Writing & Teaching Social Justice: An Interview w/ Lisa M. O'Neill


Lisa M. O'Neill and I worked together this semester to lead workshops as part of Writing the Community, which brings poetry into Tucson public schools. When I was first introduced to her, I read her writing and discovered that within it is a dedication to social justice; for instance, in pieces like “As a Catholic Schoolgirl, George Michael Taught Me a Different Kind of Faith” and “On Beyoncé, Benedict, and the Volition of Women,” she discusses her personal experience of growing up attending a Catholic school, sexuality, and the expectations that society places on women. As we began working together, I found that her concern with social justice extends to her methods of teaching. I interviewed her to discuss how her writing and teaching align.

What are the major concerns of your work? What are you paying attention to--on a craft or content level?

In my work as a nonfiction writer, I'm interested investigating, analyzing, and inquiring into stories and issues happening in the real world. In particular, I am most drawn to writing and exploring issues of social (in)justice and the ways that people work to cultivate compassion in a world that is too often cruel. I believe in the power of art to transform hearts and minds and to make a way out of no way. I believe our primal instinct to create is one of the most undervalued aspects of humanity and like to imagine a world where all our stories and creations can be valued and given a platform to be seen and heard. Much of my process happens before I sit down to write on the page (or type on the computer). I conduct interviews, I read books and articles and take notes, I watch films, I go to art exhibits, I follow politics and pop culture. I sit and daydream and putz around the house doing chores and listening to podcasts. When I sit down to write, all of these ideas and workings-through are already present and it becomes a matter of sifting through and seeing which ones come through, asking for my attention. Usually a piece begins with a spark of an idea that has some degree of urgency and unfurls from there. Right now, I'm working on a collection of essays that explores sound--both literally and as a metaphor--alongside different social justice issues.

Who are your influences? What about their work inspires your own?

One of the first nonfiction writers who spoke to me was JoAnn Beard because her writing was saying something and doing something. I had never before seen an essayist who wrote with the lushness of a fiction writer and the concision of a poet. Her book Boys of My Youth is still one of my favorite collections of essays. I am deeply inspired by the work of James Baldwin, Claudia Rankine, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the way they confront racism and injustice through artful writing. Rebecca Solnit is so incredible at breaking down and analyzing complex issues. James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men showed me the different shapes nonfiction and reportage can take, even in a single book. I am inspired by the work of writers I went to grad school with and those who are in my Tucson community of writers. Aisha Sabatini Sloan's work navigates seamlessly from art to the personal to the complexities of navigating race in this country. Debbie Weingarten writes the most vivid descriptions. Kati Standefer's sentences teem. TC Tolbert's work feels so embodied and embodying. I love C.D. Wright, Rilke, Rumi, Lorca, Naomi Shihab Nye, Gloria Anzaldúa. I read many Buddhist texts as well and Pema Chodron and Tara Brach are among my favorites. I also find that my favorite books and authors are changing all the time because I am changing all the time; there are ones that stay with me and feel indelible but it's also true that these shift as I shift in my own writing and self. St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with the quote, "I am a part of all I have ever met." I feel that way about books and language: they permeate.

What is your approach to workshop? How is your approach similar or different from your own workshop experiences? How does your work influence your style of teaching?

I want students to write. I want them to feel comfortable playing and being silly and taking risks. I see the workshop as a lab for experimentation with language. I want them to see all the possibilities available to them and to make up their own. My workshop experience was mostly positive but I do think that sometimes traditional workshop model--depending on who is in the room and how someone is facilitating--can end up letting the writer feel like the readers have more authority over their work than they do. I'm devoted to the opposite of that. There are ways to teach craft without invalidating the crafter. I always want students to feel like they have authority over their own work, their own words. I know that this is important to me and something I have cultivated in my own life with the way I receive feedback. I want workshop to be a fun, supportive space where students learn to trust themselves and value their voices. If they come away feeling proud of what they have made and are capable of making, that is the goal!

What do you hope your students walk away with after your workshop?

I hope students walk away empowered to tell their stories and to write in their own ways. I hope they walk away a bit mystified by what language to do. I hope that they feel like they are part of a conversation about life already in progress. I hope they continue to use words to express themselves. I hope they remember that putting words together can be fun. I hope they remember their words are valued and valuable.

Natalie Welch is a University of Arizona student who participated in Writing the Community in Spring 2017. 

Photo by Jade Beall.