In this issue of stuck/unstuck,* I ask New York Times Best Selling author, Jennifer Haigh, about doubt:

In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?

Jennifer Haigh is the author most recently of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award for outstanding book by a New England author. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories 2012 and more. [I love her work.]

by Jennifer Haigh

“Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again.  The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.

Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value.  It’s a question of writing through the doubt.  I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was.  I get up and go to work.”

Visit Jennifer at JenniferHaigh.com.

Read Jennifer’s 3-Question Interview (the only one with 3 questions!) by clicking HERE.

*From the vault.

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The writer thinks about intention, chronological order and connection to a story.


Kim Hooper
lives in Southern California with her husband and an absurd number of pets. PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME is her debut novel. She earned her masters in professional writing from USC, and is a senior level copywriter for a large advertising agency (you’ve seen her work on popular brands, believe me!). She’s been writing stories since she was seven or eight years old, many of which her mother still has somewhere in a box. For childhood birthdays, Kim used to request baby name books, which she would use to name her characters. She’s also kept a journal since she was six (electronically now) but there are about 20-30 hardcovers, with keys, in fireproof safes at her parents’ house. Visit her at http://kimhooperwrites.


Meredith: Do you plot your novels or do they take youhi3q9n8p_400x400 on a “meandering” path? Tell us the good, the bad and the everything.

Kim: My novels always start with one line. I just get a line in my head. I have
a book with a collection of these lines. For some reason, some resonate with me more than others and I just start writing to see where the line takes me. After about twenty pages or so, as I get to know the characters, I start thinking, Is this a short story? A novel? That’s when I give some thought to overall plot. I think about where I want the characters to go, how I want them to interact. Still,book_cover even when I develop a rough outline, there are lots of holes and gaps that are very much intended. I find the most interesting twists and turns when the plot is not set in stone. I don’t like to meander too much, but I think it’s very powerful to just see where the story goes. It’s pretty obvious when it goes way off course.

Meredith: Do you see your work as a huge mural or do the pieces emerge one color, one notion, one word at a time?

Kim: I start small, with one line in my head (a little birdie, I guess you could say). Even when the bird flies away and an entire sky is revealed, I still fixate on the minor details of the landscape. It’s too overwhelming for me to think about “the big picture” when I write. I may have a very general idea of it in my head, but I like to figure out characters and plot points as I go. It’s more exciting that way. In terms of career, I am definitely the same way. I dream about how I want my career to shape up, but I take one little story or novel at a time, without much expectation placed on it. I try to think of it the way I did when I was a kid, before I knew there was such a thing as a publishing industry. I try to remember that it’s pure joy to start with one line and see where it takes me.

Meredith: [I love this question so I tend to ask it often of different people.]The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write are there “rights” and “wrongs” for you?

Kim: I’ve definitely struggled to let go of the fear of being wrong. Now that I’m trying to get my first novel published, I’m second-guessing other in-process projects: “Is this character too similar to the other one? Is the tone too familiar? Should I use first person again?” I assume there is a system of rules to follow, when really there is not. When working on a novel, I feel like I have to write scenes in chronological order, even if a scene later on in the story is begging me to write it. It really is a challenge for me to think of writing as I did when I was younger—just fun. When I am able to see it that way, without rules and “rights and wrongs,” I write better.

Meredith: How do you connect with your work and your voice best? What works?

Kim: Lately, I start writing by hand, with mechanical pencil, on blank pages of computer paper. I have no idea why. I’ve always liked to start by hand, but the pencil on blank paper is new. As hokey as it sounds, I feel more connected to the story when I write long-hand. It’s not always practical though, as my wrist gets very sore. I go to the computer once I feel like I’m in a groove with the characters and the plot. If I get stuck, I come back to long-hand. After I have everything typed up, I print it out and go to town with more long-hand edits—sometimes, pages and pages of them.

Meredith: Is writing your only art? Your main one? Do you use other methods to access the creative well?

Kim: Sadly, I’m not very creative otherwise. I used to be much more crafty, but now any creative energy I get tends to go toward writing. However, I am very creative when it comes to making ready-made meals from the store appear homemade.

[Thanks, Kim!]

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