The writer confides about being afraid of being wrong, not starting at the beginning and surprising and unexpected gifts.
Screenwriter, editor and author Allegra Huston’s book Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (Simon & Schuster) begins when she is a little girl. That is when her mother dies and she is introduced to an intimidating man wreathed in cigar smoke—the legendary film director John Huston—and told he is her father. She is shuttled to the Huston estate in Ireland, then to Long Island, and to a hidden paradise in Mexico. Time is also spent at the side of her older sister, Anjelica, at the hilltop retreats of Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, and Marlon Brando. Then at twelve, Allegra is, introduced again to her father—her real one—the British aristocrat and historian John Julius Norwich. About the book, Publisher’s Weekly writes: Where many memoirists compete to see who’s had the most outrageous life, this story stands out in its quiet poignancy—and gave it a starred review. Kirkus Reviews wrote: A graceful, surprisingly tender account of a life lived at the edge of fame, and Her story is about finding her place within this glamorous family, where she was too often an afterthought to the monumentally self-absorbed adults charged with raising her.
The Writer’s Journey: You’re a writer, but where does the process of creativity really start for you?
Allegra: Lying in bed in the morning, half awake and trying to make the waking as slow as it can be – that’s when ideas come to me and I think about what I want to write.
The Writer’s Journey: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write do you encounter “rights” and “wrongs”? What happens?
Allegra: So true. I spent much of my life being afraid of being wrong. Overcoming that was the crucial step in becoming a writer. As an editor I learned that nothing beyond the technicalities of grammar and spelling is really right or wrong – but some things work and some things don’t. To become a writer, I had to learn to let go even of that. I separate my work into the “writing” stage and the “editing” stage. When “writing,” judgment is not helpful: nothing is right or wrong, it only has energy or it doesn’t, and the trick is to spark your imagination so you get something with energy on the page. You don’t need to judge; you feel it. However rough it is, I’m happy that it has energy and I figure I can fix it up later, if it has a place in whatever I’m writing (perhaps it’s the beginning of something else entirely). So I do all kinds of disposable ten-minute exercises to jog me out of trying to Write Well – things like comparing people to animals, describing places only by smell, putting music to something in my head, and so on.
The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
Allegra: The blank page does scare me – though not as much as the blank 300 pages! So if I focus on just the one page, I’m better off. When I wrote Love Child I deliberately didn’t start at the beginning. I just filled notebooks with everything I could remember, in whatever order, and then sorted it out. By that time I had 300 pages, and I could think of the rewriting as “editing” so it wasn’t so scary. I like cheap notebooks; they don’t pressure you to write something “good” in them so I can think of what I’m writing as just “notes” or “rough material” – and the result is writing with much more energy and specificity.
The Writer’s Journey: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?
Allegra: I try to come at it from odd angles. The disposable writing exercises help a lot here. If there’s more than one person in the scene, I tell it from a different point of view. If it’s a memory, I question the veracity of everything. If what isn’t working is structural, I’ve learned that the problem may not be right there; it’s probably 10 pages back (in a screenplay) or further in a book of prose.
The Writer’s Journey: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
Allegra: I’m not sure I know what inspiration is. I get excited about the possibility of telling a story, but from there on it’s really just the determination to do it, and showing up every day – whether that means sitting down to work on it, or just mulling it over as I’m driving or doing laundry or, best of all, lying half-awake in bed.
When I get something good – a phrase, an image, a moment of plot – it usually comes as a surprise, and feels like a gift. From where, or whom? Who knows? I don’t have a way of cultivating those gifts, other than showing up for the work. I feel very lucky when they come.
Originally from London, Allegra lives in New Mexico with her partner Cisco Guevara and their son, Rafa. Share here stories here.
The writer talks about being funny (or being the target), platforms (no-not the kind you wear), and letting go of what doesn’t work.
Jen Singer is the mother of two boys who talk to her through the bathroom door (her words). She is the creator of MommaSaid.net, where moms can get laughs and validation while their kids find new places to leave crumbs. In June of 2007, Jen was diagnosed with stage-3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had four chapters left to write in the first book (a parenting trilogy), You’re a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). Her brother gave her his laptop, her publisher gave her an extension and she finished the book–at chemo. The book came out and (best news) Jen has been in remission more than a year. Jen’s second book Stop Second Guess Yourself – the Toddler Years (HCI) was released in April. The third, Stop Second Guessing Yourself – The Preschool Years (HCI) will come out in September. Jen created “Please Take My Kids To Work Day: A Holiday for At-Home Moms” (coming up: June 29, 2009), and “The Housewife Awards.” She pens the “Good Grief” blog for Good Housekeeping.
The Writer’s Journey: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
Jen: When I’m inspired to write something, it feels like I have to do it right now, like when you have a full bladder, only the outcome is usually more enjoyable. Or so I hope. Also, it makes me happy, like when I hit a great shot in tennis or when I get the TV remote to myself. When I’m inspired to write, I can’t wait to sit down to do it.
The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative mind naturally think/do/feel/create in “funny?”
Jen: Humor has long been my defense mechanism. Also, it’s how my family communicates. Our family gatherings are like a roast: Be funny or be the target. So we all think that way. I’m just the only one making money at it.
Twitter has been a great outlet for my little bursts of funny that strike me throughout the day. For instance, after several sick days with the kids, I tweeted: “It’s like a frat house on Sunday morning around here, except the “empties” are Motrin bottles and tissue boxes.” Sometimes I turn my tweets into blogs, but sometimes I just need to get them out of my system and move on. I’m like Doritos: I’ll make more.
But sometimes I think in other terms besides funny. For example, I took my first spinning class at the gym about a year after I’d finished chemotherapy for lymphoma. When the teacher played Matchbox 20’s “How Far We’ve Come,” I burst into tears. And then I wrote about it.
The Writer’s Journey: MommaSaid.net is a great success and in many—if not all–ways, an extension of you. As it grows and grows, how do you keep that creative connection alive?
Jen: You’re right MommaSaid.net is an extension of me and of my brand. It’s not hard to keep the creative connection alive when your web site is a part of you. I like to think of MommaSaid.net as my own personal channel that’s part Comedy Central, part Lifetime, part CNN and part sitcom. It all depends on what’s happening in my life when I post that affects which part(s) gets attention.
The Writer’s Journey: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work? (I guess I should first ask: have you ever had this problem?)
Jen: When you’re a blogger and an author with deadlines looming, you don’t have time to massage and cultivate a piece that’s not working. The online deadlines are too frequent and the book deadlines are too daunting to mess with copy that doesn’t come together. Sometimes, I’ll pull out parts of these types of writing and use them elsewhere, either in blogs, essays or books. Or, I’ll kill them altogether. You have to let go of what doesn’t work. Besides, blogging is like breastfeeding: The more you do it, the more you can produce.
The Writer’s Journey: You have three (three!) books in various stages of completion. From what I understand, waiting for the right publisher to say “I do” took many years. Tom Petty has been telling us for years that, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Along that line, how did you nurture your creativity through the ups and downs of the waiting process in order to keep on trusting your voice?
Jen: Book publishing is a tough business, especially in this lousy economy. It’s a place where Joe the Plumber gets a book deal when people who can actually write get nothing. The key is not to take it personally, but rather to build your platform and hone your craft (assuming you can’t get famous by talking to presidential candidates, of course.)
I found out about my first book deal while I was taking the kids to the dentist. It wasn’t really a deal at all: I lost money on that book. But it was a part of my platform that later boosted my saleability to publishers.
My second book deal came while I was at home, blogging. My agent got an offer and we took it. My life didn’t change. I just went upstairs and had soup for lunch and got ready to write a book. But it was a step up from my first deal, money-wise and support-wise. Sourcebooks helped promote my book, booking me on a few dozen radio programs and sending out books wherever my personal publicist and I asked. Best of all, they got the book into bookstores and online where readers could find them.
My third book deal was a complete surprise, because I wasn’t shopping it around. The idea came from Allison Janse at HCI, a MommaSaid fan who had an idea for a humorous, yet helpful guide to motherhood. It soon turned into three books – branded to MommaSaid – with a huge publicity push from the publisher and a large printing. If I had stopped running MommaSaid years ago, I’d never have gotten this book deal. And then I’d have had no reason to jump up and down shouting, “I got a book deal!” while at the ice cream shop with the kids.
Next up is a cancer memoir, followed by more parenting books. They will be easier sells because my platform is bigger now, but there’s always room for growth. The key is to keep on building my platform and honing my craft so that publishers take notice. Also, to remind myself how far I’ve come since that first book deal whenever I hit the “downs” in this whole process. If I start to overanalyze rejections or wonder how come some other author got the book deal I wanted, it’ll only serve to make me very, very cranky. And nobody likes a cranky humor writer.
Jen lives in Kinnelon, NJ, with her husband Pete and their kids, Nicholas, 11, and Christopher, 10, and a skittish fish. She also lives at Momma Said, where you can visit her anytime.
The writer gets deep on validation, active pursuit and not predicting the future.
Karma Wilson is a poet and children’s book author (Bear Snores On, Moose Tracks, Frog in the Bog, What’s the Weather Inside, Beautiful Babies). She is quick to add she’s also wife to a great guy and mother to three creative kids. And to confide that she writes in the midst of utter chaos–children screaming, people talking to her, TV blaring. “I am compulsive,” she says. “I can become obsessed with things like message boards and hobbies and I’ll pursue my compulsion until one day I get burnt out and drop it like an old toy.” (Though this doesn’t mean she won’t pick it up again with a renewed interest later.) Karma comes clean by admitting she is “messy, disorganized and procrastinates everything, including interviews.” [Except this one–it was right on time.]
The Writer’s Journey: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
Karma: My creative process is part of what validates me. So it’s a little of both. I mean, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Generally the things that cause us the most fear are also the things that make us the strongest in the long run. So, I often create with a fear of failure, but I always have a spark of hope and anticipation that what I am creating will resonate with somebody.
The Writer’s Journey: What does beginning feel like? Look like?
If you come to a dead end road,
you’ll take it if you’re smart.
For just past every end that’s dead,
is a fresh, alive new start.
That’s one of my poems from my book What’s the Weather Inside and I stand by it. Each ending is a new beginning, and work is cyclical, everything old is new again, yada yada. As for what a beginning feels like and looks like? That depends on what you’re beginning.
The Writer’s Journey: The refusal to be creative is self-will and is counter to our true nature. This is what Julia Cameron says in, The Artist’s Way. What’s your take?
Karma: Wow, that’s such a personal thing to be adamant about. Everybody’s “nature” shares similarities and differences with others, and what those may be varies with the individual. I’ve known some very pragmatic people who don’t consider themselves creative. They are still active, contributing members to society, very happy and perfectly content to not be creative. I guess I’d have to know the full context of the quote and what Julia construes as creativity. [love this, big-flashing-lights alert:] I think if you feel driven to create something and refuse you might be miserable. At least I am.
The Writer’s Journey: Do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Has it always been this way for you?
Karma: My ideas come from active pursuit. I get an antsy feeling that I want to create and I pursue an idea through brainstorming. Sometimes I may be so sad or upset about something in life that I escape by creating. As for how ideas come to me–I think in words, I feel in words–I see words when I create, when I speak, when I sing….visible (in my mind) written words. I actually feel claustrophobic thinking about life as a baby before I could speak, or what it may be like to be an animal who has thought without language. Yes, images come, and sounds, smells, etc…but only after the words. The words bring them to being. Probably makes no sense. But for me “in the beginning was the word. ”
The Writer’s Journey: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
Karma: No. I’m a complete failure at determining which project I follow will be “viable”. Often what I feel certain will succeed fails, and what I believe might fail goes on to be a soaring success. All of it is worth pursuing because I learn something. And ultimately, some of my favorite creations have never sold. But they were worth pursuing for the feeling of pure joy I experienced during the creative process.
Karma lives in Montana where there is an abundance of trees, mountains and seasons, and a scarcity of people. She is addicted to coffee (Shot in the Dark, room for cream–or Redeye for you easterners) and that coffee must be rich, dark, slightly bitter and the aroma should force her to shut her eyes, breathe deeply and sigh. Have a cup with her right here.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
CAI: I think that everyone, during early childhood, is deeply creative. As children we’re naturally curious, experimental; we are more comfortable with uncertainty then than at any other point in our lives. Eventually, our superegos develop, along with our desires to be and think like everyone else in order to fit in, to get ahead. With the development of social awareness it becomes more difficult to express oneself freely. What gets us stuck is the entrance of that social awareness—some think of it as the rational left brain that tells us someone will see our work and judge it. The challenge for a writer, or any artist, is to keep that social self, and the judgmental left brain (an aspect of the social self), at bay during the process of generating work.
It is essential for me to write a rough draft with the feeling that that draft will never, ever, be seen by any other human being (unless I say so). As long as I know that, the creative juices will usually flow. While I’m writing a first draft I try to maintain the sense that I’m playing and it doesn’t much matter what I write. After I’ve finished that “spewing” draft—which I try to write as quickly as possible, in part to maintain an almost trance-like state—I begin to allow my left brain to participate. Is this any good? asks my left brain. Will anyone read it if I don’t eliminate all the descriptive passages, or all the sections in italics, or all the wife’s back story? Etc. etc.
I think one of the tasks of becoming a regular writer is learning how to minimize the talkback of the social self and the left brain. For me one way to do this is to write as soon as possible after awakening, before the day has interposed itself with all its noise of obligation. I write in bed. I have a coffee maker in the bedroom and it is set to go off at a certain hour. I awake and drink one cup of coffee lying there in bed, thinking about what I will be working on. Then, with my second cup of coffee I prop myself up and begin to work. I write longhand. I write on the heels of my dreams. That doesn’t mean the dreams themselves have anything to do with the writing, but the associative aspect of dreams is still present. Dreams are notorious for juxtaposing unlikely elements and exposing psychological truths, and they can sometimes impart those aspects of their process to my own process of writing. Sometimes, of course, not always. There are writers who prefer to write late at night because they are alone then, undisturbed, but the vast majority of writers I know find the early morning hours to be the most productive.
When I do get stuck, for whatever reason, I find that [juicy tip alert] reading is the best way to get unstuck. It isn’t long after I begin reading the work of a favorite writer that I’m stricken with the urge to write again myself. Often after reading a few pages, or even a few paragraphs, I’m up and running again.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does inspiration come to you in words, images, a sensation, a sound? Was it always this way for you or has it changed over the years?
CAI: The question of inspiration is complicated. There is the inspiration that has to do with getting an idea to write about, and then there is the inspiration that has to do with the day-to-day process of committing sentences to paper. Much of writing is simply showing up, doing work that is possibly only yeomanly and not particularly inspired, and then gradually moving towards moments, almost trance-like moments, that are unexpected gifts. In those moments everything is authentic, not overly-managed by me, a deep flow is achieved, and I feel deeply grateful. But it is the just showing up and writing woodenly for a while that leads to those special moments.
As far as the bigger ideas (for projects) are concerned, many things serve as inspiration. Most often there is an oddity in something I see or hear or read about, something that keeps me wondering: How weird. How interesting that a person out there said or did this thing. How interesting that the world works this way. And from those musings the why questions begin to emerge.
Words often figure prominently in the formation of my ideas—an odd line of dialogue I hear someone speak in a cafe, a few words that come together in a phrase that I need to write down. These things will often suggest a situation or a character. Once I have an idea that I’m working on, every aspect of everything I encounter in my life serves as inspiration. The work becomes the lens through which I view and interpret the world and ideas arrive at odd moments. I try to get down the specific words and phrases that come as I go about my life, because the words themselves are important, not the idea of the words recalled later. I have come to understand that specific words embody a specific idea, and that when you use a different word the idea is different. I carry a small notebook in my purse, but often I find myself scribbling words on a napkin, a ticket stub, a shopping list. [here’s-a-great-idea tip alert:] Sometimes, if I’m out running or on a walk and have nothing on which to write, I create a memorable mantra of the words and phrases that have come to me, hoping I can hold onto them until I get to pen and paper.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Was there a telling, pivotal, or aha moment when you were first working on your books? Can you describe how you know when, creatively you must pursue something?
CAI: I know an idea is worth pursuing when it has obsessed me for some time, often years. Something gets stuck in my head. I mull it over for a while without knowing I’m doing so. It surfaces at odd hours of the day. It accrues questions like moss. At some point I realize there could be a character and/or a narrative attached to this thought and it goes from there. I suppose I would describe it as a very attenuated aha experience. I know that the idea has claimed me in some way, that we belong to each other. The test of time here is an essential element, along with the obsessive thought. If I don’t feel quite obsessed by an idea it probably won’t bear up over the time it takes to write a novel.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?
CAI: This is somewhat difficult to answer as writing comes from the mind and all its various parts, both brain hemispheres, memories, values, socialization, all the senses that are absorbing perceptions even as we write. In fact, when I think of the joy of reading the work of many different writers I think it has to do with entering the landscapes of other minds that are both similar and different from mine. Everyone sees the world a little differently and we crave to see that difference, but we also love to see that another writer has experienced what we’ve experienced and encapsulated it beautifully in words. Mind and body are completely entangled in my view. I’m reminded of that so often when I exercise and find that moving my body in a regular way prompts the release of ideas. I have no idea biologically why that’s true, but it seems to be the case for me on a fairly regular basis—an example of “mind” and “body” being inseparable. Both are the writer’s only real tools, the source of all our material.
Cai lives in Oregon with the playwright Paul Calandrino. Visit her at www.caiemmons.com/. (The brief gallery of her growing-up photos is wonderful.)
Fiction author Allison Winn Scotch talks about inner strength, higher concepts, and valuing yourself every step of the way.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does your creative process come from a place of something [unfamiliar] that scares you or from a familiar place of strength? What is that place like?
ALLISON: Well, to be honest, I’ve never really thought of it in those terms, but I guess if I had to choose, I’d say a place of strength! I’m working on my third novel right now, and at this point, I have a pretty good idea of how the process works. When I was just starting out, of course, I didn’t have a clue, but I didn’t really doubt myself either. I think that this industry [publishing] can really gut your confidence…no one is really going to have your back or bolster your ego while you’re establishing yourself – so you’re the one who has to maintain your positivity. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never been a doubter (in just about every area of my life, which sometimes leads to TOO much optimism), but in publishing, honestly, you HAVE to have that inner strength or else you’re going to get beaten down. I tell people all the time on my blog that if you don’t have a thick skin, to try something else. And I mean it.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth creating? Is there a telling, pivotal or aha! moment?
ALLISON: Yes! It’s a little hard to pinpoint, but I’ve discovered that without that aha moment, that I simply cannot write a good book. For me, that aha moment comes when I envision a really vivid character, as well as a clear idea of what her journey is going to be. This doesn’t mean that I know every step she’s going to take…in fact, I rarely know where my books will lead me when I start out, but the idea strikes a chord in my gut and just says, “You can write 85k words about this!”
I’ve talked a lot about “high concept” ideas on my blog, and I think they’re really critical. I really try to sift through my idea filter and hone in on something that I’m super-jazzed to write about that is also high concept, which gets my editor, publisher, agent and film agent super-jazzed as well! 🙂
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Pretty, ugly, other?
ALLISON: Pretty ugly. Or maybe I should say, pretty, ugly. By that I mean that I HATE starting a book. It’s not until I’m about 20k words in that I feel like, “Yeah baby, I’m actually creating something substantial here.” I just loathe staring at that initial blank page knowing that I have 300 more to go. But at the same time, the beginning is usually a pretty easy spot for me to pick up and let the words fly because I’ve given so much thought to that initial kick-off moment. So I usually write those first 5k words like magic, only stopping for my breath and realizing how much I’ve written.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: In your novels, is the story written around characters you create, or do you first design the plot and then create the characters around it? Eg, does the story create the characters or do the characters create the story?
ALLISON: There’s no concise answer to this because for me, everything is fully integrated. I usually come up with the idea first, but the central character is so immersed in that idea that she’s almost the idea herself. For example, in Time of My Life, I knew that I wanted to explore time travel, and the way for me to do it was to send an unhappy housewife – my protagonist – back in time. So Jillian was already part and parcel of the plot. Once that initial plot is established however, I tend to let the characters take me wherever they want to go. Which, I know, sounds ridiculously lame and “writer-ly,” but I really try to get inside their heads and listen to what they’re telling me. (Cue: more lameness!) Which is why, as I noted above, I usually have no idea how I’m going to get from A to B in those 300 pages…only that if I have a good idea and good characters, I’ll get there eventually!
Another thing that has really helped me hit my stride, I think, is that I’ve surrounded myself with people who I trust more than anything and who have only my best interests at heart. My agent and I have ascended the ranks together, and I value our relationship immensely. I think it’s important that writers remember not to settle for anyone who isn’t their biggest advocate because you really, really, really need people on your side in this business.
Visit Allison at http://allisonwinn.com/.
Allison Winn Scotch, author of the New York Times Bestseller Time of My Life (Shaye Areheart Books).[can’t wait!]