“Write the book that burns inside of you”: Carmen Maria Machado on finding inspiration in writing

Machado shares about her unique writing practice and offers guidance to young authors.

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“In some ways, I think it's sort of a compulsion. It's a thing that I do so automatically that it's hard to even say why I do it.” 

For Carmen Maria Machado, writing isn’t just a day job. It’s the work she loves, and the way she makes sense of the world. The multi-genre author has found success in memoir (the bestselling In the Dream House), graphic novels (The Low, Low Woods) and short story collections (Her Body and Other Parties). She’s also won or been a finalist for numerous awards. This October, Machado visited Interlochen Arts Academy as a guest artist in the Creative Writing program. 

Here, she shares her perspective on writing, why she frequently focuses on the human body, and what young authors need to know. 

Writing from an embodied perspective

Even a cursory look at Machado’s writing reveals a recurring theme: the human body and its desires. In Her Body and Other Parties, Machado recounts the story of a young woman with a green ribbon around her neck that her husband is determined to remove. In another one of Machado’s tales, a woman uses a worldwide pandemic as an occasion to diarize her sexual experiences. 

Machado considers writing to be an embodied practice, so it’s perhaps no surprise that she describes it using physical terms. 

“A lot of my writing is me attempting to take someone's face in my hands and turn it and say ‘do you see what I see?’”

This attempt at sharing a new perspective is the impetus for much of Machado’s work. According to her, the experience of having a body unifies us as human beings even while showcasing our unique identities. 

The body gives us so many ways of thinking about and experiencing the world.

Carmen Maria Machado

“I think of the body as one of the very few shared languages we all have,” says Machado. “But I'm also interested in specific experiences of the body. What does it mean to be fat? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be not white? The body gives us so many ways of thinking about and experiencing the world.”

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Carmen Maria Machado hosts a workshop for students at Interlochen Arts Academy in October of 2022. 

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Creative writing students listen to Carmen Maria Machado at her October 2022 workshop. 

“You can be an artist”

Being a guest artist at Interlochen was a special experience for Machado, who says she wishes she’d been able to attend high school there herself. 

“I went to public school, but I wanted more than anything else in the world to go to a school like Interlochen Arts Academy. I would have given my right leg!”

In her October masterclass, Machado drew from her rich background in publication to share tips with Interlochen students. She spoke about how to choose the perfect setting for a short story, and encouraged students to have the confidence to pursue their dreams. 

“You can be an artist—a working artist—as a career path,” she reminded them. 

At the same time, Machado urged her students to avoid getting too caught up in marketing their writing.

“You should write the book that burns inside of you,” she said. “It's really easy to get distracted with all the trappings of being a writer, like finding an agent, finding a publishing house, or selling your book. What is the story that only you can tell? I think that when you refocus your energy that way, you begin to open up artistic possibilities.” 

What is the story that only you can tell? I think that when you refocus your energy that way, you begin to open up artistic possibilities.

Carmen Maria Machado

How Machado stays inspired

The future is bright for Machado, who’s currently hard at work on her new book, A Brief and Fearful Star

"It's a collection of stories that are set over many different historical time periods, into the present and the future,” she says. “It’s about a comet in the sky that disrupts spacetime.” 

As part of the research for the book, Machado has had to explore a variety of different subjects.  

“Right now, I'm doing a lot of research on the history of the babysitter as a cultural force. I find that really interesting,” she says. 

Machado frequently returns to favorite activities like reading, watching movies, or cooking to help her stay inspired. She finds that completing physical tasks often gives her ideas for writing. 

“When I'm cooking, my brain disconnects a little bit and I become mostly body,” she says. “That’s an ideal way for thoughts to come to me. I've definitely had great ideas or solved narrative problems while chopping something in the kitchen.” 

Staying grounded in her physical surroundings helps this author’s creativity flourish in remarkable ways. Carmen Maria Machado isn’t just writing from her head. She’s putting all of herself into every word. 

To learn more about creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy, click here.