The Influence of Our Words
How to Create A Lasting Impact in an Ever Evolving World with Caleb Tankersley
Writing can be an instinctual act. We don’t always understand the influences that create our own words. Often it’s not until after stories are published that the writers themselves understand them. Caleb helps writers reflect on the revelations in their own stories after publication and what this means for their work.
Writers are constantly evolving, and it’s often a strange sensation to look back at old writing as if we are viewing a past version of ourselves with a kind of renewed clarity. This truth is an universally shared aspect of writing that Caleb finds strangely mysterious and rarely discussed.
Caleb's story collection Sin Eaters won the 2021 Permafrost Book Prize and is forthcoming from University of Alaska Press. He is also the author of the chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift. His writing can be found in Carve, The Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, Sycamore Review, and other magazines. He is the Managing Director for Split/Lip Press and lives near Seattle.
AJ: In what way(s) have you seen the influence of your words?
CT: When I’m writing I’m mostly thinking about myself, about what resonates with me emotionally. So it’s extremely gratifying when a reader approaches me and expresses that they felt something based on one of my stories. That’s the most gratifying influence to me, when readers let me know they had an emotional experience as well.
AJ: Why is it important to look back at past written work and self reflect?
CT: It’s important for all humans to look back and reflect, but writing facilitates that by externalizing a writer’s past thoughts and imaginings. It would seem almost like a psychological waste to not try to learn from my past thinking. My writing can be a map of who I used to be and the imperceptible ways in which I might have evolved (as both a writer and a human being).
AJ: For writers that feel stuck, what advice would you give to help them level up?
CT: Two bits of advice (which are really just notes to myself when I feel stuck):
Embrace your own uniqueness. Try to write in your own voice and perspective and world view. You can express yourself in a way that no one else in the world can, which is an encouraging idea.
Embrace the idea that no one will ever read it. Write toward freefall. Write in such a way that you’ll be perfectly happy if it never sees the light of day, if you are the only audience. This is both a terrifying and freeing thought.
AJ: How do you overcome writer's block?
CT: By embracing bad writing. If I’m not in the right headspace for writing I try to write anyway. I know this writing may be terrible, but a terrible something is better than nothing. I can always edit existing writing to make it better, but you can’t do anything with the writing that floats in your brain and never finds its way onto a page. When that doesn’t work (and it often doesn’t), I move my body. Go for a walk. Stretch. Then come back to it, although usually my brain has been subconsciously working on the writing as I move.
AJ: Tell us your memory of your first published work. How did you feel and how did you know writing was your career path?
CT: I remember the first time a stranger said yes to my work. I was an undergrad in college, and I had two poems taken by a literary magazine. Before that moment I’d thought of the writing world as almost imaginary, or maybe as something that existed for other people. I’d never previously considered that I myself could actually write things that would have an emotional effect on people and that it would . . . actually work! That was the moment I knew writing would be a major part of my life. I’m just hoping to do for other readers what writers I admire have done for me.
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