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Member Spotlight: Lisa Selin Davis

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? Writing is my identity and my salve. It’s what motivates me (and what tortures me). And it’s how I get people to listen to me—or at least, how I try to! It’s how I share and shed my shame, and how I connect with and communicate to people. The more personal my work is, the more other people see themselves in it. And in a time when everyone and everything is politicized and fractured, sometimes writing can bridge divides. It’s certainly harder in this time of upheaval: harder to get published. Harder to cut through the chaos. Harder to connect. But I find that each day I’m just as motivated to try to translate my thoughts and feelings into words, in the hope that someone will read them and we will understand each other through them.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? The only time I have writers’ block is when I focus on the rejection—which is a constant in my life, no matter how much I’ve published. When I despair that the writing won’t be read, I shut myself down. I am almost always working on multiple projects at once. There’s usually an op-ed or essay in the works, while a larger project bubbles in the back of my mind, and while I’m reporting a more straightforward piece of journalism. I find that having multiple pathways to walk down keeps me from getting to stuck in one spot. There’s a downside to it, though, which is that, because I’m trying to push multiple projects forward at once, it’s hard to make too much progress on any of them. And it can be very overwhelming. But at those times I remind myself that this fear-of-commitment approach to writing is actually what works best for me, that some art can thrive in chaos, and that it’s okay to feel like I have little control over what I’m doing. Because that’s the truth.

What is your favorite time to write? Before I had kids, I loved to be the first one up in the morning, writing before roommates or significant others awoke. In my twenties, that was 8:30AM. In my thirties, it was 7. In my forties, it’s 5:30AM. Writing before I’ve spoken, before I’ve absorbed the horrors of the world, was what I did instead of exercise. These days, with no school and no privacy and everything in chaos, I am learning to write at night, or in the middle of the night when I wake up full of anxiety, or in the lazy part of the afternoon when I used to do paperwork. Any moment I can grab to write, I do. And these days I need the physical exercise as much as I need to write, so they’re competing with each other. It is harder than ever to find time to write, even though it’s my job.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? When I teach essay writing, I remind students that “story happens in the body.” All emotions are physical. Anger manifests in clenched fists or clenched jaws, in a faint buzzing behind the eyes, or the background going cloudy. Sadness is a sharp ping in the solar plexus. Happiness is the release of that tension, or a cramp from laughing so hard. People often forget their characters’ bodies when they’re writing, and I try to keep them focused at the corporeal level. I also try to remember to ask “So what?” about everything I write. To whom will this matter? Is this a point worth making? What’s the value-add and the takeaway? At the same time, I admire those who barrel forward without asking those questions, who just follow the desire or impetus to write, without seeking approval, without worrying or wondering about publishing.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? One great thing about teaching writing these days is that students can show up from all over the country, or the world, rather than just New York City (even though NYC is filled with people from all over the country and the world!). There is so much potential to reach more people, for a piece of writing to catch on. The growth of sites dedicated to long-form writing and the digital communities built around writing and writers are inspiring. But they’re also intimidating. And there’s so much in-fighting. There’s just so much more noise of all kinds that can get in the way.

Lisa Selin Davis’s Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different is out now with Hachette.