Re’Lynn Hansen talks Japan, inspiration, and how to balance writing with commuting and life
Interview by Katie Lynn Johnston
I met Re’Lynn Hansen in her Writers’ Portfolio class at Columbia College Chicago in my junior year of school. But, even before I had met her or was entirely positive as to who she was, I had heard many great things about her, her classes and her written work.
Throughout my first years at Columbia, I had seen her walking around the halls on numerous occasions before I took class with her and I remember thinking how zen and laid-back yet still so tough she seemed. I knew only that she had published a great deal of her writing, in books and lit magazines alike, and that she had received several awards for it as well, but knew not much more beyond what I had heard about her. So, as you might be able to guess, I was ecstatic to take her class, and jumped at the chance to interview her on her process, what inspires her, and why she writes.
Re’Lynn Hansen is the author of a book of poem and essays, To Some Women I Have Known, White Pine Press. Her essays, memoir pieces and stories have been published in Hawai’i Review, Prism, Rhino, New Madrid, Water~Stone, New South, Poem Memoir Story, and online at Contrary. She is the recipient of the New South Prose Prize, and the Prism International Creative Nonfiction Prize. Her chapbook, 25 Sightings of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, was published by Firewheel Editions. She is editor of Punctuate, a nonfiction mOn agazine. She has travelled to Kyoto to explore zen approaches to landscape gardening. She has researched the early discoveries of cancer vaccines at Yale Sterling Memorial Library for a book about her experiences with breast cancer and being among the first to receive an experimental cancer vaccine. Her website is at www.Relynnhansen.com.
How did you get started writing? What made you want to write?
I think I have the regular childhood creds for a writer. I was a daydreamer. I grew up looking out the window. A lot. From my bedroom, I could see cornfields, horse corrals, and creeks. I remember watching the harvest at five years of age, knowing it was a metaphor. There was not a book in the house. But my parents were creative beings, creative thinkers. They would not say we were poor, they would say we were broke. My mother listened to jazz. I think music had an influence upon my writing. My father wanted to go into fish farming or hydroponics for a while. Their ideas were large and outside of how others thought. There was no library nearby. Books were expensive and they were broke. But they bought books for me.
Then for a long time I swam around with the idea of what I would not be. I would not be a person who carted a briefcase to work. I would not work 9 to 5. I would not own anything that could not fit in the trunk of a car. I would not be someone who added numbers for a living. I would not keep a checking account. Eventually, there was a path through it. It came by giving myself permission to be an artist and a writer. My work expressed image. I was and am a photographer. Though eventually I knew I would be a person who expresses image in terms of poetic language.
You mentioned in your Writers’ Portfolio class that you had gone to Japan over the summer. Do you have a favorite place there that you have visited? Are there things in Japan which inspire your writing?
I went to Japan to see the moss and bamboo forests created by mists that rise above the seas—I am a meditator so I wanted to see the gardens and temples. Also, they have a long history of in Image and Word work, going back a thousand years and bringing us right to the manga age. The Japanese have always illustrated their poems with paintings and their ink paintings with poems. They were interdisciplinary. Image and word were created together. For the Japanese, manga is hundreds of years old, and this is tied to their spiritual belief, not in one god, but in one idea of god that exists in everything, in every rock and pebble and flower, and every art form is a path to understanding that rock or flower.
You write many different types of literature; nonfiction, fiction, poetry—as is evident from your books, literary publications and awards, but is there one in particular that you most enjoy writing and teaching?
I enjoy memoir the most. At some point, I realized that I was spending more time looking up the lives of authors, than I was reading them. I realized that at fiction readings, I could recall the Q&A afterwards better than I could recall the fiction that had been read. As a child, I was allowed a seat at the kitchen tables, and lounges and bars and living rooms that were the midnight haunts of my parents and grandparents. My task was to keep quiet, which I accomplished because their voices entranced me. Their words danced and I was thrilled that I could touch the minds. When in college, I knew that I wanted to explode with the stories that were actually in my mind, and not the fiction version of them. I am writing an epistolary memoir now. Very satisfying.
Which authors and books would you say have most influenced your writing and style? Do you have a favorite story, book or poem you always find yourself going back to?
My favorite books are the beginning writings of brilliant authors—novels that become an author’s “first breath,” where the language and risk taking are miraculously fresh. For instance, James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Morrison, The Bluest Eye; McCullers,The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms; Cisneros, House on Mango Street; Faulkner, As I Lay Dying.
Right now, in the nonfiction arena, essays have better form than memoir. This is changing quickly with graphic memoirs—for instance, Fun Home and Persepolis—and with segmented and lyric forms of memoirs.
Besides being a writer, all around artist and professor, you also commute from Michigan to Chicago. Do you find it difficult to balance your hobbies, work, writing, commuting and family? What advice would you give to others who also juggle writing with their work and other responsibilities and wants?
Yes, it is impossible to balance it all. I try. I spend time recalibrating. For instance, if I have a hundred things to do, I might take a gap hour and walk the dog instead of attacking that list, just to breathe and let it all settle. As it happens, I have many medical appointments. My writing time is often taken by doctor appointments. Of course, I have written about the doctors and my metastatic breast cancer. I think everyone knows about death and struggle, but having cancer crystalizes that knowledge, and you exist with it in your own little stream of light. It’s important, for me, to write about that. You have to jump the slipstream between life and death and back again, and report back from the brilliant wilderness of illness. It’s the conversation many writers try to have. It’s living within a paradox. It’s the lightening, then nothing, then lightening again. That paradox twists around a bit. The struggle/illness is sometimes the lightening, and there’s the idea that life is nothing without it.
You asked my advice, and that would be to go inward and check-in with yourself regarding what you want to do that day, that week. Who do you want to be with? What do you want to say?