Author of "On the Topography of Maps" in ISSUE 02 and her thoughts on the experience of rejection as audition, finding metaphors in doodles, and some of her favorite opening paragraphs.
What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
My reading lately has been very sporadic. Before I began writing, submitting, and doing online workshops a few years ago, I was reading a book or two a week. Now, since I’m still working full-time with special needs high school students, trying to find time to read, write, submit to publications, and be a wife and mom has been a challenge. I do give credit to all those years of constant reading to inspire me to want to write. In the years leading up to my writing endeavors, I binged on Virginia Woolf’s novels and diaries, then Shirley Jackson’s novels, stories, and her biography by Ruth Franklin, and now I’m reading her letters that were released a couple of years ago. I also binged on all of Sylvia Plath’s works, letters, journals, and Heather Clark’s recent biography. My new “binge” is Haruki Murakami. I’ve bought about ten of his novels, and just bought his new book Novelist: A Vocation. His Kafka on the Shore blew me away.
Since I’ve met so many new writer friends, mostly poets, I try to buy and read as many of their books as I can, the journals in which their works appear, and their postings on social media, so I’m mostly reading those, and enjoying them very much! It’s a lot to keep up with. I’m retiring this February, and really look forward to having more time to read, because I firmly believe that’s the best way for me to become a better writer.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
I distinctly remember reading the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and my heart started pounding, and I knew I would be up all night reading the entire book:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. New York, Viking Press, 1962. (p. 1)
Just wow! I try to read this book every year, and never tire of Jackson’s way of ratcheting up the tension, and getting into the minds of the protagonists in all of her books and stories.
And there is a passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Woolf transitions the stream of consciousness thoughts of one character to another so seamlessly, you almost don’t realize what has happened. I thought it was so brilliantly done, and I felt like, “Ok. I think I’m starting to really “get” Virginia Woolf, and I realized that I wanted to aspire to have that incredible command of language. All of her prose reads like poetry to me.
“The autumn leaves, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flags kindling in the tomb of cathedral caves.”
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York, Mariner Books, 1927.
As for Plath, I read The Bell Jar in high school, of course, and was amazed at what a different experience reading it was as a much older adult. (Another all-time favorite opening paragraphs for me.) I am still gobsmacked at what she was able to produce at such a young age, both in prose and poetry, and while tending to children (also like Shirley Jackson). My chapbooks are both based on some of my life’s experiences, and I think all of these women gave me the courage to begin writing in that way.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
I have written quite a lot of ekphrastic pieces, based on paintings. In fact, the first poem I had accepted for publication was based on a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, and my new chapbook is also is based around the layers of meaning I find in that painting, and how it has related to my life for many years. Many times, I’ll see connections, or metaphors, if you will, in my life, and that will inspire me to write. I do like using specific prompts to get me going sometimes, and I also really love an unreliable narrator. I have written some creepy stories using this form, which, for me, is really challenging and fun.
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
I’m mostly concerned with the images I use and hope to leave a picture in the mind of the reader they will remember that resonates on several levels. I also will read my poems aloud, to make sure they flow and sound interesting and provocative to the ear. I really hope that my writing will reach the reader on many levels, consciously and subconsciously.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
See my answer to the question about a piece of writing that shifts something inside me. I also started collecting vintage typewriters that were like the ones used by Plath and Jackson. I have seven now, and all of them still work well! They make me feel inspired when I think of those women typing away, whenever they could.
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
For now, I spend a lot of time during weekends reading, writing, and submitting. People have no idea how arduous the submission process is. When I retire in February from teaching, I look forward to having much more time. My family, especially my husband, has been so supportive of my writing, even though it has meant not seeing me a lot of the time on weekends. And I keep a journal with me at all times, to jot down ideas or images any time they pop into my head, or I hear someone say something that sounds like it could be the seed of a poem or story, much like Shirley Jackson did, apparently.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
A few months ago, I was beginning to feel like I needed to stop writing for a while. The pace at which I was writing and submitting was becoming unsustainable, with my family and work-life, and when it wasn’t giving me joy or catharsis to write, I knew I needed a break. I stopped writing for a couple of months, and read some books that had been calling to me from the the bookshelf, traveled with my family to Costa Rica, and listened to a lot of music. Then, I saw an online workshop for 100-word stories, which sounded intriguing, signed up, and loved it, and it got my juices flowing again.
Tell us about what your writing/creative space looks like.
In my writing space, there are four adults and two cats in a modestly-sized house, so I tend to write wherever I can find a place to be alone, be it my bedroom, the guest room, or the front living room. All of these rooms are full of books, and photos of my family, which is really the best part. (I think we have about 2000 books at this point)
This past year, I acquired some spectacular collage/paintings of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Shirley Jackson, from my friend/artist/writer Lorette Luzajic, whom I commissioned. She personalized them for me based on colors, quotes, and really anything that made each writer special to me. I look to them as muses, and whenever I get stuck on something, I’ll look at some of the details incorporated in the pieces, or take a book off the shelf and read some of my favorite passages, or put on some music and close my eyes.
Those, along with my books, especially some early edition copies I’ve found, and the vintage typewriters I’ve collected, provide me with much comfort and inspiration in each of these spaces.
I can usually be found writing while sitting on the couch facing our loaded bookshelves in the living room or sitting on a bed, with a journal in my lap and a pen in my hand- and if I’m lucky, one of my cats next to me, sleeping and purring.
I’m retiring from teaching in the next couple of months, and one of my goals when I retire is to create a designated creative writing space for myself with a good writing desk placed in front of a window upstairs, the writer paintings close by, and at least one of my typewriters on the desk with me. (And hopefully, my cats will still hang out with me!)
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
I’ll never forget reading about a creative writing professor who based a portion of his students’ grades on how many rejection slips they turned in to him. The more rejection slips, the higher the grade. Also, as a former theater major in college, and former theater teacher, I know all about auditioning, both from an actor’s point of view, and the director’s. (Much like the submitting writer and the editors.). I feel much less vulnerable submitting a piece of writing than I did having to perform onstage, in front of a group of strangers in a theater. When I started submitting, I decided my goal would be to get an average of 100 rejections per year, and let the rest take care of itself. I keep all my rejections in a file I have titled “Rejection Resilience.” And I love the quote by Sylvia Plath:
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Edited by Karen V. Kukil. New York, Anchor Books, 2000.
For right now, it is very difficult to navigate writing and submitting, due to time constraints.
Regarding your piece in Issue 02, what does it mean for/to you?
It sounds silly, but “On the Topography of Maps” really started with me doodling circles around circles on a piece of paper one day. I began to see what looked like the lines on the topographical map we had used on a recent hiking trip. I’m not an experienced hiker at all, and I knew that when those encircled lines got closer together, the climb was going to be much steeper and more difficult, and I wondered a) Would I be able to make it to the top?, and B) Would the view from the top be worth the struggle?
And, of course, another metaphor for life’s struggles was born. Upon re-reading it today, it’s pretty dark and existential. But I think there’s always that fear lurking inside of me of “How will this all turn out?” Especially considering the history of my son’s illness, which I’ll come to later. That’s one of the reasons writing is so self-revealing and cathartic for me.
Thank you so much for publishing it. I hope it gave your readers something to ponder.
Do you have any recent publications and/or projects?
Yes! Thank you so much for asking. I have a new poetry chapbook, Womb Worlds, available for pre-sale until January 20th by Finishing Line Press. All pre-sold books will be be shipped on March 17th or soon thereafter.
It is about my experience of having a child battling cancer three times, and (spoiler alert) how his life was eventually saved by the donated umbilical cord cells of a newborn, who will forever remain anonymous to us. But it’s also about how this traumatic experience changed me as a person and my outlook on life. The fact that my son’s blood, down to his very DNA, exactly matches another person’s on this planet, as a twin, whom we will never know, just makes my head explode. We are all connected on this planet in mysterious ways that we cannot even fathom.
The title, Womb Worlds, of course, refers to the wombs of these two connected children, but also how we all live within the “womb” of the universe, and like a lot of writers, I’m very drawn to images and meanings of bodies of water; so there are a lot of micro/macro water images. And then, there’s that O’Keeffe painting that represents that cosmic connection as well. To read more about the book and order a copy, people can go to https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/womb-worlds-by-lisa-molina/
Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?
Don’t be afraid of rejections! Celebrate them! It’s all about persistence, because somewhere, there is an editor who will love your work. Art is so subjective.
I would also say read, read, read the works of great writers. My Creative Writing professor and mentor, the recently deceased novelist, poet, essayist, and critic, Zulfikar Ghose, “taught” us how to write by having us read great works of literature, and helping us to discern how the writer created images with words to capture and enrapture us. We would then write our own works based on what we had “learned” from reading those amazing writers.
Finally, I would say to those who think it is too late to begin a writing vocation, “It’s never too late.” After all the life experiences I have had, and after having been inspired by the lives and works of other writers like Woolf, Plath, and Jackson, I decided to begin seriously writing and submitting poetry at the age of 54, and had my first poem published soon thereafter.
I purposefully waited to read Mrs. Dalloway until my 51st birthday, since that is the age of Dalloway in the book. (Yes, I’m a nerd) There is this wonderful passage about growing older;
"The compensation of growing old ... was simply this; that the passion remains as strong as ever, but one has gained -- at last! -- the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence -- the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light." (pg 79)
I’ll be 57 this month, and have had over 100 pieces of poetry, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and now two chapbooks published. And hundreds of rejections! There are so many excellent independent journals out there, like The Champagne Room, that are easy to find on social media, and so many wonderful workshops available online, and in person, in which you get to meet and read the works of other writers and learn different ways to generate writing, like the braiding and the box techniques I learned from you in your recent workshop, and newer forms, like erasure poetry (which was new to me).
I’m so glad I just sat down one day, started “taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly in the light,” and writing on paper what came out of me. After all these years of living a roller coaster life, writing has really given me an outlet to express myself, and if something I write is never accepted for publication, I am still more “whole” for writing it.
I love to read my students the letter that Kurt Vonnegut wrote to a high school literature class that had written to him for advice towards the end of his life. In the letter he tells them (I’m paraphrasing) that their assignment that day is to go home and write a poem as best as they can, and they are not to share it with anyone. And then he tells them to,
“Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.”
I have gone on far to too long, so this seems like the perfect place to stop.
Thank you for all you do to support writers!
Lisa Molina is a writer in Austin, Texas and author of the digital chapbook, Don’t Fall in Love with Sisyphus (Fahmidan Publishing & Co, 2022). Her new chapbook Womb Worlds is currently available for pre-sale with Finishing Line Press until January 20, with the book being released in spring 2023. Molina’s poem “Who You See” was nominated for 2022 “Best of the Net” by Fahmidan Journal, and her poetry has twice been chosen as a winner in the Beyond Words Magazine 250-Word Writing Challenge. In February 2022, her flash fiction piece “Young Man in the Moon” was named a finalist in the “Fifty Shades of Blue” contest, held by The Ekphrastic Review. Molina’s poetry, creative nonfiction, and flash fiction can be found in numerous online and print publications and anthologies, including The Champagne Room, Fahmidan Journal, Beyond Words Magazine, Miniskirt Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Sky Island Journal, POETiCA REViEW, Neologism Poetry Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Amethyst Review, Boats Against the Current Poetry Magazine, Epoch Press Autumn 2021 “Transitions” issue, Bright Flash Literary Review, and several anthologies by Quillkeepers Press and The Poet. She lives in Austin with her husband, two adult children, and two cats, and works with high school students with special needs.