As videotaped and interviewed on February 12, 1995 in Joyce's home on Davenport Street, Iowa City (part of a series of interviews with Iowa City women artists undertaken by Jayson Barsic and Tania Pryputniewicz).
1: How do you define yourself as an artist?
I think I've always defined myself as an artist. I wasn't quite sure what that meant. I always knew that I was a little bit different, and I think I really learned who I was when I first went up to Vermont, and I went to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. There were 250 people there and I could talk to all of them. I wasn't weird, I was just like all of those writers. And I thought, "Oh, ok, 250 people--I can sit down and talk to any of them and feel comfortable and they understand me and I understand them. Ok, that's who I am." But I'd always been doing things--like when I was a child I would hide in my grandfather's office and pound away at the typewriter while the rest of the kids were out playing ball or something so I was kind of hiding away doing artsy things. But I don't think people fully appreciated it for what it was, or I didn't certainly. I remember when I was in elementary school they had a contest in the class to write a short story and I wrote this weird short story. It was surreal, it was really strange, but it was very artsy--I mean I was noticing all this beauty and I was playing with language, and I was doing a lot of things--and my teacher didn't get it. And the girl who won the prize wrote a story that was called "Head of the Committee"-and it was very, very straightforward. And I just thought, that's alright, it's alright, eventually, people will know.
2: When you think about yourself being an artist, as an artist, do you think of yourself as a woman, or an artist, or a woman artist?
Well, I think when I first started writing, and when I first started publishing short stories, I didn't want to be a woman writer. I didn't want to be writing books that you could find in the supermarket. I didn't want to be writing kitchen stories. And so [in] my early stories I did a gender switch and all my protagonists were male and I had them fishing, and I had Russian fishermen and I had men surfing in the Baja. I wrote one story from the viewpoint of a 14 year old boy--a little black boy in Virginia in the South. I never wrote a story about someone who was female and my age. I always did a gender switch. And people said to me, "Well, how can you write this story about Russian fishermen? How can you do that?" Well, it was about me. I wasn't Russian and I wasn't a fisherman, but I've grown up along the water and my father was a Merchant Marine. My grandfather had a boat and I spent a lot of time in boatyards as a child and I did a lot of research for that story and the emotions were mine. The man--the character I describe--was a man I was dating at the time. I just described him, but I used the emotions that were my own and kind of amalgamated characters that I knew, so I knew about this Russian fisherman and it couldn't have been anything else.
At the time I was embarrassed--I looked at women writers as being something smaller. When I studied literature, I didn't read any women. I read Flannery O'Conner, maybe, and Katherine Ann Porter, but very few women and I didn't want to be writing little stories that were in those supermarkets. I wanted to be writing Big Big Powerful Stories and I only read stories by men so I just pretended I was a man. An early complement was, "You write like a man," and at that time I thought that was great. Then I began to read some of the women writers, I think Toni Morrison--Song of Solomon, I just loved. And then I was in a women's studies course--this was in the 70's--and I began to get a sense of the power of women: Alice Walker's work, and Margaret Atwood's work and I thought, "Oh, I want to be one of those--I don't want to be this pretend man writing stories--I want to be a woman writing as these women write powerfully."
I also had another thing that I was and I was embarrassed by and that was I was a nurse. When I first had to decide what to do with my life, I had two choices-be a nurse or a teacher. And [by that] I mean, an elementary school teacher. So I decided to be a nurse because my favorite aunt was a nurse and she was the most together woman in the family, I thought, and I wanted to like her. She was kind, she was strong-willed, she was a redhead, and she had a temper, and I wanted to be like she was. I went into nursing school and I went to the same school she did, but I'm still writing secretly the whole time and even when I came here to Iowa to the Writers's Worskhop I got a nurse job. But it was a secret. I was working North Pedia Trauma and it was a terrible job. It gave me nightmares--I hated it. But I was embarrassed by this image of nurses as kind of dumb bedpan removers and [yet] I was in the Writer's Workshop. I was writing and I had a lot of publications by then, kind of secret publications. I had this nurse job and I was in the Workshop and the two lives weren't meshing. I was ashamed of it and I didn't tell anybody. Also I was making more money than the rest of the people who were working minimum wage jobs while they were at the Workshop and I didn't want to do that. One time somebody came and found me--they came to visit a patient and there I was in a uniform, and I ran the other direction so they wouldn't see me. I went around the corner and kind of peeked out because I didn't want that known.
What's happening now is they're doing an anthology of stories by nurses. University of Iowa Press is putting it out and it'll come out in the fall of 95. It's the first volume ever written by nurses. At The Iowa Press, I've heard, the opinion was that nurses couldn't really write and they were surprised at the power of the stories, and said, "Nurses wrote this?" And that's been a recent campaign of mine. I'd been embarrassed because I was a nurse and now I'm saying, "Wait a minute, that's who I am, that's who I was." I buried my shoes in the backyard next door-the nurse shoes-had a little ceremony and buried them. I'm not going to dig them up either. That's over. I'm not going to do that again. But I was so embarrassed to be a nurse and a writer that I wouldn't tell anybody. And now, this is new: I'm telling people and I'm starting to write stories about nursing and publish stories about nursing and own up to it that in fact nurses are powerful and creative. You have to be creative to do some of the things you have to do in nursing--[you have to] figure out how to do some impossible things all the time.
3: Do you have any mentors, heroines, favorite artists?
I did mention Margaret Atwood. And Toni Morrison--I heard her read from Song of Solomon--knocked my socks off, she's so good. And Amy Tan, Joyluck Club, some powerful stuff. It's ok now, which is just wonderful, that you can be a writer. Also in my past I had a very good experience with a mentor, and that was John Gardner. He was my teacher. I met him in Vermont. He was going to teach 5 miles down the road from where I lived and I was afraid of him, his intellect just intimidated me. He was a wonderful teacher and I'd gone to a couple of classes he'd given up there in Vermont. I so wanted to be in his class there in Virginia and he said sure. [But] I got back to Virginia before he did and I tried to sign up for his class and it was full. I was really disappointed. I was working--I had a nurse job and I worked from 7:00-3:00, [and his] class was 4:00-5:00 in the afternoon. The first day of class I came and stood in the hallway. I'm there in my silly little nurse's uniform, and John came up and I said, "Oh, hi John, your class is full. I wanted to get in--" and he said, "Come on in." I said, "But I can't sign up." And he said, "Come on in anyway."
So I got this wonderful class with John Gardner free. Not only did I get to sit in the class but I wasn't enrolled. He just said, "Oh, sit down there." I wrote a story in there that was a good story and he gave me a lot of support. He did a kind of reading of my fiction that I'd never had in class before, [and that] is that he went through line by line and showed me how to do it with suggestions written in the margins. Most of the time people say this works or it doesn't but they give you no clue of how to change it. You know, if you knew how to do it right, you would have done it right! But he spent a lot of time and he was brilliant in class. He brought in art and music--and art with a capital "A". Everybody sat there in awe of him and wrote all night and came back. He let me read this one story--the whole entire story--to the class and it was such an incredible high and then I began to think of myself as a writer.
And [Gardner] did things like he had cancer surgery, and during the time he was in the hospital, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Georgia Review recommending one of my stories. The man wrote this with an IV in his arm in the hospital--he did that kind of thing! So I was just amazed. I didn't really believe in myself but he believed in me. He did that with a lot of people. Ray Carver--he gave Ray Carver the key to his office because Carver was married, had little children, lived in this little apartment, no place to write with a baby crying and John just threw him the key and said, "Here, use my office." That's how Ray Carver started writing. So John did this. Writers all over the country have memories of his kindness and I was really lucky to come into that and after John no one could really compare. I didn't find a teacher as brilliant teaching writing and I didn't find anyone who would believe in me that way. I still have his picture above my desk, there's a group of us, and I remember that belief. He died in 1982-so it's been a long time now, but it really helped me learn how to teach writing because I copied his techniques. I use his techniques and some of my own. But I feel as if I have his permission and so I do the same thing he did with students. I go line by line and show them how to do it. It's that same kind of "Oh " I use a lot of his exercises in my class and I try to use his techniques. I use other people's [exercises]--Natalie Goldberg's stuff is good and some other things I've picked up along the way. Julie Cameron's The Artist's Way is good. I use that and some of the things I realize are mine because I've been teaching creative writing for a long time. But it really makes a difference to have someone to believe in you.
Along the way a couple of my students have declared that I'm their mentor and I hadn't planned it. Especially two women who declared I was their mentor. It's so interesting because both of these women I didn't like when I first met them and now I love them. I think they're wonderful, and they're powerful writers, and they're publishing. What they did was declare themselves my students, declare themselves, declare that I was their mentor. They kept after me and wrote me letters and sent me stories and I got to really like these people. One of them sent me that pink vase that's over there behind you, and another one just sent me a story she just got published. It was one that we worked on together one of them did [an earlier] interview. These are women that just declared that what I got from Gardner and was passing on was what they wanted too. [It] was like this line, like a family of writers that all helped each other, that line of mentorship. I know that these women will also get students and pass on this that John taught me. If you read his books, Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, his books, his voice is there I've been thinking about writing a book about him, but I don't know .
4: What do you consider your main medium and why?
I began writing poetry. I wrote poetry for several years. I wrote my first poems when I was 11 and I got my first publication when I was about thirteen. I published some poems. Then I got into this [debate], "What am I going to do with my life, nurse or school teacher," and I went to nursing school and was really busy, then got married and had a couple of kids. "What is missing from my life?" I thought. I was working in a nursing home, and I thought, "What have these women done?" I overheard a woman say, "I cleaned my house for 50 years and I was gone a week and it was dirty, what good was my life?" And I'm going, "Whoa, yes!" So I started writing poetry again, I guess when I was about 27. I hadn't written for ten years or more and I wrote a few good poems. But poetry wasn't large enough then, I wanted stories. I was in an undergraduate [creative writing] class and the assignment was to write a short story. I'd never written one and so I wrote a short story. The teacher ran down the hall with this story to their literary magazine, and threw it at them, and they published [it]. It was the first one I'd ever written. I rewrote that story and it got published in The Sewanee Review and I thought, "Well, how can I, what's going on?" I didn't write it, I was a channel for this. And I thought, all those ten years or so I was just stewing around not writing--maybe I was really writing. I was collecting. So then I started writing fiction. I wrote long stories, maximal kind of stories, convoluted, multilayered big stories because that was what I always admired was big stories.
In the meantime [I] got divorced and went back to school. In the middle of a class on management I decided I didn't want a degree in nursing, I wanted a degree in English so I switched my major to English and got my undergraduate degree as an English major. Then I went to Vermont and got a Masters in English Literature. Then [I] came to Iowa to the Writer's Workshop. So I did this turnabout midstream in the middle of this class because I could not stay awake in the class. I was still working as a nurse while I was getting these English degrees. In a way it helped me a great deal because it paid my way.
When I was doing that Masters in Vermont, I lived in the infirmary. I gave three clinics a day. I was on 24 hour call. Several times I rode down the mountain in the ambulance in the middle of the night with sick students: there was a heart attack, and there was a car wreck, there's always something. There was a drowning--always something happened. Then I was also a full time student and the advantage of living in the infirmary is I had the whole infirmary to myself. A couple of the rooms were for sick students, but I had this little cottage so I could stay up all night and work on a paper while the people who lived in the dorm had to keep quiet after a certain hour and they didn't have the freedom of movement that I had. But I also had this fulltime job--but it paid my tuition and gave me a salary as well so I finished that grad program owing nothing and in fact having a little money. But I worked and I knew that campus. I knew everybody's private life. I knew what was going on--of course, I couldn't say anything about it, but it certainly gave me a lot of material for fiction I have told you about how I came to Iowa to get out of nursing and I found I couldn't get nursing out of my head. So I wrote this book, this collection of stories that was an exorcism from idealism to burnout, and I published several of those stories and one of them is in this Iowa anthology that is coming out. Now what was your question?! (Laughter)
I did poetry, short stories, and then when I started writing the nursing stories, I went from these big maximal stories to minimalism. Because I was writing about medical stuff that happens fast (finger snapping) and do it five minutes ago (finger snapping), my whole style changed almost overnight when I changed my subject matter. Then I began to write short shorts. I'd never written short short stories before, but this "do everything from two to five pages, get it done, and condense it and make it," actually turned out to be a very powerful medium for me. The long stories I kind of wandered around in the cul de sacs, but these were short and quick and I could hearken back to my time as a poet and bring the techniques of poetry in to the fiction: the use of white space and internal rhyme and assonance and consonance and all of these things I could use short short. And the subject matter--if I was dealing with nursing--was perfect: they were these incidents that happened and they were over with and that was perfect for a short form. And so I started writing short shorts.
Then I got to the point where I got stuck and I wasn't doing anything. I'd written the nurse book and nobody wanted it. I would give readings of these nurse stories and people would leave the room. One woman went like this (covers head). It was stuff that people didn't want to know. I wrote one about an alcoholic bleedout that I couldn't get published anywhere. I finally got it published in Baltimore because Baltimore is kind of [a] blue collar town and they can take it because it was just too bloody, too real, and people didn't want to know it and nurses weren't writing stories then. Now it's beginning to be ok. I'm contributing editor for Mediphores, which is the literary journal for the health professions, and this is a couple years old. The writers there are doctors and nurses and x-ray techs and lab techs. All of these people that observe so much of humanity, so much of its powerful and dynamic situations that occur every day, are now writing about it. They've always written about it-it's just that nobody would publish it because they didn't want truth. Now that the healthcare situation is in the news, people are beginning to say, "Ok, let's have some truth, let's not have this fantasy of doctor God and his handmaidens the nurses moving bedpans around. Let's get real. Let's see what really happens." With this more honest look at what's going on, suddenly nurses and doctors and lab techs are writing about what happens and people are beginning to say, "Ok, I'll read it." People had a big investment in believing that medicine--that the Gods--descended and you were healed. That was really important for a lot of people, to just kind of turn over--"Whatever you say doc"--and hand their lives over. People aren't doing that now and so those of us who know a little bit about it can write about it and find some acceptance and I'm really glad for it.
But as far as other [mediums], I in fact have around here art projects. I got stuck, I wasn't writing and I didn't know why so I just started to paint. I decided that I was going to paint these things to remind me of people I loved, so I started painting chairs. These were chairs that I found in basements, along the side of the road on the curb, or in secondhand stores. One I was going to do for my mother. There's a Black Angel in town at the cemetery and I had gone to see this and this angel has these enormous wonderful wings and this diaphanous dress. I decided I'd paint this chair and then do the figure of my mother as a kind of black angel. Well I started painting and got the wings alright, and then this angel had these big boobs, (laughter) and I thought, "Oh" I was doing the body first, you see, and "Oh, Dolly Parton!" This was not my mother! Then I thought, "Oh, here, the hard part"-I did the hair, and "Here's the hard part"--I had to do the face so I started painting. I had this idea of how I was going to do the face. Well, I painted this face and it turned out to look just like my dog. Now, I love my dog and this was wonderful: here is this Dolly Parton, Dolly Dog chair that I painted.
What I was doing was letting go. I had this idea of what I was going to paint but I let go and instead some whimsical thread came out and painted this chair. And it just made me laugh. Here I was so serious going into this--and this makes me chuckle. On the back of the chair I started making blobs, and then I have this doodle of leaves--I make leaves and blobs--and I thought, "Oh, I made eyeballs." So I made an eyeball tree. And this was reminding me of a story that I hadn't written but I had thought of writing one time, and that was about an eyeball bush or an eyeball tree. My grandfather had an artificial eye. He was walking in the woods as a boy and lost his eye on a tree branch that snapped in his face, and so I always had this horrible vision of an eyeball tree. I was thinking of this tree just waiting for unsuspecting people, so on the back of this chair, I painted this eyeball tree. Well, what happened was the painting, the thinking, got me writing. I wrote a story about this eyeball tree and that's the story called the "Eye of Providence" and I thought, how wonderful, painting this chair has opened me up to writing again.
Then I painted another chair, the one you're sitting on, which is green. I planned to paint it burgundy, but I couldn't find burgundy paint. I found this green paint and so I painted it green. And just looking at the color green reminded me of my grandfather's workshop which is painted in that color. I got the idea and it all just came together to write a story called "A Circle of Tongues" in which this green workshop is one of the images. Painting has freed me into memory I suppose. And these stories that are autobiographical but fictionalized are arising out of the painting. I have another chair in the garage that I'm thinking about. But what also is happening is that I'm realizing that I get great joy out of doing things that are not only writing and that I'm not abandoning my writing at all because doing these other things brings me joyfully back to the writing and in fact opens up another little door in my head that was closed.
I have projects, like I have this table over here. My table [with its] incredible round table surface, I see as a mandala [with] bright colors. It is sitting over there so I can think about it. I'm not in any rush to paint it I pass it all the time and I look at it and think, "I'm going to paint that." And see, that I'm sure is involved in a big story that I haven't quite put together yet. But I know as I paint that the idea, the central images, for that story will come together.
I used to live in a house that was kind of a model home type of a home. Everything had to be perfect and perfectly clean and sparkling. And now I've decided I'm going to live in a place that has both my past and my present and my future, or all three together so that a lot of the things in this house and around me are old friends from various family members. But there's also--I'm letting--the future be in my house, too. Here, like I'll have this empty frame which I'm going to put a mirror in, or something else, and I then have a table that is going to be a mandala, and I have another chair in the kitchen that's in process. So I see my future here too. It's not a static suburban living room that I used to have. When I lived that life on the East coast, I always felt false, as if I were hiding something and what I was hiding was who I was, and who I wanted to be. I was hiding that in that "just-so" house, so now I'm making choices like I won't buy a couch because I'd rather spend the time doing my artwork and I had to make the choice: I work hard to earn so much money to buy this couch, or say forget the couch, and spend [my] time with the artwork and that's what I'm choosing to do.
5: What do you see as your artistic vision?
My vision. When I first came to the workshop, I remember being down by the river and talking to another new student and we were sitting on the river talking about vision: what's your vision? And he said to me, "Well, there aren't a lot of people around here that have vision, but I think you have it." And I said, "What?!" I didn't know what it [was]--I still don't know for sure what my vision is. I think what I'm working on now is being honest and it's real hard-I mean our culture tells us all the time not to be honest. Especially as women, don't be honest, take care of everybody else, put your needs last, support your man. I did that for many years. But there's certain things you can't skip-you can't skip yourself. So my vision now is to be honest. Part of this I was talking about earlier with the nursing stories. Being honest is not very popular. With these nursing stories I couldn't get them published because I was being honest. But like many things--I was recycling 25 years ago when nobody else was doing it and so it took them 25 years and there's a big cultural lag--eventually being honest is going to work. And I think that part of my vision is--if I look at it this way--it's a world where people are honest, it's a world in which people put their spiritual lives before their material lives and [it's] a world of beauty.
I've been thinking about beauty a lot recently too. When I was a child I read The Magnificent Obsession. I don't know if you know that book. It's probably really a hokey book, but it made a big impression on me, and I remember, one of the things from that book was, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." I've remembered that and I've realized that the central image in every one of my stories is a thing of beauty and that my story revolves around that central image. If I don't first have that central image, I don't have a story. I think that's part of what painting has been doing for me. The green chair, for instance, aroused in me this memory of sunlight coming through the dirty windows of a shop that went to the floor, all the dust motes and the light going onto the wood. That central image of the light coming into the darkness gave me the idea for the story--the story whirled around that.
[In] another story that I wrote called "Snow Walker," the central image was the snow, the light on the snow at night that looked like mica. I went on a walk at night in the moonlight in the snow with a friend of mine, and we said, "Look at that, it looks just like mica." Also, a friend of mine, Marvin Bell, talked one time about footprints in the snow and what would footprints in the snow be like? So in that story I have footprints in the snow and I have the mica like snowflakes. The central image stayed in my mind and then I wrote the story. The central image is that thing of beauty or thing of mystery at any rate.
The story that I'm working on now, and the central image now, is this fir tree with the sun setting behind it. I'd been thinking about that and then a friend talked about a dream and that central image is what this story is arising from. My vision--I guess you could call it vision, because it's very much a visual thing--[is] that this thing of beauty is something visual that then becomes translated into human interaction. But it begins visually. So maybe that's why the painting is good for me now because I'm thinking of color in a way I never thought about it, and I'm thinking of creating a world, a life around myself, in which I can be an artist in all directions. I don't have to be just at the computer or just at the typewriter and this is really exciting.
I guess the vision, if any, is enlarging from one of beauty and honesty to: can't we all live our lives as artists, can't we be artists in every aspect of our lives? And what is an artist what is an artist? It is one who appreciates, I think, what is inherently there in our world. Everything we see out there is a metaphor, and we don't see it. I even remember portions of my life in which the trees had turned and dropped their leaves and I never noticed. Then suddenly one day I realized the trees were bare. Well, last time I looked, they were green. How did that happen? I don't want to live that way anymore. I don't want to live that way where I don't notice [the] changes every day, the beauty that's there. And in order to have that beauty, in a way, I had to move. I had to move from the East Coast back here to the heart of the country to a place I love. A friend of mine calls it voluntary simplicity, and that's what it is. I was in bumper to bumper traffic one morning and I said, "No more, no more." I quit my job, sold the house, came here.
6: In terms of the formation of the identity of a woman artist, how do you feel about media representations of women?
Well, I had been thinking about that. Part of my reaction that made me write the nurse book [was] because of all those soap operas with the nurses sitting around the nurse's station having coffee and gossiping for hours on end. And the fact is, when I was a nurse, I didn't have two minutes. Often I couldn't even go the bathroom I was so busy and often I missed meals. I wasn't sitting around talking and gossiping. The image on the TV [is still unrealistic]--even with these nurse and doctor shows that are getting slightly better now because the nurses got one program off the air because it was so bad I don't even remember the name of [the show], but it was showing nurses to be sluts and the American Nurses Association got thousands of people to write letters. What they did is they boycotted the products that were advertising that program and got it off the air. Since that time, nurses can have clout when they decide that they can. Since that time, the programs [have had] technical advisors to make them much more realistic. Still whenever there's a TV program that says, "Nurse Parker, would you come in here, now," I'm going, "Phhhhhhh!" I was a nurse for 25 years and no one ever called you "Nurse Parker," it's "Parker, get in here," or "Miss Parker," never "Nurse Parker." That's so basic and then it goes downhill from there.
The responsibility that nurses have! When I was a head nurse I ordered all the supplies, I hired and fired all the employees, I oversaw all of the care on the unit, [and] I got replacements when people were sick. I ordered the x-ray light boxes, I ordered everything we used. I was responsible for the unit 24 hours a day, every day of the week. I was one person, I had 50 patients, I had 25 employees and all the equipment and that was my responsibility. And in this hospital every head nurse took care of her unit in that way. They didn't have to hire a supply person to order supplies for everybody. They didn't have to hire a personnel person to hire and fire, the head nurses did all of it.
Then when I was a night supervisor, I ran the hospital at night. I was the person who called in the emergency people, I was the person who called the operating room staff in if they had emergency surgery, [and] I was the one who called the alarms when they had fires. I was the one who carried blood to the emergency room when they needed it. I was the one that called the police when somebody was trying to bash in the windows. I did all the replacing, I did all of the employee controversies [and dealt with] anything untoward that went on. We had a maintenance man running through the hospital with a gun. All of that was my responsibility. We had one time where all the toilets on the second floor overflowed and all the water went down into the first floor and ruined the new carpeting and was dripping into the nuclear medicine machinery, and so I had to call in the housekeeping staff in the middle of the night. And at first I called the hospital administrator--its' three a.m. and I call him--and his first words were, "Oh shit!" So no one knows that the nursing night supervisor runs the entire hospital, coordinates the whole hospital. Instead on TV the nurses are sitting around, "Miss Parker, come in here" and they're all sitting around gossiping and drinking coffee. The reality is much, much different.
So what I wanted to do was tell the truth and how it felt, and also the numbness that comes. I found that nurses either get numb, or get so vulnerable they feel everything. And that's what happened to me, I got so vulnerable I couldn't stand it. The accumulation of years, of seeing suffering and death over and over and over, just got to me and I couldn't do it anymore. So I backed out. But people don't know what these women do. And they are beginning to get paid better now, but when I first got divorced and was working supporting myself, two children, a babysitter, and her son, and I was making $4.85 an hour and I was an assistant head nurse. We were eating lentil soup. We had no money. All the coupons in the world, and I'd go in and buy the smallest portion and use a coupon so that for the least amount of money I could get these items. No money, and I was in a life and death situation every day. People's lives depended on what I did everyday--I had this training and I had responsibility, I was dispensing narcotics, I was overseeing fifty people--and they were paying me minimum wage.
So images of women: what I really hated was that "ring around the collar" commercial! I would always yell back at the television, "Wash your neck!" But I think things are getting better. I don't know for sure because I don't watch television anymore. I sometimes watch a movie but I just can't tolerate most of these situation comedies that are so stupid. I can't tolerate the commercials these drug ads where [they're] telling everybody, "If you have a headache, take a pill," not "Why don't you get out of the stress," not "Why don't you lie down," not "Why don't you get a drink of water, why don't you take a walk." So that they're making our society stupid and dependent and especially [towards] women [who] are depicted as stupid and dependent and these little kids believe it their entire lives. In a way I'm fortunate--I didn't have a TV until I was in 5th grade. I had some early years without TV so I'm not addicted to it. I'm glad.
7: How did you prepare for this interview?
Oh, I decided not to prepare. I decided that I would be really nervous if I prepared and that what I should do is just be me, because I was thinking, "Oh well, [in] what room [should we do the interview] " Well, this was the only room I thought of really. My office is too small--we couldn't all get in there and be comfortable. I did think about what I should wear and I decided to wear what I would wear normally today. I did think about wearing a skirt, I thought wearing a skirt is a good idea because I'm a woman and I'm proud to be a woman and I want to feel womanly. I've been wearing a lot of jeans for a long time and I decided I'm tired of wearing jeans all the time. I want to be a woman but I don't want to be too delicate so I wore boots (laughter) you know, and I decided to be, well, why not be eclectic. I mean my house is eclectic, I've got all kinds of stuff here. And I'm not very big but I like to pretend that I'm bigger, you see, so in my family I was big, but we were all munchkins. My grandmother was four foot ten, my mother was 5 feet tall, my brother was 5'6", so at 5'2" I'm pretty big until I get out in the rest of the world and standing next to Jayson so I kind of dress as if I'm big although I'm not (laughter).
8: What do you think of documentaries?
Oh, I love documentaries. They're sort of 180 degrees from the situation comedies, which are all so false, you see, so I want to know what the truth is. Here's that issue I've been thinking about, and documentaries allow me to get a better view of what the truth might be. I know of course that it's distorted through the eyes of the filmmaker. And that whatever is shown can be distorted by the filmmaker. But seeing the real thing I like a lot. Also I find that this is grist for the mill--that if I'm going to write about things, I need to see them to get an idea. The documentary allows me to see these things without actually traveling. I like to hear people talk and watch their gestures. This is all gathered material as a writer for a story because with a story you are really just wrapping your emotions around an event and you need the event. I remember I was writing one story--I ended up having to read about 3 books and going to the library just so I could create the world in which these characters lived. The real issue was alienation and leaping back, jumping back into life for this character, but I couldn't [just say that]--that would be an essay, if I just said that, so I needed the facts. Documentaries to me are fascinating because the facts are [presented]--at least, there's an attempt to--present those facts and present them naturally. They're not duded up in a Hollywood way. You don't have the most beautiful actress or the most handsome actor playing Joe Schmoe and Josie Schmoe. You have the real people themselves and that I find exciting, really.
I love things like these nature films. A friend of mine teases me, "Oh, you're watching another wildebeest film" (laughter). Of course all these nature films have wildebeests in them, but I find that exciting that our world is so large and that if we keep that narrow view that we see on the boob tube we don't ever know how large our world is. Documentaries, nature films, enlarge our world and that is exciting to me. So in fact I was thinking, should I get a VCR and TV and drag it into that room--that study? [It's] part of being honest, because I like documentaries and I like movies, instead of hiding my TV in the back room upstairs, and pretending that I never watch it. Well that's not true, I never watch the silly shows, but I do enjoy a kind of escape into the world of the documentary, or of nature, or a movie, sometimes. If it's good, if it's a foreign film, if it has subtitles, (laughter) if it has some kind of intellectual background, if in fact the reviewer hates it and thinks that nothing happens, then I watch it because I know the reviewer didn't get it--he's looking for a car chase and there aren't any--that's the kind of film I like.
9: How did it feel that you know us versus having some unknown TV crew come in here and interview you?
Oh, so much better! I interviewed some people for a collection of interviews of writers that I did and that's what allowed me to do it, was that I knew these people. These were people from Bread Loaf and of course I had this secret "in" because I was their nurse and so I got to know people. I looked down their throats, and I'd say, "Oh, by the way, could I interview you?" (Laughter) Which I did at the end, but knowing these people helped me a great deal because of my own nervousness. But in a way too, I thought that maybe the fact that these people were more comfortable with me meant that they might come and say something that they wouldn't say to a stranger who came in off the street and fell into their living room with a camera, that there would be this kind of standing back that I don't feel here because I do know you.
We concluded with a brief discussion of the shots we'd later take in Joyce's home: each of the painted chairs, the waiting, as yet unpainted mandala table, and perhaps a parting shot of Joyce opening the door and entering the office where she wrote. But we were out of tape for the day, and we never did take those close-ups.