Interview by Kelcey Parker
TW is pleased to join author Kelcey Parker in co-publishing interviews with our featured fiction writers. Kelcey’s “How to Become a Writer” series appears on her website Ph.D. in Creative Writing, where she’s been running interviews with authors since July 2011. Each writer answers the same five questions.
Ann Lightcap Bruno is an English teacher at the Wheeler School in Providence and lives in nearby Cranston, Rhode Island, with her husband and children.
Her essays and stories have appeared in such publications as Memoir (and), Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review Online, and Alimentum. Here’s a passage from her recent story in TW, “Open Bar”:
I want her to say something to make me feel connected to then, to now, to her, to anything. All she can do is fake smile. “See you out there?”
The ladies’ room empties of nearly everyone. I feel like I am in the safe pouch of some animal, its pounding heart beating just outside the door. I rip off the old Bandaid fast and apply the new one. There is a spot of blood on the satin strap of my dyed-to-match sandal, so I blot at it with a wet paper towel. The stain spreads and turns orange. But the dress is long, and the pictures have been taken. It won’t matter.”
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
ALB: I remember going as a child to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and watching the art students sitting cross-legged in front of the glass cases, sketchbooks on their laps, drawing antelopes and mountain laurel. On my next trip, I took a pad and pencil but was too overwhelmed by my limited artistic ability to try my hand.
So, instead, I jotted down the names of things: fennecs, desert biome, wapiti, Ursus americanus. Back home in my room, I tried writing poems using the words I had found. I also might have tried to rhyme. The poems were worse than anything I might have drawn, but I liked the secrecy of scribbling lines and shoving them in my desk drawer where no one could see.
Later, during my freshman year of college, I saw a handsome boy from my acting class hunched over his journal, writing intently. So I started writing every day, too, because I wanted him to notice. He didn’t, but the writing became a habit I couldn’t shake. I suppose my desire to be a writer was originally just a desire to look cool. But eventually it turned into a real love of words and sentences and stories. It turned into a compulsion to notice the crazy human dramas all around me.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
ALB: First of all, I’m not a writer so much as I am a teacher. Teaching is what pays the bills, fills my hours, keeps me honest. I make myself do what I ask of them: take notebooks everywhere, write in small bursts, tackle ridiculous prompts. My great fortune is the opportunity to get paid to read and talk about The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Hamlet, you name it.
“Delicious books,” as my daughter calls her favorites, are really what drive me to write. I want to make something this good. As a kid, I knew that my copy of Little Women was what I would save first in the event of a fire. In high school, Invisible Man rocked my small-town sense of self, and in college, I disobeyed my father and took two courses where Ulysses was required reading (he had told me to avoid the goddamned book at all costs). In grad school, I became enamored of Dickens and his fat, sprawling plots.
My own novel is still waiting to be born. In the meantime, I hack away at it and send out little things, stories and essays, during my summers, when I have precious stretches of time. I set myself deadlines and make myself submit. I am still becoming a writer. I teach full time; I parent full time. But these aspects of my life offer me an awareness of existence that fuels my writing.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
ALB: The poet Michael Harper inspired me in ways he will never know. I took an African American literature class with him at Brown, and he made each of us visit him in his office. When I entered, he was hunting through towers of books for a copy of Huck Finn (one of his children needed it for English class at the high school where I now work).
After telling me I should start coming to class on time, he asked me to give him my impressions of the course so far. I babbled some things about Morrison’s use of circle imagery in Beloved, about how much I loved Ralph Ellison. Later, when he wrote me a recommendation for grad school, Harper was so pleased with the eloquence of his letter that he called me to read it to me over the phone and to tell me he had sent a copy to Ellison (who figured in it prominently). I was giddy for weeks.
I am also indebted to the poet Catherine Imbriglio, whose class on lyric essays broke my work wide open, rattling my tired tendencies in really helpful ways. My husband also deserves a shout-out, as he is my go-to editor.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
ALB: I am inspired by any writer who held a day job (William Carlos Williams, Anton Chekhov, Wallace Stevens). I love Virginia Hamilton Adair’s story of gaining notoriety in her eighties. I also tend to be drawn to the stories of writers with lives far more reckless, colorful, and drunken than mine. Mostly.
I harbor a secret yearning to be Patti Smith. In the same acting class with the cute journal-writing boy, I encountered the early rock-and-roll plays of Sam Shepard—The Tooth of Crime, Cowboy Mouth. My favorite acting experiences were playing parts he had written for her. I wore tattered black clothes and dropped my voice a register or two. It was the same kind of identity shape-shifting I enjoy now when I write fiction.
My own life and aesthetic don’t resemble Smith’s in the slightest, but a girl can fantasize. I love her Keith Richards hair, her love affair with Robert Mapplethorpe, her far-reaching talent. When I read Just Kids, I appreciated the humor and earnestness with which she wrote about her desire to be an artist. Patti Smith embodies the prototypical American notion of self-reinvention in a way that doesn’t seem obnoxious to me in the slightest.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
ALB: On the last day of my creative writing elective, I always read my students two passages.
The first is a section from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, where he says, “[I]n order to achieve mastery [a writer] must read widely and deeply, and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”
The second is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the famous description of the task of a writer that begins: “For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.” Rilke closes by telling us that it is not enough just to have these experiences or even memories of them; we must allow them to change “into our very blood” before we can write the first word.
My point in pairing these passages is to send them off with the twofold task of sitting in the chair and of participating in the world.
As Gardner tells us, we have to read in order to grow as writers. We need to pay attention to the talents of others and read things that unsettle us and inspire us. Furthermore, we must cultivate a practice that forces us to write every day, in whatever stolen chunks of time we have, and to make ourselves work hard at the parts of writing that don’t come easily.
And as Rilke says, we also have to live our lives. We have to wander and observe and argue and love and mourn. And we have to let it all sink into our flesh until we have no other choice but to write about it. If we’re doing it right, the act of writing is also a process of discovery. Looking for the right words, putting the words together to make meaning, can allow us to better understand the whole business of being human.
This interview originally appeared as “How Ann Lightcap Bruno Became a Writer” in Ph.D. in Creative Writing on December 16, 2012.
Read More of Ann Lightcap Bruno’s Work
- “Open Bar,” Talking Writing, November 2012
- “Notes on Hunger,” Painted Bride Quarterly, May 2011
- “Graveside,” Elimae, August 2010
- “Defining Gluten,” Alimentum, September 2012
- The Ache of Writing,” Talking Writing, September 2011