What is your most recent writing project, or what is a piece you’ve had published recently?
My first book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, (Hawthorne Books) released on March 1, 2018.
What’s your favorite thing someone else has said about your writing?
Everything about writing a book is hard, but getting book blurbs was, for me, particularly fraught. When it came time to ask authors I admired and had learned from, my imposter syndrome kicked in. Like, who am I to ask for their time and attention, let alone their support? But you have to proceed. I was honored to get wonderful, perceptive blurbs, and it turned out that these were also some of the first outsiders (people beyond my inner circle) who saw my book. So their responses to it were hugely validating. In particular, a writer I have been in awe of for a long time, Abigail Thomas, said, “The delicate architecture of this book is stunning, and the originality of Ms. Singer’s voice and mind is as exciting as anything I’ve read in years.” Abigail’s memoir Safekeeping was literally by my side the entire time I worked on my book. Her formal tactics—telescoping point of view, breaking traditional prose rules, flip-flopping tenses, fragmented language that glints with awareness—have enabled me to push boundaries in my own work.
Who is one other writer you’re excited about right now?
I can tell you a writer whose work I am most anticipating now (and always am): poet and essayist Lia Purpura. When I first read two of Lia’s essay collections—On Looking (2006) and Rough Likeness (2012), I felt the ground shift under me. Lia shows with her craft what is possible with the form. Her short, poetic vignettes thrum like self-contained worlds unto themselves. You read a Lia essay and time decelerates; it’s the literary version of a meditation. I haven’t ever met Lia but I’m kind of like a shameless teenage fangirl. She has a new essay collection, All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books), coming out in early 2019, and I can’t wait for it.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten? What’s the best?
Worst: Never start a sentence with ‘and.’ Never write fragments. Never use clichés (I feel like you get a once-every-five-years cliché allotment, but you’d better know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it). Best: My friend Theo Nestor, a writing teacher and author of the memoir-and-how-to book Writing Is My Drink, once talked to a writing class I took about special clubs. She said that we’re all members of certain special clubs—we all have inside knowledge of certain worlds, spaces, groups, and experiences. She told us, they’re all important—write about those. At the time, this gave me the confidence that I did in fact have the authority to write about some things.
Do you have a dedicated work space? Do you write in your home or do you prefer to write elsewhere? Can you write while traveling?
I can write anywhere—this is a mother skill developed out of necessity—but as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten harder to get focus unless I’m in the right space (or maybe this is just procrastination!). I just recently created an office, which is really a third of a guest room and which I’m calling my writing cabin—that feels aspirational and Pinterest-y to me, which is strangely and sort of embarrassingly exciting. I painted the corner a foresty teal, put my desk in front of a window, and filled the space with items that are important to me and books that I feel I am in an ongoing conversation with. Before that, for the past eight years or so, I wrote everywhere—coffee shops, soccer practices, my bed, the car, the bathtub. When I finally made the writing cabin, I kept wandering into the space repeating the words, “I can’t believe I didn’t do this before,” over and over again. The cabin definitely makes me want to write.
I also find I’m very productive when I travel to write. A few times a year I do a writing retreat—either a getaway with writer friends or a writing conference out of town. The act of carving out a block of days just for writing really energizes me and is very freeing.
What are some of your writing habits? (Do you write at a particular time? Do you write every day?, etc.)
I’m not going to answer this because I feel like I should have a much more respectable, structured set of habits and, well. . .
When you are sitting down to write, what is the first thing you do?
Reread work in progress.
How do you pay the bills/financially support yourself?
I currently work as a managing editor for a corporate client; before that I was the managing editor of a magazine. On the upside, I have financial security and get to use some of my creative skills and journalism background in interesting ways. On the downside, it’s tricky to splice time and mental energy and to make sure I continue to push my art forward.
When in your life have you felt your work/life balance to be most in sync? When in your life have you felt the most out of sync?
Ironically, I feel the most “balanced”—which for me means stimulated and engaged, but not necessarily at ease—when I am juggling the most. I entered an MFA program late, at 37. I went to night classes, worked on a thesis, parented my two young daughters, and worked full time at my day job. I was exhausted, but, creatively, it was one of the most fruitful periods of my life and I felt incredibly alert to the possibilities around my own art. I am still coasting off that energy.
What are the most pressing demands for your time, energy, labor (including emotional labor)? What has worked best for you in terms of balancing those demands with writing?
My need to write and my commitment to my family are in constant tension. It’s not a negative tension, though it can sometimes cause frustration. For me, the more something becomes difficult to reach, the more I want it. And so when the demands of mothering cut into the space I want for writing, instead of allowing that tension to prevent me from creating, I try to use it to feed my work. Aside from my crazy MFA years, the other most productive period for me creatively was immediately after I gave birth, especially to my first daughter. Time for myself became the rarest currency, and so I learned to hustle for it like I had never hustled before. I wrote poems while my daughters breastfed endlessly; I plotted out stories at 3 a.m. when my hyper-aware mother clock wouldn’t allow me to sleep; later, I scribbled a sentence or two as a toddler struggled to pull on a rain boot. Time opened up in cracks, and I filled them. With motherhood, writer’s block evaporated—it’s a luxury I don’t have. Still, sometimes my own creative work loses out. Even now as I try to answer these questions with intelligent-seeming answers, there’s a 12-year-old repeatedly asking if I will watch her PowerPoint presentation on the güiña cat.
What are the ideal conditions for your creativity?
Not being asked to watch presentations on the güiña cat.
Do you have any writing rituals? Or any non-writing rituals that feed your writing life?
I’m not sure if it’s a ritual, but I’m a perpetual notetaker. I don’t journal, because I tend to recoil from rules and regulations, and the imperative to fill out your journal every day scares me. But I take a lot of notes, about questions that bother me, about obsessions that haunt me, about things I read and ideas I have for essays or stories.
What self-care practices do you have and what, if any, routines do you have surrounding them? How does self-care relate to your writing life?
I’m trying to become better about self-care now that I’m out of the fog of mothering very young children—there were years when I virtually ignored myself (mothers will understand this). I have a hard time clearing my mind, but I go to yoga and try to just be still a few times a week. Intellectually I know this is important for my health and because it brings new ideas into my awareness; emotionally, it’s hard because being alone with myself makes me feel lonely. My new commitment is to use nice face oil and try to get regular facials. How does that help my writing? I don’t know, but it seems important.
Natalie Singer is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, March 2018). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Proximity, Literary Mama, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, ParentMap, Alligator Juniper, Brain, Child and Full Grown People. She has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and Seattle’s juvenile detention center, and she has worked as a reporter at newspapers around the West. Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Seattle.
For more info: https://nataliesingerwrites.com/