BY RACHEL LYON
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
I met Rachel L’Abri Tipton about five years ago. She is a poet. I am a fiction writer. She lives in France. I live in the States. Over the years, our relationship has gone through a few different iterations. These days, it mostly exists through email. But those emails have been instrumental for both of us, in our creative and personal development. What follows is the interview that Rachel L’Abri and I crafted together–by email, of course–about our friendship, and the creative dedication it’s inspired.
Rachel Lyon: Our friendship began in 2011, I think. Is that right? Whenever it was, I feel like it was really special from the beginning. Part of it was that we're both named Rachel. I don't think I've ever met another Rachel I didn't like. But part of it was also something deeper, even spiritual. Did you feel that too?
Rachel (L’Abri) Tipton: The magic really started spring and summer 2011. I think what made our friendship special is we each read a free writing exercise aloud in a group setting, even before we said "Hello."
Lyon: Oh my god, I totally forgot about that! That’s right. I was in grad school, doing my MFA, and you were living nearby (in Bloomington, IN). And a few of us had this idea of doing a community workshop. It was all about bringing the practice of writing outside the university and into the world. So we heard each other read our own work aloud before we even really met.
Tipton: And then we discovered that, coincidentally, I’d worked in Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens, where you grew up.
Lyon: Which was huge for me, in retrospect, because I felt really out of place in Indiana, in some ways. I was just so overjoyed to meet another person who understood where I was from, and what that meant. Which, that is sort of a spiritual element.
Tipton: Our connection definitely delves into the spiritual realm. We’re both story people, and I’ve always felt so safe with you in that. By which I mean that story is how we both experience the world, and we immediately, almost mystically, sense the energy of the other in a cosmic narrative context. Is that too much spiritual talk? I’ve always felt like I can’t hide, and don’t have to, when I’m with you.
You’re first and foremost a fiction writer, and I’m a poet and translator. But these are just labels so our mothers sleep easier at night.
Tipton: Maybe my point here is that these forms of expression come out of who each of us are, as people and women, on a deep, deep level. The way in which we express our writing and pursue our craft is at the same intensity. Both of us have raw talent. But we are also both hard workers. This is something I’ve always admired about you. Whether or not the world provides labels for what we do, we would have to be doing this. Thousands of years ago I’m sure we’d have found the hunting and gathering to be a bit boring and would have just asked if we could paint the cave walls and interpret people’s dreams instead.
Lyon: Speaking of caves...So we knew each other for a couple of years in Indiana, and then you moved to France. I so admired your commitment to immersing yourself in this language you felt so connected to.
Tipton: There was a cool spring evening in Bloomington when we were a few drinks, and I was pouring out my heart, about my plan to leave the country, and you piped up, "You need to go! Who cares about debt? Fuck fiscal responsibility! Go! Do it!"
Lyon: Little did I know how much I would regret that attitude years later! But I’m so glad it contributed to your decision to make the leap, or take the plunge, or whatever metaphor might be appropriate here.
Tipton: Fortunately my maternal grandfather was Scottish; thriftiness runs in my blood. I remember my first winter in France I was kind of lonely, and your band Mary Okie came out with an album. I listened to it sitting on my futon with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, thinking, "There’s Rachel’s violin! There’s Rachel’s voice!" You also sent me a .pdf of your short story collection, and I was so engrossed reading it on the bus one day that I forgot my umbrella and spent the rest of the day exposed to the elements.
Lyon: It was maybe four or five years later that we finally met up in Croatia. Remember? I was traveling outside the US for the first time in many many years, and you’d been in France for about four years at that point, and you’d always said if I ever came to Europe you’d come meet me wherever I wanted to go.
Tipton: Right. So you made that journey to Venice last fall, and we met in the Zagreb airport and flew to Dubrovnik together! I think everybody should know we had planned to sail the Adriatic Sea but had to scale that back to 3 nights in Dubrovnik with a fantastic view of the Adriatic Sea. I love that our first day we didn’t make it to the old city because it rained, and we took shelter in a café planning to wait out the rain over a coffee. We stumbled, post-whiskey bewildered, onto the street a few hours later. We’d talked about everything over a couple Irish coffees and grappa. The grappa was Tony the bartender’s idea.
Lyon: Tony the bartender loved us.
Tipton: All the men in that bar loved us. Tony loved us more.
Lyon: I remember wandering through Dubrovnik with you in the rain, and talking about everything from romance to family to writing. But it was the conversations about writing that really helped us both, I think. Talking with you about being stuck with my novel really helped me get unstuck. I remember sitting on the rocks that last morning we were there, and looking out into this mermaid cove, and thinking, That's it: I have to put more of my self in the book. Then, one of the first times you wrote to me after that trip, you brought up that episode of A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, where Sherman Alexie recommends making a list of 60 scenes in order to structure a novel rewrite. That absolutely changed the course of my revision, and freed me up to start again. How have our conversations changed your work?
Tipton: As you discovered that you needed to put more of your self in your novel, I was realizing that I was at a critical juncture where I needed to come out of self-imposed artistic exile. Depriving myself of my mother tongue was and is no longer necessary or healthy for my artistic growth. The world needs more of Anglophone artistic me doing the work I was made to do in the world!
Since then I’ve started moving forward with projects I otherwise wouldn’t have attempted. Our conversations have given me a sense of encouragement to put myself out there as an artist.
I’ve also been pretty starved for intellectual, or just deep and meaningful, conversations about what it means to be human. Our conversations give me small, daily doses of intellectual nourishment. At the same time, I’m seeking it out here in France with other Anglophone artists who’ve washed ashore in these parts.
Lyon: Together we invented something called The Accountability Institute--which is really two imaginary institutions, The Lyon Accountability Institute and The Tipton Accountability Institute, both of which are dedicated to holding us accountable. One practice that these institutes "sponsor" is the daily (or several-times-weekly) emails we exchange about what we've been up to, career-wise and creatively. When we want to talk about relationships or other, more personal matters, we use a different thread, which we call The Heart. I love this idea so much that I want to share it with everyone. On one level, we’ve organized our friendship into these two categories, and that feels very clean to me. But on another level, I am just so delighted by the idea of the Accountability Institutes. I love feeling like I am the sole member of this one little institution whose whole purpose is to hold me accountable. It makes my creative work so much more playful. I even had a designer friend make me a logo.
Tipton: I agree. The categories are imaginary too but they help keep our respective creative workspace clean and ready for play. It’s like we’re both at the beach building our own sand castles and I’ll skip over to see what you’re up to. "Hey! I found this shell! Maybe you’d like to use it on that turret?" I get a small snapshot of your process. Then I skip back to my business. Later, after work, as need be, there’s The Heart.
I just checked and since December we’ve exchanged something like 80 e-mails about our work. Who does that? We do, I guess.
Lyon: You've said that you think "the magic of the Institute is the back and forth, the constant dialogue--what people actually say when they're saying things. Our story is about a creative relationship and friendship between two women artists." Can you say more about that?
Tipton: It’s happened so organically and naturally. I love that it’s two different Institutes. It makes it feel like I can leave my institution and come visit yours, or invite you to mine. It’s so encouraging to know that the Lyon Accountability Institute is out there in the ether with a beautiful Rachel at the helm, slogging away in the early morning hours. I like to think the time difference (me being 6 hours ahead) allows me to warm a certain cosmic creative space for you. Also, I love getting a little e-mail at my day job that lets me know the daily work of a creative woman speaking out the truth of what it is to be human is underway, and it’s my business to know about it and celebrate it.
Part of our back-and-forth has evolved into mutually pleasing, bulleted lists. I think we’re both women who are doing so much that it’s hard to feel the way we think we’ll feel when we get something done because there is always more work to do. The lists are some proof that even if it didn’t feel like a creative day, there were some artistic activities worth bullet pointing. The revolution will not be televised. It is being bullet-pointed. BAM! BAM! BAM!
Lyon: Yes! There is something so satisfying and gratifying to me (no rhyme intended) about holding myself accountable with you as my witness, and knowing that you have chosen me to be your accountability witness in return. I'm so grateful for your role in my life, and how it has developed over time. I think it is inextricably related to ideas about displacement, travel, language, and creation--but also to the nature of, and feelings about, being a woman. Do you have any last thoughts about what kinds of concrete and abstract threads are at work in the loose, tangled knot that has knit us together?
Tipton: Awww…I think we’ve wandered into The Heart territory here, Rachel! This makes me remember when we said good-bye in Zagreb. Your flight was earlier than mine. I’d carried your suitcase down the stairs, and Marco the taxi driver was waiting to pick you up. You turned and hugged me and said, "I love you." In my self-imposed exile, it’s been a good four years since I’ve regularly heard those three words coming so earnestly and easily from a friend in person. It felt like you were welcoming me back, asking me to come back from where I’ve been to share the artist I’ve become with you and with others.
The feminine creative energy that we’re tapping here, it’s real, raw, and truly alive. The more I give freely of it, and to the creative work, the more I feel not exhausted, but refreshed. Both of us want our work in the world, but both of us also want to preserve the joy of doing that work. That’s what we’re sharing with each other and tapping into: this sheer joy of painting cave walls and interpreting dreams.
Rachel Lyon's work has appeared most recently in Joyland, Bustle, and The Toast. By day she is a copywriter and content strategist; by night she teaches fiction for the Sackett Street Writers Workshop. Find her at www.rachellyon.work.
Rachel L'Abri Tipton is an American poet, writer, and translator living in Lille, France. Her work has appeared in Descant and collaborations with the Enemies Project in London. She blogs at sandhill crane and is currently working on a voice collection project in the "jungle" refugee camp of Calais, France and beyond.