Author Spotlight: Elijah Burrell

The Skin of the River

Happy Spring everyone!  I’m pleased to introduce you to my favorite new poet, Elijah Burrell.  I was fortunate enough to meet Eli while our respective spouses were in their pediatric residencies and we bonded over a love of writing, music, and our young daughters.  Since those days, Eli has gone on to complete his MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and has been published in multiple literary reviews, before publishing his own anthology, The Skin of the River.  He currently teaches creative writing and literature at Lincoln University.  Burrell received the 2009 Cecil A. Blue Award in Poetry and the 2010 Jane Kenyon Scholarship at Bennington College.

Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Was it always poetry for you?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. As soon as I could read, I started writing my own adventure stories. I wrote comic books and song lyrics. I spent summers at the local community radio station writing and producing radio plays and skits. It wasn’t until I started thinking pretty seriously about girls that I began writing love songs and poems. We didn’t read a lot of poetry when I was in high school, but I immersed myself in it during college. Couldn’t get enough. It got to the point when I was reading one or two books of poetry per week. I was like that speaker in the Mark Strand poem “Eating Poetry.” In graduate school, I kept up the same pace—long hours in the bookish dark. I fell for all kinds of poets. Poetry stuck. 

 What inspires you more, the world around you or the feelings inside?

I’m inspired by all of it. I think, to a certain extent, all writing comes from within. Writers must choose how best to deliver their ideas and memories to their readers. I have entire notebooks full of images, words that rhyme in interesting ways, and bits of language I’ve picked up in “the world around me.” The poem takes shape when I gather each of these sundry elements and try to stir them together. I’m always trying to notice things around me. Equally important, I try to navigate my own internal terrain the best I can. I work on my cartography skills every day. It’s a strange place.

 You’re a busy man – husband, father, professor – how do you find time to write? Do you set time aside, or write when the mood takes you?

It’s almost impossible for me to maintain a regular writing schedule. I either try to write late at night, when everyone has gone to bed, or through irregular daytime eruptions of output. It would be fantastic to wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down to a clean desk and a blank page each morning. That seems to be the romantic perception of a writer’s existence. I’ve come to grips with reality that, in this stage of my life, that’s just never how it’s going to be for me. I’m not complaining.

 What is your editing process like?

Every poem in The Skin of the River endured numerous revisions and rewrites. I’m one of those poor fools who never think the poem is finished. I find myself reading some of the poems from the book aloud, out in the world, thinking I’d like to change them still. One time I heard Donald Hall tell a crowd of writers he revises each of his poems over a hundred times. I do anywhere from a fifth to a half of that. If I look at the same poem too long, I start getting itchy.

 How do you fight writer’s block?

I’m going to say something wildly unpopular. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Someone smarter than me once said you don’t see carpenters complaining about carpenter’s block. I’m building things when I write poems. I put on my metaphorical tool belt and go to work. Maybe I think that if I keep telling myself there’s no such thing as writer’s block, I’ll never suffer from writer’s block. 

 What advice do you have for other writers?

I’ll give two pieces of advice that will seem very obvious. First: Write. There are so many distractions all around us. Most of them come from some bright screen—a television, a computer, a phone (oh, the phone). Unplug those distractions, take a deep breath, and just start writing. Seems easy, but it’s not. Second: Read. I’ve yet to meet a great writer that never reads. 

The Skin of the River is a collection of poems that evoke a feeling of childhood summers in the south.  Burrell’s words flow like a conversation with an old friend.  Pick up a copy today at amazon and discover a whole new world of modern poetry!

Sorry for the Interruption

I’m back!  Sorry guys, I had a Crohn’s setback and have been in the hospital for the last week.  After careful consideration, I decided that pain medication and social media do not mix well.  But I’m back home and trying to climb back in the saddle, writing-wise.

This one really took me by surprise.  I was in such a good stride after the conference.  I was motivated and inspired, I had queries out, and was waiting for replies.  I was writing daily and making great progress with my new novel. And then, BAM – hospital time.  A week of pain and the swirling haze of narcotics, and my mind is reduced to mush.   And now I’m facing a possible liver complication.  How do I pull myself out of this and get back on my path?  I don’t really have an answer for that question.  For now I’m just putting fingers to keyboard and hoping something comes out.  But I will not give up on my dream.  Crohn’s has moved somethings out of my reach, but it will not take this away from me.

Join me next week, for an interview with my favorite new poet, Elijah Burrell.  Check out his book A Skin of the River on amazon.  Thanks for reading!

Writing Emotions: Being Vulnerable

Yay, it’s Tuesday.  Except not yay here in the south, because we’re about to get slammed with yet another winter storm. That means picking kids up from school early, driving through ice, being stuck inside for days on in, etc.  It’s time for Spring, I say!

On a  happier note, I would like to say how surprised and happy I was to see so many people register for my blog last week.  I was starting to worry that no one was reading except my husband and my mom. So thanks guys, you made my week!

Today I want to talk about writing emotion.  Not because I’m an expert by any means, but because I think it’s interesting to hear how different people go about writing emotions in a book.  In order to make your readers feel something for your characters, you have to make their emotions feel real.  You have to create characters and situations that people can relate to, and those can fall flat if the emotions you are writing about don’t feel authentic.

To make emotion feel authentic, I have to let myself be vulnerable.  I have to use my own emotions and my own pain to paint my characters’ pain.  I don’t mean that my characters are little versions of myself who speak and act like me.  I simply mean that anyone who creates uses their own experiences – good or bad – to help give their own creation life.  For example, the physical pain that I feel with Crohn’s disease doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be a victim of abuse, but I have an idea of what it’s like to endure something you cannot control, that causes you harm.  I don’t know what it’s like to have lost a child, but my miscarriages give me an idea of the pain that would cause.

That’s part of what makes writing so hard.  You have to bring those emotions to the surface, explore, and understand them.  If you cannot understand and suffer with your characters, how can you expect your readers to?  While I was stuck in the airport a few weeks ago, I was daydreaming about what memories or feelings from my teenage years still cause a reaction.  I remember that to me the two most painful emotions as a tween and teen were unrequited love (or “a crush”) and the feelings that everyone you trusted and called friends were growing up and experiencing things that you could not understand.  These things still leave a hollow feeling in my middle when I think about the pain they caused my younger self.  I was a late bloomer, and was frequently the one still caught up in childish emotions and concerns, while my peers had moved on to relationships and feelings that I was not yet able to understand.  It left me with the feeling that perhaps something was wrong with me.  It was a very lonely feeling.

Those are the feelings to take out and explore.  The memories that still, twenty years later give you pause.   Those are the emotions that will fill your writing, your art, your acting, etc with true emotions. When the emotion is real, it feels genuine.  And that’s true art.

I would love any feedback.  How do your emotions, pain, and memories color your art or your life?  Can you name books or movies where the emotions feel genuine as opposed to false?