The 5-Question Interview: Judith Schwartz
The writer talks about reaching out to an audience, the benefits of writing quickly and when the only thing that works is a lie.
Judith Schwartz has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, The New York Times, Glamour, Redbook and More South Africa, to name but a few. She is the author of three books: The Mother Puzzle, Tell Me No Lies and, her most recent, The Therapist’s New Clothes, a memoir about her experience training as a psychotherapist.
Meredith: Does your creative process spring from a place that scares you or from a place of strength?
JUDITH: Both – but I bounce back and forth between the two. It begins with an impulse, a sense of knowing, even before I’m conscious of an idea. But then actually starting to write something is scary. And not knowing that anything will come of it is scary. Yet that knowing, wherever it comes from and no matter how irrational it may be, keeps driving me forward.
Meredith: “Process” is something that is well-known to therapists—process as noun and as verb. The destination is the journey and the reward is in the doing kind of process. When it came to writing, are you able to be as objective with yourself?
JUDITH: I’d hear the same thing from my clinical supervisor that I do from my husband, Tony Eprile, who’s taught writing a bunch of places including the U of Iowa Workshop: “Trust the process”. The challenge is that you don’t know how long that process will take! Or, necessarily what will be the key to moving the process forward for a given work. I wrote the The Therapist’s New Clothes quickly, because I simply had to write the thing, and then built more layers on the basic draft. I’m writing a novel, and a suggestion of Tony’s is helping tremendously: he said to write the main characters’ fears and desires from their point of view. This helped me understand my characters at a level I hadn’t before. From now on this exercise will be a part of my process. But before you think I’ve got some sort of edge by living with a pro, know that I’ve been working on this thing for years! And the more he looks at it, he gets too close to the material himself.
Meredith: Is a muse part of your process?
JUDITH: I believe I’ve got to sit down at the desk and try or the muse will have no opportunity to visit me. But being a well-behaved creative citizen is no guarantee. Often ideas come when I’m taking a walk with my dog. As with so many things it’s a balance between discipline and letting go.
Meredith: I am thinking about your memoir and a recent interview on My Faith Project when I ask this: 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? Or at the middle (or end)?
JUDITH: For me, the drive to reach out to the reader is implicit. With nonfiction, this works: if I’m truly connecting to what I’m writing, the reader will feel connected too. With fiction, I’m not there yet. My initial impulse is to convey sensibility (which is what I read for). I’m still learning about making story central, which is essential to most readers’ experience. The exercise I mentioned has definitely helped.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
JUDITH: I try to make deals with myself like ‘don’t check emails until finishing the piece’ but they never work. The only thing that works is a lie: at the top of the page I write “Notes” or “Rough Draft”. It’s a lie because, whatever I call it, I’m embarking on the work rather than just edging toward it. But it tricks me into thinking the stakes are low, so that I can actually do it. Often, at the very last minute, I’ve had to take out the “Notes” heading before I send it to an editor.
Judith lives and works in an open, airy house on the side of a mountain in Southern Vermont. In addition to working on a new novel, she says she’s been reconnecting with my “inner reporter” and writing on topics that a year ago she didn’t know existed—as in alternative currencies and local economic models. She claims the only time she gets writers’ block is when asked for a brief bio about herself. Visit her website and blog to get the scoop.
(The one with the book? That’s Thembi.)