In the Spotlight
Writer and Visual Artist
Newtown, Pennsylvania Member Since: 2015
About: Elizabeth Austin is a poet, photographer, and visual artist. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she currently lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, with her two children. Her work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, See Spot Run, Driftwood Press, PAST TEN, and Foliate Oak. She was recently featured in a collaborative exhibit with photographer Sarah Jane Sanders at the Norton Center for the Arts.
Photo credit: Elizabeth Austin
How does working in both creative writing and the visual arts affect your process as an artist? Does one art feed or hinder the other?
I’m grateful that I get to bounce back and forth between disciplines. When I’m stuck on a poem, when the writing just won’t come, or it will but it’s terrible, I know I can draw and it’ll be a way of working all of that out without succumbing to the writer’s block. It feels a bit like switching languages: I can’t figure out how to say it one way, so I’ll switch gears and try to say it or show it in another. That being said, although writing is what I feel pulled to do, and it’s the career path I see myself on, drawing and photography are actually more fun for me. I have to be mindful that I don’t avoid my writing when things are challenging. Breaks are healthy and necessary, but prolonged avoidance can be toxic for me.
Are there similarities between working as a photographer and working as a poet? Would you choose a particular form to capture an idea or an emotion, or more often does the form you choose push the content?
I enjoy the intersection of photography and poetry. Photography is fun because once the photo is taken, for me, the work is complete. I might do some color correction or small edits, but generally, once I snap a photo and decide I like it, it’s finished in my mind. Poetry, on the other hand, feels more changeable and fluid. I’m more likely to go back in and play and make changes in a poem. I also find that with poetry, I’m watching a story unfold but there’s a line leading me along, the words on the page act as a guide through which I navigate the piece. With a photograph, I feel alone in my exploration and discovery. It’s just me and the image, and whatever story is being told is only as clear as my mind’s ability to take in the image and make connections and observations. I definitely think it’s a bit of both for me. Form pushes content, but I also tend to go to different forms for different intentions... it’s much easier for me to capture joy in photographs and sadness in poems. I struggle to write “happy” poems, and “sad” photographs tend to make me feel inauthentic, and I’ve just become used to toggling in between the two depending on what I’m trying to convey.
What is the best advice you have received?
In my second semester of graduate school, I was spending a lot of time whining about how awful a student I was (I wasn’t), and how I was depressed all the time (I was). I was juggling graduate school and single motherhood and mental health issues, and I was sure the administration at my school must have been watching me and thinking, “why are you such a burden with all of your problems?” I expressed this suspicion to Betsy Sholl, my advisor at the time, and she suggested that I reframe my thinking and consider that I might be very brave for working through so much, and that I give myself credit for my efforts rather than criticize myself for my situation. I go back to that a lot when I feel like my best efforts aren’t hitting the marks I’ve set for myself.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
Every mentor I’ve had, dating back to high school. It’s a long chain of brilliant advice, and I couldn’t narrow it down to a single person or sentiment. Some things that stick out in my memory, however: my English teacher in High School making an offhand comment to the class about how I was a good writer, but I didn’t know it. I really didn’t know it, and I’ll never forget how I felt when she said that. It was amazing. My professors in Community College, especially Christopher Bursk, who has been a driving force behind my writing since I first stepped into his classroom. From there it takes off and branches into my entire writing community. I was fortunate enough to get to work with Matthew Dickman during my final semester of graduate school, and am now grateful to call him my friend: he has offered me so many insightful and encouraging words that I continue to carry with me. I have a cohort of supportive creative friends who keep me running with them, and I was the recipient of some of the most constructive instruction and encouragement during my time in my MFA program. I try very hard not to take any of that for granted.
When do you find time to write?
I write in the car, actually. I have a hard time writing, say, on a quiet afternoon while I’m home alone drinking tea. Most of my writing happens when I’m doing other things. Running and driving are sure-fire ways to get my gears turning. I have a lot of voice memos on my phone that eventually turned into poems.
What is your favorite line from a book?
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow.” From Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
The line is quite literal in the book’s context, but it’s stayed with me because when I first read it, it reminded me of my depression. I was really ill at the time, and my illness felt like a hole in the heart, something I could never fully shake, something that would go on lingering in me for the rest of my life, no matter my circumstances or mood. And that’s entirely true: I’ve been on a steady upward climb with my mental health but it’s still there in me—it’s not something I’ll ever be able to fully get rid of. It also encompasses my post-graduation attitudes... I miss the friends I made in graduate school very much. They’re my community, and most of us live far away from one another. It’s heartbreaking not knowing when I’ll see them all again.
What are you reading right now?
Right now, I am reading a few books. I’m re-reading Wonderland by Matthew Dickman, which is just as good the third time around as it was the first. It’s really incredible. I’m also re-reading The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain, because his death crushed me and it’s my favorite of all his books. I’m reading A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, who I wasn’t familiar with until a friend recommended the short story “Let me see you smile.” I’m always eager to check out anything my friends recommend. I’m also reading Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (for the first time!). I’m trying to take it in slowly because, predictably, I love her. I don’t want to rush through the book because I’ve been waiting a long time to read it. Finally, I’m reading a handful of friends’ manuscripts, which are my very favorite things to read.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
It definitely depends on the book. If I’m reading a book that is widely available, I’ll probably do some underlining and maybe put a coffee cup down on it when I’m not paying attention. I definitely dog-ear my pages, because bookmarks always end up misplaced and lost. If it’s a friend’s book, however, or if it’s been inscribed, I’m very careful. I can’t ever bring myself to write in a book that’s been inscribed to me; it’s way too special, and I like to preserve that.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
My friends, I’ve found, always have the best recommendations, and they vary widely across genres, everything from the classics to obscure poetry to really weird and wonderful fiction I’d never have picked up on my own. They’re my go-tos when I’m looking for fresh reading material. I’ve also found that following authors on social media platforms will turn up a good deal of book recommendations. Instagram is a great place for that especially. When all else fails, independent bookstores. I love Labyrinth in Princeton: they’ve got great tables of curated selections in every category, and I rarely leave there without purchasing two or three new books.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
The best thing that anyone has ever said about my writing is that it helped them realize they aren’t alone in their more challenging experiences. It’s the best thing anyone could ever say to me. Writing is odd: it’s just putting words down on a page essentially, trying to get them just right. If I can do that and use that to connect with another human being and pull them out of any isolation they might be experiencing, then that’s everything to me. If my words can help someone in some way, then I’ve succeeded as a writer.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I watch Planet Earth on the couch with my kids piled on top of me. It’s Netflix/TV, so it feels lazy and great, but there’s this bonus feeling that I’m actually doing something constructive because it’s educational and it’s time with my kids. And if I’m not going to write, at least I’m doing something productive, maybe. Sweet justification.
I also like to blow off writing and go into Philly or take my kids on a hike. One weekend, when I was supposed to be writing, I decided last-minute to take them to the Mütter Museum with my brother, and then go out for Pho. It was great.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I once had the pleasure of hearing James Hannaham give an informal talk, and he said that he’s got a great answer for when people ask him what writing projects he’s working on. He’ll say something like, “a word document.” I want to be the kind of writer who can keep their projects under wraps, because I think it would save me the oft-experienced headaches of trying to explain why some of my brilliant projects haven’t materialized into anything substantial…. but I like to talk about my work! Right now, I’m working on a first book. It’s the cloud hanging over my head, and I have a lot of anxiety around getting it done and getting it right all at once. I’m also toying with the idea of Disney, specifically Disney Princesses. I have a daughter who is very slender and tall (for her six years) with large dark eyes and a bubbly, dynamic personality, and everything in her room in princess-pink. It’s somewhat of a diversion from my childhood experience of Korn t-shirts and autopsy literature, but there’s this middle ground of femininity on both counts, as well as our relationship as mother and daughter (obviously I love my daughter as my daughter, but I also really, REALLY like her as a person). I’m trying to explore that through the lens of Disney and its complicated culture.
What was the first book that you loved? The first book that you hated?
The first book I ever loved is Hamlet and Brownswiggle, written by Barbara Reynolds and illustrated by Robert Henneberger. It is about two adventurous hamsters, very Homeward Bound-style. I still have my original copy of the book, with the cover threadbare and fraying and the pages falling apart. In seventh grade, I was introduced to Harper Lee, and that was the start of another (somewhat more developed and sophisticated) great love, and hers was another book kept on my shelf long after the cover and first few pages had been lost to the bottoms of purses and the shadows beneath beds. I’m also completely in love with Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’ve bought dozens of copies, and I always end up giving them away in my desire to share the book with other people.
It took me a long time to actually hate a book, but a few years ago I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and I actually got angry about having wasted my time on it. I was excited at the prospect of exploring a more adult experience of the magical world, and I was deeply disappointed to find that the characters were underdeveloped, the story lacked tension and draw, and countless opportunities throughout the book to further explore and develop the world were abandoned, leaving gaping holes of disappointment in me as I went through the book. It actually put me off fantasy for a while and I stuck to re-reading Harry Potter.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
My AWP membership came with my enrollment in my MFA program, and I am so grateful that it did. Being a single mom and really struggling, I wouldn’t have been able to buy my own membership two years ago. So, I joined because it was a package deal, but I renew because community matters to me and to my writing. I need to be engaging with other writers in order to keep my own writing going.
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
It’s given me the opportunity to meet writers who I otherwise likely wouldn’t ever get the opportunity to engage with. It’s a communal resource and a place to meet other writers and share stories and experiences, and I don’t think there is anything more valuable than that. It’s hard to be a writer, but AWP definitely helps ease some of that.