Cassie Premo Steele, a long time contributor to Literary Mama, brings to us some impressive credentials. The author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, she has been nominated for the Pushcart prize twice. Her most recent books, the novel, Shamrock and Lotus, and the book of poetry, This is how honey runs, demonstrate why. A versatile writer with impressive depth, Premo Steele uses her knowledge not only to rack up literary praise for herself, but for other writers, artists, and creators who attend her Co-Creating Workshops for creative inspiration and support. She also authors a Literary Mama column, Birthing the Mother Writer, to encourage our readers in their own creative paths.
Amy Hudock recently sat down with Premo Steele to discuss teaching, writing, and motherhood.
Amy Hudock: Many mother writers read your column here at Literary Mama, Birthing the Mother Writer, to find ways to improve their own writing. Why did you start the column? What do you hope to offer your readers?
Cassie Premo Steele: I started the column because I wanted mother writers to see behind the curtain of the writing world. There are no wizards. We all are human, struggling, and finding ways to perfect our voices — get clearer, more truthful, more effective. I wanted to be a safe space in the publishing world, saying, “Send your writing to me. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Let’s work on it.” I hope that people who read the column can somehow instill this attitude within themselves.
AH: You run workshops that you call “Co-Creating Workshops.” Can you explain what co-creating is, and how it makes your writing workshops different from others?
CPS: There are several reasons I chose the name “Co-Creating.” First, my workshops and individual coaching sessions are not just for writers; they are for artists of all kinds– visual artists, musicians, actresses– as well as for people who just have an inkling that creativity is a missing element in their lives. I believe that once we begin committing to our own creative paths, the universe co-creates with us. Just one look at the trees blossoming in the spring tells us that this is a creative universe with its own creative cycles, and I’ve found, in my own life and in the lives of my clients, that once we start to nurture ourselves creatively, we get hints and signs that we are being supported in our work.
AH: On Wednesdays, you “co-create” a poem on your Facebook page with followers of your site. How does that process work?
CPS: I call this “Wordy Wednesday,” and early in the morning, before taking my daughter to school, I do a status update where I ask people to suggest a word in the comment box, and then at some point during the day, I use those words to co-create a poem. This is very similar to what I do in the Co-Creating work in that I pick up on the energy of the people participating and respond to the events happening in the world at the time, and then try to bring all of this together in a way that is healing, inspiring, and uplifting.
AH: You and I once went to a Natalie Goldberg writing workshop together at the Sophia Institute in Charleston, SC. When you go to writing workshops such as this, what do you value? What do you hope to take away?
CPS: I value good teaching. Natalie Goldberg’s writing workshops are a great example of this. She is a true teacher. She is prepared, focused, interactive, and expects disciplined, hard work. I hope I’m the same way. Yes, I’m nurturing and kind, but I expect discipline. As my daughter says, “Homey don’t play that no mo’.”
AH: We both have attended and taught creative writing workshops. However, not everyone in the publishing business agrees they are worthwhile. Some people argue that writers don’t need creative writing classes or workshops. How do you stand on this debate?
CPS: Who am I to say what other people need? Some people love writing groups; others find them narcissistic and navel-gazing. Some people love writing classes; others liken them to being on the show, “Biggest Loser,” with the teacher as the trainer, screaming, “Be like me! Be like me!” I encourage people to get quiet, go within, and ask their wise voice within what they most need.
Co-creating with other writers breaks down the either-or thinking: either we are helping someone else or we are helping ourselves. I just saw an interview with Eve Ensler last night where she says helping women in the Congo helped her write her latest book. My husband looked at me and said, “She’s right up your alley.”
AH: Did your co-creating process influence the writing of your two recent books?
CPS: This is how honey runs contains poems that were written during my Co-Creating sessions and workshops, so each one was written for a specific person, to help her overcome fears or blocks, work through past pain, or believe in her own voice more strongly. Of course, I couldn’t tap into what they needed if I hadn’t been through these experiences myself, so in a way, they were all written for me, as well. Because we all begin again every morning.
I also have some exciting news: I am, just today, completing the production process of an audio version of This is how honey runs. I worked with a musician, Russ Eidson, who composed original music to accompany each of the poems. It will be coming out from Unbound Content in the next month.
Shamrock and Lotus is a novel that I wrote eight years ago. At the time, it was picked up by an agent in New York and went as far as the president of Penguin Putnam before they eventually rejected it, saying, “After 9/11, Americans don’t want to read about the rest of the world.” I was in shock (without the awe). It took that many years, I think, for us to be able to come out of our traumatized consciousness to be able to be open to the rest of the world again. The novel itself is about global capitalization and the ways people can heal by reconnecting to each other and the land, even after such traumas as terrorism and enforced immigration.
AH: In Shamrock and Lotus do you explore themes related to motherhood?
Oh, yes. I wrote it when my daughter was a toddler, and I see now how I was trying to heal myself and our collective traumatic pasts in order to make the world a better place for her and future generations. The characters express in multiple ways — mother to daughter, daughter to mother, mother to unborn child, grown adult to the motherland — how the ethical stance of mothering holds the key to this healing.
AH: I know you were expecting this question. How do you think motherhood has influenced your writing?
CPS: Oh, Amy, we would have to go away for the weekend to the mountains for me to answer this question! Let me sum it up by saying: compression and care. I have learned to work very fast. I have two hours to write a chapter? Fine, I’ll write it in two hours. But then when those two hours are up, I’ll get something good to eat, laugh, help my daughter with her homework, and settle in for a night of beer and TV. Get ‘er done and then take it easy.
AH: How have you seen motherhood affect the writing of your Co-Creating clients?
CPS: I think there’s still so much that’s yet unwritten — about motherhood, fatherhood, family, peace, balance, healing, and meaning in our lives. The mother writer clients who come to me need a witness in order to break the silence — sometimes that has lingered for generations — about the truth of all this.
AH: You have published seven books, which is no small feat, especially in this publishing climate. What advice do you have to other mother writers who want to publish books?
CPS: One of my favorite writers on writing is Laraine Herring, who said, “The publishing industry is not waiting for you. Don’t stop the flow of your work trying to please it.” It’s similar to how people jam up their writing waiting for the right time or enough money. Writing is bigger than all this. Think about your favorite writers. Did they keep you sane, make you feel more alive and less alone, and inspire you because they had a blog with a lot of hits? or a big name agent? or a huge advance for their novel? No. Writing is bigger than this. The universe is bigger than this. You, mother writer, are bigger than this. Turn off the “shoulds” and tell the marketing gurus to go join an ashram. You are bigger than all that. Then sit down, and write.