Writers on Writing: Christina Marrocco

Addio, Love Monster book cover

CHRISTINA MARROCCO is a Professor of English and Assistant Director of the Writers Center at Elgin Community College. Her writing has been featured in Silver Birch Press, The Laurel Review, Red Fern Press, Mountain Review and Ovunque Siamo.  Her debut novel Addio, Love Monster was released on June 1 (Ovunque Siamo Press).

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

CHRISTINA: It depends on the genre, but since Addio, Love Monster is fiction, I’ll head in that direction. I’m an observer with a good memory. By that I mean I’m shy but interested in what people say and do, and I’ve always paid close attention to the world around me, and so a lot of my ideas about settings and human nature come from what I’ve taken in and held. Specific story arcs and characters, though, develop during the revision process. For this book, and a second one I’m finishing up, I moved from my initial vignettes or sketches to full story by reading, rereading, revising until I was delighted by what was on the page. I also find that ideas pop up every day and I have to say “no, not yet” to some. That used to bother me, but I’ve gotten to the point of realizing I can’t write every single thing I want to write, so I need to stay focused on the ideas I’m currently working on. 

ANGELA: What genres do you write in (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write in fiction, poetry, and memoir regularly. I also do scholarly research and write book reviews. I choose not to specialize because I feel each of these approaches allow me to tap different aspects of a topic or reality I’m drawn to. They depend on different intelligences and creativities–and I hate to limit myself. But maybe more importantly, I find that, for instance, working with poetry improves my prose, working on research improves my knowledge, which then improves my poetry and prose. Working in memoir uses all those skills from the other genres. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I think it can be extremely fruitful for mind and craft expansion. 

ANGELA: When did you start writing (and why)? 

CHRISTINA: I began writing in earnest when I was a child–nothing anyone kept, but I would craft really pathetic letters to my mother and float them down the stairs–letters designed to convince her to let me off grounding. I had a journal, which I would edit and edit into oblivion as I extracted anything that showed me in a light I didn’t like in the days after I’d written it. I wish I’d left it alone and kept it, but I did not. I wrote and sewed together books of pressed flowers with nature notes. But then life changed: I despised school–a cursory look at my old report cards indicates I had undiagnosed ADHD–I became a struggling teen who became a teen mother, dropped out of school, and married two days after her eighteenth birthday. This meant writing in earnest–both for economic and time and confidence reasons–did not resume until my late thirties–I’m fifty-five now and over the last two decades I’ve worked hard to become formally educated and to write with skill. 

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

CHRISTINA: A few things, and all at once. I like to have a book in my bag for appointments and times I find myself waiting around–it’s got to be short stories or poetry so that I can dip in and out and hear my name when I’m called. Right now, that’s an old book and a small one–pocket sized–Welsh Short Stories selected by Gwyn Jones. They are simply beautiful little classics that don’t get read enough in the US. My bedtime book right now is also a Welsh author–but modern–it’s Alis Hawkins, and I’m reading her The Black And The White–a murder mystery set during the time of the black death. Great stuff. And then, up in my office above the garage where I prepare my teaching and my writing, I’m reading two books: Trapped! The Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori–I was so lucky to see Karen present on this book just last week at Chicago Literati–her research is impeccable and her writing just beautiful. I’m also re-reading Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing, which is a book I now recommend to so many of my students as well. 

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

CHRISTINA: Gah! How can I choose? When I was a kid I read Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko like crazy–because they were in the house and they were wonderful.  Just thinking about them now I can feel that joy, so maybe they are my favorite writers–their columns and their books. But then I read and re-read Watership Down and The Mists of Avalon–I could not get enough of those. I absolutely love JT Farrell–the Irish Chicago writer best known for Studs Lonigan–and my favorite of his is the collection of short stories–Chicago Stories. I just re-read Paper Fish by Tina DeRosa and was enthralled again. Tony Ardizzone’s In the Garden of Papa Santuzzu, I love it, it’s both an escape and a grounding, told beautifully in magical realism. I guess there are books I’m really drawn to over and over again, but I tend not to choose favorites because there are so many to love–I’m the same with music–If I love a song–regardless of genre, artist, era. Heck, I can’t even choose a favorite color. When people ask me to, I just stand there and blink my eyes. But those above are what’s standing out to me as I think hard.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing? 

CHRISTINA: I love writing, my own and that of others, that really expresses sensory detail and specificity of environment. I want a journey both in the mind and in the body. 

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

CHRISTINA: My process is not identical for all genres, but I’ll go with fiction here and memoir too to show how things vary. In fiction I am a character driven writer. I realize I need plot–but I hold off on it. I tend to write vignettes of my characters–sit with them and observe them. How they move, what they look like, how their laugh sounds. I start to write what is bothering them. What gives them joy–not in a list but in a scene. So for Addio, Love Monster–which is a novel told in story–linked story–I created my vignettes or scenes and then I had to sit with those and find arcs/stories/movement for them. It took me six years to write this book because of my slow method, but it worked for me. And as I did that the connections and the vitality of the neighborhood exposed itself to me. I have a book of linked short stories underway set in Wales over centuries and that one has worked in a similar way. When I work in memoir, I know the plot. The plot is my life. It exists intrinsically, so I find that process is more about free writing everything under the sun and then coming back to pluck out the best threads and cut away the lint. It’s a very different experience. And poetry, well, that’s something else altogether–like cutting gems. But in all cases, I’m a revisionary writer. If you adhere to Kurt Vonnegut’s idea about “bashers and swoopers” I’m definitely a swooper. I like what it creates. I’m going to list these like a recipe in the second person–as if I’m telling others what to do–but it’s simply what I do: 

  1. Schedule in time for writing–if you don’t, everything in the world will tell you it’s a “hobby” and it can wait. It can’t. I like to write early in the morning because I’m freshest then. Two hours a day–after that I’m writing garbage, but sometimes I go much longer because I just can’t stop. The hardest thing is sitting down to just do it. The second hardest thing is making sure no one disturbs you. Hide. Go out to your car if you don’t have a door with a lock. Earplugs are great. I’m not kidding.
  2. Read each day, even if it’s just 30 minutes. This will water your mind and make your writing stronger–plus supporting fellow writers matters.
  3. Don’t write in fear: save your docs, of course, but fear is not your friend. Don’t worry about losing stuff, don’t obsess about what if you die before you finish, don’t worry about your family being mad that you wrote this or that. All that worry, blow it away. You can probably tell I have to blow it away regularly.
  4. Don’t show your work to others too early. Wait till you have done your best with it, till you feel like things are in the right places, developed, ready and ripe. Showing too early lets others meddle too early.
  5. Do have a trusted writerly friend or a writers group so that when you are ready you can see how your story works with others. Observe. Don’t be petulant–this is difficult (for me). My writers group was very helpful in responding in particular to point of view issues as well as cultural issues. Addio, Love Monster is set in an Italian American neighborhood–in a culture that is very much my own. I needed to hear what they did not get clarity on–what needed more communication for a broad audience.
  6. Editing–another animal all together. I’m an English professor, so you would think I’d not need an editor or proofreader. I needed a proofreader–and when you get to this point, use someone professional and skilled. It’s necessary.
  7. Consider writing workshops–now with Zoom programs so easily available workshops are a great way to connect with other writers across the country or across the globe. Personally, I’ve been attending memoir workshops and a poetry workshop course. Carving out additional time. 

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

CHRISTINA: I write five days a week when I’m being good. I also teach six sections a semester and have lots of household responsibilities, so it’s a challenge. But that’s the goal and I often make it. 2 hours per day. When I start writing I’m tempted to go for eight hours–always–but I find doing that ensures you will not repeat writing the next day, and in the long run creates worse and less writing. 

ANGELA: Where do you do most of your writing (and why)?

CHRISTINA: I write either in my above-garage office or in a chair in my living room. I should go to the office more but there’s no bathroom. When I write in the house, I’m constantly asked questions by family members and pummeled by my dogs who see the laptop as an unwanted sibling they would like to destroy once and for all so we can be on a perpetual walk. If I were more disciplined I’d always go up above the garage, but like I said: the bathroom. Also, I like to be close to the fridge and pantry just in case of a craving for Nutella and Italian bread. In the summers, I like to drive to Wisconsin. I know a place with cabins for $35 per night and I can write like mad there. Scheduling that right after this. 

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. In fact, I’ve got the Welsh Stories, a 350-page manuscript in its final revision plus a memoir I began in Edvidge Guinta’s workshop on cross-generational memoir. The memoir will include family history but also our family struggle with my daughter’s death at thirty-four this past Christmas from leiomyosarcoma. It will be important to me in a very particular way and yet so difficult. I tend to work on two or three things at once, which means I have a pipeline going. It also allows refuge if you are working on something that is emotionally taxing. That said, I’d be working multiple projects anyway because I have a lot of writing I want to get out into the world, and time being what it is, I think it’s natural (for me) to dip in and out of a few projects, while slowly herding them all toward the gate. 

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one? 

CHRISTINA: Yes. Always. Because I’m always excited about the next thing coming. Wrapping up a manuscript or poem is very different from the invention process. I want to always be inventing. 

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block? 

CHRISTINA: I don’t have writer’s block. I have the opposite: a lot of things I’m compelled to write about and the willingness to write clumsily at first and revise until I get it right. Or even write something that will never see the light of day. Will get scrapped. That’s okay. In fact, it’s necessary. I find that writer’s block –and I see a lot of it in my classroom–comes from a focus on perfection at a time when perfection is not called for. It’s fear related. And it’s unnecessary. Write for yourself. Write the story you want to read. Or the poem you want to read. Start there and don’t worry. Tony Ardizzone once said to me (and a group of others) something like this: in invention–when you begin the new piece–it should be the child-you running the show, finger painting if you will. Keep the teenage you and the adult you out of the room. They can come in later when it’s time to revise and edit respectively. I found that helpful. Be kind to yourself. I think that can go a long way in eliminating writer’s block.  

ANGELA: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were starting out as a writer? 

CHRISTINA: I think my experience had to take the path it took. I find that I learn what I need to as the proper time comes. I don’t know that I was ready before I was ready. So there really aren’t facts or techniques. But there are these things. I’ll number them for ease:

  1. You have every right to write what you want to write. It’s no one else’s place to determine your topics or style.
  2. It will be hard, hard work. And that’s normal.
  3. Remind yourself it’s also joyful. Not just another task. A passion. I like the word story-teller a lot in this space.
  4. Sometimes you will feel dejected, rejected, tired. Okay, so what?
  5. Writers are generally pretty nice people. If you ask them questions, they are often thrilled to reply–writers want more writers, more books, more stories, poems, exploration. Join them. 

Keeping up with Christina Marrocco:
Author Website

Interview conducted in May 2022.

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