Creative Writing

Where I Write: With Lori Lynn Turner

Where I Write, a series of short interviews with current students, faculty, and alumni of the Creative Writing Program. It is a discussion of place in writing. What our writing spaces look like can be as varied as the physical spaces that exist (or don’t!) in New York and beyond, and as varied as the mental and psychic spaces we occupy while we write. Get ready for your close-up with Associate Director of The New School’s Creative Writing Program Lori Lynn Turner.

Where do you write?

Over a year ago, I moved from a tiny 5th floor walk in Hell’s Kitchen where I lived for 13 years to an elevator building on the Upper West Side. (My knees are forever grateful). I purchased a walnut-wood table that was easy to assemble, and simple to clean. I imagined it as my writing desk, but it’s become more of a dining table and working-from-home desk. I don’t like clutter. At the end of the workday, I put away everything related to my day job. People who have been in my office in the Creative Writing Program have remarked how clean it is. My brain is wired to work. I am juggling many things at once in my mind. If I have clutter on my desk, I can’t concentrate or focus or get the email sent with very important information to the students! 

Stand, sit or other?

When I do the actual writing, I tend to sit, though I know it’s not good for my body. My favorite part of creating is thinking and editing. During this process, with paper in hand, I read my work out loud, pacing in my apartment. When I am stuck, I take walks, and sweeping, washing, and vacuuming is how ideas come to me. It’s very exciting, and sometimes I clap when I get it, and I hope the reader will get it too!

What is your writing practice?

I want to say that I write every day, but that would be a lie! When I wrote my first book, (a memoir ) I committed to the book as if it were a relationship. I limited social engagements. I had to write THE BOOK. I wrote every day. I started a new section writing by hand. Then I would type the mess into a word doc. I say mess because I have terrible handwriting, my brain moves much faster than my hand. After I finished a chapter, I printed it, and then read it out loud, or I spread pages on the floor and just looked at them, and then marked up the pages with a pen, and finally I edited on the computer. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It was a difficult book to write, and impossible to sell. What I realize now is that I needed to write that book to get to the two books that I am working on now.

I am currently sending out my novel “Serena’s Home,” to small presses. My job takes up a lot of space in my brain, that’s my excuse for not writing everyday. Over the summer, I will get back to work on my collection of essays, tentatively called “Prison Visits.”

What are your favorite procrastinations?

I have binged Tiger King, The Circle, Love is Blind, Queer Eye, Ozark, Frankie & Grace, Dear White People…. and on and on.

Michaela Coel’s, I May Destroy You, just about destroyed me, but huge respect to Michaela Coel. I love watching old movies. I mean the classics, not the 80’s classics, but I like some of those movies too. E.T! I recently re-watched the 1950’s movie, Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson descending the grand staircase, ready for her close-up – now that’s a movie. I would watch anything starring the fabulous Bette Davis. Two of my favorites are Of Human Bondage, and, All About Eve.

The most terrifying movie I have ever seen is What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? This devastating film features the double star power duo Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

I have been taking breaks from Twitter as it was becoming an addiction. The short blips and clips altered the way my mind took in information, and stored details. I couldn’t think in sentences, I wasn’t reading. It was destroying the section of my brain that likes to read, write, and think.

We live in interesting times, which book/author keeps you sane/grounded?

I love libraries and the New York Public Library has some of the best libraries just about anywhere. Though I haven’t been to every library I have been to libraries in Brooklyn, Seattle Washington, Fairbanks, Alaska, too many in Los Angeles to recall, San Diego, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Brussels, Paris, New Orleans, Austin—I am sure I have left a few out. When the NYPL allowed patrons to pick up books at the library during the early days of the pandemic, my trips to the library brought me (what I call) small moments of joy. I wasn’t ignoring or making light of the sorrows across the world. We need small (dare I say) happy moments that we can summersault into and feel something like okay, or maybe even hope, and spring back out to face the world, and to show up for people who need extra kindness. 

My kind of book has complicated characters and they go through it, whatever “it” means to them. The endings aren’t always happy. That’s familiar and not familiar to me. One of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read (and I just reread) is The Street, by Ann Petry. The ending. That’s all I will say. The best memoir that I ever read on family violence was Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart. I wrote about the book for my MFA Thesis in Nonfiction, here at The New School.

Charles Simic is a poet that I turned to at one of the most trying times of my life. His poem Dismantling the Silence, broke me. I had to figure out how to put myself back together. Poetry saved me if poetry can, then poetry is my savior. My favorite poem is, Advice, by Langston Hughes. (Folks, I’m telling you/birthing is hard/and dying is mean–/so get yourself/a little loving/in between)

I used to carry the poem, typed onto a small piece of paper in my wallet. I would take it out ever so often, and read it out loud.

I’d like to name drop a few fiction books that I have recently read that I loved! Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, The Door, by Magda Szabó, and Panchiko, by Min Jin Lee. Nonfiction is my genre and I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know. In the WFYCA category, I’d like to recommend Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay.  There are many New School alumni who have written amazing books, and I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I will say, I loved them all!

What is your new skill learned during the shutdowns of the Pandemic

When I was a young girl, I imagined that I swallowed a clock, which was in a strange way, my protector. Time has always been difficult for me, and I have tried to control it because I want to know what is going to happen next.

The pandemic confused my sense of time. One day drifted into the next and I often felt as if I were dreaming. The novel that I just finished writing is about a character that swings between the past, the present and the future. She lives four separate lives that converge and complicate her need to have things go like she wants them to go.

Time is my obsession. I need to be on time, I hate being late, and I must respond to an email immediately (as some of you know). What I learned in the pandemic is that I had to find ways to mark each day, by taking walks with a neighbor in the morning, planning and cooking meals, and checking in with family and friends. That’s all I could do. Be certain with uncertainty, became my motto during the heart and heat of the pandemic.

What is your dream writing space?

Over 20 years ago, I made my first visit to The Met. I wandered, as I like to do in museums, without a map. In the Asian Wing, I entered a small room with a circular table close to the ground surrounded by six chairs, waiting for guests. The walnut wood so soft and kind to the touch, I feel in love. I even wrote a poem to the table. Why did the wooden table evoke such strong feelings? I’ve sat at explosive tables. I’ve sat at silent avoidance tables. As an adult, I’ve made a new table, gathering with friends, sharing food, and drink, and most importantly respect and love.   

In the museum I noticed a small desk with one lone chair, positioned a few feet away from table I admired. Who is the artist of such beautiful everyday things that are extraordinary I wondered? The small plaque on the wall, listed George Nakashima (1905-1990) as the artist. He was born in Seattle, Washington, my birthplace. I found out later that he created “alters for peace,” a series of wooden table placed around the world, one located at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in NYC. Thank you, Mr. Nakashima, creator and builder of peace, for giving me a small moment of joy.

Lori Lynn Turner is the Associate Director of The New School Creative Writing Program. Her essay, Eating Together, (Tin House, spring 2018), was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. An excerpt from her novella, Serena’s Home, was published in Brooklyn Rail (May 2014). Her nonfiction, fiction, and poetry have appeared in Guernica, Brooklyn Rail, Seventh Wave, Tin House, The Inquisitive Eater: New School Food, Killing the Angel, and Coldfront Magazine. She is currently working on an essay collection, Prison Visits.

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