“When it’s going well, is when you, your ego, disappear and it’s almost like you’re taking dictation…
you get in this amazing zone….”
THE COST OF LIVING (Other Voices Books) is Rob Roberge’s fourth book. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (Dark Alley/Harper Collins, 2005) and Drive (reprint, Hollyridge Press, 2006/2010). His writing, which has been widely anthologized, has been featured in Penthouse, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Black Clock, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the “Ten Writers Worth Knowing” issue of The Literary Review.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing?
ROB: Hmmm. Well, no. It’s me not writing. But/and, if I don’t fact, write…well, nothing is there, so in the practical (or literal) sense there IS nothing, writing-wise. If that became a pattern (and I realize I’m using an extreme to illustrate a point, and not trying to be reductive) and it happened that every day I sat down to write for the rest of my life nothing happened, no words came, I wouldn’t be a writer. It wouldn’t be NOTHING as far as experience goes. But it wouldn’t be writing, either. I think a writer is, by definition, one who writes.
But…on the other hand…If I’m producing nothing, that’s because of my relationship with the process, I think. It’s me not being in the right state of mind to write. So, it IS something. It’s just not something very conducive to writing, maybe.
On the days when very little or no writing worth keeping is the result, I try to wait it out. In Buddhism, there’s this notion that if something is boring for two minutes, you should sit with it for four minutes, and if it’s still boring, sit with it for eight minutes. And so on. The point being, EVERYTHING is there…you just aren’t there FOR it. Well, the rhetorical “you” here being me. I try hard to never be prescriptive. My experience to the process is mine and there are writers I respect tremendously who have entirely different ways of going about it.
But, when I produce nothing? For me, it’s never the THING, I’d guess. It’s my relationship to the text (or lack of it in that moment). And it’s usually caused by me allowing my ego to invade the process, where it does not belong. In early drafts especially, I submit to language, rather than try to govern or lead it. Those show up more when I revise…when there is already something to work with.
Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
ROB: For me, ego. Fear. Where I worry about what people will think—which has nothing to do with art and everything to do with my insecurities and neurosis. ALL of that destroys creativity. When it’s going well, is when you, your ego, disappear and it’s almost like you’re taking dictation…you get in this amazing zone (and it happens in other forms, I suppose…I get it with music, and sex and I used to get it when I was an athlete…but I’m sure it comes with dance and painting and what have you). I’m not one who believes in a muse, per se…because to GET to the place of that zone with any regularity takes THOUSANDS of hours learning and honoring your craft and always being humble enough to know you will die an apprentice…no one ever masters art. We can only hope to be getting better and challenging ourselves to the end.
It’s a beautiful and rare thing that art is one of the areas in life where we can quite possibly be better at seventy-five than we were at seventy. That doesn’t happen, can’t happen, for every occupation. Michael Jordan, no matter what his heart or desire, will not be a better basketball player at sixty than he was at thirty.
Meredith: What is the real meaning behind finishing?
ROB: Well, there are a couple of meanings, I think. And this is for only ME, I hope it’s clear. There are different views of what finishing might be. Plenty smarter or more articulate than mine, I’m certain. I usually get VERY obsessed near the end of a project and go into a manic state. I tend to stupidly work 18-24 hour days (one 72 hour “day” at the end of this one) near the end of a book, because it’s such an electric, beautiful feeling, even with cost, which can be…something I would be wise to avoid. I get so obsessed with trying to make everything right that I possibly can. I try to have everything that has come up in the narrative be addressed—not resolved, as I don’t really believe in narrative resolve…I’ve had friends killed, and have heard other people talk about “closure”…I don’t believe in closure, so my stories and novels aren’t going to have it. I think it’s a myth of reassurance that gives readers comfort. And it strikes me as a false comfort. But, that’s me. And it’s how my books enact themselves. Other people think other things. They write other books. They tie up all the loose ends. And that’s cool. If we all wrote the same, only one of us would need to write a book and the rest of us could read that one book and we’d all feel the same and just nod like unthinking goofballs.
But I think the end has to address all of the issues that have been introduced…address…but not tie them up—for me.
But, then, the OTHER meaning of finishing is that…well, they’re NEVER finished. I was on tour for my second novel and I’d read this one scene at a lot of the events…and after maybe only two or three readings (maybe after the first one), I was writing in the margins of the novel, changing phrases, re-wording things. Cutting lines. This book had been through maybe 5 drafts before my friends saw it. Six or seven before my agent saw it. At least eight before it went out to editors. Then a ninth draft with my editor at Harper Collins. Then the copyeditor goes through it and the writer makes the last changes. Jeez, you’d think at that point, you wouldn’t have any prose in the text you could make better. But after ALL that work. All those drafts. All those eyes I respect on the work…and yet, there I see a clunker line, a weak phrase, unneeded metaphors…whatever. How did I let that get through when I thought the book was DONE? It’s like the sentence equivalent of a bad pistachio. How did that one sneak by the inspection line?
But when I’m on tour, I’m re-writing the published book. So, it’s never really done, I guess. I thought it was my dirty secret until a saw a bunch of my friends did it as well.
In, I think it was early 1941…as I’m pretty sure Fitzgerald died in Dec of 1940, ESQUIRE magazine (because the mail wasn’t as quick back in the day) kept getting corrected drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories (that had supposedly been “finished”) weeks after he had died. He’d mailed them, and Esquire was still getting corrections and editing notes from him in February. There’s something both sad and beautiful about that to me. Correcting the work when they’ve already buried you.
Well, I said there were a COUPLE meanings of finishing? I forgot a third. In the case of my new book, it was finished because I had a deadline (deadlines are good for finishing) and it was finally finished (a couple of drafts after I’d originally thought it “finished”) when my editor Gina Frangello—who is the best editor I’ve ever worked with as well as being a great writer—said it was finished. She pushed me and had both the intimacy with the text that a great editor needs AND the objectivity that a great editor needs. And an exhausted writer who (in my latest case) had done over ten drafts of the book over a number of years is sometimes not to be trusted. I thought I was out of gas and the book was done. And another editor might have let the book go to print as it was. But it wouldn’t have been as good.
So, maybe that’s my answer. You know your book is finished when Gina says so. But she can’t read everyone’s books, so that may be of limited help to your readers.
Meredith: When you find it hard to pay attention to your writing, like when it’s really bugging you or annoying you or evading you or being mean to you, how does it win you over again?
ROB: Writing never bothers me—people who park in handicap spaces bother me. If the writing’s not coming, well, I’m probably doing something wrong…as…well, it’s not writing until it’s written. And then, there are a LOT of times where it sucks and I have to fight my desire to be a perfectionist and let the writing be bad and let me find the good work in the bad work. To find the story in the story. To listen to the prose, rather than try to control it in the early drafts.
But, I don’t think writing has the ability to be mad at me. I certainly have the ability to be mad at me. I’m quite adept at self-loathing. If self-loathing and the inability to forgive oneself were Olympic events, I’m quite certain I could dominate. But then, I’d find some reason to dislike myself for having won.
But the writing? It’s not a being. It’s a craft. And an art form. It has no agenda. And it (my work, at least) doesn’t exist until I create it. Now, I’m not in CHARGE of the writing in the way a lot of people assume…where you, say, have an idea, a truth, and then mold that into a narrative. It’s much more of an exploration…a somewhat blind one. I’ve never known where I was going in a story or novel. I write a line and then I wonder what opportunity and what obstacle THAT line offers and I write another line that follows that. Writing is about listening…questions, not ideas…for me, anyway. Explorations of the dominant questions and obsessions and scars that haunt my life.
And maybe those questions never get answered….Milan Kundera has said his whole career is an exploration of the question “what happens to the individual under totalitarian regime?” And that question doesn’t get answered so much as it gets explored…and the work CREATES something new in the world where nothing was before. Which IS something I love about art. Art is like love. Both create something the world needs (arguably more than just about anything…after food and shelter), and they create it out of nothing. Something where there was nothing. And hopefully both of those (art and love) make the world a less lonely place. In a world with so much destruction, I think there’s a responsibility to create. To connect. To bring into the world things that others might find something of value in. To allow others to never lose that childlike excitement about the world. The world grinds us down with so much shit that not only doesn’t MATTER, it destroys. This culture of consumer capitalism where we’ve created a landscape of meaningless and hollow desire. The pursuit of money, of material objects, or power—none of these nurture—and I hesitate to use this word, as I’m an atheist—the soul.
Meredith: Are you ever frightened of your own ideas, or what’s inside you? Does it help to know it – or not really, when it comes to getting the words on the page?
ROB: You know….not very often WHILE I’m writing…because I do try to get my ego and judgment and shame and fear out of me when I write—all these get in the way of honesty. But pretty often, after the fact, I’ll read what I’ve written and find some very disturbing, very dark, frightening things in there. So, I tend to know it in REVISION, but not so often in the initial composition. And I’ll sometimes read it and wonder “where did this fucked up ugliness come from?” I’m not certain I’m frightened by that, though. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it disturbs me. But those—along with it being funny—usually mean I’m doing my best work. If I’m not willing to put what’s inside me—especially the worst of it—on the page, I’m wasting everybody’s time.
ROB is a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at University of California Riverside’s main campus MFA, Antioch, Los Angeles’ MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. Currently, he serves as the advisor for the PEN Mark program. He plays guitar and sings with the LA bands The Danbury Shakes, The Violet Rays and The Urinals. He can be found at robroberge.com