The writer riffs on pain and inadequacy, alchemizing fear and images that begin a story.
JAMES R. SPRING is a former foreign correspondent for Cox Newspapers. He now contributes to National Public Radio programs, including This American Life, and he’s been featured in radio expeditions for Atlantic Public Media. His stories have ranged from ’embedding’ with the Minutemen at the border, to covering the Baja 1000 off-road race – to motorcycling solo through Mexico’s Sierra Madre where he recorded his experiences with Tarahumara drug traffickers.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength? What is that place like?
JAMES: I never stopped to recognize this before, but suddenly it’s clear. I write from a place of pain and inadequacy. I write from fears. Even the funny stuff comes from fears. My NPR stories have sometimes revolved around becoming older and less relevant to the world. And now that I have two toddlers, some of my short stories have sprung from the enormous fear associated with the possibility of losing one’s child. Sometimes I just write about a fear of being pathetic. Now that I understand this about myself, I feel very bad about it. And, thus, I’m inclined to start writing. Does anybody write from a place of strength? If so, don’t tell me. THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: 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?
JAMES: The times I have been most successful with this writing stuff, I’ve found that the serious stories have filled me with melancholy, and the funny stories have made me laugh out loud. That said, some of my best stories have hardly blipped on the reader radar. I’m thinking particularly of a short story called The Book of Jack, which I really like, but nobody else – including people who profess to love me – has ever acknowledged. Who knows? Maybe we’re the worst judges of our own stuff.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other?
JAMES: The beginning is just a thought, and it is beautiful and pure. It makes me all warm and tingly inside. In describing this notion, my pal Stephen Dobyns (“The Church of Dead Girls” and a zillion others) once quoted a Buddhist adage that goes something like “First thought, pure thought.” It sounded a little like horseshit when he said it, but I mention it now so you’ll know that I have famous friends. Regardless, my first thoughts on a story really are a thing of beauty. It’s when I go to put those thoughts to words that everything goes to hell. I take that beautiful little Buddhist baby of a story idea, and I run it through the wood chipper that is my first draft. It is a huge mess. When I call in the paramedics, which represent my second draft in this increasingly convoluted metaphor, they will often tell me that the story is dead on the scene. As a result, I have two bankers’ boxes full of mutilated stories and a novel that nobody has ever seen.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: 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?
JAMES: I guess it all comes down to what you define as “creative” or “art.” I believe that the refusal to dance, for example, is completely understandable. Some people should be encouraged to NOT dance. If you don’t believe me, I will dance for you. (continued below)
Standby for something heretical… In my heart, I believe that we each possess a certain set of skills. I think I can best describe this by invoking the world of Tinkerbell and the fairies of Pixie Hollow (I know… that’s exactly what I was thinking, too. It sounds like a porn star name… but it turns out that it’s the place where all the Disney fairies live). In Pixie Hollow, each tiny fairy is born into a certain job. There are “garden-talent” fairies who help flowers bloom, and “light-talent” fairies – essentially the fluffers of the pixie world – who help turn on the fireflies before each night’s show, and “tinker” fairies who fix all the shit that breaks. There is also a “tooth-whitening” fairy. No. My mistake. That was a TV commercial. Regardless, what I’m saying here is that, after four years of attending a monthly open mic, I have developed the conviction that some people should not be encouraged to write. Perhaps those people are great dancers. Or fluffers. But, contrary to what writers with bigger hearts will tell you, I am convinced that writing is not the best creative outlet for every person on the planet. Does that make me a bad person? Or is it all that other stuff I said that makes me a bad person? Let me try to gain a little forgiveness here. In the 1960’s the composer Leonard Bernstein was asked for his take on the brand new musical form known as rock and roll. He said, essentially, that 80% of it was pure garbage, but that the other 20% was so important and so vital that it more than makes up for the bad stuff. I think we can all agree that there is no excuse for the music that Elton John made during the 1980’s (“I’m Still Standing,” “Nikita,”… I mean, come on.). But without Elton John there would be no “Rocket Man” or “Tiny Dancer,” or the award-winning songs from the Lion King that make children go absolutely nutty. Perhaps people should be allowed to write whatever they want. God and the audience will sort it out.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Has it always been this way for you? Are you sometimes caught off guard?
JAMES: Without sounding too much like a blow-hard, and using words like “muse” and “dreamscape” and “Posture-pedic,” my first notion of a story arrives as a snapshot. It’s a little fuzzy:
There is a little girl and she is standing next to her father.
If there is a little magic (or tequila), the details come into focus.
Where are they? Why isn’t the mother there?
It looks like a zoo. A lion’s enclosure. But there is no lion.
“He’s probably sleeping,” the father says.
“Maybe he’s dead,” the little girl says.
“He’s not dead,” the father says.
Whoa! Maybe we have something here. Pour another drink and start typing. I’m just kidding. Don’t start typing. Put it off for another day, because if you’re a real writer, you know that tomorrow is always the best day to start writing a story.
James lives in San Diego with his family. He writes that he is currently pimping a manuscript and book of short stories. Visit him at his website.
The writer and stand-up delivers on storytelling, not abandoning or complicating ideas, and the challenge of one too many words.
CRAIG MATTES is a copywriter with Pacific Communications, a west-coast advertising agency, where he writes ad campaigns for multi-million dollar pharmaceutical products and medical devices. Craig, who is originally from the east coast, previously worked at Saatchi & Saatchi in Manhattan, and studied film at NYU. Craig is also a stand-up comic who competes regularly, wins frequently, and is always seeking new creative outlets to hone his craft.
MEREDITH: WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MIND AS A FRIEND OR FOE?
CRAIG: Friend, absolutely, but a fair-weather one. I don’t consider myself to be the sharpest tool in the shed, which really helps me write. If I grasp an idea without having to explain it to myself, then I know the average reader will [get it], too.
On the other hand, I have a major inferiority complex stemming from the fact that many of the people I’m presenting work to are PhDs, biochemistry majors and other geniuses. I find it really hard to keep my brain under control and not start over-writing things so that I sound smarter or more complex than I have any right to be.
So yes, my mind is a friend, until it starts to think about the smarter and cooler people in the room, in which case it starts thinking of ways to screw me over.
MEREDITH: YOU WRITE AND PERFORM STAND-UP AND WRITE (AND PERFORM?) MAJORLY MAJOR PHARMACEUTICAL AD CAMPAIGNS. DOES ONE FEED THE OTHER; STEAL FROM IT? ARE THESE SEEMINGLY DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED GENRES ACTUALLY FRIENDS AS THE PEN HITS THE PAPER, OR YOUR FINGERS HIT THE KEYBOARD?
CRAIG: They totally feed each other in more ways than I could have imagined. One of the biggest inspirations in my life was another writer you interviewed on your site, Jordan Levinson. He also worked in pharmaceutical advertising and was at one point a comic. Not one day goes by that I don’t imitate something I learned from him, especially the way he told a story and brought his comic (yet brilliant) attitude to everything he presented. Without his influence I never would have made the link, but by following his lead I learned to present concepts and write copy the same way I do stand-up—even with the same cadences.
Writing jokes is exactly the same thing as writing headlines. If a joke has one word too many or even one wrong word it won’t work, same thing with ad headlines. Another major similarity is in writing material that’s usually been covered before. Most pharmaceutical ads are based around efficacy and safety at some point, sometimes convenience sneaks its way in too. Even though these topics have been covered by other brands for decades, you can always find a fresh take on them. Same thing with stand-up, I’m covering my marriage, my kid, my parents etc. and I certainly think my take is different than other comics who have been talking about these things since the 50s.
Most importantly, I got into stand-up because I love comedy (no art form has inspired me more greatly) and also because I thought it would make me more confident. I can’t get shaken up by a client when I stood in front of 50 hostile drunkards trying to make them laugh the night before. I highly recommend everybody bombs at one open mic in their lifetime—nothing else will ever be as painful.
MEREDITH: YOU STUDIED FILM, SO I HAVE TO ASK, WHAT DOES IT MEAN—TO YOU—TO THINK CINEMATICALLY? DO YOU WRITE CINEMATICALLY? IMAGES FIRST? WORDS? A SENSATION? IS IT ACROSS THE BOARD?
CRAIG: My biggest shortcoming in film school and my biggest struggle professionally is visual thinking. I’m sorry, but I’d rather have a root canal than sit through “The English Patient” again. Beautiful shots of the desert can’t move a story along.
To me, movies are all about story. I think I do write cinematically, in that everything I do is storytelling. I love movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Fargo” where the plot unfolds perfectly and you don’t want to take your eyes off of the screen. I try to bring that aspect to everything I do, whether it be a letter to our sales force or a brochure. Every brand has a story, and if we find a good way to tell it, the visuals will follow. This is especially true in comedy, where it’s my job to paint a picture, then sell a punch line. To me, a joke becomes 100 times funnier when you can picture the circumstances in which it takes place. Louis CK is a master at this and I would give anything to be able to do what he does in setting a scene for his material.
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?
CRAIG: I very rarely think that anything I do is worth keeping or forcing another human being to put eyes on. That’s why I love both advertising and comedy—instant gratification or failure. It’s torture for me waiting for feedback on a screenplay, but when I can put up a concept or a line and have my creative director either fall in love with it or yank it off the wall, I’m good.
In comedy, I know what makes me laugh. There are some jokes that died a horrible death on stage that I still think in my heart are hilarious. For me it’s a rush to expose my inner self so openly on stage and get confirmation that I’m not alone, and that other people think the same things are funny. I only tell jokes on stage that I know in my gut are really funny, but I’m still wrong 50% of the time. If it makes me laugh when I think about it, I feel it’s viable and I’ll say it with no fear. The telling moment is when I tell my wife. She is my muse, my partner and my toughest critic (not to mention the only person that makes me laugh every day)…she’ll let me know what’s kickin’ and what sucks. I can always count on the audience to tell me how I’m doing, too.
In the ad work I do, things just end up clicking at some point. A really good idea or a great angle in copy pop-up in every job, and there’s no mistaking it. The trick is not abandoning or complicating it—which is harder to do than you might think. Luckily I work with amazing people (seriously I am blessed at the moment) who won’t let that happen. The telling moment for me is the first time you see a job laid out with art, sometimes the copy just isn’t working at that point, and sometimes it all falls together. Art directors seem to get a little peeved when copy comes back really hacked up, but there’s no replacement for seeing something in layout and evaluating how well it works.
MEREDITH: IF YOU WERE AN ADVERTISING AGENCY AND ASKED TO PITCH YOUR METHOD OF CREATIVITY, WHAT WOULD YOUR TAGLINE BE? WHAT WOULDN’T IT BE?
CRAIG: What? This question is insanely hard! Either “Mediocrity in Motion” or “Will Mattes Ever Shut the Fuck Up?” Umm, seriously I guess it would be:
“This is supposed to be fun.”
I know I’m at my best when I’m working with people I enjoy being around and when I’m encouraged to play around with the work I’m doing. And when I lose the ability to make myself laugh, I’ll stop doing comedy for good.
It certainly wouldn’t be “Keep it in your pants”—that would stifle my creativity far too much.
CRAIG is a New York Yankees fan. He lives in Orange County with his wife, Megan (also a writer!) and their adorable toddler Leo, whom Craig is unabashedly training to be a Yankees fan.
“Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters.”
JENNIFER HAIGH is the author of THE CONDITION, BAKER TOWERS and MRS. KIMBLE. Her new novel, FAITH, will be published by HarperCollins in May. MRS. KIMBLE won the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and her New York Times bestseller, Baker Towers won the 2006 PEN/L/L/ Winship Award. Jennifer’s fiction has been published in Granta, Ploughsares and Good Housekeeping, among others.
Meredith: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
JENNIFER: I wish there were an aha! moment, but honestly, that rarely happens. I always have moments of great excitement about a new idea, but for me that’s not a reliable indicator of whether the idea is any good. (Historically, I’ve been wildly enthusiastic about some really terrible ideas; so I’ve learned to be a bit circumspect about my own “gut feelings.”) I mull over a new idea for weeks or, in the case of a novel, months. I take long walks and ruminate obsessively, like a dog with a chew toy. At a certain point I start writing, though it’s not until I have a complete first draft that I feel committed to the idea. For a novel, that takes twelve to eighteen months.
Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other? Now flip it—how about ending?
JENNIFER: Starting is terrible. It’s very difficult to create something out of nothing, to believe in something that doesn’t yet exist. Doubt is the enemy. Like most writers, I second-guess myself constantly. Writing the first draft is a bit like rock-climbing – not scary until you look down. And it’s really hard not to look down. What gets me through is my routine. I go to my studio every day, even weekends, and work as long as I can stand it. (Some days that isn’t very long.) In the early stages my writing day is short. After a couple hours I have to stop, simply because I’m empty: I’ve written all I’ve got, and I don’t know anything more. Then I have to get outdoors, go for a hike, see a movie, talk to a friend – live the rest of my day, so I can go to sleep and wake up and – I hope – have a little bit more to write.
Finishing a book is certainly exciting, but lately I have come to dread it, because it means I will soon have no more novel to write. That dead period in between novels is uncomfortable for me. I miss the powerful sense of purpose that gets me out of bed in the morning. What I love more than anything is the long, boring middle – the months and years of working the sentences, exploring the story and characters. I have a wonderful, supportive publisher, and I am glad my books are published and read; and yet I don’t particularly enjoy the process of publishing. It’s distracting and stressful and intrudes on my imaginary life, the quiet routine that allows me to do my work. I really enjoy the writing part of being a writer.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. What does it feel like when you find the sweet spot/balance? How do you know when you’re off in one way or another?
JENNIFER: When I am composing new work I spend a lot of energy trying not to think about an audience. I approach it in much the same way I approached writing in my diary when I was twelve. (I still have that diary. Written on the inside cover, in bold capitals: DO NOT READ UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH.) At that early stage the work is very fragile, and if I let myself think about how a reader might react to it – my editor, a reviewer or God forbid, my mother – I would be utterly paralyzed and might never write another word. Later, in successive drafts, I allow myself to think about audience, but only in terms of clarity: is the language so precise that the reader will understand exactly what I meant, or was I speaking in tongues? My editor is immensely helpful at this stage; as are one or two close writer friends who’ve been my readers for years. What I don’t do is self-censor – make changes to the story or characters in hopes of pleasing (or to avoid displeasing) readers. I try to stay true to my own instincts, the impulse that led me to write the story in the first place. What I do, always, is try to write the sort of book I would like to read. I’m not that exotic in my tastes, so I have to trust that if the story interests me, it will interest someone else too.
Jennifer lives in New England. Visit her website by clicking RIGHT HERE.
Photo: Asia Kepka.
“I would have to say that “stuckness” is often a result of being too attached to what comes next.”
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is author of the book Make a Scene, and with Rebecca Lawton, Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life. She is a co-editor of the new online literary journal Milk & Ink: Family in the Extreme and a freelance editor, writer and teacher.
Meredith: Metaphorically speaking, if our stories, constructed scene by scene are intended to move forward, how do you do this when you are feeling, for lack of a better word, stuck or mired in the process? Do you focus on minutiae or big picture? Why or why not?
JORDAN: Wow, here’s a question I’ve never been asked and one I will answer in a roundabout way. One of the reasons I personally get stuck is because I’m trying to write chronologically, the very next thing in the manuscript that happens in time. And often I don’t have that scene formed yet in my head. So I’ve learned in my latest novel draft—written in large part during my young son’s naps—to write whichever scene is in my head, no matter where in the manuscript it falls. To free myself from chronology. When I can’t even do that, then I literally make notes to myself about what needs to go in the next scene, a kind of conversation with myself that I hope will stimulate me when I go to write next.
Meredith: Along those lines, and so to accept all parts of the process, how do you use “stuck-ness” effectively? What works for you?
JORDAN: I may have essentially answered this question already, but I would have to say that “stuckness” is often a result of being too attached to what comes next, and by freeing myself from that expectation and going elsewhere in the work, I can usually get unstuck. I have a talented friend who writes one chapter after the other and does not move forward until she has nailed each one. I simply can’t do that and I desperately envy her process—my mind caroms around my story and sees parts here and there, and I must follow its scavenger hunt-like process.
Meredith: How has writing about writing changed your own writing?
JORDAN: Frankly it has made me both a more conscious writer and a more self-conscious writer. I’m TOO aware of craft, and sometimes that hampers my ability to be free because I’m busy asking, “Does this scene work? Is there enough character development?” But in other ways I feel like it’s cleaned up my writing, too, because now I have to call out in my own writing the things I point out to others. It’s also made me keenly aware that I am very good at breaking down/synthesizing information for other people, but not always so good at applying it to myself.
Meredith: The painter and sculptor, Juan Gris, said, “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” Many would find this counterintuitive, believing it’s actually better to know where you are headed. You?
JORDAN: I understand what he’s saying in that I’ve always felt that writing has to be a process of discovery or else it’s just formulaic. So I use a rough “outline” but I almost always depart from that outline as I go. The outline is a mere set of mile markers that help me keep from going too far off the rails, but ultimately, for me anyway, what’s the point of writing if you know exactly what magic you’re going to encounter?
Meredith: As an author/journalist/creator with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation?
JORDAN: Ha! A good question. I guess it’s sort of like how does one handle the fact that one must pay their bills but also likes to goswimming on the weekends. I handle the left-brain activity by telling myself it must be done in order to afford myself the time for the right-brain creation. In other words, I sort of reward myself for the hard work with the creativity. I also have a 2 year old son, however, who is in daycare only 4 hours a day. So I’m forced to do a lot of work in a very tight span of time. That actually makes it easier to prioritize. And I am definitely a woman of deadlines. What is most pressing? What is due now? I put that first, and squirrel away precious hours on the side—naps/nighttime/weekends when my husband is home—for the creativity.
“The publishing business constantly reminds you to respect the reader. You may think you’ve created a great piece of art, but is it clear?” —Susan Henderson
Susan Henderson’s debut novel, UP FROM THE BLUE, was published in September. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and grants from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and The Lojo Foundation. Her work has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her writing has appeared in numerous publication including Zoetrope, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, The World Trade Center Memorial, The Future Dictionary of America, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and Not Quite What I Was Planning among many others.
Meredith: I see you as a very connected writer—as in at the hub of many writerly-literary relationships (through your own LitPark and, also, The Nervous Breakdown), as well as linking and really connecting through social media and personal relationships. How does cultivating a writerly community fuel your writing? Does it provide a charge somehow? Is there ever negative energy associated with it? An energy drain?
SUSAN: I never set out to build a social media network. I’ve simply wanted a dialogue with other writers and readers.
Most of my online relationships began at the Zoetrope Virtual Studios, where we workshopped each other’s stories and brainstormed where to submit them. This led to friendships and a clear understanding that we were stronger and had more success when we shared our wisdom and our battle scars. My blog, LitPark, grew out of these relationships and the topics we tended to discuss endlessly—how to pick ourselves up again after a string of rejections, how to decide whether to shake off an editor’s criticism or use it to improve the story. And most often, we simply shared the joy of discovering new authors. Creating LitPark was about making these conversations available to more writers.
The most unexpected gift of expanding these conversations beyond my group of literary-fiction soulmates is that I began to hear about the business and the writing process from thriller, horror, and YA authors. I think listening to people outside of my genre has improved my writing more than anything else—they helped me to see my weak spots and taught me to pay more attention to plot, pacing, and pure entertainment. They taught me how to create suspense.
Do I get a charge out of blogging? Definitely. Writing can be a lonely profession, and you can feel like the biggest failure in the world if you think you’re the only one with a drawer full of rejection letters or the only one who’s worked and worked on a story only to discover it wasn’t salvageable. This long road toward creating a book you think could be published is just easier to walk when you’re in the company of others who understand. Now that I only blog once a month, I can enjoy the community fully (we can support and inspire each other, laugh and cry together) without feeling as if the time has to be carved from my writing schedule. I think I’ve struck a good balance.
Meredith: How has the publishing process changed your view of writing? Or has it? What has it done to your craft, your work? How has it helped (or challenged) you to dig deeper and move forward at once?
SUSAN: The publishing business constantly reminds you to respect the reader. You may think you’ve created a great piece of art, but is it clear? Will a reader who’s worked a long, hard day be able to find their way into your book quickly? Is it worth it for them to turn the page? If someone asks them what your book is about, can they give a simple answer? This is the pressure the publishing world puts on an author, and it’s not easy to respond to that pressure and make the changes, but I think the goal is to better connect with readers and keep them engaged. If you see it that way, rather than seeing it as someone meddling with your art, the feedback can be extraordinarily helpful.
Meredith: Do you judge your work before it’s finished? I guess a better question is: how do you keep from passing too much judgment on your work in order to keep moving forward?
SUSAN: I am the most ruthless editor I know, but I’m pretty comfortable putting my ideas down as they come to me rather than expecting them to be pretty or profound from the start. Later, I’ll bring in the hammer, the saw, and the dumpster for the first round of edits. Before that, however, I try to step out of the way of that urgent, intuitive voice and let it have its say.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
SUSAN: The lesson none of us wants to learn is that our work was rejected because it wasn’t good enough. It may have a spark, we may see or feel or describe things in a way that shows our talent or potential, but the entire piece may not be working. The story may be too quiet, too slow, too dense.
The flip side is that a story that doesn’t work for one person may be exhilarating and life-changing for someone else. A number of classics were dismissed by publishers again and again before they found a home. William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, for example, was called “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” by one prospective editor. And that’s at the heart of what every writer struggles with when they get a rejection letter: Does my work really suck, or do I just need to endure this difficult phase until I connect with the right editor? It’s maddening not to know which of the two answers you’re dealing with, and that I-must-suck voice can really take up residence in your head.
As far as rejection helping with creativity, I don’t know. I don’t tend to think it helps people to be bludgeoned over and over again and to always question whether they have talent or whether they’re in the right field. Mostly, I think, it just hurts.
Meredith: Having never been pregnant myself, I’ve waited for the perfect time to ask this, so here goes: Is birthing a story really like birthing a baby? (I hear this analogy a lot but, well, have never been sure what to think.) If so, does the gestation period feel the same—heartburn and all? How about birthing the actual publication of the book? So I’m asking about the story part, and the biz part, too. Oh, and if not, then what’s it like? Can you create an analogy?
SUSAN: You know, it’s funny, I’ve heard people use that analogy for years, but it’s only now that you’ve asked the question that I realize how much the analogy doesn’t work. And this is why….
When a woman longs to have a baby, she can easily visualize what this baby will look like. Not the details, of course, not the eye color or hair texture. She doesn’t know yet if this baby will have a cleft pallet or a dimple in its chin, but she clearly visualizes a small human weighing between 5 and 9 pounds. The writer doesn’t have this kind of clarity at all. Sometimes the writer has nothing more than a nagging emotion or idea that keeps interrupting her. Perhaps the thought is more formed—I want to write about a war between vampires, a love story between a woman and her dead husband, a parable of grace in the midst of defeat—but even that says little about what the final result might look like.
The woman who wants a baby, meanwhile, sets off to the pharmacy and buys a little kit that tells her she’s pregnant. Her body, assuming all is in order and she stays away from the crack pipe, has now become a vessel for this tiny baby to grow inside of without any conscious effort. The writer, on the other hand, scribbles away, and may be 20 or 100 pages in and still not know what her book’s about or even if she’s creating a book at all. Further, she has no check-ups, diagnostic tests or prenatal vitamins to help her book stay on a healthy path.
Finally, the pregnant woman can expect the baby to be born in nine months, and certainly no later than nine months plus two weeks. The writer may spend nine years laboring over this book with no clear birthdate, no sure sense that it’s finished. And maybe what makes the analogy fail most of all is the expectation that you might love the book you created the way a mother loves a baby. For most writers I know, love is not a word they’d use to describe the feeling of holding a maybe-it’s-finished version of their manuscript, and when they do use that word, it tends to be fleeting.
I’ve oversimplified the ease of pregnancy and the assumption that mothers bond quickly with their babies, but it’s a fascinating question you’ve asked, and I hope your readers chime in with their own thoughts. Maybe they can come up with analogies that work.
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.