My mother tells me I didn't speak for the longest time. Just when she was starting to worry there might be something wrong with me, out I came with it: “Pocketbook.” I’m fairly certain I was writing my first poem – sound, sense and desire all come together in the one word, don’t you think? In first grade, while the other kids were reading about Dick, Jane and their dog, Spot, I made up poems about them.
My first literary award was in third grade. I was in Catholic school. Sister asked us to write a Christmas composition, and I told my story from the point of view of the donkey carrying Mary to Bethlehem. It was funny: the donkey complained about the cold and whined about the weight on his back. He kept asking, “Are we there yet?” Sister said it was very imaginative. She gave me a gold star, and hung it up on the bulletin board. I thought, ‘Wow! That was easy.’ My vocational path was determined – although, frankly, it hasn’t always been quite that easy.
When I was 10 years old I began the book that has just been released as "Home After Exile." I won’t tell that story, it’s in the book. I also won’t tell here the story of how, in 1980, I canceled the contract on the first adult version of "Home After Exile." That, too, is in the book.
How would you define the writer’s task?
My view of the writer’s role has been influenced by a quote I stumbled on many years ago. The playwright Henrik Ibsen said (and I’ve changed the gender of his pronoun), “The task of the writer is to make clear to herself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions which are astir in the age and community to which she belongs."
I would expand by saying that a writer has access to certain wellsprings of wisdom: the personal and collective unconscious. As we write about an experience, we change. In the cauldron of the imagination, observation, memory, thought and emotion all combine to create something new. Anyone who reads the work -- story, poem, essay or book -- shares our process of transformation. As individuals change, the culture changes. This is why writers play such an important role in our world as it struggles to evolve.
Based on a lifetime’s experience writing – and teaching others to write – I would say, simply, that a writer’s task is to activate wisdom which has hitherto lain dormant, thereby enriching and transforming the world one reader at a time.
If anyone wants to explore this further, I lead a writing retreat called :Finding God at the Tip of Your Pen", where ‘God’ is understood as a verb: ‘becoming.’ There's more info about that at my website, www.CreativeWritingCenter.com.
Who is your ideal reader?
That’s a loaded question for me. It implies a left-brained, market-analysis approach to writing which I abhor.
I am a literary artist. I write works of literature. Literature is for everyone because it gives us “knowledge accessible only through the direct human experience of love, passion, enchantment, joy and terror.” That’s how Ann Berry Somers put it in her eulogy for her uncle, the great cultural historian and theologian Thomas Berry. I agree wholeheartedly with her summation of the artist’s job.
When I used to teach in the Poets-in-the-Schools programs, I would read Yeats, Eliot, Stevens – all the great poets – to children as young as second grade. They didn’t understand, necessarily, but they gave themselves to the words and let the words enlarge their field of vision. That’s what literature does. It makes us bigger. As poet William Carlos Williams once said, “There is no news in poetry, but people die every day for lack of what is found there.”
A fifth grader once confirmed this so elegantly. On the first day of my residencies, I would ask the children to make folders for the poems they'd be creating. There was this one … a little boy made it, out of purple construction paper. He decorated it with pirate flags, skulls, crossed bones, swords dripping with blood, airplanes, rocket ships and racing cars. The folder was a total expression of his ‘who-ness.’ Then he scrawled across the front, in huge block letters, “Poetry is my way to live.” I never told the kids that. He just got it.
Literature is for everyone. I founded a school for creative writing, and I always tell my aspiring writers that what they write is a battery. They charge the blank page up with their thoughts, feelings, vision, imagination, ideas – their ‘who-ness.’ Batteries are not meant to sit on shelves. They’re sources of energy intended to make things work, our cars, flashlights, cellphones, what have you. The world runs on the energy released by batteries, yes?
When it comes to entertainment, there are various genres and specialized audiences. But literature has a job to do that’s universal. It helps us function at our full capacity as human beings. I believe great literature – great art in general – is the only thing that will save the planet. But that’s for another interview!
Can you say more about your school?
The Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing was founded 24 years ago. It offers online writing classes and in-person writing retreats that help aspiring writers grow to their full potential. In a way, my vision for the Center was similar to Mark Coker’s vision for Smashwords, which makes publication possible for anyone with a dream of sharing written work with the world. I saw that most people were being denied full access to those inner wellsprings of passion and imagination that vivify the soul and rekindle the spirit. I wanted to create a space where everyone would be welcome regardless of experience or professional ambition; a space where people could test their calling safely, protected from the harsh judgments of teachers or peers; a space where they could find companionship with like-minded creatives, free from the stultifying labels often bestowed by uncomprehending family and friends.
The story of the Center’s founding is told more fully in "Home After Exile: A Spiritual Odyssey. And there’s a website, www.CreativeWritingCenter.com.
Besides the newly-released "Home After Exile," what are your other books?
There’s a creative writing how-to called "Writing the Wave: Inspired Rides for Aspiring Writers" and its companion audiobook, "Creative Writing from A to Z." I’m reissuing, as Smashwords editions, two books that were published some time ago under different names: "Mirror of Our Becoming: Meditations on Nature’s Beauty, Wisdom and Mystery" and "First Female Astronaut and Other Poems."" These will both be available later in 2014. I’ve also published five audiobooks called The Invitation to Wonder Journey Series." The audiobooks are currently only available on my website, www.CreativeWritingCenter.com.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel. It’s still in process so I don’t want to say anything about it, but I’m quite excited to be exploring what is a new form for me.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.