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On Writing

Lia Purpura Recognizes The Intellectual Discipline That Goes Into Putting Yourself and Your Ideas, and Not Mere Words, On Paper

Lia Purpura wants to get you on the page.

By Petula Caesar | Posted 10/22/2008

Can writing be taught? It's the question posed to Lia Purpura, professor and writer-in-residence at Loyola College. She feels that it's the wrong question to ask. "If attributes like attentiveness, organization, empathic understanding of an audience, purposefulness, style, etc. are framed up well and practiced as `writing'--these can also be practiced as visual art or psychology--then yes, writing most certainly can be taught, modeled, analyzed," she says. "But it's really a matter of getting as close to your sensibility as you can and having the fluency to render that sensibility. You should be looking to figure out how to do `Ann' or `Harry' or whoever you are."

In Purpura's case, doing Lia has meant writing both poetry and prose simultaneously, and authoring several award-winning collections of poetry and essays. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship winner and author of 2006's On Looking, a collection of essays that was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her latest poetry collection, King Baby, came out earlier this year. Her previous collections, Stone Sky Lifting and The Brighter the Veil, won the Ohio State University Press Award and the Towson University Prize in Literature, respectively.

And now she helps others do the same thing.

In Purpura, Loyola's Rainier Writers Workshop has an instructor who "loves teaching." While she is quick to note that if you're seeking to "meet agents" or to "make a book" through these types of programs, chances are you'll be disappointed. What she does offer her students, in addition to instruction, is a place to spend contemplative time being creative forces. "In my classes, students have the chance, for a semester, to live like writers," Purpura says. "That is, to cultivate attentiveness, to learn to shape, form, and support, within a community of writers, that which best activates their souls and the souls of the alert readers we continue to believe in."

Purpura is painfully aware of the growing trend toward an "anti-intellectual bias" that undervalues any time spent in the pursuit of cerebral and intellectual focus, so she devotedly protects the space, place, and time a writer needs to explore his or her writing self. "The late David Foster Wallace called the force which so compromises our attention `Total Noise,'" she says. "For a writer, that's about the worst place to be in. Virginia Woolf writes about the importance of having a room of one's own, but it's more than simply a room. A lot has to line up in order to create the kind of fertile space and time. And what happens when it's not available is a certain truncating of a musculature, the sense of not being able to work, stretch, or breathe--or make sense of experience. It's a way of sort of justifying your life on Earth, and if that's not available to a writer, it's sort of hard to feel you're of use in any way."

Purpura has had the luxury to extensively justify her life through her writing career, something not many writers get to experience. In On Looking, she seeks to "map as closely as possible the movement of perception" with essays that comment on everything from autopsies to motherhood to freak shows at the circus--sometimes all on the same page, much less in the same essay. Purpura's writing possesses the ethereal, otherworldly qualities you often see when extreme talent and potently disciplined study (she is an Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate) come together. But On Looking is still somehow grounded and accessible. You always have the sense of being led back to what is familiar, even if you don't recognize it immediately because of how Purpura writes about it.

Purpura's highly stylized, well-developed voice makes a natural home for itself in On Looking and perfectly frames the ideas presented. "It's about the whole process of looking, so inevitably, of course, I am aware of being as much the subject of my looking as the object that I'm looking at," she says, acknowledging that the very act of looking changes whatever is being examined. Of course, scrutinizing the very act of looking can create a strange, vicious circle--e.g., the metaphysically rhetorical idea that you cannot ever really see something entirely because it can never be as it exists when you don't look at is--but such theoretical possibilities don't disturb her. To Purpura, looking is more about "making those irreverent or complicated connections that come from perception," not about some absolute, immovable truth.

Purpura moves on to Vermont's Bennington College in a few months to take on another writer residency and a new group of students, who will no doubt benefit from her combination of passion, skill, and protectiveness. What does Purpura say to those writers who feel formalized study will damage their writing voices? "I think absolutely the opposite is true--that we grow and learn by being hit with and moved by other writers and other artists," she says. "The sense that one's own artistic vision is so fragile and precious that it can't withstand or be sharpened by the influence of others is not really functionally true. There may be some fear associated with getting lost in very powerful and very authentic important voices, but I still resist what I sometimes feel is an anti-intellectual bias that would keep us from reading everyone.

"I think if you're engaged in writing, you have to be open to reading in an incredibly wide and diverse way. If you pursue this, it is only yourself that you'll encounter. Trust me, writers are . . . stubborn human beings who want to say it their way."

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