Joanna Socha: I think young people are sometimes discouraged by adults – meaning parents, uncles or even teachers – to think about any artistic career. They hear things like: “that doesn’t pay enough” or “find something practical.” In your case, were you supported by your environment in pursuing your writing interest?
Elisa M. Gonzalez: The short answer is no. My parents were both working class. I also didn’t know anyone who was an artist in my family. Even going to college felt like a stretch. On the other hand, my mother supported me as a reader and encouraged my access to literature. It wasn’t until I got to college that someone, a professor, said to me that I could be a writer. And I definitely did face a lot of questions from people about how I was going to support myself or whether it was practical to be a writer. I lied to some of my relatives for many years that I was eventually going to go to law school just so I didn’t have to have a conversation about how I was going to survive.
JS: So before you heard from the professor that you could be a writer, you never considered pursuing this interest?
EMG: I didn’t know how to imagine it as a profession. I was always creating things, but I didn’t necessarily know how you actually, concretely, take steps to make yourself a writer. If, on the other hand, you are surrounded by people in similar careers, you actually understand how to get there. I feel like there was a dream or a fantasy of being a writer somewhere up there in the ether. And then there was a big blank between where I was and where the fantasy was.
JS: Do you remember your first story that you got paid for?
EMG: The first big thing that I got paid for was an article for a magazine called The Point. I had long been interested in the writer Marilynne Robinson and I pitched a piece about the author to the magazine. They took it and that piece was really well received by the niche group of people that were interested. And it gave me access to more assignments.
JS: When I was telling my friend that I would interview you, I described you as a published poet with your work featured in the top publications. It’s impressive, because the poetry career seems abstract. I mean, how can you be a poet in 2022?
EMG: It’s a very real question. I was just talking to a friend about how working in this creative field makes you feel constantly overwhelmed and like you’re not doing enough or there’s always more to do. In poetry, especially, it feels like you have to want to do it, independent of any financial reward. Even the best paying publication for poetry, a place where I’ve been fortunate enough to be published, doesn’t pay that much. I remember getting my first check from them and thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that I got paid $500 for a poem.” But that’s probably as much as you’re going to make off a single poem. So you have to love doing it. And there’s a purity that’s present in pursuing poetry. It has to be divorced from financial remuneration. That said, I do have a book coming out. My first book of poetry is out in November of 2023, which feels far away and very soon.
JS: That’s so amazing. Congratulations.
EMG: Thank you. I got paid relatively a lot for what a book of poetry can pay you. But it’s so little money that it’s kind of funny. That’s not where people make money, right? But I’m deeply grateful; it’s a great publisher. It’s so exciting to have the book come out. And the reward is not money. The reward is writing poetry and having it be in the world. There are few best-selling poets. I think if you win a Nobel Prize or something, people will go buy your books. But mostly no, it’s a challenging career path.
JS: When you think about your relationship with money in this difficult sector, do you think you will reach the stage where you will be comfortable with what you’re earning?
My sense is that this career is inherently unstable. You might luck out with a big prize, a big grant, but that’s it. I don’t expect to be wildly rich unless something crazy happens. But what I want is to be able to have a life that is stable, allows me to travel and write things and continue to challenge myself.
The book coming out will be really good for that because it will allow me to apply to more things and be eligible for different opportunities. And if I decided that I wanted a teaching job at a university, that makes it easier to achieve. I’m very lucky to not have debt from education because I had enough scholarships that I didn’t have to take on loans. Because I think that would really change my calculus; like I’ve been able to do a lot of things and take risks because I’m not struggling with an overwhelming debt burden. So I do feel like that has to be mentioned. Especially because I left a low paying but salaried job to do the Fulbright program in Poland. I didn’t know what I was going to do after that, and the Fulbright is not that well paid. I mean, it’s fine for living in Warsaw, but it’s not that much money. However, I felt like I could take that risk because I thought, “Well, you know, the kind of worst-case scenario is that at the end of this I have to work as a bartender or something for a while.” So the risk didn’t feel as great as it would have been had I had debt.
JS: As a journalist, and someone surrounded by people who write for a living, I often hear this question, one that I ask myself as well, what does it mean to be a good writer?
EMG: I think it does change across genres. For instance, when I’m doing things that are more journalistic or essayistic, there’s a kind of duty to nuance and to facts – that’s really important. When I am working in fiction or poetry, the pressure is not the same: getting away from fact can be the liberation that you need. I am always looking for something surprising, and that’s something that in poetry, for instance, I’m trying to build into my work. That there is a journey from the beginning of any piece of writing to the end and that possibly where you thought it was going to go—in terms of its emotional resonance or conceptual conclusion—is not where it ends. For me as a writer, achieving this entails pushing myself to keep asking questions instead of stopping at the first answer that seems like the correct one. Because I think that the sense of movement, of having traveled, and of having arrived somewhere unexpected—those are things I really value in other people’s writing. But that is all difficult to achieve.
JS: Is being a good writer more about talent or hard work?
EMG: I have never been able to answer this question for myself. I feel like there is some element of natural orientation, which you could call talent, that seems important to have. But at the same time, being a writer requires so much continued hard work and development, even within the frame of an individual piece. Trying to challenge yourself to find new ways of presenting things is important. I can tell when I’m at a point where I need to start trying something new because I start to feel bored by my own sentences or ways of constructing an idea. I want to keep moving past that.
JS: Do you have any practical advice on how to become a better writer?
JS: Especially if you’re young, reading is important. That also means reading things that you don’t really like. You can learn a lot even from things that don’t initially grab you and it can be very important to challenge your own sense of what is good. My first guides for writing were books. And I don’t see another way to get a sense of what it is possible to do in writing apart from reading as widely and as much as possible. It trains your ear and your eye. It trains you to do things more intuitively. You also have to write quite a lot of “bad things.” And I put air quotes around that because you look at your juvenilia and you think, “Wow, this is terrible,” but it might have been very good for you at that time. Anyway, you have to accept being a novice and learning through practice.
So one piece of practical advice is to accept that there’s a period of learning and forgive yourself for being a beginner or for having to make several tries at things. And then accept that those periods recur, that your style is evolving, that there will be times during which writing feels very easy and times when it feels really difficult, like every sentence is a struggle. You have to have faith that just keeping at it is going to make something happen.
JS: I read your essay “Minor Resurrections” in The Point magazine. It’s very deep and philosophical. In your writing, you often touch difficult subjects, such as death, poverty and inequalities and your work is also very personal. Is focusing on personal experiences a way for you to deal with your feelings around a specific subject?
EMG: When the personal enters my writing, usually it is something that I’m trying to better understand in my own life. Perhaps when I initially started writing poetry, it was a lot more about catharsis and emotional release, but I think I’m often just trying to understand a feeling or an aspect of life better. It helps me to make sense of the past, to make sense of the world. To figure out what I need to do next.
JS: Is overthinking a friend or an enemy of writing?
EMG: I think it’s an enemy! Being able to think deeply about things in general or to turn things over in your mind is a gift and often part of what makes someone a writer. But when it becomes constant, you’re just rotating through the same thought. And then it’s an enemy because it’s not going anywhere new. It needs to be disrupted through someone else or through your own ability to banish it.
JS: How do you deal with any criticism as a writer?
EMG: My first teacher in poetry was Louise Gluck, who could be very uncompromising about the work and very willing to tell you when it was not good. She was the first person, the professor I mentioned before, to tell me that I could be a writer. But she also commented on the first poem that I ever turned in: “hopelessly conventional.” I crave that sort of honesty. I do have an instinctual defensive reaction to critique but I take a breath, and then receive whatever it is. But criticism is not existentially threatening to me. It doesn’t make me think, “Oh, my God, I should never write again.”
I have a different approach to criticism on the Internet. Because the Internet enables people to comment on things in such a way that it is as if you’re not commenting on something that a real person wrote. But when people have made snide comments about things I’ve written, I’ve just tried to ignore them.
JS: Do you believe in the concept of “flow” in writing?
EMG: If by “flow,” you mean that it’s possible to just lose yourself in writing, yes, that does happen sometimes, although I feel like I’m only conscious of it once it’s ended. I don’t have the present tense experience of being in that state and thinking, “Wow, this is incredible.” Whatever I’m doing is so completely inside the work that I’m not conscious of it until after it’s passed.
JS: When was the last time you had flow?
EMG: I wrote the ending to “Minor Resurrections” when I was visiting Warsaw this summer. I was in an apartment that I was sharing with a friend who was a Polish poet, and we were both working on pieces, and it was very congenial to that state of just…letting go. A lot of that piece was very hard won. But the ending of it, the last section, I do remember it felt like it flowed through me in some way that I made me think, if this is, you know, the muse or the divine something or what-have-you, then I’m so grateful it exists.
JS: What’s your favorite work that you wrote?
EMG: If I can separate the categories of prose and poetry, I think that the favorite piece of prose that I’ve written is “Minor Resurrections,” which might be because it’s the most recent thing that I’ve published, and yet I have enough distance from it to think that it is good. For poetry, the first thing that comes to mind is the first poem that I published in The New Yorker, “Failed Essay on Privilege.” I wrote the first draft of that poem when I was in Warsaw in late 2016 or early 2017, and part of the reason that I wrote it at all was because I was having a period of very intense writer’s block. I had gotten to Poland for the Fulbright and stopped writing. It was the first time in my life in which I wasn’t doing anything else besides writing, supposedly—everything was up to me, no one was watching over me. There was something about the space of the days and the feeling that I had set out these ambitious goals for myself to accomplish over the course of a year. I suddenly was completely panicked and I couldn’t do it at all. So I started giving myself these assignments—like, “write a poem that’s an essay”—just to make myself write anything, even if it was terrible.
JS: How do you rest?
EMG: I think it’s important to give yourself some version of a weekend, a time during which there’s no expectation that you will be working because it rejuvenates your mind. I also love to travel. Seeing new places or returning to familiar places that aren’t where I live now is really important. I also find rest in engaging with art, music, literature when there’s no expectation that it be useful. It’s not research, it’s not for anything, it’s just pleasure or exploration. That for me is a component of rest. It also returns me to that childhood state of receiving things instead of trying to understand or interpret them in some way. But I think I am bad at resting. It’s a work in progress.
JS: What book would you recommend?
EMG: There is a book called Antigones by the literary critic George Steiner. It’s a kind of history and analysis of the role of Antigone, the play by Sophocles, as well as the figure of Antigone in the cultural imagination. This is something that I am thinking about right now for writing-related reasons, but it is honestly just such an incredibly well written book. The other thing that I’ve just read is Adam Zagajewski’s last collection of poetry, called True Life in English. He’s a poet that I admire so much. I read it in full a couple of months ago, but I keep coming back to it, just picking it up and reading individual poems.
Interview by Joanna Socha
Edited by: Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka
Photos provided by Elisa M. Gonzalez