Name: Mila Jaroniec
Occupation: Author, poet, teacher
Current release: Mila Jaroniec is the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, published on Split/Lip Press. Her most recent publication is her 14-page PDF Micro-Chapbook Parking Lot Poems, available via Ghost City Press.
Recommendations: Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein and Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years by Diane di Prima. Expansive, ambitious, revolutionary.
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When did you start writing – and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I’ve been writing for about as long as I’ve been reading.
As a kid I wrote stories on the family computer. I hand-bound little zines. I remember being in sixth grade at the Scholastic book fair and seeing an author in the catalogue, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, who had written a series of vampire books. And the little blurb said she wrote her first book when she was 13. And I remember thinking, Damn, I need to get moving.
Writing has always felt natural, the natural expression of my soul on earth. But as I got older, I spent a lot of time trying to get away from the creative impulse. Poison it out. I felt a lot of pressure to do something “real” or “serious.” I come from a family of chemists and hard-science types, so I was, in the back corner of my mind, always trying to activate those genetics and do something with which I could gain their approval. It never worked. I started college in neuroscience and switched to English lit in the first semester. Finally in my early twenties I met myself halfway and committed to writing fully.
My early influences were Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Allen was pure ecstasy, a refreshing antidote to the buttoned-up poems I had to read for school, and when I read On the Road it felt like being heard for the first time. There was this heavy drop of recognition. Someone had felt what I was feeling before, and I could see it happen, I could read their map. Before that, as I kid, I really loved this Babysitters Club spinoff series called California Diaries, and that’s where I think my interest in confessional writing began. I loved “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare. Any story featuring a resourceful girl in trouble.
The thing about literature that pulled me—has always pulled me, besides the fact that it felt like where I belong, what I’m meant to love and tangle with in this lifetime—is how close you can get to someone’s mind. It’s the closest you can get to anybody. Norman Mailer called it “the spooky art” because it’s literally mind transfer—you read a book and you’re inside a brain. I feel that, and agree with it, and in all the dead and useless pursuits possible in this one life we get, literature (the endeavour, the action, the thing itself) has always felt the most vital, true, concrete.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
For me this came in several parts—the first thing is that I’ve always had some kind of imposter syndrome that manifested as, whatever I do in any capacity, in any realm, isn’t IT. That in addition to not being good enough, it’s not the right thing.
I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, like maybe it wasn’t okay to just say things the way I say them. But during my master’s program I got good advice from someone who was really instrumental to my artistic development. He was reading an early draft of my novel and came upon the phrase "lush garden" and said, “Oh no. You never want to find yourself in a lush garden.” And this landed with a massive weight, and I realized, Fuck. I never even thought about it. This phrase was just inside me because I’d heard it so much, it came as a package, I just transcribed someone else’s words. How do I see this garden? What does it really look like to me? And that’s when I realized the key was to interrogate every image, every phrase, every word, to pull up its roots. To transcribe the message the way it goes in my mind and not use any found language. That’s how I got an ear for my sound.
Something also really gelled for me when I started editing books as I read them, other people’s books. Removing words and inserting them. The way Lish edited Carver but it was me editing published novels, automatically cutting and moving lines, thinking, I would have done it like this. That’s when I started to figure out what felt correct to me. It was all intuitive. That’s why I say, about rules, that you have to read and be open to all of them but you have to pick and use the ones that feel right. As a method, I read things aloud to myself. If it sounds like me it stays. If it doesn’t, I throw it out.
Learning what sounds like me involved reading a lot of other writers and then trying to recreate the feeling of transcendence I sometimes got from them in my own words. That’s more or less how I put “Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover” together, and you can hear my influences in there (and I also made it kind of easy, I put a reading list in the back). It was an homage and a salute – to my earliest loves, and more recent heroes like Michelle Tea. (I was not shy about referencing her or Valencia, I love her, her work saved my life and I see that book as a tribute to her, the way her work is to Eileen Myles.)
In contrast, though, my second novel has no reference. Where Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover was brimming, absorbent, reflective, “American Fruit” was written with an ear to the ground. When I started writing that one, I wasn’t working a muscle for the first time. I got deep down inside myself and asked the universe to bleed me.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I always feel to some extent that I don’t have an identity. I know I have one but I can’t really wrap my mind around the reality of it. Which aspects to wear proudly and which to reject. I can’t take it seriously, and sometimes this feels like a problem and sometimes it doesn’t. On a good day, it makes me feel untethered and transcendent. On a bad day, rootless and unclaimed. I know that on some level I’m rejecting a degree of ownership, and in the basement of the heart, I haven’t pulled up the floorboards. And I know I need to do this, but maybe I’m not ready yet.
I’m constantly rediscovering who I am. I wanted to write reinventing but I’m not making those moves anymore. I’m not manipulating, I’m observing the chambers naturally unfold. I feel like I’m constantly re-emerging, constantly shedding skins, any description of me or what I’m like or where I come from makes me recoil because by the time it’s in words, it’s outdated. I’ve always been like that. Always had a hard time being/feeling pinned down. I always want to wriggle out from under identifiers, but I know they matter, they show up in my work. Polish. First generation. Queer. Mentally ill (?). Addict (??). Mother. Daughter. Whatever. I don’t like acknowledging any of these identities but they’re there and I have to wrestle with them, and on some level, I know my work rests on that.
In the space between the desire to disappear and not matter to anyone and being an active part of the web. I have to redefine my relationship to relationships, figure out what it is about being known that devolves so easily into feeling trapped. The creativity blooms somewhere in this friction point. I’m always asking: what IS anything?
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning of starting to write? I think it was largely the inner critic. Feeling crushed by the sheer AMOUNT of work that exists and thinking I had nothing of value to contribute to it, and also why contribute to it at all, given that everything is finite and dying. Mortality itself hounded me. Sustaining my energy without chemical help felt impossible. My inner flame was a gasoline fire. That sort of thing.
Then I got pregnant and that in itself was a challenge, and then when I was underground with my second novel, skirting responsibilities and rooting out the time and space to write (in the middle of childraising and then a pandemic) was a different challenge. There’s always a problem to go up against, and if you don’t have a big one ready for you, you find or make one. Create adversaries, internal or external or both.
Right now I would say my main challenge is, again, time, but not HAVING time, because I can always make time, but the actual energetic presence of mind. Staying keyed in to the source when I feel pulled in a million different directions, and some of my supportive fallbacks (like the aforementioned chemicals) are no longer an option. My day job requires me to spend a lot of time in front of the computer, writing and editing, and that drains me, creatively but also physically, the positive ions from all those electronics. So right now I’m writing freehand, in journals. I don’t want to sit in front of a computer any more than I have to.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
I think they are all equally important and they all gel. People really like to single one out and jeer at it like bullies on the playground, but they are all necessary and they all work together. I see them as the four legs on a table, holding up the narrative. If one of them is in a sinkhole, everything sags. Remove one or two or three, the table falls over.
The thing is, these four elements have to knit together SPECIFICALLY in a specific work. Every single book has a different intertwined blend of these elements, and it’s up to every artist to figure out how they connect. It’s up to them to see the book being written, more that than write the book. If you can’t see what you’re doing you can’t do it. So in that sense I think it’s more about seeing creation than just pulling it out of the mud. I think you have to recognize what wants to emerge and then give it the necessary nourishment to do that. There’s a lot of listening involved.
It also helps to see them as a human body: plot and storytelling are the bones and muscles, respectively, style is the movement, the clothes and cosmetics, the experience of the body as it stands. And the body itself, the composite, is form.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
Everything is observation and everything is research. This has to do with that previous point a little bit, of listening to the work. It’s been my experience that once you’re keyed in, things just give themselves to you. You feel out where the soft points are and where to keep pushing. Observation and research are the ways in which we dig, and I would argue there is no writing process without them.
These things come from somewhere—books come from somewhere. They necessarily require a mind, and a mind is osmotic. Even if you’re going nowhere and observing nothing, there’s a whole internal environment at work. Things are bubbling and shifting in the neural cauldron, and you have no choice but to observe that in whatever way you can manage.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
I think you need both, and that they help each other. You have guideposts but you have to follow your gut all the time. Some structure is necessary; plus, it’s easier to create within some kind of limits, parameters. (I wrote about this a little more here.) Not unlike plants: potted or wild, they can’t grow without a place to put their roots.
For me, personally, I follow the narrative. Sometimes I want to do something, but the story does not want to go that way. I try and remove myself and see, what am I trying to do? Am I trying to force this fit? It’s like dealing with a child, in a lot of ways. You really cannot force a child to do anything they don’t want to do. Well you can, technically, but you won’t get the desired result. There has to be some kind of exchange, an agreement, a yes. It’s hard. I know I can guide it, but I can’t impose myself on the narrative too much.
I do think though that every piece, no matter the style or length or whatever, has to have an internal logic. It has to be completely of itself. So that’s where the listening comes in a little more: to see a work for what it is, and then let it give itself to you, is the ultimate trust exercise. You really have to open up to it and become more conduit than creator.