamani---who liked edgy world lit (Reinaldo Arenas,)  and some of the weirder American books---like Fishboy by Mark Richard.  I had read Kamani’s Junglee Girl before my MFA and idolized her, though I didn’t realize she taught at Mills until I saw her on my first day of school.

Although I wasn’t particularly young, I was very na├»ve and/or disorganized and didn’t really realize you were supposed to research schools before you applied to them. In fact, I was under the impression Mills was an all black college---the brochures gave that impression. It was like I just rolled off a turnip truck. I’d never even set foot on campus before I attended.

I always just went to school where I lived---place took precedence. In fact, at the same time I applied to Mills, I also applied for a Masters in Divinity at the University of Creation Spirituality and a Masters in English Lit or something at SF State. 

I had just stopped stripping and to fund my new life, I retroactively applied for student loans on classes I’d already paid for at CA State Long Beach. I had no student debt until I stopped dancing and went to grad school---well, actually I’d already been in grad school  at CA State LB---taking classes in religion and creative writing and tennis in an aimless fashion---but when I moved to the Bay Area, I settled down to get a degree.

I got accepted at all the schools---SF and the basket weaving school---thank God I got my letter from Mills first.  Come to think of it, my original plan upon moving to the Bay area was to study South East Asian Religion at Berkeley, but I just couldn’t bring myself to take the GREs. I did end up taking a Thai class there as we had a sister program with Mills.

My friend and boss at Mills’ “Place For Writer’s” Frances Sackett, told me to read Mary Gaitskill and Alice Munro. She told me to apply for a Stegner Fellowship. I’ve noticed quite a few writers thank her in their acknowledgements, she’s like the “writer’s fairy.”

To be honest, while obviously I learned a lot from my teachers and fellow workshop participants, a lot of what I learned about craft came from books---one such book was The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. While some of the book is a little cheesy, he really broke down what a scene was and how to write one---I had no idea before I read his book. 

The other way I learned to write was from studying stories and novels. If I didn’t know how to do something I’d go check out how published authors handled it.  I didn’t know how to write character thoughts, for example, my characters just walked around like tripods recording imagery.  So I looked around and found, Oh! All you have to do is write “blah, blah, blah, blah, she thought. And the variations on this.  Mary Gaitskill was an eye-opener for me---I didn’t know that neurotic people’s thoughts and sad, strange lives were acceptable subjects for fiction---what a relief and revelation that was.

ARH: I relate to how you learned how to write characters' thoughts! I went though the same thing, including learning from Gaitskill, especially regarding writing in third person. Do you ever write nonfiction? You've moved around so much, I imagine you have some good stories, but I find the nonfiction process so different from the fiction process. What do you think? 

TG: I never needed to go anywhere to have things to write about because my family is a Southern California Gothic treasure trove, replete with incest, shut-ins, psychics, murderers, wax figure makers, etc. Calling my work fiction, regardless if all or some of it really happened, helps me to focus in a way that nonfiction does not.  In a misguided effort to be factual, I often include way too much digressive information in nonfiction.  Well, truth be told, I do that in fiction as well, but it's far worse when I'm under the impetus to be accurate.

I think there is a certain freedom in fiction that I really appreciate.  Also, I'm better able to get to emotional truth in fiction---that's just me personally---I'm not speaking for others.

Also, it's easier to be free with the character flaws in fiction---to not be afraid to allow your characters to be really awful and human in a way that might be kind of unappealing in a personal essay.

I published a story called "Family Bathing" that was pretty much nonfiction---I don't recall any inaccuracies in it.

And I've done some interviews and articles for New Age rags. I wrote a rather elaborate piece on a certain pair of New Age personalities---it was very flattering actually---but they killed it because it did not fit their brand. This is what I dislike about "consciousness" magazines---mostly they are advertisements.  The articles, besides being poorly written (in general) are usually some kind of publicity exchange---I write this flattering article in exchange for free tickets to your seminar, etc.
Sometimes this works out great and the person being featured is amazing; however, it's not exactly rigorous or deep journalism.

ARH:  I know exactly what you mean about nonfiction! I borrow from my life for my fiction, so I was surprised at how difficult it was to concentrate when I first tried writing about actual experience. even in non-memoir type essays I have a difficult time focusing because my tendency to associate goes crazy, and I feel I have to include all directions. 

I'm glad you brought up consciousness magazines, and I've noticed too that they often tend toward commercial fluff. I want to know if you feel that writing is a ritual, or a transcendental/ecstatic experience. What are your thoughts on how reading and writing relate to consciousness? It is magic how minds separated by time and space communicate through literature.

TG: Yes, it is magical---and studies have shown that reading novels makes people more compassionate and tolerant---probably because they are being compelled to imagine another person’s experience.

Ritual, transcendental experience, and ecstatic experience all seem like different things to me, so I’ll take them one at a time.  Ritual, yes---frequently proceeded by a ritual of procrastination unfortunately.

Transcendental---that word has many different connotations, but I’ll assume you mean a spiritual experience---yes, I think writing can be a spiritual experience and I think any creative act can be.  Flipping burgers can be, in the right mindset.  Breathing.  But especially creative activities.  I’m not talking so much about a ritualized spiritual practice (you light your incense and start journaling) but more of a plugging into creative source---or rather, it’s more like you step off the hose so that the current can flow. We are that current.

Or did you mean a meditative experience?  In that case, not so sure about that---meditation is about clearing your mind, or slowing it down---and writing can be a very mentally busy activity---but if you’re really in a good writing zone, you are probably in the present moment and that is often the goal of meditation.

Writing, compared to other art forms, can be a bit more convoluted in some ways---you are transcribing code---these black marks on the screen/page---for other people to decode into imagery, stories, emotions.  Painting seems more direct to me---visually you immediately get some feedback---color and texture. I think this is why there is no “painters' block.”  I realize I’m over simplifying and painters get stuck, but in general, painters like to paint---they may be depressed that no one cares what they are doing or that they can’t afford more canvas and that the art world is callous and crass---but in general, they are happier then writers sitting at their computers.

Ecstatic experience---I’m sure this is possible but it’s never happened for me---I have at my best felt very inspired, jazzed up, in the zone---maybe leaning toward joyful, but I can’t say I’ve gone into full blown ecstasy while writing---but that would be fantastic! 

I’ve always been a little envious of manic people, to be honest---while they are still in the excited, creative, uber-productive part of the cycle but aren’t quite trying to fly out windows yet or crashing.  I had a freshman creative writing student once who was extremely accomplished and all the other students asked her, “How come you’re so good?” and she said that she’d had a manic streak and wrote for three months straight before being medicated.  She said, “I just have more practice than you.”  There is a book called The Midnight Disease by neurologist Alice Flaherty about her stint with manic hypergraphia (the compulsion to write). She said that "the sight of a computer keyboard or a blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their freebasing paraphernalia” and I thought, “Oh my God yes, I want to feel like that!”

ARH: Ah, yes, wonderful! How about music---do you listen to music when you write?

TG: I don't usually listen to music when I write, unless they happen to have it on in cafe while I'm writing and if it's at all loud I tend to get distracted.  However, I have occasionally listened to one thematically relevant song in a loop. I wrote a piece set in Hawaii while listening to a loop of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Over the Rainbow" medley.

Sometimes I listen to sounds that are designed to activate Theta waves. Sometimes I listen to kind of dramatic late 60's and 70's music. Like Jefferson Airplane "Somebody to Love" Mamas and the Papas "California Dreamin.'" This is getting kind of embarrassing.

"White Rabbit." Mostly Jefferson Airplane ha ha.

ARH: No, not embarrassing! All those songs trigger passions that need to come through in writing! I also tend to listen to either be emotionally evocative or abstract. I've listened to Jefferson Airplane, too! For a month last fall, all I could listen to while writing was "Relentless Corpse is an Urban Myth" by Relentless Corpse. 

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Tamara! Tell me, what are your you working on now?  

TG: You have a much more hardcore and sophisticated musical palette then I do.  That's hilarious that you listen to Jefferson Airplane too.  I feel much better. I have a couple projects going right now.  The thing I'm most excited about is a TV Pilot set in New Orleans---used to be set in Seattle, so obviously I'm making some major changes. Although they are both rainy places.