Alexis Paige is a writing professor with a string of impressive credits for her essays, memoirs and literary editing work, but her latest book, publishing in February, is subtitled How To Make A Messy Literary Life. I was intrigued. Here are all the questions.
Alexis, let’s begin by talking about your literary life as a whole. Your career has always been writing – local newspapers, public relations and a number of teaching roles in the writing world. However, you describe your early years as anything but stable – ‘a peripatetic childhood shaped by loss and dislocation’. Did commitment to writing come from constant change?
My career has indeed been committed to writing, but I don’t see that as a direct response to any instability I experienced as a child. Not because there isn’t a connection; rather, I feel too close to my own life to see it with any distance or clarity or conviction.
Combat pilots use this wonderful, tactile expression to describe flying at very low altitudes to avoid enemy detection: nap-of-the-earth. This is how I think of myself, as a speck lodged in the nap of my own life.
In any case, I don’t have a good sense of how others perceive me (does anyone?), but I feel more inner turmoil than I show. A student who read my first memoir— Not A Place On Any Map, vignettes of my childhood, adolescence, and 20s to early 30s—remarked that the book did not square with his image of me as an energetic, good-humoured professor, a ‘success story’. It shocked him to learn that I have struggled with depression and anxiety, with substance abuse and PTSD, and that my confidence and competence are tinged with a darker sensibility. As Walt Whitman writes in Song of Myself, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.
I think we all contain these multitudes. But still they take people by surprise. That could be a discussion in itself.
So what did that early life look like?
We moved around a lot: I was born in Chicago, my younger brother in Phoenix, and when my parents divorced in the early 1980s, my mother went to Texas, and my brother and I to live with our father in New Hampshire. I had plenty of stability in many respects; at the same time, my life seemed quite different from my peers who spent their lives in one house and one town.
Summers and holidays were in Texas with my mother, and later, Boston. By the time I was 10 I could navigate airports with a competence that made me resent being assigned a chaperone. By the time I was a teenager, I knew how to figure out any subway, rail, or bus system, and could drive an old standard transmission truck off-road in the mountains of New Hampshire. I had this feeling of always moving between worlds, each with different customs and codes. I was comfortable in both worlds, but always happiest sitting in the window seat to the next place.
When did you choose writing, how did you choose writing, and why did you stick with it?
Sometime in my latter high school and early college years. While I had always been a devoted reader, my early English teachers were pinched taskmasters, obsessed with sentence diagrams and grammar (for which I am not ungrateful, but that’s another sidebar). They weren’t writers; they were subject experts. Writing is a subject, sure, but it’s also an identity, a way of being, a way of thinking, a means of exploration, a way of making meaning of experience, a noun and a verb.
In my last year of high school, I took a course in journalism and one in women’s studies—and writing began to click for me in a new, exciting way. These teachers were artists themselves, and that meant something, though I’m not sure I understood that at the time. There was an exchange of recognition perhaps; the more they saw in me a writer, or a thinker, the more I saw it in myself.
Was your family artistic in any way?
One of my cousins is a sublime photographer, another a gifted dancer, one aunt a talented painter. My paternal grandmother played piano on the radio with her sister on vocals—everything from boogie-woogie to standards of the 1940s and 50s. My brother is a talented singer-songwriter and musician.
But more than artistic, I would describe my family as big readers and conversationalists. My dad, brother and I were our own little debating society. Extended family gatherings were rhetorical athletic events (my dad was one of 12 children, and I have approximately 40 first cousins), with everyone jabbing and sparring, making cases for this or that, spinning yarns, playing cards, and filling up rooms with smoke and laughter.
That’s wonderful. Do they have room for one more?
Let’s talk about your latest book – Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life. Why messy?
For me writing is a messy activity. In 25-plus years of doing it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, or tidier. You have ideas and images and gestures and space junk zooming around, and that’s before you even get into the chair. The writing hasn’t even started. The real writing happens when I yield this unwieldy consciousness to the writing itself. In his essay On Writing, William Stafford said it so much better: ‘A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.’
I recognise that well. I start with a compulsion and a muddle, which torments me until I’ve spilled it roughly onto the page. Then I feel calmer because I have it fixed, it can’t get away. Then I can question it properly, see what bothered me so much about it.
My new book is partly a reckoning with, or perhaps an ode to, this—the muck and slog of the act of writing itself. The book dives into some granular concerns of craft, which is why I settled on calling it a craft memoir. By messy, I suppose I mean it’s a thing one never quite gets right. I recently re-read Anna Karenina, and I thought to myself, once again, that it is the most exquisite, perfect work I’ve ever read. But Tolstoy was probably still fiddling with semicolons or dialogue tags or something long after it was published.
Work Hard, Not Smart is a craft memoir of my life both off and on the page (and in the classroom), with linked essays on everything from writing with and about mental illness and addiction, to writing about rape in the age of Me Too, to writing about race and incarceration.
Before I quit drinking at 30 (I’m in my mid-40s now), I got into a terrible drink-driving car accident in Houston that resulted in a protracted felony case and trial in which I was facing prison because a woman was injured in the crash. In the book, I spend a chapter puzzling out how to write this complex story for another book that I’ve been working on for a long time. The more I wrote about the experience, the less I wanted to write a merely personal story of redemption, or whatever. Not that there’s anything wrong with redemption. It’s just that I am more interested in writing about the racial dimension of my experience as a white person reckoning with America’s racist criminal justice system. This is a much larger story, one that remains beyond me, and its difficulty is what I discuss in the Ars Poetica chapter.
The book is also about the messy enterprise of becoming a writer, being a writer, over the long haul. This encompasses career and life choices, literary citizenship, careerism (or anti-careerism), and other vexing concerns like time, and how to get enough of it. Years ago, I asked the poet Charles Simic how I should go about becoming a writer. ‘First,’ he said, ‘you will need to get a job—any job—that pays money.’ I didn’t see it this way in the moment, but now I think it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
It’s the advice we’d be most disappointed to hear, but we all learn its value.
You were recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). How did this change things for you?
My own mind suddenly felt less unsolvable. There was a name for it. There was a name I could quibble with, anyway. It became less a thing to resist and more a feature I could lean into. I was diagnosed when concepts like neurodivergence and neurodiversity were becoming more mainstream, and this helped a lot too. ADHD was simply a different way of being and thinking—one even with some creative advantages, like hyperfocus when interested, for example.
And how does one define ‘normal’, especially in creative people? We train ourselves to do things that require a high level of concentration, practice and persistence, we follow impulses that are mysterious to others and often inexplicable to ourselves… we make connections others do not…
The title of my book is an inversion of the cliché “work smart, not hard,” a nod to my own growing acceptance of ADHD as a kind of divergent-thinker magic. The book arose from this, which made me want to run out and tell other like-minded creatives what I wish I knew early in my writing life: that not all who wander all are lost. You can learn to rely on yourself, to go your own way, and to make a writing life that fits you. The essay form is especially elliptical, so having an elliptical thinking pattern is an advantage there too.
Meanwhile, what’s this picture of you with – gasp – travel writer Jon Krakauer?
For my 25th birthday, my dad took me to a Himalayan Foundation dinner in San Francisco. We had both read a lot of mountaineering books, including Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a harrowing account of the 1996 Everest disaster, not to mention a timely polemic about the phenomenon of big mountain tourism.
I know it well! I read it several times while writing Ever Rest. If I open the pages, I fall into it again.
I love all of Krakauer’s work (he’s SO good with nouns!), and he was a speaker at the event. After the speeches and dinner, as things were winding down, Krakauer was suddenly free, and I saw my chance. I practically tackled the poor guy, but he was very gracious and kind and his eyes were dazzling—full of life. My father was ready to capture the moment on film.
Let’s talk about your first memoir – Not A Place On Any Map.
It’s a memoir in vignettes about my childhood and early 20s. This was the time when I moved around most, first with family, and then by choice. The locus of the book is also trauma itself, in particular, my first trip abroad, to Italy, where I was raped. My life thereafter spun out in painful, predictable ways. I reported the rape, nothing happened, I felt re-victimized, I drank, I drugged, and I stuffed down the assault (and others) to the deepest recesses I could find. The book is an attempt at mapping the spin out and what happens when it all comes back up.
Your website describes a few hair-raising escapades including a short spell in jail. Tell me about hellraiser Alexis. Is that a fair description? Are you still a hellraiser?
Hellraiser, I’ll take it! I do think it’s a fair description. I’m not as much an obvious hellraiser as I was in my 20s, I have more to protect and lose now. But I still have a rebellious disposition (even with myself), and I hope to be raising hell for a good many years to come.
Do you write fiction at all?
I haven’t written fiction, but I never say never. I read and teach a lot of fiction. The short story is one of my favourite forms. In my early years as a baby creative writer (a poet), I did publish a few poems. This occurred around the millennium, when publications were still print, largely, and mine are now long out of print now, thank god.
What are the hallmarks of an Alexis Paige piece in terms of concerns, curiosities and style?
I love this question, but I have no idea. I have no aptitude for this sort of self-appraisal.
I love this answer. We can’t always figure ourselves out – as you said earlier.
I’ve always been driven by an insatiable curiosity. A few years ago, I became so obsessed with underwater treasure hunting that I contemplated studying engineering at the college where I teach writing, not because I wanted to do any engineering, but because I wanted to better understand marine engineering so I could read more about it. For the last few years, I’ve been on a World War II tear that started with a book on Churchill. So, I have these interests that ostensibly have nothing, or little, to do with my field, but they’re all connected on some crazy loop that makes sense to me.
Your essays are published in several literary journals. You’ve also edited the journal Brevity. What does a journal editor do, aside from assessing submissions?
Allison K Williams just wrote this super helpful piece for Brevity about this very topic, so I want to second everything she says in this link.
I’ve worked as a journal editor at a few places—most recently at Brevity—and the role can be different at different places. At Brevity, most of my work was reading and rating submissions—sometimes offering commentary if I loved a piece or if I felt my rating could benefit from explication (this wasn’t feedback for the submitter, more part of an internal conversation about what we loved, liked, didn’t like, or had questions about). I didn’t work directly with writers on revisions; I believe that happened at a higher editorial level, but Brevity gets such incredible work, so many publishable riches, that most accepted work requires little editing. At other journals, the Stonecoast Literary Journal where I was the creative nonfiction editor during my MFA program, I not only read submissions and managed our wonderful readers, but I made publication decisions and worked with writers on revisions and edits.
Do you have any submission tips to offer authors?
Many writers send out tons of work to lots of places. I’m not opposed to this, but it’s not how I work. I don’t send out anything until I’m really done with it, probably to my own detriment. I have trouble turning loose of even one sentence. And I rarely submit simultaneously. I send out one piece at a time, to one place at a time, one that’s been carefully researched. With publishing, I’m either risk averse, or a serial monogamist.
What’s the most common reason for rejection?
I can only speak for my niche experience. Some rejections occur because the piece is not the right fit (eg it’s a piece of reportage submitted to a journal that doesn’t publish reportage), some are because it’s not the right timing (eg it’s wonderful, but we just published an essay about infidelity). Most rejections, in my experience, occur because the submission is unfinished, it needs work on a beginning or ending, it needs one thread tugged on a bit more, it needs to be edited, but it’s close. Maybe it’s good, really good, but not great. It’s so subjective, of course.
Tell me about your editing work, both as a freelance and for Vine Leaves Press.
I do some copy editing, but mostly developmental editing, both freelance and for Vine Leaves. At VLP, development editing is with a manuscript that has been accepted for publication, so it’s about refining the work and making it the best version of itself. Editing is so satisfying to me because it’s so much easier to see the issues and possibilities in work that’s not my own.
It certainly is. It also tunes up our own awareness. Speaking of your own work, what are you writing now?
I’m in flux. I’m on the book launch, but I’ve been tinkering with a couple of longform essays that detail the grief and fear of the last few years—not only life in a global pandemic, but also some personal griefs and fears. I had a hysterectomy a couple of years ago because of health problems, my husband had a serious injury and recovery last year; he shattered his arm. We lost two dogs. So, I want to work on those; whether they’re one-offs or part of a book of essays, I don’t know yet. I also need to finish another work-in-progress, my jail memoir, which I believe is close but needs one more revision.
Find Alexis sparsely on Twitter @lexissima , on Facebook and on her website. Find Work Hard, Not Smart: How To Make A Messy Literary Life here.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.