For the release of Ghost in Girl Costume, Manuela Williams spoke with Doubleback Books poetry editor Bethany Milholland about the writing process, mental health, and advice to writers.
Bethany Milholland: What is your story?
Manuela Williams: I haven’t always been a poet. However, I will say that I’ve always loved storytelling. I started writing short stories at a young age. My mom was very encouraging of this and often printed out my stories to frame and hang around the house (she’d also email them out to friends and family, which is a bit embarrassing for me now!) Creativity, art, and reading were celebrated and encouraged throughout my childhood, and I often dreamt about writing and publishing a novel of my own.
I didn’t start writing poetry until around 2015. I was struggling with clinical depression and couldn’t seem to write the stories that once brought me joy. So, I turned to poetry as a way to express emotions that I didn’t feel capable of expressing through my fiction writing. As I’ve learned more about poetry and my place within the poetry world, I am now mostly interested in the ways poetry can be used to work through trauma, and am a firm believer in the healing power of art.
BM: What was the process like to write Ghost in Girl Costume?
MW: Many of the drafts that would later become Ghost in Girl Costume were written
in 2015 and 2016. This was before I decided to pursue an MFA in Poetry and I had
attended maybe one or two poetry workshops before that. It’s been both strange and
illuminating reading back through my older work and comparing it to what I’m
writing now. I tended to experiment a lot more with the way words, lines, and stanzas
appeared on the page. Coming from a fiction writing background, the thought that I
could use the page as a sort of canvas really excited me, and I think that shows
throughout Ghost in Girl Costume.
In the process of writing Ghost in Girl Costume, I found myself relying a lot on my
intuition regarding the poem order in the manuscript, as well as the form each poem
took. At that point in my writing career, I hadn’t read a lot of poetry and couldn’t
point to any specific influences on my work. Mainly, I did what felt right to me, or
what I thought looked and sounded interesting at the time. Now, my process is a lot
different. I’m much more aware of the stylistic choices that I make, and I try to be
very deliberate with those choices.
BM: How do you overcome writer’s block?
MW: For me, writer’s block goes hand-in-hand with anxiety. If I find myself unable
to write, it’s usually because I’m anxious about how a particular piece will be
received. For instance, what if no one likes what I write? Are these images interesting
enough? Am I actually a terrible poet? These are some of the questions that I’ve asked
myself while writing. I’ve had to work hard to re-train my brain to block out those
voices when I’m in the process of creating something. Usually, it’s enough to tell
myself that no one has to read my work unless I want them to, and that art goes
beyond publication or what other people think. Sometimes, art is just for me, and
that’s okay! Another thing that helps me through writer’s block is to simply take a
break from writing. If I force myself to try and write through the block, I end up
feeling worse in the long run.
I would describe myself as a hesitant writer. Sometimes, it takes me a full week to
finish a draft of a poem that I’m happy with. I’ve had to tell myself there’s no rush
when it comes to art. There is no hard and fast rule telling me that I must write every
single day, or else I’m not a “real” writer. If that means I need to take a month off
from whatever project I’m working on, so be it. I think it’s important to take breaks
because it’s during these breaks that we are able to re-fill our creative wells, so-to-
BM: What advice would you give to fellow writers?
MW: When I was starting out, I was so anxious to be published that I tried to write as
quickly as possible and submit to as many literary journals as I could find. Now, I’ve
slowed down my publication efforts considerably and I’m much more selective in the
poems I choose to send out. I’ve also stopped equating publication with my worth or
capabilities as a writer. Of course, I’m proud of my publications, but I think it’s
important to view them as a nice benefit, and not the entire point of why I write. I
write to express myself, to heal, and because it brings me joy. If I get to a point where
I’m writing just so I can get published, I think that means I’ve lost sight of what drew
me to poetry in the first place.
So, my advice to fellow writers—and especially writers who are just starting
out—would be to not worry so much about publication, at least when starting out.
Focus on developing your own style, write good poems, write bad poems, and, most
importantly, remember why you started writing in the first place.
BM: Who are your favorite authors and poetry collections?
MW: I’m going to focus on poets and poetry volumes for this question because if I
included all my favorite fiction writers, I’m afraid this interview would go on for at
least twenty more pages!
Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Ariana Reines, A Sand Book
Tommy Pico, IRL
Cate Marvin, Fragment of the Head of a Queen
Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard
Louise Glück, Ararat
Some of my other favorite poets include Sharon Olds, Alice Notley, and CAConrad.
Download your copy of Ghost in Girl Costume for free on the Doubleback website!
Manuela Williams is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Witch (dancing girl press) and Ghost in Girl Costume (Doubleback Books). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Night Music Journal, Bear Review, Thimble, The Mantle Poetry, Bone Bouquet, and other places. She is a regular contributor for DIY MFA and is the author of “The Poet’s Toolbox” column.
Bethany Milholland resides in Southern Indiana and is a research analyst assistant at a global law firm. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Evansville and loves thrift shopping and petting cats.