Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Sandra Gail Lambert

By Paulette Beete
a headshot of the writer Sandra Gail Lambert

Sandra Gail Lambert. Photo courtesy of Ms. Lambert

“My job as a writer is to offer at least some small part of what saved me to others.” — Sandra Gail Lambert

Though Sandra Gail Lambert didn't start writing seriously until her late 30s—publishing her first novel at 62—there are advantages to being a "late bloomer." As she herself put it, "Emotional sturdiness is good for writers....I have perspective." Lambert had polio as a child, and much of her writing is rooted in the body. In her memoir A Certain Loneliness—due out from University of Nebraska Press in 2018—she writes about a childhood swimming lesson:  "I imagined myself a dolphin leaping as I pushed against the wall and twisted. The muscles that moved my arms though the water sang to me, to my breath, and I stroked until my body rode the surface and momentum was restored." Lambert is equally at home writing about the natural world, whether it's describing the pleasure of sitting in a field of wildflowers or purposely letting herself slide face-forward down a snowy hill. A life long reader, Lambert is also one of 36 writers receiving an FY18 NEA Creative Writing fellowships. (Read that announcement here). We spoke with Lambert via e-mail about her origin story as an artist, the importance of the NEA fellowship to her art practice, and how her father's directly responsible for her superpower as an artist. 

NEA: What’s your origin story as an artist?

SANDRA GAIL LAMBERT: I was in my mid-thirties, working in a feminist bookstore, and immersed in the 1980s lesbian-feminist community when I started writing. All around me it seemed everyone was writing, telling the stories of their lives and using a multitude of voices. It was a writing community where content was valued over quality or craft, which provided an atmosphere that made me brave enough to begin. My first writings were fifty-word blurbs for our store catalog that had to describe a book accurately and with enough enthusiasm to get someone to pay money for it. There really is not much better training for writing with directness and clarity. During this same time, the effects of post-polio syndrome were just beginning. I'd had polio as an infant and had used braces and crutches all my life, but now I had to pay attention to my body again. In retrospect, this was essential to me becoming a writer.

NEA: What advantages do you think there were to becoming a writer when you were farther along in life? What were the challenges?

LAMBERT: Emotional sturdiness is good for writers. Sure, I'm sometimes a quivering wreck of a person in response to both writing setbacks and successes, but I'm old enough to have a long and varied history of rejection and the moving on from it. I have perspective. One challenge is basic ageism. When I would go to workshops or conferences, all grey-headed and wrinkled, it was assumed I was one of those dreaded old lady dabbler writers. Hah. (Just to be clear, if there is such a thing as a dabbler, they come in all ages and genders.)

NEA: If you had to write a mission statement or job description for yourself as a writer, what would you say?

LAMBERT: I was that girl who hung out with the school librarian and read with a flashlight under the covers until my mother came in and threatened me with ruined eyesight. At school I'd have my current book opened up inside the math textbook I was supposed to be studying and, later in life, I'd call in sick to work to lie in bed and read a novel all the way through. Reading could soothe me or empower or educate or offer a desperately needed moment of escape. It's a cliché, but reading did save my life (So my poor eyesight, bad math skills, and lying were worth it.) My job as a writer is to offer at least some small part of what saved me to others.

NEA: What gets you to the desk? How do you create for yourself an environment that allows for a piece of work to spark?

LAMBERT: I write in bed propped up by pillows. What settles me in there is to first get out of the house. There's a wet prairie near my home with a path lined with hundreds of alligators. In the winter ten thousand sandhill cranes bugle overhead. In the summer fields of lotus flowers bloom. Or I visit with a friend and we eat good food and talk in shorthand about our lives the way old friends can. Both fill me enough to come home and be focused. Sometimes at the beginning, but certainly nearing the end of a project, I go away alone. It could be to a residency or camping in my van at a state park or a cheap hotel room in a nearby fishing village.

NEA: I’m interested in the fact that your book is in a hybrid form. Can you talk about what led you to the structure, and what using a nontraditional form opened up or gave you access to?

LAMBERT: There I was with a bunch of essays. Some were straight-up narrative and others were winding reflections on themes such as swimming or pain or my menstrual period or intimacy. I didn't have a clue on how to make a book out of them—until I was at the Atlantic Center for the Arts having a residency with Carolyn Forché. She read one of my especially meandering essays and said she thought it was a scaffold. She'd point at one opening in the scaffold and say that I needed to write something about kayaking there. At another she asked for something about my bookstore life. Everything she pointed out, I had already written. When I got home after the residency, I printed out the manuscript, cleared the dining room table, and cut and pasted in the original sense of the phrase. I noticed that I had some strongly narrative essays that needed to stay intact, but that in addition to the "scaffold" essay there were others that were non-linear. Those I cut into pieces and moved them over the table, weaving them together with each other and around the narrative essays. I was stunned when it all fit together with not much of a struggle. Of course, the process also revealed areas of absence, silence, and reticence in the writing.

NEA: Are there questions you find yourself returning to time and again in your work? What’s your obsession as an artist?

LAMBERT: The body. For me, it's always the body. Writers with disabilities write all sorts of ways in all sorts of genres, but it's not often that one of us will leave the body out of our writing.

NEA: What will your NEA Literature Fellowship make possible in terms of your artistic life?

LAMBERT: I couldn't be a writer without community. Well, perhaps I could. But one with less skill and fewer words written and certainly less published. The NEA Fellowship, I hope, will lead to an expansion of my writing community. Certainly the money part of it will allow for me to travel and be more physically present both in my own specific interests and in support of other writers.

NEA: What’s your superpower as an artist, and what do you wish you were better at as an artist? 

LAMBERT: My father was a drill sergeant. This is not a metaphor. He was a real drill sergeant. I know how to make a bed the correct way. That is not a writing skill, but what is a writing skill is that for better and for worse, I am a disciplined person. Not that I don't procrastinate and fritter away time as much as the next writer, but I show up. Just that can take a writer a long way. But discipline, that rigid sometimes self-bullying type of discipline, makes it harder for me to access all those other necessary parts of being a writer—openness, trust, embrace of the unexpected and the unknown.

NEA: Complete the sentence: The arts matter because…

LAMBERT: The arts matter because it connects us, through time and over distance, to each other and the world.