Martha was interviewed by Marlene Samuels of the AROHO Speaks:Writer to Writer Collaboration Project.
I interviewed Martha Donovan about her AROHO Retreat experience although, at first, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d actually spoken with her during our week at Ghost Ranch. After going back to the retreat website to find Martha’s photograph, I was thrilled to discover that she and I had, in fact, exchanged numerous conversations during meals, while having coffee or during various “mind stretch” presentations.
During the retreat, we all had so much to share with one another about ourselves - as writers and women, as mothers and wives, as teachers and students. Yet, our most unifying issues revolved around the incredible challenges we face that are totally unique to women writers. Martha is one of the many women who inspired me. I hope you’ll find the same inspiration in her words as I do!
I’ve never been good at daily habits beyond teeth brushing. So I was relieved to hear Marilynne Robinson and others at AROHO’s retreat admit that they don’t always write every day, that there are times when they’re feeding their writing in other ways:
Breena Clarke spoke of getting to know her characters best while naked in the shower; Mary Johnson about the value of vegetable chopping and apple picking; Marilynne Robinson about “a room of one’s own” as fine and good but that it makes sense to get out of that room occasionally.
I loved how “fertile idleness” was built into the retreat schedule. It reminded me of Tillie Olsen’s reflection in “Silences” that the creative act requires “time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation” – something that women writers might consider since we are often conditioned to believe that unless we have a product to show for our efforts then we’ve failed. And yet the work of writing demands “natural silences.”
I think of the delightfully subversive A Room of One’s Own that inspired Darlene Chandler Bassett to take a leap of faith with her own vision so, I must say, “thank you, thank you, Darlene and Mary! I’m grateful to A Dream of Our Own: Women Writing New, Women Writing True for inspiring me to be idle, to draw and to dream.
What’s the best advice you've received about writing?
When I studied at Bread Loaf School of English many years ago, I took a play-writing course with Corinne Jacker and really struggled to get something written. Sitting in Adirondack chairs across from one another, Corrine asked me to describe my daily schedule. She wondered whether I was independently wealthy. After I assured her I was not, she said,
“Well, then the need to work for a living is always going to intrude on your writing life. You have to make time to write. I can see you’re very busy – it doesn’t sound like you waste time so I guess you’re just going to have to give up sleeping and eating.” Her parting words: “You have to shit or get off the pot.” I mark that as the day my writing life began.
Another oft-quoted piece of advice I first heard from the late Donald Murray:When you hit writer’s block, lower your standards. That one’s especially helpful to me because I struggle with “the knife of the perfectionist attitude in art and life.”(Louise Bogan’s term.)
How would you describe your typical writing day?
I wish I had a typical writing day but in truth, my writing habits seem linked to my academic schedule - most writing relegated to summer when I enjoy uninterrupted time. I struggle to find balance between my teaching life and my writing life. That said, I’m currently enjoying my own “gift of freedom” in the form of a sabbatical. I’m writing every day, deeply grateful for this blessed gift of time.
I’m eager to claim every minute of it so now, instead of trying to make time to write, I’m trying to make sure I don’t get blood clots or eye strain from sitting at my computer for too long. I set a timer - my reminder to get up occasionally and step away from the work. When I resume teaching next semester, I’m planning to set a timer as a way of making sure I write for at least thirty minutes each day. It’s not ideal but it’s better than no writing time.
A particularly important one of my habits is that I write first drafts in pen then hop onto the computer. When teaching, I ask my students to join me in a focused “free write” at the start of each class. It’s an important daily ritual there and one I also use at home. Kate Gale asked - during her Mind Stretch session, “How do we get inside the writing space?” And her answer: We have to get rid of the “monkey mind”/internal chatter/noise of our culture that disrupts our ability to play as writers. Wisely, she recommended that we schedule time for writing as we might for Yoga.
Can you describe for us what you’re currently working on?
My current project is Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – a memoir in fragments. It’s a mixed-genre memoir that explores the central question Bhanu Kapil articulated so well: “Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?” This project is comprised of many layers, including working with a photographer who’s a recent graduate of New England College where I teach, and who’s taking photographs of artifacts from my mother’s childhood in rural South India, the daughter and granddaughter of missionaries.
Inspired by Tania Pryputniewicz’s Mind Stretch Photo-Poem Montage: The Micro-Movie, I’m developing a documentary “film” and also designing broadsides as part of this project. Finally, I’m reading as many memoirs and books on life writing as I can, including Mary Johnson’s An Unquenchable Thirst and Mira Bartók’s The Memory Palace. Both are amazingly beautiful and show the power of AROHO women. Oh, and of course, times of “fertile idleness.”
Martha Andrews Donovan lives, writes, teaches, and enjoys moments of “fertile idleness” in Henniker, New Hampshire, a world away from the India of her mother’s youth. Her chapbook Dress Her in Silk (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a PEN New England Literary Award the year after it was published.
To re-read “Her Story” which Martha read at Ghost Ranch this summer, go to: