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Member Spotlight: Cynthia Reeves

author Cynthia Reeves and her book Falling Through the New World

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I hold the old-fashioned view that writers should capture the universal in the particular. The particular allows writers to share what is unique in their worldview—the experiences and emotions that arise from their background and carry over into their work. At the same time, the work must provide some bridge to the universal in the human condition. I write, then, because I’ve grown up in a particular point in history and with a particular upbringing and cultural background that I feel have something to contribute to this ongoing literary conversation. My great hope is that readers find themselves in my work, or at the very least, come to understand how my work might have touchpoints to their lives. At its best, writing is an exercise in building community.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? I don’t suffer from writer’s block, but I’ve also never been a writer with a regular writing habit. There are years-long gaps in my writing practice. I’ve always had too many other commitments to devote myself to writing every day, though I admire writers who have that kind of work ethic—say, waking at five to carve an hour or two before other duties intrude. When I first started writing thirty years ago, I followed an exercise suggested by Eudora Welty in One Writer’s Beginnings: keep a journal by your bed and, first thing upon waking, without talking to anyone or grabbing a cup of coffee, just write and write until you run out of words. You could write about a dream or a problem you’re wrestling with or something you overheard or whatever. I found this generated a ton of material and gave me a sense that I was developing a writing habit. Falling Through the New World took twenty years to write. A few of the stories—in particular the final piece “All This the Heart Ordains”—couldn’t be written before I had experienced certain life-changing events such as my mother’s death. On the other hand, I wrote my forthcoming novel, The Last Whaler (Regal House), more or less continuously over a four-year period. My advice is not to let others’ well-meaning advice get in the way of discovering how you work best, nor to let anyone convince you that you’re not a real writer if you’re not writing every day.

What is your favorite time to write? In an ideal world, I’d write something fresh first thing every morning, particularly when I’m starting a new project. I’d save the afternoon for editing and administrative tasks. And I’d write in a beautiful, quiet setting. I’ve been fortunate to have residencies as diverse as a Scottish castle and aboard a ship circumnavigating Svalbard. My world is rarely ideal. Whose is? In 2004-06, when I was working on my MFA, my children were young, and I was busy most of the day. At that time, I’d work from 10 PM to 2 AM when everyone was asleep. I also learned to write under pressure with chaos outside my office door, my husband shushing the kids with a “Mom’s working!” Nowadays, kids grown and gone, I’m lucky to stay up past 10 PM. The through line here is that a writing habit may be ideal, but it shouldn’t discourage those who write in fits and starts from pursuing a writing career.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? The best: One of my teachers, Michael Martone, told me early on to consider myself “published” if even one other person read what I wrote. That was comforting and still makes me smile. The worst: One of my teachers, who shall remain nameless, discouraged me from writing Falling Through the New World as a novel in stories. “Why not a novel?” he asked. The answer: Part of the answer is that I’m stubborn, and his challenge led me to try a different route. But mostly, the final form of this book owes itself to my process. I tend to write in fragments—episodes, scenes, descriptions—and then build them into a coherent whole, arranging the pieces and filling in the gaps as a form takes shape. In this case, the process led me to envisioning a novel in stories early on, rather than a traditional novel. It also enabled me to publish some of the stories as I completed them, which felt like progress over the long twenty years.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? I was just at AWP in Kansas City. It struck me as I wandered the massive book fair how incredibly diverse the attendees have become, and the overwhelming number of opportunities writers today have to be published. The downside is, of course, that it’s hard to be heard in such a crowded field.

Cynthia Reeves’s Falling Through the New World is out now with Gold Wake Press Collective.