The very styles of writing that I struggle with the most are also the types of writing that I can’t live without.
ALISA BOWMAN is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and the creator of ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com. She also has the peculiar distinction of being one of the country’s most famous and accomplished ghost writers. Seven of her ghost written and co-written books have landed on the New York Times Best seller lists, with several remaining there for 20 weeks or more and selling hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies. She has written for Parade, Family Circle, Women’s Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Prevention and many other national outlets, and she’s appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS Early Show, Fox, Discovery Health and more. She is currently working on Be Fearless, with psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, slated to be published in the next year, with foreign rights already sold in numerous markets [CONGRATS!].
ALISA: This depends on what I’m writing and how straightforward it is. I pre-write my blog posts as I walk my dog. By the time I sit down at the keyboard, I already know the beginning and the basic theme. I can write those quickly, and they usually turn out how I envisioned them. This is true for most service writing, too. Essays are a different story. For some reason I just can’t seem to pre-write these. I might sit down with a topic, but I find I must explore an essay with my fingers, and I often get lost more than a few times. There’s a lot of deleting and starting over. There’s a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of “I think I’m done” only to come back to it and realize that I’m not done at all. My memoir had the same confusion to it. Yet, oddly, I’m attracted to this confusion like a moth is attracted to a lightbulb. The very styles of writing that I struggle with the most are also the types of writing that I can’t live without.
Meredith: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Oh, and what is it not?
ALISA: I would agree. I think arriving is probably publication day. For me, that day is either torture or just anticlimactic. The writing is where the joy is. I love piecing words together. I love coming up with analogies that will either make people laugh or understand a topic in a new way. I love that creative process. It’s all about discovery. It’s a journey–a trip. Sure there are moments when the writing isn’t as exciting. Maybe I’m tired and the words aren’t flowing. Maybe an editor has suggested a change that I can’t wrap my mind around. Or maybe I just can’t figure out how to solve a problem. But those moments are like being lost in a beautiful country while on vacation. Publication day? It’s like coming home from that vacation to 800 emails and a stack of bills. On publication day, it’s time to talk about the writing and tell others about it. Just as I’ve never been comfortable talking about my vacations after the fact, I’m also not comfortable talking about my writing after the fact. I want people to read it. I don’t want to tell them why they should read it. I do, of course, because it’s a necessary part of the process, but I don’t enjoy it.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you? Or is it more like that feeling of walking outside on a particular kind of day at a particular time and feeling like you, your body and being is at one with the air around you?
ALISA: I think inspiration can feel different at different times. It can feel like the juicy build up to an orgasm. It can feel hot and angry. It can feel sad and weepy. At it’s essence, there’s a flow state, a time when the world around me shrinks away and all that is left is words and the sounds of my fingers against the keyboard.
Meredith: When it comes to writing is your heart or gut often overlooked by the chatter of something else…the mind, for example (or something/someone external)? Or is it the other way around?
ALISA: I write by switching back and forth somewhat seamlessly from my heart to my brain and back again. I write first drafts with my heart. There’s a flow, a knowing. I don’t judge the words on first drafts. I just put them on the screen. Then once they are there, I switch to primarily using my mind because editing is more mathematical and logical. Editing is about what’s missing, what doesn’t make sense, and what doesn’t advance the story or piece. At times, I get too much in my mind and too little in my heart though. This is especially true when it comes to self promotion. I try to plot and plan and force certain results rather than just doing what feels right and seeing how it all turns out. I’m trying to evolve into someone who can self promote with her heart. We’ll see if I can pull that off! (I think that was my mind that wrote that last sentence!)
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?
ALISA: I often tell people that gut feelings are faulty, especially when it comes to what’s viable. Gut feelings are less about what people will want to read and more about what I would enjoy writing. There’s a huge disconnect. I would enjoy writing many things that people would not want to read. There are many things that people love to read — romance novels, thrillers, true crime — that I don’t want to write.
When I tell authors this, they usually tell me, “Well, your gut feelings seem to be consistently accurate.” I suppose there’s something to that. I do have a good track record, especially when it comes to co-authoring. At the same time, I have a half finished novel and several half finished memoirs on my computer. I won’t finish them because I realized part way through that they could not be executed for various reasons. I’ve come up with dozens of ideas for books that were seriously bad ideas. People don’t know those bad ideas because I didn’t pursue them. So, on paper, it might seem as if my gut feelings are always right. In reality, no one finds out about the gut feelings that are wrong because they rarely turn into books or essays or magazine articles.
All of that said, I think it’s beautiful to explore writing that might not be viable from a commercial standpoint. I’m doing that right now with a memoir. I’m pretty sure I will never be able to sell it to a publisher, and I’m also pretty sure that it will have a small audience if I self publish. But the story is there and it is compelling me to write it. Even if only a few people ever enjoy reading it, it will still be worth writing it. Sometimes you just have to ignore the idea of what’s viable and what will sell and just write for the sake of writing.
What Alisa never gets to say: “I was supposed to go to art school. Some parents push their kids to become lawyers and doctors. My mother is a visual artist. She wanted me to be one, too. I had scholarships to two different universities to major in art. I secretly applied to a third as a journalism major, and that’s where I attended school. I stopped painting and drawing as soon as I left home for college, something that my mother and her artist friends often say is a “shame.” She and her friends saw me as a sort of art prodigy, and they feel I walked away from a calling. I like to think that art and writing are just two different mediums for the same expression. I might not be creating with a paintbrush, but I’m still creating and changing lives based on those creations. For me there’s no shame in that.”
“I think truth in writing often comes from a place that’s deeply threatening and scary. I won’t pretend I’m brave enough to go there on a regular basis, but it’s one of my goals.”
Ruth Pennebaker is the author, most recently, of her debut adult novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough. Other books include three highly acclaimed young-adult novels, Don’t Think Twice, Conditions of Love, and Both Sides Now. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, Parents, Redbook, McCall’s, Cooking Light and other nationwide publications. She is a columnist for the Texas Observer, a commentator for KUT, Austin’s public radio station, and the author of A Texas Family Time Capsule, a collection of her favorite columns.
MEREDITH: What does truth in writing mean–to you?
RUTH: <<I adore this entire answer alert>>Let me backtrack a little on this one. Years ago, after my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, I was in a dysfunctional survivors’ support group. You see, there’s a certain etiquette to many survivors’ groups: the sickest among you are usually the ones who set the agenda. If your own prognosis is better, then you need to be supportive by listening a lot.
The sickest woman in the group had survived a terrible childhood and now had metastatic cancer. But she didn’t want to talk about that. She wanted to talk about ironing her husband’s shirts in a certain way and how she worried about her grown daughters’ diets. We listened and listened and I thought I was probably going to lose my mind. It was so crazy that I felt I needed a support group to recover from my support group.
So I developed a plan that I would one day walk into the support group and ask what none of us wanted to talk about that evening. That way, I figured, we would get to the very core of why we were there: our fears of deterioration and death. Nobody wanted to talk about that icy fear that grips your stomach and makes you feel helpless and pathetic and out of control. But it was what haunted all of us and it was really why we were there.
Similarly, I think truth in writing often comes from a place that’s deeply threatening and scary. I won’t pretend I’m brave enough to go there on a regular basis, but it’s one of my goals. And it’s probably why I turned to fiction, where I could write about some of my deepest, most ignominious fears.
I never walked into the support group and said what I wanted to. The woman who was the sickest of all of us died a few months later, and we never had many of the conversations I wanted to have. I try to be braver in my work than in my life.
MEREDITH: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of welcoming familiarity? Now answer this–which is the preferable path to creativity…for you?
RUTH: Unlike fear, creativity is exhilarating to me. I love it when my mind wanders to a strange and funny place. I love the feeling — I’d describe it as a mental and emotional “itch” — when I’m excited about the barest ideas and want to flesh them out.
Physically, I’m a complete wimp. I don’t like water deeper than my bathtub, I get nervous about change, I don’t like strange — and potentially dangerous — animals, I travel, but it makes me uneasy. But, in my mind, I have days when I can fly.
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. And while we’re on the subject, what does judgment really mean?
RUTH: I do believe in bad first drafts — theoretically — but if I look back at something I’ve written and hate it, it has to go. There’s enough swill on this planet without my adding to it, right? I’m forever revising and I just can’t stop. So often, a slight change in wording can take a paragraph from being lame to being funny, from being over-wrought and over-written to moving. I can almost never resist making those changes
What is judgment? It’s a desire to demand as much as I’m capable of from myself, to do the most I can do before my friends and agent and editor and the whole world weigh in. If I’m merciless, then maybe they’ll be less so? I’m not sure that’s completely true, but I like the idea.
MEREDITH: Using the six-word memoir approach, please give us your six-word description of how you write.
RUTH: coffee, frequent showers, grinding teeth, snacks
MEREDITH: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write are there “rights” and “wrongs” for you? What’s that like?
RUTH: I think I would change this somewhat to say, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of having others dislike and disapprove of what we do.” Because they will. Because you’ll put something you care about deeply out into the world and people will say harsh things about it and you will mutter swear words and insults and make deeply disturbed faces at the computer and whine to your friends and retreat into fetal position.
But you’ll be back, writing, the next day and putting it out there again. Because the “itch” I mentioned is stronger than the fear and nobody’s going to stop me from scratching when it hits.
RUTH adds: “I was born in a middle-class family in Ponca City, Oklahoma — and I try never to forget that.” Ruth is easy to love. Get to know her more by visiting her website by clicking here.
Camille Noe Pagán (pronounced “no pay-gahn”) is the author of the novel The Art of Forgetting, a funny, poignant read about the meaning of friendship and love in the face of injury. Also a journalist, her work has appeared in dozens of national publications and on websites including Allure, Cooking Light, Forbes.com, Glamour, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, SELF, and Women’s Health, and she is a contributing editor at Arthritis Today.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing?
CAMILLE: I can always write something; the question is really how good it is. I know when my writing isn’t working because I don’t care enough about the story, don’t want to sit down to write, or can’t see past the next scene.
That said, I think writing crap is crucial–it clears the way for the good stuff. Before I started on my second novel, I started (literally!) five different novels, none of which felt like the story I absolutely had to write (the way I felt while working on The Art of Forgetting). It was frustrating, but my writing improved in the process.
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?
But for me, it was never about being a Writer, capital W; writing was just something I had to do. When people ask me what I would be if I wasn’t a journalist or novelist, I stare at them blankly and think, Someone trying to be a writer? A screenwriter? A songwriter? A poet?
If you’re going to have the chops to stick with it–and it does take courage, because once you’ve actually created something, there are going to be tons of people who are happy to tear it to shreds, and you have to deal with that–it’s because there’s simply nothing else you can think of doing with your life.
Meredith: As an accomplished journalist, what did you have to unlearn (about your work, yourself) to find your truth as a novelist? What had to go?
CAMILLE: As a journalist, I’m always asking myself: Is it true? Am I presenting information in the most accurate light? I used a lot of those skills for the brain injury information and plot points that I included in The Art of Forgetting, but when it came to shaping the lives of my characters, I had to go beyond facts.
To write a gripping novel–one that makes people absolutely have to turn the next page–you have to asking what if? over and over, and push your characters is ways that you may not have personally been pushed. It’s the opposite of fact, but without it, your novel is going to be colorless.
Meredith: What is happening when a writer, poised to reach their “tipping point” (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell), pulls back and retreats? This could apply to the novice who finally gets into a writing groove then abandons the practice or the seasoned pro hitting their stride but then who stops querying? Has this ever happened to you?
CAMILLE: Oh yes. Absolutely. I wrote the first draft of my first novel (Forgetting) quickly–it was all-consuming and wonderful. I found an agent within a month, and the story sold at auction to my dream publisher, Dutton, with foreign rights selling to four countries. It was the success story that I’d dreamed of since I was a girl.
Then I sat down to write another novel and hit a wall (see above about five different novels started; sob!). I never saw it coming, and I didn’t think it would happen, but it did–and let me tell you, I took it hard. I think the Winston Churchill quote says it best: If you’re going through hell, keep going. If life was always easy-breezy, triumphs would never feel like much of anything. For me, I kept writing and just when I thought it would never get better, I moved past the rough patch.
Meredith: Tell me about your relationship with the muse. Is it love-hate? Up-down? Boy-girl? What I’m really wondering is this: does it feel like a part of you? Or something you have to catch? Or if you even have one.
CAMILLE: I feel like there is a little voice in me that is both sad and overjoyed by life’s possibilities (having read Forgetting, Meredith, you may know what I mean by this; I am drawn to things that are tragic but redeeming), and she is always with me as I write. That said, there are times when the lightening bolt hits and I just know that I’m working on something I was meant to. I finally got that jolt for novel number two, and I am so glad, because I was beginning to worry it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing!
Still, the muse is nothing without work. You can be teeming with inspiration, but if you don’t sit down, start typing and stay put, it doesn’t matter because you won’t write a thing.
The Art of Forgetting comes out June 9th from Dutton, and through June 1st, she will donate $1 per pre-order to the Bob Woodruff Foundation/ ReMIND.org, which provides resources and support to service members, veterans and their families to successfully reintegrate into their communities so they may thrive physically, psychologically, socially and economically. Visit her website for details.
Camille told me this, when I asked for something quirky: “I am a health and nutrition journalist; and incidentally, a very short person (I’m 5’1″). I included that fact because people I know online are always surprised when they meet me! Although I swore I’d never live in Michigan again after moving to New York a decade ago, I recently moved to Ann Arbor with my husband and two kids, ages 3 and 5 months.” She is also the co-creator of Svelte Gormand.
“I have never been one to write for myself.”
—Vera Marie Badertscher
Vera Marie Badertscher has written for some of the most prestigious travel magazines around including National Geographic Traveler and Arizona Highways. In addition, she recently co-authored the book Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist with Charnell Havens after ten years of research. The co-authors’Tahoma Blog is devoted to the research and process of writing a biography. Vera Marie also writes about books and movies that influence travel at the award-winning A Traveler’s Library.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
VERA: When I started writing it was because I had things I wanted to say. I quickly learned that if I was going to get paid for writing, I needed to write what editors (and by extension their readers) want. What we call “rejection” or “acceptance” are loaded words that we use to describe the game that writers and editors engage in. If an editor says “no” you can think of if as missing the bullseye with the dart. You take the opportunity to figure out why it missed, practice your aim, and throw again. Or you can choose to take it as a personal attack and go out in the back yard and eat worms. Personally, I’d rather throw the dart again. The worst kind of turn down gives you no clues. A simple “no” is no help. However a reply that says, “we just ran a piece on that subject,” tells you that you are in tune with the publication and you’re eventually going to hit the target. A reply that says, we really are not looking for any “x” at the moment, gives you an opportunity to say, “could you tell me what you need?”
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 can discover what will work?
VERA: Wow! I wish I had an easy answer for that. I always try to follow the “kill all your darlings” philosophy. If there is something I have written that I am in love with, I automatically question it. Is it part of the direct path leading through the article. Does it say something new? Is it clear only to me, or will it shed light on the subject for any reader. Experience has taught me that I don’t really know the best parts of my writing until I return to it a year or more later. THEN I can see what is actually good and true as Hemmingway might have said.
That is why it was valuable to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist) with a partner. Another pair of eyes could point out things that did not work for a reader. Not that we always agreed on what worked, but most of the time, as soon as she questioned a passage I would recognize that it was a problem child and needed a time out.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write and blog? Any deals?
VERA: Yeah, I always say, “This time I’m going to be concise.” And I never am.
And if I am having trouble getting started, my deal is “You will write for five minutes.” Of course by then, I’m hooked and just keep going.
Meredith: Dennis Palumbo has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
VERA: I think I have the opposite reaction. A writers job is to make sense of things. Having too many possibilities can stop you cold. Experienced writers can write more quickly because they’ve tried a lot of those interesting side roads and know which ones work and which ones don’t. If you are writing as a business, it is good to have a grasp on reality. I’m no fan of false hopes.
Another way I could read this is something my father frequently said about becoming an expert. ‘ A PhD is someone who has learned more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.’ In that sense, if you substitute interests or curiosities for possibilities, I would agree it is better to be a beginner.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. How do you find the sweet spot?
VERA: I have never been one to write for myself. Maybe it is because my background and education is in theater, a collaborative art which does not exist without an audience. My whole motivation for joining Charnell Havens to write the biography of Quincy Tahoma, the Navajo artist, was to share his life and his art with as many people as possible. Therefore, I was constantly questioning whether the stories I was telling and the background information would be interesting and helpful to the reader. It is true that I wanted to tell them EVERYTHING, and had to restrain myself, but I wasn’t writing just so I could hear myself. I was writing because I took on the task. I love the Dorothy Parker quote “I hate writing. I love having written. I actually don’t hate writing, but every once in a while I hate having to write.” That’s me.
One more thing Vera told me: “Few people in my writing life know about my work in politics, where I knew personally every Governor of Arizona in the past 30 years, and chatted with three presidents and numerous Senators and Members of Congress.” Learn more about her and her work by clicking on her website right HERE.
The writer talks about obsession, finishing and a certain something she is completely powerless over. And the art of being one’s own editor.
Gina Frangello is the author of the short story collection, Slut Lullabies (a must-read according to Vanity Fair and More) just out from Emergency Press and the novel My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006.) She is also the Executive Editor of Other Voices Books, an imprint of Dzanc Books, as well as the co-editor of fiction on the popular online literary community, The Nervous Breakdown. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Five Chapters, StoryQuarterly, Swink, Prairie Schooner and the International Book Award winning A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection.
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 can discover what will work?
GINA: I have a fabulous writing group, and I think both outside feedback and time are key to being able to let go of our own work enough to be able to see it more clearly and approach it from another angle. Giving something to a writing group is helpful not just in terms of getting new perspectives (which are extremely valuable, but can also be conflicting and confusing, as anyone who’s ever been in a workshop knows), but also helpful in that it takes my group time to read my work, and during that necessary downtime I take a break from a story or a novel. I find that as a result of taking some time away, I often can tell pretty clearly which comments from group members resonate with me and just sound “right,” vs. which ones might be interesting but simply don’t fit with me as a writer or with my own vision or intent with a piece. I’ve worked as an editor at Other Voices magazine, Other Voices Books and The Nervous Breakdown for so many years now that I don’t have any illusions about writers always being perfect judges of our own work . . . but I do think we have to maintain a strong sense of our own intent and not just try to turn our work into a “crowd pleaser” by trying to incorporate every change a workshop or writing group member suggests. We have to learn to be our own editor in terms of weeding out what’s useful and what’s not.
MEREDITH: What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer? What had to go?
GINA: I grew up below the poverty line in inner-city Chicago, and although I’ve been writing since before I could actually write (I’d dictate stories to my mom and then illustrate them when I was three or four) and started writing my first “novel” at the age of ten, it never really occurred to me that I could be a writer by profession. I believed this was a luxury reserved for people with trust funds or affluent parents—I had college loans to repay and parents I would need to financially support as they aged. I had majored in psych and gone all the way through a master’s in counseling and was practicing as a therapist when I started writing the manuscript that would become my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, and calling in sick to work all the time, staying up all night to write. I had to look very hard at my life and what I wanted—what would fulfill me. My husband was a struggling academic at that time (a PhD student in space physics, which was a shrinking field) and we didn’t have a lot of financial security, but I ended up realizing that I needed to write and needed to be able to forge a life around that, even if the result looked very different from the financially comfortable life I’d aspired to in my youth.
When you grow up poor, it is very easy to see “making money” as the goal. As I reached adulthood, I realized that one of the huge characteristics of the working poor tends to be being stuck in menial jobs that are not fulfilling or nurturing—that it’s a larger, more systemic issue than being poorly paid. I was okay, in the end, with being poorly paid if I could make a life I loved. That—more than the income—was the part my parents had never quite been able to achieve and that had haunted them with regrets. Luckily for me, it turned out that my husband found a more conventional career route and has made a nice living, so the existence I’d imagined—on the perpetual edge of poverty—didn’t actually come to pass. But I think realizing I was willing to go there and to give up the rest of it for my writing was essential to being able to take other risks as a writer later on.
MEREDITH: As an author 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? Does it feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
GINA: Well, to be honest, it’s really difficult to balance these things . . . not because of left vs. right brain, but simply because of time. I’m a writer, but I’m also many other things, as are most writers. I’ve been an editor for fifteen years, and I teach at two universities, and I blog and write book reviews, so I have to keep all of that going while also promoting my new collection Slut Lullabies, and while trying to create new fiction. But on top of that, of course I have a personal life. I have three children—ten-year-old twins and a four year old—and right now it’s summer and they’re all out of school. As I brought up earlier, I don’t make a lot of money in my line of work, so I try to limit my childcare because I don’t want my work to be a financial liability to my family . . . but on an even deeper level I also don’t want to miss my children’s youth.
One of the great freedoms and luxuries about being a writer and running my own indie press is that I work predominantly out of my home, so even though I put in a lot of hours, I—unlike friends of mine who teach third grade or are attorneys or doctors—have the ability to take my kids to school in the morning, to pick them up, to cook them dinner every night, to take them to the beach and the playground in the summer. I’m not going to give that up. Kids grow absurdly quickly and soon enough my husband and I will be alone in our house again, free to work or . . . have sex in the kitchen or whatever . . . whenever we like. So right now, my work has to exist around the rest of my life, the personal part that keeps me energized and nourished and motivated to create. Sometimes the balance isn’t perfect—it’s a constant juggling act, as any working mother can attest.
But for me this sometimes means something has to give. Right now, I’m in promotional mode. I’m touring—Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Iowa City, Seattle, Portland—and that’s very difficult with kids. I’m gone for as much as a week at a time, so when I first get home I’m not going to lock myself in my office for ten hours a day writing, I’m going to hang out with them and spend a lot of time talking to them and hugging them and bustling around my kitchen. So I’m not working on a longer writing project right now. I’m doing a lot of publishing industry writing for blogs, especially The Nervous Breakdown, and I just wrote a short story I really like, but many weeks I don’t write. That comes back—it always comes back. I’ve learned not to have anxiety about that, because the drive to write is something that always returns in me, and when it does I’m pretty much powerless to stop it, so I’ve learned to enjoy my downtime.
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? Have you ever been seduced?
GINA: This is such a funny question to me because, while I know you’re right and I see this mentality a lot in my writing students, I spent most of my early life trying not to be a writer and thinking being a writer would bring me to some kind of derelict financial ruin, so it’s hard for me to grasp why people think it’s going to be so glamorous! Other than janitors, I don’t know a whole lot of professions less glamorous than being a writer. You spend a lot of time in your pajamas, alone in front of a computer. You spend a lot, lot of time being rejected, and even when your work is accepted you’re usually radically underpaid, and your audience is usually very small. Most of us are never going to be Hemingway . . . or J.K. Rowling. Vanity Fair is not going to do a fancy little spread on us like they did on Donna Tartt in the 1990s! I mean, Slut Lullabies got one little blurb in Vanity Fair’s June issue and I nearly went into coronary arrest I was so happy . . . the writer’s life is one that is solitary and often desperate for small scraps of recognition. You fail a lot. You may be very poor. Your relatives and non-writer friends don’t understand what you do, and don’t understand why you’re not famous, and assume it means you’re either lazy or untalented . . .
And yet, of course, there are incredibly seductive aspects to being a writer. If you’re doing it right, your characters are incredibly seductive. The ability to live multiple lives is seductive. Touring, even on a low budget, can make you feel slightly like a rock star, even if maybe a D-list rock star. Editing and writing can help you meet a lot of extremely interesting people. I love this life and the lifestyle, but I think a lot of young people are under vast misperceptions about it. It’s not about drinking scotch during the day and waiting for fame to arrive. In fact, the more you expect it to be some kind of cliché like that, the less you probably care about writing and the more you care about image. In this culture, having a good “image” has a lot to do with making money, so there are a hell of a lot of more suitable professions to people with that goal than writing fiction, that’s for sure.
MEREDITH: I’ve asked the question before: What does beginning feel like? Look like? But I’d like to flip that and ask: What does finishing look like? As in a particular work? Is it harder than starting? Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to let go?
GINA: I’ve talked about this issue before in some other interviews—it’s a very pertinent question for me. I have a very difficult time letting go of longer work—of novels—that take years to create and where I’ve been living with the characters for a prolonged period of time. Stories aren’t like that for me, because when I’m writing I binge-write and I usually finish a story in a couple of days. But I work slowly on novels—I have long periods where I may not be writing but where the characters are always with me, or when I’m revising as I go along. I may spend four years on a novel, maybe more. I’ve had a few . . . I guess you could call them “psychological disturbances” . . . on letting a novel go. I can get manic when I’m approaching that end stage. It’s delicious and terrifying, and afterwards there’s a big crash. Longer works are risky, on a variety of levels. I love them for that. I also choose them carefully, because of the risk involved. They have to choose me—it has to be a true obsession.
I’ve been writing my whole life, but I’m still learning that the grief—the loss—after an obsession like that is always temporary. I always think I’ll never love another character or another project that way again, but that’s the crazy beauty of writing fiction . . . there is always another love, another obsession down the line.
Gina (who I interviewed here for my “Agents and Editor” series) teaches at Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies, and has contributed book reviews and journalism to The Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader. Check her out online at her website, (and in real life with three kids on her body or in front of her computer answering emails).
According to popular opinion, she never sleeps.
[Thanks (again) Gina!]
First published June 2010.
The writer shares his views about taking it slow, starting from a place of strength and how writing is like a puzzle.
Andrew lives in southern California with his wife, the writer Lisa Alvarez and their son Louis. In the summer, however, you’ll find him at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley where he is a staff member. Visit Andrew’s radio blog at: http://bibliocracyradio.blogspot.com/. Visit the Community of Writers at http://www.squawvalleywriters.org/ . Visit the Santa Monica Review at http://www.smc.edu/sm_review/.