Many people know from a very young age that they want to write books, and that’s the case with author Mary A. Clark, poet, novelist, and the author of a book of creative nonfiction. Mary’s journey as a writer is like many of our journeys, which is to say full of life experiences that add depth to what we write about.
I know a little bit about Mary’s story from her deeply respectful biography of an old man at the center of the Greenwich Village Beat Generation. That book is Tally: An Intuitive Life. You can read my review of it on Goodreads.
I’ve also read her fine, debut novel, Miami Morning: A Leila Payson Novel, about a teacher seeking to find meaning and connection in the midst of a vibrant community of friends. Some common threads run through both of these books, namely the generous spirit of an author with a lot of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to explore and grow.
That perspective comes through in her blog, appropriately called “literary eyes:” https://literaryeyes.wordpress.com/
I thought you might enjoy her story, so here she is — TA DA! –> Mary A. Clark
MM: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
M.Clark: In sixth grade, my teacher gave my class a free writing exercise. At first I was thrilled to hear we could write about anything we wanted to, but when I stared at the blank paper I wondered if I had understood him correctly. I went up to him and asked if there wasn’t something we were supposed to write about. He smiled as he explained there was no assigned topic, and I could write whatever was in my head. This was a revolutionary moment in my life. I’ve spent the rest of my life since then in a free writing exercise. Years later, I found out this is a typical assignment for that grade. Until then I had thought of this teacher as a genius, for having such a wonderful idea. He was in fact a great teacher, and just the right person to be teaching kids who are at a pivotal time between adolescence and nascent adulthood.
MM: When did you first publish and in what genre?
M.Clark: You mean, besides a poem called “Trees” in my high school magazine? My first vetted publication came in 1974 in The Archer, a verse quarterly founded in 1951, Elinor Henry Brown, Editor, Wilfred H. Brown, Publisher, Taipei, China and Hollywood, CA. They published a poem called “West Africa” about famine and its effects on people and animals.
MM: Can you talk a bit about your work in Greenwich Village and what you learned from being part of a unique poetry community?
M.Clark: The New York poetry scene in the 1970s and 80s was an existential experience. Everything was a choice, including living outside the mainstream, or getting a job as a teacher or in the bureaucracy. Freedom of expression, experimentation, and resistance to authority, were our passwords to a worthwhile life. No one else was responsible for the state of our poetry or our finances. Among the poets some were outstanding voices, and also stand-up people. At the same time, poets formed cliques, as all people do. I remember both petty and cosmic conflicts. Who was going to read that best part of a long poem? Should we organize around nuclear disarmament? As artists we were driven to be singular, but also to engage with others. This led to some hilarious, and some less so, situations. One of the ways the poets dealt with this was to get drunk, and roll around the Village streets. Another was to rededicate continuously to the labor of reaching out. We were searching for, and insisting on, a meaningful artistic and social life.
MM: How did that work lead you to the man who became the focal point of Tally?
M.Clark: I think it was my search, without being fully conscious of it, for a way to continue my intellectual development outside the mainstream. But it was a search, too, for a more amiable life, and one without meaningless work. In college I read intellectually and spiritually provocative books. After college I read an even wider range of books and other writings. But I sensed I had to be on the street to discover the truth of human experience. In short, I dropped out, and dropped into another way of living. Being part of the poetry community put me in the world of others who had done the same.
MM: As you wrote that book, what interesting ideas did you discover that might help anyone else trying to live a creative life? Alternately, were the lessons you learned from his words or more from dealing with the man himself?
M.Clark: Engage in self-critique, reflection, and being as conscious as one can of what is happening in one’s life. Seek new information and be willing to re-evaluate your ideas, and even your identity. I learned more from PJ through dialogue than through reading his words. In the conversations, and the time I spent editing his work, we both evolved our thinking. Beyond that we evolved our feelings, our emotional relationship, through these interactions. From this relationship I learned several important “life lessons.” Keep in touch with your intuition when it comes to your work, but don’t go so far as to alienate everyone around you. Welcome disruption and turmoil if it’s intuitively guided: as Jung said, this can signal changes to come in the collective unconscious. Whether these changes are positive or destructive is a matter for reflection and analysis, but they shouldn’t be evaded for comfort and stability.
MM: As I understand it, you had primarily written poetry before tackling Tally. What were your major challenges in trying to structure that memoir/biography/autobiography?
M.Clark: Fortunately, I had written pieces over the years, so I had experimented with points of view and style. The standard format for a biography disappeared long ago when I saw that the story was interior rather than exterior. The major challenge was the variety and range of material I had, whether in the form of letters, notes, chapbooks, audio interviews, and other documents. There were a few pieces of artwork and photographs too. How to make sense of the polyglot of a man’s life? My interests were focused on certain aspects of his life and thinking, on specific ideas such as “intuitive self-guidance” and “perceptive intellect.” As soon as I had written the first few chapters, which I think are the weakest, I let the ideas guide me. They fell intuitively into place.
MM: You moved from a genre-defying book of creative nonfiction to a novel about a teacher in Miami. Tell us about your main character and her emotional journey.
M.Clark: PJ is an iconoclast who lives in poverty, while Leila Payson is solidly middle-class with a good job as a teacher. Her journey though is similar in that she’s seeking to live as a free and independent person in modern society. She says at one point that she feels she’s “living in the seams of a new arrangement.” Her sorrows and joys are tempered by this sense of being both in flux and the flow of things. The link between these two books is the question of meaning. Do we find it in our occupation? Do we find it in relationships, or ideas that stitch together the “contingencies” of life? While this may sound cerebral, it cuts to the heart of what motivates and disquiets many of us, I suspect, and causes real pain.
MM: Both books were published by an independent press, rather than self-published. What were the advantages of going that route, rather than trying to find an agent or self-publishing?
M.Clark: As an older person entering a very competitive market, with no celebrity status, prior publications to speak of, or credentials in a particular field, I knew it would be unlikely that I would be signed by an agent. Self-publishing is viable if you have a presence already, whether it’s in your community or online. I didn’t have that. When I discovered the publisher, All Things That Matter Press, I was impressed by their book list. ATTMP also provides a free editing service, in addition to a community of authors and shared information about marketing, Now, I have a foundation on which to build.
MM: Even though the publisher took a lot of tasks off your hands, you still had a steep learning curve when it came to finding readers. Am I right?
M.Clark: I’m still climbing that mountain. My blog has been helpful in finding readers, as well as guest blogging. I enjoy Twitter but don’t know if it sells books. It comes down to interacting with other people, either online or in person.
MM: What advice would you have for writers who are beginning a publishing journey late in life?
M.Clark: Don’t waste time.
MM: What work habits helped you make these two books a reality? How did you find/make time to write?
M.Clark: I start a book outline, which often changes as the book progresses, and keep a list of chapters, characters, and events. This helps me see when a character first appears, or when an event took place.
Sometimes I can only make notes or jot down a short piece of dialogue. Other times, I arrange my day so that I can write for an hour or so. Then I close my eyes and relax a moment. Writing can be like a meditative state.. Once I start writing it’s hard to stop!
MM: What comes next?
M.Clark: I am working on a sequel to Miami Morning. In this one, I’m trying more plot threads and multiple points of view. Fans of Dov will be glad to hear he will be telling his story (To Cuba, With Love), and the other POV character will be a surprise. Leila Payson remains the main focus, though.
Click on the links below to learn more about Mary Clark and her work. First and foremost is her blog. She always manages to find interesting books to write about and interesting ways to share what she’s discovering about writing and life.
Mary Clark’s blog: https://literaryeyes.wordpress.com/
Here’s where you can buy her books.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.