Creative Writing

Things We Carry: Oriana Peckham

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 happy to chat with Oriana Peckham, a second-year student studying fiction at The New School.

Where & when are you writing these days?

It’s been over a year since I’ve come to call this city home and after some improvisation, my favorite place to write is probably in the morning at the desk in my apartment, listening to the sound of the subway and facing the most distracting of feline muses.

Brooklyn’s frenetic background noise is a comfort to me. During this program, writing has proven to be both intensely solitary and yet some kind of a mutual endeavour. That’s what’s been the most valuable lesson of this whirlwind; the idea that people from all over the world can come together and create harmoniously, that language has so many melodic strains and diverse variables- one mutual strain just won’t cut it. 

Otherise, I love the NYPL. I like to consider the inner lives of the people who have borrowed the same library books as me. Why have they chosen to underline certain sentences? What has compelled them to pause? I feel comfort when the same words startle me.

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

New York is the best place for eavesdropping so I find myself writing pen to paper and then translating the collated notes on my laptop, where the writing and rearranging continues from there. The day has to begin with the habit of an espresso but the photographs on my desks are important lucky tokens. My long distance means I’m having to perpetually locate my life and its characters for the people back home. In turn, they have to situate me with just enough context to understand their own evolving plot lines. It is a comfort having the company of these narratives on my desk.

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

I find that my writing ‘structure’ is pretty manic. It’s really hard not to be seduced by meditative erratic and often nocturnal surges than to abide by some strict routine. I like how Grace Paley used to write in the centre of chaos, sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park with her kids. She said without the playground, there wouldn’t be the stories. 

Most importantly though, I am grateful for all the conversations of this adventure that nurture and inform my practice more than anything else. Finding that my friend chose the same Frank O’Hara quote for her own emotional climax.

Before I started this program, I kept my writing secret. Now friends are my editors. I feel that in questioning my own words, I have to sustain that emotional connective tissue with the supportive women writers in my life. It is relieving to know that if you suffered amnesia, there would be people to remind you of your own story. We share our epiphanies between us, catalog these wisdoms; compile them into a meticulously scrambled archive for growing up. We became more prepared for life as a consequence of mutual trial and error.  I feel that you need little lyrical nudges from the people that know your voice best as much from this, as from other writing, for fuel and for grounding. 

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?

The first thing I’d save during a fire is a book my granddad wrote me before he passed away that reads like an Afterlife. For me, it’s like a personal rendition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. One of its many profound wisdoms is the phrase, “Lose your sense of awe and you become a plaything for the pessimist”. I frequently recycle this verse in my every day. It reminds me that a pessimist is someone afraid to dream. It reminds me to be perpetually curious in unexpected places, to nurture what the poet Rebecca Elson christened, “A Responsibility to Awe.”

Are there any words or quotes that you find essential to your writing practice?

During the pandemic, I came across a Paris Review interview with Rachel Cusk. She was asked about the process of writing her debut novel at 26. “I turned away from the world, from the things everybody was doing. I walked into isolation. Many of my memories of writing that book are of being frightened. It was a burning experience”.

Being in New York, and embracing a craft that is innately dependant on hibernation and hyper-interiority, has been a burning experience for me in terms of what I need to read to keep me sane and figuring out the ways I can write honestly. Choosing what words you wouldn’t miss if you left them out as well as what parts of an old life you wouldn’t mind leaving behind you. Sort of in the same way that this final semester has taught me that novels can become fuller through their omissions and their edits.

Oriana Peckham studies fiction in The New School’s Creative Writing MFA program. You can find more of her writing at @pocketoricle

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

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