The PEN Pod: The Power of Writing in the Now with Rhonda Mitchell
Rhonda Mitchell is a 1999 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and a two-time Voices of Our Nations Art (VONA) Fellow. She is currently working on a memoir while also working full-time as communications director at the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. She joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss how writing in the now is informed by contemporary forms of storytelling, the way the immediacy of writing helps us communicate in our tumultuous times, the importance of a daily writing practice, as well as what she is working on and reading these days. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Rhonda begins at the 11:30 mark).
I want to talk to you about the concept “writing the now.” For those who don’t know that term, what does that mean to you, and what does it mean to other writers?
The concept “writing the now” is as simple as journaling for some—that’s what I do. For others, it’s their social media feeds and, for still others, we have podcasts—the format that we use now and that appeals to me, because it’s pretty much troll-free. What I like about all three is that there is an allowance for vulnerability, and that’s what helps writing in the now—that’s what informs the immediacy of writing in the now. Our personal essays and our memoirs are all part of what I think of as our campfire story, our digital campfire story, and how we talk in the new millennium. I look at “writing the now” through the lens of Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and the political elements of art. These critics believe that content determines form and that, therefore, all art is political. Even if a work of art ignores political issues, it still makes a political statement. That’s what I think about, writing in the now.
“I look at ‘writing the now’ through the lens of Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and the political elements of art. These critics believe that content determines form and that, therefore, all art is political. Even if a work of art ignores political issues, it still makes a political statement. That’s what I think about, writing in the now.”
That idea of immediacy—I think there are writers out there who feel like, “No, we have to mull, and we have to think, and we have to process.” Why do you find that immediacy is also really valuable? I also wonder if there’s a value to it especially right now, as we face a lot of, frankly, immediate crises.
I thought about the word “immediacy” and what happens when we grab a moment. When we grab a moment, we tend not to edit, and when we don’t edit, there is a truth that comes out. So, if we’re talking about the present, we’re talking about a social and cultural exchange that we’re bearing witness to from the perspective of our own life experiences and histories. And when we capture that—when we write in the current situation—what we’re illustrating, if we’re writing in the immediate moment, is the cognitive shift that’s occurring, especially when that someone who is writing is othered or silenced, and they speak, and they are heard and understood.
I think it also captures the shift in thinking that happens when the “here” of the narrative gains some depth and understanding of an experience that was previously unknown or not understandable to them. In both cases, belief in attitude can be challenged by the power of that immediate writing—that narrative, that curve that occurs—and that occurs without the editor present. That, to me, provides an opportunity for a change in the social relationships. The caveat to that is that social change is related to the political context in which these narratives are received. So, I could be the othered person and present my immediate story, but depending on the political context, you could still deny what I’m saying—you could still deny my narrative or my lived experiences that I’m telling you right now.
“It should be a democratic process—that’s part of what’s in our Constitution, the allowance for us to do this. It could be done through different ways, but us getting out in the street and actually saying what’s going on, how we’re experiencing it, is all important. It’s part of that digital campfire experience that we’re all having right now.”
There’s something almost democratic or unmediated. Do you think that there is more space for that right now, especially as we’re all still stuck at home, not sure what’s going on? We’re also taking to the streets nearly every day to seek justice. Or do you find that it’s just a clearer way for us to communicate?
If you’re talking about immediate writing—what we put in our social media feeds, things like that—yes, it’s really clear. We don’t have anything else to do. That’s what my daughter said when she was here from college and she was going to protest. She said, “Mom, I don’t have anything else to do, of course I’m going to go do this.” It should be a democratic process—that’s part of what’s in our Constitution, the allowance for us to do this. It could be done through different ways, but us getting out in the street and actually saying what’s going on, how we’re experiencing it, is all important. It’s part of that digital campfire experience that we’re all having right now.
I like that—digital campfire. It makes me feel better. What is your guidance for other writers who might want to make “writing the now” a daily or regular practice, and how do you make it part of your practice?
My practice happens in the morning. But, like everybody else, I get up and I scroll my phone to see what’s going on in the world. Then, at some point, I get up and get my coffee, and I plop in my chair with my journal. I’ve always tried to make this a habit, no matter what is going on, and every writer has to find their time and make it a practice. I say, get up and go to that space daily, and let it become a habit. It’s a space where you’re allowed to freewrite, to let your unconscious roam on the page. I’m sure I’m not saying anything new: I’ve heard this in every writing seminar, every group I’ve been a part of, and from every established writer who has given me a moment of their time. I remember years ago, when I just started saying that I was a writer, an author asked me—when I told her that this is what I want to do—“Do you write every day?” I said that I didn’t, and she just looked at me and she said, “Well, writers write. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”
“The blank page is always intimidating, even if you’re just there to write your own words and to confront your own thoughts. It’s being vulnerable on a page, or being vulnerable publicly. But I think if you’re not vulnerable, people don’t resonate with your experience—unless they can walk in your shoes, they can’t connect. That’s the power of how we’re telling stories now, and it’s what I do appreciate about the digital space for storytelling—we have an opportunity to connect with a voice.”
It’s good advice.
It is good advice, it’s just hard to do. I think the blank page is always intimidating, even if you’re just there to write your own words and to confront your own thoughts. It’s being vulnerable on a page, or being vulnerable publicly. But I think if you’re not vulnerable, people don’t resonate with your experience—unless they can walk in your shoes, they can’t connect. That’s the power of how we’re telling stories now, and it’s what I do appreciate about the digital space for storytelling—we have an opportunity to connect with a voice. We’re not just reading things on a screen, there’s an actual voice that people can connect to. I think that is one of the most important things of immediacy in writing. So, obviously, what I’m also saying is that I love the form of the podcast, because it allows for this personal exchange—a more human touch on this exchange of information.
Me too. What are you working on right now? What is the blank page leading you toward?
I’m trying my hand at personal essays—it’s messy, nice, and wonderful. I took a class with Marnie Goodfriend from the Angels Flight literary magazine. I started writing personal essays earlier this summer, right around George Floyd’s death, so you can imagine what my personal essays sounded like, because I was hurt, angry, and just not sure what was going on.
I’m writing those and sending them out in the world, so I feel sorry for all those editors that have to read that right now, but I’m getting better, I keep writing. I’ve also written a draft of a memoir, and I’m in the revision process with that. I tend not to talk about that too much because it feels, when I do, that I’ve told the story, and then it loses its energy for me.
It’s tantalizing for us to hear that. Finally, what are you reading right now?
I’m reading—and I hope I don’t mispronounce her name—Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a beautiful book. I also just picked up Luster by Raven Leilani, which is funny and bawdy, in a sense, and smart. She writes these sentences that are exquisite. It’s a good read.