Welcome new Writers’ Program instructor, Brian Sonia-Wallace. Brian is teaching a section of Personal Essay I (Reg# 375766) on Thursday evenings (7pm-10pm PT) this Fall. He sat down with us to offer some insight into creative life and his upcoming course.
What sparks your creativity?
I always think creativity isn’t just about writing — it’s about being part of a conversation. As writers we are DJ’s of our own experiences, constantly remixing everything we hear and read. I find the idea that nothing is new really liberating. It’s not about making a new thing, it’s about finding a new way of looking at something, or putting two unexpected things in dialogue.
I always love the genesis of the idea of genius. The Romans didn’t say someone “was” a genius, but that they “had” a genius, like a muse, that could come to them but also abandon them. I like thinking about creativity as external to myself. If I’m reading good things and talking to interesting people, creativity will come. Suddenly it’s not just easier to make art, that art becomes more practically USEFUL and desirable, because it isn’t existing in a vacuum.
What do you rely on for those times it’s difficult to find the time, energy, motivation and/or inspiration to write?
Deadlines! Short deadlines. I am the eternal procrastinator. In quarantine, I’ve started regular Zooms with my poet friend Linda Ravenswood, where we’ll set goals up top and then set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Every time it goes off, we have to check in on how it’s going and make sure we’re getting things done, and then start the timer again. Is it babysitting? Yes. We desperately need baby-sat.
When I was finishing my book of essays The Poetry of Strangers (Harper Collins 2020), I had a realization. Working to meet my editors’ deadlines I suddenly went, “a book doesn’t just need a team – it needs a boss!” Having some sort of external pressure is always the best way to get me off my butt. I don’t really believe in inspiration – I just get in the weeds and write badly and edit until eventually I feel like the work is presentable. It’s never perfect, but if I can get it to “good enough” I’m ecstatic.
What’s your favorite book and/or movie?
Right now, stuck at home, I’m reading Bill Bryson’s At Home and it’s a fantastic history of all the mundane parts of a house we take for granted. I love popular science and obscure histories for that. I’m also re-reading local memoirist Carla Rachel Sameth’s One Day on the Gold Line to feel all the feels think about what it means for me to live a good life. I’ve been getting really into the growing sacred reading movement (outlined in Casper ter Kuile’s The Power of Ritual) which looks at how we can interact with secular texts to take meaning from them in the same way folks have been building meaning from sacred texts for millennia.How’s that for a non-answer? Oh, and I’m watching lots of Drag Race, Shameless, and Great British Baking Show. Movies are too hard.
What’s your favorite quote about writing?
Ok my editor totally clocked me on this fake Joan Didion quote but I love it so much I included it in The Poetry of Strangers anyway, albeit with a disclaimer:
“The impulse for much writing is homesickness. You are trying to get back home, and in your writing you are invoking that home, so you are assuaging the homesickness.” – attributed to Joan Didion but, um, not in any of her writing soooo…
I just love this deeply personal idea of writing, the ache and the healing and the finding home in words. This type of writing has an urgency and purposiveness.
Who do you wish you could write like (or: Whose writing discipline do you wish you had)?
I’ve been going through old boxes of journals and finding all of these imitation pieces from 10-15 years ago! My past self trying to write like Dickens and Tolkien as a teen, later like Murakami and David Foster Wallace and of course Didion. I read lots of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Davy Rothbart while working on my latest book. Right now I’m immersing myself in queer/trans/nonbinary poets (Danez Smith, Stephanie Burt) to build that side of my brain.
What excites you most about teaching for the Writers’ Program?
Teaching personal essay to folks from all walks of life, I know I’m going to learn as much about living as I’m able to teach about writing. I’ve made a career out of helping people tell their stories and share what’s important to them, and getting to spend 10 weeks at a stretch discovering and luxuriating in these stories…well, I can’t think of anything better. Writing can be such a lonely art, and I treasure community. Writers’ Program students are more than students, they are peers and fellow walkers on this weird pilgrimage to language.
A couple years back, I was introduced to the concept of “literary citizenship” by Writers’ Program Director Charles Jensen. The idea that being a writer comes with rights, but also obligations to each other. I love that this is the ethos of this program, a way to expand that citizenship and share some of my blessings and pitfalls with folks who are making a commitment to their art.
What do you hope your students get from your course(s)?
I hope they get published in the New York Times and get book deals and TV spin-offs and penthouses, if they want that! But more importantly, I hope they reconnect with estranged siblings or stand up to their mean boss or tell their kids they love them. I hope they realize that they are capable of something new. Writing is becoming.
I hope my students write the burning piece they didn’t know they needed to write. I hope the editing hurts before it feels good. I hope that they are so proud of what they have written in the end.
I believe the job of the instructor in the arts is to help students make what they want to make. I’m so excited to see what my students want to make.
I’ll leave with a shoutout to my other hats – at RENT Poet, bringing custom poetry to corporate events and weddings (now all on Zoom, of course!) and at Get Lit – Words Ignite, helping the best youth voices in the nation nurture and deepen their craft. And finally, shoutout to The Palace Seafood for the best Dim Sum in Westwood since forever.
Thank you to Brian for taking time to share with us. Look for more instructor interviews coming soon!