Tara Ison‘s kind, welcoming face was among the first I saw when I arrived at the MFA Program of Antioch University Los Angeles. I was terrified, nervous, and completely out of my league, and yet Tara extended her graceful arms and warm spirit and wrapped me in so I felt safe. She has been one of my favorite writers – and people – ever since. Today, I’m so honored to share her words with you all.
It’s called Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love and Die at the Movies, my first nonfiction book. It’s part film criticism, part memoir, about how film shapes identity – well, my identity, but I think the power of film to shape and influence who we are in the world is something many of us experience.
There are nine essays, in each I look at a group of films united by a common theme, and discuss how they’ve affected a different aspect of my self. So, there’s: How To Go Crazy, How To Be Lolita, How To Be A Jew, How To Lose Your Virginity, How To Be A Drunk, How To Be A Slut, How To Die With Style, How To Be Mrs. Robinson, and How To Be A Writer.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Huge – I was one of those kids who wanted books as presents for birthdays, Christmas, Hannukah…and I was blessed by having parents who were big readers and were delighted to nurture my love of books. They never told me to “go out and play” as long as they saw me curled up with a book. I was definitely a loner child, too, so books were my best company. Books shaped my becoming a writer, as well – I discuss this in the How To Be A Writer essay – but it an odd way. My mother suggested I “go write something” one day, and I was terrified of doing a bad job, so I plagiarized a poem from my favorite book of poetry and showed it to her. She loved it, and started encouraging me to be a writer. And I felt so guilty about stealing that poem, I think I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since!
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I have a hard time writing at home – I’d rather cook or clean or do laundry than write, so there are way too many possible distractions… I’ve found my best routine is to make writing dates with friends at coffee houses – if I’ve made the commitment to meet someone, I follow through, I’d be too embarrassed to goof off and not write. And we sit there for two, three, four hours, just writing. I read a study that said being out in public, having to tune out the white noise of other people chatting, coffee brewing, etc., can actually enhance focus and concentration, and that’s definitely true for me. And when I was writing Reeling Through Life, I had to watch/study so many films, that became part of my creative routine – I’d sometimes go out to a restaurant or coffeehouse by myself with headphones and watch and take notes.
4. Who are you reading now?
Student work! My best reading time is when I’m on a break from teaching; otherwise there’s always that stack of student work that needs my attention. I’m lucky my students are such fantastic writers!
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Three of my favorites would be Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and Atonement by Ian McEwan – they’re all so different, but they each captures a young girl’s perspective so brilliantly, and with such honesty and respect for the complexity of her experience, without sentimentalizing or being condescending. All three taught me something about being a young girl, and a lot about being the kind of writer I wanted to be.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
I try to limit the “platform-building” time – that can expand and absorb so much of your life, so I try to set myself specific “social media” time. Although I fail pretty miserably at that…. And I have two rules: for every minute I spend on social media, I have to spend two minutes writing. And for each self-promotional, platform-building thing I do, I have to also do one thing to promote a fellow writer.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
If it’s a day I’m teaching or meeting with students, I’m not good for doing much else – even if it’s only one or two classes, I’m thinking about that from the moment I wake up. Which means the other days I have to arrange the stuff of life as best I can around the writing time – errands, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, etc., I try to do all of that only after I’ve put in the time at the desk – otherwise, I’d use it as an excuse not to write. If I’ve done my job and logged in the writing time, then I get to reward myself with reading or TV watching (I’m an addict…) in the evenings.
8. Describe your dream writing space.
Anywhere in France.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
Ouch. I have two ways of dealing with negative or “hard” criticism: 1) be painfully honest with myself about whether or not it’s a valid criticism, try to embrace/learn from it, and then get back to work to make the thing better. Or, 2) ignore it. (I usually wind up going with option #2…)
I never feel more clueless than when I’m asked for wisdom…because I’m still terrified with each sentence, with each word I write! I do believe you have to write for yourself and not for others, that in your writing you have to reach for what frightens you, that you have to be a good literary citizen and support other writers. That you can’t wait for the Muse to show up and invite you over – you’re the hostess, you have to sit at your desk first, and start the party all on your own. Other than that…just keep the faith.
Tara Ison is the author of the novels Rockaway, The List, A Child out of Alcatraz, and the forthcoming story collection Ball. You can read more about her work on her website – www.taraison.com.