Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is her fiction debut and was nominated for the National Book Award. Learn more about Deesha at deeshaphilyaw.com.
Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?
DEESHA: There’s definitely a time for it, if you’re writing a themed collection like The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. But other than that, I’m a fan of the new and unfamiliar. I’m a fan of experimenting with new (to me) forms, voices, and perspectives. I recently tried my hand at satire and at magical realism, both for the first time. So I think you remedy stagnation by pushing yourself to try something different. There’s literally no downside to trying.
Meredith: In his book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills writes: “A story, however, is dynamic rather than static: the same thing cannot happen again. A character is capable of being moved, and is moved, no matter in how slight a way.
I include this quote as a preface to the next question because your most recent book, Church Ladies, is a collection of nine stories. Do you relate to this passage and, if so or if not, please share how you view what story does…and what it does to the writer? Do the shifts your characters experience force a shift or reflection in you? I’m thinking about how writing and the writer share a kind of reciprocal process, if that makes sense.
DEESHA: I can definitely relate to wanting to make sure the character has been moved by the story’s end. If they haven’t, that means I’ve left the big, fat question, “So what?” unanswered. If the character hasn’t moved, it’s usually because I’m being precious about them, I’ve put nothing at stake. I’m protecting them and leaving all kinds of juicy conflict and disastrous possibilities on the table. When this happens, I have to ask myself what I’m afraid of. Why don’t I want to send that character behind that (metaphorical) door to see what’s in the room? The way this manifests sometimes is that I’ll start a story too late; all the interesting stuff as already happened. And things are too neat. So I have to play, “What if?” What if this story starts a year earlier? Then what if the character made a choice at that point that would make things messy and difficult for them or for other people? What if the character made a choice that’s totally different than the one I would make, or the one I think is right?
Thinking through these scenarios and then ultimately writing one of them does force movement within me. For example, when I allow messy characters to be messy – but also layered and interesting and magnetic – this forces me to show the messy people I know (myself included) more grace.
Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, chapter in a book?
DEESHA: I like to indulge. I will keep going until I start to feel self-conscious about it. That’s when a little voice says, “Too much? Yeah.” That said, I don’t know what will feel like “enough” (vs. too much) to an editor or to a reader. So I try not to worry about that.
Meredith: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?
DEESHA: I don’t really get scared when I’m writing anymore. A flip was switched when my mom died at age 52 in 2005. A reminder that none of us have time to waste worrying about things we can’t control, like other people’s reactions or what they think of us. What’s that saying? What other people think about me is none of my business? If I reveal something of myself in my work, I really only concern myself with how it might impact my daughters. I want to respect them as people who have a right to privacy, something I didn’t always do when they were younger, when I was blogging and writing a parenting-focused column.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. I see my creations more as an extension of my own biology. In other words, my words are who I am, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations? How did you come to seeing them this way?
DEESHA: Definitely not as children. I see the stories as something I sorted out, something I worked through. A problem I solved. I interviewed Carmen Maria Machado a few years ago, and she said that she approaches writing stories as a solving a math problem, and I felt so seen when she said that! A math problem to solve. Another kind of experiment and “what if.” What if, instead of a wife and a mistress fighting with each other over a cheating man, the mistress set up a system of rules for the man to follow? What if she took the upper hand that way and made the guy accountable? What if a daughter had to take care of her ailing mother, a woman who did not treat her well when she was growing up?
I’ve come to see my stories and characters in this way because my fiction writing impulse has always been driven by curiosity. Not so much living vicariously through my characters, but rather being really curious about what would happen if you put a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. My stories are what I imagine people who are more daring, more honest, and more conflicted than I am, would do.
[Thank you, Deesha!]