new england writers at work

Joan Wickersham, all a matter of altered states

Writer Joan Wickersham in her Cambridge study.
wendy maeda/globe staff
Writer Joan Wickersham in her Cambridge study.

Joan Wickersham’s 2008 memoir, “The Suicide Index,” was a moving account of her father’s life and death composed in the style of an index; it was a finalist for the National Book Award. “The News from Spain,” her rapturously received collection of short stories, is equally innovative: The title of the book is also the title of each piece. Vintage released it as a paperback earlier this month. Wickersham lives and sometimes works in North Cambridge.

COMPOSING HERSELF: I sometimes write in my bedroom. I have an old chair of my grandmother’s that I sit in. When I started going to writing colonies, I started writing cross-legged on the couch with a laptop. I discovered that’s actually very nice.

FREE-RANGE WRITER: Wandering around the house is a way of tricking myself into writing . . . I work in bed. I work in the kitchen. I work in the living room. I have a study that I should work in that I don’t work in much. But the truth is, the main place that I work is away from home.


AS IF IN A DREAM: When I really want to dig into my unconscious, I have to be someplace where I can fall into a trance. . . . If I’m in one of those trances, I can even go to the grocery store and do what I need to do but still be in the world of the writing. That’s really the best thing: When you feel like it’s talking to you, and you’re not trying to boss it around. It feels like sleepwalking in this lovely way, and I don’t want to be woken up.

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LIFE IN THE COLONIES: I go to colonies as much as I can. I find that if I have a residency of a month or six weeks, I can go into a trance and really get work done. It’s a combination of having an unfamiliar place, so it’s not demanding anything of you, and . . . having a time constraint. I just got back from teaching for a week in Provincetown. I found that just being away from my life but immersed in writing [that] I found myself getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for several hours before the class. A combination of stimulation and peace really helps.

EXERCISE REGIMEN: I find that if I sit in class and do the writing exercises along with everybody else, it helps jump-start me as well. . . . I can get very strangled by my own perfectionism, so I need to find ways to get around that. . . . Nobody says [a writing exercise] has to be good. . . . ”

WRITER’S BLOCKS: I make origami boxes when I’m stuck. Sometimes I think of them as writer’s blocks. . . . I get the paper in the Porter Exchange at this little Japanese store that has beautiful origami paper. I’ve amassed quite a collection over the years. If I go to a colony, I take my papers with me, and I end up with a stash [of boxes]. It’s like a cigarette in the sense that it’s something that keeps you sitting at the desk when you would otherwise get up and walk away . . . [but] it’s healthier than smoking a cigarette, and I like the colors.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson