Susan Johnston of Urban Muse Writer had a great interview with Natalie Goldberg this week. Click over to Susan’s blog to read it. Then set your timers and start free writing. If you don’t know what that means, immediately—after reading the interview—go out and get yourself one of Natalie’s books on writing, among them: Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Old Friend From Far Away. And get yourself a timer.
Quick (related) story: I met Natalie Goldberg at a half-day workshop offered through Pacifica Graduate Institute, where studies focus on depth psychology (think Jung). Natalie led us in her signature free writing exercise, timer and all (she used a gong). She taught gently (yet firmly) the importance of holding sacred, on a daily basis, our first words, paragraphs and stories, those rough gems that spill onto the page when we open our consciousness. Never judge, just notice. What to do next will be made clear.
“Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters.”
JENNIFER HAIGH is the author of THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE. Her new novel, FAITH, will be published by HarperCollins in May. MRS. KIMBLE won the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and her New York Times bestseller, Baker Towers won the 2006 PEN/L/L/ Winship Award. Jennifer’s fiction has been published in Granta, Ploughsares and Good Housekeeping, among others.
Meredith: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
JENNIFER: I wish there were an aha! moment, but honestly, that rarely happens. I always have moments of great excitement about a new idea, but for me that’s not a reliable indicator of whether the idea is any good. (Historically, I’ve been wildly enthusiastic about some really terrible ideas; so I’ve learned to be a bit circumspect about my own “gut feelings.”) I mull over a new idea for weeks or, in the case of a novel, months. I take long walks and ruminate obsessively, like a dog with a chew toy. At a certain point I start writing, though it’s not until I have a complete first draft that I feel committed to the idea. For a novel, that takes twelve to eighteen months.
Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other? Now flip it—how about ending?
JENNIFER: Starting is terrible. It’s very difficult to create something out of nothing, to believe in something that doesn’t yet exist. Doubt is the enemy. Like most writers, I second-guess myself constantly. Writing the first draft is a bit like rock-climbing – not scary until you look down. And it’s really hard not to look down. What gets me through is my routine. I go to my studio every day, even weekends, and work as long as I can stand it. (Some days that isn’t very long.) In the early stages my writing day is short. After a couple hours I have to stop, simply because I’m empty: I’ve written all I’ve got, and I don’t know anything more. Then I have to get outdoors, go for a hike, see a movie, talk to a friend – live the rest of my day, so I can go to sleep and wake up and – I hope – have a little bit more to write.
Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters. I have a wonderful, supportive publisher, and I am glad my books are published and read; and yet I don’t particularly enjoy the process of publishing. It’s distracting and stressful and intrudes on my imaginary life, the quiet routine that allows me to do my work. I really enjoy the writing part of being a writer.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. What does it feel like when you find the sweet spot/balance? How do you know when you’re off in one way or another?
JENNIFER: When I am composing new work I spend a lot of energy trying not to think about an audience. I approach it in much the same way I approached writing in my diary when I was twelve. (I still have that diary. Written on the inside cover, in bold capitals: DO NOT READ UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH.) At that early stage the work is very fragile, and if I let myself think about how a reader might react to it – my editor, a reviewer or God forbid, my mother – I would be utterly paralyzed and might never write another word. Later, in successive drafts, I allow myself to think about audience, but only in terms of clarity: is the language so precise that the reader will understand exactly what I meant, or was I speaking in tongues? My editor is immensely helpful at this stage; as are one or two close writer friends who’ve been my readers for years. What I don’t do is self-censor – make changes to the story or characters in hopes of pleasing (or to avoid displeasing) readers. I try to stay true to my own instincts, the impulse that led me to write the story in the first place. What I do, always, is try to write the sort of book I would like to read. I’m not that exotic in my tastes, so I have to trust that if the story interests me, it will interest someone else too.
Jennifer lives in New England. Visit her website by clicking RIGHT HERE.
Photo: Asia Kepka.
Marla Beck is a life coach for writers who blogs at TheRelaxedWriter.com. In recent months her name kept coming up in that way that names come up (for me) when I’m seeking someone unique to interview here. I really like this interview, too. One of my favorite quotes, in response to a question about how Marla fuels herself creatively (in her answer, there is a list…):
The last item I’d add to the list is the one that works the best. Consciously stop trying to be “all that” and just be myself.
MEREDITH: What is the difference between an examined life and an overanalyzed life?
MARLA: A juicy question, Meredith!
In my early 20s I was a classic “overanalyzer.” I was caught in a loop of self-concern, so concerned with my analyzing own feelings and perspectives that I unknowingly cut myself off from the solutions, relationships and possibilities I was seeking. I wasn’t making the most of my life because I was too caught up in the past.
Now that I’m in my 40s, I take care of myself better. I’ve been meditating regularly for a long time, I get support from friends and I eat food that makes me feel great. These practices wake me up and help me see my choices, habits and thoughts more clearly. As a result, I’m free to live in the present. My practices help me be more creative, responsive and engaged with the world.
So for me, at one end of the spectrum is the overanalyzed life: static, inward, ruled by the past. At the other end of the spectrum is the examined life: proactive, intentional…happy. I’ve been at both ends of the overanalyzed / examined life continuum. I much prefer the latter!
MEREDITH: How about the difference between setting up rules for your writing–and being a disciplined writer? How can we writers cultivate both discipline and flow in our creative work? In our lives?
MARLA: I’ve coached many writers around this topic, and the way we engage with this question often surprises my clients. They expect me to crack the whip, to demand more “butt in seat” time, but often I coach them to step away from their work or broaden their focus to include non-writing projects.
If a writer’s not showing up consistently to write, there’s a good chance he or she is ignoring or squeezing out a very real need for relaxation, fun or self-expression. As a result, their “inner rebel” runs wild.
To be simultaneously disciplined and creative, we’ve got to advocate for ourselves as both creative beings (ones who needs rest, relaxation, new experiences) and productive, working writers. Achieving this balance is a dynamic process – a real art!
MEREDITH: What fuels you creatively? Does the same thing always work? Are there standard ingredients? A shopping list?
MARLA: I use a variety of ways to spark my creative fire. Some of my favorites:
– listen to Bach, Thelonious Monk or classical vocal music
– meditate or do yoga, then take a solitary walk
– read something exquisitely written, then challenge myself to imitate some aspect of it (voice, syntax, perspective)
– shift my environment, by writing in my favorite cafe or library
The last item I’d add to the list is the one that works the best. Consciously stop trying to be “all that” and just be myself.
I performed a few weekends ago at a benefit for a terminally ill friend. After worrying (for several weeks) if I was selecting the “right” tune for this serious occasion, I just decided to do what came naturally. I decided to offer what I had, with a full heart.
Turns out that at this well-attended, serious-occasion benefit, I sang a blues song — an original, tongue-in-cheek blues tune I’d written — to the crowd. It doesn’t make logical sense to sing a blues tune at a benefit for a dying friend, but I had a great time. The audience loved “Crawldaddy.” I needn’t have worried so much! When I used “what makes me relaxed and happy” as a guide, I performed well and chose a good-enough tune for the occasion.
When I need more permission to create, relaxing my expectations works best.
MEREDITH: What’s the biggest downer/wet blanket routine….clients do to themselves – what stops the flow/promise/joy? Is there a list of the most popular? What are the best remedies?
MARLA: When we first start working together, my writer-clients will often try to talk themselves out of their creative work.
They’ll say things like:
– “Nobody but me would be interested in a piece on this”
– “It’s already been done before”
– “Who am I to write this?” or
– “I can’t pull this off.”
Others simply avoid their work. They don’t admit to themselves how important the novel really is to them, so they get caught in a cycle of respond to outside stimulus (always doing paid work first and never finding time to do their creative work) or shiny objects, like food, social invitations, housework…
The best remedy for a blocked writer who really needs to pursue a creative project is this: get really clear about why the project matters to you. Then, invest in yourself. Invest time. Invest in an experienced coach to help you get clear and stay on track.
MEREDITH: How do you keep your own blocks from getting in the way when coaching? What are the ways you’ve discovered to keep cheering them on when you’re stuck?
MARLA: It’s never tough to cheer my clients on. Most of my clients are established and successful freelancers. Others are talented literary writers. (Some are both.) I coach some amazing people!
It’s uncanny how many times I might find myself coaching a writer around exactly the same topic I may be struggling with in my own creative life. I learn so much about how I stand in my own way when I see my own challenges through someone else’s eyes. More than once, I’ve gone home and tried my client’s awesome solutions out for myself. Which explains why I sometimes bring my guitar into the bathroom to practice music while my three-year-old daughter takes her evening bath.
When Marla is not busy coaching she sometimes sits in as a jazz singer on restaurant gigs and open mics in Marin County, California. Join an upcoming free teleclass here.
How often have you sat down, all excited to write but before your pen hit the paper your mind flooded with visions of what the piece of work could be? Should be? Better be? What happened to your voice? Your willingness to let your voice flow? Whenever that happens to me, the fun evaporates.
I call that writing in the future. To put it another way, obsessing about something I have no control over. Obsession of any kind is a prison. I sit there trapped inside, pages ahead of myself (without ever having written a single page). With my mind tangled, my flow blocked and my ideas short circuited, I need to reground myself in the present. This is what I know: When a stream of Self is emerging from deep inside the unconscious, it is energy trying to situate itself. For the writer, it’s words. For the fine artist, it’s images or color. For the mathematician, numbers and equations.
And so on.
These values only need to be expressed right now. We’ll consider them a little later, perhaps gently slide them around, reconfigure their appearance or meaning. But right now the words and images and equations only want to be seen—by their creator. You.
“I would have to say that “stuckness” is often a result of being too attached to what comes next.”
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the book Make a Scene, and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. She is a co-editor of the new online literary journal Milk & Ink: Family in the Extreme and a freelance editor, writer and teacher.
Meredith: Metaphorically speaking, if our stories, constructed scene by scene are intended to move forward, how do you do this when you are feeling, for lack of a better word, stuck or mired in the process? Do you focus on minutiae or big picture? Why or why not?
JORDAN: Wow, here’s a question I’ve never been asked and one I will answer in a roundabout way. One of the reasons I personally get stuck is because I’m trying to write chronologically, the very next thing in the manuscript that happens in time. And often I don’t have that scene formed yet in my head. So I’ve learned in my latest novel draft—written in large part during my young son’s naps—to write whichever scene is in my head, no matter where in the manuscript it falls. To free myself from chronology. When I can’t even do that, then I literally make notes to myself about what needs to go in the next scene, a kind of conversation with myself that I hope will stimulate me when I go to write next.
Meredith: Along those lines, and so to accept all parts of the process, how do you use “stuck-ness” effectively? What works for you?
JORDAN: I may have essentially answered this question already, but I would have to say that “stuckness” is often a result of being too attached to what comes next, and by freeing myself from that expectation and going elsewhere in the work, I can usually get unstuck. I have a talented friend who writes one chapter after the other and does not move forward until she has nailed each one. I simply can’t do that and I desperately envy her process—my mind caroms around my story and sees parts here and there, and I must follow its scavenger hunt-like process.
Meredith: How has writing about writing changed your own writing?
JORDAN: Frankly it has made me both a more conscious writer and a more self-conscious writer. I’m TOO aware of craft, and sometimes that hampers my ability to be free because I’m busy asking, “Does this scene work? Is there enough character development?” But in other ways I feel like it’s cleaned up my writing, too, because now I have to call out in my own writing the things I point out to others. It’s also made me keenly aware that I am very good at breaking down/synthesizing information for other people, but not always so good at applying it to myself.
Meredith: The painter and sculptor, Juan Gris, said, “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” Many would find this counterintuitive, believing it’s actually better to know where you are headed. You?
JORDAN: I understand what he’s saying in that I’ve always felt that writing has to be a process of discovery or else it’s just formulaic. So I use a rough “outline” but I almost always depart from that outline as I go. The outline is a mere set of mile markers that help me keep from going too far off the rails, but ultimately, for me anyway, what’s the point of writing if you know exactly what magic you’re going to encounter?
Meredith: As an author/journalist/creator with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation?
JORDAN: Ha! A good question. I guess it’s sort of like how does one handle the fact that one must pay their bills but also likes to goswimming on the weekends. I handle the left-brain activity by telling myself it must be done in order to afford myself the time for the right-brain creation. In other words, I sort of reward myself for the hard work with the creativity. I also have a 2 year old son, however, who is in daycare only 4 hours a day. So I’m forced to do a lot of work in a very tight span of time. That actually makes it easier to prioritize. And I am definitely a woman of deadlines. What is most pressing? What is due now? I put that first, and squirrel away precious hours on the side—naps/nighttime/weekends when my husband is home—for the creativity.
“The publishing business constantly reminds you to respect the reader. You may think you’ve created a great piece of art, but is it clear?” —Susan Henderson
Susan Henderson’s debut novel, UP FROM THE BLUE, was published in September. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and grants from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and The Lojo Foundation. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her writing has appeared in numerous publication including Zoetrope, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, The World Trade Center Memorial, The Future Dictionary of America, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and Not Quite What I Was Planning among many others.
Meredith: I see you as a very connected writer—as in at the hub of many writerly-literary relationships (through your own LitPark and, also, The Nervous Breakdown), as well as linking and really connecting through social media and personal relationships. How does cultivating a writerly community fuel your writing? Does it provide a charge somehow? Is there ever negative energy associated with it? An energy drain?
SUSAN: I never set out to build a social media network. I’ve simply wanted a dialogue with other writers and readers.
Most of my online relationships began at the Zoetrope Virtual Studios, where we workshopped each other’s stories and brainstormed where to submit them. This led to friendships and a clear understanding that we were stronger and had more success when we shared our wisdom and our battle scars. My blog, LitPark, grew out of these relationships and the topics we tended to discuss endlessly—how to pick ourselves up again after a string of rejections, how to decide whether to shake off an editor’s criticism or use it to improve the story. And most often, we simply shared the joy of discovering new authors. Creating LitPark was about making these conversations available to more writers.
The most unexpected gift of expanding these conversations beyond my group of literary-fiction soulmates is that I began to hear about the business and the writing process from thriller, horror, and YA authors. I think listening to people outside of my genre has improved my writing more than anything else—they helped me to see my weak spots and taught me to pay more attention to plot, pacing, and pure entertainment. They taught me how to create suspense.
Do I get a charge out of blogging? Definitely. Writing can be a lonely profession, and you can feel like the biggest failure in the world if you think you’re the only one with a drawer full of rejection letters or the only one who’s worked and worked on a story only to discover it wasn’t salvageable. This long road toward creating a book you think could be published is just easier to walk when you’re in the company of others who understand. Now that I only blog once a month, I can enjoy the community fully (we can support and inspire each other, laugh and cry together) without feeling as if the time has to be carved from my writing schedule. I think I’ve struck a good balance.
Meredith: How has the publishing process changed your view of writing? Or has it? What has it done to your craft, your work? How has it helped (or challenged) you to dig deeper and move forward at once?
SUSAN: The publishing business constantly reminds you to respect the reader. You may think you’ve created a great piece of art, but is it clear? Will a reader who’s worked a long, hard day be able to find their way into your book quickly? Is it worth it for them to turn the page? If someone asks them what your book is about, can they give a simple answer? This is the pressure the publishing world puts on an author, and it’s not easy to respond to that pressure and make the changes, but I think the goal is to better connect with readers and keep them engaged. If you see it that way, rather than seeing it as someone meddling with your art, the feedback can be extraordinarily helpful.
Meredith: Do you judge your work before it’s finished? I guess a better question is: how do you keep from passing too much judgment on your work in order to keep moving forward?
SUSAN: I am the most ruthless editor I know, but I’m pretty comfortable putting my ideas down as they come to me rather than expecting them to be pretty or profound from the start. Later, I’ll bring in the hammer, the saw, and the dumpster for the first round of edits. Before that, however, I try to step out of the way of that urgent, intuitive voice and let it have its say.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
SUSAN: The lesson none of us wants to learn is that our work was rejected because it wasn’t good enough. It may have a spark, we may see or feel or describe things in a way that shows our talent or potential, but the entire piece may not be working. The story may be too quiet, too slow, too dense.
The flip side is that a story that doesn’t work for one person may be exhilarating and life-changing for someone else. A number of classics were dismissed by publishers again and again before they found a home. William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, for example, was called “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” by one prospective editor. And that’s at the heart of what every writer struggles with when they get a rejection letter: Does my work really suck, or do I just need to endure this difficult phase until I connect with the right editor? It’s maddening not to know which of the two answers you’re dealing with, and that I-must-suck voice can really take up residence in your head.
As far as rejection helping with creativity, I don’t know. I don’t tend to think it helps people to be bludgeoned over and over again and to always question whether they have talent or whether they’re in the right field. Mostly, I think, it just hurts.
Meredith: Having never been pregnant myself, I’ve waited for the perfect time to ask this, so here goes: Is birthing a story really like birthing a baby? (I hear this analogy a lot but, well, have never been sure what to think.) If so, does the gestation period feel the same—heartburn and all? How about birthing the actual publication of the book? So I’m asking about the story part, and the biz part, too. Oh, and if not, then what’s it like? Can you create an analogy?
SUSAN: You know, it’s funny, I’ve heard people use that analogy for years, but it’s only now that you’ve asked the question that I realize how much the analogy doesn’t work. And this is why….
When a woman longs to have a baby, she can easily visualize what this baby will look like. Not the details, of course, not the eye color or hair texture. She doesn’t know yet if this baby will have a cleft pallet or a dimple in its chin, but she clearly visualizes a small human weighing between 5 and 9 pounds. The writer doesn’t have this kind of clarity at all. Sometimes the writer has nothing more than a nagging emotion or idea that keeps interrupting her. Perhaps the thought is more formed—I want to write about a war between vampires, a love story between a woman and her dead husband, a parable of grace in the midst of defeat—but even that says little about what the final result might look like.
The woman who wants a baby, meanwhile, sets off to the pharmacy and buys a little kit that tells her she’s pregnant. Her body, assuming all is in order and she stays away from the crack pipe, has now become a vessel for this tiny baby to grow inside of without any conscious effort. The writer, on the other hand, scribbles away, and may be 20 or 100 pages in and still not know what her book’s about or even if she’s creating a book at all. Further, she has no check-ups, diagnostic tests or prenatal vitamins to help her book stay on a healthy path.
Finally, the pregnant woman can expect the baby to be born in nine months, and certainly no later than nine months plus two weeks. The writer may spend nine years laboring over this book with no clear birthdate, no sure sense that it’s finished. And maybe what makes the analogy fail most of all is the expectation that you might love the book you created the way a mother loves a baby. For most writers I know, love is not a word they’d use to describe the feeling of holding a maybe-it’s-finished version of their manuscript, and when they do use that word, it tends to be fleeting.
I’ve oversimplified the ease of pregnancy and the assumption that mothers bond quickly with their babies, but it’s a fascinating question you’ve asked, and I hope your readers chime in with their own thoughts. Maybe they can come up with analogies that work.