Interview by Alice Taylor, volunteer
Residency – Winter 2016
Lisa, have you had other residencies and, if so, how many?
I’ve been to one other residency in September of last year. I’m going to another in the San Juan Islands this May/June.
Where was the first residency?
Turkey Land Cove Foundation on Martha’s Vineyard.
And, where is your residency in Washington State’s San Juan Islands?
At the Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center, part of the University of Washington. They have a program for artists and scholars who are working on projects.
Are you a full-time writer?
My profession for the past 30 years has been as a board-certified clinical social worker. I have a counseling practice. But, following two catastrophic losses in my family over the past five years I began writing rather feverishly, and so there is a transition happening. I’m writing more, but I continue to keep a practice, which is also very meaningful to me.
If those catastrophic losses are inspiring your work, do you want to share what they are?
In January 2011 I lost my only child to suicide. And, three and a half years after Mallory took her life, my youngest brother also completed suicide. My life’s mission now is de-stigmatizing mental illness and waking people up to what I firmly believe is the vast interconnectedness of all life. We are all teaching and learning. When we recognize our connections with each other, I think life becomes wiser, kinder, and more compassionate.
I think, perhaps, you’ve answered my next question of what, in general, influences your work. Would you like to expand on that or perhaps you just answered?
There is a strong social justice theme in my writing that is coming out. My daughter was bullied and ostracized. I believe also that healthcare providers need to deepen their awareness and understanding of working with mental illness as well as with suicidal teens and their families. I am especially concerned with the social forces that influence people’s willingness or unwillingness to ask for the help they need and also to bring to the shared world their own authentic selves as opposed to a figment of what they think the world expects of them.
It’s hard for me to switch gears given what you have just said. But, I will. Why did you apply to Hypatia-in-the Woods?
I knew very little about artist residencies but was aware in the back of my mind that they existed. Last year I started researching artist residencies and colonies on the Internet. I came to believe that if I could do several residencies a year away from home it would allow me to immerse myself very deeply in my work. Hypatia was appealing to me because I felt they might be open to emerging artists.
What have you learned about yourself here at Hypatia, this being your second residency?
I’ve learned that long periods of time in deep solitude, although they can be challenging when working on a very difficult story as I am, can be profoundly healing and nurturing and also helpful to the work. The boards’ (that fund these various residencies) belief in my work is also extraordinarily helpful, especially as an emerging author. All the way around, it’s been a wonderful experience.
You’ve been at Hypatia-in-the Woods for almost two weeks. Do you wish it had been a different length of time and if so, why?
I think the length was perfect for me. I seem to be on this trajectory of challenging myself to be in longer and longer residencies. My residency at Turkey Land Cove was nine days, this was two weeks, and the upcoming Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center will be three weeks. I’m working my way up to being able to have a month-long residency. It is a little challenging leaving a practice behind. I fortunately have great colleagues who cover for me but it’s always a consideration when I decide how long I can be away.
Where in Holly House did you gravitate and why?
During the day I gravitated towards this long beautiful dining table we’re sitting at now because this is where I have the most luscious view of the forest and the natural world around me. When the sun fell, I would retire upstairs and do research, work on poems, and just start to unwind.
Do you have a favorite place on the grounds here at Hypatia?
I didn’t get out too much. And yet, for some artists, that might be preferable.
What were you most happy to accomplish at Hypatia?
I was happiest to accomplish longer writing periods than I generally am able to do at home with the various distractions. It’s a different experience writing a little more piecemeal at home. Dealing with this piece and all the emotions that accompany it, a good day for me was six hours of writing.
I can only imagine what that must do to your head. You have to be exhausted at the end of the day.
Let me tell you, there are many breaks sprinkled in there.
What was different about what you hoped to accomplish and what you actually accomplished?
I have a perfectionist streak in me, which I now, in my old age, am very well aware of. When I reminded myself to be in the present moment, whatever the present moment gives me, the whole experience became kinder and more enjoyable.
Some days it wasn’t six hours writing. Some days it was four. My first few days here, I felt like I was sailing on the page. My eighty-year-old mother had passed away about five weeks before my residency began. I was fresh with images and ideas and metaphors from that loss. I was very eager to slam those down on the page.
You might have just answered this, Lisa, but what inspired your work the most during your residency?
What most inspires my work is my commitment to my loved ones who died. I have a commitment to them for the rest of my life; to not only honor their lives but, to share their story and everything I am learning about what they endured and went through in their lifetimes that led them to make such a horrific decision. It’s a decision people make when they don’t feel they have other viable choices. When even one person on our planet feels compelled to end their life, I feel all of us need to work together to change the world. It’s not just about mental illness. It’s about a world that influences all of its inhabitants.
When you look back on your experience at Hypatia-in-the-Woods, what memory do you want to keep?
I want to keep most the memory of being in nature. I believe nature has a wonderful way of reminding us of our essential nature. It doesn’t judge; it doesn’t compare; it doesn’t worry about how many pages did I write yesterday. That’s a treasured memory. And, also the memory of feeling the board’s incredible support for me as an artist and a writer. I take that support from these residencies, and it’s very empowering.
When you packed for this residency, what was the one thing that you brought that you wished you had left at home?
I brought a few too many summer tops for this cold rainy season. I could have left those at home in Southern California.
What was the one thing that you wish you had brought that you left at home?
Perhaps an anthology of poetry, called Naked Poetry, Volume 1. Glover Davis, who I worked with for a year and a half, first introduced me to it at San Diego State in the 70’s. I love so many of the poems. The book is a little on the heavy side and I was trying to pack light. I think next time I can leave a few of the summer shirts at home and bring the book.
Do you have three words that might describe this residency?
Gratitude. Humility. Privilege.
How would you like the public to respond to the work that you’ve accomplished at Hypatia?
By doing everything that each one of us can, as individuals and as collectives, to be kinder to ourselves as well as being kinder to others and to opening our hearts more than we ever thought we could.
And, lastly, what advice would you offer to women thinking about applying for residency at Hypatia?
Do it. If you’re working on a creative project that could benefit from some time in deep solitude, absolutely pursue this.
Lisa Richards has published Dear Mallory: Letters to a Teenage Girl who Killed Herself. Link to www.dearmalloryletters.com. Her new chapbook, Their Sobering Suicides, can be reserved through FinishingLinePress.com.