The Write Stuff: Donna Laemmlen on Homework for Life

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.

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Ben Aronoff
Donna Laemmlen has taught storytelling and screenwriting at the Academy of Art University for the past ten years, and she's been a creative story analyst for even longer. An adaptation of her short story "Fay" is set to start shooting this fall. Her flash fiction just won the 2013 Able Muse Write Prize in Fiction and will appear in its Winter 2014 issue. A graduate of the MFA in Writing program at USF, she lives and writes in San Francisco.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them... ?

These days, I say I'm a writer first, and then a teacher. It used to be the other way around, and before that, I would just say teacher. I think a lot of people view a writer's life as being reckless, with a negative connotation, so it's taken a while for me to admit that's exactly what I am. You have to be willing to crash and burn and not worry about the inevitable follow-up questions. The trick is learning to do it proudly.

What's your biggest struggle, work or otherwise?

Learning to live a balanced life. There's a never-ending need for more -- more pages to generate, more patience with the writing process, more confidence in your voice, more to read and more to study. As my mother, who was a teacher, used to say, "Being a writer means having homework for the rest of your life."

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

I used to give advice, but ten years of teaching writing has made me acutely aware of how personal and individualistic the process is, so I tend to be very Socratic in my response now, asking lots of questions about why someone believes they want to do what I do. I'm happy to talk about my own process, and if they can glean something useful from that, then great. In the classroom, I try to expose the students to a variety of strategies, since there isn't any one strategy that's right for everyone. It's a little like throwing darts at a dartboard. You just hope that sooner or later something will stick that leads them to a meaningful discovery of their own process.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

The short answer would be yes, because I've been able to make a living doing what I love. The combination of writing and teaching is wonderful, because even if my writing time hasn't gone well, there's still the opportunity to explore the process with my students, and their unrelenting creativity always grounds me. The long answer would consist of pages of self-analysis and a questionnaire about the definition of success.

When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I love to sing, so most anything with children singing sets me straight.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Trixie Belden. I loved that she had great instincts about people and was smarter than all of the adults, but she was also flawed, unlike Nancy Drew. For a while, I roamed my neighborhood carrying a notepad and pencil on the lookout for any suspicious activity. When that didn't pan out, my neighbor and I formed our own chapter of the Bob-Whites and created the coolest clubhouse made out of refrigerator boxes.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn't have to be ideal.

It would be learning to hang in there with my husband. He's the kind of person who can sleep on rocks, catch fish and snakes bare-handed, start a fire with two twigs and climb the side of a mountain like a billy goat, none of which I can do.

What's wrong with society today?

That would depend on which day you talk to me, but there's a quote embedded in the cobblestone of Jack Kerouac alley next to City Lights Bookstore that reads, "More violence can be solved by a kiss than a gun." It's disturbing how many people find that sentiment laughable. I'll always be a lover. Trying to kill off problems only propagates more. It certainly hasn't made them go away.

What is your fondest memory?

Sunday mornings sitting in bed with my maternal grandfather when I was five, eating his Mentholatum discs while he read the comics to me. He could voice so many characters so well, especially Dennis the Menace and Sluggo, and he never ever tired of reading them to me. I think that's when I first fell in love with storytelling.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Countless. I'm easily swayed.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

In general, the emergence of a more empathetic population. I think the positive result of that would naturally extend into so many arenas, be it war, poverty, racism, healthcare, gender issues, education, etc., but we're living in a world that is driven by fear and money.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

The shrinking emphasis on the arts is disastrous for today's world. The study of art, however you define it, can teach someone to be empathetic, because it offers the opportunity to experience and understand the world through someone else's eyes. It can also reveal the similarities inherent in our differences.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

What a funny question! As if I would seriously divulge any of my tricks.

What are you working on right now?

I'm trying to finish a collection of short stories, but I'm also in pre-production on the adaptation of one of those stories that will begin shooting this fall. The experience has only underscored my belief that learning the tenets of screenwriting can be an invaluable tool for fiction writers. Unfortunately, screenwriting is often regarded as more of a craft than an art, which is a shame, because there is much to be learned from the form.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or, what kind of writing do you most admire?

What I look for these days is high-wire originality, someone fearless in their storytelling, who is challenging and engaging stylistically, stories that Ben Marcus called "stun guns." Recent favorites include stories by George Saunders, Matt Bell, Amelia Gray, Helen Phillips and, generally, any story in Tin House magazine. I'm very excited to read Karen Green's Bough Down, a meditation on grief following the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I've lived here for more than 20 years and I still love the city for numerous reasons, the abundance of creative talent, for one; but the disparity of wealth has grown to embarrassing proportions. Homes sell for millions, while people sleep on mattresses on the sidewalks. And that massive wealth brings gentrification in the extreme. There's a sparkling new café on Divisadero St. that only sells bread and coffee, and one piece of toast runs $3.50-$3.75!

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Great friends, even better conversation, and lots and lots of laughter.

What's the strangest thing you've ever seen?

A five-legged miniature Brahman bull in India. A tree in the Nevada desert covered with thousands of tennis shoes tied together.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

Give fifty people one dollar and say, "Hello."

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I would gather all of my writing friends and students together on our own tropical island, where we could then engage in the longest and most productive writer's retreat on record, followed by the best party, of course.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. This interview conducted by Sarah Ciston. Follow Litseen at @Litseen.

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