NaNoWriMo Feature: Elizabeth Colen

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Elizabeth Colen, author of the forthcoming novel in prose poems What Weaponry.


You are six years old. Your brother is blind. Your brother is blind with his hands over his eyes. Your brother is not really blind. The divorce has done this to him. Dust and sadness has done this to him. Motion sickness has done this to him. And the sun in his eyes. He wants to be blind. He wants to be you. In the front seat: you. Hands in your lap. You make a strangling motion, twisting your pants at the knees. Your mother in the driver’s seat beside you doesn’t know the pant legs are her, the bunched-up fabric her throat. Brother strops his hand in his lap every time a locust exoskeleton breaks on the windshield, irregular beats, but often. It is that year. You are escaping. You are escaping joy and the reaching fingers of the boy next door. You are escaping your father locked out of the house, his palm drumming your bedroom window. To be let in is to give in. It means you’ve done wrong. Open the map. Let the paper cut your palm. Mother blinks too often. Put your hand on the dashboard, redsmear. This is where we’re going. Put your hand on her wrist. Put your hand on the wheel.

Craft Notes

This is one of the earliest sections/poems I wrote for the book. It starts with a personal memory (of my mother, my brother, & I escaping Kansas; I was five and “good at maps,” had saved us from going the wrong way several times, so my mother always let me sit up front with the map out while she drove us cross-country), but quickly moves away from that as the character takes over. This moment also reinforces a few of the prevalent themes in the book: meaning-making through negation, violence, and the complicated notions of blame.

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

What Weaponry is a novel in prose poems, so while many of the difficulties were the same as one would encounter in crafting a conventional novel—proper character development, narrative arc, etc—the greatest difficulty for me lay in the line between sense (narrative) and sound (the sonic qualities of the language). As a poet, this is always the line I’m walking in individual poems. Setting out to create a greater arc for myself in What Weaponry meant that this line had to be negotiated on a larger scale.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

That I’ll never be satisfied. And that that has to be okay.

Also, for prose especially, I like the advice of always cutting 10% of the word count between drafts. I try to hold myself to more like 25%, but yes. I run wild in a first draft, then reign the horses in.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

Well, I didn’t know exactly what I was writing at first. I started with a mood. I’d been traveling by rail for several weeks and had only brought one book with me (Richard Siken’s Crush), for the sake of traveling light. It’s a book I never tire of because it’s something I can live in. It’s like an alternate universe that’s always running alongside whatever I’m seeing in the RW while I’m reading it. And after. People talk about the RW in terms of online vs real world, but when I’m engrossed in a book, in reading one, I can sometimes forget whether I’ve seen that car crash or only read about it. I mean, not really, but as a writer I’ve always had a complicated relationship with reality. And the mood from a book, if it’s strong enough and consistent enough, can carry over. Which is what happened that summer. I started writing moody blocks of prose and two characters who started emerging in a poem in my first book (“Fifty Miles of Shoulder” from Money for Sunsets) suddenly took on full histories. And then they started doing things I didn’t expect and I just kind of sat back to see where things would go. Nothing of the book happened in any way that was planned. Though, of course, after the fact of the first few drafts I began to see patterns emerging and I worked and reworked the prose to pull those to the surface more, to create a more cohesive experience for a reader.

All told, the first draft took about a month and a half, and the reforming, restructuring, revising, took another six to eight months. That’s pretty consistent with my process on any book—a quick first draft and endless revisions until every right word seems in the right place.
4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?
I’m a big fan of bourbon, but I can’t drink and write. So probably water is the honest answer, sometimes green tea.
Suggested Reading
Stanzas in Meditation – Gertrude Stein
Tonio Kroger –
Thomas Mann
A Personal Matter –
Kenzaburo Oe
Inner China –
Eva Sjodin
With Animal –
Carol Guess & Kelly Magee

Colen_photo1-2Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Waiting Up for the End of the World (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012), flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011), and long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition (Ricochet Editions, 2014). Forthcoming books include short story collection Your Sick (Jellyfish Highway, 2016, co-written with Carol Guess and Kelly Magee), and prose poem novel What Weaponry (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She teaches at Western Washington University.