December 3, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 42°F


Essayist explains writing process

Through personal essays and poetry writing, author Paisley Rekdal has developed her ability to capture moments in her life and recreate them for readers.

Rekdal will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Clark Lounge.

Rekdal is the author of multiple works, including the book of essays “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” and “Intimate,” a hybrid photo-text memoir. Her work has received a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, a Fulbright Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is currently an associate professor of English at the University of Utah.

Staff Writer Evan Johnson spoke with Rekdal about her experiences as a writer, experimenting with various forms of writing and her upcoming talk at the college.

Evan Johnson: What made you want to start writing?

Paisley Rekdal: It’s just something I’ve always done. I started out drawing first when I was a kid and then I started writing. I did turn to poetry when I was in high school
because there was a contest we were supposed to enter, and I won it. I thought, “That was interesting,” so I started writing poetry more. It’s embarrassing but I maybe think I had some sort of talent with poetry so if I hadn’t dove in that direction I probably would have continued writing fiction and essays as well.
EJ: Do you enjoy writing in one form more than another?

PR: There’s all sorts of ways that I like to write. I like poetry the most and then I like nonfiction. I don’t really write fiction, but I had to for this new collection, which is called “Intimate.” It’s about the Native American photographer Edward Curtis and a guy named Alexander Upshaw. It’s also sort of a biography of my dad’s life. But I had to rely on little snapshots of fiction where I imagined what Curtis was thinking, what Upshaw was thinking and what my dad was thinking. It was actually really difficult. So poetry comes a bit more naturally to me.

EJ: How has your writing changed or progressed from your past works?

PR: It’s gotten more psychologically rich. That’s what I’ve been happiest about. I feel a little bit more confident in being able to express personal experiences in a way that’s not quite glib. I can write about more serious subject matter. One of the things I noticed I can do now that I couldn’t do when I was younger is write about race in poetry.

EJ: Are there any techniques you use that help you generate your best work?

PR: It’s about having a very similar routine so that I’m able to get into writing every day.  The routine works like a form of meditation for me. I’m able to say that I’m going to be at my writing desk between these hours and these hours, and I’m not going to play any music, answer the phone or anything but sit there and write. I also find it really helpful to work with formal exercises – writing in the voice of a character that I’ve always been interested in. Whenever I really block I’ll go to art museums because there’s so much to respond to in there.

EJ: I enjoyed reading your essay “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee.” What was your experience writing this piece?

PR: That piece is interesting because I wrote it first as a poem and then as an essay, and they both have different feelings, which is kind of odd because it taught me a lot about form.
The event itself is something that’s always fascinated me because my mom told me about it when I was quite young, and Bruce Lee was this figure I had grown up revering. It is interesting that [Lee] was a cultural icon to Chinese-Americans and had gotten all of the things that he had wanted in life, and my mom had a more “normal” Chinese-American life and didn’t get a lot of the things that she had wanted. I liked the idea of the two meeting and what they could have meant to each other if anything at all. What Bruce Lee represents is something that says heroic but also a little moronic.

EJ: Was there any specific reason you decided to write that piece as both a poem and a piece of prose?

PR: I noticed that when a subject matter doesn’t work the first time I’ll try it in a different genre or from, a different perspective. If it’s a poem, I might try it as a sestina. If it’s an essay, I might try it as fiction.

EJ: What are you planning to speak  about when you come to the college on Tuesday?

PR: I’m actually going to be talking about the idea of fragmentation and closure in the essay and how essays are starting to be used in a multimedia collage more.