Short Story UNC Editors Luna Hou and Teresa Vasquez reached out to Short Story UNC resident Helena Walsh to discuss her writing.
LH: In general, what does your process for writing look like? What do you find inspires you to write?
HW: A term I use fondly is “brain worms”—most commonly, my poems come from those itches, those wee creatures crawling about in the back of your head that will bustle you constantly for a little while, and then wander off without a trace. The trick is writing them down. I have a horrendously chaotic section on my notes app, brazenly titled “poem ideas”, but mostly filled with incomprehensible nonsense. It’s great fun to look through all the scraps, see how my brain has sauntered around, in and out of ideas, throughout a term. In terms of inspiration, I mostly begin in my comfort zone, or an area of familiarity: descriptions of the natural world or my family and friends. I find myself often returning to versions of the Sussex woodlands and north-east Yorkshire seaside where I spent my fondest childhood memories. From there, I follow sound. I am foremost a poet of the ear, so am pushed on by how the literal diction and rhythm of words can create meaning, and when I am unsure of where to go next, I let the ‘melody’ take me on.
LH: Much of your poetry—vibrant, lyrical, and distinctly your own—delves intimately into themes of childhood, family, nature, and love. What draws you to poetry as an artistic medium to explore these themes?
HW: As a chronic overthinker, poetry’s restrictive qualities are incredibly liberating. The medium forces you to consolidate and explore simultaneously, which is why it can so intimately probe at the wide and seemingly unattackable—love, family, etc. This is also why I love poetic forms.
But the actual act of writing a poem is taken far too seriously. There’s a misconception that for our work to hold value, we have to assume this holier version of ourselves, have these outer-body, illuminating experiences on the intricacies of human experience by staring at a rock for an hour. Nah! Poetry is best used as a medium of return, of re-examining what we already know. Stop worrying about being a revolutionary, start silly. I’ve written about crisps, pinkie toes, chickens; about my dad sticking pencils in his hair and how we do that awkward half wave when a car lets us pass. These feel familiar, and so their ‘worth’ is inherent, and is expanded by their reimagining. Trying to extract meaning-making from what we don’t already hold as (at least partly) true, frankly just doesn’t give yourself enough credit. You know a lot more about how the world works than you think.
Childhood and lyricism, then, go hand-in-hand. To find a mindset, or a level of trust, let’s say, where you can dig through what you already know to form new meaning, we have to return to a state where we don’t expect so much of ourselves. Childhood releases us. And I don’t mean simply examining childhood, from the altar of adolescence and adulthood—I mean literally submerging yourself in it. In the language, the experience, the mindset of childhood. It makes you more malleable, frees you from your own standards; it lets you just bathe in joy of the thing for a little while. And we can learn a great deal about our relationships now, how we ‘love’, from how we formed them. But there’s definitely a strange sort of jumpiness around that—I think we’re all too scared of being Freudian or something. Bah.
TV: In your creative nonfiction, readers can immerse themselves in your world through its careful movement from one scene to another in a carefully calculated structure. How do you decide which details to include and which to leave out to create this effect?
HW: The animals came in two-by-two, and so with my chronic overthinking comes the second beast of overwriting. Creative nonfiction is a riskier game, personally, because there’s not the same awareness for brevity and consolidation of ideas on the page. Instead of spending time picking one really careful image that encapsulates my feeling, I could in that time write 10. I could write a whole book, just about that one thing. Which would be eye-numbingly boring, and pretty self-indulgent.
On the other hand, I really value the exploratory process, making connections and lexical chains between images and ideas via the actual writing procedure. I never start with the end in mind—I let myself work to it, so as not to limit my imaginative capacity. So, to balance exploration with careful selection, I try to whittle down my original starting concept to just one idea. Instead of trying to squeeze in the whole web of my 8 quasi-related ideas right from the start, I have to assume that I will develop 8 more via the writing process itself, and so I should save those for another piece. This helps create a focal point, like a really sturdy diving board, that I can then swoop off of and find all the fun little shimmers beneath the surface, instead of belly-flopping into a muddled chaos of ideas and clouding all creative possibilities.
LH: Besides preparing a diverse portfolio of work to publish in the short story machines, you’ve also chosen to include short “Anti-Reading Lists” to accompany each of your pieces. What inspired you to curate these lists, and what do you hope readers will take away from them?
HW: The idea came as an extension of an ongoing collection I built for my dear friend Sophie. She was unsure of how to get into poetry, and was struggling to find pieces she enjoyed, but knew she loved many of the poems I had read or sent to her. I created a google doc (‘Gremlin Odes’!) to amass hand-selected poems I thought she’d have fun reading. I had to steal a few of my own poetry books back from her, so I am assuming it helped, and it was an incredibly reciprocally-merry process. It’s a common sentiment, not knowing where to start, and the types of poems taught in school don’t always fuel the fire and contemporary appetite. In the hopes of expanding people’s time for words, and showing them there’s always a poem for them, the reading lists function as a bibliography of works connected to my own poems that people can read for the pure joy of it, and hopefully as a gateway to finding more they enjoy.
The ‘anti’ element comes from my resentment for the Oxbridge-obsessive use of the term ‘reading list’ in British high schools, where reading outside of class is insisted on purely to bulk out your university application. It takes a lot of work to repair your relationship with reading into something that brings rest and gratification, and in my opinion also must stem purely from the pleasure of it, and so the reading lists are for people to do so solely on their own time, free of testing or judgment, or the notion of reading as some sort of ‘superior’ way to spend your time.
TV: If you could give a couple of words of advice to writers getting started on their craft, what would you say?
HW: 1. Children aren’t worried about Freud! Think like a kid again. But,
2. Don’t be a prude. If grapefruits are sexy, they’re sexy. Everything is sexy. Don’t deny things of their sexiness. Ah! Freud again. I hate that guy.
3. Don’t be destroyed by feedback where your work was misunderstood. It is one of the best ways to see how your poem is failing to translate onto the page. Drop the ‘my poetry is solely for me’ act—I did it too, I was so, so resentful of the idea of introducing clarity just for the sake of my reader, but fundamentally, it’s a relationship. You want your reader to feel what you feel, see what you see, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing in a form designed to be read and shared. Learn to tell the difference between when your reader isn’t working hard enough, and when you’re just not letting them in. Everything’s better when you’re sharing. Woo!
Helena Walsh is a junior from the UK majoring in Global Studies & History, and a minor in Creative Writing. In her work, she explores the wide, wide plains of belonging via pintsize licks at childhood, homeland, nature’s whimsy, dysmorphia, ‘merica & lurve.
Along with Cynthia Liu and Maude Kneale, Helena Walsh is a resident writer for Short Story UNC during Fall Semester 2022. Check out more work by Helena at the dispenser inside Epilogue Cafe in Chapel Hill, NC! Or by visiting our website!