Carol Muske Dukes is the Poet Laureate of California, and director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
An author of a number of books of poetry and several novels, Dukes commented in our interview (a while ago) there is one “sure sign” someone is a writer: “A writer reads constantly, reads everything she can get her hands on, tears apart libraries and bookstores, never is without a book in hand.”
She thinks the “whole point” of reading is “to lose the self, to let the self go, and be swept away by other voices and experiences, by the aesthetic power of language itself, by words.”
She also sees reading as a way to “imagine worlds not like mine and to imagine consciousnesses not my own. We grow as writers by understanding the other, the new, the unfamiliar, and living within it.”
And the same might be said about any artist – working with any tools of creative expression.
With respect to writing as a woman, Dukes notes “Men still control publishing in the present, and far fewer women than men are published.”
She finds that women writers, “even when their work does get published, are not given the critical or peer attention that male writers accord each each other. Women are still marginalized. Much as I hate that word, it’s accurate.”
She thinks this applies to women in the expressive arts in general.
One of her novels, “Saving St. Germ,” features Esme Charbonneau Tallich, a biochemist, with a young daughter considered by some to have an “emotional dysfunction.”
But Esme insists she is an ‘unprecedented being’ who is merely preoccupied and ‘thinking hard.'” When Esme refuses to take their daughter for psychiatric testing, Esme’s husband sues for divorce and custody.
Dukes says she did not write the novel to be about a specific topic, such as mental illness: “I wanted to write a book about science, about a woman who was a scientist. I also wanted this woman to have a child who was close to being diagnosed as autistic, but who was, in fact, gifted. I wanted the woman to come very close to falling apart.”
She thinks most writers create novels or poems without a “burning desire to confront a social issue, although that may be part of the impulse. I think it’s complicated, like all human endeavor.”
She advises beginning writers to try everything.
“Good writing is good writing is good writing. Write articles and recipes and lists and instruction manuals and plays and poems and love letters.
“In fact, writing letters – and I mean letters of real passion and attention to the language – is a smart, ‘secret’ way to get yourself writing heartfelt prose,” she says. “Write a letter to God, to someone you loved who has died, write a letter to your dog, to a neighbor you hate, to a writer you hate, to a person you find mysterious.”
Dukes says she does not often experience writers block.
“I think because I’m so busy and I have to ‘grab’ my writing time,” she says. “In fact, I usually don’t get to it till about 10:30 PM; then I work till the wee hours when all is quiet. I’m so happy to be writing, and so tired that I don’t have time to think about not being able to write. So I recommend being super busy.”
She emphasizes that writers should be interested in everything, and declares the nature of writing is to observe the world. Her subscriptions include medical, philology and science journals, a magazine about harp-playing, another on gourmet cooking and dining.
She summarizes, “To be a writer, you need to know everything.”
Her site: www.carolmuskedukes.com
For more on writers and writing, see my site The Inner Writer.