What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
I’ve been reading a lot of novels lately, as I am currently revising a novel. It really helps me to see the scaffolding of a book and how authors are accomplishing structure and plot and narrative. When there’s something I feel is working, I can incorporate that into my own work, and even when a choice doesn’t serve me, it’s still a great inspiration to see what’s possible in a book; the possibilities are actually infinite—a lovely reminder.
I just finished Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and immediately jumped into reading Heaven by her as well. I'm really drawn to the stream-of-consciousness flow of the prose and how scenes overlap into memories and these surreal, imagined experiences that the narrator experiences. I’ve got Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata after that. Maybe I'm gravitating toward translated work right now because of its nuance in structure. I'm fascinated by how a translation captures the beauty of the words and how that beauty traverses any language barriers.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
I also recently read (and could not put down) Lindsay Lerman’s What Are You (Clash Books 2022) and this passage gutted me:
“I was swimming. I can still access the force of that feeling—how it was so much more than a gaze, than being made real through gaze. And how the surging felt different—just as dangerous, but as though the danger were shared somehow. It was not gentle, necessarily, it was just more everything than it had been before. It was not always nighttime.”
These words feel in conversation with my piece, “Crack an Egg on Your Head.” Here, Lerman expresses the same sentiment I aim to create, but she does it in a beautiful stream of prose. This passage, and the whole book, had me in awe with how abstraction can sometimes feel so close. I wrote to Lindsay after finishing the book, Never read anything like it before. It reminded me of my entire 20’s living in LA and the thoughts that went through my head during that time.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
Even in fiction, all my writing is inspired by my life. I'm blessed (and cursed) with the superpower of memory, but a simple retelling of memories does not a story make. The craft of writing is about drawing these moments out into scene, fitting them into the work like puzzle pieces, making sense of them and also repurposing them. When I work on an essay or a creative nonfiction piece, I aim more toward finding meaning from my experiences and looking to connect with some universal truth that readers might relate to. I find fiction to be more freeing though, more fun perhaps. But I’ve definitely cried into the page no matter what genre I'm working through.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
I'm pretty obsessed with writers whose work feels brutally honest. To name a few: Jo Ann Beard, Sarah Manguso, Sheila Heti, Ross Gay, John Green, Sarah Gerard. These are also writers that I teach the most. I'm entranced by their ability to formulate characters who are truly themselves, and by the way they create a discourse on the page that invites the reader into the conversation and allows us to have a point of view. I love an unlikeable character. I love admission of flaw and fault and imperfection. I love reading work that is not trying to be anything but real and doesn’t want to change my mind or send me a message or lose me with a convoluted turn of events. I crave what’s real.
In your book, The Perpetual Motion Machine, you write vulnerably about your real life and family. How do you navigate between writing about what is real (and honoring your obsession with honesty) while also being mindful of writing about real people/family?
When I finished grad school and the prospect of sending my first book out into the world became very real, I knew it was time to sit down with my family and have the discussion about publishing. Albeit uncomfortable and nerve wracking, I very much wanted the support of my family in pursuing my career as a writer with this memoir as my debut to the literary world. I am really lucky to have had such support, and to have the relationship that I do with my brother in that he not only approved of my decision to move forward with the book, but also helped me with revision. We have a standing agreement that I can write and publish whatever I want about him, about us, our childhood, our past, our present. This doesn't always make it easier, though. Writing and publishing about such personal matters opens old wounds for all of us, but I've always felt that it's my right to decide whether or not I want to investigate my own experience of life through the written word.
There have been many times that even though I have this agreement with my family, they have been upset by something that I've written. There have been many times that I've hesitated publishing an essay because of this. Ultimately, I go through with it because I do feel that writing something down changes it, that as a writer I am re-imagining life rather than trying to narrate a tell-all. I am also not writing so that I can out or belittle anyone from my life, but so that I can shed light on what has deeply impacted me in hopes that it might resonate with whomever reads it. In short, I think it's a matter of intention for me, and my intention is never ill when it comes to my family. My intention is always loving despite how dark a time I may be illuminating.
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
I’ve had all different jobs throughout the years: waitressing, retail, office jobs, teaching, etc. With each one came an entirely different schedule. Some had demands that were more physical (in food service and retail you’re on your feet a lot). Some took more mental capacity and required a lot of outside work (a constant influx of emails, grading papers on weeknights and weekends). But no matter what, I’ve found time to write because I make it part of my schedule. I really love Jami Attenberg’s 1,000 words a day tactic and I’ve been using it the past few years in my own practice. Sometimes I do more, sometimes less. I'm also a really big fan of Hemingway’s idea that writing is going to work, that each day you set out to write and put in your time and then you pack it up and go home, have a nice meal, get some rest, and then return to it where you left off.
I definitely don’t write every day though, unless I'm tweaking on a project and trying to meet a deadline (personal or professional). This past year I took a lot of time away from writing because I was pregnant and had just started a new job at a new school. But during those months I read a lot. I did research for a new project that I'm working on now. I wrote essays and kept up with my newsletter and attended virtual workshops, taught workshops, talked to writer friends and shared ideas.
Remaining proactive as a writer can be all of these things, as long as eventually you sit your butt in the chair and put all that good energy into your work.
Tell us about what your writing/creative space looks like.
My ideal writing time is spent in a noisy coffee shop with some kind of oat milk latte. I prefer to be around people when I write, out in the world. But I also have a desk where I can work in private at home. My desk has lots of found trinkets such as a framed cartoon of an orchestra playing over the Grand Canyon, a picture of me and my husband at a fancy LA dinner, a planter that I repurposed as a pencil holder, three rocks that I got from Moonstone Beach in Cambria. I keep digital sticky notes on my home screen with lots of observations and quotes and one-liners and random thoughts that may contribute to a piece of writing someday. It probably looks insane, but to me it makes perfect sense.
Regarding your piece in Issue 03, what does it mean for/to you?
The Concentration Game that I wrote about in my piece had come up randomly in thought and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I looked up the words of the ritual and my girlhood all came flooding back to me. But even though it was a game, it was dark, scary even. There was definitely something about it that seemed off to me, and I wanted to write my way through that darkness and figure it out.
I had been in the hospital that past winter and was also still dealing with the aftermath of a new mental health diagnosis. I was able to write my way into connections between the game I played as a girl, a game so many of us played actually, and the experience of the diagnosis. I came up with questions that I wanted desperately to find the answers to: How can a body feel so much? What is comfort? What do we do with our pain?
In finding these links, I decided to write the piece as a lyric, braiding the chants of the game with what it meant to me to be a girl; the dichotomy of the make-believe dangers of the game with the very real dangers of growing up in a female body.
I'm so grateful to Champagne Room for publishing this piece and giving it a home.
Do you have a recent publication/project you would like us to highlight?
"If You Were His Favorite" in Pine Hills Review, which was published on June 7th, 2023.
“Greetings from Costa Rica” published by NiftyLit, which was published on May 31st, 2023.
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. She has led workshops for UCLA’s Extension, The Porch, Catapult, HerStry, Write or Die, and Lighthouse Writers. She currently teaches writing at Vanderbilt University in the English Department. She is a 3x Pushcart Prize Nominee and her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Jewish Book Council, Lit Hub, The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Joyland, and more. Her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine was published with Red Hen Press in 2018, and her debut novel The Brittanys is out now with Vintage. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.