On mess and generosity for editing and writing
By Monica Prince
Michele Swide Lew is a fiction writer, a graduate of UC Berkeley, and one of the top ten finalists for the SFWP Literary Awards Program with her manuscript, Melanie Loves Edith. Her work has been published in Laney’s College, Good News, and UC Berkeley’s literary fiction journal (now out of print). Her short story, “Melanie and Edith,” was published in the Queer issue of Pank, and her novel Melanie Loves Edith was named as a finalist for Autumn House Press. She works at UC Berkeley in the counseling and psychological services department. She has a penchant for vintage clothes and brags about writing a letter to Jimmy Carter requesting money for opera gloves. He never responded. You can keep up with her work on her Facebook page.
SFWP reviewer and contributing editor Monica Prince asked Cruise more about writing and its practice.
Monica Prince: How did you first get involved with writing? What does your writing practice look like?
Michele Swide Lew: One name, author Lewis Buzbee. In the early 1990s, he taught at UC Extension. He basically kidnapped me one afternoon after class and over a cup of espresso, he told me that I had to take my writing seriously, otherwise he’d hound me daily with letters and phone calls, and he said he’d buy me a fax machine and hound me with faxes. Then he introduced me to Francesca Lia Block. I doubt she’d remember me now, but I still have her encouraging letters that I keep in my favorite 1920s glove box from Italy. Lewis is like Zeus. You do what he says, period.
My writing practice looks like a big mess! I keep a storage box of photos from magazines and things I’ve written on postcards and paper bags and napkins, and I put feathers and seashells in the box, and then I look at the box and take things out and write. I write every morning and every night.
MP: What do you believe is the key to successful writing?
MSL: Editing! Editing! Editing! Be free when writing and then you must be cruel to your manuscript once the first draft is completed. You have to beat it up and shoot it. Once it starts shooting back, you know you’ve done your best work. Secondly, be supportive of others’ writing and help them edit their work. Selfish doesn’t get you anywhere.
MP: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your writing? What work do you do besides writing?
MSL: My education was hard-won but invaluable. I hold an undergraduate degree in English from UC Berkeley. This was an amazing feat for me given that high school was such a trauma. I harbored a fantasy that my next step in life would be pretending to be a depressed debutante lay-about who cloistered herself away at film noir movies. Our family had no money so that was definitely a fantasy. My father made me go to school. (Thank you, Father.) Phew!
Berkeley had a bold impact on my writing. I took writing classes taught by many famous authors and poets including Thom Gunn. Currently, I work at UC Berkeley in counseling and psychological services, triaging and scheduling appointments for students. This job is demanding and I like the challenge and rewards of working with the student population. They are all so talented.
MP: What are you working on now?
MSL: It’s a book called A Weird Grace. It’s a story about an eight-year-old girl growing up with her schizophrenic mom. The mom is totally nuts but loving – she’s a whole lot of fun and she’s dangerous.
MP: What made you enter the SFWP Literary Awards Program?
MSL: I love the book Zine by Pagan Kennedy. Her “now what?” theme is so spot on! Very Eve Babitz-like. I love Pagan Kennedy’s writing.
MP: How do you think submitting to contests influences your future writing life?
MSL: It makes me a stronger writer because of the rejections. Rejections are a good thing. They make you run faster. They free you of conceit. They are freedom in that way. I like to think of rejections as open space in Montana, or the expanse of weird trees in Joshua Tree National Forest, or a clear blue sky anywhere, or Yosemite falls. Once you’re published, then you are not alone with your writing anymore. You’re crowded with people viewing it.
MP: What advice do you have for writers just starting to make this their priority?
MSL: My advice would be to read all the classics. Start with Greek plays like Medea, Oedipus the King, and everything Euripides ever wrote. Of course, read contemporary novelists, too. Poetry is a great tool. It’s precise in its language. That’s a must! Join a writers group. Dress up for your writing. I like to wear an ostrich boa and fancy green shoes to write. I can’t write in sweatpants. They make my prose read like badly written Dear Abby letters.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, will receive a staged reading as part of the Women’s Voices International Theatre Festival in January 2018, and will premiere as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.