Writing from Within: A Conversation with Allison Lee


In an interview with student interns Jed Heald and Eli Hirshberg, Allison Lee candidly explores her upbringing’s literary influence, the art of revision as an extension of creativity, and the profound personal story behind her flash non-fiction piece Song of the Sandia Mountains.


E: To start, we wanted to ask about your upbringing and whether you feel like your writing is influenced by where you grew up and how you were raised.


A: Yes. I was raised in a house that really valued books. My parents weren’t necessarily artistic people, but they valued education, and I was always brought up around literature. I was encouraged to write because it was just something I was drawn to. I don’t write about Houston particularly, because it’s the water that I’ve been swimming in, but the diversity of Houston, my Asian American background, and my family history all find their way into my work and inspire me to write.


J: Could you describe your typical writing routine? Do you have something that resembles a flow state and, if so, what helps you find that state of mind?


A: I’m currently in law school, so I don’t have a ton of time to write during the school year. Most of my writing gets done during the summer, winter break, and on the weekends. I find a five hour block of time when I don’t have that much to do— maybe three hours— and sit down to write. A lot of it is revising things I’ve already written. Sometimes when I’m writing I write little notes in the margins and then the next few days after I thought I finished whatever I set out to write, I’ll go back to that piece, and the things that I wrote in the margins might even become their own poems: it’s all about adding to what you already have.


E: How do you approach the process of revising your work?


A: Revision to me isn’t so much about fixing the problem. It’s about listening to your own mind. It’s about seeing the possibilities of what you’ve already done and what it could become. If you go into it with the mindset of fixing problems, of focusing on what is wrong with your work and what is preventing it from being published, then your poems are going to end up being amalgamations of poems that you like, or of poems that are popular. Basically, your writing will be whatever is fashionable, whatever is considered to be good. If you want to do something that is uniquely yourself, that is really what you think, that comes from that intuitive, creative part of yourself, you have to see revision as just an extension of your writing.


J: Could you tell us more about what inspired you to write your Shenandoah piece Song of the Sandia Mountains?


A: Absolutely, there’s a story behind that poem. So it’s published as a non-fiction poem. I grew up in Texas. Everything in Houston where I live is flat. There are no hills except for one man-made hill in Hermann Park. When I traveled to Albuquerque to get a legal abortion, I saw these red mountains, and I thought they were so beautiful because nothing grew on them. When I think of mountains, I think of the Colorado mountains; I think of evergreens, and I think of the green shrubs growing on it. But I saw the redness of New Mexico, I saw barrenness, and I also saw this cold beauty, because it was literally very cold when I was in Albuquerque. So this led to my interest in ecopoetics. It’s not really a movement that I identify with, but it is one that stimulates me intellectually. So I was thinking of the human body being continuous with the environment, and how epiphanies, heightened states, realizations— they’re always influenced by the environment.


J: How were you able to communicate your personal experiences in Song of the Sandia Mountains?


A: Yeah, it’s a true story. I don’t always write about personal experience. A lot of times I like making things up, or writing about other people’s lives, or how I think other people’s lives are andthe possibilities for other people’s lives. But this story I wrote because I wanted to dispel some myths about abortion. Because on one hand, people say it’s wrong, they think it’s dirty, they think it’s irresponsible, that only single women get abortions, that only uneducated women get abortions. And those things didn’t apply to me. I was a law student, I was getting good grades, I was in a long term relationship, I had a family who loved me and who supported me through all of it. Another myth about abortion that I wanted to dispel is that it is essentially tragic. I didn’t believe that at all. Abortion is not essentially tragic, but it can be extremely meaningful as well as not being something you regret. It was a decision that I never regretted and it was extremely meaningful to me. It was a turning point in my life. The same way that there are traditional coming of age markers like losing your virginity or graduating from high school. Having an abortion was one of the first adult decisions that I had to make completely on my own.


E: Could you give a couple pieces of practical advice to aspiring writers?


A: My first piece of advice is something that a lot of young writers are going to be thinking about: don’t feel pressured to do an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program right away. If you’re considering an MFA program, you’ve likely been studying creative writing or a related field in your undergrad, so you probably have a good set of tools. Now what you need to do is go out into the world. Go do something, form some real opinions, fall in love, go to law school, and then maybe you’ll have something to write about. And if you want, you can do an MFA program. That would be my plan.


Another piece of advice is to be good at listening to your own mind. Don’t write for publication. Don’t write to please others. Write because you want to communicate what you really think to other people. Write because you want to make something beautiful or because you think it brings you closer to God or another form of true understanding.

Allison Lee is a second-year law student at the University of Houston. Her poetry and fiction appear in Unbroken and HCE Review. After she graduates, she plans on becoming a government or public interest attorney.