The screenwriter, author and therapist talks about writing what you love, building a tolerance to rejection and inviting in the shadow side.
Dennis Palumbo is the author of Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within—one of my absolute favorite books on writing (I have an autographed copy). He is also a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles specializing in creative issues. Dennis was a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter and more,) before changing careers and becoming a licensed psychotherapist. When I asked for an interesting, quirky, something-different fact about his life he told me this: “I guess an interesting fact is that I lived and trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal for three months. I did this at the time I was wrestling with the idea of a career change, and, though it’s a cliche, when I returned from that spiritual experience, I knew I wanted to change my life.”
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
DENNIS: Tough question. The truth is, rejection’s main purpose is to help the writer build up a tolerance for rejection. Sometimes, if the writer’s lucky, an editor’s or agent’s rejection letter contains valuable information about what’s working and what isn’t, but it’s still up to the writer to decide how much to accept of these opinions. The hardest thing for a writer to understand is that, while rejection is experienced personally, it usually isn’t intended as personal. Writing is either rejected or accepted based on the (sometimes fickle) whims of the marketplace. We all know stories about manuscripts that were rejected all over town, and then finally sold, and then go on to be huge successes. So even while dealing with the pain of rejection, writers need to remember, in the words of screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” So toss those rejection slips and keep writing!
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?
DENNIS: Of course I’ve been seduced by this. I don’t know any writers that haven’t been. Remember, when writing, you’re putting the deepest, most personal aspects of your heart, soul and imagination out into the world, and asking the world to take notice. It’s a remarkably brave, and dangerous, thing to do. In addition, few of us have the strength of character to retain good feelings about ourselves without some kind of external validation. Writers are especially vulnerable to this, since the raw materials of our craft is how we think and feel.
Meredith: Might there be something to be said about setting a place for the shadow side of ourselves, the part riddled with fear and anxiety, when we sit down to write? Kind of like, inviting it in?
DENNIS: “Inviting in the shadow side” is the only way to write. I once had a writer patient say, “If only I could take all my doubts, fears and anxieties and just shove them out of the room—then I could write.” To which I answered, “Write about what? Those very feelings are the stuff from which good writing emerges.” As Jung reminds us, it’s only by accepting and integrating our shadow side into our consciousness that we become whole. The same is true for our writing. We have within us everything we need to get into the heads of any character we conceive, from nun to serial killer. As writers, it’s our job to access those feelings and use them to create vivid narrative.
Meredith: Ira Glass, host of This American Life said something about stories a long time ago: “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Is this how you write?
DENNIS:More or less. I always say, I write to find out what I’m thinking. When I was a Hollywood screenwriter, I always resisted using outlines and treatments. I much preferred writing a terrible first draft, and then building up from there. I like what Doctorow said about writing: he said it was like driving on a winding road at night. Your headlights only throw light about ten feet ahead of you, but sooner or later you get home.
Meredith: You have 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. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
DENNIS: I love that quote because it reminds us that everything is possible to someone who’s open to his or her own experience and impulse. People are always so willing to tell writers what they can’t or can do, what readers are buying, what the market is looking for, etc., and this “conventional wisdom” can drive a stake in the heart of creativity and imagination.My feeling is, write what you love, and if it’s your time, and the stars align, others will love it, too. There are no formulas for success, just as there’s no “solution” to life. Most innovators, in every field, usually end up proving the experts wrong about something. If possible, always be a beginner.
Visit Dennis’s website and check out the other books he’s written. Then take a look at his “Hollywood on the Couch” blog at The Huffington Post . Oh, and click here to see his favorite writing quotes.
The writer talks about trusting intuition, never trying to please the crowd and writing in rooms with beds in them.
Meredith: When you write do words come first, or images, sounds, a sensation maybe?
Lynn: For me, it’s an interplay between dialogue and mis-en-scène* that comes first. Sometimes the visual of an action will inspire the dialogue or sometimes it’s dialogue that inspires the action. Because I also write screenplays, I tend to see the story unfolding in scenes. Sometimes, I take breaks and just lie down on my bed and let the dialogue and action unfold in a variety of choices and then help my characters determine the best fit—this usually takes place in the beginning of the novel for as the story progresses the choices minimize or rather become more directed. This is why I like to write in rooms with beds in them—preferably with gorgeous views and absolutely necessary is wifi for “research-on-demand” and a coffee maker. I am also a nomadic binge writer—another reason I like to write in rooms with beds in them. It’s much faster for me to write in a room cocoon around the clock with nap breaks than day to day in normal 9 to 5 format.
Meredith: Once you have the basic idea for what you will be writing about, how do you expand on it to create enough to fill up an entire book?
Lynn: I do an extensive amount of research, which is a lot of fun for me. Out of the research, new ideas and new directions emerge. I still have to make sure the content fits the playground. In other words, I can’t have my characters running out of the ball park and into another genre. But once the research is done and the themes are established, the characters take over and it’s their actions that create continuous plot points until the entire narrative is complete.
NOW ANSWER THIS: How do you know when enough is enough—a line in an essay, a chapter in a book?
Lynn: It’s an innate organic thing. Stories have inherent beginnings, middles and ends. Although sometimes, I have to help guide the characters to a resolution and conclusion. And this decision on the part of me, the author and character guide, is determined both by an inherent sensibility and as an objective spectator watching the events unfold. The objective spectator that resides within the author has to be engaged in the scenario. If my objective spectator is disengaged by the story, then I need to allow my characters to take a new direction to pump up the action. So I suppose the answer is that underneath the writing of the story is underlying dialogue between my author and my objective spectator as they inter-allow the characters to reach their conclusion.
Meredith: When you write does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning?
Lynn: I never please the crowd—because I am the crowd. Since we are all part of the universe, if I can’t satisfy my objective spectator then I certainly can’t satisfy the “eyes of the anonymous” as Milan Kundera (author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being) writes.
Meredith: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following?
Lynn: I don’t always know; sometimes, I take a risk because it’s…funny. But more often than not, I try to rely solely on my intuition because then there is [always a nice-thing alert] much less rewriting involved for necessary and sometimes futile attempts to fix what was never right to begin with. Is there a telling moment for you? [valuable insight alert] There is an innate knowing, a place of oneness, a state of spiritual consciousness when story and spirit are in perfect alignment with each other.
Meredith: When writing, do you wait for the muse, or do you see creating as a job to be done whether the muse is there or not? And by the way, what is your muse?
Lynn: I don’t have time to wait for a muse, so I guess in a sense that makes me the muse. If anything, solitude is my muse; uninterrupted time is my muse. A beautiful view is most helpful as a muse (though not necessary). My favorite place to write is my cousin’s log mansion on Clark Lake in Michigan with its 270 degree views of the lake. It also helps that they understand the needs of a writer; sometimes not allowing me to come down for dinner until I’ve written another ten pages… (hah! kidding… sort of). If I accomplish a lot of writing in one day, I’ll treat myself to a kayak ride around the lake, so the lake is muse, inspiration, and reward.
* Mise-en-scène (IPA: [mizɑ̃sɛn]) is an expression used in the theatre and film worlds to describe the design aspects of a production. It has been called film criticism’s “grand undefined term,” but that is not because of a lack of definitions. Rather, it’s because the term has so many different meanings that there is little consensus about its definition.
The author contemplates chaos and rumination, and generously answers questions about process, fear and his truth on pushing forward versus hitting a stride.
TOD GOLDBERG is the author of seven books, including the novels Living Dead Girl, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat and the popular Burn Notice series. He is also the author of the short story collections Simplify, which won the Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize and was a finalist for the SCIBA Award in Fiction, and Other Resort Cities, which is out now.
MEREDITH: WHEN YOU BEGIN, HOW DEEP IN YOU IS THE KNOWINGNESS OF WHERE YOU’RE GOING? IS IT A PLACE OF STILLNESS OR CHAOS?
TOD: It used to be that I’d start writing out of a chaos. I’d have an image, or an idea, or a bit of dialog that somehow wormed its way into my head and I’d start to write just to get that nugget out. And for a while that worked for me as I discovered, essentially, how to write and in the process built stories or novels around these bits of found story and then assembled the world in something of a haphazard fashion.
Now, I tend to ruminate for a very long period of time before I ever sit down to write. This first happened to me when I wrote my novel Living Dead Girl – I basically sat on the story for two years, thinking about the main character, understanding who he was, how he processed the world around him—and then, in subsequent years, I’ve found that a short story that would have taken me a week to write in my twenties (from conception to my personal declaration that I was now pretty much assured of winning the Pulitzer) now takes me a month or two because I need to find that point of quiet in my head where the story demands to be told. Now this might just be related to the fact that in my twenties I didn’t have any kind of discernable real life and now, in my late thirties, I have responsibilities, expectations and a mortgage, which perhaps makes me sit back and really examine things in far intensive way.
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?
TOD: I have a very real belief that Buddha said many things in hopes of confusing people for thousands of years, specifically since he said, “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings—that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.” Well, that I can get behind, at least in a general sense.
But, to your question, I believe you can travel poorly and arrive well—anyone who has ever flown on a red-eye to Maui next to a screaming child would surely agree with me on this. Arriving at the Westin in Maui is, in fact, better than even the best trip there. So, if traveling is writing—and let it be known here that I’m beginning to feel like I’m in the middle of a word problem, which means I might mess this all up irrevocably—then arriving is…uh…publishing? Right? Is that an A? I’m a fairly tangible person in relation to these existential Buddhist conundrums, so what I can tell you is that “not” in this case can only mean whatever it is James Patterson does.
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 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?
TOD: There’s a romantic notion about what it is like to be a writer vs. what it’s actually like to write, which is of course an entirely different experience. So I think people have an idea that it’s a kind of life that is a purely intellectual pursuit where they could spend their lives telling the kinds of stories (or writing the kinds of essays, or constructing the kinds of pop-up books, or…) that they’ve always wanted to read and that, in process, they will be loved and adored and treated like a celebrity who, unlike, say, Paris Hilton, is famous for something intensely worthy. They probably think they’ll be invited to salons. There is a slight chance they imagine themselves in Paris during the Jazz Age. Certainly, there’s a belief that their life would be better as a writer than as a plumber or nurse or lawyer or dog-catcher or…well, you get the idea.
What they never seem to factor in—“they” being the people who tell me this sort of thing on a fairly regular basis—is that they’d actually need to sit down for hours and, you know, write. Writing is one of the few professions everyone thinks they could do. I blame the dreadful adage that “everyone has a novel inside of them” on this belief. Not everyone has a “specialty in thoracic medicine” in them or an “ability to understand what the knocks and pings in the average Honda Accord foretell in relation to the transmission” either. So I think people find this life seductive because it isn’t the life they have, but it’s one they can imagine having if only they had the time or the volition to sit down and write. But of course it’s a job like any other job when you get right down to it and sometimes, like at night when I can’t turn off the story, it’s enough to make you wonder what life as a dog groomer might be like.
I come from a family of writers—my mother was a journalist, my father was a TV newS journalist, my brother Lee Goldberg is an author and television producer and both of my sisters, Linda Woods and Karen Dinino, are authors, too—so I don’t feel like I’ve ever been seduced per se. All I’ve ever really wanted to do, from as young an age as I can recall, was to tell stories, to entertain people. And that’s still what drives me each day I sit down at the computer: an overwhelming desire to tell a story and to make someone feel something.
MEREDITH: ARE YOU EVER FRIGHTENED OF YOUR OWN IDEAS OR WHAT’S INSIDE YOU?
TOD: No, though maybe I should be. I write a lot about people on the edge of madness. Sometimes they embrace the madness and turn into monsters and sometimes they skirt just past it and turn into something else—a person damaged by their very proximity to darkness—and occasionally, they find a kind of muted happiness in the way their lives have shaken out. That I am able to ruminate on these rather dark issues for great lengths of time is somewhat disturbing in that I think the difference between what is clinically considered insane and what is clinically considered a writer isn’t that different—we both have voices in our head for prolonged periods of time and, occasionally, have intense conversations with them—but I think the only time I’ve been frightened by an idea was when I didn’t think I knew how to write it or wasn’t confident in my ability to do the story justice. Being frightened by what’s inside of me has only occurred on a few occasions, but most notably directly after eating the food served at Bennington College.
MEREDITH: WHAT IS GOING ON INSIDE THE WRITER WHEN WE HEAR THAT HE HAS HIT HIS STRIDE? CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PROCESS FOR US, BREAK IT DOWN—HOW THIS HAPPENS (AND HOW IT HAPPENED WITHIN YOU)? DID YOU HAVE A SENSE THIS WAS HAPPENING? WAS THERE A TURNING POINT?
TOD: I don’t really think writers should attempt to hit their stride. I mean, sure, it happens when you’re writing a piece and time disappears and you lose yourself in the work and suddenly look up and five hours have elapsed. Over the length of a career, however, I think the best writers never find themselves content with finding their stride; that they are always searching for that next great insight, that next level in their work.
Now, that said, there comes a time when you realize you know how to do X well and that you can replicate that experience over and over again and use it in every project that comes across your mind. (For instance, I feel like I can write a fairly enticing first sentence. After that, it’s a crapshoot.) And you can phone in a kind of story or novel, but what makes writers writers is, I believe, the natural inclination to make up new things and as such finding that stride merely means you’ve perfected one thing, but that one thing is not, certainly, the only thing one needs to write a novel or story or poem or an exceptionally inventive grocery list. So finding your stride is nice, but I’d be more content if I never saw the finish line, if I was always running toward some infinite open road. I’d like to think that I’d find myself pushing forward along that road in perpetuity.
TOD directs the MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus. Visit him at his website (and terrific blog).
“If you can learn not to take rejection personally—and hopefully to learn something about yourself or the piece of work in the process—it’s a boon.”
KAYT SUKEL is the author of DIRTY MINDS: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships [out today!]. Her writing credits are diverse and impressive: personal essays in the Washington Post, American Baby, the Bark, USAToday, Literary Mama and the Christian Science Monitor as well as articles on a variety of subjects for the Atlantic Monthly, the AARP Bulletin, Continental In-flight Magazine, Parenting, Cerebrum, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, BrainWork and American Baby magazines. She also wrote the essay, “I Had an Orgasm in an MRI Scanner” for The Guardian, which talks about an element of the research she did for her book about which she eloquently and entertainingly explains in her book trailer [the link can be found at the end of our interview].
Meredith: Can you tell me how you move through a big project when life’s personal details are distracting, sad, anxiety producing or otherwise?
KAYT: I’ve found that it’s the big projects themselves that keep me going! I started DIRTY MINDS just as my marriage fell apart—and I found that work was one of my few escapes. It may seem contrary to think that writing a book about love just as it was slipping through my fingers would be a balm. But the neuroscientists I interviewed all had such compassion and insight about this universal human phenomenon, what it means to love and be loved—and even to lose that love. Although I probably was fairly distracted about many things in life as I set back out into the single world, it was very therapeutic to harness all that negative energy and turn it into something so positive and fruitful.
Can I say the same thing about other less personal projects? The answer, honestly, is yes. I’ve learned that good work is a great way to take a break from life’s messier parts. And the bigger projects can give you enough time and space away from your own problems to gain a little perspective. Some much-needed perspective that can help you to let go and move on.
KAYT: I definitely haven’t mastered it! But I don’t think comparison is always a bad thing. Though I am a non-fiction writer, I’m a novel junkie. And sometimes I’ll read a certain sentence by Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro and wonder what I’m doing in the writing profession at all! But I try my best to channel that admiration into something that will help me hone my own craft.
Science writers like Mary Roach and Rebecca Skloot have shown that science writing doesn’t have to be dry and boring. It can be relatable, lively, fascinating—when it’s done right, that is. So instead of feeling like a total hack when I’m bowled over by a particular piece of writing, I become a student. I take a closer look at these passages that amaze me so much and try to discover exactly how and why it works. Later, when I work on my own pages, it makes it easier to see where I might be able to use a similar device or tactic.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
KAYT: Rejection has many, many purposes. Some in the publishing world refer to it as a “necessary evil.” But you know, I don’t see it as an evil anymore. Sure, rejection has definitely taken a few bites out of my self-esteem over the years. Maybe more than a few! But time and time again, it has made me a better writer. When working on the idea and proposal for DIRTY MINDS, the rejections I received helped me recognize and address the project’s shortcomings. If you can learn not to take rejection personally—and hopefully to learn something about yourself or the piece of work in the process—it’s a boon.
Meredith: What aspect about your writing process do you feel really good about? Is it something you’ve always had, learned or both?
KAYT: Despite a blossoming gift for procrastination, I have very good self-discipline. It’s a learned, not innate, trait. Like many writers, I can become paralyzed and have trouble getting words down, especially at the start of a big project. But a friend of mine, a rather prolific writer, once told me that you have to get the words on the page before you can determine whether they are any good or not. Even if your draft is complete crap (and yes, it often is), it’s something—there is something on that page you can work with. Something to hold on to, something to let you know if you are on the right track. If nothing else, there is something there that will help you move forward and set the next day’s goal. You can’t do that by keeping all those words in your head! So I’m quite good at setting small, manageable writing goals for myself every day. To make myself sit down, focus and knock out 1000 words. It’s not a sexy answer, I realize. I’m supposed to say something touchy-feely or perhaps even a bit mystical about the creative process. But I remember Diane Keaton’s character in the film, “Something’s Gotta Give,” saying that writing was 90% hard work and 10% talent. I feel that we often don’t give enough respect to the hard work part of that equation.
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, to you is working but that 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?
KAYT: This is hard for me—especially in essay writing. I can get very attached to certain lines, or tangents I’ve added to a story. I don’t want to let them go. And my first instinct when challenged is always to fight to keep them. But perhaps because I’m not educated as a writer—it’s something I sort of fell into as a career later in life—I recognized early on that my work always benefits from a good edit. Always. Having an editor that you respect and trust allows you to take a deep breath and let go of that small part for the whole of the piece.
Of course, sometimes, you don’t know yet if you have an editor that you can respect and trust. I get that. Or maybe it’s a question of space trade-offs or the piece needing a shorter lede. In those times, I read the essay both ways—with the sentences in question and without. And I try to get away from my ego or the particular elegance of any one line and ask myself if that passage helps me to better illustrate the overarching point of the story. If it does, I’ll push to keep it and tell the editor why I think that part needs to be there. If it doesn’t, I concede the point and move on. I feel I should add that, after that process, I’ve only fought for my lines one time in my career. And I because I took the time to really illustrate why I thought they were important, I convinced the editor to keep them.
Visit Kayt’s website (which is a great read in and of itself!). And, as her website claims: “You can often find her oversharing on Twitter as @kaytsukel.”
The writer shares about finding her genre (rather, her genre finding her), no excuses and it being incomprehensible when people can’t write.
Beth Levine is a veteran freelance writer. Her writing (personal essays, narrative, how-to…the list goes on) has appeared in many (MANY) national magazines including Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Self, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, and just about any other one you can think of. Beth is also a writing coach who says: “People often think I am not as funny as I think I am. And I don’t really care.” Beginning in January, she will be the new monthly advice columnist for Woman’s Day [yay, Beth!].
The Writer’s Journey: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?
Beth: Well, I guess it’s a friend because it doesn’t torture me about whether I am any good or not. I know my limitations and I also know when I’m good. I believe that as a writer, you don’t pick your genre, your genre picks you. I realized very early on that my fiction efforts were embarrassingly bad. I couldn’t find a true note if you shoved it up my ass. And sitting down to write fiction was, for me, a chore and a misery. It occurred to me that that was so because I was going at it for the wrong reason. I wasn’t writing fiction because I had to,because it gave me joy, but because I wanted everyone to know how smart and talented I was. Before I would put one finger on a computer key, I was already envisioning the book party, the fabulous reviews, the phone calls from old boyfriends begging to come back to brilliant, brilliant me.
My genre, the personal essay, found me. I discovered that what I could do (and do well) was get inside my own head and explore, and through my relationships with other people, I found the bridge to get inside their heads. I found that by writing personal essays, I could give myself moments to keep forever. Because when I am writing, the people I write about are there with me. I remember the quality of my father’s voice, my son as an infant, people from my childhood. They are there and they tell me just the way it happened and I see it as if it were happening anew. These are treasures that life doesn’t often offer.
Once I stumbled onto this gift, I stopped finding every excuse not to write, I stopped daydreaming about my National Book Award speech. I found myself racing to get at my computer every morning, unable to contain my impatience at the time it took to boot up. I know when I am onto something good, framed in such a way that I just have to reach out and grab it. And the rush I get after I know I’ve nailed it, I guess I have my mind to thank for that too. It’s what keeps me at it.
The Writer’s Journey: If you were an advertising agency and asked to pitch your method of creativity, what would your tagline be?
Beth: She delivers on time, without much maintenance. In fact, the less you speak to her, the better.
The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? How do you overcome “stuckness” if encountered?
Beth: In truth, I find it incomprehensible when people can’t write. I think,“Stop carrying on and just write the damn thing. It doesn’t have to be good. Just get something down on paper and noodle around with it.” I suppose writers everywhere are ready to punch me for that one. Once, when my husband, also a writer, was moaning about being blocked, I actually said, “A writer writes. So go write or shut up already.” Let’s just say our marriage did survive that one…barely.
When I want to mull something over, let’s say, I take a walk with my dog. I actually talk out loud to him. Something about being alone with my own thoughts, just wandering around, makes the perfect sentence,the perfection description pop into my head.
The Writer’s Journey: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?
Beth: Every writer has had the experience of being at a party and being asked, “And what do you do?” “I’m a writer,” I’ll say. To which the other person responds, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write but never found the time.” Like, time, that’s all there is to it. Got that and by gum, you could knock off the next Moby Dick like that. There’s this subtext to it of: “My life is so full of important things, I couldn’t possibly do anything as self-indulgent as write. Maybe when my life is as empty as yours must be, I’ll write.” To which I’ve always wanted to respond, “Then you’re not a writer, are you?” Because one, a real writer would never think that writing just another to-do item. And two, real writers find the time because they don’t have any choice. They can’t not write. If they don’t find a way to express themselves, their heads will literally explode. It would be like telling my beagle not to bay at the wind or an athlete not to go for a morning run.
I think these party people want to have written, but don’t want to actually write. They romanticize the experience but they don’t have the inspiration or passion or need. They may have passion but it’s just not for writing. [Love-this alert:]It’s that driving force in writers that opens the day and night up so there is always time to write, even if it’s a short little scribble in a napkin. I ascribe that spark from a higher power.
When I am in the zone, or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow, I feel lit up from within, almost high. I think the most perfect representation of this experience is in Stephen Sondheim’s song from Sunday in the Park with George called “Finishing the Hat.” It’s about just falling into your work, and not being able to extricate yourself because how can you eat or talk to your loved one or take a bath or pay the rent or be polite when there’s this hat you have to paint? Can’t they all see that there’s this hat? And that you have to paint it just right? And that nothing else on God’s green earth matters as much as that hat right now? That inspiration, that drive, that obsession, when we feel it in any endeavor, I think is as close to experiencing the Divine as we can get. [Embrace-this alert:] The only thing we need to do is show up and allow ourselves to feel the Angel’s breath.
The Writer’s Journey: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
Beth: If I knock this off, I can:
1. Get something to eat
2. Take a nap
3. Check my email and message boards and Facebook and play Solitaire online
4. Close the blinds and watch “Housewives of Orange County.”(Isn’t Tamra pa-THE-tic?)
Beth lives in Connecticut with the musical theater writer and lyricist William Squier. She has recently taken up acting. She was the cook in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” at a local community theater. Her favorite authors are Anne Tyler, Anne Lamott and David Sedaris. Play nice with her by clicking right here!
“…just like a tree, I’m deeply influenced by the ground I’m planted in and whatever blows by….”
Brette Sember is the author of The Parchment Paper Cookbook, published by Adams Media. She blogs about parchment paper cooking at www.NoPotCooking.com. She also writes the popular food blog www.MarthaAndMe.net. She is also the author of the upcoming titles The Organized Kitchen and The Muffin Tin Cook Book from Adams Media. Sember is a former attorney and author of more than 35 (you read that correctly!) other books, including How to Parent with Your Ex, The Complete Credit Repair Kit, The Divorce Organizer & Planner, and The Essential Supervisor’s Handbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the American Society for Indexing (ASI).
Meredith: As a food writer and chef, where and when does creation really start? The kitchen, the page…at 3 am when you wake up starving or after a meal when your belly is full? Do words come first, or ingredients?
Brette: It’s all about the ingredients. A lot of my recipes happen because I am standing in front of the pantry or fridge, just looking at what I have and thinking about what might go together. Sometimes when I am in the middle of a working on a cookbook and need ideas, I take a leisurely stroll through the grocery store, looking for things I don’t have or things I haven’t thought of. I also page through cookbooks and magazines, looking for flavor combinations or ingredients I might want to try.
There are two kinds of recipe creation for me. One is necessity – it’s dinner time and I have to make something. These are the recipes that tend to gravitate to my roots – spins on things my grandmothers and mom made, as well as food I’ve enjoyed at a restaurant, or that my kids like. The second type is when I am writing a cookbook and spend the day in the kitchen developing recipes. This is when I push myself and become very creative. I have favorites from both groups that I make regularly.
As I cook, I write down what I’m doing and later I go to my computer and type up the recipe. Recipe descriptions come later when I am pulling the manuscript together. I usually piece together the intro throughout the process, clicking back there to add in a sentence of two that summarizes my thoughts on this particular cooking method as I achieve clarity. Learning to cook and document what I’m doing was actually a huge change for me. I’m from the dump-and-stir school because this is how I was taught. My mom and I can convey entire recipes to each in just a few sentences. When I cook for myself, I don’t measure anything, so I had to really discipline myself to measure everything, write every single thing down, and also set a timer, instead of just cooking until something is done.
Meredith: How do you know when enough is enough—an ingredient in a dish, a line in a recipe (or article) a chapter in a book? I’m wondering if recipe development and cooking, not just in a metaphorical sense but in real, tangible life, is anything like writing? Are there pieces that translate for you?
Brette: I have to say that it’s easier for me to know when a recipe is done than a piece of writing. When a recipe is done, it just tastes right. Once something is perfect, there is nothing left to be done with it. With writing, I could always make little tweaks and changes forever, so I have to just decide when something is done and press send because every time I read it, I can make tiny changes. However, like cooking, I always just know when an idea is right or my approach to something is on target. I’m this way with decorating too (such as moving the furniture around or choosing paint color on the walls). I always say to my husband that I have to see it to know if it’s right, but then I always just know. I like to say (drawing on my background as a lawyer) that it’s like pornography – I know it when I see it (one of my favorite Supreme Court quotes). So, in that sense, writing and cooking are very similar. There’s just this strong feeling I have when I know something has achieved what I want it to.
I have often thought of writing to be a lot like the actual cooking process. You have to let ideas and organization simmer, rise, or cook through. Often this means stepping away from a piece of writing and letting it percolate in your head subconsciously. When you come back to it, it has worked through a process and you know how to change it. It’s really important as a writer to know when to walk away and let this happen. My mom (who is also a writer, I co-author a series of college textbooks with her) calls it the law of diminishing returns. You get to a point where you could work for 3 hours on something but if you walk away from it and come back tomorrow you can get it to where you want it in 15 minutes. I think there is an element of time to writing, just as there is to cooking or baking.
Meredith: When you cook does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd when you’re first beginning? Now answer this question again, but rather than about creating a dish, tell us about creating work on the page.
Brette: I cook in different ways for different purposes. If I have people coming for dinner, I try to make food I know they will enjoy, so I consider their personal preferences and food styles. When I make dinner for my immediate family it’s often a challenge because it can be really hard to find something both kids will like (one loves cheese, one hates it; one likes soup, one doesn’t – you get the picture, it’s like cooking for Jack Sprat and his wife at times) that I want to eat. Once a week or so I throw up my hands and just cook what makes me happy and try not to grimace at the chicken nuggets or processed cheese slices that come to the table or at the mushrooms that are picked out of what I’ve made.
When I’m writing a cookbook, I’m thinking about providing a wide range of recipes that different people could enjoy, but which still somehow embody my personal food aesthetics. And the books I’ve written have been very narrowly defined by their concepts (everything made in parchment paper packets or everything cooked in muffin tins), so that has dictated what recipes I came up with.
With writing, it’s a similar situation. I think about the audience. I never really write for just my own pleasure, although I almost always enjoy writing no matter what it is.
Meredith: Is there ever truly a balance between the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? For you, are they unified or polarized? Or something else?
Brette: In many ways they are quite different. I could write all day long, every day and never get tired. I find book promotion tiring sometimes, mostly because you never feel as if you’ve done enough. I’ve been at this for over 13 years though and in some ways the two skills have grown together because I usually think about the marketability and ‘promotability’ of a book idea when I’m evaluating it now.
Meredith: What fuels you creatively? Does the same thing always work? Are there standard ingredients? A shopping (ingredient!) list?
Brette: I have this vision of cooking as something like a family tree. I learned to cook from my mom and grandmothers and that influence is really strong. However, just like a tree, I’m deeply influenced by the ground I’m planted in and whatever blows by, so my cooking has been deeply shaped by my travels and experiences with TV, cookbooks, restaurants, and magazines. I always come back to food as being part of a person’s identity. You can try on other identities and incorporate parts of them (which become part of you), but at your heart you will always love the food that is “yours.” [A-ha alert: isn’t writing much the same way?!]
Cooking was always a part of my life as a child and when I was in school or practicing law. It’s so important because it physically nourishes your family but it also emotionally nourishes them. You put it on the table and it tells them you care. I also feel as though by cooking for them, I keep the cooking family tree going, imparting the wisdom of the women (and men who cooked) in my life to them so they can carry it forward. It connects us. I hope that my cookbooks say the same thing to the people who use them – this is who I am, this is what matters to me, and I am giving it to you because you matter to me and we are somehow connected.
I’ve had people ask me “how do you come up with your ideas for all the books you write?” I don’t really know. They mostly just happen. I’m the kind of person who loves to come up with new concepts and approaches to things. It excites me to think of new and different things to write books about. Getting an idea for a new book is one of the most fun parts of my job. If I am deeply stressed out, I usually am not in a position to come up with new book concepts. They usually come to me when things are a bit slower. I sometimes brainstorm to get there – writing down ideas that lead me from one to another. But many of the books I’ve written have just come to me as complete concepts.
BRETTE SAYS: “I don’t think I have a bone of fiction in my body, as much as I would like to write it. I love to read it, but I just don’t feel I have a made up story to tell. Instead, I gravitate towards writing things that help people do things or understand things, or that are just plain fun (for example, I wrote a quiz book for American Girl and a kids’ book about money and have some similar things in the works). I am the child of two teachers, so teaching comes naturally. I am a curious mix of logic (lawyer training) and creativity and I think that is embodied by the wide range of things I’ve written about.”
Brette lives in Buffalo, NY with her husband, two children, and two golden retrievers. Visit her at www.BretteSember.com and follow her on Twitter @brettesember.