By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
They all said, when they were young, they’d hate
to have to choose this over that: nurses who love
English selecting healing over Tolstoy; business
women who love the stage choosing downtown
over Ibsen; teachers who love tossing oil paint
on canvases choosing the classroom over Vincent;
women who thrived on freedom to roam
watching their bellies bloom into blossoms
of children. Because our grandmothers made
American quilts with picture-puzzle patterns
of the choices they and their mothers didn’t make.
—from “Nurses Who Love English” by Paula Coomer
There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, and poet/author/coach/retreat host Paula Coomer would be the first to acknowledge that serendipity has played a role for her. But like so many of her characters, Coomer also knows the value of hard work, pluck, and persistence, and these she happily shares with others.
Joan Schweighardt: What impact did your nursing career have on your writing?
Paula Coomer: Though I had always written and always wanted to be a writer, I became a nurse as an adult. My professors encouraged me to change majors from nursing to creative writing, not because I was floundering but because they’d read and liked my work. I learned at a dinner at the dean’s house one night that she too had read my essays and agreed I should change direction. At some point, when I was working for U.S. Public Health Service, I got the courage to act. On borrowed money, I resigned my commission and moved to Moscow, Idaho, to write poetry.
My nursing education and career served me well, as I learned to understand humanity from the corpuscles outward. Also, writing is a physical act, and the story is an extension of the body, an actual part of the body’s ability to heal itself. Story is half of what holds our bodies together.
JS: You have said you got into your MFA program “by accident.” Can you explain?
PC: After I moved to Moscow, I called the English Department at the University of Idaho to ask about taking classes. I thought it would be helpful to study mythology and, also, the Bible as Literature. They were classes I’d wanted to take as an undergrad but didn’t have time for with my busy science- and math-laden nursing school pre-reqs. The English Department secretary said, “How about if I send you information about our new MFA program in Creative Writing?” I applied, got in, and received a substantial amount of fellowship/scholarship money to study writing for three years.
JS: Does your book Nurses Who Love English (Stephen F. Austin University Press) tell the story of this transition?
PC: Counter to its title, Nurses Who Love English is quite political. The poems are primarily statements about our government in the aftermath of 9/11. A portion of the book is also about what happens when you walk away from a cushy university position, in part because of 9/11, to write a novel at the age of 50, when you are broke in more ways than one, and forced to take a job working night shifts at a hospital as an RN once again—all of which happened to me along the way.
JS: In addition to writing poetry and short stories for university presses, you also wrote two cookbooks. Do you see the cookbooks as a diversion from your literary path or part of it?
PC: I see it as part of it. Even Maya Angelou wrote cookbooks. Creating with food isn’t far removed from creating with words, and both provide a form of nourishment. Also, craft is essential to a good recipe, as it is to a poem or a story. The spirit of good ingredients is not unlike the spirit of cosmic understanding. I spent as much time on the prose for both food books as I did for any of the other books I’ve written.
JS: While Phil, your husband, is not a contributor to your poetry or fiction, he played a part in the writing of your cookbooks and remains a presence in your blogs and social media about writing. Will he re-emerge with an actual part in books to come?
PC: I have a new memoir drafted called Great Wisdom of the Body. He appears there and will continue to be part of the persona I’ve created for social media, etc. He’s smart, and he says funny things that people appreciate. Admittedly, the social media version of us is something of a caricature. We’re both too private for anything else.
JS: According to your website, your novel Dove Creek had 45 rejections before you took an editor’s advice and created a rescue-by-romance. Did this feel like a concession to commerciality? And was it worth it to get your foot in the door?
PC: I have mixed feelings. If I were to rewrite that book today, I might do things differently. However, it was featured at a large publishing trade show, and I can’t deny the value of that affirmation. It did buy me a bit of confidence, which I sorely needed at the time.
JS: War fatigue (from Vietnam) hangs over many of the stories in your just-released collection, Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl (Fawkes Press), but with a few exceptions, the characters are not involved in the war in any direct way. Why this time period?
PC: War has been a constant in our lifetime, even for those of us not directly involved. I have lived with that drone my entire life—the fear and worry that my brother and later my sons might have to go to war. Now I fear for my grandchildren. The era of the book was not something I chose, but I was writing in the wake of my father’s death, exploring memories from my teenage years. Vietnam comes full circle in one of the stories, entitled “Curlie’s Alibi.”
JS: One of the most striking elements of the stories in Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl is your ability to get into the heads of, and write from the perspective of, so many different characters (young, old, male, female, different races, different backgrounds), and always with grace and confidence. And your gift for authentic dialogue is astonishing. Where do these abilities come from?
PC: I have a capacity for empathy; I’m able to put myself in another person’s skin. It’s something my nursing professors used to comment on. I remember going for a walk one day with one of my writing professors. I was struggling to write nonfiction, to find my voice. She pointed to a caterpillar and asked how I would write about it. Without thinking, I put myself inside the caterpillar’s experience, talking about the long journey across this dirt road, about the difference in the way dirt felt to my fuzzy body compared to grass or leaves. She looked at me, astonished, and said, “Most of us would observe him objectively, in relation to his surroundings. We would not turn ourselves into a caterpillar!”
JS: Jagged Edge of the Sky (Fawkes Press) was nominated for the Pulitzer and other major awards. What impact did this have on you? On your writing?
PC: It made me a little anxious, but I loved the characters enough to want them to see the light of day. The book is set in both Western Australia and the U.S. and is told from 16 perspectives. It looks at the lives of two families on two continents and what happens in the wake of choices the mothers make (involving a handsome Aussie roustabout). I took it as a compliment and an honor that Fawkes Press would invest the money and the time to promote the way they did. The editor I was working with at the time pushed me in ways I’d never been pushed before. The nomination is inexorably connected to that editing work.
JS: You have been teaching writing classes and coaching virtually all the years you have been writing. How does one affect the other?
PC: In both cases I feel like the student. My goal has always been to be a good teacher of writing, to be remembered as a sort of Brenda Ueland, the journalist, author, editor, and teacher who once said, “Unless you listen, people are weazened in your presence; they become about a third of themselves.” I learn from my students, and from myself when I am instructing them. We teach what we must learn; I believe that, and we write what we must learn, too.
JS: How did you come to host writing retreats?
PC: I’d been going to an inn in North Idaho to work on manuscripts since 2001, but I never got to know the innkeepers until one morning in January 2014. On that particular day, I stepped out onto the deck to enjoy the wondrous river view with my cup of coffee just in time to see the roof of the main house catch fire. I ran out at once to alert the owners.
That evening, after the fire trucks had gone and everyone was safe, though still shaken, the wife of the innkeeping partnership shared with me, over a bottle of wine, her dream of filling the inn with writers. “Well, then, let’s do it,” I said, and Clearwater Writers was born. We fumbled a bit in the beginning, but we stayed with it, and we’ve just had our 20th retreat. We’ve hosted writers who are emerging and exploring the writing life, as well those with MFA degrees and multiple book publications. Clearwater retreats are off-grid: no cell phone or TV or Internet. It’s just the writer and the page. It’s pretty magical.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels. Her first children’s book, No Time for Zebras, released in October.