It’s shocking how long I’ve known Ella! I refuse to believe we can even go back that far but there’s nothing better than knowing artists friends for a long time and watching them evolve. Ella has always been the type of artist I admire, ready to dive into her interests rather than stalk them for a bit like I do! Her activism and activity are inspiring.
When you begin a story, what comes first to you (dialogue, imagery, etc)?
A gut feeling. That can come from a past experience, a story in the news, some historical occurrence. Something that I experience or read about usually prompts me to write.
What is the process like getting something from your head to the page?
It’s not easy…I get in my own way sometimes. But when an idea continues to nag at me…when it won’t let me sleep…I can’t ignore it anymore, it gets written.
What is the biggest difficulty in achieving that goal of having something on the page?
I think my own nerve. I have to work at getting out of my own way and having the confidence to know that I can actually write and complete a story. This seems easy (it’s just words) but it’s extremely difficult. I always want perfection. I want to be done as soon as I begin. Off the bat, I know there is no way in hell that will happen. So it’s daunting to have the story in your head and know you have 200 pages to go before you get to the end.
After you’ve started, when do you edit?
I usually write in chunks so I edit every time I come back to write more. I like to come back and read what I’ve written as if I’ve never seen it. I used to hate editing, but now it’s kind of a thrilling experience because I always find something new. New questions, new traits about the characters, new story turns and twists.
If you write fictional things, do you do research? If so, what kind and how hard do you rely on facts?
I do research sometimes from the internet and then other times from books and scholarly material depending on what I’m writing. I try to get the facts right because I don’t want someone who is reading it who knows the facts distracted by things that are factually inaccurate. Of course you can always take liberty, but if I do that it’s a conscious choice in the story, not a result of not knowing that facts.
Explain your editing process.
I save things in successive versions because I like to see the progress over time. It’s pretty satisfying now to see version 10. You know you worked for that!! Also, you never know when a chunk you discarded in version 3 will show up again in version 5. I paint, and as a painter you are always supposed to take a step back from your work and check out the big picture. It gives you perspective. I do that with my writing. I step back, walk away and come back to it later and try to read it with fresh eyes. I’m pretty meticulous about trying to keep things consistent and getting things just right, so when I go back, I try to go over the entire piece.
Do you expose your “in progress” writing to other people? Why or why not?
I do because I believe it helps the work improve. Sometimes it’s painful, but I make myself do it because at the end of the day, I’d rather be certain that I’m on the right track than wondering if I am. I try to go to the people who will be really honest and critical. I love being in workshops and having multiple people give feedback. You can get great insight from folks who are all in the writing process with you.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
Sonia Sanchez told me that the best writer masters her craft, then throws it all out and writes. Even makes up her own forms. That’s when I learned that knowing your craft well actually frees you up to be as creative as possible. Best advice ever.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
It wasn’t really advice…someone once told me they didn’t like a story I wrote. I shelved it thinking it was bad. Years later, someone else who had read it asked me what happened to that story because they loved it. It taught me a great lesson – take everything people tell you about your writing with a grain of salt and go with your gut. You are the only person who has to love it or hate it.
What kind of mediums do you use to get your writing out there to the public?
My own website, and a lot of submissions. I try to keep abreast of publishing opportunities and submit to as much as I can muster (journals, edited books, magazines, etc.) I put my own stuff out there when I can. I’ve learned to not always rely on others to get my work out into the world. Sometimes when you do it yourself, it leads to other things.
How often do you edit a piece once it’s “done”?
It’s never done so all the time!
What do you think is the biggest misconception of writing or being a writer?
That you have to write full time to be a writer. You’re a writer when you say you are. When you take it seriously enough to do it, you will feel comfortable calling yourself a writer because you are working for it, even if it’s not 9-5 and even if you are not getting paid (although that’s always nice!).
How do you feel about offering other writers feedback on their writing if asked?
I will always do it if asked and if I’m available. It’s a courageous thing to ask someone to read your work and I want to support just as I would love for others to support me in my process.
How has your writing evolved from the beginning? 10 years ago? Last year?
At 15 I wrote my first novel. I used to be a Sweet Valley High junkie and one day I said to myself, I can write something like that. So I did. 100+ pages by hand. But I never let anyone read it. In college I wrote poetry. No one saw those either. After grad school I began writing short stories. I started making movies. Then I wanted to write my own screenplays. I began to realize that if I wanted to really be confident in my writing, I would have to seriously commit myself to learning the craft. So I began doing that…I took classes, read a lot, wrote and joined workshop groups. It was good for me to learn the craft and subject myself to critique. It helped my writing grow and it helped me gain confidence that I could actually write things that people wanted to read. And the inspiration I take from being around so many great writers pushes me to continue writing.
Ella Turenne is an artist, activist and educator. Her work has been published in various anthologies including Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees (nominated for a 2007 NAACP Image Award) and Woman’s Work: The Short Stories. She is the editor of a volume of visual art and poetry commemorating the Haitian revolution entitled revolution|revolisyon|révolution 1804 - 2004: An Artistic Commemoration of the Haitian Revolution. Ella is also a filmmaker whose work has been an official selection of various national film festivals including the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Montreal International Haitian Film Festival where her short film woodshed was nominated for Best Short Film. In response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti, Ella co-edited a volume of poetry on Haiti called For the Crowns of Your Heads; the funds raised were used to aid a library that was destroyed in Port-au-Prince.
As an activist, she is an advisory board member of the Blackout Arts Collective, a grassroots organization whose mission is to empower communities of color through arts, education and activism. With Blackout, Ella participated in Lyrics on Lockdown, a national tour where she performed and facilitated workshops educating communities about the prison industrial complex. She developed and taught a course at New York University, also entitled Lyrics on Lockdwon, which looked at art, activism and the prison industrial complex. She is co-founder of SistaPAC Productions, whose mission is to develop original creative works from women of color. For more, visit www.blackwomyn.com.Tweet
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