Lit Fest Preview: Q&A with BK Loren

Lit Fest Preview: Q&A with BK Loren

BK Loren is an award-winning author and essayist who has been a long time instructor at Lighthouse. Her acclaimed work includes her novel Theft and essay collection Animal, Mineral, Radical. At Lit Fest this summer, she'll be teaching a craft seminar on ways to tap into your unconscious to write.

I know that in the past you have been a ranch hand, sous chef, locked psych ward attendant, car shagger, teacher of Greek language and mythology, along with many more interesting jobs. I am curious to know how such a diverse labor background has influenced your writing? Which job have you drawn the most inspiration from? What is a car shagger?

A car shagger is a person who drives returned rental cars from the airport to the car lot where they are serviced, detailed and sent back out again—at which point the car shagger drives the car over to the pick up lot. Then drives a dirty car back. It’s not a shagger in the British sense. We didn’t shag cars. 

All of my jobs were more important to my writing than any class or degree or workshop. I lived so many lives and hung out with so many different kinds of people. On the first day I worked in a candy factory (while I was teaching martial arts at night), I sat in the lunch room alone and I put some ginseng (this was before ginseng was a common word) in the only beverage available to me: a Coke. And the entire Coca Cola exploded! I mean it hit the ceiling. Not a good beginning! But I eventually made friends with all the women—and it was 99% women workers—in the factory. I will never forget arriving to work at 3 am so that I could stand in line to don my hair net, apron, and gloves and maybe punch in on time. If you didn’t punch in on time, you lost wages. When I was a ranch hand, I taught the ranch owner martial arts. She then started using her ch’i to wrangle the cattle. She was strong as hell. But she was ten times stronger with the ch’i—by her own assessment. She literally took the bull by the horns and led it back into the coral a few times. Mary Oliver said she never wanted a job that had anything to do with writing. I felt the same way for most of my life. After I left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, that changed. But before then, I’d do anything to keep away from a writing job. 

What is your strangest writing ritual or routine that you have? How did it come about and how vital is it to your writing process?

Probably two things. When I’m stuck, I lie down under my desk. And in the mornings, I drink ceremonial grade cacao. There is something magical about it. Oh—and in the nights when I’m stuck, I sip mezcal. The desk thing came about because I lived in one room studios when I was younger and there was no place else to lie down. The cacao came about when my dear friend whose book on psychedelics is coming out soon gave me some ceremonial cacao on a whim. I reluctantly nibbled it, then went home and wrote in a kind of blissful trance. And I liked what I wrote. Mezcal came about because I love the culture and ritual of mezcal. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

Avoid any kind of comparison of yourself to other writers; kill your ego; never read PW, and stop thinking about agents and sales. Just write. 

On a similar note, as a teacher and mentor, what is a piece of writing advice you are always giving out?

There are far too many to name. One of many mantras is "writing is listening, it’s not having something to say." Ultimately, you have to write from your unconscious. Real writing begins when you forget all that you have learned. The Catch-22 is that you have to learn it to forget it. One without the other doesn’t work. I use Georgia O’Keefe as an example. Georgia O’Keefe’s early paintings while she was in school were technically brilliant. But they were not Georgia O’Keefe paintings. They had no voice. They did not become Georgia O’Keefe paintings till she moved from the city to the desert, made a conscious choice to forget everything she had learned from “the great masters.” After, I think, 7 years of forgetting, she created her first Georgia O’Keefe painting. She had to learn and then forget. We all do. 

Finally, wildlife clearly plays a big role in your writing, could you explain the importance of wildlife in your life? 

I’ve evolved from this quite a bit. This is one reason my next novel is taking me a long time. I have little to no interest in writing about the natural world anymore. Mainly because I don’t believe it exists. That said, I am always writing about animals of any kind, “wild” or otherwise. Animals do not have words, and any being that exists without language interests me far more than those of us who are stuck in thinking we can name things and therefore know. 

BK Loren’s most recent books include the multi-award winning novel, Theft, and the essay collection, Animal, Mineral, Radical. Her work has been published widely in magazines and anthologies, like Orion, Graze, New Mexico, Parabola, the Best Spiritual Writing anthologies (2004 and 2012), and many others. She has been nominated for Pushcarts five times, and is grateful to have received many fellowships, grants, and awards. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program long ago, and she now teaches across the US and Canada (Iowa Summer Festival, Taos Summer Conference, Chatham Community of Writers, and so on). She has also worked as a ranch hand, locked psych ward attendant, sous chef, car shagger (official title), fence builder, sod layer, teacher of Greek language and mythology, and many other jobs that she feels influence her work equally as much as her formal study of writing. She lives in Colorado with her partner, two cats, and two dogs. She is currently completing her second novel and a new book of nonfiction. The publisher of her first book told her she wrote like she was raised by wolves. She tries to live up to that daily.