Sandra Beasley is the author of Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a memoir and cultural history of food allergy; I Was the Jukebox: Poems, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling: Poems, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include selection for the 2010 Best American Poetry, the University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She lives in Washington, D.C. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
How long do you take to complete a book?
I don’t think there is any one timeline to write a book, and for me it has varied wildly. When I was circulating my first poetry collection under the title I’d used for my thesis, Human Compromise, it contained many MFA-era poems. Eventually it contained hardly any of those poems; it was always evolving. A year before winning the New Issues Poetry Prize, Theories of Falling had been a finalist for the same contest with a different TOC and the title of The Reveal—which is why I always encourage people to re-submit where they’ve come close previously, and not be discouraged by Bridesmaid Syndrome.
In contrast, my second collection of poetry (I Was the Jukebox) was essentially written in a few intense one-month periods of drafting scattered over the course of a year and a half. The Barnard Women Poets Prize was one of the very first places I submitted. By the time I heard I had won, six month had passed and the manuscript already looked different. Among other factors, I’d begun a series of sestinas. So I had to forge a compromise between the book they’d taken and the book in my mind’s eye.
The process was different again for my memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. The book was sold on proposal, using an annotated outline and a sample chapter, and was shaped by editorial feedback from Crown. I had about a year to research, write, and revise 60,000 words of prose. It was an exhilarating challenge. Putting together a poetry collection has always felt like polishing individual beads, then threading them on a string. Putting together this nonfiction book felt like gathering up the ropes of memoir, science, and cultural history, then braiding them together.
What’s one rule you’re dying to break?
I need to do more trespassing. I’ve had a lot of good nights that could have been great nights if I’d just ventured over the fence, through the gate, or up on the roof.
Is there a genre you avoid?
I’ve drafted a few short stories thanks to the prompt of workshops, but whatever praise they garnered was usually code for “you write like a poet.” So now I read novels and short stories and respond unabashedly as a reader. I’m not putting myself in the author’s shoes in terms of craft. I’m not looking for techniques to steal. As a writer, I avoid fiction. As a reader, I love it.
What advice would you give young writers?
Prioritize your writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up against deadline for something ostensibly more important—a term paper, a meeting, something for my job—and instead I took that extra half-hour to fine-tune a draft, or put a submission into the mail, or jot down a memory that might be relevant to an essay. No one will ever give you permission to prioritize your creative work, especially when you are just starting out. You have to fight for it. You have to say, “This matters.”
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in sixth grade, our elementary school brought in a local high-schooler to lead a poetry workshop. Toward the end of the year, he told us with great solemnity, “Don’t lose your passion.” I proceeded to quote that in my yearbook entry, which looked pretty goofy coming out of the mouth of a preteen. But he was on to something.
What would you like your life to look like in ten years?
That’s an interesting question for me, because I’m at an age (31) when people start to think about balancing their professional ambitions with their desire to start a family and put down some roots. Ten years from now I do want a community—a place where I have true friends, people familiar and dear, people who I’d happily host for a Sunday meal. Whether that translates to a traditional nuclear family, I don’t know yet.
It has been great to travel so much in the past year giving readings for I Was the Jukebox; I expect that travel to continue for Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl. You glimpse new places, you meet new people, you become a road warrior. But I don’t romanticize the effect it has on me as a well-rounded person hoping to have a domestic foundation. I don’t have any pets, much less children. And my only houseplant just bit the dust.
When are you the most productive?
Depends on which genre I am working in. For poetry, I’d rather write late at night when the buzz of the outside world has died down and my inspirations have reached wild, unruly critical mass. For nonfiction, I like to jump in first thing in the morning; often my goal is to think in a focused way, not an expansive one. Either way, when I’m really in the groove the hours can pass without me thinking to eat, drink, or get out of my seat.
What element would you add to your writing space if money weren’t an issue?
My ideal writing space is always high off the ground—my studio apartment is on the seventh floor of an apartment building—and I’d love to amplify that view by having a high-powered telescope. Plus a couch. Plus a few long empty tables, open to projects in progress. It’s funny, I judge luxury in terms of space rather than costly items: wall space for my art, shelf space for my books, flexible seating. That’s the city girl in me.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
Read! The more I’m reading, the more I’m able to write. And I take long walks around my neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Some days I’ll go in the direction of the National Cathedral and the Georgetown waterfront; some days I’ll go down to the National Zoo and spend quality time with the cheetahs and peacocks. I ask questions. I talk to people who have jobs far, far away from what I do. I plunge into quirky pools of science and trivia. To write is an extension of one’s love affair with the world around us.