Interview With Phyllis Witte
2018 Writing Contest Winner
January 9, 2019
How would you describe your writing style? Who are your influences?
When it comes to writing, my particular writing style, I like to keep it simple and to the point, I try not to overwrite, but at the same time convey the power of the piece, the essence that I am trying to get across, that’s crucial. Without a doubt, my biggest influence is the author Joan Didion. When I first read Play It As It Lays decades ago, I then had to go and read all of her books (at the time there were only two or three other books that she had written). To me she is a minimalist in that she chooses every word carefully, and the reader easily follows the path of her sentence until-- “POW”-- she packs a punch to the reader, then goes on her way again; that “punch” being the absurdity of life or the finality of it. To me she sees the “upside downess” of the world, and THAT is what inspires me—to possess a unique vision in the turn of a phrase as a writer. My other favorite writers are: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Cristina Garcia, and, not all of Willa Cather’s works, but a brilliant short story she wrote titled: Paul’s Case.
What is your writing process? How often do you write? How do you prepare yourself emotionally for writing?
Some days it comes easily to me, I am able to sit down and write and the words “happen.” On another day, I can only construct one paragraph. But I have learned to be satisfied with that one paragraph because that’s all that will “show itself” for that day. So I take the days when I write as: “Let’s see what happens today,” and I try to accept what is. I believe that is what the true creative “process” is; it is a discovery each and every day. I am not a writer who can plot and plan. I can have a bad day and start to write, and through my writing feel my spirits lift, or I can start out quite happy and end up feeling bit out of sorts because I just didn’t care for what I had written that particular day. I write about three to four times a week. When I am not writing, I am writing in my mind as I go along throughout the day, constructing lines or paragraphs, trying to figuring out the structure of a short story that I am working on “internally.” In essence then, I would have to say that I write seven days of the week.
What are some of your struggles as a writer?
My biggest struggle is TIME, and I know this sounds crazy, but I get more writing done when I have less time on my hands. Having a fulltime job as an educator does not allow me to sit and write all day long, but I love how I try to “sneak” in the time to write, looking forward to when I get home to steal an hour just to write, or declare to myself that on a given Saturday all I will do is be concerned with all things writing.
Was there someone in your life who supported your writing in important ways? Specifically, what did that support look like?
Yes, it was many of my teachers when I attend public school in NYC. My formative years were the ‘60’s, and the teachers in the public school system in NYC were really great educators back then. Even though they had classes of 34 students, somehow they reached out to make so many of us feel special and highlight our talents and abilities. I remember my third grade teacher Ms. Ford had us write a poem in class one time. When she read my poem, she thought it was the greatest thing she had ever read. When my mother came to pick me from school at the end of the day, Ms. Ford ran over to her to let my very working class mother know what I had created. My mom smiled, but I don’t think she found it especially important. It took many years for my mother to understand that I was a writer, and what it meant to me. Eventually, she did understand, but much later on when she in her 70’s; she had a lot to deal with in her life, so she just couldn’t take the time to sit back and understand my passion for writing until much, much later when life had become less of a struggle for her.
Then there was an English professor I met in my first year of college, Professor Shirley Ariker. I brought her a stack of my writing for her to read and to answer the question: do you think I have what it takes? After reading all of it, she said yes, I certainly had what it takes (Shirley is still in my life today, I consider her my mentor, my life mentor). Shirley Ariker then introduced me to another professor, Marty Skoble, who was a professional writer. I worked with him for some time one-on-one, and it was through him that I met some of greatest writers NYC had to offer, going to poetry readings in the East Village and listening to writers perform such as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs. Soon I became involved in the Gay Women’s Movement that was happening in NYC, and I went on to do readings at the young age of 19 with Adrienne Rich, Kate Millet, June Jordan, Audrey Lorde. The time that I was born into, the 60’s, and my “rite of passage time” so-to-speak, the 70’s, really molded me as a writer; there was a way of seeing life that was really unique, it was a questioning time, a time of curiosity, and a seeking of truth. Through all of this, and yet today, Shirley Ariker was and is the person who has never doubted my ability as a writer: I owe much to her.
What influence has your family had in your writing? In what ways did your childhood form you as a writer?
My mother only had a ninth grade education, and my father graduated from high school and was a truck driver for most of his life. Growing up in a very working class family, all that mattered was the money that you put on the kitchen table. So growing up in this way, I think I looked out at the world and discovered, quite on my own: art, music, dance, writing. The arts spoke to me in a way that took me out of the gray world I was living in, it took me to a new place: my imagination. I have survived and gained enormous strength in this life because I know of that place that is always there in my mind, that no one can take from me. So the density, the heaviness of that working class environment thrust me into something quite beautiful. And because of that, I am very thankful for the struggles and problems and grayness I went through with my family. It shaped my voice, it shaped my belief system, it shaped me to become a very strong and independent woman.
What was your favorite book as a child? Do you think that book has influenced you as a writer?
I loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which later led me to the collected stories of (are you ready for this?) The Twilight Zone. I have always loved stories where a character goes about their day, and then walking too far to the edge of life, has gotten a little too close to a place they shouldn’t go to, and in a moment, life as he/she knows it, changes. I couldn’t get enough of stories like those when I was a child.
What do you believe it means to be a writer in the year 2019? How have you been shaped by your time and by the culture you live in? What themes reappear in your writing?
I believe to be a writer in 2019 is to give voice to issues in this world that people want to actively suppress; I believe that to be a writer in 2019 means to live outside of the box, to think differently, feel differently, just as we fought so hard to do during the 1960’s, and in a sense, history DOES repeat itself. I believe our present government, in an “upside downness” way, is really pushing people along to seek out the truth.
Themes that reappear in my writing are being a gay women and growing up in a then isolated place known as the borough of Queens in NYC. Knowing that I was gay at an early age, becoming a teenager and being gay at a time when you could tell know one, that shaped me. There were no public role models, no prime time Ellen DeGeneres. It was a time when you could be arrested for being an “outlaw’” for being outside the law. Then—poof--Stonewall happened, just like that, and we are all out in the streets, we are out everywhere, never to be encased and enslaved in silence again, to be free to love whomever we wished: just like those Twilight Zone stories—living on the edge and then suddenly taken to another place. I am also eternally grateful for growing up in New York City at this time. New York City was where it was all happening. As a young person, I could seek out and find whatever I needed in my intellectual world to sustain, because it was all here, it was all around me. And even though New York City has changed quite a bit from the time when I was young, I still love New York City; I consider it the place of all possibilities. The themes of Secrets, Silence, and Breaking Free shape my writing.
What are your goals as a writer? Or, let’s take it as step further—what is at the root of your passion for writing? Writing can be a lonely and demanding pursuit and often with few tangible rewards. Why do you write?
I don’t believe that all anyone should do is just sit and write all day. I am an educator who works in one of the largest highs schools in NYC and the United States. The students there inspire me each and every day, they have me see and feel what they feel, what living is like for them, which in turn reminds me of my experience in “growing up,” and what shaped me. A person should have a passion in his/her life, and also a passion for dealing with life itself, a sort of “life on life’s terms.” We are also here on this earth to help others, I truly believe that. A healer one told me that I am a giving person, and that when a person is a giver, when they walk upon the earth, the earth knows this, and so gives back to that person, feeds them from the very earth they walk upon. Being involved, immersed in life, gives me the inspiration to create.
All I can tell you about WHY I write is that I can never NOT write, it is in me, it is a part of me. I tried once to give up writing, really put it behind me, but my life just seemed empty and totally void, life had lost its essence and its meaning, and never again would I even consider giving up writing. As a baker would say about his/her profession, “It’s in the blood.” My blood consists of the letters of the alphabet.
In your essay “Sunday Drive,” you write compassionately about your family, particularly your sister. At the Family Narrative Project, we are always thinking about definitions of family. What is your definition of family?
My definition of family is this: family are the people who care most about you, who are there for you, who will not give up on you, who love you unconditionally, no matter who you are, or what you believe in. So, yes, we are born into a family who are our “blood,” but think of this: we can keep creating family as we live on, adding another member here and another there who are not blood-related, bringing to us the people who love and care about us, whom we love and care about, forming our very own and unique family, never feeling or being alone, as long as we reach out, ever refining how we learn to love, unconditionally, till we have left this earth.