Catherine Rankovic will speak on "Holy States of Authorhood" May 25 at Saturday Writers. She graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions, and gives us a hint as to what to expect from her talk. She is the author of Meet Me: Writers in St. Louis, Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments, and Fierce Consent and Other Poems. She is also a contributor to Walrus Publishing’s Flood Stage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets.
Her essays have appeared in The Missouri Review, Iowa Review, The Progressive, and Natural Bridge. Her poetry has been published in numerous journals, including River Styx, and Boulevard. She has taught creative writing courses at Washington University and Lindenwood University, and helps authors prepare their books for publishing through her business, Bookeval.com.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I first knew I was a writer at age five when I wrote a two-line poem and read it to my mother. She said, "Such poetry!" and I felt proud of myself.
Why is writing important?
Writing is the breath of humanity. It is how we most precisely transmit human history, intelligence and spirit. Music does that too, but music can be reduced to mathematics. Dance could do that too, but dance can be reduced to mappable repetitive motion. Each piece of writing is unique and irreducible.
How has studying journalism helped (or hindered) your creative writing?
If I ran an MFA program, all students would take a course in basic reporting. Journalism professionalizes a writer. I was a fully developed writing pro at age 21; no BFA program would have given me that. No MFA program will give you that. It trains your eye and ear to sort out what's important, and forces you to write precisely at high speed. It teaches fundamentals: how to earn the attention and trust of a variety of audiences, and to respect facts and truth. A journalist learns there is a big world out there with no mercy and issues far more important than one's own. A journalist also receives constant critiques from editors and the readership, and therefore never makes the same mistake twice. (Or one loses one's job.)
Describe your writing process.
My process for nonfiction is to be obsessed and study a subject from all possible angles. For months I was obsessed with Elvis's recording of "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" for no reason I knew. I had never been a big fan. (The recording, released in 1956, was his second #1 hit.) I watched videos of Elvis singing this song, read biographies, bought the sheet music, went to Memphis to see the studio, found that Life Magazine had done a photo story on this particular recording session showing what he wore and who was there. Writing the essay finally released me from that obsession. The essay was published in The Missouri Review. It wasn't about my obsession; it was about the recording, down to the details of when and why he took breaths between phrases. I have also been obsessed with African-American comedy, seashells, the spice trade, bodybuilding, and all sorts of things. My process for poetry is to play around with ideas and never to judge a first draft. I have an "idea box" full of scraps of paper with ideas for poems. I pull one out and draft. I pull another out and write a draft. If it ignites something in me I turn serious and keep crafting it and hammering at it and maybe it will become a real poem.
Which books or authors do you recommend to people who want to be better writers?
Books recommended: Choose one author, your favorite, and get to know every scrap of anything he or she ever wrote. Spend years at this. Read letters, journals, interviews, academic criticism; find and study original manuscripts if you can. This will give you a valuable 360-degree view of a writer such as you'd like to be. A good writer is one who is prepared for the writing life. That's why journalism training is so valuable. How-to books and magazines give helpful tips about how to write a short story or sell it, but they will not teach you how a writer lives or thinks, and more importantly, how a writer keeps writing.
What are you working on now?
Right now I'm finishing a novel, but I have a rule that I may not discuss it in any further detail until I'm satisfied. That's called "practicing containment." Artists never finish the works they speak about.
Your presentation, titled Holy States of Authorhood, is set for the May 25 meeting of Saturday Writers. What can we expect from such an interesting title?
What can you expect from my talk? Inspiration.
Thank you so much for your time, and we look forward to hearing you speak on the 25th.