Grit, grace & talent: Dorothy Allison rises as teacher, author, activist
Next week, award-winning novelist, poet, essayist, activist and speaker Dorothy Allison is teaching at the Port Townsend’s Writers’ Conference. With a focus on community and rigorous attention to craft, the conference offers morning and afternoon workshops, residencies, and a vibrant reading and lecture series presented by vital, contemporary writers.
Comprising six books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, Allison’s work is securely located on the borders of Southern and working-class literature, with deep roots in feminist and lesbian-feminist activism and politics.
Twenty years since their original publication date, Allison’s collection of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature and her debut novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, are still found on college reading lists today.
Bastard Out of Carolina has been translated into 12 languages. The novel, like all of her fiction, gives an uncompromising vision of the ugliness and injustice of poverty.
I’ve wanted to meet Dorothy Allison since discovering her writing in early adulthood. Her stories and opinions often unveiled my own. When I saw the opportunity to interview her, I jumped.
Meeting at Hedgebrook
Allison invited me to spend the day at Hedgebrook, a nonprofit writers’ retreat on Whidbey Island, where she was one of six stars in the women’s literary community donating their time during a long weekend called Vortex, which was filled with intensive writing workshops and lectures.
I talked with Allison throughout the day: Over memorable meals prepared by the Hedgebrook kitchen, which prides itself on using fresh, local and organic ingredients whenever possible; in between lectures, on benches lining colorful gardens and clover green meadows; and while participating in a morning workshop led by Allison, held inside a round room with a vaulted ceiling smelling of wood and lit by skylights.
When I remarked how perfect the setting must be for a writer, Allison said, “Makes me nervous, fancy places. This place is amazing, though. But it’s hard to let someone do things for me. And they’ve been doing everything for me the past week.”
Allison hasn’t always been treated so well. Raised in extreme poverty, she saw family members die as a result. Violence and incest were a part of her childhood.
In her essay “A Question of Class,” she wrote about her family being among the invisible and wrote, “My people were not remarkable. We were ordinary, but even so, we were mythical. We were the ‘they’ everyone talks about – the ungrateful poor.”
Today, Allison is far from invisible. Her presence is as strong as her writing. While answering my questions, her eyes flashed in time to her wicked sense of humor, which was always bubbling near the surface, no matter how heavy the subject she discussed, and her South Carolina accent thickened as she talked about the things she holds dear: storytelling, truth, feminism and family.
When among the Hedgebrook participants, Allison repeatedly received compliments and thank-yous for her work. (One woman said it was in part because of Allison that she was able to come out of the closet.) Allison took the praise and attention in stride, with understanding nods and pats on the back for the complimentary participants. She appeared unsurprised, but nevertheless touched by their words.
And, now and then, throughout the morning workshop, Allison threw out her arms, tilted her chin to the cathedral ceiling and reminded the serious writers to “breathe through their tits.”
Oh, did I mention? The woman can swear like a pirate.
Not for profit
Brochures for artist retreats, particularly those aimed at women, often proclaim the necessity of having the time and place to be creative without distractions. Unfortunately, these retreats are rarely free, and scholarships are scarce, which (obviously) limits the pool of applicants. Even if applicants can pay for the retreat, it might not be possible for them to take the time off from work.
Early on in our conversation, Allison addressed this elitism sometimes found in the world of artist retreats with what I quickly learned was characteristic matter-of-factness. “The honey class always rises. That’s always a big issue. Usually, I’m the one that brings it up. It’s uncomfortable. One of the reasons I support Hedgebrook is because it’s free. That means there’s a long waiting list. But it’s free. All of it. That’s important.”
Allison jokes that she makes her living “one college at a time.” Although she spends much of her year traveling to and speaking at large universities, she enjoys coming to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference every few years, as well as other low-cost writing programs in the country.
“Centrum is one of the best lower-cost writing programs in the country, and every time I teach at Centrum, I get to work with writers I won’t get to work with anyplace else. I teach at Tin House [in Portland, Ore.] every summer, but that costs more money. People come to Centrum who would never come to Tin House. A lot of the smaller writing programs don’t pay much, but you do it because you get to work with writers you want to work with, or in the case like Hedgebrook, you do it because you want to support it.”
In the past, Allison has led intense manuscript-focused workshops and only allowed 10-12 people per workshop. She said she enjoys this intensity because she thinks “line by line is the best way to learn.”
But this year, Allison is doing something different at Centrum; she’s leading what she calls the “generative workshop.”
The workshop is aimed at writers who’ve been working on a book that has, for whatever reason, stalled or “gone off the tracks.” Participants will be allowed only to share three pages of what they’ve been working on, and Allison provides exercises designed to provoke writers to take their work in a new direction.
Allison has led this style of workshop in the past. She knows that sometimes the three-page limit is difficult for writers to accept. Sometimes they’ll try to share more, but Allison is firm. “I don’t want to rehash what you’ve already done.”
In her experience, what Allison has found is, “When you put together a good group of people, they’ll write for each other.”
The puzzle of writing
When I asked about the writing process and origin of her story ideas, Allison shook her head and said, “It’s a puzzle. What generally happens is that someone starts talking, and I have to figure out what the f*** is going on. All of my writing starts with some kind of fragmented dialogue.”
Allison explained that thinking of writing as a puzzle can be a useful approach. “The puzzle is a production and it has to make you curious to keep working, because it takes a damn long time to get a novel done. I can make it even longer than it should. This one I’m working on now, five, six years in, f***ed up completely. Gotta start all over, which is hard. Especially since my editor really liked that book.”
Allison is fascinated by complicated people and their complicated stories. She believes if you share enough about a character, no matter how flawed that character might be, the reader will come to understand and even care about that character. She likes reading a story when “you find yourself having emotions you shouldn’t be having.”
Generally, Allison doesn’t show anyone a draft until the work is almost done. “I’m not a trusting soul,” she said with a laugh. “That doesn’t make things easy.” But she will bounce ideas off a few people and share the process of writing with other writer friends.
“One of the glories of being here at Hedgebrook with my friends is that we’re always very, very, very matter of fact and frank with each other. We always feel like we should’ve already done something, and, goddamnit, that’s the reality of being a writer: You’re constantly unsure of what you’re doing and you’re constantly thinking you’ve f***ed up.”
Whenever Allison’s working on a novel, she reads her writing out loud, sometimes into a cassette player. This way, she said, she can “hear where it goes wrong and sometimes the energy of reading it out loud can show me where to go.”
Although Allison shared that the novel she’s currently working on, She Who, is about “what happens after violence,” she said she tries not to talk too much about whatever she’s working on because “it’s dangerous; talk too much and you lose the book. You can talk a book to death.”
Got a lot of parts
I asked Allison about all the labels applied to her: author, speaker, feminist, lesbian, activist, and which label, if any, suited her. She grinned, suddenly both pirate and sailor on leave, but answered in all seriousness, “Whatever I show up at that they’re denying, well, that is the one I claim first. At feminist events, where they’re talking lesbian politics, I’ll start talking working-class literature. And if I go to a literary event and everyone’s full of themselves, well, I’m going to start talking about lesbian politics.”
She leaned in on the picnic table where we were sitting outside, “I rarely go anywhere where all of my parts are welcome. Almost never. I got a lot of parts.”
Today, Allison lives in California with her partner of 25 years and their 19-year-old son, Wolf. “I don’t believe in monogamy or marriage,” she said, “but here I am, 25 years in.”
My final question for Allison was about faith, a subject that had come up a couple of times in our conversations. Allison said she calls herself a Zen Baptist, but attends Quaker services to get quiet. She appreciates the Quakers’ “ability to just be quiet.”
And it was here, at the end of a nonstop day filled with workshops, lectures, meals, interviews and writers – writers everywhere – when Allison and I sat quietly on a bench. Participants milled around the gardens, respectfully waiting for Allison to finish the interview so they could thank her once more for, well, for everything and especially for her essay/story about (fill in the blank).
As we sat, I tried to formulate a way to thank Allison myself for the day, for her candor, for her fiction that influenced my early attempts at storytelling, for her work that voiced unpopular feminist views when I was too young and too shy to articulate them out loud myself. How could I thank her without getting sappily earnest? I couldn’t. So, I followed Allison’s lead and sat silently, too.
After several minutes, Allison nudged me with her elbow as if to jostle me out of my thoughts, asked if I got everything I needed and said, speaking slower, “What I believe is that there’s more than me. And if I’m going to think of God, I’m going to think of it in female terms.” Allison smiled, a little tired, a lot kind and ever frank, “But I don’t have a clue.”
She took a deep breath before she stood up to join the participants again. It was the end of a long day, and sometimes a pirate, even such a remarkable one, must breathe through her tits.
To learn more about Hedgebrook, visit hedgebrook.org. To learn more about Port Townsend’s Writers’ Conference, visit centrum.org/programs/writing.
Kiera Miller Hodlik would like to thank Hedgebrook for welcoming her into its community for the day. Send comments to email@example.com.
First published in the Leader 7/11/2012
Lisa Gilley: Grounded, fierce, virgo, knock-out
|Uncommon wisdom in familiar landscapes|
|Lisa Gilley is entering 2013 with doors in the art world held open for her.After a year of accolades and accomplishments – including group and solo shows, landing on the cover of Art Access, having work selected for the permanent collection at Bainbridge Island’s Museum of Art and getting noticed by several museum directors — this grounded yet no less dynamic visual artist is taking time to work without a deadline on a new series of Alaskan landscapes.
“The commercial interface is about to make a huge leap for Gilley that she has to negotiate successfully or risk compromising her work,” says art collector and author Brad Matsen. “She’s ready for it because she’s a solid person.”
Gilley’s contemporary realist art is inspired by the early modernists and reflects her Northwest environment as well as an uncommon antique wisdom. The timelessness of Gilley’s varying Northwest terrains – Palouse farmlands, wetlands and estuaries, a squall swelling steely blues above the Samish River – are mediated through Gilley’s present-day perspective. Soft colors, fluid shapes, a compelling play on light, and visual discoveries that appear and shift in the viewer’s memory bank.
“On the surface, Gilley’s work is recognizable and easy to digest,” says Greg Robinson, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, slated to open this summer. “But the more you look at it, the more you’re pulled into it. I think her work is complicated; it’s very beautiful work.”
Residency at home
Gilley’s intellect and personality radiate as she talks and moves amongst her dogs and horses at her home on Marrowstone Island, which she designed and built with her husband, shipwright Chris Chase (who also builds her picture frames). They spent years living without utilities on 5 acres in a one-room cabin and Airstream trailer.
Rather than fearing that there could be a clock-ticking slam of the doors to the art world, Gilley is allowing herself time to “eat, breathe and walk as an artist” without the pressure of a show. She has reduced her hours as a licensed massage therapistfor people and horses, and is spending 30-40 hours a week in the studio. A sort of artist residency at home, she says.
“I’m taking time with this new work, instead of ballistically throwing myself at it,” Gilley says. “People think I’m the grounded massage person, and I am, but I also go fast sometimes. Boom.” Gilley punches the air.
Fast and fierce
Gilley’s fierce intelligence and ability to go fast has served her well over the years. After growing up on a farm in Skagit Valley, she moved out on her own, started community college and became the first person in her family to pursue a higher education. To make ends meet, she waited tables, fished in the summer, was a horse trail guide and worked at nearby Mount Baker Ski Area.
“Whatever I had to do, I did it,” says Gilley.
Despite the early encouragement she received from art instructors, Gilley considered pursuing a degree in aeronautics. She received the necessary nudge toward art when a boyfriend took her to meet Guy Anderson. Anderson was one of four artists dubbed by Life magazine as the “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.”
Duly impressed by her work, Anderson said Gilley should definitely pursue art.
Gilley was just 20 years old.
After being accepted to Cornish College of the Arts, but unable to afford the tuition, Gilley decided to complete a degree in visual communications at Western Washington University. At the time, it was one of the top schools in the country in this new field. “It was so cool. I learned everything. It was a five-year bachelor of science degree because we did so many technologies and had to dabble in everything.”
Gilley moved to Port Townsend briefly with her husband, but got restless not using her degree, so they moved to Seattle in 1991.
Despite the recession, Gilley’s valuable skill set, talent and ability to work hard and go fast led to freelancing as a professional illustrator and graphic designer for big-name companies and advertising firms.
By the mid-’90s, Gilley was an art director for a large company, working 50-60 hours a week, making very good money – and painfully bored.
“I’d escalated myself so high on the ladder that all I did was go to meetings and listen to people do what they do in meetings,” she says. “It wasn’t resonating.”
Life gradually steered Gilley in a new direction. Her husband was ready to return to Port Townsend, so Gilley became one of its first telecommuters.
A car accident in 1998 introduced Gilley to bodywork, which led her to take courses in California to become a licensed massage practitioner for both horses and people, all while commuting and working as an art director.
“I was just loading up my plate,” says Gilley.
A serious head injury in 2000 forced Gilley to finally take a rest.
“A head injury can knock the Virgo out of you,” she says. “Virgos can be overly perfectionistic and compulsive, and you need that as a designer, but I got to go back to being my old self, my old painting self, more laid back.”
Gilley found that space and stayed there.
From that space, Gilley has been able to return to painting seriously over the past 10 years and identify herself as an artist by retraining her perception about what makes one an artist. “I’m an artist when I cook, how I organize, when I think about what I’m going to wear, how I’ll wrap my husband’s gift.”
For Gilley, although her paintings sold well after her first local show and recent sales have allowed her a buffer to take this time, the work is never about the sales; it’s always about the work, and the work is always for her. “The intention was not to make money. I just wanted to paint.”
When asked how she stays grounded while so creatively inspired and in the middle of so much excitement around her work, Gilley doesn’t pause before answering.
“I’ve set my whole life up to be grounded. My horses, my dogs, the fact that I start out my day doing an hour of barn chores.”
“I think being a body worker is huge, because you have to be grounded. Horses know when you’re not grounded right away,” Gilley says with a shrug. “I’ve practiced being grounded. No, it’s not a natural gift. It’s learned.”
See more of Lisa Gilley’s work at http://www.lisagilley.com
The Leader 1/9/2013
Counsel Langley: Painting like Freddie Mercury sang
If she wasn’t an artist, she’d be a rock star.
“I owe something to musicians,” says local visual artist Counsel Langley. “They help maintain the tone I want in a painting. The visuals of glam rock, heavy metal, just that over-the-top, that epic display, the showmanship – I love that. I want that kind of energy coming through in my art. It’s a challenge to pull off in something static, trying to make you feel like what it must’ve been like to see Freddie Mercury sing.”
But pull it off Langley does. Even her most abstract pieces are filled with an intense energy created from relationships between forms and colors, an energy comparable to – well, yes, Freddie Mercury. Whether she’s using dots, feathers, images, wood, recycled plastic, graphite, stencils, collage or a little bit from all of the above, Langley’s work always maintains an electric and human element.
And there is always a story. “I crack myself up sometimes with the stories going on in my head,” Langley says. These stories guide her artistic decisions, but she’ll only share the story if asked. Instead, she lets the titles gently nudge the viewer in the intended direction. Her titles, such as “The Announcement,” “Proposal,” “Headquarters” and “Closed-door Meeting,” are provoking and, considering their brevity, doing a lot of work: Langley’s titles confirm and enhance the viewer’s experience.
Langley recognizes that although titles are important to her, they take some guts, some risk and, ultimately, they’re a big commitment. “You don’t want to close the box. You just want to give an enticing entrance.”Langley credits her wild childhood spent growing up in Port Townsend by the ocean as one of her greatest influences. Her father was a shipwright. From a young age, she learned how to use his tools and developed an appreciation for quality craftsmanship along with a strong work ethic.
She works in her home studio every day, no matter if there are two kids and a husband in the house. “Even five minutes counts,” she says. “I can get a lot done in five minutes.”
Langley also credits the freedom she was allowed in childhood as an influence. “I had an insane amount of time to look and get lost,” she says. “It was a different time.”
From a young age, she was struck with the patterns found in nature and remembers walking herself to kindergarten, stopping along the way to sit down and study a flower. Sometimes she would blow into sand for long periods of time or become hypnotized by the patterns she saw in a boat’s wake. Nature captivated her.
It’s no surprise that when Langley attended the University of Washington for two years she considered pursuing marine biology. But she had already started to view herself as an artist, so she headed to the Massachusetts College of Art, where she majored in metals. She figured college was a good time to take advantage of the opportunities to learn skills she couldn’t easily learn on her own. Metals, Langley noticed, attracted a more serious student and this appealed to her work ethic and commitment to an honest, artistic direction.
“You can talk your way through a mediocre painting pretty easily if you’re a good talker, but you can’t talk your way through a solder seam.”
While majoring in metals, Langley found she was intrigued by the patterns and plans she was making in preparation for a three-dimensional object, so secretly, off to the side, she started painting them. She started to play with the patterns then, and she hasn’t stopped.
Langley’s ability and confidence to play, to trust her artistic intuition, along with her lively intellect and respect for discipline, leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that if Langley wasn’t a visual artist, she certainly could be a marine biologist – or a rock star, or just about anything else she set her scientist’s eyes and artist’s heart on.
Describe yourself in three words.
Curious, patient, passionate.
Describe your work in three words.
Dichotomy, geometry, mystery.
Who or what inspires you?
Natural processes, math, structural engineering, good storytellers. Sincerity.
It’s a Thursday afternoon. What are you doing?
Working in my studio or taking a kid to her dance class.
If you could name a park, a street or a building, which would it be and what would you name it?
Hmmm … I did always think it was cool that Frank Herbert got to rename a local street “Xanadu,” but I don’t really want to name any of those things. I consider myself pretty lucky to have been given the privilege of naming whole human beings. That said, I’ve always wanted to name a band Hoth.
What, if anything, hangs on your walls?
My work, my friends’ work, my kids’ work.
What is the last piece of music you listened to?
“Ready to Start” by Arcade Fire (on repeat).
What medium would you like to try?
Are you creating what you want to be creating?
Yes. I want to keep learning what’s in my own head and continue to improve my skills at expressing it.
Are you doing what you want to be doing?
Absolutely. My husband and I are raising our kids how we want to, and I’m working full time as a visual artist. I am very grateful for this.
How, if at all, does Port Townsend affect your work?
Living in PT is sort of like being on permanent artist residency. The amazing friends, low stress and sheer beauty all help to increase focus and productivity.
Langley’s work can be viewed this month at Artisans on Taylor as part of a three-person show called “You, Me & Geometry.” You can also check out her work at her website, counsellangley.com, or witness her part in a compelling daily East Coast/West Coast photo conversation at ayearofdays.wordpress.com.
If she wasn’t a writer, Kiera Miller Hodlik likes to think she’d be a visual artist. Or Bob Dylan.