“The Act of Writing is a Haunting Experience.” A Roundtable on Community, Craft, and Ghosts


My collection Hatch was written at an incredibly painful time in my life. While I genuinely loved the teaching aspect of my job as a professor, my working environment was almost unbearably toxic. After years of continuous hard work, I had entered the tenure process early, but as I waited to hear the results, I struggled with if I should, or even could, return.

During this time, my most consistent happiness came in the form of regular meetings with students. I was facilitating an absolutely beautiful workshop and working independently with amazing, luminous women. Knowing that Hatch might be the last book I wrote, and uncertain if I would teach again, it only felt appropriate to dedicate it to those women writers I had worked so closely with and learned so much alongside: Kalani Pickhart, who graduated and swiftly became award winning novelist, Winslow Schmelling, a desert fablist and gifted teacher, Christina D’Antoni, a writer of shivering crystalline sentences, whose stories are starting to enter the world, and Arya Naidu, who writes about complex family relationship, skillfully capturing a full spectrum of emotion.

It’s been a constant joy to work with each of these incredibly smart and insightful writers, who agreed to sit down for a conversation about community, learning from others, and the elements of haunting present across their diverse work. Thank you, Kalani, Winslow, Christina, and Arya.

–Jenny Irish

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Jenny Irish: Let’s start with community? As a writer, the relationships most dear to me are the genuine connections I share with fellow writers, relationships that are free of any sense of competition or quid pro quo, relationships that are built on a foundation of mutual respect, love of language and story, and a desire to support and celebrate one another on the long, rocky road we’re traveling. Among writers, it’s been my experience that the word community is more frequently used than the concept is practiced. As writers, how important to you is a writing community, and how, in your experience, do you find and nurture a healthy one?

Kalani Pickhart: I completely agree with you, Jenny. I think what I’ve been most surprised about since my book came out is how much my writing community has shifted into supporting and being supported by other authors, because this is not the energy that encapsulated my MFA program. In a small program it was already difficult to find one’s footing, and I thought I had confided in the right person along the way, but it turned out to be extremely toxic and a mistake. I was fortunate to have a kind, wholesome fiction cohort at the very least.

Today I feel comfortable having maybe only 4 people look at my unpolished work, and only one of  those people is an author (it’s Jenny). The others are two friends who are voracious readers (they are librarians!).

Jenny Irish: Librarians are the best.

Kalani Pickhart: I value the opinions of these people for different reasons: from the author, she understands the process of writing and is able to siphon out the bullshit and ask questions that I think only another keen and talented writer could. She is a great reader of my work, and I feel like she truly “gets” what I am going for when I put something in front of her. She also works and writes a lot differently than I do, so there’s a perspective there that is invaluable; I’m not stuck in an echo chamber, in other words.

Jenny Irish: For me, the most rewarding aspect of being part of a healthy writing community is the opportunity to learn alongside so many different writers. Not everyone clicks, but the people that I develop authentic relationships with will always be a part of my community. In my experience, part of being able to truly support one another is recognizing each person as an individual. We all have very different relationships, but foundationally, we respect and care for one another not only as artists, but as whole people.

Arya Naidu: As writers, it feels important to always be seeking ways to make earnest mistakes and learn from them, and that’s hard to do without people by your side. It’s hard to fail consistently without feeling like a failure. At its best, my writing community has shown me that there is no failure if the work brought me to a place of generosity and care.

More and more, I’m understanding community to be a practice; an active participation in something, not for the sake of participating in it, but for the sake of growing and nourishing and returning. And I agree with what you wrote, Jenny, that being in community shouldn’t be transactional: we shouldn’t only tend to community when it tends to us.

What I’ve noticed about my strongest, deepest relationships is that they’re often anchored in us being with one another as we find ways to be with ourselves. I feel closest to those who understand their cores to be resilient, and evolving. It’s both comforting and deeply uncomfortable to sit in unknowns with people who know you well. But those are the spaces where I find the most forgiveness, and accountability.

I want to try to articulate what can’t be articulated in language, and to achieve a feeling of recognition between the reader and the narrator without being explicit.

Winslow Schmelling: There’s this important and hard-to-balance aspect of a “writing community” that supposedly demands a type of “skilled reader” or “writerly perspective,” that, yes, is absolutely valuable, but sometimes it’s in the thinkers who are outside those boundaries that you find the most vital community.

I think, largely because of that phenomenon Jenny mentioned with the use of “community” being used almost as a buzzword, we get caught up in that capital-C-Community as a part of our job, or something necessitated by an institution, a renowned workshop, a celebrated residency, that we forget the most natural human parts of it: pure and honest exchange. Empathy. Appreciation. An understanding and respect of each other’s shared and unshared values. Because guess what we’re doing as writers? Expressing those values as genuine inquiry, storytelling, and sound.

That’s why I love Kalani’s mention of the non-writer-readers, which, to me, just highlights the truth about the abundance of writing community that exists outside the Writing Community™.

Jenny Irish: Let’s shift our discussion from community to writing. Though we all write very differently, I would describe our work as sharing a haunted quality. In my writing, haunting is the byproduct of unfinished business: the unacknowledged or the unspoken. One of the ways that I feel we’ve all connected as writers is through our interest in capturing events and experiences that are both traumatic and formative—the kind of things that metaphorically give rise to ghosts. How would you describe the haunted elements of your writing?

Kalani Pickhart: Not to get metaphysical about it, but I think the whole act of writing is a haunting experience itself—which doesn’t sound very pleasant, I realize. I’m not really shy about expressing how much I hate writing, and part of that is because I am very, very impatient. I will have a single image pop into my mind and I am quite literally haunted by it until I can figure out the significance of it. Writing, for me at least right now,  is like staring at a single puzzle piece without being able to see what’s printed on the box. This is very frustrating for a writer who tends to think in terms of theme and mood—big picture ideas—than a writer who is fine with writing a word after a word after a word until it becomes something bigger.

On a more nuts and bolts perspective: I’ve always been a musical person—I was a percussionist for many years of my life, and I listen to a great deal of music on a daily basis. I think that it’s been a subconscious influence on how I build out sentences. I know some writers like to handwrite a first draft and then type subsequent versions, but I only write by hand when I am mapping a plot. I’ve always treated the keyboard I write with as one I would have played when I was a more practiced musician.

Music is a powerful art form—perhaps the most powerful art form—because the performer feels the same resonance and vibration as the audience. It’s a physical means of connection and communication. I think I am always reaching for that when I write a story, both on the sentence-level and the greater essence of the project. I want to try to articulate what can’t be articulated in language, and to achieve a feeling of recognition between the reader and the narrator without being explicit. The best way I could describe it is that feeling when you and your best friend or partner glance at one another across the table while someone else is talking and you both instantly pick up on the other’s frequency without saying a word. It’s otherworldly but familiar.

We get caught up in that capital-C-Community as a part of our job, or something necessitated by an institution, a renowned workshop, a celebrated residency, that we forget the most natural human parts of it: pure and honest exchange.

Christina D’Antoni: It’s so great to hear you talk about the act of writing as haunted, Kalani. Most of my writing life I’ve been pleaded with to “just come out and say it!” It took years of struggling with this to realize I wasn’t withholding anything on purpose, it was just my way of being as a writer, because it was all I had known. I’ve spent most of my life existing outside of where I call home, trying and failing to convey New Orleans and what happened there to people elsewhere. But what’s not explicit in my writing, I’ve since realized, haunts every bit of the page: there’s water rushing and standing and vanishing. Family members telling stories—circling the truth, and my language with its oddball syntax trying through sound to get at the specific grief I carry. There’s all my pesky italics! I’m haunted by what I can’t bear to say.

Jenny Irish: One of the elements of your writing, Christina, that’s always just astounded me, is how you create so much with absence. Your characters’ voices are so lived-in, so real, and a huge part of that is how so much of what they experience is connected to trauma they refuse to voice. There’s always a hovering specter.  It can’t be seen, but its presence is felt, and felt, and felt.

Water is one of the hauntings in your work, appearing in ghostly forms: the stain of a waterline after the flooding has drained away, the mold that spreads across a saturated carpet, the displaced marine birds floating in kiddie pools, waiting to be “rehomed.”

Christina D’Antoni: I think absence is one of our greatest tools as writers. In Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, Renee Gladman writes, “We would leave our homes, and do everything to arrive. We would arrive; we would be standing there, both of us, at the appointed time, but in a kind of erased space.” I feel that erased space every time my family eats at a beloved restaurant that’s been rebuilt higher off the ground, or when we drive by where we used to live, someone stooped and gardening outside. We haunt post-Katrina New Orleans like my characters haunt their own New Orleans on the page. It’s restorative for me to give them this room in my stories to float in and out of these spaces, even if they never truly arrive.

Arya Naidu: Writing as a second-generation South Asian American has often felt like I’m reaching my arms out and praying my fingers graze something I recognize. I am at once proud of my identity and unsure of it. When I consider my “unfinished business,” I think of all the ways I am reaching towards home while writing it into existence. I think of how familiar India feels to me whenever I visit, and of how unfamiliar I feel myself to be while I’m there. My work is a way for me to bridge those feelings, for me to make sense of my identity and what it means to feel attached to homes that I don’t entirely reflect, or understand. And perhaps that means I’m the ghost of my own stories, echoing into my characters what I am trying to unravel for myself. Perhaps I’m haunting them, as much as they haunt me.

Jenny Irish: Arya, I have so much respect for how you engage with  your characters’ insecurities, which often have a relationship to the duality of identity that you’ve described above. “Unflinching” is an overused word in the discussion of fiction, but it belongs here: you’re absolutely unflinching in your exploration of the  destructive power of intergenerational trauma. Though this “inherited” trauma is the driving force behind your characters’ ugliest and most self-destructive behaviors, you write toward forgiveness rather than blame. I think it’s through forgiveness of others that many of your most haunted characters find forgiveness for themselves.

Winslow, you also write about complex familial dynamics with incredible sensitivity and insight.

When I think of Arya’s writing about self-harm, and you, Winslow, writing about addiction, I see two authors who are open to posing questions that don’t have easy answers. Whereas Arya’s characters are working toward a multi-layered forgiveness that may dispel inherited ghosts, your characters, Winslow, feel haunted by the question: How much should you give to a person who doesn’t have the capacity to give back?

Winslow Schmelling: When I think about hauntings, I think about the echoes within my work. Not necessarily the intentioned ideas but more so these resounding phrases and themes that appear, repeat themselves around each corner, echo their sound, and grow, inevitably, with the width of the canyon walls they bounce against.

In that way, I think of the phrases that keep reappearing, themes, and images that keep slipping out from between my cracks. There’s one here, already, now: that I, myself, and everything around me, is a stone, a root, a fissure that catches the sun’s shadows in a certain light. I cannot untether myself and therefore my work from the landscapes and nature that surrounds me. It feels intrinsic, inevitable.

But here’s another: a powerful little word that won’t stop sneaking into my work: “you.”

The second person does this wild lassoing thing. It sends a net out and then back in so that everyone, you, me, the reader, the narrator, the other “yous” that might be holding this story, are closer and tethered. It also is a way of creating distance, especially from oneself. The duality of the word is particularly fascinating to me for its way of making everything simultaneously wider and more up close. In a way, the word creates a third space where the story on the page and the person holding the story are together, encased somewhere new.

Jenny Irish: Earlier, I said that one of the greatest gifts of true community is the opportunity to learn together, from one another. Can each of you share one thing you’ve admired and learned from through one another’s writing?

I could easily talk about things that I’ve learned from all of you, but I’ll start with Kalani. I have such a deep appreciation for how her novel I Will Die in a Foreign Land deftly weaves together a variety of mediums—including folk songs, news accounts, maps, manifests, and bible passages—to tell a complex story with a vast scope. In my own writing, I’m often doing something I call “scrap quilting,” creating associative relationships through placement and repetition. What Kalani achieves is like a massive tapestry, where the interaction of thousands of threads creates a narrative that is linked across time, geography, and character experience. While we both embrace fragmentary writing, reading I Will Die in a Foreign Land helped me to consider my approach to a continuous, expansive narrative.

Kalani Pickhart: I think my answer is two-fold: one is related to process and the other about the work itself.

I wrote IWDIAFL while I was in an MFA program, so the past few (pandemic) years I’ve been trying to figure out what my process is now that I’m back in the workforce. I’ve always written in intensely focused spurts and struggle in committing to a diligent, pen-to-paper writing regimen that I admire about Jenny’s process; she’s one of the most well-read and prolific writers I know, and I find that so motivating and exciting. I usually spend a lot of time talking the story and ideas aloud before I have the courage to write anything. There’s something about telling it to myself, even though I look crazy, that gives me some freedom to spitball certain twists and plot points without it feeling “permanent.” But at the end of the day, you can’t write a book without actually writing it, and I find Jenny’s ability to doggedly grind really admirable and inspiring.

Jenny, you mentioned “scrap quilting” and that’s exactly what I love about your work—you’re so much more of a language-motivated writer than I am, and I am always finding myself gutted reading your stories and poems because there’s a visceral, powerful alchemy that occurs when you piece together words that make up (often disturbing) images, and those images collaged together revealing a complete, haunting work. I usually write from a very heady, detached perspective, which doesn’t do well in establishing a connection with a reader. I’ve become a writer who is much more interested in the forest than the trees. Jenny’s work is very much of the earth and the muck of human bodies, and her attention to language is what makes her work so resonant and affecting—I’ve recently been trying to bring more sensory notes into my own sentences while still being true to my own voice, and I often do so with Jenny in mind.

Christina D’Antoni: Kalani, it’s interesting to hear you say that, since your “detached” perspective  is precisely what keeps me engaged while reading your work! When I read IWDIAFL I felt like I was sitting in the dark watching the best kind of documentary—I was transfixed. Each new section felt like a breaking news story falling into my lap, piling up until the end when I could quietly close the book and parse the contents for myself out of the “quilt” you crafted. I think that kind of distance can actually allow a reader more room to feel, to take something away from it that’s entirely their own.

Along those same lines, I’m thinking of our interview in 2021 when your book launched, when you said that as a minimalist you work towards a sense of simplicity on the surface of the narrative. That this allows for “a grayness,” as you put it, to remain, a series of questions left up to the reader’s interpretation. I’d argue that’s the most powerful connection you can offer a reader.

Arya Naidu: Winslow, my second-person queen. I think of you whenever I write. I think of your imagination, yes, but also your tenderness: the ways that your characters are always finding love in desolation. Your work is intimate and direct, and your stories have changed the ways I understand my own.

I’m thinking especially of the nuance with which you write about alcoholism. You write the disease as a weight, rather than a vice. As something that your characters carry with them and in them, rather than it looming as a violence upon them. You subvert the ways that alcoholism is typically seen and opt for its quieter, subtler manifestations. The silence of it. The sadness of it.

Earlier, Jenny said that I write toward “forgiveness rather than blame,” and I think that’s because you’ve modeled it for me, Winslow. Your characters are constantly finding ways to make up to one another. They apologize without necessarily saying they’re sorry. Reading enough of your work has helped me recognize the spaces in my own where I need to create room for those unstated apologies; spaces where empathy and action can take the place of unyielding guilt. Because that’s how we move forward, right? That’s how we move on.

Winslow Schmelling: Christina, your work teaches me that everyone is teetering on the edge of something, especially in times of loss or trauma. In your writing, you often express this through moments of near-absurdity. Not fully absurd, but close. Moments like a woman who puts all the trash she collected back on the beach when she sees a hermit crab wearing a mackerel tin. Or when one manageable whale is kept in the deep end of the pool after an oil spill. Or when a man “does glee with his body” starfished on the floor of his apartment, a phrase and image that will never leave my brain. In each of your characters, their unique humanness is worn openly and expressed so acutely that the people become real. This makes those little slippages into the absurd all the more powerful ways of expressing what the character may or may not be dealing with under the surface, that incredible use of absence that Jenny spoke to.

I’ve described Arya’s work as cinematic many times, but it’s often hard to point toward what makes something cinematic. Arya in your work, I can point to countless things. First, your mastery of dialogue creates characters that instantly feel alive and new, yet speak like someone we know. Once we get to know those characters more deeply, tapping into their nuances and histories, their fears and complexities, that real and familiar dialogue becomes laced with humanity. With this, you create a more human and soulful tapestry of characters within your work, but also within ourselves and our communities. Arya, your work is also cinematic in the way you can create and yield image as a communion. When you deftly fold actions like drinking tea or creating flower garlands into the conversations of your characters, you establish space and image for their shared actions to create a type of unity that, over the course of your stories, is either strengthened or broken. As a result, we physically see the bonds created between your characters and the communities they reside in, propelling their impact even further.

I also want to speak to how much Jenny has taught me. As she mentioned, today, we mostly collaborate as teachers and that’s largely because I find Jenny’s approach to teaching so admirable and her energy incredibly infectious. She works constantly to foster community for her students in ways that genuinely connect them with each other. But often, most importantly, she works to connect them with what they want out of writing so they can find their ways of expressing their perspectives while supporting each other’s. Jenny has taught me that the best way to activate the creative expression and writing talents of my students is through authentically connecting with what their work is aiming to do and offering ways to ignite it. She has done this for me again and again.

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Christina D’Antoni is a writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. She received her MFA in fiction from Arizona State University and reads flash for Split Lip Magazine. Her work appears in Washington Square Review, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.

You can find her on social @cgdantoni or at christinadantoni.com.

Jenny Irish is from Maine and lives in Arizona. She is the author of the hybrid collections Common Ancestor and Tooth Box, the short story collection I Am Faithful, the chapbook Lupine, and most recently Hatch.

Arya Naidu (she/her) is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri, and a current MFA candidate at Arizona State University. She is an alum of the Juniper Institute and Tin House Workshop, and her work can be found or is forthcoming in Vestal Review, Reed Magazine, and elsewhere.

Kalani Pickhart is the author of I Will Die in a Foreign Land, winner of the 2022 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and long-listed for the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly Review, and elsewhere.

Winslow Schmelling is a writer, maker and teacher from the Sonoran Desert where she earned her M.F.A in fiction from Arizona State University. Her work explores patterns of deserts and survival and can’t keep magic from seeping into her stories, unbidden. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Heavy Feather Review, Welter Review, Wild Roof Journal, Tempe Writer’s Anthology, and elsewhere.

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HATCH

Hatch by Jenny Irish is available now via Northwestern University Press.

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