“I generally just write novels and I visualize the whole chapter before I start, so I definitely know where it will end.”
ANITA HUGHES received a B.A. in English Literature from Bard College and attended UC Berkeley’s Master’s in Creative Writing Program. Her debut novel, MONARCH BEACH, was released by St. Martin’s Press in June 2012. MARKET STREET was released in March 2013 and LAKE COMO was released in August 2013. She is working on her next novel.
Meredith: How do you find that a work of your takes shape? Does form follow idea? Or does idea follow form? Or is it a process that gets worked out in the writing, waiting, reflecting, pondering? Are you a let-it-be type of writer, or a shape-it, form-it, make-this-thing-work kind of one?
ANITA: I start with a location – I love to set my novels in gorgeous locations: Laguna Beach, San Francisco, Lake Como, because I feel like I am there while I am writing it. Then I spend some time visualizing the locations, seeing the streets and houses in my mind. After that I think of a problem and let that sit for a while. Lastly, I create my characters. I love strong women and great female friendships so my heroine always has to have someone she can turn to in good and bad times.
Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What is it about rules that make us feel like we are doing something correctly? Why, once we set up rules does it seem we need to break them to set ourselves free?
ANITA: I think rules give us structure and structure is important in writing. I try to write at least 1,000 words every day. I also revise the day’s work at least twice before I go onto a new section. I have a trick of emailing myself the work and reading it on my phone. Reading it in a different format makes me more removed from what I’m writing and thus more objective. I find I catch things I don’t see if I just keep revising on my computer. I seldom break my own rules – though I do take a day off now and then because I just want to go for a walk or see a movie or read something I’ve really wanted to read.
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?
ANITA: I’m not sure. I have been a mother for most of my adult life (I have five children) so I was happy with that title for a long time. I wrote a lot when I was young and when I was getting my Masters at UC Berkeley but I put it away to raise my children. When I decided to write it was really because a paragraph popped into my head that I had to write down. From there it became a whole novel and I so enjoyed writing it, I kept going. I love writing – it gives me energy and I really like getting to know my characters.
Meredith: Tell me how you move through a big project when life’s personal details are distracting, sad, anxiety producing or otherwise?
ANITA: Personal life can definitely get in the way, but I generally find there is enough time to write a little bit each day. Even if you write a little, it gives you incentive to go back the next day and pick up where you left off. I find I miss my characters if I’m gone too long, and so I make time for them. Sometimes anxiety or problems in real life work well in terms of writing a novel. Writing can be a great escape from dealing with problems in life you can’t solve.
Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, chapter in a book?
ANITA: I generally just write novels and I visualize the whole chapter before I start, so I definitely know where it will end. I try to write with a rhythm and I like the chapter to end on a dramatic note – making the reader want to turn the page and start the next one!
Anita grew up in Sydney, Australia and at the age of eight won a national writing contest in THE AUSTRALIAN Newspaper and was named “One of Australia’s Next Best Writers.” When I asked her about one thing about herself that she doesn’t typically get to squeeze into conversation, she said it’s that she loves frozen yoghurt. “I first discovered frozen yoghurt at a wonderful place called Yoghurt Park when I was a student at UC Berkeley. I have been addicted ever since. Now I live in Southern California, near the beach, and it is wonderful to eat frozen yoghurt and watch the waves.”
“I don’t believe in these contemporary publishing concepts such as author platforms — it’s all a lot of smoke and mirrors that imply a logic to the marketplace that I don’t think exists.“
— David L. Ulin
DAVID L. ULIN is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch, 2010) and The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, 2004). He has edited two collections of Southern California literature: Another City: Writing from Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001) and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), which won a California Book Award. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Black Clock, Bookforum, Columbia Journalism Review, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Meredith: You are a book critic. Like any line of work it is bound to influence your work in other areas. Speaking of writing now, what does being a book critic do to your own creative process? Enhance? Inhibit? Make you hyperaware? Neutral? Does it make you self-conscious?
DAVID: I’ve been a book critic, in one form or another, from the very beginning of my career in the late 1980s. For all that time, I’ve also been doing my own work, so the two have always been intertwined. For me, the critic’s role is a creative role also, in which the goal is to write a standalone, discrete essay that speaks to the book in question, but also works as a shapely piece of writing in its own right. It’s for this reason that, as a book review editor, I’ve tended to rely on writers rather than professional critics because I like that breadth of experience, the broader sense of what a review is and how it ought to work. For me, the critical role plays into my own creative process mostly as a kind of editorial voice, and generally after the initial writing is done. I try to turn off the self-conscious critic as much as I can when I am writing — whatever it is, review or essay or book — because I find that I can’t write with that voice in my head. Once I have something down, I go back over it with those critical sensibilities and try to weed out the stuff that doesn’t need to be there. But that, I think, is very much a common aspect of the writer’s craft.
Meredith: Again, a book-critic-oriented question: 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. What is your impression of this, and does the critic in you respond the same way the writer in you? How/how not?
DAVID: Gris is absolutely right, and the older I get and the more I write, the more I know that to be true. I’ve never liked outlining, or knowing too much about a piece of writing before I start. When I was younger, I used to like to know where it ended, at least, so I had a destination point, but more and more now, I find myself just beginning and seeing where it goes. This is easier in some sense with a review because it’s short. When I start a review, I have a number of impressions: whether I think the book works, of course, or doesn’t; some specific instances I might want to cite. But that larger argument, the discrete essay part of it, develops in the writing, and I am happiest when I surprise myself. To paraphrase Joan Didion, I often discover what I think about a book by reviewing it, discover just how it moves me or fails to move me, how and why I respond the way I do.
The same is true with other forms of writing. When I was writing “The Lost Art of Reading,” I was very conscious of working on it in real time — in other words, of the way my daily life kept drifting into the book. There is a discussion in the middle of the book of Walter De Maria’s land art project “The Lightning Field” and how it three dimensionalizes narrative. That arose because in the middle of writing a section about narrative and time, I went out to dinner with some friends and “Lightning Field” came up in precisely such a context. The next day, I wrote it into the book. I think you have to be responsive to that as a writer if the work is to have the flexibility, the fluidity, of the living line. And that’s what I look for as a writer and a reader, the living line …
Meredith: Are you a receive-oriented creator, or a hunter/gatherer type?
DAVID: Hunter/gatherer. I like to gather information, too much information … until I don’t. Lawrence Weschler has talked about the saturation point, about knowing that if you gather one more piece of information, it will be too much, and throw off the balance between research and creativity. I feel that way also — I need there to be something I don’t know, something that I will learn or discover in the writing, or else there is no impetus for me to do it at all.
Meredith: I have just begun your book, The Lost Art of Reading. I am relieved that you see reading as art–I have never seen put to words the feeling I have about it. In an odd way, it is analogous to the slow food movement, where the point is it sit, enjoy, savor, contemplate, appreciate. Do you think writers have strayed from this art of reading in pursuit of trying to get others to read their words? To be noticed? The temptation, it seems, is very real. Thoughts?
DAVID: This is a complicated question, and it varies, I think, from writer to writer. For me, there has to be a balance between doing the work and trying to get the work out into the world, which is a necessary corollary to being able to continue to do the work. As for the former, I think it is all about the slow process you describe. I don’t believe in these contemporary publishing concepts such as author platforms — it’s all a lot of smoke and mirrors that imply a logic to the marketplace that I don’t think exists. The best books — perhaps the only ones worth reading? — represent a wrestling match between an author and her or her material, a highly intimate interaction that has nothing to do with outside forces. You just sit down in the room each day and work, and see what you have. This is why I never show work in progress — it seems so fragile to me that it could just blow away. Once the work is done, of course, then it’s a different story; you have to support it in the world.
As for whether writers, or literary culture, has strayed from this, there’s no doubt that the instantaneous nature of electronic information makes it difficult to stay within the moment, to stay within oneself. But the writers who interest me are largely those who have managed to do this, who are using technology (or not, as they choose) as a means of continuing this kind of interaction, rather than as a distraction from the deeper work.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? Related: What’s it like to write a review and find that your opinion is in the minority. Do you ever question your judgment? Doubt yourself? How do you turn it around (inside you)?
DAVID: These are two separate questions, so let me address them one by one. As to the first: Yes, rejection definitely has a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is to tell you to work harder. Sometimes, it is to piss you off. Just before I started “The Lost Art of Reading,” I suffered a rejection that really threw me. But I used it, as I was writing, as a motivation, a push to dig deeper, to write more fully, and it helped carry me through the book. Rejection is part of the dynamic, and if you can’t handle it, you need to go into a different line of work. It toughens you, and if you think about it the right way, it can lead you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, to rethink certain strategies — or to strengthen your resolve. Like anything else, it’s a tool to be used.
As for the issue of reviewing: Of course, I question my judgment. All the time. God save us from the critic who never has doubts or questions his or her opinion. That’s a critic you want to avoid. But I can honestly say, it doesn’t bother me to write a review and find that I’m in the minority. Sometimes, I even relish it. For me, the review is as accurate a response as I can make it to my experience of reading the book in the moment that I read it, and if I can get that down in some kind of cogent form, then that’s all right. Do I ever change my opinion on books? Certainly. Are there reviews that, in retrospect, I think I got wrong? Absolutely. But in the moment — and it’s essential to think about it like this for we are always only responding in the moment — if I was as clear and direct and honest about my thinking, then I feel as if I have done my job.
“When it’s going well, is when you, your ego, disappear and it’s almost like you’re taking dictation…
you get in this amazing zone….”
THE COST OF LIVING (Other Voices Books) is Rob Roberge’s fourth book. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (Dark Alley/Harper Collins, 2005) and Drive (reprint, Hollyridge Press, 2006/2010). His writing, which has been widely anthologized, has been featured in Penthouse, The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, ZYZZYVA, Chelsea, Black Clock, Other Voices, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the “Ten Writers Worth Knowing” issue of The Literary Review.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing?
ROB: Hmmm. Well, no. It’s me not writing. But/and, if I don’t fact, write…well, nothing is there, so in the practical (or literal) sense there IS nothing, writing-wise. If that became a pattern (and I realize I’m using an extreme to illustrate a point, and not trying to be reductive) and it happened that every day I sat down to write for the rest of my life nothing happened, no words came, I wouldn’t be a writer. It wouldn’t be NOTHING as far as experience goes. But it wouldn’t be writing, either. I think a writer is, by definition, one who writes.
But…on the other hand…If I’m producing nothing, that’s because of my relationship with the process, I think. It’s me not being in the right state of mind to write. So, it IS something. It’s just not something very conducive to writing, maybe.
On the days when very little or no writing worth keeping is the result, I try to wait it out. In Buddhism, there’s this notion that if something is boring for two minutes, you should sit with it for four minutes, and if it’s still boring, sit with it for eight minutes. And so on. The point being, EVERYTHING is there…you just aren’t there FOR it. Well, the rhetorical “you” here being me. I try hard to never be prescriptive. My experience to the process is mine and there are writers I respect tremendously who have entirely different ways of going about it.
But, when I produce nothing? For me, it’s never the THING, I’d guess. It’s my relationship to the text (or lack of it in that moment). And it’s usually caused by me allowing my ego to invade the process, where it does not belong. In early drafts especially, I submit to language, rather than try to govern or lead it. Those show up more when I revise…when there is already something to work with.
Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
ROB: For me, ego. Fear. Where I worry about what people will think—which has nothing to do with art and everything to do with my insecurities and neurosis. ALL of that destroys creativity. When it’s going well, is when you, your ego, disappear and it’s almost like you’re taking dictation…you get in this amazing zone (and it happens in other forms, I suppose…I get it with music, and sex and I used to get it when I was an athlete…but I’m sure it comes with dance and painting and what have you). I’m not one who believes in a muse, per se…because to GET to the place of that zone with any regularity takes THOUSANDS of hours learning and honoring your craft and always being humble enough to know you will die an apprentice…no one ever masters art. We can only hope to be getting better and challenging ourselves to the end.
It’s a beautiful and rare thing that art is one of the areas in life where we can quite possibly be better at seventy-five than we were at seventy. That doesn’t happen, can’t happen, for every occupation. Michael Jordan, no matter what his heart or desire, will not be a better basketball player at sixty than he was at thirty.
Meredith: What is the real meaning behind finishing?
ROB: Well, there are a couple of meanings, I think. And this is for only ME, I hope it’s clear. There are different views of what finishing might be. Plenty smarter or more articulate than mine, I’m certain. I usually get VERY obsessed near the end of a project and go into a manic state. I tend to stupidly work 18-24 hour days (one 72 hour “day” at the end of this one) near the end of a book, because it’s such an electric, beautiful feeling, even with cost, which can be…something I would be wise to avoid. I get so obsessed with trying to make everything right that I possibly can. I try to have everything that has come up in the narrative be addressed—not resolved, as I don’t really believe in narrative resolve…I’ve had friends killed, and have heard other people talk about “closure”…I don’t believe in closure, so my stories and novels aren’t going to have it. I think it’s a myth of reassurance that gives readers comfort. And it strikes me as a false comfort. But, that’s me. And it’s how my books enact themselves. Other people think other things. They write other books. They tie up all the loose ends. And that’s cool. If we all wrote the same, only one of us would need to write a book and the rest of us could read that one book and we’d all feel the same and just nod like unthinking goofballs.
But I think the end has to address all of the issues that have been introduced…address…but not tie them up—for me.
But, then, the OTHER meaning of finishing is that…well, they’re NEVER finished. I was on tour for my second novel and I’d read this one scene at a lot of the events…and after maybe only two or three readings (maybe after the first one), I was writing in the margins of the novel, changing phrases, re-wording things. Cutting lines. This book had been through maybe 5 drafts before my friends saw it. Six or seven before my agent saw it. At least eight before it went out to editors. Then a ninth draft with my editor at Harper Collins. Then the copyeditor goes through it and the writer makes the last changes. Jeez, you’d think at that point, you wouldn’t have any prose in the text you could make better. But after ALL that work. All those drafts. All those eyes I respect on the work…and yet, there I see a clunker line, a weak phrase, unneeded metaphors…whatever. How did I let that get through when I thought the book was DONE? It’s like the sentence equivalent of a bad pistachio. How did that one sneak by the inspection line?
But when I’m on tour, I’m re-writing the published book. So, it’s never really done, I guess. I thought it was my dirty secret until a saw a bunch of my friends did it as well.
In, I think it was early 1941…as I’m pretty sure Fitzgerald died in Dec of 1940, ESQUIRE magazine (because the mail wasn’t as quick back in the day) kept getting corrected drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories (that had supposedly been “finished”) weeks after he had died. He’d mailed them, and Esquire was still getting corrections and editing notes from him in February. There’s something both sad and beautiful about that to me. Correcting the work when they’ve already buried you.
Well, I said there were a COUPLE meanings of finishing? I forgot a third. In the case of my new book, it was finished because I had a deadline (deadlines are good for finishing) and it was finally finished (a couple of drafts after I’d originally thought it “finished”) when my editor Gina Frangello—who is the best editor I’ve ever worked with as well as being a great writer—said it was finished. She pushed me and had both the intimacy with the text that a great editor needs AND the objectivity that a great editor needs. And an exhausted writer who (in my latest case) had done over ten drafts of the book over a number of years is sometimes not to be trusted. I thought I was out of gas and the book was done. And another editor might have let the book go to print as it was. But it wouldn’t have been as good.
So, maybe that’s my answer. You know your book is finished when Gina says so. But she can’t read everyone’s books, so that may be of limited help to your readers.
Meredith: When you find it hard to pay attention to your writing, like when it’s really bugging you or annoying you or evading you or being mean to you, how does it win you over again?
ROB: Writing never bothers me—people who park in handicap spaces bother me. If the writing’s not coming, well, I’m probably doing something wrong…as…well, it’s not writing until it’s written. And then, there are a LOT of times where it sucks and I have to fight my desire to be a perfectionist and let the writing be bad and let me find the good work in the bad work. To find the story in the story. To listen to the prose, rather than try to control it in the early drafts.
But, I don’t think writing has the ability to be mad at me. I certainly have the ability to be mad at me. I’m quite adept at self-loathing. If self-loathing and the inability to forgive oneself were Olympic events, I’m quite certain I could dominate. But then, I’d find some reason to dislike myself for having won.
But the writing? It’s not a being. It’s a craft. And an art form. It has no agenda. And it (my work, at least) doesn’t exist until I create it. Now, I’m not in CHARGE of the writing in the way a lot of people assume…where you, say, have an idea, a truth, and then mold that into a narrative. It’s much more of an exploration…a somewhat blind one. I’ve never known where I was going in a story or novel. I write a line and then I wonder what opportunity and what obstacle THAT line offers and I write another line that follows that. Writing is about listening…questions, not ideas…for me, anyway. Explorations of the dominant questions and obsessions and scars that haunt my life.
And maybe those questions never get answered….Milan Kundera has said his whole career is an exploration of the question “what happens to the individual under totalitarian regime?” And that question doesn’t get answered so much as it gets explored…and the work CREATES something new in the world where nothing was before. Which IS something I love about art. Art is like love. Both create something the world needs (arguably more than just about anything…after food and shelter), and they create it out of nothing. Something where there was nothing. And hopefully both of those (art and love) make the world a less lonely place. In a world with so much destruction, I think there’s a responsibility to create. To connect. To bring into the world things that others might find something of value in. To allow others to never lose that childlike excitement about the world. The world grinds us down with so much shit that not only doesn’t MATTER, it destroys. This culture of consumer capitalism where we’ve created a landscape of meaningless and hollow desire. The pursuit of money, of material objects, or power—none of these nurture—and I hesitate to use this word, as I’m an atheist—the soul.
Meredith: Are you ever frightened of your own ideas, or what’s inside you? Does it help to know it – or not really, when it comes to getting the words on the page?
ROB: You know….not very often WHILE I’m writing…because I do try to get my ego and judgment and shame and fear out of me when I write—all these get in the way of honesty. But pretty often, after the fact, I’ll read what I’ve written and find some very disturbing, very dark, frightening things in there. So, I tend to know it in REVISION, but not so often in the initial composition. And I’ll sometimes read it and wonder “where did this fucked up ugliness come from?” I’m not certain I’m frightened by that, though. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it disturbs me. But those—along with it being funny—usually mean I’m doing my best work. If I’m not willing to put what’s inside me—especially the worst of it—on the page, I’m wasting everybody’s time.
ROB is a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at University of California Riverside’s main campus MFA, Antioch, Los Angeles’ MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. Currently, he serves as the advisor for the PEN Mark program. He plays guitar and sings with the LA bands The Danbury Shakes, The Violet Rays and The Urinals. He can be found at robroberge.com
“I believe in emotional truth over literal truth….I inhale work that speaks to me of universal emotional truths.”
—Jordan E. Rosenfeld
JORDAN E. ROSENFELD, the author of the debut novel FORGED IN GRACE (IndieVisible) learned early on that people prefer a storyteller to a know-it-all. She channeled any Hermione-esque tendencies into a career as a writing coach, editor and freelance journalist and saves the Tall Tales for her novels. She earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is the author of the books, Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time (Writer’s Digest Books) and Write Free! Attracting the Creative Life with Rebecca Lawton (BeijaFlor Books). Jordan’s essays and articles have appeared in such publications asAlterNet.org, Publisher’s Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times, The Writer and Writer’s Digest magazine. Her book commentaries have appeared on The California Report, a news-magazine produced by NPR-affiliate KQED radio.
Meredith: What does truth in writing mean–to you?
JORDAN: I believe in emotional truth over literal truth. Since memory and perception of events are so subjective (and selective), all we can really rely upon are our feelings. So I seek to create an emotional truth in what I write—meaning, do the characters experience and elicit feelings that the reader can relate to? Do the events evoke something real? Similarly, I inhale work that speaks to me of universal emotional truths.
Meredith: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a place of welcoming familiarity? Now answer this–which is the preferable path to creativity…for you?
JORDAN: For a long time my creative process was mostly familiar, and comfortable, but I recently learned that I was writing within a too-comfortable zone, and with this novel, I kept getting stuck and stucker (sic!). My way of dealing with that (avoiding the deeper material) was to throw in Big. Plot. Twists. My editor, Allison McCabe, was able to help me get past that tendency but not until I gutted a nearly 400 page novel, took it down to 119 pages and then wrote it back up. It was agonizing and yet it cracked me open and it really was almost euphoric; I felt like I was in a master class for my creative soul. In that, a new creative process was born for me, a scarier one, in which I made friends with destruction and learned how to push myself to deeper places inside me, thus in the work. And what prompted all of this was two-fold: my husband coming to me about a year ago and telling me he really felt I needed to go for it, write more and work less; and my son (age 4) finally being old enough that I’ve begun to “reclaim” not only my time but my sense of self beyond motherhood, or in addition to it.
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?
JORDAN: Well, this isn’t the first time I’ve been published. But my first two published books were both non-fiction. This process has taught me so much about being rigorous with the work, about making a commitment to it that I can’t turn away from. The business of publishing will always be the business of publishing—a little maddening, hard to understand, concerned with the bottom line over the art. Choosing an alternative means to publishing gave me a certain kind of freedom, but I am also having to work three times harder than with any other book.
Meredith: I’ve only asked this question less than a handful of times, but feel like you’re the perfect person to ask it again—Having never been pregnant myself, I wait for (what I feel is) 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 fantasy, too] 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?
JORDAN: In some ways it’s an apt analogy but I’d say gestating and birthing a novel is WAY more painful than birthing a baby because it goes on and on and on, is rife with so much more doubt and uncertainty and the end reward is not a beautiful, healthy child, but an artistic creation that other people may or may not like (well, come to think of it, I suppose that is the way it works with one’s children, too). Although my labor was long, and yes, the most physically painful experience of my life, novel writing is just a much more complex process.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
JORDAN: Yes, I make myself the promise not to rely upon divine inspiration but to simply engage in the act of writing and keep writing, knowing that like a tight muscle, the muse will warm and flow and begin to offer me gems if I keep at it. As for deals…I reward myself. Sometimes I withhold from myself, really until the act is done—although seeing as I’m not eating sugar or drinking alcohol right now, and I don’t shop much, it’s hard to find a reward. Coffee, I guess.
JORDAN lives in Northern California with her superhero-obsessed son and psychologist husband where, in addition to writing she also works with other writers as an editor. Visit her website for more about her and her work: www.jordanrosenfeld.net
“You definitely have to look at the publishing process as an industry and a business at some point even though you may be largely focused on the creative aspect of doing the work of writing. I now see it as almost two separate entities”
Jennifer Nelson is the author of AIRBRUSHED NATION: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines. hundreds of articles for leading publications such as Self, Women’s Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Oprah, Parenting and many other health, women’s and lifestyle magazines. She teaches Stiletto Boot Camp, a women’s magazine writing course at Mediabistro.com and is a popular presenter at writing conferences across the country. http://byjennifernelson.com/
Meredith: Your book takes on an entire industry that – on the surface – claims to be “for” women. But, issue after issue, proves itself to be…not so much. What was the turning point inside you when you decide to go deeper and stand up to the falsities that try so hard to look real?
JENNIFER: The turning point for me was a couple of things: As a writer, it was getting more and more difficult for me to make my living writing solely for the chick slicks because of some of the insidious practices that go on there, such as taking months and months to get editors to reply to pitches, and when you do land an assignment to give your article a read through and first edit. Then there may be multiple revisions requested, often articles are full of asinine questions the editors could clearly answer, or two or three editors all weigh in different color fonts contradicting each other’s thoughts, edits and suggestions. There are sometimes editorial changes of minds, where stories are killed on a whim because the EIC has left and the new top dog has a different vision for the magazine or for that story, not to mention months of months of waiting to get final approval, acceptance–and a paycheck. It can take six to 12 months or more before your story sees print and almost as long before you get a check that’s needed to pay the mortgage or to buy groceries.
As a reader, my daughter hit high school and college age and began to look at many of the glossies we had coming in on a monthly basis and we began to discuss some of the negative messaging: the images that were clearly airbrushed, the stories that approached every reader as though they need to improve some aspect of their lives from losing weight to looking younger to having better relationships, and the man-centric focus among the magazines for 20-somethings that was largely about getting a man and keeping a man, and knowing how to please that man. It wasn’t the message she or I could get behind and I began to not only rethink writing for women’s glossies but educating women about what it is their favorite magazine is portraying and how that really may affect their self esteem, body image and psyche.
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?
JENNIFER: You definitely have to look at the publishing process as an industry and a business at some point even though you may be largely focused on the creative aspect of doing the work of writing. I now see it as almost two separate entities. There’s my time with my butt in the chair doing the creative work (or trying to get ink to page, a certain number of goal words per day or per week) and then there’s the business side of publishing. Going through the process of writing a book exposes you to the different nature of the publishing beast. My book, for instance, got a title change at a somewhat late date due to the buyer’s reaction to the original title. We had already selected cover art so that went back to the drawing board, too. Chapters get passed back and forth for sometimes 2, 3 and 4 revisions with the editor. You certainly cannot be too overly attached to your words (or your title!) and must be open to new ideas, arguments and points your editor and publishing team is making. It’s a real collaboration. Even though you may think of writing a book as you sitting alone in your home office doing the solo work of the craft, there are a lot of hands in the process and a lot of business alchemy to the decisions that are made regarding your work. It is an industry after all, with a bottom line and a cost-analysis and bean counters—and all that comes with any business.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
JENNIFER: You know, I have never been too waylaid by rejection for whatever reason. Probably because when I was writing for the woman’s magazines, I pitched incessantly, up to 30 or more query letters monthly. Only a small percentage of my ideas ever made the cut, maybe 10-20 percent, which netted me a 3-5 stories monthly so I was quite familiar with rejection! I learned very early on that it was nothing personal and that if one idea got shot down, I was a day away from thinking up another great idea. That said, there were definitely times when I became attached to my ideas, or in the case of book work, a book proposal. Since those projects are so much larger than a mere article idea, you have a lot more time, effort and energy vested and so you do feel those rejections a bit more deeply. I tend to let myself wallow for a brief time—a few hours to a day– and then move onward and upward. As far as the role they play in creativity, I think rejection does serve some purpose mostly in terms of motivating me to move on when something is rejected or to dig deep, in some cases, and figure out how to make something work that’s getting negative feedback or rejection.
When I was looking for an agent for this project, I received many rejections maybe 15-20 from agents who thought the magazine industry was dead, or that nobody wanted to read any negative things about the chick slicks even though they admitted my proposal and chapters were well done. I didn’t agree and kept pushing on. For one, I strongly felt the magazine industry was definitely not dead! And also, I envisioned Airbrushed Nation to be more than a report on some negative things in the women’s magazines, but rather calling out and educating whole generations of women who may not have realized the negative effect reading some of the glossy’s messaging had on them. When I did find an agent, she felt exactly the same way. The earlier rejection served as motivation.
Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight–to a belief about writing, a piece of writing, or an idea that you have–that isn’t working or that, perhaps, an editor would like you to change. The belief part goes for you…but the piece, the idea, those refer also to your relationship with the editor. In other words, what tells you how to proceed?
JENNIFER: I think of this more as a gut feeling. To some degree you must remain open to critique and suggestions from an editor or agent for how to be able to market or sell something because even though you may be holding tightly to your ideal of the work, we get back to the business side of publishing again, and it has to be something that either will work for an editor or something in which an agent or editor feels they will be able to sell to the marketplace. If the changes being asked of you go completely against your gut, then you might stick with your version and try to sell your work elsewhere, and if the changes are something you think you could get on board with either because it will make the work better or more marketable or become something that you will be able to sell to a magazine or publisher, well, then I don’t think you want to hold on too tightly to your vision when your goal after all is to get your work out there to the public.
Meredith: Can you tell me how you move through a big project when life’s personal details are distracting, sad, anxiety producing or otherwise?
JENNIFER: Great question because I had a really long lead time for my book, about a year. A lot can happen in a year. Personally, I had a lot happen to me over that year, I ended a relationship, my two grown kids went through their stuff: boyfriend and girlfriend break-ups, graduating college and the ups and downs of job hunting in this post-college job market, one dealing with grad school stress, and all the drama that comes with life in general. Some days, quite frankly, I was worthless and knew there was no point of even trying to work on the project and then when times were good, I really took advantage of that and cracked the whip. But sometimes, I just had to power through no matter if I was sad or mad or moving through a tough day, especially toward the end.
The other thing with really long deadlines is that there is a lot of time to procrastinate. I found myself wasting a lot of time earlier on and then feeling the panicky OMG moment of I better not waste any more time and get further behind. I think setting some solid goals for how many chapters you tackle per month or words you write per day is a great way to stay on track. Just don’t beat yourself up when a bad week or two come along, but rather get right back in the saddle and resume working like nothing happened. Set goals; try not to procrastinate for procrastination sake, but rather “save” your down days or weeks for when you really do have a stressful life situation, anxiety, or a personal issue that prevents you from doing the work. And remember, even with the best planning as you approach deadline day, it’s just plain crazy anyway: Long days, maybe nights and weekends, endless re-reading and editing changes and answering editorial questions, maybe footnoting or indexing tasks. The best you can do then is just work through the crazy end as best you can.
The writer talks about not running away, acting “as if’ and letting the world in.
Sheryl Kraft is a journalist who writes frequently about health, including her own recovery from breast cancer at age 34. In addition, her essays, articles and opinion have appeared in JAMA, The New York Times, AARP, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today, HealthyWomen.org and many others. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College—starting the program at age 48. Her new baby, MY SO-CALLED MIDLIFE, is a blog about … well, click to find out.
MEREDITH: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
Sheryl: In the beginning, there’s a huge cloud. It’s hovering over me, threatening to pour. And I keep dodging it; opening and closing my umbrella, never quite finding a safe place. It’s scary and totally unsettling. I know I have to make a decision. Once I get tired of running – and sometimes that can take a very long time – I close my umbrella and let the rain soak me. That’s when I know I’ve finally begun – I’m flooded with relief, excitement, and lots of energy.
MEREDITH: You write about health. Does your writing process always feel healthy to you? Is it ahem, ill, sometimes? How do you dedicate yourself to wellness on the page? Or is it okay—or even appropriate—to be under the weather at times?
Sheryl: Usually I can only write when my mind is feeling healthy; i.e. when I’m fully present, inspired, awake and excited about a topic. If I try to force it, it usually falls flat or the words will come out all wrong; the content will be boring and be devoid of real meaning. I’m sure a lot of us infuse our personalities into what we write, so how can we write when we’re not feeling our best? On the other hand, I will contradict myself slightly when I tell you that some of my best writing has come out of adversity. I also write essays, and wrote two that were published (one in JAMA, the other won an award from Redbook) years after I got diagnosed with breast cancer at 34 and subsequently lost my two best friends to the same disease. I think the power of the writing came out of being waaay under the weather; that was when my stormy emotions fueled the creative process and my mind was able to spill out onto the page all the things I needed so desperately to sort out and deal with but couldn’t. And maybe that’s why a lot of us do write; to get our emotions out, somehow.
MEREDITH: Do you trust yourself when you write?
Sheryl: It’s not always entirely easy to trust myself, even with something as simple as making a decision what to order off a menu! That’s why I think the writing process can be so scary at times. I tend to write slowly and will re-write and re-read ad nauseum. When I’m finally feeling physically ill or mentally drained (and that’s no way for a health writer to feel!) I take that as a signal that it’s either time to trash it or send it. But even when I trash it, there are usually a few salvageable nuggets worth saving and working on. It’s not all lost. To totally trust myself I sometimes have to pretend; it’s like smiling when you don’t feel like smiling….eventually your facial muscles will naturally turn into a smile and you’ll start to feel happy.
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?
Sheryl: Funny, I answered this question without even knowing what it was, in the last question. I’ll add a few things: when I get excited about an idea and can’t let it go, I know it’s worth following. That’s when all I want to do is write, to the exclusion of just about everything else: I won’t answer the phone, I ignore my husband, my sons, my emails, (in that order), ignore my weak bladder until I have to dash to the bathroom, don’t want to cook and would rather eat stale cereal with sour milk, think only an hour has passed when in reality it’s been four hours. The house could be on fire and I would barely notice. That’s when.
MEREDITH: Where does the process of creativity start for you?
Sheryl: Hmm….that’s a thought-provoking question. Creativity for me seems to be inspired by so many things: the weather, my moods, how I slept the night before, what kinds of crazy dreams I had, a movie I saw or interesting book I read, looking at beautiful art, hearing music, or even in the middle of a mundane task like washing dishes or taking out the recycling. And, of course, there are those random conversations I overhear when I’m on line at Starbucks or the bank or even the supermarket, when I look at things other people have in their baskets. I always make up stories about why they’re buying five boxes of saltines or cases of Dr. Pepper or frozen pizzas. I also find that when I do any type of physical exercise, creativity usually is at its peak. I guess my mind is open and relaxed and I’m allowing just about any thought to enter. But by far, the most creative time I’ve ever had was when I went back to school for my MFA. I’d always loved writing and I wanted to learn it from other writers. So, at 48, when my sons were in high school, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence. Every minute there was so exciting for me and I was bathed in creativity. I know this might sound a bit exaggerated, but it’s for real! And of course, creativity is naturally sparked by all my past experiences – and being totally open to new ones. Whenever you let the world in, creativity is easily sparked.
Sheryl lives and works in Connecticut where she shares her shrinking nest with her long-time husband Alan, aging Bichon, Chloe, and (for the moment) recent college graduate youngest son, Jeremy. She is happiest when walking on a beach, riding her bike and spending time with the people she loves most. Hang out with her here: website.