Author Interviews/Features

       

Christian McEwen

Christian McEwen Christian McEwen is a freelance writer, teacher and workshop leader. She has edited four anthologies, including Jo's Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, and The Alphabet of Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing. She has written for the Nation and The Village Voice, her poems and essays have been widely published, and she made the documentary film, "Tom Boys!" She has been a fellow at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies. Born in London, McEwen grew up in the Borders of Scotland and currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Read Susan J. Tweit's review of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 10/16/2012

You say in the Introduction to World Enough & Time, "The book you're holding in your hands came together over several years, as I wrestled with my own relationship to time, noticing what really gave me joy, and how that might act as a springboard to creative work." Did that wrestling, noticing, and writing the book change your habits in a lasting way? Would you say that your relationship with time is an easier one today as a result of it?

I think I understand much more deeply how to "walk my talk: as a result of writing World Enough & Time. But it is also true that putting the book out into the world actually required a great deal in terms of readings, interviews, workshops etc., all of which threw my normal, small-scale schedule out of kilter. In some ways, I'd say, I'm still recovering from that!

World Enough & Time is arranged in twelve main chapters. Each chapter ends with "Tactics," brief suggestions of ways to implement the slowing-down, creativity-nourishing realizations of the chapter, plus quotes to consider. Did you envision that structure when you began the book, or did it evolve organically as you gathered your material and began writing? And was the number of chapters deliberate—one for each month of the year—or was that serendipitous?

The "tactics" idea showed up fairly late in the course of writing World Enough & Time. I came across a book by Stefan Klein, called Time: A User's Guide (Penguin, 2006), where each chapter ended with a brief PS or PPS—giving suggestions like, "Get out in the sun": I liked his brevity and practicality, and decided to add such tactics to each of my own chapters. An early reader encouraged me to keep them short and sweet.

I didn't plan to write twelve chapters, one for each month of the year. The book began with a list of "ordinary joys: which could also become the gateway to creative work: things like walking, talking, dreaming, and drawing. There just happened to be a round dozen.

There's a good bit of personal material in the book, vignettes from your childhood and adult life that illustrate the point of each chapter, like this bit from the beginning of Chapter Three, "Doing Nothing":

"I remember lying in the grass, looking up into the flaming autumn glory of the spindle tree. The berries were a fiery orange-scarlet, each one shaped like a tiny four-corned hat. I was six or seven then, the oldest child, with two younger sisters and a younger brother. Nursery life was noising and demanding. But I felt happy there, under the spindle tree, watching the old horse, Snowball, ambling about, or listening to the wind in the thin straps of the leaves. I went back over and over again."
The book could have just as easily been less personal, relying on other's experiences, thoughts, and research about time and creativity, though the glimpses into your life make it very appealing and intimate. At what point did you decide to add your own personal experience? Why?

My original agent, Rob McQuilkin, felt strongly that I should include some personal material. At first I was reluctant. I wanted to save it for a memoir I was also working on. But he convinced me that there needn't be a conflict. And judging by the response, I'd have to say that he was right. I've had some very tender, heart-felt letters and emails from readers, most of whom might not have responded in that way to a dryer, more research-based text. It's as if the personal material has provided some sort of bridge, helped people see "slowness" as a struggle for all of us.

World Enough & Time draws on a incredibly broad array of sources, conversations, books, quotes, and experiences. How did you keep track of all of the material you wove into each chapter? Do you have a system of some sort—a database, thousands of post-it notes, a phenomenal memory? Did editing two anthologies help your ability to organize masses of material? (The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing, with Mark Statman, and Jo's Girls: Tomboy Tales of High Adventure, True Grit & Real Life)

I had a very simple system. I bought a quantity of bright green paper folders, and twelve black cardboard holders, one for each chapter. I typed up detailed notes from the different books I was reading, and thought long and hard about where they best belonged. I wrote the book in short sections (eight or ten to each chapter) which allowed me to re-jig the structure as the book progressed. I also kept "files" on my computer, and a special bookcase for the ever-accumulating reference books.

I'm not sure that having edited the anthologies (I've actually done four in total, including Naming the Waves: Contemporary Lesbian Poetry, and Out the Other Side: Contemporary Lesbian Prose, with Sue O'Sullivan) really made much difference. World Enough is by far the most ambitious project I've undertaken, and I guess I'd say it taught me what it needed as it developed.

In Chapter Seven, "A Feast of Words," you write that you have kept a journal for "more than forty years, beginning at eleven or twelve with child-sized diaries, and graduating to sturdy British sketchbooks in scarlet and black, and American composition books in speckled black-and-white." Do you use those journals now, as source material for your work, as ways to remember your thoughts and ideas? Do you share them with others, or are they for your eyes only?

I am now on journal #421. I don't share them with anyone else, not least because my handwriting is atrocious, and most people would not be able to decipher them. However, I do look over them myself from time to time. They help me clarify my thoughts and experiences at the time of writing, and occasionally I return to them as source material for whatever I'm working on.

You grew up on the Borders of Scotland and came to American as an adult. Why trade your homeland for this country and its culture of hurry? Could you have written this book if you had grown up in America?

I have just come back from two plus months in Scotland, which like any other western country is not itself immune to "hurry sickness." Nonetheless, life there does move at a more gentle pace, and that is something that I very much enjoy. I'm not sure that I could have written World Enough if I had not had Scotland in my mind (and heart) as a possible alterative to the United States.

Where do you write? Do you have any special ritual around writing—a particular pen and paper, a time of day, a particular piece of music, a special candle?

I have a little work-room where I do my writing. It has a big desk in it, and several bookshelves, a cushion for my cats; not too much else. I try to write each morning, to scoop up the cream of the day's new energy.

I get up, eat breakfast, listen to the news. Most times, I light a candle and a stick of incense; sometimes I draw a Tarot card or two. I read a little, meditate, and pray. Then I go to my desk. I write longhand, and type the text into the computer, print it out, and make corrections, type those in again.

And so it goes.

What surprised you most in working on World Enough & Time? Do you have a favorite chapter or portion of the book?

I don't really have a favorite portion of the book. What pleases (and startles) me is that the writing did actually come together—that I was somehow able, out of my own, very private, very shy, vulnerable sense of things—to write a book which many people have now read (and reread!), and which they tell me they enjoy and are supported by.

In Chapter Four, "In Praise of Walking," you talk about your rambles over the Scottish countryside as a child, and your edgy walks in New York during your ten years in the city, before you realized "green"—as in green space—was what you needed and you moved away. Do you have a favorite walk where you live now?

I live in a small college town in MA, close to a track that leads down to the river. I walk there four or five times a week. Just now, the air is full of dancing gold and crimson leaves. But I have walked there in the depths of winter, when the river makes a frozen street between the trees. I have walked there in early spring, and in hot and humid summer, most often with my field glasses slung across my shoulders; sometimes with a camera too. I am always happy to have an excuse to go for a walk.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a play called Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money, based on lengthy interviews with some 48 different women, and its linked community project, Money Talks. I also have a project called Sparks from the Anvil, based on my interviews with visiting poets at Smith College.

For more information on the author and her books visit Christian's website.

       

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