Interview with Kathleen J. Woods: “It is always possible to feel utterly consumed by craft.”

Kathleen J. Woods is the author of the pornographic novel White Wedding, published by University of Alabama Press and Fiction Collective Two. 

She earned an M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she served as Managing Editor for Timber Journal. She is an alum of SF Writers Grotto Fellowship, the Tin House Summer Writers Conference, and the Wellstone Center Residency. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Bitch, Western Humanities Review, The Racket, and others.

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Hi Katie! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?

First off, thank you for inviting me to share some of my writing life here with you. I am primarily a fiction writer, and my debut novel, White Wedding, was published by Fiction Collective Two and University of Alabama press last year.

The novel is a slim, intense one, built up of pornographic stories, all nested within the frame narrative of a nameless, erotically-driven woman crashing a wedding. The book also dips into folklore and horror, and the writing was also heavily influenced by queer and feminist theory.

Before the novel, my short stories have largely dealt with the physical/sensory experience, desire, and the unknowable parts of ever-changing ourselves. I’ve also written essays about purity myths and personal experiences with sex.

When I’m not trying to write, I work as a Library Assistant with my local library system. Like many people trying to make a way in the literary world or the arts, I have had a variety of jobs throughout my life—teacher, ghost writer, waitress, etc.–but I’m so grateful I stumbled my way into library work. It’s the perfect marriage of my drive to serve my community and my love for books. 

Can you discuss how your background growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area has influenced your writing?

Well, I do find myself writing about water and the ocean way more than I have expected, or even ever consciously intend! During my M.F.A. program, I toyed with the idea of writing a collection of short stories that set modern takes on Irish folklore in San Francisco.

This resulted in my story “Salt Mother,” about selkies in the Outer Sunset, and my story “Makeshift Son,” which blends changeling folklore with incel web forums inciting violence, set on Pier 39. (Both were published in magazines that are sadly defunct now).

Overall, the Bay Area is a beautiful, rich place with a huge variety of people and lively artistic and literary communities. I’m lucky to have had redwood trees and city grids implanted in my earliest imagination! It seems that I am always drawn to the image of a winding mountain road at night, stretching from the forest to the shore. 

You earned an M.F.A in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado. How do you think your experience here shaped your approach to writing? 

While I definitely don’t think an M.F.A. is necessary to “become a writer,” my personal experience at CU Boulder was everything I was hoping for. I didn’t pursue an M.F.A. because I thought it would guarantee me a book deal or fast-track me to fame or anything like that. I wanted to be challenged to both stretch my writing skills and complete projects on a deadline. I’m often bursting with ideas and driven through passionate outlines, but actually really, really struggle with time management and follow through! But more on that later.

When I applied to MFAs, I was a little surprised when Boulder accepted me, as it has a reputation for being a more experimental program, open to a broad array of genres and styles, and I had, until that point, thought of my writing as more standard literary fiction about “sad people in houses.”

I am so grateful that the faculty at CU (especially, as I learned later, Elisabeth Sheffield) saw my own particular strangeness in my writing and then gave me so many opportunities to experiment and play. Each short story I wrote and workshopped at CU had the chance to take on its own form and genre, and I was encouraged to refine each piece into the best version of itself, not force it into another story molded to one model or market. 

I also experienced one of the most meaningful writing workshops of my life at CU. Jeffrey DeShell, who would become my thesis advisor, prompted us to write two stories inspired by works of non-literary art—one work we chose and one he assigned us based on our style and interest. The assignment was not to, say, turn a figure from a painting into the protagonist of a story, but to closely study the painter’s use of color, texture, brush strokes, etc. and attempt to translate those elements into prose.

We might also attempt to capture the artist’s tone or themes. The process of writing from art made me deeply, viscerally understand how language can be as versatile, dynamic, rich, and surprising as paint, or sculpture, or music, and how the structure of the short story can expand, contract, shatter, and so on to marry form and function. Jeffrey also encouraged the class to remember that, whenever we might feel uninspired or stuck in our creative lives, we can always draw from the deep well of art. 

In this class, I wrote a “triptych” after the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage, who uses dreamy, bold colors to portray disturbing, confrontationally sweet nudes, women at once infantilized and eroticized, gazing back at the viewer. This short story would mark the beginning of my thesis, and then, many years later, my novel.

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White Wedding deals with the topic of pornography, what inspired you to explore this theme in your writing?

As mentioned above, the smutty book was very directly inspired by smutty paintings. But, while my work preceding White Wedding wouldn’t be called pornography, I have always written fairly directly about sex. In fact, in my first ever writing workshop, way back during my freshman year at Emerson College, I wrote a short story that includes an explicit masturbation scene. Years later, I would learn that my classmates gathered to read this section aloud to each other in their dorm rooms! Whoops.

I have long been interested in the relationship between the body and the self and curious about those heightened states of erotic longing and tension and release. What turns each of us on, and why can the body want what the mind or heart recognizes as repulsive, or dangerous, or unwise? And in what ways can physical pleasure provide a temporary transcendent from worry or ailment, or even an escape from some firm borders we might place around a conception of the self? How does that self, in this body, meet and move through the sensory world? 

I was also lucky enough to build a “Transgressive Literature” class with Elisabeth Sheffield and another MFA student. In that class, Elisabeth gave us Susan Sontag’s essay, “The Pornographic Imagination,” which describes pornographic works as those driven by an extreme consciousness, one utterly fixated on the erotic situation.

I was excited by the challenge of writing this extreme consciousness, without too many of my normal actual human person shames and ethical concerns. And while, at times during revision, I never wanted to see the words “mouth” or “finger” again, much of the writing was delirious and fun!

How has being an alum of the SF Writers Grotto Fellowship, the Tin House Summer Writers Conference, and the Wellstone Center Residency impacted your writing process? 

I am so grateful to all of these organizations for giving me a chance to write and learn with them. Basically, they all gave me time and space to workshop and write, as well as connections to the writing community outside my MFA.

I will say the residency, especially, gave me a treasured opportunity to build entire days around writing, falling into a creative rhythm uninterrupted by my job or cats or social life. I learned that my ideal writing day begins with reading, which generally sparks some insight into whatever I’m working on.

Then, after writing for a few hours, I need a break to stretch, or go on a walk, and movement inevitably triggers more ideas. I could eventually be “done for the night” and rest, trusting that I had an abundance of time to pick up the thread of the draft the next day. 

Intense, contained experiences like the full week at Tin House and the residency also reminded me that it is always possible to feel utterly consumed by craft and literature again. There can be time for generative, exciting creative activity! Even my dormant brain can be dusted off! But better to not let it get dusty, and to remember the value of picking up the thread of a draft just a little each day. Basically, to figure out ways to sustain the world of what I’m working on, even if I can only work for twenty minutes and not endless hours every day.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

This is a tough one for me to answer right now! After balancing a hodgepodge of part-time jobs and freelance work for a long time, I have just started an honest-to-goodness forty-hours-in-one-building full-time job at my library. And while I’m adjusting to that rhythm, I have not figured out where my creative work (currently a short story and a novel) fits just yet! 

I generally prefer long, sustained periods of writing, but I don’t think that will be totally compatible with my new working life. I am working to become comfortable and content with even a half an hour every day.

I do find that I generally do my best writing late at night–that my mind really starts working best around 10pm. Most of my novel was written and edited in the 2-4 am hours! I find I am better able to express my inner world when the outer world is dark and quiet.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on developing a consistent and productive writing routine?

Based on my last answer, I worry any attempt at advice would be something of a lie! But I can offer a few habits I’ve adopted as a writer with ADHD and an all-time expert procrastinator and putterer. I know I can find writing time in my work week because I am aware of all the time I waste scrolling online.

So, I have invested in an elaborate series of apps to remove even the temptation of digital distraction. Specifically, I use Forest, an app that prevents you from using your phone for up to three hours while your screen grows an adorable cartoon tree, and Freedom, which allows you to schedule website and app blocking for specific time.

Freedom is especially helpful because if, let’s say, I want to write for an hour before work, I can schedule website blocking before I fall asleep. If I wake up and find myself unable to access the entire internet, I’m much more likely to use my time as I intended and write.

Another piece of advice that I am trying to internalize: trust that there is time. I can get very fixated on how much time I’ve “wasted,” which only leads to panic and hopelessness. And rumination is not how I want to use my time!

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I would love to talk to Toni Morrison. Luckily, I can still read all she’s said about writing, including how, for much of her career, she worked a 9 to 5 job and “had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and pre-dawn time.” Her writing is so forceful, and the consciousnesses of her characters so deeply inhabited, that I would love to ask her how she kept those characters and worlds alive as she moved through her workdays. How did she protect her creative mind?

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I am lucky in that I have an office at home, with a desk and chair and all that fun workspace stuff. However, the truth is you are much more likely to find me writing stretched out on the ratty, worn free craigslist chaise lounge I have tucked in one office corner, under my window and a few pictures of writers I admire similarly reclined. (Morrison included! Alongside Leo Tolstoy and Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim has said dozing was part of his writing process.)

And a layer even more honest: I perhaps most love writing from bed! I love having a notebook or laptop on my lap, with books and notes strewn open all around me, leaving just enough space for my two needy senior cats. I feel I am better able to immerse myself in a fictional world when my body is comfortable and relaxed. And, I love having access to a pile of whatever books I find thrilling or inspiring at the moment. Big desks are great, but the full surface of a mattress? The best.

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