Women Who Write: Laura Eve Engel

“I think I’ve just always loved words.”

 

Photo courtesy Laura Eve Engel

Photo courtesy Laura Eve Engel

Laura Eve Engel isn’t just an incredible writer whose work has appeared in too many lit mags to name. She’s an incredible writer with an inspiring voice. She knows the power writing has to alter mindsets and provide hope. And beyond that, she knows how to nurture other writers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Eve as a student at UVA’s Young Writers Workshop, where she served as residential director. Up until last year, she had worked with YWW for ten years: as a counselor for four, Head Counselor for one, and Residential Program Director for five. She started at YWW as a student in 2000 and 2001. “I returned as a counselor in 2007, when the program’s siren song grew too sweet to ignore. After that, the program just couldn’t get rid of me. I kept coming back. This summer will be the first in a decade that I don’t spend at YWW, and it’s going to be hard. I’m just not sure summer exists outside of YWW.”

My two summers at YWW were transformative. On the best thing about the camp, Laura Eve wrote, “It really is a dream environment, and kind of a Utopian community. It’s certainly the best place I’ve found on earth to be a student or a teacher.”

Now three years after my last summer at YWW, I got the chance to talk to Laura Eve again. I’m no longer her student and she’s no longer my teacher, but I’m still learning from her as if nothing has changed.

What first drew you to writing?

I think I’ve just always loved words. My mom used to do this amazing thing when I was really little where she’d put a new word on my plate every morning, tell me what it meant, and then throughout the day I’d try to use the word in a sentence. I was so little I don’t even remember it now; my mom has had to remind me. But she says it was my favorite thing, and I believe it. So: a love of words drew me to writing, along with an incredibly supportive mom who seemed to think that loving words was a great thing, and encouraged me. 

It didn’t hurt, either, that my grandmother is a poet. Her poems are clever, and funny, and they rhyme—which, apart from the occasional moment of humor in my work, is nothing at all like the kind of writing I do, and yet hers was the first kind of poetry I was exposed to, and I love it to this day. My grandmother admits that she finds contemporary poetry a little inscrutable (who doesn’t?), but at 93 she’s smart as hell and has pretty much seen and read it all, and when she sees something of value in something I’ve written I feel like I’ve done about as well as I can do.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old?

Something about this question makes me want to consider the difference between what a person does and who a person is. Maybe I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’m at something of a career transition in my own life. When I was 10 years old, I probably wanted to be a writer. Writing is the only thing I can imagine ever “wanting to do,” really. (There was a brief period of time in my life when I wanted to be a rabbi—something I still think is a beautiful and meaningful vocation, and a choice I’d maybe have made if my life hadn’t gone in a different direction.) But I didn’t give much thought to what kind of a writer I wanted to be, which is sort of how one gets into the real nitty-gritty of what it means to “be a writer,” in the practical sense. I idolized the heroines in books I’d read—Anne Shirley, Josephine March—who wanted to be writers, and I wanted to be one too, and I kept a notebook, and that was that. Eventually, when a friend of mine started writing poems in middle school, I started writing them, almost as a way of trying to bond with this friend who I thought was fascinating and smart. Something about poetry resonated with me enough to stick, and I’m still here, doing that. I love poetry. Still, a part of me wishes I’d been the kind of kid who, at 10—or even at 20—was like “I want to be a TV writer” or “I want to be a comedy writer” and then really learned those forms. Writing is tricky that way—everyone’s a writer. I’m still trying to figure out the role writing plays and can play in how I make my living, and in that sense, I think I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Out of poetry, prose, music, and whatever else, what kind of writing do you love best?

I love the “and whatever else” part of this question because I can be super honest and not at all erudite and say that I’m a sucker for really excellent tweets. Well-done ad copy in the subway or on the side of a bus. Everything the website Clickhole has ever done (especially this incredible speech written in the event that the moon landing didn’t go off as planned). I’m a big fan of comedy writing in all its forms. Maria Bamford’s carefully crafted and chaotic standup. The non-stop, eviscerating parade of insults that comes out of the writers of HBO’s Veep. Just recently I watched the first season Donald Glover’s show Atlanta, and the entire season is great, but there’s an episode called “B.A.N.” that I’d throw up there with any of my favorite novels or books of poems. It’s an incredible episode of television—funny, formally innovative, and radical. Lately I’ve been enjoying thinking about the topical one-liner as a form, and watching a lot of late night TV monologues. The sardonic, culture-of-the-initiated tone of political comedy in particular was kind of a first love for me—as a kid, I read MAD Magazine and watched a lot of Weekend Update and didn’t get all that many of the jokes but they sure sounded funny. Comedy in general seems especially necessary now that we have a Commander-in-Chief who, if he could, would probably love to have all perpetrators of comedy released on a remote island where he and his family could hunt them for sport. 

Do you have a favorite piece you have written?

I wrote this weird essay on Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville” for a project called The RS 500, a website that solicits prose that corresponds to each of the albums in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” I like the essay because I love the album, and because it was an opportunity to play with the boundaries of essay writing. Basically, I was like, How far can I push this before it’s a poem? And thankfully, since I was only asking myself, the answer was, As far as you want! Genre is a construct! Go on, think your thoughts, girl!

What’s your best advice for young writers? 

Push your work as far as you want! Genre is a construct! Always be reading! Go on, think your thoughts, girl! 

Also: pay attention to what makes your mind, your outlook, unique to you. If you say or do something and someone looks at you funny, take note of it and figure out what it is and write from that. You are weird and surprising. Unleash that weird and surprising mind in your writing. And if you manage to surprise yourself in the process, that feeling is magic. You get that feeling once or twice and before you know it you’re hooked on chasing that feeling. Better tell your parents to pin their dreams of having a doctor in the family on your brother because it’s too late for you. You’re a writer now.

And lastly: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?

My grandpa, Howie Saz. He passed away in 2007, and I miss him a lot. He lived a truly full and fascinating life. If we had dinner I’d ask him about his experience as a POW in Germany during WWII—something he rarely talked about—and about what New York was like in the 40s. Also, he didn’t just have a great sense of humor—he had a goofy, humorous spirit that just always felt good to be around. I can’t imagine any better dinner company.