Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Meg Pokrass. If you’ve spent much time reading on the internet, surely you’ve come across some
of Meg’s work. During our interview, Meg shared a deeply personal and inspiring story about her pre-writing life.
Meg, you are a prolific writer and a well-respected member of the writing and publishing community. How did you manage to find so much writing success?
Thank you, Nate.
There was no master plan…. Writing flash seems to be my thing and I finally found it. All of this prolific writing, editing and publishing became part of my life after a long illness, smack in middle-age.
Being very active now as a writer, and also involved in an expanding creative community, very much so… is a surprise and a gift.
I understand that you’ve gone through a lot in recent years. Tell us about your condition.
I contracted a rare condition called RSD in my right foot when my daughter, Molly, was six. It ended when she was eleven. She is sixteen now
The syndrome (my kind was called CRPS, which about says it) is rare — and unfortunately, was not diagnosed properly for too long, which made it harder to cure. CRPS/RSD is a debilitating pain syndrome. The affected limb turns purple and cold. The muscle tone deteriorates and it sweats. I could not walk from the front of my house to the back for nearly four years.
To this day I will not read about it, about cases of it (having lived it) or its cause, symptoms or after-effects. The best advice I got from my brilliant doctor, David Kell, was STAY AWAY FROM INTERNET SITES ABOUT IT. Frankly, it’s so terrifying reading about it can’t help anyone who is already suffering.
It took about 4 years to cure and more to really end the pain.
I pretty much tuned the world out for those years and stayed to myself. I didn’t want people to see me ill and limping at best, depressed. It was very isolating.
I worked, and I read a lot and sketched. My daughter played board games with me to amuse me but I was pretty flattened.
Does it still affect you today?
It is still hard for me to stand for long periods of time, and I have nightmares about the claustrophobia of it. My anxiety level, which had always been high since I was a kid, went skyrocketing — especially as it was rare and it took so long to diagnose. I was in constant fight or flight which is part of the syndrome which is like a misfiring of the autonomic nervous system.
I have trouble standing for long periods, not great with art museums and amusement parks. But, I can walk nine miles and did so just a few days ago with my friend Anne. I would not have known I could do it, but I just kept talking with Anne — and there we were.
What was your writing life like before you developed RSD?
Far from prolific, I wrote about five poems a year. I studied poetry with two mentors, first Molly Peacock and later, Ellery Akers. I loved poetry, and it was what I wanted to write at the time. But I was quite blocked.
What about your life in general? What was your focus back then?
Doug Bond my husband and I had a child. I had been a child stage actress, gave acting up in my 20s, and now I did not have anything to love except for writing poetry and reading (self expression).
I did work doing corporate new business development for advertising agencies and graphic design firms in San Francisco. We bought a home, and put our daughter through school.
My poetry was quite narrative and though people said it had something… I knew it was clunky. I felt that I was not there with it, and wished I could write stories. My work felt repressed.
In what ways did RSD make you a better writer?
I am still trying to sort it all out. All I know is that when the pain syndrome subsided… creative feelings of being blocked just absolutely went away.
I discovered online journals and that coincided with getting well and being able to walk around more.
I became a Google hound of brilliant flash fiction voices; Jeff Landon, Joseph Young, Mary Miller, Pia Earhart, James Robison, Claudia Smith.
I began free-writing deeper and longer. I experimented, going back to my very old poems and working into them longer and deeper. The newer writing had dialog and a lot of sensory detail. It came flooding out of me. I found joy in uncovering moments in which a character’s life changes through seemingly small yet cathartic moments.
I submitted almost everything which came out for publication because there were now online submissions, and for some reason that felt easy to me. My first poem sent online was accepted within one day. I was hooked.
Instead of sending out a few I sent out dozens. I wrote and wrote and send out like crazy. I didn’t think about my foot, I was on a writing high and the high of being published for the first time. I didn’t feel too much anxiety about any one piece anymore.
I was offered an editing spot at SmokeLong Quarterly, and a year later helped to launch Frederick Barthelme’s new Mississippi Review online.
Do you feel that you owe your writing success in part to RSD?
Absolutely. Here is how I see it:
Illnesses, injuries, and situations such as stroke and TBI and RSD an all of the shit life can throw one… can (as it did for me) change ones awareness of urgency. A person must live deeply when faced with the alternative, emotional paralysis.
Flash fiction, the form I love most… involves a condensed emotional often non-linear narrative. It involves both passion and urgency.
I’m determined to write the devil out and to deal with subjects which are personally interesting, obsessive and hard… because that his how I will grow.
How else has RSD changed your life?
I craved community after the long isolation of being ill.
I became involved greatly in online writing communities and real-time communities of writers I adore. Consequently, I’ve accepted numerous editing, judging and interviewing jobs over the last four years. I feel that the community is my family, and I never want to live without it again.
What are your long-term goals as a writer?
I would like to write longer works. My mentor, Bobbie Ann Mason, offers me inspiration in this area, and true artistic support.
Do you ever consider giving up on writing?
Familial instability, abandonment, love-gone-wrong, fatherlessness, celebrity at a cost..… these are themes I see in your work.
My parents were divorced when I was very little, and I never knew my father. My sister, fourteen years older is Sian Barbara Allen, a theater, TV and film actress in the 1970s.
Our friends were these many enormously gifted TV, theater and film actors. They were eccentric, lively and interesting. Often a mess, sure.
With no father, and a tiny fragmented family… my world was rich with artists added much color and dimension.
Eventually, the pressure of such a highly public life took its toll on my sister. She retired at thirty, and left the acting business at the height of her career.
When the joy goes away, it is time to stop.
What are you doing now?
I’m greatly involved in online writing communities and real-time communities of writers I adore. I’ve accepted numerous editing, judging and interviewing over the last four years.
I design and run the Fictionaut Five interview series and have been doing so for nearly three years now. Recently, I’m creating interviews for Caroline Leavitt’s blog with artists of all kinds.
My first collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” (Press 53, 2011). “Damn Sure Right” is being taught now as part of New Writing of the 21st Century in some university creative writing programs. This I recently learned of, and it is an enormous honor.
I have a new collection “Happy Upside Down” (Press 53, 2013) and I am co-writing a commissioned screenplay.
I am going to AWP for the first time in March. I have never gone to a writing conference in my life.
What do you think an aspiring writer can take from your experiences?
Do what you love… but find a day job you can tolerate.
Fight hard for what you love before it comes back and bites you in the ass when you’re old and didn’t try.
Why do you love writing so much?
By sharing vulnerability and pain through stories, I have at last found an authentic and creative way to live– a way which makes good use of my own life experience. And luckily, a way which may help others feel less alone in this world.
My friend Bobbie Ann Mason says to me, and this is the crux of it, “Words are what we have.”
Thank you for sharing your inspiring story with us, Meg. I know you have a big fan base out there. It’s always nice to see the person behind the stories.