SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: SARAH FRAN WISBY
Sarah Fran Wisby is the author of two books of poetry: the heart's progress and Viva Loss, and also writes fiction, memoir, and essays. She is a Headlands Center for the Arts fellow and a San Francisco Arts Commission grantee. Recent work can be found online in the Portable Boog and NAP, as well as on a plaque at the Maritime Museum, next to artifacts from a Russian coal ship abandoned in San Francisco during the gold rush. You can SEE HER READ ON YOUTUBE AND order her latest book AT http://plainwrappress.com/store/12072036.
Sarah Fran Wisby! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
I've almost always published and performed my work without financial compensation. I suppose when I was younger, the goal was to get my work out there by any means necessary. Both my books were bestsellers, whatever that means in this context, at Small Press Distribution, and they are both beautifully designed and crafted. So, no regrets there! I don't see art as a commodity so much as a way to bring people together. That said, I'm starting to realize that if I want to be part of a larger cultural conversation, I may one day need to start courting larger publishers and venues — not in hopes of making money exactly, but of reaching a larger audience. Also, there is sort of a movement among some artists I know who are tired of giving it away for free (being surrounded by gobs of tech wealth and struggling to survive has a lot to do it, I'm sure), who are starting to insist on fair wages for the incredible amount of work it takes to make art. I fully support this, even though I'm not quite there yet myself.
Does your craft provide you with a livelihood?
It was never my aim to write for money. My father was a newspaper reporter, and earned a comfortable middle-class living, but never got around to that novel he always wanted to write. And my mother, when I told her I wanted to be some kind of artist when I grew up, said, that's fine, but you'll also need a day job to support yourself. In my mind there was a definite split between the work we do for money and the things we are passionate about, which I suppose is still there. And I listened to writers like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (who worked as a doctor and an insurance executive, respectively) who said that writers should always have one foot in the real world. Though I did get a sizable grant a few years back and thought, hey, I could get used to this!
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?
I'm incredibly aware of how lucky I am to have rent control and roommates, which enables me to work part-time in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. And I work at a worker-owned co-op, where we give ourselves excellent health benefits and pay ourselves a living wage. So I have time to read and write, to dream and goof off with friends, to take classes in all sorts of side interests, from beatboxing to auto mechanics to rock climbing, and to attend to my myriad mental health crises. What I don't seem to have these days is time to date, or to clean my room.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
Very occasionally something will pour out of me that needs very little revision, but ordinarily, a piece will go through several drafts as a matter of course. I read the work aloud, and my ear can usually detect false notes and places where the rhythm can be tightened. Also, over time, I see ways that I can deepen the narrative, make it stranger, more vulnerable, and hopefully more true.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
When I read it in front of an audience and it transports me to another realm, when I feel the audience responding and myself vibrating from head to toe with the incantatory power of language, often that's when I know it's done.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I was definitely "called" to be an artist of some sort, and at some point I "chose" writing because it was the thing I felt I was best at, and because it required the fewest resources to pursue. But I like to bust out in other realms, too. I love to construct material things, and could see pursuing textile arts or furniture making in some future incarnation. I also have a deep love of performance, and intend to go to clown school one of these days.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
Sex Criminals Speak, a paperback of hardcore porn stories that my friend Audrey pinched from her father when we were in fourth grade. He was a lawyer, so we thought the book had to be true. It was filled with first-person accounts of rape, child molestation, bestiality, and incest, ostensibly written by men in jail who were paying for their crimes. We'd go out into the furthest field of our elementary school and read it aloud to each other during recess among the chamomile and clover. That book, more than any other, being the first of its kind that I encountered, confused me, turned me on, and made me feel very, very bad, all of which influenced and predicted my future sexual explorations. None of which I particularly regret.