The writer talks about thoughts and actions, the constant of change and the push-pull of boundaries in writing.
Irene Levine is a psychologist, journalist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University-Langone School of Medicine. She has written for practically ever major newspaper and many major magazines in the United States–see for yourself on her website. Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend is Irene’s first solo-authored book. Before writing the book, she surveyed more than 1500 women who were willing to pour their hearts out to her as long as they could remain anonymous.
Meredith: You write about friendships and breakups of those friendships. Can you translate that wisdom into a paradigm that includes writer and his/her writing? How can we feed and fuel that relationship?
IRENE: Like my friendships, my journey as a writer has been dynamic with many twists and turns along the way. My writing is profoundly influenced by what I am thinking, what I am doing, and how I am feeling at a particular time. Although my writing interests and style have changed (and hopefully grown) over time, my love for words and the all the tools associated with them (paper, pens, typewriters, computers and good old books) have been a constant.
I’ve had multiple careers that seemingly are disparate but all of them are tied together by heavy use of the written word to communicate to diverse audiences—or at least that was how I chose to operationalize each of those roles. I’ve been an elementary school teacher, a clinical psychologist, a program administrator, a mental health policymaker, a communications director, a professor, a freelance journalist and more recently an author of two non-fiction books.
As I look back, both my friendships and my writing have been typified by change. Each time I changed careers, it was because something pulled me in another direction but it all seemed like it was flowing on the same trajectory. The same thing happens with friendships. All of a sudden, you feel out of sync with someone you thought would be your friend forever and you know that it’s time to make a change but you carry the changed you into your new relationships. Some friends have made me a better mother, others a better wife, others a better writer, and all of them a better friend.
Meredith: Friendships are about healthy boundaries, so where do boundaries fit for you in writing and help your craft and art?
IRENE: Great question—because I have to admit that I have a bit of a boundary problem. The freelance life has no set boundaries—which is not very good for a person like me. I periodically need to remind myself that balance is necessary to make me a better person and a better writer.
All friendships need boundaries that feel comfortable for both people or else the friendship is a source of tension. That’s something I need to tell myself as well when a friendship begins feeling toxic.
Meredith: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is—the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?
IRENE: The running conflict in my life is never having enough time to do all the things I would like to do. When I have deadlines for articles, books or other projects, I need to position myself in a box where I can be totally immersed in my writing and creating without being distracted by the other things I would like to do or need to do.
Meredith: What purpose does rejection serve us in the process of creation?
IRENE: Would I rather receive an acceptance rather than a rejection? Any time! But each time I’ve been rejected it has made me stretch and do something differently, if not better.
Meredith: Friendship is about authenticity. I think the best friendships enable us to relate to ourselves more fully as well as the other person. Let’s say the same goes for writing. So, have you ever abandoned yourself in your writing, and by that I mean not been true to your voice, if you didn’t like the way a piece of work was headed? How did you get back on track—or how do you?
IRENE: As a non-fiction writer, when you’re writing for someone else’s publication (a magazine article or report) for example, you have to assume the editorial voice rather than your own. A few times I’ve received assignments from publications whose voice was so different than mine that it felt like a struggle. I never thought I would get through that article for Corvette Quarterly that required me to get into the mind of a Corvette owner. I needed to spend more time interviewing real people who had that mindset and ultimately had to have someone else edit the piece to get me back on track. One of the joys of blogging is being able to write in your own voice, largely unfiltered.
The closer a piece is to my own voice, the more satisfying the assignment feels and often the better it is received by readers.
Just last month Irene was on local television in DC and on The Today Show in New York. She can’t wait until she’s finished her book tour so she can resurrect all the friendships that she’s placed on temporary hiatus. She blogs as The Friendship Doctor at The Huffington Post and Psychology Today and on her own at The Friendship Blog.
The writer talks about tempering fear with passion, the warning signs of repetition, and being a trendsetter, not a copycat.
Christine Schwab is the author of The Grown-Up Girl’s Guide to Style and Quickstyle (published under her maiden name, Kunzelman). She has talked about style on Oprah!, NBC Nightly News, CBS-The Early Show, The Today Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, Rachael Ray, Inside Edition, CNBC News, Fox Network News, E! Entertainment and Weekend Today. She is a former contributing style editor to Redbook, and has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and many, many others.
Meredith: How do you balance the outer world of beauty with the inner world of writing when you create? Is it seamless or conflicted? Is the intersection, in fact, quite natural?
CHRISTINE: For me the intersection is totally natural. I never have to stop and think about it. My world of fashion and beauty is part of me, it comes out on my pages in many different ways. My insight into people. My visual analysis of situations. My love for texture and color. I know some writers can go completely out of their realm and write. I am not one of them so far. .. Everything I write reflects on my background, my career in television and fashion and beauty, and who I am as a person. Having just finished my first fiction book after publishing two books of non-fiction, I am seeing how characters take on a life of their own and have the ability to take me, as the writer on a journey totally unplanned. It’s exciting and stimulating to realize that I may indeed go down different paths as I write more fiction. And who knows, someday I may write something totally unique when it comes to my life and experiences. I look forward to exploring fiction more and seeing where it takes me. It’s like moving to a new place, taking a new job, or going back to school. You never know how you will come out from the experience, but the journey is fascinating.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. How about you?
CHRISTINE: I just finished my first novel and fell so in love with the characters and the journey they were taking me on that the day I wrote the last sentence I actually felt a sense of loss and cried. And for several more days I felt empty, missing my new found friends. Before, the closest I came to this feeling was with my first two non-fiction books when I mailed the package off to my agent. I actually wrote Federal Express with a commercial idea: how as a writer I felt as if I was packing up my first born and shipping him off. Of course Federal Express hires one of the most prestigious public relations companies in the world to do their commercials so they passed on my idea. Still, as I handed the package over to the Fed Ex man my emotions were raging. I had worked so hard to turn my pages into a story and now it was in someone else’s hands. Out of my control. Now, with everything electronically transferred, it is the same feeling when I press the send button on my computer. How can we not feel so close to our work when we put our heart and soul on the pages?
Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up? How do you temper fear?
CHRISTINE: Most successful writers I know have either fear or extreme nerves over a project. I find this good because it means you’re making demands of yourself. Fear is always an issue for me. Some days I feel like I can do anything. Other days I read my words and question what I have written. As in the television world where I have worked for many years, one always questions their talents. I feel because we put so much of ourselves out there when we write and read, or submit, or go out to sell, how can one not be afraid? Rejection is tough, no matter how experienced a writer you are. I know a writer who has written and sold over a dozen books and with each new book she expresses fear.
I have written and sold two books and now I have a novel out in the “for sale” world and I am once again in my fear mode. Will it sell? One day I know it will: it’s good, it’s timely and well written. The next day I think of all the reasons it won’t sell: the economy, it’s too long, it’s my first work in fiction and I am known for non-fiction. Try as I might, I can’t stop vacillating back and forth. Can any writer? I have all the ‘believe in yourself’ slogans surrounding me. I wear a good luck bracelet. I am a great believer and a very positive person and yet fear sneaks up on me. However I think fear makes us try harder, grow as writers and move forward because those victories are oh so sweet.
I temper fear with passion. I remind myself how happy writing makes me. How much I adore the process. As I sent this last book to my agent I asked my husband to remind me when I get down about the enjoyment I had in writing. I cut out encouraging sayings and tape them all around my desk:
If everyone thinks your ideas are good they aren’t ideas, their copies.
I will write myself into well being.
If it was easy everyone would be doing it.
Fear? Yes, it’s part of being a writer for me.
Meredith: When you write and report on image and style, does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd?
CHRISTINE: I have to write about what I believe, even if it gets me in trouble. That said, isn’t it the perfect solution to write what you believe in that makes readers happy? That is a best seller Don’t we all want a best seller?
If I write only to please readers I’m not giving any honest information, just copy-cat words. My job is to look at the trends and translate them for real people. Not fashion people. Not designers. People who will go to the stores and spend their money on what they feel are the most important purchases. Especially today, when money is tight you don’t want to invest in fads, you want longevity. In The Grown-up Girl’s Guide To Style I spoke from experience and honesty. People loved me or disliked me because I didn’t always tell them what they wanted to hear, I told them what they should hear. I feel that my value as a fashion writer is to help people. Style is something anyone can learn. I look at my job as being a teacher. I have great experience, I want to share it with readers. I never want to be a copy-cat. After my book came out many other books followed that adopted much of my philosophy. That’s when I know I’m doing my job.
Meredith: Once you have the basic idea for what you will be writing about, how do you expand on it? Now answer this: How do you know when enough is enough—a line in an essay, a chapter in a book?
CHRISTINE: You have to write what you know. I have never found it hard to fill up a book because I always write what I know and believe in. If you’re reaching for fillers you are most likely on the wrong topic. I feel when you’re writing what you know the words flow. Sure you come to a glitch every now and then, but basically you know where you’re going and how to get there.
I think you know enough is enough when you start repeating yourself. You fill in with long descriptions or dialogue that slows the story. You start looking at other books or magazines and pulling ideas from them instead of from your own head. I believe the more I can take someone into my head, the better the journey. The deeper I dig, the more fulfilling the work, for both me and my reader.
Christine lives with her husband in southern California where she is at work on a second book of fiction. “While many writers only deal with the ‘art,’ I feel you must take a look at the climate and write accordingly. My 25 years in front of the television cameras taught me to flow with the tides. Unless you are only writing to please yourself, you need to see what’s selling, or in the case of my fashion TV work, what’s hot and what’s not. Hot sells. It doesn’t mean you are selling out by any means, it simply means you are being smart,” she says. You can get to know more about her at her website, right here.
Playwright, performer and author Rachel Shukert author of, Have You No Shame muses about creative versus productive, when an idea is rememberable and the drama of obsession.
Meredith: Playwright, memoirist, satirist… when it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe? Describe the relationship.
RACHEL: Friend and foe, absolutely. I used to think my relationship to my mind was like a relationship with a close friend or romantic partner, in that sometimes you love them and sometimes they drive you crazy, but lately I’ve started to think it’s a little more like the relationship I imagine one might have with a conjoined twin with whom one shares a vital organ such as a liver. The relationship is necessarily an extraordinarily close one, to the point that it is impossible to imagine an existence without the other, (indeed, if separated, both organisms will die) but it would be really nice to have a break once in a while. The other day I mentioned to a friend that it might be nice to be able to die just for a day or two, just to have a little time off. As we were standing on an abandoned subway platform at the time, he looked at me with understandable horror, but I stand by my statement. As long as you could come raging back to life as though nothing had happened, and not have to learn how to speak or walk or use the toilet all over again, I think it might be very pleasant to be temporarily dead. It would certainly give you a hell of an opening statement at cocktail parties and lunch meetings.
As far as the specifics of your question, I would say that my mind is a friend when I have an idea that I find genuinely new and surprising, and even better, the ability to adequate execute that idea. In the absence of these infrequent flashes of brilliance, I consider it a friend when it is simply working properly–like most people, I would imagine. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy people (and by extension, their minds) are all alike. If I’m not currently having a panic attack or berating myself for being a talentless failure, I’ll take it.
I think you managed to sum up one aspect of my mind as foe in the phrasing of your question, where you list all the various genres in which I have
attempted to write something of even middling value. While I feel fortunate to work in a lot of mediums, this can also be a problem in terms of focus–it’s sometimes difficult for me to feel invested in any one project when I am constantly having ideas for the next one, and the next. This may sound like a blessing, but it can really be a curse–or at the very least extremely distracting. The new, as yet unformed idea gets all my enthusiasm, while the old one still in process starts to feel like a chore: always the kiss of death. But it’s just the way my process works, I guess, for better or for worse.
Meredith: Do you trust yourself when you write? Always? What does trust of your abilities look like in the messy process of creation?
RACHEL: I have sort of a cycle: at the beginning, I usually feel sort of tentative and shy, as though the computer and I have just met and I’m not sure exactly what the boundaries of our relationship are. Then things begin to get comfortable and easy–I always compare it to when you start exercising again after a long time of not going to the gym–at first you’re kind of nervous and full of dread, but then it begins to get easier, ever automatic. Eventually, usually about halfway through I sort of crash into a wall and sort of hit rock bottom and lose my mind, at which point I would say my trust in my abilities looks exhausted and weepy, with streaks of mascara running down its face and usually one half to three quarters drunk. This period of utter, blind despair can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, but when it’s over, I usually feel like I know what I’m doing and what the project needs, which generally takes me through to the end. It’s not pretty, but it’s at least predictable, and I usually find that as long as I trust that at some point I will figure out the puzzle, so to speak, and just let myself get there, things fall into place. But that can be a challenge. Oddly, whenever I’ve written in collaboration with someone, I find I trust myself a lot more. I don’t know if it’s a feeling of having to keep up appearances and really commit to your ideas and be able to defend them to get them through, or just that having another person to bump up against is sort of like having a built in audience, and you sort of know immediately what works and what doesn’t. It takes some of the guesswork out of it.
Meredith: The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature. This is what Julia Cameron says in, The Artist’s Way. What’s your take?
RACHEL: I don’t know if that’s true. I think that human beings are obviously naturally creative–every object and idea in the universe points to that. But I think there are a lot of different ways of being creative, and I think we sometimes discount those that don’t conform to our chosen field, or further some kind of larger objective–whether it’s where we want to be in our careers, or some kind of huge goal we are trying to accomplish. A person can be creative in a lot of little ways that are not necessarily fulfilling in the long term, or have a great effect on the world or our lives, but can be very satisfying in the moment. For example, I spend my working life trying to create these big projects, be they books or scripts or whatever–but sometimes I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when I’ve say, baked a cake that came out well, or painted the living room. This may not be creative in the sense that we think of it, but they are inarguably acts of creation, and at least in the short term, can be very satisfying. I don’t think I’d be happy if that was all I did, but I think it’s important to remember all the little things we do that are creative. And by the way, I think I would swap out the word “creative” for “productive,” which I think is much less loaded and in my mind has a lot more value. I just try to be productive. I think that’s the most admirable way to be.
Meredith: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
RACHEL: I have a lot of ideas where I think: wouldn’t it be great if someone did this? That somebody isn’t always me. If it isn’t, I find it sort of ends there–there’s this idea like: Oh, I wish there was a movie about this! Oh, I wish somebody would write this particular book! and that’s it. I don’t necessarily have any ideas about how it should be done. If it really is an idea that is going to work for me, however, I usually have a sudden cascade over the next day–or even the next couple of hours–of sort of secondary ideas–how would it work? Who would the characters be? What are the mechanics? What are some details or potential funny lines? How should it be executed? I often start to feel really excited and kind of manic, but I almost never start working on anything right away. For one thing, I’m usually too backed up with other projects, and besides, I like to let things sort of stew for a while. If it’s a really good idea, those other ideas will keep coming over the course of several months, even a couple of years, before I actually get around to writing it–and that’s how I know. If it’s held my attention that long, it’s worth pursuing. I also don’t like to write too many things down when I first get an idea. If it’s a good idea, I’ll remember it. If it isn’t, I’ll forget, and that’s for the best.
Meredith: You are so funny (love your book!)– and your writing is edgy. But being human, what’s the biggest, not-good-for-you lie you tell yourself about your skill, craft and talent? How do you set yourself straight, un-believe the lie?
RACHEL: Well first of all, thank you! This is a hard question to answer. I’m not sure. I don’t know if this is a lie, per se, but one thing I do that really isn’t good for me is obsess way too much about my career and where I am in the relative spectrum of literary success, especially as compared to other people that I know and worrying whether I measure up. It takes way too much energy and is at least as destructive as it is motivating. I try just to focus on what I can actually affect–i.e., trying to do the best work I can, but that can be pretty boring compared to torturing myself over press and sales and whether or not I’m ever going to be successful–whatever my definition of that is, and it’s constantly changing. It’s like how they say that old is whatever is 15 years older than what you are; that’s what “success” is for me. Success is whatever I’m not. And I know that isn’t a thought that’s very good for me or my work.
The writer talks about reaching out to an audience, the benefits of writing quickly and when the only thing that works is a lie.
Judith Schwartz has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, The New York Times, Glamour, Redbook and More South Africa, to name but a few. She is the author of three books: The Mother Puzzle, Tell Me No Lies and, her most recent, The Therapist’s New Clothes, a memoir about her experience training as a psychotherapist.
Meredith: Does your creative process spring from a place that scares you or from a place of strength?
JUDITH: Both – but I bounce back and forth between the two. It begins with an impulse, a sense of knowing, even before I’m conscious of an idea. But then actually starting to write something is scary. And not knowing that anything will come of it is scary. Yet that knowing, wherever it comes from and no matter how irrational it may be, keeps driving me forward.
Meredith: “Process” is something that is well-known to therapists—process as noun and as verb. The destination is the journey and the reward is in the doing kind of process. When it came to writing, are you able to be as objective with yourself?
JUDITH: I’d hear the same thing from my clinical supervisor that I do from my husband, Tony Eprile, who’s taught writing a bunch of places including the U of Iowa Workshop: “Trust the process”. The challenge is that you don’t know how long that process will take! Or, necessarily what will be the key to moving the process forward for a given work. I wrote the The Therapist’s New Clothes quickly, because I simply had to write the thing, and then built more layers on the basic draft. I’m writing a novel, and a suggestion of Tony’s is helping tremendously: he said to write the main characters’ fears and desires from their point of view. This helped me understand my characters at a level I hadn’t before. From now on this exercise will be a part of my process. But before you think I’ve got some sort of edge by living with a pro, know that I’ve been working on this thing for years! And the more he looks at it, he gets too close to the material himself.
Meredith: Is a muse part of your process?
JUDITH: I believe I’ve got to sit down at the desk and try or the muse will have no opportunity to visit me. But being a well-behaved creative citizen is no guarantee. Often ideas come when I’m taking a walk with my dog. As with so many things it’s a balance between discipline and letting go.
Meredith: I am thinking about your memoir and a recent interview on My Faith Project when I ask this: When you write does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning? Or at the middle (or end)?
JUDITH: For me, the drive to reach out to the reader is implicit. With nonfiction, this works: if I’m truly connecting to what I’m writing, the reader will feel connected too. With fiction, I’m not there yet. My initial impulse is to convey sensibility (which is what I read for). I’m still learning about making story central, which is essential to most readers’ experience. The exercise I mentioned has definitely helped.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
JUDITH: I try to make deals with myself like ‘don’t check emails until finishing the piece’ but they never work. The only thing that works is a lie: at the top of the page I write “Notes” or “Rough Draft”. It’s a lie because, whatever I call it, I’m embarking on the work rather than just edging toward it. But it tricks me into thinking the stakes are low, so that I can actually do it. Often, at the very last minute, I’ve had to take out the “Notes” heading before I send it to an editor.
Judith lives and works in an open, airy house on the side of a mountain in Southern Vermont. In addition to working on a new novel, she says she’s been reconnecting with my “inner reporter” and writing on topics that a year ago she didn’t know existed—as in alternative currencies and local economic models. She claims the only time she gets writers’ block is when asked for a brief bio about herself. Visit her website and blog to get the scoop.
(The one with the book? That’s Thembi.)
Writing for me is best when the words, images, fragments and impulses to pour from the unconscious onto the page. In a way, this pen movement is flow. It’s like taking water and pouring it into a glass only it looks like ink pouring into words on the page.
Like the unconscious (or an underground stream, to keep the water analogy going), flow is –thankfully, gratefully–a constant. It’s my calling, my work, my joy as a writer to harvest those unconscious gems from the never-ending rush of energy (flow) that stirs within me–within all of us. When I open myself up to flow, I’m less self-conscious and more creative-conscious–and confident.
A not-so-good habit of mine is to step out of flow and try to take charge–aka: write a certain way. When that doesn’t work I have been known (hate to admit this) to pout, cry, and–the biggest bummer–avoid my creation for days. This avoidance is not the same as letting the creation “breathe.” Nope. It’s more like I’m mad at it for not turning out the way I wanted it to turn out. Of course I was unwilling to be myself in the process so how could my work be authentic? From there I berate myself for being talentless; for not having luck or thinking positive enough. Does this sound bizarre or do you relate? Even a little?
My answer is to surrender to flow–which I sometimes call Flo, as in a person I trust (or cling to) who’ll show me the way. The way, of course, leads back to myself, to the deepness in me, to the well of energy that is waiting to catch and cradle me–that’s longing for me to once again be a part of it as much as I’m craving to have it in my work.
There might always be a part of me that is obsessed with TV shows where a fix is “revealed” and everything is tidied up nicely—at least on the air. I’m not talking about a story that’s truly lit from within (I love these, but am not obsessed with them—interesting, huh?). I’m referring to when someone who knows everything tells people who supposedly know nothing what they are supposed to know and do and be. These shows are rigged so one person appears superior, the other, quite the opposite.
Exactly what hooks me in.
A few years ago I was hooked by an Oprah show about money and debt. People in massive amounts of financial debt shared the hour with money guru Suze Orman—fixer, all knower. I have nothing against Suze (or Oprah!), but who knew there was such a thing as a money guru—that money deserved a guru. The word implies expertise, inner knowledge, aboveness and the privilege of telling other people what to do. At least in shows like this one.
Suze said: “People first, then money, then things.” Oprah made eye contact with the camera—with me, as though making sure I got it.
Oh, I got it. I don’t remember if the TV guests got it, or what they said upon hearing Orman’s ordinal concept. All I remember was thinking damn, this sucks. I wasn’t in financial debt, nor had (or have) I been; I can’t speak from that place. But I can tell you that the notion of valuing people first messed with my ordinal concepts of reality, though not in the way it sounds.
The humiliated faces of Oprah’s guests reminded me of many a job interview at the exact moment when salary was discussed. There was that higher (better) than/lower (less) than dichotomy. Salaries, quite frankly, have little to do with debt—unless you you’re talking about self-debt—which I am.
As a writer, a freelancer, a former social worker/therapist, and employee, valuing myself when it came to negotiating my rates—money—has sometimes been so unpleasant (in my own head) I’d just take whatever you want to give me. Sure, I can obsess all I want about money (again, in my head)—control it there (ha!)—but say it out loud? Too scary. You might think I’m greedy. You might think I’m taking it away from you. You might think there’s not enough to go around. These are some of the basic tenets of self-debt, along with worrying what you might think.
Money. I’ve lived in fear of having it and of losing it. I’d inherited fears from my family, and morphed up quite a few rich ones of my own (another post, another day).
So yes. People first, then money. When you talk about people, this means me, myself. Which means honor my deepest truth and the rest flows naturally into place. It does not flow, however, if I believe you hold my answers (which would indicate not valuing myself first) and are keeping them from me.
It would be a lie to say that for a split second, sitting there in my living room, I didn’t want Orman to come to my house and tell me how to fix me. Or just fix me herself. A self-debtor is constantly forgetting that the answers are always inside, just like her voice, her creative process, her words. We tend to think these gifts are outside—found in places like TV where a guru is ready to dole out advice.
The more I recover my truth—inside me—the less susceptible I am to falling for the lie that someone else has my answers. You?