The Word Process: An Interview with Alexandra Kleeman

The Word Process is an interview series focusing on the writing process and aimed at illuminating the many ways that writers approach the same essential task. In this interview, 2019 Spring Contest fiction judge Alexandra Kleeman talks about the piece of petrified wood she keeps on her desk, why patience is key to craft, and the reason that the writing process should not be a place of comfort.

Read other Word Process interviews here.

What does your writing desk look like? What objects, photographs, texts or talismans do you keep there?

Mostly, it’s books—a stack of fiction, a stack of nonfiction research, and a stack of theory and poetry for inspiration. Inevitably, they all mingle together. I have a big chunk of petrified wood to remind me that units of time are all relative, and a small stone raven that symbolizes consciousness and the transformation of one state of mind into another. This is wishful thinking—the actual processes by which I make work are murkier, aqueous, leaky. Not airy or airborne, in other words.

Describe a typical day in your writing life.

On a writing day, I wake up before noon, spend a few hours walking with my dog and reading the internet, then begin to bore down into what I’m writing. I watch a movie with my husband, and then when he goes to bed I begin working.

When it comes to the craft of writing, what do you think is the most important quality or skill for a writer to possess in order to excel, and why?

I would say patience is key. I don’t think there’s any book that wouldn’t have been improved by another year, after the editing has finished, of thought. Even if it sits there undisturbed for a year, that time would have an effect in the writer’s mind. And because I don’t believe in a sentence ever truly being finished, closed, there’s always the possibility that it could mutate—given time—into a more effective version of itself.

What book, poem, story, essay or quotation inspires you as a writer?

I truly love, in a very emotional way, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s “Empathy,” a long poem.

What do you do when you feel stuck in your writing?

I go and lie down for several minutes until an idea or detail comes to me that I feel I need to get up to write down.

What’s the best advice about craft or process that you’ve ever received?

To begin with the thing you’re working up to, and discover what happens next. Writing is not only about creating the intended experience for the reader, but for bringing writers into an unknown territory that allows them to discover, rethink, confront and adapt to the questions they’ve posed to themselves. There should be a good dose of the unexpected, the frightening, and the transformational during the process—it’s not a place of comfort.

About the author

Kiley Bense is the Online Managing Editor for Columbia Journal, 2018-19. Her essays have appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Rumpus, Saveur, and Narratively, among others. You can read her work at kileybense.com and follow her on Twitter at @kileybense.

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