Creative Writing

Things We Carry: Charlotte Slivka

Things We Carry is a series of short interviews with current students, faculty, and alumni of the Creative Writing Program. These conversations are interested in the tactile elements of writing: what do we hold essential? What tools do we need in order to create? The things we find essential to our writing process reflect our beliefs about craft and process.

This week, we were delighted to hear from Charlotte Slivka, a New School alumni and the Editor-in-Chief of LIT.

Where & when are you writing these days? 

I’ll go to my desk that’s the inner most room of our railroad apartment and I’m lucky because there’s doors on both sides. Even if the doors don’t cut the sound (they don’t) the closed door sends a message that there’s word wrangling going on. I have terrible problems with distraction mostly around sound: a phone conversation, a video playing, the cat! Lulu, our cat, seems duty-bound to loudly announce all specters drifting through the room; she holds them accountable like a line keeper to a main event. I think about noise canceling headphones, browse them on Amazon until it’s quiet again, then go back to work. I try for first thing in the morning, writing when I am too sleepy to micromanage myself. I can’t remember exactly how she put it, but the art critic Johanna Fateman said in an MFA Saturday class to just put all the garbage on the page, don’t even think about trying to write something, just go for it; do your worst and something good will come through. I’ve never forgotten that piece and take it as a kind of permission that is very freeing. All this failure and risk with a big (giant!) cup of coffee, that would be my ideal writing morning. But usually what happens is I’ll get pinned by Lulu who believes and insists that mornings are her domain; that the very rotation of the world depends on her being pet while she sits on my chest and purrs. She’s very strategic by maximizing her adorability so I can’t do anything else. Afternoons when everyone is out of the house and Lulu has shifted to her other big job of the day: keeping down the bed (exhausting work for her), I’m able to get going into the evening. When it’s like that, everyone—my daughter, who drifts through the room like a little cloud, or my partner, who brings me toast—will leave me alone because nobody likes a crabby writer.

Do you have any tools or tokens that are essential to your writing?

Essential is either a giant coffee or green tea. Other than that, it’s just about finding that opening into the creative space, that little space-out or space-in spot that involves me not being involved. Sometimes I’ll fidget with things from the shelf above my desk, little personal keepsakes and found objects like a sea stone or a crystal or some little picture or playing card. Once I start playing with them I like to arrange them in conversation to each other, like lines of a poem, but I guess that’s more of a ritual.

Pen and paper, laptop and wifi, or a combination? 

I love, love, love using my fountain pen and notebook. It’s all about the pen, how it glides. It forces my hand to slow down because I like the shapes it makes but it also feels like an instrument built not for speed but contemplation, the scratching, the purpose, it’s all about making. Then I will transfer to the laptop and do my editing there. Unless it’s a poem, then there is a manual typewriter in between the two. I know that sounds ridiculous and overcomplicated, but there is something about the transfer between mediums that helps with the shape and editing. At least that’s what I tell myself: the typewriters keep coming to me, and I feel bad if I don’t use them.

Do you have any habits or rituals that help you get grounded before you start writing? 

The other nice ritual if I have time for it, is cleaning my desk. Clearing away the clutter is like clearing the clutter in my mind. Clutter is another distraction; it orbits me as the daily business of living smashes into my atmosphere and fragments into piles on the desk. Clearing it gives me incredible peace and invites the creativity in like an honored guest. I don’t always have time for this.

You have been given a backpack and are being sent to a desert island for thirty days of uninterrupted writing time. What do you put in the backpack? 

Ah this is my favorite question of this series! First of all, it has to be a backpack with a lot of loops on the outside to hang the things that won’t fit on the inside, like my typewriter. My fountain pen and lots of fountain pen cartridges. A journal with a waterproof cover. A pail and a shovel. A telescope so I can look at the stars without city light, and a pair of infrared goggles so I can see cool stuff at night like phosphorescent sea creatures. Hmm, seems like I’m doing a lot of looking and not a lot of writing. A sketchpad so I can draw the things I’m looking at and then write about them. A stack of magazines I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t because I’m too busy looking at stuff on the internet; then I’ll use said stack for the bonfires I’ll build at night. A big box of wooden matches. A snorkeling mask so I can look at little plant and marine life and imagine it bigger and that I am much smaller. Any one of Jennifer Coolidge’s lounge dresses in The White Lotus. Ling Ma’s Severance and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven because I like the idea of imaging the world post-collapse while being on a desert Island. Also, something from Leonora Carrington because I like the idea of imagining the world as a surrealist magical romp while being on a desert island. A field guide to bugs and mushrooms with illustrations and not photos so I can imagine them in real life—and then write about them.

Last question: are there any words or quotes that you find essential to your writing practice?

“Stop Making Sense”. – David Byrne. “Fail again, fail better” – Samuel Beckett. “Just keep swimming” -Dory, from Finding Nemo.

Charlotte Slivka was born and raised in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn. She is the recipient of the 2022 Bette Howland Prize in nonfiction judged and selected by Deborah Levy and A Public Space. Her work has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Twenty Magazine, Public Seminar, 12th Street Journal, and is forthcoming from Ohm Magazine. She is the current Editor-in-Chief of LIT, the graduate literary journal produced by alumni of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School. She is a mom and she loves the beach.

Things We Carry is an interview series produced by Stuart Pennebaker.

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