Naomi Guttman’s essay “Red Elephant” (Issue 8), uses a gift from the past to explore point of view and a long buried relationship in Quebec. In the following interview, Guttman discusses her creative process, her influences, and the importance of sharing work with others.
A native of Montreal, Naomi Guttman is the author of three books of poetry, most recently a novella-in-verse, The Banquet of Donny & Ari: Scenes from the Opera (Brick Books, 2015). She has received grants from the Canada Council, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Saltonstall Foundation. An alumna of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, she teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College. She still has the red elephant.
What inspired you to create this piece? I was attending a summer workshop at Kenyon College and one of our assignments was to focus on an object we owned, its history and meaning.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). Of course the story of the friendship had been percolating for many years, but when I chose the red elephant as my object, I realized that it was a means of telling that story. I wrote the first stub quickly, and in imitation of a piece by Maggie Messitt, I interwove the story with bits of elephant lore. I revised and expanded the piece over the summer, and then kept revising, right until the end of the editing process.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? I have been training as a poet for many years, so I would say that poetry has had the biggest effect on my writing. But the visual arts—their materials, textures, the ability to capture a mood—have always been important to me. I’ve always admired the way visual artists work—in drafts, but often with a lot of play and intuition. I admire that faith in the process of working every day that you can and letting the work take shape and lead you to unexpected places.
Where do you create? I was recently cheered to see a photograph of Adrienne Rich, a writer who had a great influence on me, in her office surrounded by piles of books and papers. I aspire to be a tidy person, but it doesn’t happen. I guess that part of the way in which I give myself permission to create is to nest. That said, I can pretty much work anywhere. The main requirements are time and quiet.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? No doubt my teachers at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers were a great influence on me as I started to write poetry seriously in my mid-twenties. To hear their conviction, their serious commitment to an art form that was and that is still largely ignored by most of the public, was very important to my artistic development. Everything I read has an influence, though.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? Every summer I participate in an on-line phenomenon called The Daily Grind where one is obliged to write something each day and send it to a particular group of people. The group lasts one month, after which you change groups. So when I hit a block during the year, I will go back to this work and see if there’s anything I can build on. I also give myself exercises: read a newspaper and write about a story; read a poem and copy its syntax; go to a museum and write about what I see. There are many ways. It’s important to keep writing, even if you know it’s crap, because 90 per cent of the time, first drafts are going to be crap. Writing is patience. Writing is revising.
How do you see The Daily Grind as benefitting your own writing? It’s a practice; it’s material.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? Right now I’m trying to read a lot about race and white privilege. This is important to me because like many people in this country, I have lived a very segregated life, a life protected from the daily humiliations and deprivations experienced by so many people of color. Last summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a heart-rending book of poems that includes many ways of looking at the daily stress and pressure of living with micro-aggressions and white privilege. Recently, I listened to some pieces from NPR’s This American Life about the accidental desegregation of schools in Missouri, and I am planning soon to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. This country needs a big shift, including a truly equitable public education system so that there is a redistribution of wealth and economic opportunity as well as a shift in attitudes about race, justice, and who deserves what. I want to educate myself and be part of that change.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about this piece, in particular, or about your creative process, in general? I think it’s important to stress that sharing work in progress with other writers/editors can be central to a writer’s life. We have a Romantic notion of the solitary artist, the independent genius. But this is not usually the case, even for the Romantics: Wordsworth had his sister and, for a time, Coleridge; Shelley and Byron were part of a circle of writing friends; Hemingway and Fitzgerald, even with all their envy and competitiveness read each others’ work and gave hard, but useful feedback. It may not be for everyone, but finding a trustworthy group of honest readers to give you feedback can be critical to the creative process and to success in publishing.
What made you choose the red elephant as your object in the first place? I don’t know why I chose the red elephant. I guess I wanted to tell that story.
We asked Naomi to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A cat in a happy, comfortable home. We have a couple, and it seems like a good life.
When and where were you happiest? I’m pretty happy right now.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Maybe I should have…”
What is your greatest extravagance? Living a middle class, North American life.
Which talent would you most like to have? To draw from life impeccably but with in my own style.
Who is your hero of fiction? I’ve always had a soft spot for Levin in Anna Karenina. He is not heroic, but he’s human.
What is your current state of mind? Moderately peaceful.
What is your motto? As long as it’s good.
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.