The Writing Life of Raisa Tolchinsky ’17

raisa-tolchinsky

Raisa Tolchinsky ’17 in Aosta, Italy

Raisa Tolchinsky has had a good month. She learned her essay about poetry as an antidote to the speedy passage of time will be published in the literary journal Side Project. One of her poems, which is part of an epistolary collection addressing loss, will also be published in Yes Poetry. An exhibition of her poems is currently installed in Smith Union’s Lamarche Gallery. And she was named a semi-finalist in the 2016 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest.

Last year, Tolchinsky studied abroad in Bologna, Italy. An English major and Italian minor, she is working on an honors project this year with English Professor Brock Clark, focusing on short story writing. Tolchinsky grew up in Evanston, Ill.

In a recent conversation, Tolchinsky shared her thoughts on the writing process, studying abroad in Bologna, the writers she’s reading now, and more.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when, in third grade, my teacher played a Norah Jones album and had us write about autumn. It was the first time I had a place to put my incessant thoughts.  I could make sense of the chaos of the world.

I begin the day reading a poem, and end the day with a poem. It slows down time…which seems to be speeding up senior year!

The writings of Raisa Tolchinsky
An excerpt from the poem “Hands”

My best friend told me about a thing called chirality,
How molecules fit together like
a left and right hand, mirror images but not identical,
Asymmetrical but the perfect match.
Missing you feels like being one handed and trying to untangle
A necklace. It is a glittering and impossibly difficult task but beautiful with all its knots.

To read more by Tolchinsky, head to her website.

The first writer’s conference I went to was when I was in eighth grade. My aunt [the writer L. Annette Binder] and my uncle brought me.

I’m always writing, and I try to submit something, even to a relatively unknown journal, every couple of days. As a writer, you’re constantly getting a string of rejection letters, and it’s easier to deal with them when I know I have other things out there.

I think there is always that question of audience, who are you writing for. While I would love a large audience, it’s equally exciting to read a poem to a friend and to have them be moved by it.

A lot of my independent study is about craft, and it’s also about the writing process and what that looks like for me.

I wake up every morning and try to write for an hour or 90 minutes. Nothing has happened in the day yet. I love the morning because it is a blank space. It’s quiet.

There is a limitation in a short story that is exciting to work with. It’s a snapshot, but it has to be a precise snapshot. You have to distill a huge amount of information into a specific frame. It’s one of the reasons it can feel so difficult, but also be so worthwhile.

I started taking Italian at Bowdoin because I was inspired by [Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures] Arielle Saiber, and her enthusiasm. Then I fell in love with Italian literature and Dante.

Living abroad [and not being a fluent speaker] was a humbling experience, especially as a writer, because all of a sudden you have so many less words to work with! And you have the grammar of a four year old! You have to learn how to laugh at yourself, and not take everything so seriously.”

What’s exciting is that with anything you do, any experience you have, you can’t predict where and how it’ll show up in your work.

I’m obsessed with [the writer] Joy Williams. I’m reading Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and Flannery O’Connor right now. I’m also a big fan of Brock Clark and Sarah Braunstein’s work, and feel grateful to have worked with them.

For me, writing is a way to grapple with something painful, and much of what is painful comes from loss—loss of a person, a relationship, or a place. I’m drawn to the idea of creating resolution by naming pain, since you can’t always get rid of its source. One of my favorite writers, Lidia Yuknavitch, said, “the page will not be broken.” A page will always be a place that can hold what I need it to.

Narrative is a way to create bridges between people, a way to promote empathy. I didn’t always have faith in why or how poetry, or writing, is important. Now I can’t imagine what the world would look like without it.

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