“I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought.”
—Sam Apple

 

Sam Apple’s first book for children, The Saddest Toilet in the World, was published this month. Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent.  His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, The New Yorker (online), McSweeney’s, and Slate.com, among many others. He was a finalist for the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction. Apple teaches creative writing and science journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the founder and publisher of The Faster Times.

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?

SAM: I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I think it touches on an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that lots and lots of people want to be authors, but I’m not so sure that lots and lots of people still want to read books. I’m not sure how the seductiveness of authorship has survived the diminishing role of literature in American life, but I suppose I’m glad that it has survived

Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one anther inside you? Or do they?

SAM: I don’t think they ever do quite make peace inside of me. I know plenty of great writers who are extroverts, and they tend to do a fantastic job of publicizing their work. But I’m more of the stereotypical quiet, standing-alone-by-the-appetizers type of writer. I try to promote my work on social media, but I always feel a bit self-Sam_Apple_Jewish_Writers_You_Wish_You_Knew_About_2.09.12_-_6876738965conscious about it. What’s interesting, I think, is that I find it hard to be open on social media, and yet my shyness doesn’t prevent me from writing very personal things in my books. I think book writing creates a safe distance between me and my audience (or, at least, gives me the illusion that such a distance exists), whereas the immediacy of social media collapses that distance.

end or foe?Meredith: When you sit down to write, are you in charge? What I mean is this: are you the scribe or the master creator? Both? Neither? Sort-of corollary: would you describe your mind (in terms of writing) as a fri

SAM: I am definitely not in charge, and I think that the less in charge I feel, the better my work turns out. I suspect a lot of writers feel the same way.  I’ve long been fascinated by this phenomenon, but what struck me more recently is that if I’m not in charge when I’m writing, I’m probably not in charge when I’m not writing either, as I don’t think conscious control is the sort of thing one can turn on and off. So, thinking about this question had made me deeply skeptical of the entire notion of free will.

Meredith: Can somesaddest-toilet stories not be found? Why/why not?

SAM: I’m not entirely sure, but I do think that many stories need to percolate for a long time to before they’re ready to make it out into the world. I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought. I suppose this touches on my response to the previous question.

Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

SAM: Another interesting, tough question. I think there’s only so much you can do to fight the homeostasis, and many of my favorite writers tend to hit the same notes over and over in their books — Philip Roth and George Saunders come to mind. But one of the very nice things about writing is that there aren’t many drawbacks to taking risks in your work. The worst that’s going to happen is that you waste your time, or perhaps end up with a bad review. I always encourage my writing students to experiment with different genres and themes.

I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom I picked up from the memoir of the great fiction editor, Ted Solotaroff. While driving with Bernard Malamud at night, Solotaroff was struck by Malamud’s cautiousness behind the wheel, and by how this caution stood in stark contradiction to the risks Malamud took in his work.  Solotaroff never forgot the lesson: caution in life; daring on the page.

[Thanks, Sam!]

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“I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson…”
—Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell


Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
is a journalist and author living her dream life with her husband and 5 dogs in a 480-square foot cabin in the Ozark Mountains. Her memoir, LIVING LARGE IN OUR LITTLE HOUSE is published by Reader’s Digest. One of her mottos: Living Large is a state of mind. She blogs at livinglargeinourlittlehouse.com.

 ♦ 

Meredith: Given your affinity for large lives in small spaces, this question feels apropos: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

KERRI: This was actually the hardest thing for me. I met my future agent in 2011 and wasn’t able to develop a book proposal for the story until 2014. At that point, the story was still changing and evolving and I also couldn’t put a finger to the takeaway. Luckily, my agent believed in my story and was patient with me until I felt I could bring that story to life. Once I felt I had the life lesson I needed to learn to put together a memoir; she then guided me in creating a proposal and a book she could sell. As it turned out, my story, as well as some of the others I tell in the book, continued to evolve even after the book was supposedly finished.unnamed-1

 

Meredith: Is waiting the hardest part for you—particularly waiting for a response from the outside about an idea, a piece of writing, a body of work? If so, how do you temper your anxiety? If not, how do you put it in perspective when something feels so personal and dear to your heart?

KERRI: I do not like having to wait on others to do things in general in my life, I like to be in control, so yes, I would say waiting is a hard part of the writing life. The best way I’ve found in my freelance life to get over the anxiety is to develop an idea, send it off and move onto the next project. I see so many young freelance writers agonizing over a pitch they sent to their dream publication, or a pitch that is dear to them. If they keep that up, they’re going to have very short, anxiety-fueled lives. My motto is to put it into the universe, follow up in 7 to 14 days and if I still don’t have a response, re-pitch to another publication and think of something else for that dream publication. I use the motto I try to use in other aspects of my life: Let it go. Everything in its own time.

♦ 

Meredith: Corollary to the above: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?

KERRI: Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I look at my calendar, see I’m not making my financial goals for the next month and feel like a complete failure, I could stop pitching tomorrow and really live the dream, which is to write only what I want whenever I want! I have to remind myself that I’ve always manage to find the next assignment, even if it’s just enough to keep me going until the next month. If I need a reminder of how far faith in myself has brought me, I take my dogs for a long walk in our woods—you can never think life isn’t going your way while walking in the woods. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s always chocolate.

♦ 

Meredith: When you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?

KERRI: I think anyone who writes essays or memoir, particularly in this day and age of judgmental and cruel online bullying, is brave. However, sometimes I do feel like some of the superpersonal confessions some writers are engaging in these days may be detrimental to them, or maybe to even society in general, in years to come. That remains to be seen. That being said, I think all of us as writers have a personal responsibility to be true to ourselves and our story. There are some things in my book that sometimes haunt me in the middle of the night about how that part of my story will be received. I think there are instances where you may have to retreat. I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson, not to mention putting me at risk for libel. That’s where a good editor comes in, to help guide you in telling your story or advising you to take a different approach or even removing it all together.

Meredith: You’re an accomplished journalist, so tell me this: what is it that many of us misunderstand about telling a story? About finding hooks in a story? How did you learn to master your understanding of storytelling (article writing, memoir writing) in terms of understanding what a story is supposed to do. Please share.

KERRI: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. I was actually a business school graduate who had a deep love of journalism from an early age. But because I went to business school, I had to spend a lot of time learning and honing the craft, but that unconventional route worked in my favor. Unfortunately, I believe our society is in one of those periods in which people don’t appreciate the value of journalism in a free society. They’re drifting away from the meat of the story and looking for the sensational headline that gets them to click on that site. My high school journalism teacher, Patrick Bosak, who, in my mind, will always be the most wonderful teacher I ever had told me on my first day of class that drawing your reader in with a compelling lede is the most important part of your story, but you have to also know how to keep them engaged by telling them why this story is important to them. These sensational headlines oftentimes fail to deliver the meat.

News hooks aren’t always sexy, they’re not always sensational. They should be something that interests the public and also informs them. Whether I’m writing a news story or writing an essay or memoir, I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the takeaway, what can I help my reader learn or understand and what makes it relevant to their lives?”

[Thank you, Kerri!]

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Judith Handelsman Smith on the spirituality of writing: A narrative meditation on ways to undo the fear of un-writing, unblock writing blocks, and heal

Judith Handelsman Smith is the author of three books including GROWING MYSELF: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY THROUGH GARDENING. After creating a mountain sanctuary for meditators, and teaching Vipassana meditation for a decade, she has refocused on writing. Her fourth book is a memoir of her lifelong spiritual awakening. Her blog is the most current outpouring of her writer’s voice, […]

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