Today we are pleased to feature Heidi Czerwiec as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, she takes the time to discuss her nonfiction piece, “The Perfumer’s Organ,” published in SR’s Issue 23. The essay is part of a larger work-in-progress that examines “perfume as a physical and cultural object.”
“The Perfumer’s Organ,” which contains five short sections that each explore a different association with the piece’s title, was “born during a self-organized retreat at [her] in-law’s lake cabin” where she was armed with research and notes about perfumery.
Research is an important part of Heidi’s creative process, which you can see reflected in the essay’s footnotes. For this particular nonfiction piece, she looked to her research for recurring language. She explains, “For instance, ‘perfumer’s organ’ is a musical metaphor which let me tie in how perfume is composed of notes that create an accord.”
Heidi first learned the term “Perfumer’s Organ,” which describes a perfumer’s shelving system, from Perfumer Mandy Aftel, but she originally misinterpreted the phrase to mean “the nose.” As Heidi continued her research and writing, the term began to take on new meaning and she fell in love with the “rich suggestiveness of the term” that gave her a way to “organiz[e] so much of what [she] had been researching about perfume.”
Heidi calls her aesthetic a “weird mix of strict structures and loose associativeness,” which this nonfiction piece encapsulates beautifully. Because the essay captures her aesthetic so well and the title phrase helped her see the various connections she wanted to make, the work has become “one of [her] darlings” that she “love[s] irrationally” and is happy to share with all of our SR readers.
“As a rule, think plain, unadorned, gravitas. No cleavage, thigh-high boots, or microminis. No animal prints and certainly no cowboy fringe.”
— Nina Garcia’s Look Book: What to Wear for Every Occasion, “What to Wear to a Funeral”
Between January 1, 2016 and mid-February 2018, five people I loved died: my best friend, two aunts, my grandmother, and my father. I started writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” shortly after the last two deaths, when I was unable to stop myself from dreaming about dead women. It was always the women. Women watching me while I slept, women waiting for me to catch up.
I never questioned the dreams or what was happening on the page. Writing about dead women seemed to be the natural result of not taking off work, not talking about my grief, and not stopping the day-to-day “grind” of grading essays, folding laundry, and hosting birthday parties for a house full of five-year olds.
“How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was/is part of a longer work-in-progress. The individual sections, though, were born from the blend of influences that seeped into my brain during each of those mind-numbing, grief-filled days.
In no particular order: Sylvia Plath, Selena, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Peaches ‘N Cream Barbie, Lincoln in the Bardo, what to wear to a funeral, how long it takes to grieve, Ouija boards, Bloody Mary, Twin Peaks, Linkin Park, George Michael, Amy Winehouse, The Cranberries, cremation, novel after novel after TV show after movie with a dead woman in the middle of the plot. The question of what happens to your best stories and your worst secrets if you’re the only one left alive to remember?
In his essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” Alexander Chee says, “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable.”
Is that what I was trying to do as I wrote in the aftermath of my grief? Did I intend to speak to my dead? On some level, yes. Each time I dream about my friend, always her more than the others, I wake up wondering what she wants me to do now. What stories does she want me to write? What secrets am I allowed to share?
I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” with her in mind, her at age 35 and age 28 and age 22 and age 12. I saw her passing me a note in 8thgrade English and escorting me to junior prom and holding back my hair when we lived together years later. I saw her holding my son. I saw us shopping and sharing and stealing each other’s clothes. How intimate it all seems now, in retrospect, that I don’t have anyone who wants to borrow my favorite dress.
The dress, I think, was always part of the story, even before I started writing. As I packed my funeral dress for my friend’s memorial service, I might have thought about the perfect symbolism of a black dress and how I would one day write about my loss. I had a feeling more funerals were coming (though I didn’t know how many or how quickly), and if I had thought about writing through my grief, I would have also known how central a dress would be to that narrative.
Otherwise, I don’t remember writing a single word.
One of the benefits of writing at 5 a.m. is that no one cares what I’m wearing. Inside-out T-shirts tops and ratty robes are my uniform. It doesn’t matter if I’m blurry, stumbling, and unable to form complete thoughts yet. There’s coffee, and a cat to keep me company. There’s a (hopefully) charged laptop. The sky is just the right kind of dark.
This is how I write, with my subconscious still buzzing from half-baked dreams, and a complete lack of censorship. The internal editor is still asleep and the lack of perfection, the full-on embrace of imperfection, becomes the fuel for my creative process. A quiet house at 5 a.m. is pure luxury. Better than Burberry trench coats and Missoni knits and Frye harness boots, and whatever else Nina Garcia says I am supposed to own and enjoy.
After I wrote “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive,” my Twitter friend, Steve Bargdill, told me about keening. Keening is a death wail, a public lament that has now grown out of fashion, giving women a voice for their grief. Sometimes professional mourners were hired to grieve publically at funerals. I am simplifying, of course, but the blend of beauty and tragedy struck a nerve. Yes, I thought. That is what it feels like to ache and not have the words, or to not need the words, to express it.
This is not to suggest that writing “How to Keep a Dead Woman Alive” was a healing experience. Not at all. I like how T Kira Madden addresses the issue of writing and healing in her essay “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” She writes, “But to render the art, to render the experience, does not, in my practice, involve ‘bleeding into the typewriter.’ It does not entail a writer spilling or spewing the memory onto a blank page, nailing it down, healing.” I don’t disagree.
Lately, my writing and my mourning are mashed together so brutally, I couldn’t ever call the creative process therapeutic. Instead, it feels like I am crafting a eulogy that no one has asked me to write. Over and over, it feels like standing in front of my family and friends, pretending like I have all the right words instead of one long, imperfect wail.
Today, we are pleased to feature Ana Brotas as our Authors Talk series contributor. She takes this opportunity to discuss her experience with photography and reveal her creative process. She describes her long journey with photography and how she has used the “process of drawing with light” as a form of expression.
Ana reflects on her early relationship with photography, noting that “there was an amazement embedded in this process.” However, as her time working with the artistic medium went on and became digitized she felt that it lost much of its meaning and no longer felt like the same “conscious decision to capture a moment.” This changed when she went through the many photos she had taken over the years and discovered things she had forgot, saying that it was as if she was “browsing through someone else’s memory” to go through her old photos. So, she found new inspiration in the “nostalgia transformed into an archive” which speaks honestly to the unexpected and complex creative process which can take shape in so many different ways.
Today we are pleased to feature author Sunny Nestler as our Authors Talk series contributor. The artist takes the time to discuss their recently self-published artist book Undergrowth in which five drawings previously published in SR are featured. They consider the creation of the book with their collaborator, A A Spencer, as they talk about the artistic and creative choices that went into developing it.
Accompanied by audio meant to elaborate on the drawings, Sunny describes the “imagined parallel universe” which the art illustrates, representing a “journey through the hairy underbelly of desert”. The imagery of the book is uniquely interspersed with text by other creative minds in collaboration with the art. In speaking of his own relation to the artwork, Spencer considers the presence of “a lot of time and a lot of space” which seemed particularly “immeasurable”. This contributed to the work of “visionary fiction” which he produces as a companion to Sunny’s art. Sunny also discusses the drawing Tectonic Microgrowth which shows “various snapshots of growth”, speaking to the overall theme and purpose of the artistic work.
Today we are pleased to feature author Chelsea Dingman as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Chelsea discusses her creative process and how it “almost always stems from reading and discussion.” She also reveals that she loves “that poetry lives in uncomfortable, uncertain circumstances…There’s no resolution required in a poem.”
Chelsea then discusses the background and inspiration behind each of her poems in Issue 18, as well as her forthcoming collection Thaw. After discussing her other projects, like her thesis on her grandfather’s immigration experience and her current manuscript centered on the female body, Chelsea ends her podcast by repeating her earlier sentiment: “I am interested in the uncertainty of those moments and asking questions, every question. I still have so many.”
Today we are pleased to feature author Timothy Liu as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Timothy is interviewed by Karthik Purushothaman, one of his graduate students, about his newest book, Kingdom Come: A Fantasia, which released March 1, 2017.
The pair discusses the book as a hybrid novel, and they explore the way it blends poetry and prose. Timothy also shares his process for this novel and reveals how he completed the first draft in 2008 after writing every day for three months. Karthik then asks Timothy about his inspirations, and Timothy talks about the different books that he kept on his desk while writing and how they influenced the book.
Finally, Timothy discusses the concept of time, “the idea that the act of writing can somehow change our past,” and the “weird belief that time can flow in two directions.”
Today we are pleased to feature author Mathew Michael Hodges as our Authors Talk series contributor. Interestingly, Mathew begins his podcast by discussing how he used to feel claustrophobic in the confines of the short story form, though he has now become “more comfortable in the cozy space of the short story.”
Mathew goes on to describe the variety of ways that his ideas come to him. Specifically, he discusses the process of building “A Sound Man,” which was featured in Issue 18 of Superstition Review. For Mathew, the story started with Rory’s job as a sound designer before the other layers of the story fell into place. Mathew also offers insights regarding the creative process and revision. He describes his “write-and-stash method,” which has helped him be more objective when revising.
Humans have always been obsessed with how things came to be. Originally, this started with existence, how humans arrived on Earth, how our planet was formed, what caused the lights in the sky; once those topics were milked for all they were worth, these stories narrowed down: how the rhino got its skin in the classic porquoi tale best told by Rudyard Kipling, how narcissism created the echo and reflection from the Greek myth, or why male genitalia looks the way it does as given in the Winnebago Trickster Cycle from the Winnebago Native American oral tradition. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how the same stories are told in a multitude of ways. This could be attributed to use of oral tradition, the passing down of stories through voice, carrying through different narrators with different styles of speaking and different interpretations of the same events. In this way, the story is always changing and refining through a never-ending cycle of editors in order to become the tales we know today.
There’s something satisfying about creation, too, like scratching an itch you didn’t even know existed. The act of creation through writing, art, music, and crafts is highly valued, even though nobody wants to do it. Everyone dreams of writing a novel but taking on writing as a profession is still generally met with hesitance (“Creative writing? What do you plan to do with that, teach?”). However, in a more visual sense, such as works-in-progress videos by various artists or with crafts like crocheting or knitting, people are hypnotized. I find there’s nothing more calming than watching someone make a watercolor painting, and when the work is finished, I want to find the artist and thank them for allowing me to watch. When I crochet in public, I’m always greeted with a “What are you knitting?” (I’ve given up correcting them) followed by the person watching me work as I wrap the yarn around the hook and pull it through the loops.
The downside to creating is, of course, dealing with doubt. I don’t think anybody in creation stories ever doubted their actions, but being in the arts requires juggling doubt and dancing with failure. One of the ways I personally deal with this is by writing my own creation stories. I’ve found it kick-starts my imagination and returns me to the mindset of seven-year-old me who loved to write how things came to be, to the point of writing a chapter book about star formation. Creativity is a must, too. Why do snails have shells? Well, obviously, a snail started out as a slug and decided it wanted to become strong, like the ant, so it found a shell to live in and now carries its own house on its back as a strength building exercise. It’s unscientific but gives us a new way of looking at the world which is exactly what literature and the arts aim to do: show new perspectives so that we may live without hurting others. Bonding through any form of creation, especially through storytelling, gives us the chance to understand something new, both in intellectual and empathetic standpoints. Even if your next work doesn’t make you the next Charles Dickens, it’s still creation and has the possibility to change someone’s viewpoint. Even if it’s not something you want published, tell the story to a few friends and tell them to pass it on to someone else; in a few generations, you’ll have a masterpiece.
Maybe it was all the Alf I watched, but from the ages of 7 through 12, my greatest ambition was to be abducted by aliens. My teachers were perplexed: how about astronaut, or fireman, or attorney? It’s not technically an ambition if you don’t have any control over it, I was told. Accepting this truth, I tried to put myself in the most abduction-likely situations. This proved difficult, because standing on my roof was dangerous and there were no cornfields near to hang out in. I settled for loitering in my front yard while staring up at the sky. If they weren’t going to abduct me, I at least wanted to have a good look at them. When I failed to realize even this modest goal, I decided to take measures into my own hands; I’d have to invent a UFO sighting.
It was a warm fall night—I must have been 10—when I got my chance. My parents and I were walking the dog around the block when a brightly lit object appeared above us and scuttled across the suburban sky. It was an airplane; I knew it, my parents knew it, even my golden retriever knew it. But this airplane had a flashing green light, which I had never seen before. This slight anomaly was all I needed to build upon. I told my friends at school about it, adding that it was lightning fast and absolutely silent.
“I had the sensation that I was being watched,” I said in a hushed voice. My friend Joey suggested that I was already being followed by Men in Black. I practiced that distant, harried look I’d seen Richard Dreyfuss have in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I filled up a notebook with sketches of the craft, wearing down my emerald colored pencil to a nub.
I cultivated this willful self-deception for almost a week until I saw the same green-lighted plane in the half-light of dusk. Faced with the naked truth, I tossed my notebook in the trash. Since nobody, not even Joey, believed me in the first place, it was time to move on from my fantasy.
Now that I am married and have a job that I truly enjoy, I’d rather witness a UFO from a safe distance than be stolen by one. But the desire to see something incredible is still there, and that is why I write. The potential for the extraordinary to occur amid the ordinary is intriguing, for the same reason that an unopened envelope with your name on it has an undeniable magnetic pull. For me, the recognition and celebration of potential energy is central to the act of writing: the potential for an inert character to lurch into motion, or for a sublime moment to overtake a mundane one.
I’ve come to realize that what’s exciting is not that a UFO will appear in an ordinary Tuesday afternoon sky, but that an ordinary Tuesday sky holds this and infinite other possibilities. Whether or not a flying saucer ever appears is ultimately irrelevant; the act of staring up at the sky is creative, and therefore, important.