Lisa Marie Rollins is poet, playwright, theater director and dramaturg. She was a CALLALOO Journal London Writing Workshop Fellow, is an alumni in Poetry of VONA Writing Workshop and was a Poet in Residence at June Jordan’s Poetry for the People at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing is published in Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out, River, Blood, Corn Literary Journal, Line/Break, As/Us Literary Journal,The Pacific Review and others. Currently, she is finishing her new manuscript of poems, Compass for which she received the 2016 Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award from San Francisco Foundation. She is in development with her new play, Token and was a 2015-16 playwright member of Just Theater Play Lab in Berkeley. She holds graduate degrees from The Claremont Graduate University and UC Berkeley. She is currently a Guest Artist Director at St Mary’s College in Performance Studies, a Resident Artist with Crowded Fire Theater and a Artist-in-Residence at BRAVA Theater for Women in San Francisco.
Craft Tip: Write lists. It releases you from having to invent something, but also allows you to generate multiple ideas.
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Rachael: Welcome to “How Do You Write.” I’m your host, Rachael Herron. On this podcast, I talk to authors about how they write, what their process is, and how their lives fit together. I’ll keep each episode short so you can get back to writing.
Today’s guest is Lisa Marie Rollins.
I love all the guests I get on the show. I always get a great interview because I invite fabulous people. I try really hard to do that. But every once in a while, there’s somebody on the show that really, really just inspires me, kind of blasts me out of my own space and into another one, thinking about what I could do, what I should do, what I want to do, what excites me about this writing gig, and she did that for me. That is super-exciting. I know that you’re gonna enjoy that interview. So please look forward to that.
A little bit of update on me, I did indeed start the thriller. I’m about, I think, 5,000 words in. So I’m exactly at the best place, because I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I have all these great ideas, and I haven’t fucked them up yet, which is a fantastic place to be when you’re a writer…(Dozy, you have to get off my lap. There we go) and that has been fun.
I have come to another realization. I come to many realizations, you will realize.
I’m constantly tweaking process. That’s my jam, you know? That’s why I have this podcast. I’m always thinking about process and about how we get our words done. I have been really struggling with time management. I told you that. I’ve started to track it, started to watch where I spend my time, how I work. And it just hit me this weekend that, oh my gosh, the reason I can’t have every day the same in a routine, like, I guess, I was used to in my old job, I just realized that right now talking to you, that 17 years at 911 taught me one thing, that there is rigidity and regularity. In my last job in particular, for the last five years of my day job, I slept at the firehouse for 48 hours. We had rigid sleep schedules that we stuck to too, you know, two-hour nap here, four-hour nap there. Everything was always done at the same time, the same place. We ate the same things. It was just so regimented, you know? It’s paramilitary.
Now, I don’t have that, and I think it took a number of months for me to kinda, like, shake that off and get into my groove. And now that I’m into my groove, I find them super-groovy, and I’m trying to rein it back in. My realization this weekend is that the reason my days aren’t rigid is that my days aren’t rigid. They change.
Every week is different. Every day of that week is different, and I’m moving into a place of just completely embracing that.
Today, the day that I am recording this is January 31st, and it just so happened that I got four podcast interviews lined up for today. It’s just when everybody could do it. Sometimes, I’m running at the very last minute, and I record a podcast interview right before I post it. Most of the time, I try to have a few stacked just in case. And so, today, I’m doing creative things for those of you who are watching the video, like I’m changing my sweaters and my scarf, and I’m gonna put on earrings later for the next guest so that maybe someday in the future, you will be fooled into thinking I am doing these every week instead of stacking them. But, no, now, you know the secret.
Doing four interviews today meant that I got up at 6:30 to do my words. And I work at home. I don’t have to get up at any set time. But I needed to get up at a set time today to do my 2,500 words, to get them out of the way so that I can just do interviews all day, which is fantastic. I’m accepting that, and I’m wiggling my way into it. So I don’t know. Just the image of me wiggling makes me happy right now. I’m having a good day, probably because I haven’t looked at the news yet. I expect to look at Twitter this afternoon and be completely beside myself again. I was out at San Francisco Airport this weekend protesting. I went on Saturday. My wife went on Sunday. There’s just gonna be a lot to protest, people. Let’s get our resisting boots on. Again, you know my politics. If you don’t like my politics, it’s fine, see you, said with love.
What else? I am starting a class at Berkeley this week. It is my first purely online class for Berkeley extension. So that’s super interesting, and I’m loving… (Hi, Clementine)
I’m loving the format that that is. I really like this Canvas platform, and I think that it’s just gonna be super fun. I love the curriculum. And I’m getting excited about that. I’m always a tiny bit nervous about starting anything new just because I’m human. I’m Type A, and I like to get things right. When you start something new, you don’t get things right all the time. I’m very comfortable teaching in front of a class. I’m very comfortable teaching clients online. So I’m hoping that this will be kind of a marriage of teaching in the classroom setting and writing and coaching, just kind of putting that all together and doing coaching on a group basis. So I think it’s going to be super fun, excited about that.
And, now, let’s just jump into the interview.
It’s a little bit longer because we had a lot to say to each other. She is fabulous. Enjoy Lisa Marie and enjoy writing, and we’ll talk soon.
Hey, you’re a writer. Did you know that I send out our free weekly email of writing encouragement? Go sign up for it at rachaelherron.com/write, and you’ll also get my “Stop Stalling and Write” PDF with helpful tips you can use today to get some of your own writing done. Okay, now on to the interview.
Rachael: All right, well, I would like to welcome with a wholehearted welcome Lisa Marie Rollins today. Hi, Lisa Marie.
Lisa: Hi. How are you doing, Rachael?
Rachael: I’m so good. I’m so glad to talk to you. Thank you for being here.
Lisa: Thanks for having me.
Rachael: Of course. I would love to give you a little introduction first. Your bio is amazing. And, listeners, this is actually culled down to some salient points, but it goes on and on. You should look at her website because it is amazing.
Lisa Marie Rollins is a poet, playwright, theater director, and dramaturge. She was a Callaloo Journal London Writing Workshop fellow, is an alumni in poetry of Vona Writing Workshop, and was a poet in residence at June Jordan’s Poetry for the People at UC Berkeley. Her writing is published in “Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out,” River, Blood, Corn Literary Journal,” “Linebreak, “As/Us Literary Journal,” “The Pacific Review” and many others. Currently, she is finishing her new manuscript of poems, “Compass,” for which she received the 2016 Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award from San Francisco Foundation. Congratulations!
Rachael: She is in development with her new play called “Token” and was a 2015-16 playwright member of Just Theater Play Lab in Berkeley. She holds graduate degrees, plural, from The Claremont Graduate University and UC Berkeley. She’s currently a guest artist director at St. Mary’s College in Performance Studies, a resident artist with Crowded Fire Theater, and an artist-in-residence at BRAVA Theater for Women in San Francisco. Damn!
Lisa: It’s busy. I’m busy. I’m busy.
Rachael: This is not on the list of questions, but I would really love to ask you, just, like, straight out of the gate, like, how do you balance? How do you balance that?
Lisa: Yeah, I think one of…how do I balance? Do I balance? You know, time management is a thing and it’s a skill that I’ve had to learn over the years and particularly when I’m trying to guard my writing time. I think that there are busy times and there are times when my work outside my writing lolls. Particularly in theater production, you know, we have, like, eight weeks of intense work that we’re doing in order to get something up on a stage, and then it kind of relaxes if I’m directing, so I don’t have to be there every night. The actors get to do all that work. And so it’s a useful, I think, rise and loll so that I don’t have to… I get different times, when I have more time and then other times when my time is really tight or times when I can’t write at all, so…yeah.
And for me, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that making sure that time is carved out is really, really important as my schedule just gets busier and busier. I’ll talk about this a little bit later, but the BRAVA artist-in-residence piece is about writing, so it’s different. So it’s not like it requires creative energy from me other than writing, which is great.
Rachael: It calls on a different part of the brain, that kind of thing.
Rachael: Yeah. So what is the best time of day for you to write when you’re writing, and where do you write?
Lisa: I write here…
Rachael: Right there?
Lisa: …in my living room. It’s crazy because I have an entire office. But my office is dark, and it’s the second bedroom in my apartment. Everything there’s, like, books and papers and teaching materials, and there’s an inspiration wall, and there’s all kinds of things in there. But when I wake up in the morning and I’m doing, like, sort of my morning rituals, like my coffee and my meditation and my five-minute free write and all those kinds of things, the light in the front room, it’s like the sun is coming in here, and it just makes me happy to be out here. So that’s part of the reason why the living room. I just always end up at the kitchen table. So I keep trying to write in my office, and it never works.
Rachael: I have this big, beautiful rolltop desk, and I literally check email on it and write Twitter. Either I have to go to a café or I have to stand at my standing desk, I cannot write fiction right here. I just can’t do it. So it’s a brain thing.
Lisa: I don’t know why. I don’t know why. I’ve tried to figure it out, and I’ve tried to, you know, like, clean it up and remodel it and do all things and organize, no.
Rachael: I’m looking over your shoulder right now, and that room is really beautiful and light and gorgeous. So I can absolutely see that. And how do you write? Are you longhand? Do you start on the computer?
Lisa: In the morning, when I’m doing my first writing, I write longhand.
Rachael: That’s the free write you mentioned, the five-minute free write?
Lisa: Yeah. So, I journaled, of course, when I was first writing. Well, you know, personal computers were not a thing.
Rachael: I know, me too.
Lisa: It wasn’t until university that I, you know, had a computer that was my own. We had computers in our home, but they belonged to my brother. He was like the tech person in the house, so he had all the control over the computer. So I grew up writing journals and writing longhand. And for many, many years, that was the only way I wrote, with a typewriter. Then I would say, for about the past maybe 5, maybe even 10 years, most of my writing has been on the computer. I began writing longhand again in the past year, and I noticed a difference, first of all, because I haven’t done it in so long, but I think that my brain does something different when I’m writing longhand than when I’m writing on my computer. I really do believe that it’s like a head, heart, arm, hand thing. There’s something about the way that all of those things connect.
And then also the slowing down and deliberate wording, I think, that comes from my longhand work, that allows me to…I think writing on my computer for first drafts, sometimes, there’s a lot of brainstorming and extra, you know, like, bullshit I don’t really need, you know? So I did it both ways, because I do think that some of the brainstorming on my computer takes me down paths that I would’ve never gone down. Yeah, but my longhand work, part of it is the meditation in the morning and being able to connect with myself and connect with the page and the pen. So it’s become kind of a ritual to access, like, get my creative juices going. And yeah, so…
Rachael: I love that idea. It’s like the morning pages, except not prescribed for the…you know, the three longhand pages, which I don’t have time to do, and you don’t have time to do.
Lisa: Exactly. It’s actually my good friend, Susan Ito, who’s an amazing memoir and essay writer. Yeah, if you haven’t interviewed her…
Rachael: I haven’t, but I would love to.
Lisa: Oh my gosh, I’ll connect you.
Lisa: But she has been doing these monthly prompts that are just one-word and five-minute free writes for a little while now. I was doing it before, but having her prompts really helps, because it’s just one word, and it’s, like, “swim” or “name” or “burn” or “eat.” Sometimes I’m going with it, and sometimes I’m not, and I just do it for five minutes. If I feel like going longer, I will. But sometimes I really only have five minutes in the morning to do it. And it actually helps me articulate things for longer memoir pieces or essays that I’m considering, not so much poetry lately, though, which is interesting.
Rachael: But that could change too. That’s really, really cool. Thank you for sharing that. That’s awesome. How do you refill the creative well when you’re running dry?
Lisa: There’s multiple ways. One of them is to go see other genres of art. I’m definitely a multi-disciplinarian artist. Even though I’m a writer first, I am a theater artist. I’m a director. So a lot of my work extends outside. It’s still a literary art. But it’s also performance. But I appreciate the narrative side of film and the visual side of film. So I do a lot of work to make sure that I’m going out and seeing other kinds of art, and just because I get inspiration from so many different places. And it also helps me when I’m thinking about if I’m struggling with structure or story, or if I’m trying to, you know, calm myself, doing some innovative, you know? You know, it lets me experiment and say, “Oh, this is an idea that I never thought about before,” you know, “I should put a ladder in this thing and see what happens,” you know? And so I really get inspiration from other artwork.
And then the other way, there are two other ways. That also includes reading, other folks’ work. But the other way is really just to be in community with other writers. I find that sometimes just sitting around a table talking about the work that you’re doing and the struggles that you’re having, or if you’re not having any struggles and you’re just talking about the project, might inspire something or release a block that’s there. Just hearing what other people are doing keeps me inspired to write.
Rachael: You know, no one has ever said that on the show, I don’t think, and I have never thought of it that clearly. But that is definitely…probably, after reading, that’s probably my number one way to refill my own creative well. That’s what I absolutely need, and I’d never actually thought about it. But I can actually feel myself drinking in that feeling. Like, even right now, talking to you, like, I just met you, but we’re having that moment, and this is also helping me refill my well. So thank you for that.
Lisa: Absolutely. And, oh, one more, let me just say writing retreats. That can also be in community or by myself. I do do like two-person retreats a lot so that there’s not a lot of, like, extra and you guys could be…you know, me and the other person can just kind of make our own schedule. But even writing retreats where you’re actually, you know, going on a farm somewhere for a month, like that kind of thing as well. So, definitely, silence.
Rachael: My best friend just got back from a trailer, you know, up in Portland, like just a trailer on a piece of land, you know? She loved it. She was there for a week. So what is the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Lisa: When you sent me this question, I had to think about it for a really long time, because I was like “There’s no bad writing…” Yeah, that’s not true. So I think the worst writing advice that I’ve been given is any advice where I feel some kind of shame about my writing process. So, you know, I used to believe, when I was younger, about this notion of, you know, if you’re not writing every day, if you can’t carve out time to, you know, ensure that you have your sacred time for writing, then you’re just not really a writer. You know, if you can’t prioritize it, it’s, like, that tough love perspective, you’re not committed if you can’t carve out this time.
I really struggled with that, because it was one of the things that kept me from actually acknowledging and saying out loud, “I am a writer” for many years, because I thought that the way that real writers did it was that they sat down every day, hunched over their computer for four hours, and they got to, like, you know, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with their friends, and, like, you know, that was all they did, sit out on cafes and, like, talk about the political climate. That was what they did, and that’s how they grooved themselves as writers by not doing anything else.
And, first, as a multi-disciplinary artist but also as a person who acknowledges how all of the aspects of my life inform myself as a writer, my teaching work, my activist work, my racial positionality, all of those things inform who I am. And if I’m not engaging with them on a regular basis, it’s part of the filling of my creative well. So this notion that I just have to be sitting all day and outputting without any kind of mental, spiritual, physical intake to me, I had to discover was not right for me.
And, also, I think it’s a privilege to be able to sit for four hours a day and not have any interruptions. Some of that I do think comes from, you know, that old school sensibility around scholars and writers, you know, that that’s what they do, and it’s this solitude profession. But I had to really acknowledge that that didn’t work for me and that it was bad advice for how I was gonna be most productive, so…yeah.
Rachael: I love that so much. I actually can feel right now listeners’ minds just blowing up with this…like, thinking about that idea of shame, because we do know that that prescribed “you must write everyday” harms people. But I hadn’t heard it said so clearly and so articulately. Thank you very much. That’s awesome, awesome.
Lisa: Yeah, thank you.
Rachael: What secret writing tip of awesomeness have you discovered the hard way?
Lisa: This is gonna sound completely opposite to what I just said.
Rachael: I like that, I like that.
Lisa: Yeah. But it’s the thing of carving out time anyway you can. So it might not be your three hours of concentrated work, but perhaps it’s, you know, a half an hour, and that’s all you get. Or maybe it’s only two hours for the whole week, because you have so many other obligations, and your children are needing to go to practice or whatever the things that…you know, your obligations and your commitments outside of your writing work. I think that finding any time to write…
And then I also think experimenting with genre is useful. I do believe that when we practice and stay in our genre, we get better and better. You know, that’s how we become professionals. I do believe in that focused, you know, alignment with yourself and your work. But I also believe that when you are stuck or you need inspiration, if you’re a fiction writer, experimenting with poetry or experimenting with writing a play or, you know, there’s going to be different, like, brain things that get pulled and released that you might not have had before. And so, for me, I offer that, but I also think that that was one of the best pieces of advice was, like, “Well, maybe you should try, you know, writing science fiction” or something like that. And then, of course, I’m like…have a science fiction novel that I’m like “I can do it.” But plays and poetry, you know? But I do think that experimentation of it was really, really helpful in my own process.
Rachael: That makes so much sense. I always really like to encourage students and by doing so myself to go toward the thing that you think you can’t do. Like, when you say science fiction novel, my first reaction is “Hell, no, I cannot ever write. I don’t even read them.” But then my second thought is always like “Well, but maybe,” you know? Maybe this is what I should be doing. So that’s fantastic. Can you give us a quick craft tip of any sort at all?
Lisa: Craft tip. This one I had to think about too. I think a about a lot of my favorite writing exercises. I do a lot of listing exercises.
Rachael: How so? What kind of list?
Lisa: There’s a great book, oh gosh, I should’ve prepared for this moment. There’s a great book…
Rachael: You know what, if you could send it to me later, I’ll put it in the show notes.
Lisa: I will send it too. I think it’s “The Poet’s Workbook,” but I can’t exactly remember. It’s a purple color. But there’s this great exercise in there. I can’t remember who wrote it either. But it’s called “Six Things,” and it’s a listing exercise where you list…it asks you to think about a moment in time, so you write six moments. It asks you to think about six towns that you’ve lived in, so you write those down. It asks you to think about six people or six places in that town, you know, then sensory memories within that. And then after you do all of those things, you know, sight, smell, sound, taste, you go back and select one thing and then attempt to write a poem with all of those things, one thing from each category.
Rachael: That’s really cool.
Lisa: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites. And because it releases me from having to invent something but also allows me to generate multiple things so that, even if I’m not writing, something might be written down that I don’t attempt that day, I can go back and look at my notes and say, “Oh, here’s a prompt that I actually never played with. Let me do some work.”
Rachael: Because you’re kind of coming at it sideways, this kind of sneaky side door, which is not so intimidating. That’s fantastic. I will list that book. On really bad days when you couldn’t write, teach, do anything with words, what other profession do you wish you had?
Lisa: Yeah, this one’s funny. I never wanted to be, like, a lead singer in a band. I always wanted to be a backup singer. I always wanted to be like the dancer on the side in a reggae band where I could just sit there and, like, do my little dance and, like, sing harmony, but I’d be able to go to like all of the, you know, concerts and all the festivals and all that stuff, but I wouldn’t have the pressure…
Rachael: That sounds awesome.
Lisa: …of being the lead singer. So I always wanted to be a backup singer so I could just like, hang out, you know, be a rock start, but I’m not really…
Rachael: Have the good bathrooms in the backstage, yeah, yeah.
Lisa: Exactly, exactly. So that’s what I used to wanna do. That’s when I used to be able to sing.
Rachael: That’s an excellent answer, and I bet you can still sing.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, you know.
Rachael: I know. I know the voice goes after a while. If you were starting over as a new writer right now, what advice would you give Baby Lisa Marie?
Lisa: To claim myself as a writer much sooner and to not be afraid of my own ambition and not be afraid…they’re all connected…not be afraid of asserting myself. I mean, it’s really all around fear, I think, is to push myself to push past fear and not be afraid that people are gonna see me as a loudmouth or having too many opinions. I think that, as women, we definitely get told that our voices don’t matter. And particularly us women of color, we get told that our voices don’t matter, and, you know, from multiple angles, from family, from friends, from church, from community, all of those things, until you, you know, age and just create your own community of the folks that aren’t doing that. But I think that for me to trust my voice and to assert my voice, those would be the two things that I would’ve told Baby Lisa a long time ago, just don’t worry about what people are gonna think, because I have this fear that, like, people don’t really wanna hear what I have to say. But that’s not true. People really do want to hear what other people have to say.
And I think of it also in relationship to my university teaching and the multiple times that I have had students come to me and say, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a black woman professor. This is the first time…” I’m black and Filipino but “…the first time I ever had a woman of color professor.” And so, to me, that right there is like, oh, not that I have to, but this is part of the work of showing up and sharing my voice because people want to hear it, but they also need to hear it, so they can figure out how to share their voices too.
Rachael: I am so happy to be hearing your voice and putting it on the air. I’m so pleased about that. What would you like to plug right now? What would you like to tell us about where can we find you online?
Lisa: You can find me on Twitter, @thirdrootprod, which is short for productions, P-R-O-D, third root, P-R-O-D. I have my old website, which is birthproject.wordpress.com. I’m developing a new one. That one’s been there for many, many years, and it’s time just to revamp it a little bit, because my work has changed so much.
So, as you mentioned at the beginning, I’m a resident artist at BRAVA Theater for Women in San Francisco. And one of the projects that I’m working on is a collaborative project between me and Susan Ito. And she, a while ago, wrote a piece, a narrative memoir piece, an anthology called “Untold Stories: Love, Life, Reproduction.” And it’s an anthology of stories from women across the United States who are talking about their experiences with reproduction or, you know, not having children or having children or being queer and having children or having late-term abortions or not having access to abortions. There’s a lot of different narratives in the book.
This project that we’re doing is a project that it’s in collaboration with the publishers of that book, Sea Change Project, which is a reproductive justice organization in Oakland. They are asking us to write a play based on the narratives of the women in the book. So that project will be shown…there’ll be a stage reading sometime this year. It’ll either be around April or May, or it’ll be in the fall. We’re still negotiating our dates right now. But I would encourage people to look for that. The play is just called “Untold,” and it will feature these women and men and trans folks’ narratives. So it’s gonna have a huge variety of whoever it is they’re casting. But it’s gonna be a stage reading, and then there’ll be a full production later on. But that’s the biggest project that I’m working on right now is that project through BRAVA and Sea Change.
Rachael: That is super-exciting, and I will definitely come to that because that is right up my alley, and maybe I could meet Susan Ito too, as well as you in person. Well, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you, Lisa Marie. Thank you for sharing your time and your day and your work with us. And I wish you happy writing and a great day.
Lisa: Thank you so much, you too. I appreciate you having me.
Rachael: Of course. Take care. Bye.
Rachael: Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of “How Do You Write.” You can reach me on Twitter, @RachaelHerron, or at my website, rachaelherron.com. You can also support me on Patreon and get essays on living your creative life for as little as a buck an essay at patreon.com/rachael, spelled R-A-C-H-A-E-L. And do sign up for my free weekly newsletter of encouragement to writers at rachaelherron.com/write. Now, go to your desk and create your own process. Get to writing, my friends.
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