Behind the Words: Alice Lowe

Posted by on Mar 27, 2019 in ABC's of Writing (for Beginners) | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Alice Lowe

Alice Lowe smiling, facing camera, greenery in background, red hair, gold earrings

Alice Lowe appeared in the fourth issue of Spry Literary Journal. She reads and writes about food and family, Virginia Woolf, and life. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including Upstreet, Hippocampus, Switchback, Prime Number, Phoebe, and Hobart. She was the 2013 national award winner at City Works Journal and winner of a 2011 essay contest at Writing It Real. A monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction” was published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs here.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing talented writer Alice Lowe.  I admire her essays, love her writing style, and am grateful for the new connection. Thanks Spry! Alice and I are both nonfiction writers but it turns out we have more than that in common. We both love maps–real maps that unfold, we both love to read cookbooks cover to cover, and we both play piano. We have also been published in some of the same literary journals!  Getting to know Alice has been wonderful and I hope her words inspire you too.

Sheila Luna: Tell me a little bit of your background.

I went to work right out of high school, then figured out in my thirties that it wasn’t too late to see what I’d missed. I wanted to get an education, to get out of clerical work and into something more fulfilling, but mostly to re-invent myself. I juggled part-time work and single motherhood with full-time studies at San Diego State University, earning a BA in Sociology and a Master’s in Public Health. I worked at Planned Parenthood for several years and then in nonprofit training and consulting—for 25 years and retired in 2007. My background doesn’t at first seem to have much connection with writing, but I find the sociological perspective to be valuable as a tool with which to delve into memories, examine the people and events in my life as they’re connected to the world at large.

What was the impetus for you to begin writing seriously?  What inspired you then and what inspires you now? 

I wrote for school and community newspapers in high school and wanted to be a journalist. Let’s just say life intervened. My writing was limited to business correspondence, then grant and contract proposals, promotional materials. I made occasional stabs at creative writing over the years, but I wasn’t able to bring enough energy or enthusiasm to it while working full. Retirement changed everything. All the things I wanted to do were spread out before me like unwrapped packages under the tree—all I had to do was reach out and grab one after another. I had a wish list with three priorities: walk the Breast Cancer 3-Day—I did it twice; become a supernumerary (an extra) in the opera—check; write and present a paper at the Virginia Woolf Conference—check.

I lived in England for six months in 1990. A Writer’s Diary was on the shelf of the house where I stayed, and that was the start of my interest, a passion really, in the life and work of Virginia Woolf—28 years now and counting. The conference paper was my breakthrough. It doesn’t get much more real than presenting your first effort to a roomful of Woolf authorities, most of them academics. It went well, and I found that I loved the planning and research as well as the writing. I’d found my niche.

What is your writing process?  Do you write every day?  Do you work on several projects at once or one at a time?  Are you a slow writer, editing as you go, or do you free write quickly and then go back and edit?

I spend a good part of each morning at my writing—which includes research, editing and revising, examining literary journals and submitting work, staring into space and thinking about ideas as well as the actual pencil to paper or fingers on keys. It’s all part of writing. I like to have a few projects at various stages so I can switch gears when I’m stuck, revise when I need a break from writing. Once I’ve done my research and have lots of notes I write fairly quickly, but I edit as I go, every draft, from start to finish.

Do you belong to a writing group and share writing/editing or are you a solo writer?

The best of both worlds—I’m a solo writer, but I have two close writer friends, one nearby and the other across the country, with whom to share work and exchange feedback. I was in a writing group for a while, but it wasn’t meeting my needs. Maybe I want too much—comfort and trust, reciprocity, structure, stimulation, critical feedback, etc., etc. I don’t know if all that can exist together, but I’m happy with the present arrangement.

What advice would you give those new to the craft?  What lessons have you learned along the way?

I’m informally mentoring a young woman. The main thing I tell her is not to be too hard on herself if she’s not writing as much or as often she’d like, not getting fantastic results right away (she has 3 children under the age of 5—jeez!). And to read the kind of things she’d like to be writing. The main thing I learned over the years was to trust myself, to listen to that gut feeling that says something is right or not right, to not compromise my own voice. Critical feedback is great, but ultimately you have to be true to yourself.

As a “late bloomer”—my first essay was published when I was 67—I felt that older writers have distinct challenges starting out. I wrote a piece on “How to Become a Writer After Sixty.” The first of ten steps is to quit your full-time job!

Your essay, Fascinating Rhythm: In Praise of Punctuation, (Spry Literary Journal, May 2014) has shed light on the semicolon!  What is some advice for writers who are trying to decide between a comma, semi colon, or period? A few of my writing teachers have deleted and/or questioned my use of semi colons. “Either use a period or a comma,”  they say.  How would you defend your own use of semicolons someone who might not like your chosen punctuation? Why is the semi colon scorned by some famous authors – Gertrude Stein and George Orwell to name two?

I’m a fanatic about punctuation and a stickler for the rules. But there’s room for creativity; that’s why they call it creative writing! Just there I could have used a period or a dash, reworded it with a comma. All would be grammatically correct. I think and speak in semicolons—also dashes and ellipses—rather than crisp, tidy sentences. If you listen carefully, you can hear people’s punctuation in their inflections and timing. I often hear semicolons when someone pauses without coming to a full stop between clauses, ellipses when they stop midstream….

I doubt that Gertrude Stein and George Orwell were as vociferous as they claimed. Stein is known for being playful with language, so why not creative punctuation? A few years ago I challenged myself to write a one-sentence essay—lots of commas and dashes and semicolons. I chose a topic that fit the form—it was about my “hummingbird metabolism.” I just did another one, a stream of consciousness about baseball. Both have been published, broken into two sentences for effect. Both are flash pieces, as I think it’s dicey to stretch it out too long, though Michael Chabon—or is it Jonathan Franzen?—has one that goes on for a full chapter, page after page, in one of his novels.

Do you read your first drafts aloud to decide on the placement of punctuation or is that a visual decision in the first draft?

I read my work aloud but not as early as the first draft. That’s where I’m getting my thoughts down, seeing what I have to say; it’s not about how it sounds. After I’ve worked on it more and feel it’s close to completion I read it aloud for overall flow, rhythm, and emphasis, which includes the sound of words and phrases, the placement of punctuation.

You studied piano as a young girl, and loved to play. Do you find that writing gives you the same type of empowerment and inspiration?

Part of the reason I gave up the piano in my teens is that I didn’t find it either empowering or inspiring. I was a competent and dutiful piano student—I followed instructions and played all the notes—but my sense of accomplishment was like that of acing a spelling test. Playing the piano meant strictly adhering to the composer’s keys and notes, stresses and dynamics—if Chopin wanted a passage played softly, I played it softly. There was no room for me. I didn’t bring much emotion or creativity to it or get much fulfillment from it. That satisfaction is what I’ve found in writing.

What book should every creative writer have on the shelf, either for inspiration or reference or both?

Whatever works! The resources that teach and inspire us change as we change and grow as writers and as people. A lot of new writers embrace Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, their efforts validated by her permission to write “shitty first drafts.” My tried-and-true reference is The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long. Her discussions and guides to structure alone make it worthwhile, but it’s outstanding throughout and appropriate for writers at any stage. I should mention that Priscilla is a personal friend and mentor—lucky me.

For inspiration, I reread Virginia Woolf’s Writer’s Diary every year or so and always come away stirred by her extraordinary way with language, her approach to and discipline with her writing, her admissions of self-doubt. I don’t want to write like Virginia Woolf (not that I could); I read it to get into her writing mind. I find something new in it every time, a passage that speaks to where I am and what I need at the time.

What is your favorite time of day to write?

I’m a morning person, so I usually reserve a block of time after my morning workout. Afternoons are for reading, errands, and puttering. I also like to review my work—printed out drafts, not online—away from my desk, on the couch or outside, in the afternoon; I can read it with fresh eyes that way.

What genre do you enjoy writing and reading the most?  Why?

I write nonfiction, personal essays, or what are sometimes called “familiar” essays—critical essays on a chosen topic with personal experience and/or reflection stirred in. I’m never bored as my topics are wide-ranging. I’ve made a couple of weak stabs at fiction, but I don’t get very far—it’s not what I want to write, and there’s no shortage of ideas and material without having to make anything up. But I love to read fiction—novels and stories, from classics to contemporary—for pleasure and escape, and to learn, as much but in different ways from nonfiction, about history and human nature. I read essays and memoir for the same reasons, as well as to stimulate my own work. I like writing that soars, whether fiction or nonfiction, whether crisp and concise or luxurious and flowing.

What have you published?

I’ve had amazing and gratifying success since my late start eight years ago. More than seventy essays have been published in literary journals small and large, print and online. This year’s, so far, have been about science, maps, the word “quirky”, driving, running, and baseball. And a craft piece in the Spry ABCs about flash writing in the second person! I’ve written a number of essays about food—it’s the best trigger for memory I can think of and great fun. Lately I’ve explored various aspects of aging, weaving science, sociology, and literature into my own experience.

Literary references appear in many of my essays, and they’re likely to include Virginia Woolf. I’m steeped in her work and find it so rich, her observations so sharp and her use of language so captivating that there’s always some connection I can’t resist making in whatever I’m writing about: family, food, aging, even baseball. I have a trio of essays that focus on my personal Woolf pilgrimage, frequent travels and experiences in England following her footsteps, absorbing her milieu. I’m active in the International Virginia Woolf Society and have written essays and review about her life and work for society conferences and publications, plus two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Cecil is Woolf’s nephew through marriage, and at 91 may be the only person still alive who knew her personally.

What are you currently working on?

I have an essay in progress about clothes, and ideas I’m exploring, notes I’m accumulating, about baking, boycotts, and the French writer Annie Ernaux. I’ll continue to write essays until I run out of material, which isn’t likely to happen, but I’m also thinking about what to do with this substantial body of work. I’m in the process of compiling small groupings into chapbooks and seeking publication for them—no luck yet, but fingers crossed—and have considered a more comprehensive collection. 

About the interviewer: Sheila Luna holds a Master of Liberal Studies, with a concentration in creative nonfiction writing, from Arizona State University. Her personal essays and poetry have recently been published in Sotto Voce MagazineEveryday Poems, and PILGRIM. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in the wilderness of northwestern Montana with a mountain man, where she battled the elements, struggled with a chronic disease, and ultimately discovered her own identity through the solitude of nature and the healing power of art. She now resides in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she enjoys the luxuries of running water and electricity.