The Magnolia Review: Describe your creative space. Do you work at home, in public spaces, etc.?
JC Reilly: I need to be super high-focused and distraction-free to write, so I try to write in quiet spaces, sometimes in the very back of the library where no one ventures, but usually in my room at home with a cat or two planted by my side. (Cats can be distracting, especially when they sit on the keyboard, but I can deal.) Often I’ll write at night because there’s no noise at all—plus at night, when it feels like I’m the only person in the world, I can work solely on my writing and not feel like there’s chores and quotidian stuff I should be doing. It’s just me and my imagination.
TMR: What kind of materials do you use? Do you write by hand or type? What is your favorite writing utensil?
JCR: I mainly use the computer to write—which makes me all kinds of a fraud since I tell my students to write on paper first—but I will often print out drafts—or partial drafts—and then write on the drafts by hand. There’s something about the materiality of paper that I love—but there’s also a kind of permanence to it, so if I am writing first on the computer, I’m not really “committing” to the poem yet—it’s not an object in the world…yet. It’s only when I print it out—and then take a pen to physically write on it—that a poem seems real. After I physically write on the draft, I can go back and “fix” the draft in the computer.
TMR: What is your routine for writing?
JCR: I wish I had a true routine. I know writers who get up at 4 a.m. and write until they have to get ready for work, and they do that every day. I try to write in the afternoon (if I can find a quiet moment), or I write at night. But I don’t write every day—maybe 4 or 5 days a week. I do make try to read something significant every day—it’s important to be exposed to words—even if it’s not poetry. Maybe it’s a biography or a mystery. The point is to be connected to other writers—people who have put their work out in the world. It’s inspiration.
TMR: How long have you been writing? When did you start writing?
JCR: My earliest memory of writing was two rhyming poems when I was 7. My dad included them in a handwritten journal of poetry that he was writing for a friend at the time. Then I wrote some silly sci-fi novels in my teens—which I’m glad to say are lost to the annals of time. I didn’t get serious about writing until I took a creative writing class in college and found out that I was pretty good at writing. I was also an English major, and I was reading all the greats (even if they were all dead, white men), so all these words were swimming around my head all the time—and I just felt like I wanted my own words to come into being. And then I just never stopped writing.
TMR: Who is your intended, or ideal, audience? Who do you write for?
JCR: I think anyone’s first audience always has to be herself. If you’re not happy with what you’ve written, there’s no way that anyone else will be. I try to write poems that balance the personal and the universal (of course “universality” is a myth), and I try to write stories that make me laugh. Hopefully what I write will resonate with others. I have a long-standing writing group with some colleagues at work, and it’s been amazingly helpful to have a kind of built-in audience like that—but the problem with being with a group for eight or so years is you begin to write for them—because you know what they’ll say, you’ll know how they’ll react—they’re in your head—so it’s good to break away at some point too. I’ve really learned to trust my own instincts and voice. I used to make more of the changes they suggested because I was less sure of myself. But reaching a balance is important, and I feel that these days I’m achieving that. (Our writing group has gone on hiatus in the last semester or so, so I’m relying more on my instincts.)
TMR: What inspires you to write? If you are blocked, what do you do?
JCR: Reading other people’s work inspires me the most! But when I’m blocked, I drag out the poetic forms book and work through them. A few months ago, I felt just depleted. I didn’t think I had anything worth saying. So, I went on a villanelle binge—I knew I had to work the pattern and so it forced me to write. But the beauty of a villanelle is, because there are repeating lines, you don’t have to write so much—and if you know the pattern, then you know where it has to end, and you can get in and get out in 19 lines. And you’ve completed something. It might not be great—I’ve written a ton of lame villanelles (and sonnets and sestinas…)—but at least it’s done. Formal poetry is compelling in that way—you know how the form looks and works and it gives you a goal to write toward, and that gets me out of a block.
TMR: What other things do you do besides writing? Do you dance or play golf, etc.?
JCR: I play tennis—singles and doubles. This spring, I was fourth in a league with 140 players—it was the best I’d ever played. I love tennis, and my coach tells me I have the best backhand at the whole tennis center. He might be exaggerating, but it is a pretty good backhand.
TMR: What is your favorite part of the creative process?
JCR: The best part is feeling proud that I’ve created something that I want to share. And when a journal takes one of my poems or stories, it’s absolutely as delicious as the moment of when your Mom gives you a mixing beater full of cake batter and tells you to have at it.
TMR: What is your advice to aspiring writers?
JCR: Read more. Stay away from time-sucks like social media as much as you can and use the time instead to read books by people you love and to find new literary magazines to explore. And write all you can—keep a journal or make lists or make erasures or work through forms like I do if you have blocks or if you need to be inspired. Set the timer on your phone and for fifteen minutes every day (or so), be in the moment and write. Writing is one of the best habits you can have—and it only gets better the more you do it!
Check out JC’s work in the issue, Volume 3, Issue 1.