“I take feeling fear as a good sign.”
RENEE SWINDLE is the author of Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin). Her first novel, Please Please Please, was published by the Dial Press/Dell and was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Her next novel, A Pinch Of Ooh La La, will be released in August 2014.
MEREDITH: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Is it money? Fame? Love of the finished piece, or process? And what is it not? We know it will differ by person, but I sense we are all looking for answers…perhaps you are, too?
RENEE: I don’t think there is such a thing as arriving. Sure, when you look at certain writers who’ve won lots of awards and make all the bestseller lists, it may seem like they’ve arrived, and that might even be your definition of what it means to have arrived, but even big named writers have to face the blank page. Even those who have “arrived” have to grapple with plot and character and all the rest. On top of that, they probably have people constantly asking for their time. I guess I mean to say, wherever you are on the journey, even if you think you’ve arrived or not, there will always be issues to deal with. I think it’s your relationship to the process—to the journey–that’s most important. I think it’s fine to have goals and dreams, I’d love to have one of my novels made into a movie, for instance, but when that happens it will only be a part of the journey and not the arrival. I think that’s why the Buddha suggests we travel well. If you learn to enjoy the journey, all is golden.
MEREDITH: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Let’s talk about what “wrong” is, or what we think it is. Can you help us dissect?
RENEE: I think I’ll respond by quoting Anne Lamott from Bird By Bird: “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here…” I think that about sums it up, right?! I’m a true believer in writing good solid messy drafts. Whenever I’m starting a new scene or chapter, I call it play time or “free day.” It doesn’t do any good—at least not for me—to make any part of the process torturous. Sure, I can be curious. I can look over a scene and think, Dang, that needs a lot of work, how can fix it? But making mistakes, being “wrong” is a huge part of it. If you’re in it for the long haul, better to make friends with that fact sooner than later.
MEREDITH: When do you write for you – and when do you write for the reader? Now answer this: How do you write for you – and how do you write for the reader? Does the process begin or end with one or the other? Is there really a balance? A concession? Something else?
RENEE: With the early drafts, I tend to write for myself; otherwise I wouldn’t feel free to play around and explore. I also would lose interest if I felt I needed to write solely for readers. I figure if I can surprise myself and write a scene that’s especially charged or interesting, someone out there will get something out of it. Even so, I do think about potential readers when I feel not pushing myself. I work pretty hard at writing well-paced scenes with lots of surprises and I love to imagine readers staying up late to finish my novels. I also like turning in a great draft to my agent. She’s tough and I like that. So when I’m working on a draft, I sometimes write with her in mind. Ultimately, though, I think a writer’s voice comes from somewhere within and thinking too much about pleasing an outside reader can stifle it.
MEREDITH: How do you not hold on so tight–to a belief about writing, a piece of writing, or an idea that you have–that isn’t working or that, perhaps, an editor would like you to change. The belief part goes for you…but the piece, the idea, those refer also to your relationship with the editor. In other words, what tells you how to proceed?
RENEE: If an idea isn’t working, I’m more inclined to let it go. I don’t like the feeling of trying to force something to work; it’s not worth it. Another Buddhist saying is, “Not too tight, not too loose.” I don’t mean to say that if I believe in something, I don’t give it my best, but I take it as a sign that if I’m trying to force something, I may need to put it aside or somehow find my way in again—or even toss it. I’ve tossed two so-so novels in the past and when I look back, they were more for my growth as a writer, and not for the public viewing. Writing those two books taught me that I honestly do love the process and I also learned that it can be liberating to let go and move on.
As for my editor, if she has an idea about something that she doesn’t think is working–I’m all ears. Count yourself lucky if you have a good editor (and sometimes a good editor comes in the form of a partner or friend). Editors have their own talents, a way of seeing things writers often miss, so I’m always desperate for honest feedback, and there’s nothing better than an editor who takes the time to give good feedback. Nine times out of ten, someone in my writing group or my editor will call me on something that was bugging me anyway. I’ve seen this happen in the workshops I teach as well. Usually people can sniff out problems and only confirm what your gut has been telling you all along.
MEREDITH: Where 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?
RENEE: I take feeling fear as a good sign. For me it means I’m on to something. Shake Down The Stars involves a woman who sleeps around and is an alcoholic. I focus so hard on making the character believable and honest and complex, the last thing I want to do is retreat. I’ve never written about myself, so I guess it’s easier to go to the more scary places. I actually like pushing things because I think that makes for a more honest book, and when the writing is honest, you’re generally closer to making a connection with readers. Someone, somewhere is going to be grateful you wrote the thing they’ve been feeling.
I also think emotions like fear or sadness need to be explored rather than shut down. It takes courage to do this, but once you start to explore, it’s generally not as scary as you thought. I’m not perfect by any means, but I meditate and that has helped change my relationship with different emotions that come up. Years and years ago, my fear and procrastination around writing was so bad I started seeing a therapist. I also see nothing wrong with yoga, or whatever is needed to move forward. Do whatever it takes to stay with it.
An admitted tea snob, Renee lives in Oakland with her two rescue dogs. Visit her at http://www.reneeswindlebooks.com/