What inspired you to write “The Ladies’ Philoptochos Society,” which appears in Nimrod’s Leaving Home, Finding Home issue?
This story is part of a larger, thematically linked collection that I recently completed. In researching the book, I became obsessed with narratives of first-generation Greek women who came to the States, particularly those who were shoved into arranged marriages. Torn from their homes, moved to the other side of the world, possessing minimal (if any) English, their husbands often twenty years older than them—yet they weren’t allowed to speak of their pain. That silent, obedient suffering hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how traumatic this particular experience could be for a young woman. I also wanted to challenge myself to write a sympathetic character who makes a decision that most people would condemn.
What’s your writing process like?
As a teacher, the bulk of my writing happens in summer, though if anyone has figured out how to teach and write well at the same time, please let me know. Seriously.
I work from 10-6 almost every day of the summer. Typically, there’s a long stretch of researching, thinking, and note-taking—a space that makes me deeply impatient for the actual writing to begin. I use an 11×14-inch sketchpad to map out ideas visually and work out the math of my stories. Sometimes I remain in research/thinking mode for weeks before I can really begin, which makes my process feel agonizingly slow at times, but I am working on being more patient with my process. My phone alerts me every day at 4 p.m. with, “You are doing enough.” It actually helps.
How many times do you revise a story, usually?
I revise every single time I open my document, so I can’t quantify it. My writing day begins by reading what I’m working on from the beginning. I tweak and shift things as I read through, which helps me settle into the groove of the piece. Once I have a draft, I revise again with specific aims in mind: word choices, syntax, tightening scenes, punching up humor, etc. . . . Then I send it to my beta readers and prepare for more revision. Sometimes I do seven. Other times two. It really depends on how close I’ve gotten it on my own.
What do you like to read? Who are the authors you find yourself returning to again and again?
I’m currently in the middle of Lidia Yuknavitch’s stunning The Book of Joan and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. When I’m done with those, Roxane Gay’s Hunger is on deck. I’m a sucker for researched, scientific nonfiction, too, so I’m also reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, and I’m rereading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score. You know, light beach reading.
What tips would you give to aspiring writers?
- Stop comparing yourself to famous writers who had success at an early age (or who are the same age as you and have more success). You’re on your own journey, and all of that comparative thinking undermines your confidence. Your writing path will look different than someone else’s.
- Carve out your writing time and guard it fiercely. For me, this means saying no to things people ask me to do—especially in summer. I’m a people-pleaser, so I hate saying no, but I hate not writing more.
- Read generously. Give pieces the same benefit of the doubt that you want your own work to receive. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but don’t come at it arms akimbo either.
- Be kind to yourself.
What are you working on now?
A memoir based on my piece that was in The Best American Essays 2016. Dark as some of the material is, the story is hopeful in the end. I’ve just completed the proposal for it and am now writing the book itself. This project is a long time in the making, and finally—mercifully—I think I’ve cracked the code on it. Famous last words I’m sure, but for now, I’m feeling surgical, so I’m running with it.
Lisa Nikolidakis’s work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing in the Midwest and has recently completed a collection of thematically-linked short stories.