Tell me about your early relationship with writing.
I think I started writing when I was a little kid. I used to read a lot of horror. I loved to get incredibly scared then go to sleep. I would stay up very late and read... like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Love Craft, and anthologies of horror. I remember at an early age how affective and affecting the fiction was. And I was really enamored with that idea of it having such a deep emotional impact. I think I had a family member who kept The Shining in the freezer or something like that... I was enamored with that idea, so I started writing these horror stories or beginnings of stories. I would take them in these black and white pebbled journals to family functions and give them to one of my cousins who read a lot. He was a writer, so he would read them and he would be like "oh, that's great!". He was a very encouraging backer. Then I stopped writing for years because I really loved football. I wanted to be Joe Montana. I was very passionate about the idea of being a quarterback, but I was very fat and slow. But I ended up being a lineman in high school, and I was kind of a jock. So I stopped writing...
So did you look down on it then, like it was a nerdy thing to do since you were this "jock"?
I didn't look down on it as much as I was just so preoccupied with this other thing. And it had just taken over. But as it turned out, I didn't have a future in professional football... oddly enough.
I finished my thesis for my undergraduate degree, and I remember a professor of mine, who I really looked up to, suggested that I take some time off in between my undergraduate program and graduate school. I think he really wanted me to reflect on how serious I was about writing. So I took two years off, and during that time I wrote pretty steadily. I also lived in Santa Barbara for a year. And did other things pretty steadily. Boos... mostly. But I applied to graduate school and got a scholarship to St. Mary's. I was about 24 years old... so that was about 9 years ago. I've been pretty disciplined and at times militant and strict since then - in terms of a practice and dedication and craft.
Do you have a set amount of work you like to strictly hold yourself to?
I used to be strict to the point of unhealthy. I would need to write almost two hours a day, and this was when I was working full time and even overtime. I was pushing myself to a point where I was losing the enjoyment. I was very committed to the idea that writing is like any practice where you have to do it every single day.. because if you don't you're just being lazy. I was raised Irish Catholic where my mom worked a shit load. She raised me by herself. I felt like I had my "9-5", but I felt like if I wasn't writing and my ass wasn't in the chair then I was neglecting this part of myself…and that I would ultimately be a failure. As time went on, I realized that it was not the right approach for me. Some people need to write every single day, and I think it is a good practice. But I was putting an undue amount of pressure on myself.
And it was maybe affecting the work at the end of the day.. ?
Yea, it was not good work. I can say that with confidence.
So I'm guessing you've found a healthy practice. And you're going through your PhD program now and you have another year left?
Well I have exams in Spring 2017, and I'm over half way done with my dissertation. Ideally, I like to set goals for myself at the beginning of every year. They're not resolutions necessarily, but things that I really want to focus on in the upcoming year... like relationship goals, financials goals, but also artistic goals. I want to usually produce four to six new stories each year, work on three to four revisions. I want to produce enough work to where I can produce a "chap book" of poetry this year.
Right now I'm studying for exams, and people can become really obsessive. Because it’s such a daunting task, but writing gives me joy. Like even when it's frustrating, it makes me happy. And it gets to the point that if I'm not doing it, I'll feel weird. I won't feel bad about myself, but I'll feel like I'm neglecting this very important part of myself.
How does teaching affect your personal work?
It's hard to draw an explicit connection between the two. You know... I'm teaching composition right now, and I'm working with young people, which I think is refreshing. But I'm always emphasizing there relationship to language and the idea that it's important to challenge your belief system and the way that you form beliefs... the way that you're taking in information. And I emphasize reflection and writing as a recursive process. Those are all things embedded into my own practice. The things that I'm emphasizing to them, I try to practice myself. I think it's the same thing with artists, say painters or sculptors, if you're working in the same mode for an extended period of time you can get comfortable. And you'd maybe not explore other avenues that could potentially enrich your work or give it more depth. So I think that comes back to me through teaching.
What themes do you work with in your writing?
In terms of themes, I like to think about 'absence'. That can be absence as it relates to people in your life, whether it’s past relationships or family members. It could be the absence of a place. Like right now, I wouldn't use the word displaced, but I'm dislocated somewhat. I'm from San Francisco, and now I'm living in South Louisiana. There is a physical absence... like I feel absent from that place. And I'm feeling this absence within me. I am also really interested in ways we construct identity and are constantly kind of reinventing our identity and the many ways we try to rein in one comprehensive identity. In the fact that every interaction we have changes who we are by the time we go to sleep. And just how dynamic things can be in our lives.
I think it's interesting how at certain points you can think about different points in your life and see where you are now... like physically where you are - the way you look, the way you dress, everything. It's very strange how time passes. Sometimes it's inexplicable. You start on this one path and things feel very certain, then twelve years later you're in this completely different mindset, in a completely different atmosphere, with this different value system and moral code. I find that endlessly fascinating.
“So now when I do have free time, I'll spend an hour writing a poem or two. And that scratches that itch… it’s like a breath.”
- Patrick Holian