by Annie Scholl
In 2012, two years after Megan Falley graduated from SUNY New Paltz in upstate New York, she published the first of her three full-length poetry collections. Since then, the queer femme writer has made a living as a full-time touring spoken-word poet, author, and teaching artist. But when the pandemic grounded the book tour she was on with Andrea Gibson, her fiancé who is also a spoken-word poet, Falley took her writing in another direction: prose.
“When I sat down during the pandemic to write, prose is what came out,” says Falley, 34. “I had more hours and time and space to write something long form, different from the short-form energy of a poem.”
At first, she planned to write a young adult (YA) novel, but then shifted to memoir.
“I wanted to be able to not just speak about my YA years, but to bring to the work my full adult wisdom,” she says. “My writing moved from one form to the other fairly quickly.”
And successfully. In Spring 2021, phoebe, an online journal, selected Falley’s Memories of Ace, in Reverse Chronological Order as the runner-up in its nonfiction contest. Then, in October 2021, Winning Writers awarded her essay The Act of Vanishing first prize for nonfiction in its annual Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest. And last April, Falley’s essay, The Poetry of A Body, won the creative nonfiction prize in a contest sponsored by So to Speak, an online journal. Her essays were also shortlisted for the 2021 DISQUIET Prize and The Malahat Review’s 2022 Open Season Awards.
Falley, who is working on a memoir, shared her thoughts on writing with The Sunlight Press from rural Longmont, Colorado, where she lives with Gibson and their three rescue dogs.
How do you decide whether what’s inside of you will be an essay or a poem?
While I would love to say that there’s something like an ethereal calling, what’s really true is that since I started writing prose, I rarely write poems. My prose is super lyrical by nature, and I’m always using metaphor, and simile, and poetic devices throughout, so the two genres don’t feel that separate. But in writing prose, I am very much enjoying taking up space on the page and teaching myself to learn the elements of fiction and apply them to my nonfiction. My poems have always been more narrative than esoteric or imagistic, so I feel like prose is my mode and my medium.
You’ve had great success both as a poet and as an essayist. What’s the secret to your success?
I do not ever like to be the person in the room with the most authority, who knows the most. I don’t ever want to feel like I am done learning. I am happiest when I am continually growing and challenging myself. So, I never feel quite like, okay, I’m done, which means I’m almost continually in some sort of competition only with myself. How can I get better, top the last thing, improve, and so forth? So, I think that success, for me, comes from an unwillingness to be stagnant. If you are authentic in your work, and it resonates with people, hopefully it’s an invitation for others to grow as well, and that can be exciting.
I was raised with parents who were encouraging, loving, and supportive of me being an artistic person. They instilled confidence in me, which has been a fertile ground for success. I also never begrudge anyone else’s success. I think when people get into a pattern of jealousy or envy, or a scarcity mentality around success, they cultivate less success for themselves.
Your first poetry collection, After the Witch Hunt, was published in 2012. Talk about that time.
The publishing house Write Bloody, which published that book, had an open book-competition every year. A writer could submit three poems, and if they advanced to the semi-finals, they were asked to submit a 40-poem manuscript. Write Bloody would then choose from those submissions and give the winners a book deal. I entered the contest for the first time in 2010 and advanced to the semifinals. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I had roughly five to six weeks to submit the manuscript, and I was also trying to graduate from college at the time. I almost dropped out of college because the prospect of a book deal became that much more crucial to me. While I had those three good poems to advance me to the next round, I certainly did not have 40. I was down to the wire, scrambling things together, trying to submit, and managed to do it literally right at the buzzer. A couple of weeks later, they announced the finalists, and I was not one of them. I was devastated. I allowed myself about one day of devastation before I got back to the writing desk.
In 2011, the year after I graduated from college, I read a lot. I went to poetry slams. I competed. I went to open mics and performed. When the same contest opened that year, I submitted three poems and became a semifinalist again. While it was still a scramble to give them a 40-poem manuscript, it was a much softer scramble. Right after I hit the send button on that manuscript, I told my mom, my reader at that time, if this book didn’t win the contest, that would be okay, because I’d be excited to read a book that was better. I was confident in my manuscript. I was working at Trader Joe’s when I found out I’d gotten the book deal. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. Looking back, if that first manuscript I submitted in college had been accepted, I would have felt ashamed of it later. That was a great early lesson: Sometimes our rejections are a gift; I was glad that first book wasn’t in the world. It wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t ready. And by the time I made the second submission, I was ready. I still feel proud of After the Witch Hunt. I feel like it represents who I was at the time — an early twenty-something woman coming into her own.
What do you wish you’d known back then?
I grew up in the poetry slam community. Poetry slam (a competition where poets perform their poems in front of an audience) is incredible, in that it has revived an interest in poetry, which I think many considered a dead artform. There’s so much to celebrate about it. At the same time, because it is a competitive artform, you end up writing and performing poems based on what you think will win. And what scored really well tended to be poems about the worst parts of our lives, the traumatic things. We almost mined our lives for the worst things. That made me inclined to focus on the bad in my life, or to write about parts of my life as if they were even worse than they were, and to disregard the feelings of people I loved so I could write the slammiest pieces. I wish I’d known back then that people matter more than poems, and that to have the hardest life isn’t the way to win.
What’s your earliest memory of knowing you were a writer?
My mother says that, whenever I had a hard day at school, she’d ask me if I wanted to talk about it, and I’d say I wanted to write about it. I don’t remember doing that, but I do remember the first time I truly fell in love with poetry — even though I wasn’t calling it poetry at the time. I was probably seven or eight, and my mom was listening to a lot of music by Joni Mitchell and Annie Lennox. I remember hearing Joni Mitchell sing, I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints, and Love is touching souls — surely you touched mine, ’cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time. Even more vividly than that, I remember Annie Lennox singing, Catch me and let me dive under, for I want to swim in the pools of your eyes. I thought it was the most beautiful, captivating thing. I think that is part of my origin story — part of my becoming a poet.
How do you describe your work to people who don’t know about it?
My poems are often funny and emotional and performance-based, and often political, but in a surprise sneak attack, where the entry point into the larger message is either humor or love or a personal experience I’ve had. As for my prose, it is infused with my love of language, imagery, and poetry. It has the elements of fiction, like plot and character and setting. And it is clearly written by somebody who holds language in the highest esteem. Also, it’s very personal. There’s nothing I’m afraid to say.
Your work is powerful — a mix of funny and poignant, and often full of wisdom. Where does your humor and wisdom come from?
I’d say it comes from my parents, and from the joy of making people laugh. And I feel like a lot of my wisdom came from my experiences after I moved to Colorado. It has also come from being with my partner, Andrea, who’s 13 years older than me and has been in therapy far longer than I have. They are one of the most spiritual people I know. That’s kind of infused in me. I try to turn over and reflect on my experiences, looking at them from every angle. That is the territory of being a writer. A lot of the wisdom comes from experiencing hard things.
This past August, on their birthday, you proposed to Andrea, your partner of more than seven years. They’re also a writer and celebrated spoken word performer. What are the pros and cons of having a partner who is also a writer?
I just light up around people who are creative and creating. It’s the energy that I want to be around. It wakes me up. It inspires me. I love being surrounded by that creative, effervescent energy. With Andrea, I have a built-in editor and proofreader, a person who understands what I’m doing, who understands how hard it is, how important it is to me, how it feels. We really speak that same language. I can’t think of any negatives.
Andrea was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a year ago and recently cancelled their fall tour because the cancer had returned. How does writing help you in light of challenges like that?
Writing, for me, is a really deep connection to myself. I imagine it is what other people feel when praying or meditating or practicing yoga. It is just this sacred space. Writing, for me, is also a connection to others. It is a way to reach out and build that bridge — of articulating experiences across whatever perceived divides we might have. I think when going through something traumatic, being able to connect with others and with your community is crucial. And writing, for me, is also absolutely a connection to something greater than myself, something divine. Sometimes, when I write, I’ve called myself the dummy through which some more intelligent ventriloquist is communicating. I don’t know if that’s God or Spirit or Source, but for me it feels like a connection to something larger. I think having a connection to something larger during a traumatic time enables not just surviving but thriving.
I loved your Instagram post of the excerpt from your book, Drive Here And Devastate Me. “Advice for Writers – write and write and write until you break your hand. Then, become ambidextrous…. Writer’s block? I don’t know her. Perfectionism and procrastination? Oh, they’re my roommates.” Tell me how you deal with these “roommates.”
I want to give a shoutout to the book, Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which is a book about creativity. She says that perfectionism and procrastination are other names for fear. I think that is really, really true. How do I deal with perfectionism and procrastination? I think that those two experiences are born from capitalism, because they are focused on writing as a product. Perfectionism is like, What will it look like? How will it be, what is the end goal? I try to be present in my writing and to trust the process, to give myself full permission to not be perfect and to not think about the end goal the whole time, but to just enjoy it, knowing that I came to writing and creativity because I loved it as a kid. I wasn’t thinking about book deals or whatever as a child. I don’t want to impede my own process with fear or insecurity. That’s largely how I deal with those “roommates.” Having some sort of routine helps with procrastination too, and I’m getting better at that.
How does being an adult with ADHD impact your writing?
Sometimes it’s great — if it puts me in that hyper-focused space, which is the superpower of ADHD, where I can almost black out for 11 hours and not even realize that I’ve spent that much time creating. I love when that happens. When it’s bad, and I’m uninterested in some way, I can get down on myself about having ADHD — then I end up buying a lot of sweaters for my dogs online or finding creative ways to distract myself. I’m working on it. I need to have a routine and some sort of set of rules to harness my mind so I can tap into that more hyper-focused state. The problem is that, when I’m hyper-focused on writing, it can get in the way of my personal life. I might not make time for the people around me or for nurturing friendships. ADHD is really hard. It’s hard to find balance. That’s the sort of thing I’ve ultimately been chasing during these last couple of years. I’m in no way there yet, but I’m trying. Everybody has something, whether it’s anxiety or children or a grueling day job or something else. We all have stuff getting in our way. But I also have the space and privilege to write, so I try not to focus on what’s hard.
What does your writing practice look like?
My best writing practice is to start the day with a high-octane activity — or several. That usually looks like some intense exercise or jumping on a trampoline or a hot or cold shower — something to wake up my brain. Coffee, caffeine, supplements, all of that stuff really supports me. I like to say no phones in the sanctuary, so, putting away my distractions. I’ve had a treadmill desk for about two weeks, and I have to say it feels like the best thing that’s happened to my writing practice. It’s a privilege to have one, I know. But I think there’s some brain chemistry that’s affected by this movement of the body. It’s satisfying some kind of fidget impulse. I can lose hours to writing, in a way that I haven’t before. Of course, it’s not necessary, but it’s working for me now. Everyone has to find the ritual and sanctuary that works for them — and carve out space. Writing in the early morning hours before other people are up or my phone is dinging is a fantastic time for me to write.
When you look back over your writing life so far, what makes you most proud?
I think there was a motherfucker-ness in continuing to do it, continuing to trust my voice and the worth of my voice and the power of my story and the currency of my experience. I’ve been told to keep my day job, and I’ve been told to shut up. There are ways, whether covert or overt, that I’ve been asked to stop speaking. I am proud of the person I am, that I didn’t stop, that I understood the power of my voice, and didn’t choose the safety of silence.
To read more of Megan’s work, visit her website meganfalley.com, and find her on Instagram @meganfalley and on Twitter @megan_falley. For further reading and listening, consider her podcast conversation with author Marion Roach Smith on Qwerty from earlier this year.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr