Guest Post, Jason Olsen: Questions I Can Answer

A couple of nights ago, I met someone who, upon learning a bit about me, asked me what type of poetry and fiction I wrote. This was a lovely and well-meaning person and I know she wasn’t trying to pin me into a corner with impossible to answer questions, but she kind of did.  These “what do you write” questions are brutal. I suppose if I primarily wrote rhyming poems about ducks (which would, of course, require restraint when thinking of words that rhyme with “duck”) or coming of age in the Old West stories, this question would be easy. But I’m not really writing in a single genre and, while my individual stories and poems feel connected, it’s likely due more to voice than anything thematic, and it’s not going to make much sense to someone expecting a simple answer if I say I’m a “voice-driven” writer. I’m not entirely sure that explains much, anyway?

So, what kind of poem and stories do I write? Am I surreal? Am I funny? Am I the same writer story-to-story or poem-to-poem? How do I answer this without sounding pretentious (and making references to things my well-meaning questioner likely wouldn’t know well) or being a jerk (“I transcend categories!” might make me sound a bit like an ass)? So, when faced with this challenging question, I did the smart thing—I avoided it all together. I never answered her. I changed the subject to something more approachable, a specific story I was working on, and lead the conversation there.

Sure, I felt slightly guilty about this, but the moment passed and the discussion wasn’t bad but it made me think about something key about me as writer. I love talking about my writing but I’m not always entirely sure how to talk about my writing. How do I answer questions about my writing when so much comes from a combination of inspiration (which, aside from the occasional cool story of how a piece came to be, is usually dull) and craft (which is often not interesting to someone not as deeply involved in the life)?

I started thinking of questions I could answer—questions that I could tackle and sound (hopefully) approachable and still interesting as I answered them. Instead of dwelling on the difficult, I have accumulated a handful of questions I could conceivably answer. So, if you run into me at a dinner party, here’s some help. Of course, if you read everything below (which I hope you do), you might be bored by eventual answers.

Why are you a writer?

I had a bad toothache once. I guess more to the point, I had several bad toothaches.

This has nothing to do with the connection of tooth pain to the soul or anything like that. It’s much more literal. I had just graduated with my BA from UNLV and I was working at a pharmacy while I tried to figure out what to do next. I assumed I’d go to grad school and, considering my BA was in English and I was interested in literature, I figured I’d go for my Masters in literary study, probably focusing on British Romanticism.

And then, toothaches. I needed root canals all over the place. The insurance I was getting through my own job wasn’t worth much and I learned that I could remain fully covered on my mom’s insurance if I took six credits a semester. So, even though I was finished with my degree, I decided to reenroll at the college just for the insurance. Even paying for the classes was going to be cheaper than what my dentist needed to do to me, so it would work out.

Those few semesters rocked. I took whatever fit my work schedule and seemed interesting. I wasn’t limited by requirements or anything else. I took a class on the films of Jean Renoir because why the hell not. I took grad level classes. I took creative writing workshops.

More specifically, I took a poetry workshop. It was with a poet visiting the college for the semester—Martin Corless-Smith—and, while I was a bit out of my league compared to the admitted MFA students in the class with me, I held my own and loved every second. My writing grew and evolved and my passion for this stuff grew and evolved. I read contemporary poetry and I hadn’t done much of that. Most of what I had written before this class were imitations of what I was studying in my literature classes. So I was writing bad imitations of Tennyson. This class showed me I could read the stuff that was contemporary and vital. I started writing bad imitations of James Tate. This was more comfortable. I saw more of myself in these poems and I liked it.

But I assumed this was just an interest and my career (or what I was vaguely envisioning as a career) would require an MA in literature. I had a conference with Martin where he gave me a long list of poets and writers he wanted me to read (and that list would prove to be full of eventual first loves) and, when I told him I wanted to study lit, he told me no, I should get my MFA and wrote down a list of grad schools. I was at a point in my life where I needed someone to lead me in the direction I needed to head. And, thanks to my teeth problems, I found someone able to give me that push.

How do you stay focused enough to write everyday?

I don’t. Not usually, anyway. If I’m working on a project that’s got me really excited, I’ll work more often, but most of the time, I’ll work more sporadically, often in bursts. I’ve got a lot of papers to grade, a garden, a two-year old, and on and on. It’s hard to maintain that and write everyday.

Now some writers will shame me for saying this. Maybe they are right. Some writers spend a set amount of time each day to write and use that time no matter what. This is wonderful and I wish I could do it. This isn’t because I’m not focused, necessarily—it’s mostly because I simply can’t.

So I do what works for me. I binge write. I’ll spend time where I can get it and I write then. If I’m excited about something I’m working on, it’s easier to find the time. If I’m not, I don’t press it. Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I’m coming up with ideas and characters and if something clicks, that’s as good as any formal time at my desk. For me, I find the opportunities to write, but I don’t force them into my schedule, at least not usually. But that’s just me—different writers need to do what fits for them and I find the loose moments and cram them with words. As I always advise writers, figure out what works and don’t base everything on what another writer does, just use those other writers for hints on what might work.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere. I think about people I’ve known or seen and write about them. I observe the world around me and write about that. I read news articles and watch TV. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby as I write this and I just watched a guy in pajamas shove four candy bars in his pockets while he complained about a toilet. That’s got potential, right? I write about my wife and hide the specifics just enough to not get myself in trouble (at least, not too much trouble). With fiction, it starts with character. With a poem, it starts with the thread of a thought. It’s all out there in the world waiting—we just have to have our eyes open widely enough to find it.

How do you end things?

Before the reader is completely ready.