Dr. Belisle : As someone who spends a fair amount of time writing for the radio show and also for the magazines I do know how important it is to have a great place to do my writing. I have with me today another individual who is quite familiar with this idea. This is Joan Dempsey, a graduate of both the MFA in creative writing and the Post-Graduate Certificate for the Teaching of Creative Writing Programs at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Joan Dempsey is a writer and writing teacher. Her work has been published in the Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Peloton Magazine, Obsidian, The Citron Review and has been aired on National Public Radio. Joan writes and teaches from The Shed in New Gloucester, where she’s lived for the past 9 years with her partner Bert, and their 2 dogs, Logan and Bea, and 2 cats, Maggie and Little Jack. Thanks so much for coming in Joan.
Joan: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Belisle : As I’m reading this, I’m just picturing this place and your little family of animals, Logan and Bea, and Maggie and Little Jack, and it seems like you’ve really created a space for yourself in New Gloucester.
Joan: Yeah, absolutely. The shed that I work from when we moved here 9 years ago was a chicken coop and a tool shed. As soon as I saw it, even before we moved in I thought that’s going to be my space. I designed the interior of the space. The structure was in good shape. We had it renovated and now it’s full of books, and it’s my own space, and I work like crazy, and I leave the door open so the animals can come in and out.
Dr. Belisle : Where did you come from? Where are you originally from?
Joan: I grew up in New Hampshire, then I spent probably 22 years living in Boston, and went back for a short stint in New Hampshire and then came to Maine 9 years ago.
Dr. Belisle : And somehow managed to have a connection also to Los Angeles.
Joan: Yeah. Los Angeles was never a place I thought I would be interested in or want to go. I had probably the stereotype that a lot of people have; big, smoggy, lots of traffic, but when I started looking for MFA programs to study writing that one really jumped out at me. They have a nice focus on social justice. They have a really diverse population of students who go there, and it’s a low residency program. I went twice a year. Ended being 2 ½ years and it was just fantastic. By far the best learning experience I ever had, really tremendous.
Dr. Belisle : What was your other life before you went back?
Joan: I’ve had several lives. I love to go where my interest takes me, so I spent some time after college exploring the world of graphic design. I took some classes at Massachusetts College of Art, I managed a small design firm for a time in Cambridge, then I discovered that everything was moving online, and I liked the tactile part of design, so I decided that wasn’t quite for me. Then I jumped into the peace movement. I did anti-nuclear work for many years with a bunch of lawyers and got a Masters in nonprofit management, and then I jumped into animal welfare and I spent 10 years working at the Massachusetts SPCA primarily as a lobbyist and animal advocate. Somewhere along the line there I dipped my toe into writing and that’s my true passion for sure.
Dr. Belisle : As you were moving from graphic designer, to peach, social justice, animal welfare activist to writer how did you determine that this dipping of the toe, that this was your passion? What was it about the writing that really called to you?
Joan: The thing about the writing that called to me, is that I think it’s the thing that has been the most consistent over time, each of those areas I got very excited about. I got excited about learning all I had to learn and then I reached a point where I was done. Where I felt like, “You know what, I’ve learned all I can learn and I’m ready to move to something else that catches my interest.”
When I started writing my first workshop I took it I was probably about 30 years old. I took it at Grub Street Writers in Boston. They were very new at the time, but they’re a lovely writing school now. I knew in the first session of the first workshop I took that this is the thing I wanted to do. That was because I sat down to do an exercise and this character just appeared to me. I had always frankly thought this was a crock. When I heard writers say that I thought, “Oh come on, you create this stuff,” but it happened in my first writing exercise and this character came and I just followed him. I really fell in love with the work.
Over time I’ve just continued to take workshops and then I got my MFA. I think it’s the fact that every time I write something new I’m entering a new era, so I have the love of following my passion in different topics wherever it goes, and writing sustains that. I can’t imagine it will ever stop. I’m both learning about the craft of writing constantly and I’m learning about new topics as I research them for the next book.
Dr. Belisle : Why did you decide also to get this Post-Graduate Certificate for the Teaching of Creative Writing?
Joan: That was a twofold decision. I love teaching because I not only can help other folks but I learn things more deeply myself, so it was that. There was also the practical matter. I knew enough about the world of writing to know it’s not an easy way to make a living. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go into academia and this will be helpful to me.” I ultimately decided after doing a stint in academia, a short stint that I would get really sucked into doing that work and I would leave my writing aside. I decided not to go that route. Teaching still really moves me, and it moves me because I can help other people have that great experience that I had of falling in love with the work. Right now what I’m doing is teaching on my own. I’ve got my own business and I’m teaching people online primarily and it’s just endlessly rewarding.
Dr. Belisle : As you’ve created this space for yourself, The Shed in New Gloucester, what things have you learned about yourself? You’ve gone from a very outward facing direction where you’re dealing with people, and lawyers and animals, and now you’ve gone more inward. You’ve created this little space, almost like an eggshell to kind of protect you in some ways, but also it’s porous enough, as you said, that your dogs and cats go in and out, people go in and out, so tell me.
Joan: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that I feel like I’ve arrived at a place where I know what works well for me. I’m outward in many other ways. I am an extrovert and I do get energy from being out in the world, and being with other people and talking with other people. I have not lost that piece. I spend my days primarily by myself, working in the shed. What I love about that, and what works really well for me is that I’m in charge of everything. I get up when I want to get up. I take a walk when I want to take a walk. I work harder, I think, then I’ve ever worked because what I’m doing I love. I get to make decisions every day about what I’m going to do. I don’t have anybody else that I’m accountable to, so I don’t have any politics that I have to deal with about getting approval, or getting consensus or any of those things.
While I was good at that when I did it, it also had its frustrating moments of trying to move ahead, trying to get something done, feeling like it just takes so long to get anything done with groups of people. Now I just get so much work done. I work all day. It’s fantastic.
Dr. Belisle : We’re lucky to have you then?
Joan: I’m not sure about that.
Dr. Belisle: Just the fact that we’ve gotten you to leave the shed, I guess, is.
Joan: This is a perfect example, though. If I was working a full-time job I would’ve had to arrange that, but I got the call and I thought sure why not. My schedule is my own, so here I am.
Dr. Belisle: I do love this and I have to say of all of the writers that I’ve interviewed, and we’ve had few on the show, you’re the only one who has said I’m an extrovert.
Joan: Yes. I think there’s also a myth that many writers are introverted. I think many are, but I’d love to see a study about that because I certainly am not an introvert. There are plenty of writers I know who are also not introverts, but I do think there’s a tendency for writers to be …. They get their energy from being inward instead of outward.
Dr. Belisle : Having worked with writing teachers before, one of the things that they’ve mentioned to me is that writing becomes such a personal exercise there’s often almost a therapy that takes place if you’re talking with a person about their personal essay or even a novel. Do you find that to be true?
Joan: Yeah, very much so. Very much so. What I find is there’s some folks where it’s very directly personal, where they’re setting out to tell a personal story. They know that they’re doing that. The thing I’m more interested in, and this particularly happens in fiction, is when there’s a lot of deep psychological stuff going on that the writer isn’t aware of until after the fact. That certainly has happened to me, and I have seen it time and time again with writers that I work with on their manuscripts. They know what they’re writing about, and the topic they’re writing about and somewhere along the lines discover, “Oh gee, this is about my,” fill in the blank. I think that the best writing comes from that place where there is an unconscious depth of emotion that comes out almost in spite of what the author is intending. That kind of deep writing is some of the best I think there is.
Dr. Belisle : Do you think that fiction can be helpful in some ways, because when you’re writing a personal essay it’s about your life and oftentimes about people that are still living, and about conflicts that still exist, whereas fiction you can pour a lot of something into it and it doesn’t have to be completely real?
Joan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s the beauty of fiction. I remember at some point when I was working on my first novel, I was just racking my brain. I can’t remember the specifics, but I know I was thinking, “Did this really happen in the real world. Did it happen?” I was researching and trying to find it and suddenly I thought, “I’m writing fiction. I can just make it up.” That was so nice. Writers do want to get the facts right and they want their work to be believable, but the beauty is it is fiction, and you can make it up and that sometimes saves you.
Dr. Belisle : Over the course of my time I’ve written a couple of novels, which have not yet been published. Somebody read them over with me and she said to me, “It’s very interesting that the men in these novels,” which I wrote several years ago, she said “They all seem to be men talking at you.” She called it something. She called it man spleaning, where some men have this tendency to talk to women as if they don’t really know very much. She said, “Do you know that all your characters are like that.” I said, “ I had no idea.” How interesting that is, because I actually think that in my life I have attracted a fair number of men who would like to tell me things just by nature of I guess my personality. It’s less so now, but isn’t that so interesting that here I am writing a novel, and then the men are all a certain way.
Joan: Yup, there you go. It’s a perfect example, perfect example. You couldn’t see it yourself, but when someone pointed it out you thought, “Oh,” and reflected on something in your own life. That’s the other piece that I love about this work is that you continue to grow. You don’t ever stop growing as a person and as a writer. I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.
Dr. Belisle: Tell me what your first novel was about, because I’m interested in how you progressed from your first novel to the novel that you’re working on now.
Joan: I’ve written two novels, neither of which are published. My first one is in a drawer; the second one is with agents right now in New York. The third one is still the seed of an idea. My first novel, I think, was my learning novel. It’s a quiet literary novel primarily about death and the ways in which we choose death. Agents loved it and said, “We can’t sell this because it’s too quiet, too literary and given the market it’s going to be tough.” I learned how to write a novel from writing the book. My second novel, which is out with agents right now, I’m quite excited about. I deliberately wrote it as a literary page-turner, so that an agent could say, “Yes, I can sell this because it is a good read.” My readers have told me enough and I trust my readers that it’s a good read. Also, about dark subjects though. It involves the Holocaust the Holocaust survivor art theft but it’s set in 2009 and also deals with issues of homophobia. There’s some pretty serious stuff going on, but it’s a really moving plot.
You asked how I move from one to the other. Again, I go where my interests lie. What do I find myself reading about and thinking about when I’m not even thinking about writing. I tend to find a topic that’s of interest to me and then just go and read, and watch and listen to anything I can listen to. The one that I’m exploring right now is looking at wrongful imprisonment. I have a judge character lurking in the background, and a jury lurking as well. I don’t yet know who’s going to come forward and say, “This is my book.” I’ve been reading. I’ve really been binge reading and binge watching anything that has to do with wrongful imprisonment.
Dr. Belisle: These are some heavy topics that you’ve drawn to you in your life. You’ve already talked about being part of the peace movement, and you’ve talked about animal welfare, you’ve written about death and wrongful imprisonment. Where does all that energy come from?
Joan: I don’t know. I spent two long weeks down in Washington at the Holocaust Memorial Museum when I was writing the last book and I got a grant to spend time there. Everyday I would go there and go to the archives and I would sit and watch testimony from survivors, just talking head, talking for hours. I couldn’t get enough. It was just fascinating to me. I think for me there’s something, and I haven’t really formulated this yet, but it seems to me there’s something about helplessness, and giving voice, certainly animal welfare work is about giving voice to animals who can’t speak for themselves. That’s a common thing that’s said in that movement. When I was doing anti-nuclear work, we were working with a lot of folks who had been impacted by nuclear fallout essentially. Certainly in the Holocaust, you’re dealing with victims.
There’s something in there that pulls me in and certainly with a wrongful imprisonment there is helplessness due to the system for these folks who become imprisoned through no fault of their own. There is this thread there and I’m just kind of learning about it now, what is it about it that attracts me to that. I think it’s something about voicelessness, and helplessness and how to have those people come forward and speak out and be heard.
Dr. Belisle: Joan, tell me about your growing up years. You said you were from New Hampshire originally. Was there anything in your family background that caused you to be interested in, I guess, giving characters voice, or giving animals voice or giving other people voice?
Joan: Yeah, definitely. I grew up in New Hampshire. I was born in New Jersey, but my parents went back to the land in 1970. I was a second grader, and moved to rural New Hampshire and they started a health food store and that whole bit. My parents were very liberal and my mother still is very liberal, and really had a keen sense of social justice. My father had been a teacher in New Jersey and he ended up standing up for somebody who had been fired for really prejudicial reasons, and my father lost his job as well. We had books all over the house. There was an entire section about race, which I’m not sure actually where that came from, but I still have all those books that my father had studied. I don’t know where that came from in him, but there was definitely a sense of looking out for people who are less fortunate. Certainly we always had a lot of animals and I that was a big part of my growing up.
Dr. Belisle: You described the reason that you went into graphic design originally was that you like that tactile nature of it. Is there a tactile aspect to writing?
Joan: There is. Certainly writing with pen and paper is very different than writing on a computer. There have been studies done about that that I can’t quote, but I know they exist about the sensation of physically writing on paper and how that pulls something different out of you than typing on a keyboard. The other thing as a writer and as a teacher; I get to do a bunch of graphic design anyway, because I work solely alone I don’t have designers I have to work with so I get to dabble in that realm when I’m promoting courses.
Dr. Belisle: As you are talking about the tactile aspect, the characters, there is a tactile aspect, they might only be in our minds as we are creating them but they become very real, very embodied. The characters have a tactile aspect. They become very real, very embodied so there is something about them when reading it, you can almost touch them in a way.
Joan: I don’t know if you have ever done this with your characters as a writer yourself but I find myself acting out the characters. I often sit alone in the shed, physically I try to evoke an emotion or I act out something physically that I am trying to describe. In my current novel there Is a scene of this guy that gets beat up, and of course I have never been beat up, I’ve seen it on television, etc but I have never experienced that, so I was throwing myself on the ground. I was in the shed literally falling on the ground, seeing where I would hit first, that kind of thing. If there is a character experiencing an emotion, I will sit at my desk much like an actor does and I try to physically conjure the emotion in myself so I can begin to feel it and observe how it happens. Am I getting goose bumps? Does my stomach really hurt? There are so many clichés when describing emotion, so I ask myself, what does that feel like in my throat, is It thick or something else?
In my first book I had a dream that I was the main character, I had been struggling getting inside of him, and then in my dream I was inside him so that helped understand him because I have been him. The physicality I had a dream that I was the main character. In another dream I was helping the main character of my most recent novel, she was an elderly character so I was able to physically feel her in that dream.
Dr. Belisle: When we had the author Louis Lowry on she was able to physically remember various stages in her life. She physically remembered being a child at the age of 7 and what it felt like to be in a classroom. It just wasn’t that she remembered it as an intellectual exercise, she embodied that memory. I am not certain how many people have that ability but it sounds like what you are doing is kind of evocation of that physicality.
Joan: I have definitely experienced what I call body memory. Say for instance you have lived in a house for a long time and you walk into the kitchen and the fridge is on your left so you develop this body memory of walking into the kitchen and opening the fridge a certain way. When you move somewhere else you find yourself going to the same place even though your fridge is on the other side of the kitchen. I think that is what Louis is talking about is she can put herself in other places in time but she can feel it inside. I definitely have that, one of my strengths as a writer is that I see places in my fiction as clearly as I see this studio that we’re sitting in.
Dr. Belisle: That being the case it seems the making of your shed, your space was particularly important. Spaces are so important to you that you actually needed to have this place that was yours.
Joan: Absolutely, the thing about the shed and the reason why my artist and writer friends come and see it tell me they hate me because they’re so jealous of the space. It is very important for me to have space that is mine alone because the physiological energy it takes to do the work is a lot. To minimize external distractions and have everything around me supporting my work is super important. I advise any artists to clean space for themselves and make it happen somehow.
Dr. Belisle: I think you’re probably right about people being envious of the space. I think of the song; “All I wasn’t is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air….”
Joan: And this is one enormous chair!
Dr. Belisle: Exactly! It is not a place that necessarily we might write but it is a place we might return to and a place that might cradle us somehow. And if you are able to return and be cradled then henceforth creativity and all sorts of things.
Joan: And honestly I feel that way about where we live and our place. When Bert and I came here 9 years ago, the first morning I woke up in that house, I felt like I’m home. I hadn’t felt that for quite sometime and so it is that safe home place that we can move out of and be creative. I feel fortunate in that way.
Dr. Belisle: It is interesting that you are from your shed creating a novel about false imprisonment. That is a very interesting irony that you are working with in your novel.
Joan: It certainly is. I feel so sorry for those folks who are locked up and trying desperately to get out and find their own place that they can come and go from, you can’t come and go from prison.
Dr. Belisle: Well Joan, I give you so much credit for having followed this path, and when you understood this was your passion, walking down on that. I love this approach that you’re taking because there are many people in the world that secretly think, “I wish I could do….” But you’re doing it, you’re building it, you’re creating it, and it’s pretty wonderful that you have this place you have developed.
I will be sure to look for your most recent novel. How can people find the teaching and writing that you’re doing and the writing that you’re doing?
Joan: Thank you. You can find me online at joandempsey.com.