In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Morgan Grayce Willow
Tell us about your CNF piece “(Un)document(ing)” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
I had been trying to come to terms with my own complicity in the theft of land from Native peoples. Each time I tried writing about it, I discovered that the notion of land ownership was embedded in ever-deeper layers of my emotional life and psyche. Meanwhile, some years ago I had done a fair bit of genealogical research, gathering documents – print documents, copies, etc. before the ubiquity of the internet, before Ancestry.com and so on – about my ancestors. In graduate school, I’d taken a class in the American 1890’s in which one of our assignments was to research how our own families – and, hence, ourselves – fit into the Zeitgeist of the period. So my task was to make some sense of the documents I’d gathered – land deeds, bills of sale, maps, etc. I later supplemented all that with internet sources, including, for example, Google Maps which gave me a current view of the farm I grew up on.
This thread converged with the current ethos of crisis about immigration, what immigration means to me personally and to us as a nation. So many are descended from immigrants, and survival has come at the expense of Indigenous peoples, who had been forced to migrate. It all felt so complicated, muddled, and painful. Writing the essay – finding a form to contain the layers – was an attempt to make sense of all this for myself. I set out to assay, or interrogate, the documents. What does it mean to be documented? What are documents? Which ones count and which ones don’t? Who gets to decide? etc. It was a way to name how my own personal narrative intersects with – and is partially culpable for – the historical narrative as represented in documents.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I didn’t really know that being a writer was something a person could do. Growing up on a small family farm, I didn’t have any role models for a writing life. Farm life is all about work. I do remember, however, falling in love with language. We had very few books in the house, but we did have a big, fat, black-covered dictionary. I recall pretending to read it before I actually knew how. I’d sit with it on my lap – my feet sticking straight out on the couch – and open its pages. At first, I often had the book upside down, but that didn’t stop me from running my fingers along the columns and saying words as though they were the words I was looking at. Fortunately, that dictionary – desk size, but it felt like an unabridged to me – did have lovely engraved illustrations. Once I figured out the pictures, I got the orientation of the book right. Eventually, as I learned the letters of the alphabet, I realized that the book followed that same order. Each “chapter” had a letter for its title. The order and accumulation of the words fascinated me. That early love of language, and subsequently reading, laid the foundation, I think, for becoming a writer. I still love an actual, physical dictionary, though my Merriam-Webster app is one of the most-used apps on my cell phone.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
You’ve used the word practice, which tempts me to mention Tai Chi. I’ve practiced Tai Chi for more than a quarter of a century. I consider it one of the great gifts of my younger self to my current self that I started to practice and have kept it up, albeit in varying degrees and configurations over the years. Doing so, of course, helps with health and sanity, but it also supports my creative process by allowing me to think of writing as a practice, to focus on doing as much, if not more, than on product. If I focus too much on the product, I risk falling prey to perfectionism, which can very quickly stymie my writing.
I have also in the last several years become involved with book arts through workshops and classes at Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA). I completed their core certificate, which meant taking a balanced series of courses in bookmaking, printing, and paper making. The book arts gets me out of my head and literally onto the page – the made, printed, folded, stitched, or collaged page. They let me get my hands dirty and ground me in tactile experience. They nurture creativity in nonverbal ways, and sometimes they present opportunities to put some of my own text out into the world through a physical process.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Form, I suppose, challenges me the most – finding the form that best suits the particular message or moment that needs expression. Sometimes I experiment with form, and the form leads me to language for expressing things I didn’t know I needed to say. Other times, I have something in mind or gut that needs saying, and I have to try out whether it’s best said as a poem or an essay. And once I’ve found the genre that seems to be the right container, then the choices narrow – or broaden – to language, shape and sound . . . not in any particular order. It’s a recursive process of trying this and listening to that, and so on.
As to my quirks as a writer, my writing group can probably identify those better than I can, although one of them may be how I use journals and notebooks in my process. I’d be lost without them.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I often wish I were more organized; however, my creative process is anything but. I admire writers and artists who work with intense focus on a single project at a time. But for me, images, ideas, phrases or titles come at me like the weather – unpredictable and getting wilder all the time. I keep track of the floods of them in my journals and notebooks – lists, notes, indexes, etc. Then during dry spells, I have a storehouse to dip into. I do some writing in the mornings, often in those journals. And I really enjoy sneaking away to my studio, which is separate from my house. It’s mostly quiet there – or at least the sounds are different from home sounds. And there’s no laundry to do there. Plus, I can make a mess – say, with a collage or visual journal – and leave it in process without having to move it off the dining room table.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I have a couple poetry manuscripts – a collection and a chapbook – out searching for a home. While they’re circulating, I’m turning my attention again to the essay form. A number of subjects keep tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me they’re waiting in the wings. They’ve lost patience, so I think I’d better get to them before they decide to wander off. I like the adventure of following an inquiry, exploring it from different angles, finding the right shape and language for it. It’s also a marvelous moment when, after having been working on poems, I get to stretch out across the page and live in that different rhythm that prose makes. I’m looking forward to that.
Morgan Grayce Willow is the author of three collections of poems, most recently Dodge & Scramble. She has received awards in both poetry and creative nonfiction from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Foundation. Her essay “Riding Shotgun for Stanley Home Products” is the title piece in Riding Shotgun: Women Write about Their Mothers. Morgan’s essay “Signs of the Time” earned honorable mention in the inaugural Judith Kitchen Prize in Water~Stone Review in 2011.