An Interview with Anya Lewis-Meeks
For part of our The 7 Series, interview correspondent Ashlyn Lackey talks with young creatives from a variety of different industries and backgrounds to discuss how and why they pursue their passions. She recently spoke with Anya Lewis-Meeks, a writer from Kingston, Jamaica. Anya is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University, where she teaches University Writing to Columbia University students. Her fiction has been published in Panorama Journal and she is currently working on a novel about four Jamaican high school students. (In case you missed it: last time, we spoke with the three co-founders of Afari Inc., a social media network. Read it here.)
Can you start by telling us how you began writing?
I wrote my first poem when I was eight. It was a nature poem called “Between Two Hills”—I remember my parents knew the editor of a prominent Jamaican newspaper, and he published it! It was crazy. I kept writing, but didn’t work on anything big until high school, where I wrote 2 years of NaNoWriMo novels. Neither of them has really gone anywhere, but the hardbound copies still live in my parent’s home. I continued writing at Princeton, where I did a certificate in Creative Writing. I’m currently in my last year of my MFA at Columbia, where I am finishing up my novel. It’s basically the work I’ve been trying to do since I was a teenager, so I guess it’s finally coming together at 24!
Tell us a bit about your writing process.
I write well by setting deadlines and following goals. The most productive summer I ever had I sat down from 10am-2pm and made a goal of writing 10 pages per day. Of course, that doesn’t work all the time. In my MFA we have workshop deadlines, and this helps me keep on track. I’m interested to see how my writing process moves forward on post-academic structure! Hopefully it’ll look something like writing every day (which you should always strive for!) but I’m not there…yet.
What is your editing process like?
I’m a big fan of the term “radical revision.” I teach academic writing to Columbia undergrads, and “radical revision” is a huge component of our essay class. That said, my mind was still blown when a professor of mine told me that she re-writes by opening a completely new document and typing each chapter over. We essentially do the same thing in my undergrad class, but somehow I didn’t think it applied to creative writing. And it definitely does! If you need to return to your old work, it’s not like you’ve deleted it forever, but having the blank page is so freeing. You know the characters and the scene you want to write, but you’re not stifled by the weight of the work you’ve already done. It’s scary, but everyone should try writing from scratch!
Do you believe in writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
I don’t know if I get writer’s block. I feel like I more get writer’s anxiety? It’s not so much that I’ll open the document and not be able to type something, it’s way more like I won’t open the document because the process of writing feels like just TOO MUCH right now and I’ll do something easier like read a Vulture article instead. (I’ve linked a pretty good one below!)
But the best advice I’ve ever had comes from two people who said pretty opposite things—Kelly Link, who I heard speak at Columbia, said that she hated writing; she said she found the process of writing words to be frustrating and upsetting. And then, there was my professor Victor LaValle who tweeted, “WRITING. IS. SO. MUCH. FUCKING. FUN.” I think having both views helped me realize that both feelings are okay, and normal. When the work is coming and flowing, it’s such an amazing feeling, but it’s okay for it to NOT be that way too. In specific moments of “block,” I think it helps me to work on something not related to my novel—like an essay I have to write, or even just word-vomiting on the page, but overall I think the most important thing is remembering that writing is really hard sometimes, but also it’s just REALLY fun. And I need to keep reminding myself that I’m so lucky to get to do it!
What books are on your must-read list and why?
NW by Zadie Smith changed what I thought literature could do for me. That’s her most “experimental” book and people didn’t like it as much as her earlier works, but it really made me want to write about black Jamaican women first. I’ll always love her for that. The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson was the first poetry I truly loved as a teen. It’s a prose poetry retelling of one of Herakles’ Labors. It’s devastating, and stunning. All Anne Carson’s pieces should be must-reads.
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang was my favourite book of 2017. It’s a collection of short stories that are mostly told from adolescent perspectives. Frankly, if this were a novel, it would be YA (thanks literary marketplace and your insistence on unnecessary genre divisions). That said, it would be some of the best YA I’ve ever read—the stories are visceral and raw and weird. Definitely recommend if you’ve ever been a cruel teen.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart if you love Mitski’s albums and other tales of hot, sad love. Some lines: "I am lonely. I cannot be a female saint. I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation. But the passion was not cold. It kindled me. It kindled the world. Love, love, give my heart ease, put your arms round me, give my heart ease.” How can you not be obsessed!
Who are your creativity role models?
1) My parents—my mom is the best reader I know, and my dad is publishing his own work of poetry this year. They both always have time to read my work, even when they find it “dark.”
2) My professors—particularly Victor LaValle and Lynn Steger Strong who somehow write and teach while having 2 kids? In NEW YORK?
3) Morgan Jerkins. Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Zinzi Clemmons. Young black women writing books that are doing really well these days. They inspire me everyday!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and creatives?
I just read this article on Vulture (https://www.thecut.com/2018/08/ask-polly-should-i-quit-my-day-job-to-write-a-book.html) where Craig Jenkins talks about the fallacy of being a writer and what it means to publish your first book. Basically, writing a book doesn’t change your life, and the same feeling of imposter syndrome that you had the whole time you were trying to “become” a writer will last you basically forever. Sorry! But Jenkins did follow that up by saying that instead you should “savor the process” of being a writer and remind yourself that if you’re writing all the time (whether that’s your main book or not) you are still a writer! Which is at once the most satisfying and frustrating thing you’ll ever hear. Basically, you’re the only one who needs to give yourself permission to be a writer. An MFA won’t give you that permission, and neither will a bestselling book. Put your money where your fingers are, basically, and keep writing.
Oh right, and the other piece of advice (that I don’t always take, but you should) is keep submitting. If it’s not good, you’ll get an outright rejection. Then you work on it some more. Then you submit again, and you’ll start getting nicer rejections, maybe with specific pieces of advice as to how you can improve on the work. Take the advice. And then keep submitting. To places like Siblíní, to Adroit, to Apogee (where I read fiction and non-fiction, hi!). Someone eventually will love your work. But you have to write it first. So write.
— Interview conducted by Ashlyn Lackey. Edited for clarity by Kat Neis.