I'm happy that the first interview I'm giving on this blog is with Phyllis Mass. I have the pleasure of knowing Phyllis from our years in a writer's group in Philly, where she's shared her wonderful work and has given in-depth, incisive, and thoughtful feedback on other people's writing; her editorial input has been of great benefit to me. Before we start with the interview, here's a quick intro to Phyllis:
Phyllis Mass is a freelance writer, poet, and editor who leads private writing workshops. She is an Amherst Artists and Artists Certified Workshop Leader who teaches Write Now! writing workshops privately and at Temple University’s Lifelong Learning Institute.
She taught college, secondary school, and adult education in English, theater, drama, art history, and yoga. A graduate of Hunter College, Arcadia University, and New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, she performed on stage, screen, in commercials, and appeared in commercial print. She has written essays, lifestyle and cultural pieces for local newspapers, magazines, and online publications and created customized original poetry for celebratory occasions and roasts. In addition, she has scripted and performed original song parodies.
Her recent work has appeared in Soundlings East Magazine, BlazeVOX, Spot Literary Magazine, The Apiary Corporation, Philadelphia Metropolis/VoxPop, and the collection, Letters to Fathers from Daughters. She was a finalist in Philadelphia’s citywide autobiography contest celebrating the tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth and in 2007 a finalist in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.
Now on to the interview...
HK: Why do you write?
PM: I write because it helps me figure out problems I am grappling with. Helps me make sense of the absurdity of life by bringing a certain order to the chaos around me be it in prose or poetry form. There is something delicious and terrifying about making something from nothing which is what writers do. You stare at a tabula rasa, and design a your own universe with your own set of rules. It’s pretty powerful.
HK: What do you think your strengths are as a writer, and what do you hope to improve on?
PM: It is the journey not the destination so I always feel I can improve. For three years in addition to my own writing and teaching, I’ve been taking a poetry workshop which helps enormously with improved syntax, editing, and making maximalist me more of a minimalist. My strengths are my ability to view the absurd and make it real no matter how ridiculous. I also have a talent for writing humor and satire. As a writer you are an outsider looking in. If you ever join the establishment, you will lose your ability to observe and never be able to write.
HK: Share with us some of the most important lessons or advice you impart to new writers.
PM: I tell new writers to read, read, read and to finish what they are writing before they begin to edit.
Writing involves the right side of the brain, the seat of creativity. The left hemisphere is the critical editing side.To avoid writer’s block, and banish that pesky inner critic, allow these hemispheres to work independently. I also tell beginners to find themselves a good writing group or first reader who can give them a thorough honest critique. Everyone needs an editor. Above all, the most important advice is that as a writer you have to be prepared to sit alone at your computer sometimes for hours and put the time in on your derrière. It’s called sitzfleisch; the ability to see your project through to the end by “sedentary determination.”
HK: From the perspective of an editor, what do you think makes for a good writer-editor collaboration?
PM: A good collaboration begins with the editor listening to the writer discuss what he or she has written and what he hopes will be his or her final project. The editor must assure the writer that whatever changes he or she sees fit to make are only suggestions. That if the writer does not agree, it behooves him or her to ignore those recommendations. The edit should center on a 'how to improve' critique rather than a 'what is wrong' criticism. The most important element in this relationship is that the editor be mindful of the writer’s voice. He or she must never alter any portion of the text which will change it.
HK: If you could assemble a panel of any three authors (dead or alive) to give you feedback on your work and discuss writing with you, who would they be and why?
PM: This is a very difficult question. For starters I think, Shakespeare, Woody Allen, and Oscar Wilde. Shakespeare would deal with poetic language and enable me to be less direct and more metaphoric and lyrical. Woody Allen, the writer not the film maker, could provide me with examples of how to make absurdity even more real. I would just love to hang out with him and pick his brain. The same with Oscar Wilde. The influence on my writing if I just hung out with this trio would be nothing short of miraculous.
HK: What are some of your current writing projects?
PM: Currently, I am teaching an improvisational writing course Write Now! at Temple University. I teach this course privately also. In addition, I am editing a few manuscripts and several short stories as well as writing and submitting fiction, opinion pieces and poetry.
Thank you, Phyllis!