Betsy Johnson

It’s been a while since you’ve heard from any of our contributors, but we’re here today to introduce you to Betsy Johnson.  Her latest book, Fierce This Falling, was published last fall, and she is currently working on a new book of essays about “the physical and spiritual landscape of Minnesota,” where she lives with her husband and two children. Her piece, To The Space Beside Me, appeared in our last issue and we hope you enjoy this small snippet:

“How can someone who has been married to the same man for more than forty years claim that she has loved four different men? This flies in the face of everything we have been taught about love by romantic comedies. Falling in love is the same as remaining in love, right?”

So without any further adieu it’s time to meet the author.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

It is hard to narrow it down to one thing. Writing is one of the only things that allows me to lose time. Writing is when hours turn into minutes. Or not even minutes, but a place where time changes from something linear into something open–a space I get to inhabit for a while. Another thing I enjoy about writing is that it is where I can bring my ache. Beauty, pain, loneliness, horror, transcendence . . . sometimes those things feel so big that I don’t know what to do with them. So I write.

Who/ what is your biggest inspiration when you write?

It can be anything from reading great authors (Jack Gilbert, Theodore Roethke, Pico Iyer, George Saunders) to a flock of swans flying over. It might be a space–the open field behind my house–or something I hear–I misheard a song lyric the other day that had me contemplating the perfection of spoons (the lyric was about the perfection of things). My daughter has begun to recognize the things that will inspire me–she will sometimes turn to me and say, “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you?”

Do you have a writing schedule?

Not really. This semester I teach every other day, so I try to write on the mornings I am not teaching. But because I have kids, and because my life can get crazy, I have had to learn how to write in whatever cracks of time I can find. Another factor, however, has to do with inspiration. I have never been one of those kinds of people who can sit down for an hour a day and just write. I need to have a reason to write–something restless inside me that will not be at peace until I get it out onto a page. My writing life, then, tends to follow a flood/drought pattern.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Patience. I want the piece done, so I rush the process. Then I want it published, and I get discouraged when it gets rejected, but often it gets rejected because the piece still needs work. And that can get hard, too. I can almost always go back to a piece and find ways to fix it. Is a piece ever done? A last difficulty is when I have to recognize that I might not be up to the task. How does one illuminate the sublime with simple words? At times, it feels beyond my capabilities.

How long does it usually take you to finish a story?

It depends completely on the piece. Sometimes it is months, years. Other times, it is done within two weeks of me starting it.

Are you working on anything now?

I am working on a book of essays about physical, spiritual, and emotional landscapes. I have interviewed a nun about her experiences playing guitar at Polka Masses, I have made a pilgrimage to a tree that is considered sacred by the Ojibwa, and I have gone to church in a movie theater. Mostly, I am trying to expose myself to as many landscapes–internal and external–as I can.

How many rejections did you get before you had something published?

It depends on the piece. There was a poem I loved that got rejected for three years until it finally got published. There was an essay that got picked up by the first place I sent it. Sometimes, a piece never gets accepted, and then sometimes, a piece gets accepted after five or six rejection letters.

How did you deal with them?

If it was a kind rejection letter, I would make a note of it and send to the publication again. In most cases, though, I will wait for the emotion to subside and then go back to the piece and ask, “Okay, why did this get rejected? What can I do to make it better before I send it out again?” Sometimes, the piece doesn’t need any changes, but often, it needs more attention, more tightening. Then I send it out again and start the process all over again.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Find great readers, people who will read your drafts with compassion, honesty, and insight. I have two readers who see my earliest drafts. They are my cheerleaders, and they tell me what is and isn’t working. I have other readers who get later drafts, and they help me to see the themes and threads in my work, so I can more fully shape and sculpt the pieces. I have readers who think and feel like I do, but I have other readers who come from very different cognitive, emotional, and spiritual places. This helps me create work that will appeal to as many readers as possible.