Behind the Words: Lois Marie Harrod

Posted by on Oct 17, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Lois Harrod

Lois Marie Harrod graced the second issue of Spry Literary Journal with her story “Chessboard & Newspaper.” She kindly agreed to talk to Spry contributor, Justin Townsend about her writing process. Enjoy!

Justin Townsend: It is impossible to read your short story “Chessboard & Newspaper” without seeing the poetic nature deeply rooted within. For me, I held onto every word in the most engaging, attentive way; I didn’t want to miss anything. Afterwards, I told myself to bookmark, favorite, and write post-its to remind myself to come back to it again. As a writer, was writing a short story poetically something you find naturally leaking into your writing or by way of practicing? Tell me about the process of writing this particular piece, and editing it, because it worked.

Lois Marie Harrod: “Since 2006, I have been writing short stories from time to time, and perhaps the poetry you find “leaking” into “Chessboard & Newspaper” leaks in from all the poetry I write.  In my poems one image sometimes slips into another, transforms.  I do think about linking images. Maybe it’s the way my mind works, my mind which seems to have so much slippage, so many malapropisms.  I have never been very good talking about my “process.”

I can tell you that this piece is an amalgam of various strange memories: a production of The Tempest to which I took high school students in which the same actor in the same costume played Caliban as a crooked man with cerebral palsy and Ferdinand as a handsome swaggerer; another production of The Tempest  to which I took my long-haired grandson who was mistaken for a girl; a game of chess I played with another grandson who as a six-year-old said, “Nanny, you are an incredibly bad chess player.”  It was snowing the day I began the piece and I was listening to Bach and I began remembering watching Grandson #2 in the Princeton Art Museum looking at a landscape.  He’d go up close to painting so he could see the individual “dots” and then back away until they merged.  I thought that was so interesting that a child would do that—or understand the magic of his eyes. I suppose in some ways The Tempest is the governing image; the writer is Prospero; the chess game like the story, the moves, somehow like a cubist painting, Ferdinand and Miranda play chess.  My professor husband, the literary critic, says I have a “dissociative narrator” here, “a dissociation of sensibility” as T. S. Eliot puts it.”

I know you say you’re not very good at talking about “process,” but I have to ask you about the decision to use the least-trodden second-person narrative. How did you come about that decision? Were you happy that you made it, and did you ever tinker with first or third before settling on second-person? What advantages/disadvantages do you gain from using it, specifically in “Chessboard & Newspaper”?

I think choosing the narrator is choosing the distance I want between the speaker or story-teller and subject matter.  The first person I has the least distance from the subject because speaker is generally involved in the story he is telling.  The second person you puts the story-teller closest to, or most conscious of, his audience; the story teller becomes the imperator, the commander, the know-it-all, directing others or himself/herself.  The third person, he, she, it is the most distanced from the subject; the narrator becomes more of a reporter, one who is standing back and observing.

That said, within each of the three narrative stances the distance can be varied a great deal.  The first person Gulliver can stand afar and watch mankind like tiny toys as he does in the Lilliputians, or he can stand close and talk about the pores in the face of the giant Brogdinagian girl. The distance is conveyed by details and tone. 

The second person narrator you  is especially interesting because you can be the speaker’s disassociated self , e.g. that is the speaker is talking to himself (many poems do this) or it can be the instructor talking to his audience (e.g. the “how-to” book, the cookbook).  Oddly, the you as speaker can do both simultaneously.  Lorrie Moore’s “A Child’s Guide to Divorce” does this; the child speaker simultaneously tells us her story of what it is like to be the daughter of a divorced mom (all the sadness and manipulative tricks) and instructs another child how to deal with it.

In “Chessboard & Newspaper” I seem to be doing both too.  My Prospero of a speaker is both imagining all the possibilities and instructing his audience how to imagine (or read) the story too.  Of course, at the end, the speaker is surprised by the chess move Miranda has made.  That’s the way it is with things we create.  They make they own moves.

I could also say this about my general process. Perhaps this is what you wanted in your first question.  I generally write daily, early in the morning, after reading a couple poems or a bit of prose.  Whatever it is, I put it in the “In-Process” folder.  Generally, every day I pull something from the “In-Process” folder, read it, and maybe see something that I can work with, see what form it might take.  Sometimes I leave it in the “In-Progress File” and work on it several more times or discard it.  But if I think I have something, I eventually move it to the “Finished” folder, a misnomer: it’s finished enough to take to one of my critique groups of trusted readers.  What I hope to learn is what others make of the piece, what they don’t understand, whether it works as I imagine it does.  Then I often revise and tweak some more.  I remember that my very small prose group weren’t sure they liked “Chessboard & Newspaper;” in fact, one woman, a memoirist, dismissed it as “what they are writing now,”  but I really liked this piece and so began sending it out.

Since you taught high school students for 22 years, and teach creative writing currently, what is one piece of advice, or golden rule, that you often pass along to students? 

If you want to be a writer, write every day.

 Just write.

College students are generally willing to write and submit work 5 days out of 7 (what I require).  Some of my high school students took Creative Writing because they thought it was a course that didn’t require any reading.  Whoops.  I found that even the most reluctant student could (and would write) if I gave them a phrase like  “The crows of hell . . .”; “My father never understands . . .”; “Today I want to tell you at . . .”; “I want a car. . . “  I call these “starts.”  If I was brain dead, I’d pull open a book of poems and put half a line on the board to get them started.  Starting is the issue for most students. 

 

If there were one piece of literature that you could point to that changed you and made you pursue a career studying and writing literature, what would it be, and why? Also, is there a writer you emulate or have in the back of your mind when you write, or is a juxtaposition of a bunch?

My father was a Lutheran pastor, and even though I not religious, I absorbed the love of language from the King James Version of the Bible—which was read every morning before breakfast and every night after supper, and of course, in triple and quadruple doses on Sunday.  

What is in your “In Process” folder currently? Do you have a hundred things, or a dozen, or a few? At what point do you look at a work and give it the transfer to “In Progress” folder and eventually the “Finished” folder? I, as well as other writers (I assume), often have trouble with this element of letting go, especially with a novel; there always seems to be something that can be edited or fixed. When do you feel safe to say, “Alright, I’ve spent ‘x’ amount of time on this. What will be, will be.”? At what point do you send it out?

Just checked:  In my  2014 “In Process” folder right now I have 113 items.  I still have 75 items in my 2013 “In Process” folder.  As I have already said, I try to write every day, early in the morning, right after I get up. I often try a little revision then too.  So I start a lot of stuff, some of which I  abandon as hopeless—and move to my “Hopeless” file.  I like to spend 3-4 weeks once a year at a writer’s colony, particularly Virginia Center for Creative Writing; there I spend a lot of time re-working things in the “In Process” file.

 I generally move a poem to the “Finished” file when I think it’s ready to take to one of my critique groups or to send out.  I often revise after that, but once something gets published, I regard it as “more or less” finished.  When I begin putting together a new book, I may tinker a little (I notice that when I give readings, I sometimes make minor changes).  So I guess “Publication is the Test.”  Publication means I stop work for a while.

 

Lastly, you said your husband is a literary critic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like having a literary critic for a spouse could be a blessing and a curse. What role does your husband play in your writing? How often do you seek out his blessing on a piece of writing? Has he ever squashed a poem or short story that you felt strongly about, or do you keep those stories from meeting his hands?

Basically, my husband doesn’t play much of a role in my writing—except to be extremely supportive and encouraging.  He likes to say he is Apollonian and I am Dionysian.  When I first started writing regularly, about 30 years ago, I stopped showing things to him because I felt his opinion weighed too much.  He’s a brilliant man who taught James Joyce and literary theory to undergraduates at The College of New Jersey for 40 years (they loved his courses), but having such a person as critic in the early stages of writing was inhibiting to me.  If I am going to write, I can’t have a judge sitting on my shoulder.  I show him my work when it’s published, and he collects “Do Not Disturb” signs from hotels around the world to hang on my study door to protect what he and Jung refer to as my “autonomous complex.”


Justin Townsend is an English Teacher in Massachusetts, as well as a cross country/track coach and freelance journalist. On the side, he writes fiction for personal gratification in the hopes of eventually making public gratification. An English graduate of Rhode Island College, Justin became managing editor of the school’s newspaper The Anchor. Post-collegiate writing credentials include The Herald News, The Standard-Times, and Patch-Woonsocket.  

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