“There is also nothing like failing to please to make you realize that in the end, you have to please yourself.”
Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia. THE GIRLS FROM CORONA DEL MAR, published by Knopf, is her first novel. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and son.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
RUFI: I think our first ideas of writers come from our experience as readers: I still remember being sixteen or seventeen and reading Faulkner, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf and thinking that there was something about them that was different, almost otherworldly. And perhaps there is. But if I set out every day trying to be a Great Wise One, I would scare myself out of writing at all. In the end, I think most writers write because they love it, and not because they want to “be a writer.” It’s an abiding obsession with the activity that sustains you.
Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?
RUFI: The truth is that I would rather be writing than doing almost anything else. So I find it incredibly easy to turn off Twitter or Facebook, ignore whatever I am supposed to be doing, and just go. I think this has something to do with work habits. I have made it a priority to write daily for many years, and I think doing that allows you to slip in and out of that mode at will. But silencing your own internal chatter– your doubt, your inner critic, that’s much harder. I have a variety of techniques, but they all boil down to the same thing, which is that I simply allow myself to get interested and stop worrying about whether what I am writing is good. Sometimes that means I spend a few days just writing out backstory I know won’t be used. Sometimes I write in a different document so I don’t feel what I’m doing is “permanent.” But the real trick is just finding a way to give yourself permission to get lost in what you’re doing.
Meredith: When you find it hard to pay attention to your writing, what does it mean?
RUFI: Sometimes it means I have something big going on in my life: a wedding, a new baby, a new job. Sometimes it means there is something about the novel that isn’t clicking yet for me, that there is a big piece missing and I just have to wait and keep mentally fiddling until it falls into place. I tend to think about things for a long time before I start writing, years even. And then my initial writing is still very loose and exploratory. But it is rare for me to not be fascinated or even obsessed with what I am doing. If I am “bored” with something, I don’t write it, I give up on it immediately. Maybe that’s terrible advice! But I think you can’t really control the subjects that obsess you. You’re sort of gifted your material by birth and circumstances, and the best you can do is mine your little patch of earth.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
RUFI: Well, sometimes when people tell you something is bad, it is because it is. And you have to be more interested in fixing the thing than in nursing your own vanity. There is also nothing like failing to please to make you realize that in the end, you have to please yourself. This can be very freeing. To be liberated from the tastes of others is perhaps a necessary stage in the development of one’s own taste. But I do think that very young artists, writers in their teens especially, should be sheltered from harsh criticism for as long as possible. I know that isn’t a popular opinion. But when I was fifteen I was in a writing workshop where we were only allowed to give positive feedback. Literally, we weren’t allowed to utter one critical word. I have never seen people progress as quickly as they did in that class. By the end, everyone’s writing had improved dramatically. It was jaw dropping. It taught me something about where we write from. It’s easier to see where our work is strong and steer toward it, but much harder trying to “stop doing” something that is a fault.
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?
RUFI: I do not see my novels as children or as extensions of self. I see them as very elaborate dreams. I see them as spaces I have built. Almost like a house I have built. Once I have finished building, I rarely visit it again. When I see it again, I can remember building it, and I can see all over again the places where I failed and the places that came together like I wanted, but there is none of the intimacy you would expect in your example of the work as a child. My work feels very thing-ly to me. But the characters themselves, they do feel alive, and they feel more like people I remember but no longer talk to, people I went to high school or college with but haven’t seen lately, and it always kind of surprises me when people mention the characters in my books, and I think, “You know Lorrie Ann too!?!” I feel this surge of intimacy with them, as though we know a real person in common and not just a fictional one. But the best characters come to you in such a strong way that you don’t feel like you made them up. Characters are by far the weirdest part about writing fiction, I think.
Visit Rufi at rufithorpe.com
[Thank you, Rufi!]
Just like I can’t control what other people do, sometimes I can’t control which direction my writing is headed. I feel so powerless, no—impotent. Though I shouldn’t. Because I have no business trying to control.
Just like living beings, my words have their own footprints and fingerprints. If I respect that then my words, once on the page, allow me to shape and finesse them. The story arc, the words, the themes are already there, waiting for me to listen, to receive them, write them down and consider them. And, when the time is right, let others connect with them, too.
I work well with a deadline because it gives my mind little time to get involved all on its own, to set up camp and start cooking up “smart” reasons why I shouldn’t say it this way or that way–or why I should say it at all. Know what I mean? For some reason, the deadline keeps my mind joined with my heart, and vice versa. This is simply another way of saying I’ve managed to slip into a kind of flow.
The controlling writer in me is not a disciplined writer, though it would like to think it is (ha) and it would like me to think it is (double ha [ha]). It would have me believe it is oh so disciplined, principled even. It’s not. The surrendered writer in me is, though it is not concerned with being called that. It intuitively knows what to do. It’s is open and willing. Mostly, willingness is enough. It doesn’t mind if I write on a scrap of paper, on my computer, in a Mead notebook, in the margins of the newspaper, or tap them into my phone. It doesn’t care if I write when I’m sitting at a stop light in the car or if I’m standing in the library or at Starbucks or if it’s noon or three in the morning. The surrendered writer in me is always ready and willing to release the words and allow them to be shaped and sculpted. And when the words aren’t there, the surrendered writer knows they will come. The controlling writer is, um, how shall I put it? Oh, here’s the word that best describes it: constipated…and very untrusting.
For today, I’m willing to be that surrendered writer. I mean, I can always resort to being the controlling one, right?
[Such terrific insights about the writerly process. ]
The writer on finding his place, there being no such thing as “I feel like it“ and what he cherishes most about writing.
Jim Ruland’s newest novel, FOREST OF FORTUNE (Tyrus) is about an alcoholic, an epileptic, and a gambling addict who try to turn their luck around at a decrepit Indian casino. He’s also the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and creator and host of Vermin on the Mount, a popular and irreverent reading series in the heart of LA. LA List called Jim “a writer who has had a strong impact on the LA literary scene,” which is no small feat considering the breadth and depth of left coast literary talent. Jim has written for or contributed to The Believer, National Public Radio, McSweeney’s, Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Barcelona Review, among others. He has received numerous awards for his work, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
MEREDITH: What do you most cherish about the practice of writing?
Jim: There’s so much. First of all, I’m grateful that I can practice my craft virtually anywhere. My wife is a painter and she currently doesn’t have a studio which creates all kinds of logistical problems that writers simply don’t have. James Joyce wrote parts of Ulysses in a tiny apartment using a suitcase for a desk.
Second, I appreciate the permanence of writing; the notion that words set to paper acquire a kind of substance that only time can take away. I marvel at the stoicism of performance artists. What if the actor gives their finest performance at an audition for a part they don’t get because they don’t have a mustache or some other silliness? Or the songwriter performing in an empty coffee shop? How does one go on knowing they’d accomplished something amazing and no one was there to witness it? Writers don’t have that problem because they practice their art in solitude. This brings me to what I cherish most about writing: it fills the solitude.
MEREDITH: Now answer this: what does it represent?
Jim: Okay, bear with me a minute. When I was a child my grandparents had several books of Norman Rockwell portraits that I used to look through whenever we visited. Part of what Rockwell did so well was communicate very precise emotions. Not just “sadness” or “pride” but a particular kind of sadness or a very specific feeling of pride. A scenario he returned to over and over again was that of a young girl waiting: waiting by the phone for a boy to ask her out, waiting to grow up into a glamorous woman, etc. Not only is the girl sad and lonely, the portrait suggests her fate is to remain sad and lonely, a fate she has yet to come to terms with, which makes it even sadder. I remember feeling a great deal of empathy for these girls waiting for their lives to happen. Growing up I would become familiar with that feeling of being on the outside of things. With writing I’m never on the outside; there’s always an inside for my imagination to explore. So writing represents always having a place to go. Do you remember the end of James and the Giant Peach? Where the peach pit is installed in Central Park and James takes up residence with his bug friends and is never lonely again? That’s what writing represents for me: the end of loneliness.
MEREDITH: Now answer this: is it [this cherished place] a constant?
Jim: I think so. I believe it is. I’m a professional writer in the field of advertising and have been for over a dozen years. I’ve also worked as a part-time teacher, freelance whenever I get the work, and have always been ambitious with respect to my own projects. So I think I’ve trained myself for the writing to be a constant. There’s no sitting around waiting for inspiration. [I’d-have-to-agree-but-it’s- not-a-bad-thing-either alert:] Once you decide to choose writing as a vocation the waiting-to-catch-lightning-in-a-bottle approach doesn’t work. In other words, there’s no such thing as “feel like it.” I can no more say “I don’t feel like being a writer today,” than “I don’t feel like being married today.” (I can pursue these impulses, but the consequences will be disastrous.) I’ve also been able to remove distractions and not feel adversely affected by their loss. For example I don’t have a television and have gone for long stretches of my adult life without so-called essentials like a car or a phone or internet connection. It’s a great help to know what one has been put on this planet to do.
MEREDITH: Is this an internal place [of solitude, stillness, knowingness] you can always draw on?
Jim: I certainly hope so. That’s the big fear: that someday, for whatever reason, I won’t be able to write. One of the people who inspired me to become a writer was a cousin who, after many years of struggle, became a successful screenplay writer. He became severely depressed and eventually lost his will to live and tragically succumbed to his illness. Toward the end he complained that he was unable to write. Sometimes it was the illness he was fighting, sometimes it was the cure, i.e. his medication. He suffered terribly and while I’m not qualified to say how large a part his inability to write played in his decline, I’m certain that it was a not insignificant factor. I hope and pray that I don’t ever have to go through what my cousin went through.
MEREDITH: When you sit down to write, what is the ritual? By ritual I mean, how do you prepare your mind to receive—or enable yourself to go out and seek—the words or the story, or maybe, just the essence of both?
Jim: I don’t really have any rituals. Rituals get in the way. I have an addictive personality so ritualizing things I like to do ultimately will lead me to an unhealthy place.
MEREDITH: Are you a receive-oriented creator, or a hunter/gatherer type?
Jim: My approach is like a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two dichotomies. I’m drawn to historical subjects and enjoy researching projects, although I’ve learned to distrust both the process and my motivation for doing it. I spent seven years “writing” a novel about a German sailor. It was a world I knew nothing about and did a vast amount of research. At one point I could have taught a course in German Naval Operations in the Atlantic during World War II, most of which I have since forgotten. Many, many times I have spent hours in the library filling up pages of notes. Then when the time comes to use them I either can’t find them or forget about them and write the scene without them. Maybe I needed to take those notes in order to write with confidence and clarity, but I doubt it. I tend to think on the day I took down the notes I was being too lazy to write. Most recently I have been more of a receive-oriented type writer. Like the explorer Admiral Byrd said in his memoir Alone, you have to have confidence that your instruments will guide you to where you need to go.
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?
Jim: After working on that novel about the German sailor I decided my next novel would be much more dialed-in so that I wouldn’t spend another seven years figuring it out. So I built this massive outline and it was a great help to me as I embarked on a novel even more ambitious than the previous one, but in the end I think it feels a little overdetermined. I was writing to connect the dots, to take the story where it needed to go. Unfortunately, I neglected the characters and didn’t properly consider where they wanted to go. This was a very valuable lesson. So in the project I’m working on now I’m not using an outline at all and paying very close attention to the characters, tending to their wants and needs, listening to what they have to say. So far so good.
Meredith: You have a distinct way of storytelling. When did your voice become apparent to you? How did it happen?
Jim: Thank you very much! I’m drawn to so many different subjects, have so many interests, write in so many genres, that I sometimes wonder if my enthusiasm has taken me too far afield. An author is probably the least qualified to talk about how their writing behaves on the page because intention and effect are two very different things, but I’ll give it a shot.
I was one of those young writers and devoured all kinds of high-brow literature. I was particularly smitten with James Joyce and for a while my ambition in life was to be a Joycean scholar. Toward the end of my senior year of college I discovered hard-boiled crime novels. They were a god-send. I had this overdeveloped sense of the importance of style but little practical understanding of how stories actually work. These taut little engines of suspense taught me everything I’d glossed over while studying literature-with-a-capital-L: exposition, dialogue, plot, i.e. the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The fact that these slim novels by Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, etc. were psychologically sophisticated and had a style all their own made them easier to embrace. Today, the stories I enjoy most are those that display a keen sense of style that doesn’t come at the expense of a storyline that keeps me turning the pages. Isn’t that what every reader wants?
Jim’s life and bio represent a union of opposites, the intersection of left and right brains: veteran of the Navy, part-time English teacher, creative supervisor at a Los Angeles advertising agency, writer. He grew up in a Navy family and swore up and down when he got older he “wasn’t going to be like my old man.” But then he joined the Navy. “You can’t run from your life,” he says. Jim lives with his wife in San Diego and is at work on a novel. Catch him here, at his Vermin blog.