By Steven Nazareno

Emily Vizzo

Emily Vizzo is a prolific writer, editor, and educator that has worked for publications appearing in The Journal, North American Review, The Normal School and Drunken Boat Journal just to name a few. In 2013, her North American Review essay, “A Personal History of Dirt,” was voted Best American Essay of 2013, a testament to her literary prowess. On top of that, Emily has consistently been active in the literary community, volunteering with art journals such as VIDA, Poetry International and Hunger Mountain.

Currently, she freelances for the San Diego Union Tribune, teaches yoga at the University of San Diego, and teaches writing workshops through San Diego Writers, Ink.

Following her recent guest lecture at San Diego State University (which I had the pleasure of introducing her), I spoke with Emily and had an in depth conversation about her affinity for writing, her favorite books, and other tidbits about her writing career down below.

What is it about writing that drew you to pursue careers related to writing? Talk to us about editing and content writing.

We all have our particular childhoods, and I grew up in a way that discouraged rather than encouraged having feelings or being expressive about those feelings. I didn’t have names for what was in my heart or for the emotions passing through me.

When I began writing, language helped me start bumping around in the dark, putting my hands on these strange objects and describing them. As with many people, finding the right word both pinned the feeling to something concrete, and freed it to be itself. I started learning who I was when I was not busy being perfect, unhurtable.  

At one point I was covering Congress in Washington, D.C. for Scripps Howard News Service and my hometown newspaper. It was a scary time – during the war in Iraq, not so long after 9/11 – and the political climate was fearful. I realized that my interest in political journalism was not so much at these removed, legislative levels. I wanted to think and act locally, to tell stories about people in the communities where I lived. To elevate and amplify, to be of service.

When I was freelance writing full-time, I gradually acquired editing and content writing skills. Working with many small business owners, I realized that in many cases the most interesting thing about their companies was their story rather than what they were selling – but, powerfully, the better they were able to tell their story, the more people wanted to connect with them.

I started to think that telling the story of how or why someone went into business had a larger purpose. It can inspire other people to think about their own dreams and what they want to do with their lives.

One time I interviewed a woman in San Diego about how she started her flower stand. As I remember, she would drive past this flower stand in her neighborhood and think about how much she wanted to own a flower stand of her own. After sharing this dream with her husband, he said, “Why don’t you drive over there and ask the owner if you can buy her flower stand? Maybe she would sell it to you.”

The woman thought this was ridiculous at first, but one day she did drive over there and ask whether the owner would ever consider selling the flower stand. The owner took one look at this woman, burst into tears, and said that she had been praying for this very moment to come to pass.  

After I spoke with this new owner, I spent some time walking around the little flower stand, touching the blossoms in their plastic buckets, sticking my head into the walk-in cooler to inhale that special cold carnation smell. I felt really lucky that my job involved – that day at least – sitting outside in the sun with this woman whose dream had come true. Helping her to share her story, which might not only help her sell more flowers to her neighbors, but might inspire someone else to follow their dream, too.

How did you first get into freelance writing and why is it appealing for writers to enter that field?

Freelance writing happened by accident. I had been looking for a teaching job during a time when there were really no teaching jobs to be had, and I specifically wanted to teach in Title I schools in San Diego’s underserved communities. During that job search, I started to take on writing assignments here and there as I also taught summer school, did substitute teaching, and bartended. Ever since then, my career has involved some balance between writing, editing and teaching.

Freelance writing is not for everyone. Available work is sometimes unpredictable, and there are some aspects to the work – creating invoices and tracking payments, for example – that were stressful to me. However, freelance writing allows you to set your own schedule in some ways. This can help you build in time for writing, and also may help you with the flexibility to attend readings, conferences, retreats or other opportunities during typical workdays.

As a freelance writer, what constitutes a consistent and viable work ethic for those pursuing this career?

I really think that’s a great question. I always tried to represent my ability to help a potential client in the clearest, most honest light. I think it’s important not to exaggerate how you can help people. And I try to work with people whose values are similar to my own. In complex situations, to pay attention to your body. Sit still, get quiet and your body will speak up. Chances are you know what’s right already. Do the right thing. You will be so glad later.

As a poet, how did you find your own creative outlet that inspires or influences you to write poems?

I think I first started writing poems the summer between my junior year and senior year in high school. My mom had let me borrow her electric typewriter to keep in my room, and I would stay up late at night, after everyone in my large family had already gone to bed, writing poems. My bedroom window would be open and I could smell the planted fields and the ocean, could hear the highway behind my house, and I’d be worn out from serving pancakes and coffee from the breakfast restaurant down the street. I’d be worn out and sunburned from swimming in the ocean all day.

But I remember feeling just kind of clean and alert and honest. I was becoming myself.

About how many times do you edit your work before you feel somewhat satisfied?

This is maybe a boring answer, but it depends. There are some pieces I’m really happy with from the first draft, that arrived easily and require only a little shaping here and there. There are some pieces I might revise and edit for years before they feel right. And there are some pieces that I don’t really like, but also don’t really feel like revising and editing. They’re just practice pieces, for fun, and maybe they don’t need to go anywhere. That’s ok too.

What kinds of books are you currently reading? And which genres do you particularly enjoy at the moment? 

I’m usually reading a few books at the same time: poetry, nonfiction, fiction. Right now I’m reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Audre Lorde’s The Black Unicorn, The Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion, and The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mahabir.

I just finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution.

Lastly, if you weren’t a writer today, what else would you be doing?

What a great question. Sometimes I think it would be fun to open a used bookstore. My grandparents were musicians, and if I didn’t have writing as a creative outlet I could see myself turning more and more toward music. Professionally, I’d continue teaching. I love being a teacher. It makes me feel alive and accountable to be part of someone’s education.

I read about this survey one time, women were asked when they felt they looked the most beautiful. The top answer, as I remember it, was when they were praying. I thought that was so interesting.

As a longtime writing teacher and yoga teacher, sometimes the look on my students’ faces when they are learning (really learning, not just going through the motions) is so beautiful I literally have to look away. It’s so personal, so intimate. There’s a green flash between the not-knowing and the knowing, a moment of arrival.

I don’t take credit for that – the “learning” of something is a solitary act, like a prayer really, a belief in things – but people teach each other, people guide each other through their words and actions to these moments of understanding the world. It kind of staggers me when I think about it. Being alive being this collaborative act between all things. We’re so lucky to be here.