AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH LORETTA KEMSLEY
This month WORDSMITH is privileged to have as our guest Loretta Kemsley, a author who has contributed generously to the craft of writing as a journalist, editor, teacher and philosopher. Please settle back with a cup of tea and a promise that you will emerge from these pages a stronger, more creative woman.
Ms. Kemsley, your readers and admirers know you as the internationally applauded visionary who founded Women Artists and Writers International. How did WAWI come into existence?
By serendipity and synchronicity. When I logged onto the Internet, it was with the intent of learning how to publish online. I was fortunate to find a brand new group: Women Writers and Artists, which was limited to forty women. We wanted a place where we could discuss our art and our womanhood as an interwoven entity. WWA was still forming its identity, as were the individuals involved, creatively speaking. As we discussed the future of the list, we evolved also--a wonderful experience.
Several were unhappy with traditional women's publications whose advertisers want articles which convince women of their "defects" and the need to buy the advertisers' products. A few volunteered to start a new ezine (Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women) devoid of ads and devoted to ideas which enhance women's lives. Because of my background in newspaper publishing, I became editor-in-chief. Soon Moondance had gained such popularity, it was dominating the list. We decided it needed to be a separate entity before the burden became too great for the small number of staff and contributors. We selected a name which was close but not identical. Thus Women Artists and Writers International was born, which is open to all creative women.
What prompted the publishing of MOONDANCE, your electronic magazine celebrating creative women? How have the four years since it began changed your outlook toward the needs of women? Our future in publishing?
My own dissatisfaction
with life and the publishing establishment led me to the Internet in general
and Moondance in particular. The 1994 Northridge earthquake was the catalyst
to move from a career as a corporate accountant back to my first love: writing.
Financially, accounting was good to me, which was important because I was the single parent of two daughters. They were grown when the earthquake destroyed my home and the aftermath took the rest of my belongings. The shock of losing everything threw me into a deep depression. My daughters were distraught too. I quit my job, needing time to recover emotionally and to help them. As I emerged on the other side of grief, I knew I could not go back to my old career. I needed new directions.
I am a good writer and could work on staff at most publications, but I couldn't settle upon one that appealed to me. The more I heard about the Internet, the more my curiosity grew. Was there a place for me? There was, but I had to create it. Moondance was that creation. However, I could not have done it alone. Moondance is the collective vision of hundreds of people who have served on staff and as contributors. Each brought with them something new and impressive which improved the design, the artistic flavor, or the words found on its pages. I am the person whose name appears as its publisher but without the rest of these creative people, it would not exist.
How have the two entities, WAWI and MOONDANCE, complemented each other, and how have they diverged?
When we began, they were
synonymous with each other: WAWI did nothing except Moondance. With only a handful
of volunteers, it was a large project. As our staff grew larger, and Moondance
achieved a satisfying success, we began to think in new directions. We received
many inquiries about joining WAWI which prompted us to begin a WAWI discussion
list. Our list is devoted to supporting and encouraging one another, celebrating
our successes, and sharing new opportunities and resources. Some of our most
interesting discussions occur when writers from opposite sides of the world
find their habits and desires are similar, while the mode of achievement might
Moondance operates as an entity of its own. Some of its staff and contributors are active in WAWI and some are not. Some of the WAWI members contribute to Moondance but many don't. The most valuable component of both is the freedom for people to accomplish what is important to them.
The hope and wisdom which your work has brought to women are evident in your personal writing as well. How have you seen your influence reflected in your readers loyalty and comments?
Some of our readers write
regularly, letting us know how much Moondance means to them, and discussing
how they are using their creativity. The most satisfying letters I receive are
those which say my work inspired someone to improve their life or to embark
upon achieving their dream. Letters such as these are full payment for all of
the hard work. This one was sent after I received the Advantage Woman 1998 award.
"Those of us (like myself ;-)) who have been published on the Moondance
website can share in your pride with even greater pleasure. I also know how
much being published on the site meant to a friend of mine who needed a boost
of confidence in her writing ability and, ultimately, herself. Offering this
gift to women around the world has brought you the recognition that you deserve."
Moondance has also opened opportunities for me. One of these is the courses I teach online. A WAWI student wrote, "I have learned more from you than the college creative writing class I had taken."
These are words which touch my soul. I hope my efforts are like ripples in a pond, forever spreading outward and creating beautiful new reflections which charm our hearts.
What is your definition of creativity? Is it truly the art of starting with a blank slate, and from there, inventing, until the idea has shape and form as well as purpose? Or is it a journey for the artist or writer, with the finished work serving as a journal? Or something even more rare?
Creativity never starts
as a blank or a vacuum. The pieces are always there, waiting for us to assemble
them into something meaningful. They may come from our interests, our observations,
or our life experiences. They may wake us in the middle of the night, creep
in almost unseen amid the cacophony of life, or stun us with their sudden appearance.
We are endowed with all we need to be creative, including the courage. We simply
need to make a decision to use our creative gifts and to stick with the learning
process instead of letting our doubts reign supreme.
Creative work can be a journey forward; it can also be a memory leading back in time. Its direction will depend upon the life and needs of the creation. It is always a combination of hope, anticipation, and a recreation of our inner thoughts.
There have been times when the words I type seem to come from a universal wisdom, rather than any conscious thought of my own. At times like this, the work flows without effort. It begins, progresses and ends almost on its own. This is the rarest form of creativity, a miracle which captures and sweeps you along. Once experienced, it is never forgotten.
These experiences cannot be called at will, cannot be duplicated and cannot be the goal of the writer who wants a steady stream of published work. We must be ready to accept the drudgery of writing when we don't feel inspired in order to effectively use the times when we are. Hemingway made it a practice to write and polish a minimum of five hundred words a day, every day. This discipline must accompany the creative self.
What is the most sought after creative ability?
Perseverance. The ability
to keep going even when the world seems at odds with your desires. It is natural
to feel intimidated when you begin, but we must remember every highly acclaimed
author began as a novice. Because everything is new to us as children, we accept
the fact we will be clumsy as we learn. When we learned to ride a bike or roller
skate or throw a ball, we knew we would stumble and fall. We didn't let these
feelings dampen our enthusiasm; we knew we could master the skill if we just
kept trying. When our spirits sagged, we usually had someone there to cheer
us on to that next step.
As adults, things change. We get used to doing things well and want to avoid appearing ignorant. Our learning process stops because of our pride. Our cheering squad has moved on to other interests. We feel alone and vulnerable.
Even though it is uncomfortable, being vulnerable is good. If we can give ourselves permission to feel vulnerable and ignorant, we can open the door to improving our craft. The writer's aim should be to stretch her ability into an awkward phase and then grow into the comfort of a newly mastered skill.
From your work with United Nations and World Bank discussion groups, what is the single most startling problem affecting women in the global community? In the arts?
Violence. Every society condones some sort of violence against women, whether it is emotional or physical. Some curtail their freedom completely, with the threat of death if a woman is defiant. Some of it is blessed by religious covenants. Others use subtler societal messages. Most of this violence is inspired by the sexual and reproductive abilities of women. It is not surprising the one aspect of creation which men cannot experience is something they want to control. Violence serves to curtail creativity but in restrictive circumstances, women are ingenious in the ways they use their talents. Covertly, they create the messages they want the world to see and hear. In the days of slavery in the United States, those who helped runaways flee north used quilt patterns to point the way to safety. These quilts were hung out to dry when a person at risk was nearby. From the secret symbols used, the runaways could read where to hide and rest or which path to use when they moved on.
How has the Internet changed the future of women in publishing?
All writers have been
victims of the traditional publishing world, including those who are successful.
Never achieving creative freedom, writers have had to write what the publishers
deemed salable. Publishers have good reasons. The costs of book publication
are at an all time high. Too many risks and the publishing company closes its
doors. The Internet will kill this stranglehold and open the gateway to unlimited
opportunity. We no longer have to wait for the patriarchies and the power structures
to allow access. The Internet is a gateway to networking power and is allowing
us to create our own structures of importance and relevancy.
It has already revolutionized our concepts of time, space, and human relationships. This is especially significant for creative women. Women's experiences have long been denied or undervalued, as have the attempts to move away from patriarchal contexts. The chaos of the Internet allows us to define it to our own satisfaction. An increased ability for artistic liberty exists because the strict separation between the technical and the creative has been blurred.
The role of women in Cyberspace publishing will hinge not only upon the potential of the Internet but also on the uses we make of it. The way we present our creations is already changing, limited only by our imagination. In Cyberspace, we can simultaneously assert and deconstruct genres, using our imagination to let them evolve almost by whimsy. We can offer ebooks, performance art, a medley of writing and art. We can recreate serial publishing or create a site for several to participate in writing the outcome of a particular story.
William Gibson, who is credited with having introduced the word "Cyberspace" into popular culture in his novel "Neuromancer," defined it as a"consensual hallucination." It is the new magic circle upon which the practitioner of illusions can perform brilliantly. Virtual Reality (VR) and Cyberspace are the technologies for living vicariously, and women are increasingly successful when they step inside the circle, creating their own reality filled with newly constructed identities and ways of being in the world.
The idea of 'self' in
this realm is no longer fixed, having become as nimble as the imagination, unstable
and infinitely "morphable." We can go on functioning 'as if' Woman
is still our location but are not limited to it as a fixed or compulsory standard.
We can treat femininity as an option: a set of available poses, costumes rich
in history and social power relations. We can also indulge ourselves, reveling
in being Woman, without the pressure to perform to male standards. This is the
option I treasure most.
My writing used to revolve around journalism and business writing, two fields where the style of writing must conform to male standards. Women's styles are different, using colorful words which evoke emotion, with less impersonal debate and more interpersonal relating. Because women prefer lateral relationships, even in business, men's hierarchies of power do not work in their favor. But the styles favored by women have an advantage on the Internet, where personal contact is needed to overcome the fears caused by distance and lack of face-to-face contact. Hierarchies are diffused in Cyberspace, losing their impact and ability to maintain control. This has allowed me to adjust my writing style, along with thousands of other female writers. We are now free to define our own methods of communication, using whatever style works best for us.
MOONDANCE is a work of art. Since it is staffed entirely by volunteers, do you feel that their dedication is strong and viable because their commitment is a labor of love? Once an artist or writer is paid to create, how can she maintain her creative integrity?
Their commitment is definitely
a labor of love, but they honed their skills prior to being accepted on staff.
Each is chosen for her vision of what Moondance could become, her areas of expertise,
and how she wants to progress on a personal level by working at Moondance.
Writing for money will require the same traits, and sometimes compromise is necessary. How much we compromise depends upon the benefits we receive in return. It helps to have another source of income, but that is not always possible. To keep your integrity, you have to be prepared to refuse to work on projects or publications which do not meet your standards, whether they be moral objections or quality problems. On the other hand, we cannot start at the top, and it is not worthwhile to hold out until the perfect job arrives. The compromises we make should always bring us closer to our goals. We can keep on track by asking ourselves: Where do I want to be in five years? Will this job help or hinder that goal? Our answer to those two questions will reveal whether we are being true to ourselves.
You have said that "creative people work in isolation." Why? Too difficult to find other creative people? Too frightening not to?
The act of creating demands
isolation. Haven't we all lost our train of thought, never to be recaptured,
because of a sudden interruption? Without isolation, our words cannot form,
plots cannot coalesce, inspiration lies dormant. A work which is exposed to
the ideas of others before it is fully formed becomes the work of a committee,
rather than the visions of its author. Retreats are the lifeblood of creativity.
However, once our work is completed, we look around and find ourselves alone. In any given neighborhood, few people aspire to the creative life. Most do not understand the drive to create something new, especially if a monetary award will not be offered. Some ridicule the aspirations of those who want to pursue the creative life. We learn to keep our dreams to ourselves. That is when loneliness sets in. We give up searching for creative support and our creativity shrivels. Fortunately, the Internet is providing us with the ability to find others who treasure our dreams and are willing to support us through emotional setbacks while offering methods of surviving creative dry spells.
What will your online learning center offer?
The online learning center will be a place to meet creative people and to learn to perfect our craft. The genres and subjects will not be limited except by the needs of our members and visitors. Because Internet technology is so flexible, we can even provide courses which require illustration through graphics or video. We will begin by offering various writing courses which people have expressed a need for. From there, we will progress into areas which seem logical.
How will your new web site for WAWI differ from the site for MOONDANCE?
Moondance is for all
women, whether they want to participate in the creative life or limit themselves
to enjoying the creations of others. While Moondance is a place for quiet reflection,
WAWI will encourage women to become more active in pursuing their creative endeavor.
We are in the process of building the new site for WAWI which will be fluid in what it offers, depending upon the needs of our members and visitors. Our design team is busy mapping the site now, graphics have been created, and our writers are setting the text. Some of the ideas which are flowing are newsletters, online courses, a book and gift shop, a place to advertise our creative services, and chat rooms. While Moondance is limited to certain genres because of its niche, the WAWI site will not have those limits. Its only limits will be in the energy of those who are helping to bring it from dream to reality.
I've notice that part of the many charms of MOONDANCE are the themes for each season of the year. How are women inexorably tied to the planet creatively? Would our passions, disquiet, and sought-after tranquility be as strong in a vacuum? Are we reactive? Is that the misunderstood side of creative?
We are reactive and active, reflexive and reflective. A wonderful aspect of creativity is that it is eternal, and we can draw from it in any manner we need. Time, as interpreted by humans, is the enemy of creative tranquility. The clock is inexorable ticking on, demanding our attention, intense activity, creating pressure to be more, do more. Whereas time in rhythm with the seasons ignores this hubbub. Each day is long and leisurely, nights quiet and soothing. Life has a rhythm of its own which is responsive to the rhythms of the earth. Each season brings its own set of emotions, which in turn brings new ideas for the creator to work with. They joy of Spring flowers is different than the beauty of Winter's new fallen snow. The moods they evoke help us revisit parts of ourselves and our world on a yearly basis.
You were awarded The Advantage Woman for 1998, recognizing your entrepreneurial nature. Did you envision yourself as the recipient of such an award ten years ago?
Heavens no. I didn't envision it even the day before, which made the thrill all the more wonderful. My heart seemed to stop and disbelief set in. I was so excited I couldn't even finish reading the notification. It is a great honor to receive this recognition and I am profoundly grateful.
Your evocative short story, "Ageless Night," is excellent. Did you write creatively as a child? When did you discover you had the ability to write?
I'm glad you enjoyed
it. "Ageless Night" means a lot to me. It expresses my growth as a
woman and how much I prize life's experiences.
I have spent a lot of time thinking how I came to be on this path. The aftermath of the earthquake was the latest catalyst, but I did not achieve these deeds alone. I owe them to the people who filled my childhood. Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie three blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.
When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind a costume and makeup, and your screen hero comes to life, riding by your side down the dirt street of an old western town, the power of magic is never doubted. From each of these marvelous worlds, I learned the duality of splendor and hard work--that one cannot exist without the other.
I particularly love horses and wrote stories about them, some fiction, some nonfiction, some dreams to aspire to. I no longer have these stories, lost somewhere in my travels.
After my mother died in 1980, I found my baby book among her possessions. At the age of twelve, I had written, "I want to be an author." She had noted I read an entire set of children's books by the age of three. I don't remember a time without books as my friends. I could screen out the world, visit exotic places, be fascinating characters, and hide behind the exquisitely formed letters. When Hemingway committed suicide, I was filled with grief. I had lost one of my best friends, a man I never met. It was natural for me to take writing and journalism classes as early as high school and revel in them in college.
If you were to paint a self-portrait, would your children recognize you? Have you kept any creative secrets you'd have to explain?
When I was in college, the Dean of Instruction said I was a "dynamic" woman. I froze, taken completely by surprise. That was not a term I would have applied to myself. Since then, I have learned that the view from the outside is always different than from the inside. I view myself as an introvert but have come to realize others see me as an extrovert.
I would have said I was gentle, yet strong; intelligent, curious or in love with learning. I would have said I was vulnerable, compassionate, and more in touch with animals than people. I might have said adventurous and yearning to see the world, but I never would have thought to say dynamic. I'm glad he shared his perceptions because it helped with my creative vision of myself.
Creatively, I am a crusader, wanting to bring change into our lives. If my words can provoke people in a way which creates positive action, then my mission is accomplished.
What advice would you give new writers? Is there a formula for a good story? A good article? Who is the best judge of a written work? The author, who may be far too close, or her reader, a virtual stranger?
The best advice a new writer can receive is to never stop learning and to write what they know. There will be times when it is tempting to venture off into an unknown field, but they are usually dead ends. By writing in a field which you have experience, have a long standing interest, or have read extensively, you will reach success sooner. If you love mysteries, don't write romance and vice versa. If you love horses, don't write about auto mechanics. Deep knowledge shows up in the little details. While you can write an article or story without deep knowledge, the result will not be as effective.
Good stories and articles all reflect a passion for the subject. If the writer is bored, the reader will be too. When the writer is passionate about her subject, she does a better job of researching, brainstorming through a first draft, and recording the most pertinent details. But she must love the subject only, never her words. Words are mere tools to bring the subject to life, never an end onto themselves. Becoming a ruthless self-editor after the first draft is complete is part of the craft. Until the work is complete, it should not be shown to others (except possibly a trusted editor) but remain the private composition of the author.
Once the work is complete, we can choose to keep it for ourselves, to share it with only a few, or to publish it for the world to see. A complete work is subject to interpretation by everyone who reads it. It may mean one thing to the author, another to the first reader and still another to each of thousands of future readers. When we read, we bring our own views and experiences to the table. They compete with or compliment the author's views and experiences, as expressed in the work. Thus, it is impossible for two people to judge any work exactly the same.
My goal when I write is to leave openings for the reader to add their thoughts, which makes for a more profound resonance. I only want to open the gate on the path to deeper meaning rather than voice the final thought. The books which changed my life gave me the opportunity to continue on alone, determining for myself what these ideas mean in my life.
What is the best book you have ever read? Best poem? If you could rewrite a classic, which one would it be and how?
Best is relative to the moment. Current interests, the age in which I originally read the book or poem, the circumstances which surrounded me while I read it, all affect how I feel about what I've read. Today, I might say those books which help me become a better woman and writer are the best. Their legions are many, and my bookshelves are full. But this question reminds me I have become too practical. Where lies the passion behind those words?
Reaching back into childhood, my standards were different. The most memorable poem was "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Its appeal was in the excitement and adventure it represented. Its pace was consistent with the drumbeat of hooves flying through the night. My imagination was captured, and I became Paul Revere, racing into destiny, fleeing danger at the same time I was riding straight into it in order to save my compatriots. Already an experienced rider, my entire body could feel the rhythm of those strides and the powerful horse beneath me.
Will James "Smoky" and "Man O' War," by an author who name escapes me, are the books remembered most from childhood, although I read hundreds which deserve equal acclaim. Both of these represented the possibilities of achieving my heart's desire. Man O' War, possibly the greatest race horse who ever lived, began his race career after being purchased at auction for a paltry sum. He was overlooked by experienced bidders because he was ungainly and awkward, yet went on to a career which was limited only by the errors in judgment of his owner. Smoky was complete fiction, the story of a cowboy's love for a wild horse and the bond which was created during the process of taming him, with the horse ultimately saving the man's life even though his instinct told him to react otherwise. My bond with horses ran this deep, and this book was the perfect expression for feelings I could not put into words.
If I were to start changing the classics, I would have to do them all. I would change the pronouns, making the active roles all feminine, the reactive characters all male. Wouldn't it be fun if the person driving the dog sled or leading the wagon train was female? Characters take on a life of their own, and I would enjoy watching the changes in plot as events reformed. What would Moby Dick's fate be if Captain Ahab was a woman? Would Stella bellow at Stanley from the courtyard (A Streetcar Named Desire)? And how would the journal of Watson reflect the difference in Holmes?
If "unrest" is the resting state for a creative woman, and a woman finds herself in turmoil, what is the first thing she should do? The second?
Become centered within herself. We cannot control outside forces, but we can control our reactions to them. By creating our personal retreats, perhaps only as far away as the locked bathroom door, we can focus upon our inner strength and the things which are important to us. By keeping centered in the midst of chaos, we remain true to ourselves, which should be our most important goal.
Sometimes the turmoil comes from within. We need to treat it as a friend trying alert us of a need to change. Change is never easy, often brings fear, but is gratifying once we find a better path. This can be the best time creatively because it highlights the passions which make our writing vivid.
The second thing we should do is to stay alert to the events around us, observing dispassionately, acting where needed, and preserving the details which may be important to us later. The morning of the earthquake, there was tragedy all around. Sitting in my backyard, waiting for dawn to break, the horizon was alive with flames on three sides, none of them close enough to harm my family but still speaking to the pain of others. Being experienced horse people, we knew one of the areas on fire had a stable in its midst. We helped to evacuate it, then helped the people in the trailer park next door. The fires in this area were caused by exploding propane tanks, and these were mostly elderly people. By staying centered and using our skills to help others, we helped them save part of their lives, perhaps life itself. The details are etched in my memory and have been used to write articles designed to help others faced with similar circumstances.
Instead of sleepwalking through life, what makes a woman know she is truly alive?
Live in the moment. We waste too much time worrying about the past or the future. In "The Gift of Fear," Gavin De Becker makes an important distinction between fear and worry. If we have the luxury of time to worry, it means we are in no immediate danger. Fear, on the other hand, means we need to act immediately because we are in danger. If we aren't in danger, then why do we bother to worry? I believe it is because we are addicted to it as an excuse to avoid life in the present. Living in the moment means feeling pain, risking rejections and any number of negative emotions. It also means the opportunity to love deepest, be awe struck by a rainbow, and enjoy all the wonderful things life has to offer.
My own goal is to live vividly. I love that word. Anyone living a vivid life won't be tempted to sleepwalk. There's too much adventure to be found along the way. By treasuring each new day and each experience contained within its hours, we open ourselves up the wonder which we inherited as children. Watch a child as it sees its first butterfly and the meaning of wonder springs out at us. It's magic.
Even "negative events" can be the catalyst we need to propel us into a new direction, possibly one we would never have considered or might have been fearful of. We need to mourn our losses, then move on. By accepting the past as the past, we free ourselves to a new life, one which suits our present needs better. We have a tendency to stay in old patterns because they are comfortable, even when the need for that activity is long past. We stay at a job which doesn't satisfy us because we aren't sure what a new one will be like. We continue to live in a neighborhood which no longer suits us, or we don't take a new class for fear of looking ignorant. Its okay to feel this way--it make us human--but if we are too fearful of new things, we end up unhappy by staying with the old.
Women Artists and Writers International
Publisher of MOONDANCE: Celebrating Creative Women
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For information about WAWI:
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Personal Portfolio: Women's Writings