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Creative Careers Interviews

Roberta Allen: Teacher, Author, and Visual Artist

By Kristi Tencarre | Posted June 1, 2010 | Updated September 8, 2019

Roberta AllenRoberta Allen has traveled the world, showing her art and gleaning inspiration for her books. She is a self-taught artist and writer. At the age of 21, she began showing her art in Europe and has had many shows there as well as in the US and as far away as Australia.

As an author, Roberta has published eight books and is currently looking for a publisher for two new ones: a memoir called Dirty Girl and a collection of short stories entitled Every Man's Nightmare. She currently resides in New York where she teaches writing workshops.

Q. You have just finished a memoir titled Dirty Girl. What inspired you to write this memoir?

A. Actually, it wasn't my idea. My agent at Georges Borchardt, Inc. called me one day and said, "The only writer I know with a family as bizarre as Auguston Burroughs in Running With Scissors is yours! You really should write a memoir." At the time I was between books so I thought I'd give it a try before I had any idea how hard it is to write a memoir. I didn't know then that you have to recreate your whole (in my case) horrible childhood in order to write about it. But once I started, I became obsessed. I wanted to get to the bottom of it.

The hardest part was discovering what the core of my memoir was. I had started writing without any structure. I didn't know where I was going. But that was my process. I needed to do that and it took a long time for me to get to the heart of my memoir because the core was very painful. The core was my erotic attachment to my father who was an unstable gambler. My mother and grandmother, who kept me helpless and dependent, taught me that loving him was dirty. But he was my only ally. Without him — as unpredictable as he was — I might not have survived.

Q. What would you like people to take away from your memoir Dirty Girl?

A. The terrible legacy that damaged parents leave their children, however unwittingly. And how children from such families may spend their entire lives trying to heal or escape their upbringing in order to create lives that are truly their own. This can be done but it's an enormous struggle to create an independent life, a life that is different from your parents. If parents were more aware of their children's needs, they might save them years of therapy — to say the least.

Q. I understand that although you have finished the writing, you are now looking for a publisher. How is that process going for you?

A. At the moment, my manuscript is out with several publishers. I have never been a conventional writer — I wouldn't know how to be — so my writing is not mainstream. I focus on independent literary publishers. They are the ones who have appreciated my writing in the past. I've been lucky, however, with reviews even by major publications.

Q. Although it's yet unpublished, can people buy the memoir Dirty Girl?

A. Not until it's published. On my web site there is an excerpt. At some point, I may start a blog and excerpt a bit more and perhaps try to help other writers who still struggle with their childhoods whether they are forty, thirty, or seventy.

Q. Do you have any tips for someone writing, or thinking of writing, a memoir?

A. Start writing. It doesn't matter where you start. But start with an episode that has great energy or feeling for you. Start with a scene that is deeply embedded in your psyche. Just write what happened. Write what you felt. Write scene after scene. Eventually they will form a pattern. But don't worry about that as you write. My timed exercises are very helpful in this process. Most of my students are writing memoirs in my classes and with me privately by email and phone.

Q. You are a visual artist as well as a writer. How do you find being artistic in two different areas — do they lend themselves to collaborations or are they separate?

A. My visual art and my writing were truly combined in my conceptual art of the 1970s and early '80s, but they have been separate now for a number of years. This is something I would like to remedy in the future. However, I have found a place for some of my photos in my writing prompts.

Q. The classic question of inspiration: what inspires your creativity?

A. As Kafka once said, "you don't need to leave your room. It's all there, inside you. You just need to be quiet and listen, you just need to be aware and follow your self." I guess I've been lucky. I started drawing at age 3 and didn't stop for decades. Drawing saved me. I created a world I could live in and live from. I think of creativity as the core of my being.

Q. What made you decide to follow your passions and become an artist/writer?

A. It was not conscious. It was an act of survival. But I have shown many, many people over the last twenty-odd years how to get in touch with the creativity in themselves, either personally or through my book Fast Fiction or through the workbooks, The Playful Way to Serious Writing and The Playful Way to Knowing Yourself.

Q. Writers may be interested to know that you have written two writing workbooks: The Playful Way to Serious Writing and The Playful Way to Knowing Yourself. You also have a blog with weekly writing prompts on your website. Creativity Portal has a whole section on writing prompts. Would you mind sharing a writing prompt with us?


A. My prompts are visual as well as verbal. (Using photo above):

Prompt 1: Set your timer for 10 minutes. Who is he? A trickster? A prophet? A mystic? A magician? A murderer? A genie? Whose lives have been changed by him — in good or bad ways? GO!

Prompt 2: Set your timer for 10 minutes. Imagine this figure telling you something important — something you need to know — that will help you solve a problem or ease a distressing situation in your life. GO!

Q. What tips would you give our readers who are writers, but perhaps need some inspiration? How about the visual artists?

A. It's very important to be stupid. I've been saying that for 25 years. I mean that seriously. I mean that's it's important to let yourself make mistakes, to not take yourself too seriously, to let yourself play and be frivolous, careless, even foolish with words and/or images. Let go of common sense, of rationality, of goals and expectations. Don't think, don't try to understand. Allow yourself the freedom to be No one, Nothing. See what comes when you play with words and/or images. Look without judgment. You will see your self.

Q. Your website states that you are now offering teleconferences for writers outside of NYC. How is that going? How does this work?

A. I do not yet offer teleconferences. It's something I would do if enough people express an interest. I am starting a new beginner's class for writers in New York City. It might be interesting to have some artists in this beginner's class too. We'll do a lot of spontaneous exercises in response to prompts. It would be exciting to see how artists approach my prompts visually. I've worked with artists as well as writers. I also work with writers by email and phone in private sessions. But I have yet to work with artists responding with line, tone, color, figuration or abstraction to my prompts. So if any artists would like to enroll, I'd be delighted!

Q. I read all the excerpts from your memoir online and they are fascinating reads. The writing is strong. Do you teach memoir writing in your classes?

A. Most of my students are writing book-length memoirs. A minority write autobiographical fiction.

Q. Do you have any quotes by which you live?

A: I have four:

"Freedom is simply what is conquered." —Clarice Lispector

"It is a very painful thing, having to part company with what torments you." —Robert Walser

"Fear has always guided me to the things I love; and because I love, I am afraid. It was often fear which took me by the hand and led me. Fear leads me to danger. And everything I love has an element of risk." —Clarice Lispector

"Creation is not an understanding, it is a new mystery." —Clarice Lispector

Connect with Roberta Allen

Roberta AllenRoberta Allen is the author of eight books including Dirty Girl, a memoir about her family. View Roberta's published books available through Amazon on her author page. She's also a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met. She taught at The New School for 18 years and conducts private writing workshops. Learn more at robertaallen.com.

©2010 Kristi Tencarre. All rights reserved.

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