We interviewed Janet Yoder in March & April 2014
R&R: You write in three forms: essays, creative non-fiction, and short stories.
What is the difference between “essay” and “creative non-fiction?”
Is a short story different from “creative non-fiction?”
JY: To me, essays and creative nonfiction are essentially the same. Some publications use one term and some the other. I divide my essays into two categories: 1) personal essays inspired by my 30-year friendship with Skagit tribal teacher Vi Hilbert and 2) all other essays. My short stories are definitely fiction. I wrote a novel set in Indian Country but tucked it away in a drawer and I sometimes work on a new novel set in eastern Washington in between work on essays and short fiction.
R&R: What are the techniques of fiction that you use in essay and creative nonfiction—if any?
JY: I try to develop any real person I write about as I would a fictional character, trying to understand what makes that person tick. Lately I am concentrating on the idea of place in both essay and fiction. Looking at geology, mythology, plants, animals, weather, and the cultures of a place.
R&R: When do you decide on the form? Do you start writing and watch the words morph into something? Or do you know the form before you start writing?
JY: I wish I decided on a form before I started writing. That would be so logical and efficient. In fact I usually write a huge amount before I arrive at a form. While studying with Priscilla Long, I examined forms that other writers utilize and then considered whether I have any material that might work with that form. For example, we studied “Son of Mister Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged” by Dinty Moore. That superb essay uses the abecedarian or ABC form. At the time I thought the abecedarian was interesting but not a form I would ever use. Now I have written three essays in abecedarian form, one about the accumulation of stuff, one about espresso, and one about the Post-It Note. Other forms I have used are two-part or three-part braid, collage, frame, numbered theme, and classification (I used the parts of dinner). While writing the “Healing Heart Symphony” about Vi Hilbert commissioning a symphony based on two traditional tribal songs, the form of the essay became the form of the symphony, each part named for its movement: 1) Prepare, 2) Thunder Spirit Power Song, 3) Healing Song, and 4) The Journey Forward. When I arrive at a form that meshes with my material, it is a Hallelujah moment.
R&R: Tell us how you begin an essay. In other words—how do you get hold of the topic or the idea and how do you run with it?
JY: My essays inspired by Vi Hilbert begin with a topic, usually one of the topics that came up in our interviews, like baskets, blankets, traditional names, canoes, the bone game, salmon, and ritual burnings. I review the transcript of our interview on that topic, do research, and start writing lots. All at the same time. Then, I begin seeking a form that will match the material. Getting hold of a topic for other works is a more meandering process. I happen into something in writing practice that might or might not lead to a piece. I play around with it and see where it goes. Even when it just goes into a file, it is not time wasted. I may go back to it.
R&R: You are a disciplined writer. We really want to know how you developed your discipline.
JY: I am disciplined when taking a writing class and when working on what I consider to be my “assignments” from Vi Hilbert. At other times, the discipline dwindles and I wander under a cloud. Then I remind myself of you two disciplined writers who show up at the table ready to go, and I get myself up and head to writing practice at Louisa’s or with my Sunday Ink group, or I just sit down, set the timer, and keep the pen moving. Something will break through.
I used to play clarinet in a woodwind quintet and in a polka band. I also used to play hand percussion in a Brazilian folkloric group. For me, the discipline that music requires carries over to writing. I know how much practice goes into learning to play any instrument decently. So I get that writing requires just as much of us. I also get that writing the same material over and over will yield something different each time. Repetition is not really repetition. It is exploring and deepening.
R&R: Has your dedication to the discipline changed over time?
JY: As I age, I now consider what work I have left to do. That adds a layer of discipline.
R&R: You’ve worked with Natalie Goldberg in Taos. How has her timed writing practice influenced your writing?
JY: I studied with Natalie Goldberg twice in Taos. The first time (with Robert Ray) I was fairly new to writing practice. I was nervous about being there, nervous about writing with people I didn’t know, nervous about reading aloud, nervous about my boring writing. Summer heat was on and I was assigned the solarium, a greenhouse room that sat atop the Mabel Dodge Lujan House. The room baked during the day and held its heat for hours into the night. The lights of Taos and the moon and stars lit the room. I spent seven nights in that room but probably slept fewer than 20 hours the whole week. The room made me feel exposed, writing made me feel exposed, even meditation made me feel exposed. And the heat made me prickly. I wrote with a small group before breakfast in Kit Carson Park (with Robert Ray), then gathered with Natalie after breakfast to meditate and write. More small group writing after lunch, then large group meditating and writing with Natalie, then small group writing after dinner. Then up to my glass oven to bake. Then do it all again on Day 2 and again on Day 3. Somewhere between Days 3 and 4, things shifted. I was too cracked open and exhausted by then to bother worrying about whether my writing was good or whether I had wasted my money to be there. I dropped to a deeper level with writing practice (and probably meditation too). My writing got looser, loopier, unlocked. I noticed how deeply I breathed while meditating and also while writing, noticed how fast my pen moved across the page. All I could do was grab hold of writing practice and see where it took me. I was hooked.
I went back a number of years later to study with Natalie again. Her idea this time was not to take writing practice to infinity but to find a channel for our writing practice to flow through. The group was smaller. Natalie seemed smaller, as if her practice had distilled her down to essence. Natalie invited us to bring in copies of something we had written before the workshop. Each writer read the piece aloud and Natalie used her samurai mind to cut to the heart of the piece or expose the missing heart. She took over-the-top, baroque writing and she cut it the way you would cut a diamond out of rough. I loved the cleanly-cut work, loved seeing where the writing practice would go for each writer after the samurai session. For me, writing practice is where everything is born. Thank you, Natalie.
R&R: What are the drawbacks to timed writing? Are there any?
JY: I don’t know any drawbacks to writing practice, except that it may be addictive.
R&R: Do you write longhand and then edit on the computer? Tell us something about your writing process. Do you edit more than once? Are you ever surprised by what comes out of the writing?
JY: I always write longhand with a Pilot Precise rolling ball pen (warning: these pens leak on flights) on a Bienfang notebook. I read aloud if I’m with a group and sometimes even on my own. I input into my computer—often this comes much later—then print it, and put it into a file. When a file thickens, then I research the material and begin looking for a form, a shape for the piece. I work on it, print it, read it aloud, work on it more, read it aloud, edit, read, edit, read, (and so forth) until it’s done. Surprising myself by what comes out of the writing is a pleasure.
R&R: You work with a group of writers—the Sunday Ink writers. What goes on there? Is it writing practice only? Is there critique? Do you need outside feedback on your work? How do you handle critique in a group?
JY: The Sunday Ink group does writing practice and because we know each other so well, there is a comfort that allows the writing to go deep. Though we are not a critique group, we sometimes offer a comment or note a connection between the material and a possible form. I do need outside feedback and have gotten that through studying with Priscilla Long. Now that she has decided to teach less, I will need to find another way to receive feedback. I handle critique by just listening. It feels akin to a spiritual practice where I am receiving a gift, something to meditate on over time. I won’t know until later the value of this gift.
R&R: One of your essays, “Sensing Radiation” was a Pushcart Nominee. How do you handle success?
JY: My success is pretty limited so it’s not too hard to handle. I love reading aloud so I never say no to an opportunity to read. However, I am not good at marketing and am only now forcing myself to create a web site.
R&R: Jack’s granddaughter told him he was kinda crazy. (She was referring to the way his writing brain works.) Are you kinda crazy?
JY: Well, Jack definitely has that kinda crazy mind that cooks up stories from intense, spicy ingredients that play off each other in unexpected ways. The closest I get to kinda crazy is when my writing practice takes a sharp turn in a direction I never anticipated. All I can do is hold on for the ride.
R&R: Tell us about your relationship with Vi Hilbert. Who is Vi Hilbert and why is she important to you as a writer?
JY: In the fall of 1978, I walked into a classroom on the second floor of Denny Hall and met Vi Hilbert, member of the Upper Skagit Tribe. Vi was teaching her language—Lushootseed—at the University of Washington. Lushootseed is the language of Puget Sound. Lushootseed is the language Chief Seattle spoke here 150 years ago. Lushootseed is the language his ancestors spoke here for hundreds of years. Though people have spoken Lushootseed longer than people have spoken English, Lushootseed nearly died and was saved largely by the work of Vi Hilbert.
Vi’s wake-up call came when linguist Thom Hess asked for her help. He was working with an elder named Louise George who told him Vi might remember Lushootseed because her folks spoke it. Vi told Thom she did not remember it, but he asked her to come to his work session anyway. Vi came, heard the old recordings of her ancestors, and found she did indeed remember Lushootseed. She spent the rest of her life researching, preserving, teaching, and sharing the Lushootseed language, stories, and culture. So Vi found her right work, work that came to her like a gift.
My wake-up call came when I met this extraordinary woman who taught me how to live in this place where the words and culture of the First People are always present. With Vi I witnessed the winter spirit dance in the longhouse and ritual burnings for the departed. With Vi I traveled to the story places, where North Wind battled South Wind to determine how our weather would be and to where the sisters climbed down a cedar bough ladder from the Sky World to a place in the Snoqualmie Valley. With Vi I stood at Shilshole in 1989 to watch 11 cedar dugout canoes come ashore to complete the first modern canoe journey.
I interviewed Vi on various topics, transcribed recordings of those interviews, and began considering essays. I have written ten essays inspired by my friendship with Vi. I want to write a few more and then pull them together into a collection. Though Vi is gone now, this work is my assignment from her; it is also a gift.
R&R: Do you have a style? What are some of the techniques you practiced to develop that style?
JY: I learned craft techniques through years of studying with master writer and writing teacher Priscilla Long. She wrote The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, the most useful book on writing that I have come across. I turn to it often when I am at the point of revision and want to make the writing sing. Specific techniques I use are working lexicon before writing, varying sentence lengths, choosing very short sentences, fragments, list sentences, long sentences with a repeated pattern, matching language to meaning, working sound, metaphor, simile.
R&R: What do you want from the writing? What do you get from it?
JY: Not fame and fortune! I write because I want to delve into something I don’t yet know or don’t yet understand. I form a question and then write—and research—my way toward an answer to the question, even if that answer brings another question. For example, I might ask the question: What is the significance of canoes in the culture of the first people of Puget Sound? Then I spend time paddling around that material, reviewing my interview with Vi about canoes. By writing, I gain a deeper sense of canoes in the past, canoes in the present, canoes traveling into the future, the metaphor of canoes. At the end of it all, I add to my picture of who Vi Hilbert was and to understanding why she chose to share her culture with the world. I also write on other topics. But always an underlying question drives the writing.
R&R: How long have you been writing? How has writing changed your life?
JY: A long time. Maybe 25 years. What I get from writing is that rush of adrenaline that comes from writing practice, from exploring the recesses of my mind, the world at large, or a world I am making up. Then there is the satisfaction of pulling a piece together. When I am in a slump, I slog through writing practice until something sparks. That spark will draw me to the next write where the spark may ignite. Writing gives me a way to know my world, to know my mind. And it gives me the loveliest friends.
R&R: Are you a self-starter? What do you need to get started?
JY: Sometimes I am a self-starter, when a project is especially close to my heart. Other times I need to push myself. Luckily, I live in Seattle and can just roll down the street to Louisa’s on a Tuesday or Friday afternoon. Or I can take a class at Hugo House. Or attend a reading that might crack open the world. Seattle is a stimulating place for writers.
R&R: How do you know when a piece is finished?
JY: It is always hard to know when a piece of writing is finished, especially since I am not currently taking a class and am not in a critique group. When a piece is getting close, I read it aloud and listen for stumbles or for anything that feels off. Then I tweak the piece and read it again. If—after many rounds of tweaking and reading—the work flows and if it says what I want to say, then I will pronounce it finished.
R&R: You have a treasure-trove of published work. When you start a piece are you thinking about a market, a target publication? What’s the process of getting into print? Do you target editors before you write? As you are writing? When you are done? (Janet’s modesty is impressive, but her list of publications is more so. See below for her work.)
JY: When I start a piece, I have no idea if I will finish it, much less submit it for publication. I am never thinking of a market or an editor. Doing so would stop me cold. I have trained myself to finish a piece, let it sit a while, and then take that next step of submitting the work. When I was a baby writer, I never submitted work at all. At some point, I knew that I needed to push something out the door. Before the days of Duotrope (duotrope.com), I used The Writer’s Market, a doorstop of a book that listed and described publications. Slowly I began to submit. Duotrope has made all that easier. Plus writer friends share publications they are submitting to or accepted by. Over time, I have developed a list that matches up with my work. But editors move on and publications change. Then it’s back to Duotrope or New Pages (newpages.com) to see what’s out there. Now with on-line submissions, it’s easy (relatively) and affordable to submit to 15 or 20 publications at once. Of course the rejections can come back fast, like in less than 24 hours. Rejections are part of submitting and I have done my best to get used to them. Eventually an acceptance comes.
Having work out in the world is important for me. It helps me turn once again to a new page in the notebook, pick up the pen and say, “Today I’m writing about. . .”
Essays and Creative Nonfiction
“Singing Up the Ladder” Assisi.
“The Posterity Tapes” Apalachee Review, Vol. 63 (2013), p. 16
“Do This for Your Friend” Phoebe, Issue 42 (Spring, 2013) p. 89-91
“Ten Things I Learned from Vi Hilbert” Writer’s Workshop Review, www.thewritersworkshopreview.net, Issue 7 (Fall 2012)
“Dinner Platter” apt: Aforementioned Productions http://apt.aforementionedproductions.com (March 19, 2012)
“Getting to Misha” Forge, www.forgejournal.com, Vol. 5, Issue 4 (Spring 2012), p. 258-269 and Soundings East, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Fall 2012), p. 49-57
“Carrying a Name” Ellipsis… Literature & Art, Vol. 48 (2012) p. 62-67
“Stuff: An Alphabetical Account of Accumulation” The Texas Review, Vol. 32, No. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2011), p. 94-106
“I Give You My Heart” Tusculum Review, Vol. 7 (2011) p. 224-230
“Coffee is a Blessing: An Alphabet of Espresso” Passages North, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2011) p.132-139
“Healing Heart Symphony” Sunday Ink (Tasseomancy Press, 2010), p. 123-132
“The Post-It Note” American Literary Review Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2009), p. 91-97
“Eight Days with Dave” Chautauqua Literary Journal, Issue 6 (2009) p. 142-160
“Bridge Club” Signs of Life (2009), p. 18
“Janet’s Story” Dancing with Migraine: Women’s Stories, Johnsen Press, 2009, p. 10-12
“Sensing Radiation” River Teeth, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 2008), p. 77-82 and Phantasmagoria, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2008), p.37-44
“Burning at Nooksak” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4 (2007), p. 594-602
“Basket Song” The Evansville Review, Vol. XVI, (2006), p. 98-103 and Porcupine Vol. 10, Issue 1 (2006), p.128-136
“Vi’s Lucid Years” North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 2005), p. 133-145 and Palo Alto Review, Vol. XV, No. 2 (Fall 2006) p. 3-12
“Where the Language Lives” Left Curve, No. 29 (2005) p. 137-138
“Vi Hilbert (1918-2008)” HistoryLink.org, http://www.historylink.org, Essay 7130 (2004)
“George Rufus Yoder,” Enchanted Companions: Stories of Dolls in Our Lives, ed. Carolyn Michael. (Andrews McMeel, 2003) p. 31-40.
“River Talk with Vi Hilbert,” The Raven Chronicles, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Summer/Fall 1992), p. 7
“Confessions of a Java Junkie,” PCC Sound Consumer, Seattle, WA, (1991), p. 11
“The Art is in the Mail,” The Seattle Times, June 28, 1990
“The Helmet” Sunday Ink, Tasseomancy Press (2010), p. 98-105
“Judgment of Insects” The Baltimore Review, Vol. XII, No. 1 (Winter/Spring 2008), p. 16-17
“Made of Clay” Passager, Issue 43 (Winter 2007) p. 56-64
“Earth is our First Teacher” Rio Grande Review, Vol. 28 (Fall 2006), p. 60-61, The Binnacle (Fall 2006), p. 71-74, and The Griffon (2008) p. 77-78
“Four Hands” Crucible, Vol. 42 (Fall 2006), p. 27-37
“Muse” The MacGuffin, Vol. XXII, No. 2 (2006), p. 90-94
“Junie May’s Rapture” Pilgrimage, Vol. 30, Issue 3 (2005), p. 63-74
“The Disorder,” StringTown, Issue 7 (2004), p. 67-71, Bayou, Issue 43 (2004), p. 66-71 and Sunday Ink (Tasseomancy Press, 2010), p. 55-65
AWARDS AND RESIDENCY
2006 Crucible Literary Contest, First Prize for Fiction for the story “Four Hands”
2008 Pushcart Prize Nomination for essay “Sensing Radiation”
Residency: Hedgebrook, 1993