A Chat with Kristen MacKenzie

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Kristen MacKenzie lives on Vashon Island in a quiet cabin where the shelves are filled with herbs for medicine making, the floor is open for dancing, and the table faces the ocean, waiting for a writer to pick up the pen. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Rawboned, GALA, Extract(s) Daily Dose of Lit, Maudlin House, Blank Fiction, Cease, Cows, Crack the Spine, Eckleburg, Referential, Bluestockings, NAILED, Knee-Jerk, Minerva Rising, Mondegreen, Prick of the Spindle, Crab Fat, Wilderness House, and Poydras Review and is included monthly in Diversity Rules. Her short story, “Cold Comfort,” placed in Honorable Mention in The Women’s National Book Association’s annual writing contest.
 
 
Crab Fat: What is the motivation behind your work? Are there any writers or pieces in particular that have influenced your style?
 
Kristen MacKenzie: I began writing in February of 2014 after having read and done the exercises in The Artist’s Way the previous November. I’d purchased the book for a friend who was a writer and was having trouble unleashing her creative forces, but when the book arrived in the mail, I considered it in too bad a condition to give as a present and kept it for myself. I began the process, not to become a writer, but to provide the clearing needed for a career change I felt ready for. Around the same time, I found the website of a therapist/writer who gave advice in the from of a column called “Dear Dulcie”. I was struggling to work through some major life changes and wrote in, anonymously, for help. Along with other ideas, Dulcie suggested I begin writing and see what might come up. What came up was hundreds of the most effortless, free-flowing world-building pages of story, all written sitting at my kitchen table facing the water and scribbling like mad with pencil and a quick succession of grocery store notebooks. I wrote about a woman in recovery and a writer/therapist with writer’s block who reaches out and forms a link that forces her to redefine her own life. By the time I reached six hundred pages, I’d begun writing other shorter pieces and reaching out to a community of people making up their own worlds on the page. Dear Dulcie closed for business, so to speak, and the story I began hasn’t found an ending, but the words are still flowing (just much faster now on a Mac). Writers who have influenced my style include: Dulcie Witman, Jeanette Winterson, Diana Gabaldon, Samantha Harvey, Sylvia Brownrig, Nicola Griffiths, Mary Oliver, and Alfred Noyes.
 
 
CF: What is your process for writing?
 
KM: My process has changed over time, of course. When I have a deadline or a big piece that’s got hold of me, I’ll often write for two hours a day, either on break at work or at home after my day is done. I start the day off with a little writing as Julia Cameron suggested in her book, The Artist’s Way. I aim for a thousand words a day, but by no means hit it consistently although I do find creative ways to fudge on that number. (Does writing essays for an online dating profile count? Sure!) In terms of the actual shape of each piece, I’m not at all linear. I start with a sense, whether it’s the smell of low tide coming in through the window, or the particular shade of blue where the mountain meets the sky, and just let the words roll, shaping a scene, putting myself there and seeing where it goes. When I’m working on a bigger project, I often write scenes I know won’t be in the completed work, just so that I can see what my character would do in a given situation so that when I write her in a scene that does stay, I know I’m writing her in a very true way, as in true to who she is. Then I piece all of these scenes together, with the help of very patient editors, and hopefully, the finished work is a story.
 
 
CF: Are there any projects or pieces you’re currently working on, and if so, could you tell us about them?
 
KM: Thank you. Yes, I’ve just received the first round of feedback on fifty pages of a book in progress I started late last year. And serendipitously, the coach/editor working with me is none other than the wonderful Dulcie Witman, so I feel blessed already. I noticed in the past few years that, being a very picky reader, I was having a lot of trouble finding solid stories about women who love each other. There are plenty of cliche-driven, rather unimaginative books out there and a few (a very, very few) solid pieces of fiction that don’t insult the genre, but I wanted to find a book that spoke to the woman who finds herself at forty, recognizing that she’s a gay woman in a hetero marriage, and what happens next. I wanted to find a book about a woman who knew from the beginning who she is and how she wants to love but has trouble with the daily parts of life, like sobriety and integrity, even though she truly is a good person. Not finding anything like this, I decided to write it myself.
 
 
CF: You mentioned that you try to hit a thousand words per day. How do you encourage yourself to make that goal, or to write to make big deadlines?
 
KM: In regard to meeting goals or deadlines, what seems to matter most is the support of people who believe in what I’m doing even when I forget. When I’m tempted to put writing on the back burner because I’ve hit a tricky spot and the words aren’t coming, or pretend it’s just a hobby to make blowing it off feel less like letting myself down, my team won’t let me fool myself. I check in and share what I’ve got, or the reason why I have nothing to share and they tell me what they see in my story, either the one I’m committed to writing or the one I’m feeding them. Having a support crew that calls BS when they see it is key. And finally, always going back to Julia Cameron: “you must be willing to write badly to write well.” Writing as therapy, as healing. Talk to us about that. Writing as therapy and healing began very early for me. I didn’t connect well with most people until much later in life; I would always rather read than have a conversation. But clearly books ask as many questions as they answer when you’re reading the right kind and when I realized I wasn’t able to get the connection and clarity I craved from those around me,  I started to turn the inquiry inward. Journaling was the story I told myself about the world around me and who I was in it, or who I was becoming. There, I never stuttered or blushed. I wasn’t shamed for feeling too much or too little and I always found a comeback to put downs, eventually. Now, when a project stalls or the characters I write begin to feel insubstantial, I go back to writing for me, to me, and often, find my way back to clarity and connection with the stories I know best. 


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1 Comment

  1. Dulcie Witman and her team of fellow writers can now be found over at Wide Open Writing, where a number of enticing retreats are offered, as well as online writing groups and one-on-one coaching, as I’m fortunate enough to be enjoying.

    http://www.wideopenwriting.com

    Please also check out her blog to read her hard-hitting, wise-cracking advice column.

    http://dulciewitman.com.

    Enjoy! (Just don’t take that last spot at the Tucson retreat; it’s mine! ;) )

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