Edite Cunha has a lot of pans in a lot of fires. The Turners Falls writer and activist is very involved in her local community, working on projects with The Brick House Community Resource Center and the Women’s Center of the Montague Catholic Social Ministries.
The day we spoke, she had already been to a selectboard or school board meeting every night of the week, run an evening writing workshop in her home and, in between, baked 300 cookies for a fundraiser.
And, in addition, Cunha stitches handmade dolls, creates other artwork and is working on two novels.
“These books are like two racehorses neck and neck. I can never work just on one,” Cunha says.
The two books are related, sharing characters that arose from Cunha’s childhood in Portugal. One book is set there, the other in the United States. Cunha says a friend and mentor said to her, “‘Oh, one is about the girl who left and one is about the girl who stayed behind.’ And that had never occurred to me before.”
Cunha will be reading her fiction as a featured reader at Greenfield Spoken Word on Tuesday, Feb. 21, along with Buckland poet Candace Curran. The monthly event is held at 9 Mills St., Greenfield. Doors open at 7 p.m.; open mic slots start at 7:30, followed by two featured readers.
Cunha says her writing process often begins not with a narrative idea, but with a strong emotion. Though the work is based in her own experience, Cunha has found that thinking of herself as a fiction writer, rather than a memoirist, frees herself to get to the truth.
“The minute I started seeing myself as a fiction writer, the whole thing opened up,” Cunha says. “Because I started writing autobiography and there’s always this relationship to fact that is very binding. The minute I allowed myself to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to write fiction,’ it was cool because then, most of what I write, the truth of it is real, the emotion is real. And many, many, many of the incidents are real. But in order to tell the truth of that emotion, of that core incident, I sometimes have to invent other things. And so I do. And I no longer feel any qualms about that. And my work, I think, has been strengthened by that.”
Cunha writes in small segments as they come to her, organizing her work in folders and arranging it later. Because memory is elastic, she doesn’t feel bound to writing her stories chronologically.
“There’s nothing linear about it,” she says of her process.
Finding time to write amid the demands of her busy life can be challenging.
“I do still wrangle with all sorts of things,” Cunha says. “And I’m not that disciplined. For a long time I would get up and make a list and put writing first. And then: this, this, this and this. And I never got to the writing. It would come last and I’d be too tired. It’s just an old story that we all know.”
Cunha’s weekly writing workshop, held at her Turners Falls home on Wednesday nights, is designed to create a space for writing. Run in a manner similar to the Amherst Writers and Artists model, the workshops emphasize “hatching new work,” Cunha says.
Because many are coming right from work to make the 6 p.m. start time, Cunha provides a hearty vegetarian soup, a side dish such as homemade hummus and fruit and “other goodies.” Cunha also provides two prompts: a short warm-up and another prompt followed by a longer writing period. Cunha is looking for one more member for her workshop. Contact her at email@example.com for more information.
“My prompts sometimes get really wacky because I get really into making installations,” Cunha says.
She recalls emptying out four garbage bags full of leaves to create a prompt when she ran the workshop from a studio space in Shelburne Falls.
“One time I filled the space with milkweed and it was just flying everywhere,” she says with a laugh.
Currently more restrained by the smaller space of her living room, Cunha still once made a river of flower petals that wound through the room.
And while she has responsibilities as the leader to prepare and run the workshop, she does find that the seeds of new work are often generated there.
“I really see it as a place where you can clear aside all the shit and make space for letting new work emerge,” Cunha says.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.