Interview with Judith Sornberger, 2nd Place Creative Non-Fiction Essay Winner

Sunday, February 11, 2018
Today, we welcome Judith Sornberger, who won second place in the Quarter 1 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest. Her winning essay, "White Crane Spreads Her Wings," can be read here if you haven't had a chance yet!

Judith is a poet, essayist, and memoirist whose newest poetry collection Practicing the World is forthcoming in 2018 from CavanKerry Press. Her most recent book, a memoir, is The Accidental Pilgrim: Finding God and His Mother in Tuscany from Shanti Arts Publications. She has one other full-length poetry collection Open Heart (Calyx Books) and five poetry chapbooks, most recently Wal-Mart Orchid, winner of the Helen Kay Prize (Evening Street Press). Sornberger has fallen passionately in love with practicing Tai Chi. She thanks her teacher Karen Meyers for her wise and gentle instruction and for encouraging her to become certified to teach Tai Chi, which she hopes to do in 2018. Judith has taught writing in a wide variety of venues, including prisons, community colleges, arts and community centers, and universities. She is professor emerita of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, where she created the Women’s Studies Program and taught for 25 years. She lives on the side of a mountain in north-central Pennsylvania, where her nearest neighbors are deer, birds, bobcats, and bears.

WOW: Judith, congratulations on your 2nd place win for your essay,  "White Crane Spreads Her Wings." What made you want to write about Tai Chi? 

Judith: For me, both writing and practicing Tai Chi are meditative practices, so once I resumed taking classes, after a hiatus of many years, I found myself linking the two. Both drop me into deep interior spaces.

As a writer, I’m also intrigued and delighted by the language of Tai Chi, which is quite poetic, suggesting connections between the energy of human life and movement and the energies of the natural world and our sister creatures. When I “stand like a tree,” for instance, I feel myself rooted in the earth even as the crown of my head (in the words of my teacher) lifts skyward “like the leader on a pine tree.”

Other movements, like parting the clouds, swallows skim the lake, and wild dove spreads its wings, suggest a direct, physical link between ourselves and the world around us, even if we are inside a Tai Chi studio. This linking reminds me of the use of metaphor in writing.

I began recording the names of some of my favorite Tai Chi movements in my journal and eventually wanted to do more with them. That’s how I began my essay—by playing with these names and quoting my teacher.

WOW: Yes, I really love the way you connected the two. What an awesome idea. Why was this a good subject for a creative non-fiction essay?

Judith: I appreciate the creative nonfiction essay’s malleability and have admired the way that other writers have developed it as a hybrid form, introducing poetic riffs among narrative passages. In this essay, I wanted to work lyrical bits of writing into more prosy segments as a way of representing the way Tai Chi finds its way into my life—in small bits here and there.

WOW: It looks like you also write poetry and have had success getting poems published and winning awards. What are a couple tips you can give to our poetry writers out there?

Judith: I’m guessing you mean tips about publishing. It helps to pay attention to where some of your favorite poets—ones whose work you particularly resonate with—publish their work (journals, book presses, etc.). Read sample issues of these journals and books from these presses to see if you feel like your poems might fit with the editors’ aesthetics.

It’s always helped me to network with other poets—sometimes in a poetry group (sharing and critiquing our work) and sometimes with individual poets, long distance. In addition to helping each other improve our poems through suggested revisions, we are good resources for one another, providing ideas and opinions about possible markets for our work. For instance, my poet friend Alison Townsend worked with me on my poetry book manuscript Practicing the World and later suggested I send it to CavanKerry Press since she thought it would fit well into their list. And it’s turned out that CavanKerry is publishing the book this spring.

My final “tip” would be to try to be impervious to rejection, which is much easier said than done, I know. Most writers receive rejections on a regular basis. I certainly do. But I try to always have a lot of poems and essays out there making the rounds so that one rejection doesn’t bottom me out.

WOW: That is some great advice, especially about having the support system. You also have done some teaching of writing in various places. What is a writing lesson you hope all students learn from you?

Judith: That the best teachers are poems, essays, and books of all kinds. Reading widely and deeply is not only rewarding in itself, but it’s also a way of growing one’s writing. Someone once said (or wrote), that if you admire a certain quality in a writer’s work—Virginia Woolf’s narrative structure, Barbara Crooker’s lush translations of quotidian moments into poems, Mary Oliver’s intense focus on the smallest of nature’s creatures—you are probably capable of doing something like what they do. The object isn’t to copy their work, of course. But being able to understand what a writer is doing technically may indicate that you can do something like it. I can’t swear that it works that way, but it seems a hopeful, and possibly helpful, notion.

Having said all that, I have been enormously blessed in my teachers and continue to be in the teachers of online courses that I continue to take, such as those offered by Women on Writing. I hope that I have passed on to my students a thirst for learning. In Tai Chi, for instance, you might learn the Sun Form in just a few months, but you return to it again and again in your classes, even over a period of years, to go deeper into the practice and to learn the subtleties of breath and movement. As in Tai Chi, there is always something new to learn about writing and its possibilities

WOW: All of what you said is so true. Just this past week, we have had a few posts on the importance of reading when you are a writer. So, what are you currently working on? What's next for you?

Judith: I’m working on revamping a poetry book manuscript called The Long Habit of Bowing.
I’m also working on a collection of essays about women and their desks, tentatively titled A Desk of One’s Own. In these essays, I weave together stories of the desks of some famous women writers—such as Louisa May Alcott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—with stories of my own desks and the desks of my ancestors, mentors, and friends. The desks become lenses for examining the lives and writings of these women.

WOW: That sounds really interesting. We will have to keep our eyes open for both of those. Thank you, Judith, and best of luck to you!

Judith: Thank you for this opportunity. It’s actually given me an idea about writing an essay on Tai Chi and writing!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for doing this interview.

Judith--One, I enjoyed how you went back and forth between Tai Chi movements and your life.
Two, your WIP sounds fascinating. Please let the WOW readers know when it comes out. Your desk and famous writers' desks? It's an intriguing combination.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great interview, ladies!

Judith ~ Your White Crane essay is one that gets better and better every time I read it. For an essay to have that effect on someone is remarkable! It's so expertly crafted. I love how you wove Tai Chi movements with threads from your life.

I like the idea of A Desk of One's Own. I imagine the desk held more importance back then than it does today. I have a desk in my office where I work, but I can't write creatively there. I have to write on my laptop in bed or outside.

I agree that writing widely and deeply helps grow your own writing. Reading your interview has given me ideas on how not to make my essays so much about me. You combine elements (the Tai Chi, the desks of famous women writers, maybe bowling) with personal snapshots of your life, elevating your essays beyond the personal form. I'm going to try that technique to add layers to my writing. Thanks for the wonderful interview! :)

Renee Roberson said...

Yes, great interview and I learned a lot of about different ways to approach writing creative non-fiction. Judith, your essay is one I can read over and over and pick up something different each time. And the essays abut women and their desks? Love it!

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