“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.
I read Kathryn Chetkovich’s short story, Appetites, (originally published in ZYZZYVA, in 1998, when it was featured in the Best American Short Stories series of that year. I wished so badly to be able to craft a story like that one. Like hers. But mostly what I felt was admiration.
Feeling admiration feels different than feeling envy.
Recently, I had heard, or remembered, or was reminded, that this woman whose story I so deeply admired, was in a relationship (like, long term) with Jonathan Franzen. Then I discovered that she’d written about the internal (and, at times, external) struggle of being in a union when both partners are writers, but only one discovers a certain kind of success and the fame that accompanies their work.
Her piece is called “Envy.” It begins like this:
“This is a story about two writers. A story, in other words, of envy.”
The essay appeared in Granta #82 in 2003. Click here for an excerpt from The Observer, also published that year.
I share the link to that essay (maybe you’ve already seen it?) because her words are powerful and honest. Because her words are inner-writing- journey relevant. And, mostly, because her essay is incredible (in a good way).
In a timeless way.
The writer goes deep about finally trusting her own style, writing what you absolutely love to read and how to make it happen—no matter what. Oh, and Richard Ford.
ANDREA GILLIES’ diverse career includes theatre publicity work, reference book editing, and writing a drinks column for Scotland on Sunday newspaper. Keeper (Short Books) her first book, about becoming a caregiver for her mother-in-law, won the inaugural Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2009 honoring science writing in popular literature. The American edition of Keeper was recently published by Broadway Books.
Meredith: Caring for your parent-in-law and then, writing the memoir, how did you keep from abandoning yourself both on and off the page? How do you know what’s most important when you’re writing?
ANDREA: I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, when I suggested that we pool resources with my in-laws and move together to a big house in the far north of Scotland. I’d been blocked as a writer for a long time, at the time that we moved. Blocked isn’t [exactly] the right word because in the years since giving up being a journalist-editor, to child-raise, and then to be a carer, I’d written two
unpublishable novels and an unwanted (by editors) travel memoir of living in France. I wasn’t blocked exactly, but certainly in terms of the novels I’d written there was something fatally missing there, in terms of language, voice, commentary, analysis, and in the imagined world of the book. So many things that seem obvious now. I was so hungry to get the thing done and get the affirmation and move on to greater glory. What I produced didn’t really get under the surface of the narrative, and the world has enough shallow, surface-dwelling books.
I began to feel a sort of swelling and ripening: something I recognise now as a book pregnancy. Nancy [her mother-in-law] was passing into confusion and its concomitant hostility. She’d lost her prepositions: could no longer imagine on, off, under, up, down, behind. Words were deserting her but at the same time were swelling and ripening in me. Creative writing seeming impossible, I began to keep a diary of the day s.
Keeper didn’t start as a book, but as a book substitute. I’ve come to realise that writing a book substitute is a pretty good way of writing a book. It works: buy the notebooks, the pencils, open the notebook and write a sentence down, a good book opener. That’s maybe all you need. The subconscious will start its work, and one sentence spawns another. Write down everything that’s in your head, without worrying about quality. Make notes: if there’s a book hidden among th em it will show itself. It’s an approach that seems to be working well for the novel I’m writing now. I had a scenario, I had characters, but no real idea how to proceed. So I made notes on them and put them in rooms together and made them have conversations, and that’s how the arc of the plot came about.
I would sit with my mother-in-law in front of the fire, she in her mysterious world of disease-prompted thoughts, staring and muttering and winding her hair round her fingers; me with notebooks and laptop, disappearing down a wormhole out of the present. It wasn’t possible to get physically away – it was a 24/7 job most of the time – so all that was available was this dimensional, virtual escape route, into the world of words and thoughts. I interleaved accounts of what was happening to Nancy with research I’d been doing into the science of Alzheimer’s, and that turned out to be the Keeper format.
There wasn’t really any time: I had to make it happen in the interstices of obligation, so most of it was done early in the morning and late at night. I wrote and wrote and it poured out of me: “Keeper – the Director’s Cut” would be about 3000 pages long.
Meredith: What did you have to unlearn to find your truth as a writer? What had to go? Can you share how? Was there a turning point to your own narrative?
ANDREA: I’d always thought that writers are born and not made. There are lots of bad books out there by people who want to be writers but who aren’t really. But if you’d judged me by my output 5 years ago you would have put me in the same camp. Now I think differently. I think born and made can be the same thing and it can happen any time. If you have the drive to make sentences into pages, if that drive is strong in you, it is ‘just’ a question of finding your authorial voice, a thing way more elusive than mere subject matter. If people ask me who are my important writers I often say Carol Shields and F Scott Fitzgerald and Richard Ford – all Americans, and as Yoda might have said, The Voice Is Strong In Them.
It’s interesting, thinking about the things I now see I was doing badly in the books I thought I was writing five years ago. One of the things was trying to write in a style that wasn’t my own. I wanted to write popular fiction, and the novel I attempted was in that style: plot-led and conversational. That isn’t really me, though. I’m the kind of writer, it turns out, who likes to pause and pivot on a moment. I suppressed this, though, thinking it uncommercial. Now, anybody could have told me that what’s commercial is writing done in its own voice, writing that works, that rings true even though it’s a fiction.
Post-Keeper, I’m confident about writing about what people are thinking. I’m more interested in how people think than what happens to them. How they think and how wrong they can be about what’s happening. That’s what interests me as a reader, and that should have been a clue, all these years, to how I should have been writing. It’s obvious really, isn’t it? What you buy to read, what you gobble down in two days: that’s almost certainly a clue to what kind of writer you are.
But getting back to your question: what did I have to unlearn? I had to unlearn that I was a failure as writer, and that’s difficult. We carry our failures with us, far too much. People hug their failures tight and cherish them. They allow themselves to be defined by them.
I spent a lot of years postponing writing because the conditions weren’t
right: too many interruptions, too many duties, no room of my own, no clear idea of what I was to write about – so many conditions were imposed by myself on myself. But I wrote Keeper on my lap in a series of notebooks while sitting with Nancy in front of medical soap operas. It can be done anywhere. And I’ve discovered lately that even if I’m not in the mood or haven’t a thought in my head, just opening the notebook and lifting the pen opens the channels.
Even if it’s not beautifully phrased and important-seeming stuff—and often it isn’t—something comes out of it, always: a glimpse, a phrase, a new idea. Progress of a sort is always made. I used to read writers and despair because I couldn’t match them for brilliance and polish. But polish is something that comes with writing drafts. Start with something, anything, and improve and improve it. Keeper went to four drafts in the end and the novel’s already on its 6th. The “first draft” that my agent read was the actual fifth.
Meredith: Was the process of writing the memoir more or less emotional than caring for your parent? When you wrote did you relieve, reevaluate or something else? Or was it done simultaneously? Where do you find perspective—and where did you lose it?
ANDREA: The process of writing Keeper was daily, it was fast, it was an outpouring (of facts) that turned pretty quickly into an unleashing (of a sensibility at work on the facts). It was an unemotional process and that was the point. Too many emotional days had left me drained. It was an antidote to that life lived with Nancy and her fears and accusations. It was a gloriously cool, cerebral thing. Cerebral and private. Nancy couldn’t find me there, in the sentence-making; she couldn’t touch it. And when you think about it, it was truly ironic that I should be finding solace from a dementia-carer’s life in precisely the activity that had most devastatingly been denied Nancy: the world of thinking and analysis and the sequential steps of creation. I was able to do that writers’ trick of giving random events shape and meaning and making cohesion out of chaos. It was as far away from Dementia-Reality, the Dementia-Culture, as it was possible to go without leaving the house.
It was tough on occasion being interrupted by Nancy while I was away off in my own world of words. But that wasn’t particular to being a dementia-carer, it turns out. I feel just the same now when I’m mid-sentence and in full flow and it becomes apparent that I need to do something else or pay attention to real people: that a child has been standing in front of me talking for 2 minutes and I haven’t noticed…There are always other things you ought to be doing.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?
ANDREA: Ultimately, I write for psychic survival. I don’t know how else I would cope with the voices of the unlived lives and the unexpressed people that talk to me. I’m not talking about novels, or even about fictions when I say that. I was trying to explain this to my (civilian) husband the other day: that I’m constantly narrating, whether I’m writing or not, and even as I’m living something I’m framing it into a paragraph. This can be a burden, though, as all of us know. It’s difficult to live properly in the present when you’re constantly roaming forward and back, stitch-stitch across the day: a person can suffer from too much perspective, too much overview: it can imbue life with too much distance and objectivity. Something I find borderline worrying about getting into writing as a life is that I need people less. The more involved I get in the narrative the less verbal I get. I feel bad when my husband confesses he thinks I’m growing withdrawn and possibly depressed, when the truth is that I’m very happily engaged in the world of my own secret narratives.
Meredith: What is your favorite writing quote of all time (at least for today!). Now answer this: do you live by it?
ANDREA: Favourite writer quotations change week to week, but this week’s is one from Richard Ford, a sentiment expressed by his hero Frank Bascombe in The Sportswriter: “All we really want is to get to the point where the past can explain nothing about us and we can get on with life”.
I don’t know if this is true or not—knowing what I know now about memory and how crucial it is to identity. Our pasts are what we are. But I quote it to myself when I’m feeling dragged down by the old failures, and when the present feels too coloured by them. I started writing books aged 8 and have had my first commercial success 40 years later. The thing is just to keep going. Every time you pick up your pen is a new start. This seems like a banal sort of message but living as if it’s true is actually quite difficult.
ANDREA lives with her family in the UK where she’s at work on a novel. See what she’s up to any time by following her on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of Andrea Gillies.
This post originally appeared in January, 2010.
The writer/creative says “When I commit to an idea, I do fall in love with it and let it have its way with me.”
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Scripps College in Claremont, California, with a degree in studio art, MARIAN HENLEY created the comic strip Maxine. * From October 1981 until December 2002, Marian Henley’s Maxine “appeared in a head-scratching combination of publications such as San Francisco Chronicle, Heavy Metal, MS, Glamour, Austin Chronicle, LA Weekly, Utne Reader, Asbury Park Press, MAD, Funny Times, and (proudly, she adds) a newsletter for Hawaiian polygamists,” she says. Marian received a grant to create live-action videos of two of her comic strips, and they aired on PBS and The Learning Channel. “As everyone knows,” Marian says, “artists hate money and love to live in wretched obscurity, so it came as quite a blow when Maxine was then licensed by Quaker Oat for a national TV commercial and [I] actually had enough income to report to IRS that year.”
* The young feminist Maxine, first published in 1981, is not to be confused with the old lady Maxine that first appeared in 1986 – although confusion became so rampant that, by 2002, Marian retired the strip in exasperation and now refers to it as Laughing Gas or, occasionally, “The Comic Strip Formerly Known as Maxine.”
Meredith: Does your creative process come from a place of something [unfamiliar] that scares you or from a familiar place of strength? What is that place like?
MARIAN: My creative engines have been roaring all my life. My mother said that, even during infancy when she fed me my bottle, I would trace the designs on her clothing with my fingers so carefully that she believed I could’ve drawn them freehand had I been able to hold a pencil. My older sister has vivid recollections of me playing with my imaginary playmates (Billy, Jimmy, Timmy, and Gay – all boys) and claims I fretted when places weren’t set for them at dinner. I could go on and on about my childhood games, tall tales, and theatrical ventures! So I’m not sure where my creative process originates. It’s simply a given. Creating always, always feels good to me – it comes from a joyful place, a state of rapture even. Fear only creeps in later, when it’s time to show the results to other people.
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?
MARIAN: Well, I’m not always right! Like falling in love, that state of rapture can blind my better judgment. My heart beats faster. I start giggling and sometimes have to jump up and run around or dance. When I commit to an idea, I do fall in love with it and let it have its way with me. Sometimes, as with my comic strip, I get lucky and it works. Other times, like the ten years I spent writing a very heartfelt but very unpublishable (i.e., bad) novel, my passion leads me astray. I tried to write this particular novel in prose; that is not my talent or skill. But I was in love! I could not be stopped! The people around me must’ve been barely buttoning their lips, itching to tell me Give it up, girl, as if I’d been in a marriage sailing through high chop and headed straight for the rocks. I have no regrets, though. However inefficient, that’s the way I work, and really, results be damned, isn’t rapture what it’s all about?
That said, when working on familiar terrain – writing and drawing combined – I’ve honed the ability to forecast results and save myself from a lover’s folly (most of the time…).
Meredith: I’ve loved your work, your comics for years (and years) as have millions. So, here’s a question: Are you first a writer or an artist? When you write do words come first, or images, sounds, a sensation maybe?
MARIAN: I’m an artist first. Writing used to scare me, especially in school when they expected us to write papers that actually made sense. Drawings flow easily from my mind and always have; constructing a narrative and centering it around a theme or point is more of a challenge. I can literally feel the difference between writing and drawing in my brain. Sort of like the difference between tai chi and lifting weights. Both are good, but one feels like floating in a timeless place, while the other makes you groan and sweat and you’re sort of glancing at the clock, wondering when it will be over.
My confidence in writing has grown over the years, ever since a meeting with my psychology teacher in college (her name was Lois Langland; she was a humanist psychologist). I wanted to write a paper about William James and told her, “I don’t know how to write,” and she said, “Just follow your thoughts. Trust them to take you where you need to go.” That was better advice for me than any analytical formula. No one had ever encouraged me to listen to myself; they all wanted me to listen to them.
At this point, neither drawing nor writing feels complete without the other. The words are the skeleton. The images are the muscles, guts, and blood.
Meredith: Are you a “big picture” writer/creator/artist, or do you take the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach? Can you tell us about it?
MARIAN: I do look at the big picture to stay sane and keep the creative process joyful. What happens afterwards, in the marketplace or with readers-cum-critics, can be a jagged terrain, but in a few billion years the sun will incinerate the entire earth anyway! Isn’t that comforting?
The only thing that freezes me in my tracks is fear of rejection. Having made myself sort of public for almost thirty years, rejection to some degree is inevitable. For instance, my early Maxine strips often cut beyond the bone and into the marrow. I was very young and unprepared for the strong pushback from some quarters. A paper in Santa Barbara even received a petition signed by dozens of readers demanding that my strip be cancelled because, they claimed, it mocked violence against women. I was trying to do just the opposite (a hazard of satire). This experience did teach me to be more aware of how my message comes across; I really do care about others’ feelings. Still, it was painful to be completely misunderstood, and criticism still whacks me upside the head. Especially if it’s dismissive or snide. A bad review can affect me for days before my confidence returns.
The marketplace has also obliged me to dance when injustice cuts in. My comic strip Maxine first appeared in print in 1981. A few years later, Hallmark Cards introduced a cartoon character called Maxine, an elderly “crabby” lady as opposed to my young feminist character. The Hallmark Maxine grew into a huge commercial phenomenon, and several excellent lawyers advised me that there was nothing I could do about it. Over the years, my Maxine – being rooted in insight and quirky perspective rather than mass appeal – became more and more marginalized while the other Maxine could hardly be avoided, even appearing on rolls of toilet paper. By the end of 2002, I simply quit the strip to focus on books instead. So we’re talking about twenty years of my life’s work that has been, at least in the eyes of the world, all but buried.
Meredith: How do you know when enough is enough—a frame in a cartoon, a chapter in a book?
MARIAN: Cartoonists have a harder time knowing when enough is NOT enough. It’s an economical art that requires you to pare an idea down to its absolute essence so, ideally, the reader “gets it” in an almost gestalt moment. It’s reductive, sort of like poetry, whereas most other writing is inductive. Writers take an idea and let it expand, so getting too longwinded is a pitfall. A cartoonist’s pitfall is often the opposite: being too succinct.
Letting go of a piece when it’s finished is easier than it used to be. Returning to my “in love” analogy, I used to grieve the ending and miss those ardent feelings along the way. Now I just set it aside and move on!
Marian Henley grew up in Dallas, Texas where the men are men, the women are women, and the children resort to drawing comics, she says.
Her professional career began when boys in her fourth grade class commissioned her to draw Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster (her Werewolf renderings were not, in her opinion, sufficiently freaky, so she refused to release them and issued refunds). During these early days, she also sold quite a few Crayola drawings by going door to door, accurately sizing up most of her neighbors as too nice to pretend they weren’t home.
Today, Marian lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and son. Visit her anytime at her website.
All images courtesy of Marian Henley.
The writer talks about thinking about the reader, the struggle to love and writing never being a waste of time.
Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries, Happy Baby, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up and A Life Without Consequences. He is the founder of The Rumpus.
Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could really accept (and put) yourself on the page?
STEPHEN: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever had a rule like that. I definitely have never had a rule in regards to writing that made me feel safe and in control. I can’t even imagine what that would look like. You get stuck in things that work for one project but not for the next. I went through a period of wanting everything to be a scene, no back story, no narration, definitely no exposition. That worked really well while writing Happy Baby, but after a while it made writing boring for me. Maybe it’s good to have different rules for different projects?
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?
STEPHEN: I think writing is pretty wrapped up in my identity at this point, and I’ve always written to communicate. I get the “extension of our own biology” thing, but it seems a little romantic. I’ve made peace with being a writer, or an artist. But I don’t see it as noble. It’s how I get through the day. And I guess I’m proud of the work I put into the world, most of the time. And I’m always grateful when someone reads my work.
Meredith: In regards to baring myself (oneself, yourself) on the page…. Ironically, for me, the first stages are pretty easy, because I know that the letting it out is therapeutic. The later stages, the shaping the work into something I’ll go public with is much harder for me internally. For me that “next” stage symbolizes responsibility, maturity and owning my message/story/words and makes me feel far more vulnerable that the earlier stages. Maybe it’s really about growing up and not about writing at all. What do you think? Is your process completely different or can you relate?
STEPHEN: I don’t think I can relate to that. What I’m thinking about in the later stages is the reader, why would anybody want to read this? Do I have enough tension? Is this boring? Understandable? I’m always trying to go further in my work, in terms of honesty, closer to “the truth” or that thing like “the truth” that is more of an ambition, a quest, than an actual destination. Recently I’ve been wondering about those goals. I think I’m struggling for some purified state of radical honesty (that sounds stupid). I’m trying to grow as a person through my work. In other words, the struggle is to love.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
Meredith: Ira Glass, host of This American Life said something about stories a long time ago*: “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Lately that quote has been reminding me of something one of my professors told me my sophomore year of college: “The burden of insight.” In a way, insight can be a gift but also a burden, while following a thread and waiting for a message to be revealed can be a gift, but the waiting can feel (to the ego, maybe?) like lost time. Have you ever had to tackle the burden of insight—or are you at one with the process of waiting things out?
STEPHEN: I don’t know. I like that Ira Glass quote. I’ve never heard that before. Things take the time they take. Writing is not efficient. You have to edit and reread things continually, hundreds or thousands of times. You write and write and you cut and cut. People don’t want to write because they don’t know where they’re going but that’s defeatist. You’re not supposed to know where you’re going. The destination may or may not present itself. No guarantees. Surely, for most of us, to get 200 pages you would have to write at least 1,000. I think what Glass is saying here is don’t force yourself to finish a piece that’s not finished. But that doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything. You’re editing, rewriting. Work and work and then, inspiration strikes. It’s mysterious, arriving on its own terms. That’s the golden time.
Anyway, writing is never a waste of time unless writing is always a waste of time. If insight is a burden what should we hope for instead? What else has any value? Writing is all about “lost time.” You can’t be a writer without flat-beds stuffed with lost time, irretrievable time, time you will never get back. It’s also selfish. Selfish to sit in a room, ignoring friends and family. The thing I hate more than anything (well, not more than racism, and not more than people who hate things, and not more than people who are mean for the sake of it) is writers who think the world owes them something for their work. It takes lots of time, and then nobody pays you, and then nobody reads what you’ve written. I prefer to accept all of that.
Still, I like it. I like writing. I like sitting with my thoughts and trying to figure out the world for a few hours every morning. You have to want to do it and if you don’t want to do it then do something else. What I would say, and this has nothing to do with your questions, is try to write something good, try to write someone’s favorite book. Not everyone’s favorite book (or story, or essay) because there’s no such thing as a book that everybody loves. Don’t worry about what the publisher said, or what your agent said. Remember why you did it. Have you created art? Don’t worry about money. Do something else for money, or become a journalist or a technical writer. But don’t be an artist for money. If it doesn’t seem like time well spent go to the park, marry someone, watch a movie.
Or something like that.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Elliott.
*I jotted it down after hearing it on the radio during the late 1990s.
The writer talks about secret gems hidden inside the known, waiting and the value of all our pages.
AIMEE BENDER is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (a New York Times Notable Book, 1998), An Invisible Sign on My Own (Los Angeles Times book pick of 2000) and Willful Creatures (nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the 2005). Twice the winner of the Pushcart prize, her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including GQ, Harpers, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and many more, and heard on This American Life. Her newest book, a novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, was very recently published by Doubleday. [Side note: Here’s another interesting interview with Aimee in The Wall Street Journal online, about her newest book.)
Meredith: I was trained as a therapist and as a result was trained to strike a delicate balance of letting the client guide the session but also encouraging growth and change. There are, however, times when the therapist, in order to help the client move forward (or deeper), must raise issues to keep the process from stagnating. How do you see this playing out for the creator/writer? For you?
AIMEE: Interesting question. I do generally follow the first route, where I’m letting the story (client) guide where I’m going. In fact, that seems to be the only way I’m able to get work to move forward. Maybe the parallel is that I’m paying close attention to where the fire is, where the juice is, and if something seems interesting but I’ve skipped over it, then I really try to slow down and return to the scene/moment and dig around. I can get a better sense now of when I’m racing past something potentially loaded.
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?
AIMEE: I think the familiar can be okay—I guess my main feeling is that the writer has to write what’s interesting to her/him on any particular day, and that may be the familiar on Tuesday and something adventurous on Wednesday. But usually if we’re drawn to something familiar, it’s because there’s more in there; something unfamiliar is hiding inside the known. So if a writer wants to write constantly about baseball, but is doing it with increasing focus and care, then that seems fine to me. Stagnating does happen—but for me it has more to do with a certain level of concentration than any content or topic. I stagnate when I am having trouble concentrating, which may in itself be a clue that something’s brewing…
Meredith: I once heard you speak at Vroman’s in Pasadena (a long time ago!). You shared that one of your favorite places to write was in your closet because the confined space provided a feeling of safety. As someone who has long been a small-space writer, I totally related. Can you share how this frees you up to expand—on the page?
AIMEE: Nice that you remember that. I did write in the closet for 2+ years, but then moved out of it and felt liberated. It was small in there, and dusty! But I do like small spaces, and I don’t want to look out the window while writing because then I just want to look out the window. There’s a quote by E.L. Doctorow, and I’m going to paraphrase it badly here, but it’s something about how you want the words to be the way in, the way through. The window. So small spaces add a certain containment for me that can allow me to go deeper into the material.
Meredith: Ira Glass, host of This American Life, once said: “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Does your writing require a lot of waiting?
AIMEE: Yes! I love this quote. Waiting is so hard. I often quote Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, who talks about boredom, and talks about boredom as a place of waiting. And I think it’s true—on the other side there is work, but there’s a deep restlessness between me and the work sometimes and all I want to do is anything else. I write so many pages that I end up cutting, so it’s waiting in the quiet, and it’s waiting while working, too.
Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?
AIMEE: I usually work on something else. Or several other things. Until I start to miss the first piece and go back to it a little fresher. And if I don’t feel like going back to it, then I think that’s meaningful too, and the lessons I learned in it will show up in the next piece which is often easier to write. I like to believe that all the work is useful, even if it’s not working.
AIMEE lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at USC. When I asked for something quirky about herself she wrote: “I’m the daughter of a psychoanalyst, so these psych questions are very satisfying. I have a compost wheel that is not working but I keep dumping fruit and veggies in there, hoping.” Visit her website for links to her stories and more.
Photos courtesy of Aimee Bender.