2.12 / Legibility

Telling on Paper: A Personal Evolution

By Mia Kirsi Stageberg February 23, 2011

Image: Mia Kirsi Stageberg. Photo: Stefan Armstrong.

Editor’s Note: Occasionally, Art Practical offers a writer's reflections on why they write and how they approach their craft. Previous contributors to this feature include Lea Feinstein in Issue 1.13 and Bill Berkson in Issue 2.4. We are honored to share Mia Kirsi Stageberg’s essay here.

This article first appeared in Talking Cure, Summer 2010.



In journals that profile culture and events, we’re now getting some glimpses of far-flung experience previously unknown to us. We can access some of what it’s like to live and work as a pole-vaulter from Africa, an Iranian architect based in London, or a Chinese businessman struggling with too much inventory. Maybe many people feel excitement, as I do, about this kind of new information. Leading up to it, we had rich chronicles through, for example, Studs Terkel, when he shepherded histories of people’s daily work in their own words. Well, writing fiction is one kind of valuable work—whether or not it brings any money to speak of, and often it doesn’t. It brings adventurous capacity for fascination, discovery, and the satisfactions of achievement. Perhaps in this century we’ll find out more about the process of dedicated artists, what working in their way is like for them and how it’s been. For my part, I’ve written fiction for over forty-five years and haven’t said much about how that happens. It’s been a hidden, solitary business, messy and exhilarating, scary, fulfilling and necessary. Now I’ll share some things about the process—not every writer’s, just mine.


How sensibility is formed is horrifically complex. I’ve learned from my children, from sexuality in love, and from aloneness. Then there’s the influence of incessant learning and stimulation from people lived with or worked with. It can be layered from impressions at hand, on public transportation, or a walk.

D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield are the only writers whose work I sought out until I’d read it all. Not many contemporary writers have moved me deeply.1 I grew up saturated in assumptions and images of the nineteenth century, its music, painting, dance. I’ve avoided institutional learning and classic creative writing programs, feeling that for what I want to do, they’d wreck my writing. Sometimes I’m asked sincerely, “What have your influences been?” It’s difficult for me to answer. Strong influences as a writer that I’m aware of came from other arts or from the natural world. Bach, Van Gogh, Monet, Butoh. The Expressionists. Stravinsky, cathedrals, the west side of Lake Superior. Early films of Ingmar Bergman. Dancing hard and fearlessly. Watching the flow of clouds. Birch trees and firs, both close and as seen from a train. Watching water’s movement until dark and white reverse.

Ha! It could change.


In my early twenties I worked on what I thought to be either a film script or a long story. Nothing I wrote before was any good, I knew. The piece was about a young woman who hoped for a mentor and studied alchemy with an elderly man. She’d wished so fervently that she’d landed in this other century, in apprenticeship. Why did I want to write about that? I don’t know, but it compelled me. I lived with my young graduate-student husband and dear little son; we had recently arrived in Long Island to an isolated spot near the university. While my energetic child slept in the afternoon, I wrote. For the first time I would see, unbidden—even smell—the places relating to the story: light as it filtered through a leaded window, the old man’s face in profile, his black skullcap and veined hands at work. She assisted him diligently, mixed vials, and tended steaming mixtures in glass. She hoped to master all he knew, and without speaking, he intimated that he would teach her everything, but only if she committed to every stage of his arduous training. The girl seemed sentenced to stay through a long series of esoteric processes for transformation. I sensed that some disaster would intervene, but I didn’t understand what. Moreover, was he even truthful? I worried over this, chewed on it, fussed and rewrote and tried again.

As I worked, accumulating the handwritten tale, it appeared that everything I put down amounted to notes and nothing more . . . distanced fragments pointing to what should be written. I really did not feel that I was the one writing. It seemed the power of something streaming and separate from me wrote, in me and through me. I had to pay attention, learn patience. Often, I felt assaulted by imagery and ideas.2 I might be washing the floor and all at once I would see these images. How could I take this in and yet slow it down? Luckily, routines of caring for my little boy befriended me and made me sane: washing him, explaining trees and birds on our walks, planning and preparing food, singing him to sleep with a candle at his bedside.

I didn’t feel comfortable showing or speaking much about this unfinished fiction. I still avoid sharing the early stage of my fiction, as if it would jinx it. But with that particular story, the alchemy piece, I felt increasing despair. It seemed to be a film script; there was no dialogue, perhaps no sound. What was I trying to do? Some days I couldn’t write or hated what I’d written. That was excruciating. I wanted to tear it all up, burn it—feelings that many young writers have, I’ve learned, and for that I have tremendous compassion.3 But I kept all this inside. I’d have times I felt too wracked to add a thing, though I sat with the piece in front of me and the pen in my hand. I questioned whether this work was too incoherent and private for anyone to receive.

At about this time, I happened on the writing of Robert Creeley, not his poems but some fiction. It was deeply hesitant, but it had a force and it seemed to have to be just as it was. There was natural authority in how he reached for meaning, without demanding it. I felt kin to this work, as if in its synapses – its elongated, interior, uncertain sensibility – it had relation to what I was trying to do. I was so grateful! It lifted my heart then, and really it made the burden lighter.

I never finished the alchemy piece, but themes derived from it would surface later in other work.

I’d finally write a story I was pleased with, the first of several that would be published in James Laughlin’s New Directions Annuals. When the story “Snailsfeet” made print, my second husband and I met Bob Creeley in Buffalo. Sitting at our round oak table, Creeley told me warmly that he’d seen my work in New Directions and thought highly of it. He was the one to give me that hand on the shoulder that signs and seals a sort of covenant a writer has with work. I think it must be so in other disciplines—a need we have for the eye of greatness to glance on us young, and smile back.


One of the commonest injunctions given to writers as I came of age was to “find your voice.” Even Bob Creeley said I had “a sure voice.” If so, good; but I’m not easy with pursuing

a voice, even one’s own. If you gaze steadily in your spirit’s mirror, what will you recognize that you then must be? To me, each piece has new territory.

I do realize two dominant tendencies in fiction I’ve written up to this point: an inward, soul-driven way and a more relatable and realistic way. But I’d rather not find my voice. Let the writing and whatever openness I can bring find each other.

A writing partner once characterized my work as “calm, straightforward and relentless.” That was fun. If true, that would be the daughter of a Lutheran, Norwegian-American family, all right. But I felt more deeply understood by a video artist who told me she saw both of our work as coming from a dark, luminous place. That, for me, is sustaining because it yields to the source.


I have a way of learning in which I need to challenge myself to do things that are too hard for me. When I hear about the confidence and sense of connection people receive from mentors, I realize I’m paying a cost. A surrealist I know has told me how his sense of worldwide community grounds him. But I seem to have to go my own way, without following movements or a Way.

The beginning of a piece of fiction can be fearsome.4 It usually starts with a burning desire to do a particular thing in writing. Often, anyone with common sense could see it’s impossible. I love textures, nuances, intricacies, and cycles, and I’ve never accepted the importance of writing in genre nor understood why a story can’t be a spiritual essay. After a lifetime of deliberately resisting plot or even the standard strictures of beginning-middle-and-end, now I am intrigued with plot. I’m willing to learn new things, and I’m writing a plot-driven novel.5

I don’t churn things out; I’m more of a weaver on a mission. A few years ago I drafted one story ten or twelve times before it settled in the right shape. The last novel, which was my second, went through multiple drafts. Between short stories and the novels came long, long stories, until someone dubbed me a novelettress. As for the full-out novel, it’s the king of mountain-climbing. I’m not joking there; it takes devotion, obsession, and in order to build and hold the momentum you’ll put in frequent hours of toil and sweat. I can appreciate how athletes similarly need focus, constant repetition, and improvement. They have the long haul in order to win. Winning for me is when I know that, to the best of my capability, the piece is complete.

Afterwards, by the way, can be hideous. Many’s the time I felt so disoriented when a major fiction project finished that, far from celebrating, I thought I’d lose my moorings. The piece becomes so deep in you that for it to be born, finished, finally outside of yourself can feel shocking. Over time I’ve learned that this passes naturally.

I need writing. Through two marriages, a ten-year partnership and six children, I always had a hand in it, usually fiction. I had to.

Writing and eating. Photo: Mia Kirsi Stageberg.


Ben Shahn wrote a lovely book called The Shape of Content which I read in my teens. It’s about the dialogue between a visual artist and a painting or drawing, as it’s created. He manages to show the friendship that develops as the artist brings a concept to an easel, works a while, and finds that the imagery talks back, not only in what first appears but in the surprises of paint or ink, the mind-of-its-own. When things go well, the maker’s final work partners these developments with changing vision.

Despite my uneasiness with rules for fiction, the challenge of each piece forces me to make my own rules. If the struggle is strong enough, that hidden structure can become positively geometric.6 I’m also capable of breaking my own rules when needed.7 I’m suspicious of too much slavishness to “Show, don’t tell,” “Always make your tenses agree,” the dictatorship of commas and colons and sentences without verbs. Maybe it takes a lot of reading for a more unfettered approach to work, but I find that it’s good to let the story do its share of the talking. This stubbornness can get me out on a limb. Why is that bad, though? What about the rule against showing the process right there in the fiction? Once or twice I felt it important to come right out and show that. In a short story called “Film of Washington, D.C.,” I admitted “This is not a story,” and explained my vision had been to make it like a soundless 1930s movie I once saw, shot in Berlin:

. . . which only showed one shot after another of people getting onto subways, milling around flower stalls, and carousing in beer halls. Children on the steps of dingy apartments pushed toy baby carriages or each other. Women adjusted their garters. People ate sumptuous meals, pastries in coffeehouses, or had nothing to eat.

I told the reader I’d loved the film for its machines soundlessly clacking a city's heartbeat, important and irre­sistible for being the carelessly particular place that it was.


I’ve found ways to write in illness or family crisis. There was only one time in my life when I didn’t want to. It began when I learned how fervently Russian audiences greeted Yevtushenko’s poetry readings, how moving it was for them. Americans loved rock music so much more than literature. What if the music came to the readings? Next thing you know, I was doing vocals for an art band and a punk band; in performance, when I could, I’d combine poetry readings with them. But even when I spoke to impressionable high school students, although they were thrilled to hear about my band, most of the writing still lost them. It was terrible. Music had gotten a hold on me too. Living within the high-velocity energy of musicians was amazing; I stopped writing for almost a year. I’d never expected it to rival my heart like that. But in the end I came back.


When I’m not writing for a length of time, it makes me constricted and inside-out.

Writing can be a way of tasting experience twice. I know, too, that I’ve long aspired to actually realize, when something important is happening, what’s going on while it’s happening, and I can’t. Perhaps our brains aren’t wired that way. Writing lets me catch up, even if it’s years later.

Right now I’m excited to write about characters and situations not drawn directly from my experience. My ideas about this are still evolving. I’m not sure whether I’m writing characters to find out something in myself any more.

Writing serves as many crucial things to me. These days I tend not to suffer any blocks or pangs of self-rage. As long as I show up to the place, it feeds me and lets me go my own way. Without my knowing it, many other people may be working out of similar energies, while each of us becomes a unique instrument for them. Not that it’s particularly safe, let alone predictable, but I’m grateful that I have to do this.

Writing is my flight through time, the gift I offer, and my spiritual practice.

© 2010 Mia Kirsi Stageberg.



1. Tillie Olsen’s invitation to other women writers to tell the world the truth about their sexual experience inspired me to write the story “12 Lovers and a Water Tower.” Louise Erdrich’s extraordinary novel Love Medicine, using Native American family themes in individual voices, inspired me to write the bittersweet “Everything for the Beloved,” in individual Scandinavian voices familiar to me.

2. Sometimes when kicked up to high velocity by writing, I still lose sleep and inner things become frayed and hectic. It’s not only for my loved ones that I care greatly for what I eat and how I rest. What requests I’d better turn down, events I’m sorry to skip.

3. Eventually, I learned to keep the stream flowing by working on a different piece for a while, going back and forth between them.

4. To find the setting of one story, I steeped in so much reading about the Siberian tundra that it accidentally led to recurrent nightmares—endlessly walking the place on my own.

5. After a year of writing mishmash, I found a one-day workshop with unconventional writer Alan Kaufman to sort out my unsortable ideas. I came away knowing what I needed to do next, and I’m doing it.

6. It can also make me forget the obvious. A college art history professor once told me, “All of your work for my class is publishable. But do you realize that in this paper on Rouault, you actually haven’t said when he was alive or when the painting was made?”

7. I intended the one nonfiction book I wrote about my life to consist only of memories; after the first draft, seeing that it read like a philosophical meditation, I began to fire it up a bit with dialogue. Eventually a few passages from journals clamored to be let in.

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