Who: Jennifer Haigh, New York Times Best Selling author
Talks about: doubt
In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?
JENNIFER: “Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again. The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.
“Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value. It’s a question of writing through the doubt. I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was. I get up and go to work.”
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories.
In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?*
*This was the question I had the opportunity to ask some of the contributors to The anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience† sometime back. Here is the first, from author Lidia Yuknavitch, whose memoir The Chronology of Water, was the winner of a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of three works of short fiction: Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel, as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence.
This question has haunted me since the moment I read it. Then again, writing The Chronology of Water was always a haunting…or better yet, a crucible I had to move through both artistically and emotionally. Possibly physically.
In order to write THROUGH the story, I had to relive it. And in my case that meant reliving these specific things:
- the death of my daughter
- the abuse I suffered from my father
- the self destructions I inflicted on my self
- the longing for a mother drowned by alcoholism
It took me nearly two years to write The Chronology of Water. I had no idea what would happen to me while writing it. In fact if someone had told me what would happen, I might have run away. I didn’t sleep. I drank too much. I ate a great many medications. I had nightmares of epic proportions. I experienced auditory and visual hallucinations. My moods were their own country. My rage was nearly uncontainable. My sorrow nearly killed me.
And yet, every word I managed to bring forth from my insides and relocate to the outside, onto the great white expanse of the page, brought me closer to the possibility of a self that might, MIGHT, be able to swim back to the surface after diving down to the bottom. With something meaningful in her hands.
I found what all artists found. I found that the process of writing, the deep process, the turn yourself inside out experientially but also in terms of form, could give me a self and a life back.
More specifically, for me personally, I’d lived my whole life sort of believing that my primary wound was the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father. Psychologically and sexually. All of my rage and acting out through my twenties and thirties was based on a kind of premise — a rage I invented based on a father story — a rage I carried out on the bodies of others in relationships and life experiences.
What I learned from writing into the deeper layers of my own story is that there was a wound underneath that one that was what was in my way. A wound about motherhood — about my mother and about the death of my daughter the day she was born — that had I not written this book, I might never have found.
There is a scene in the book and in my life where my father drowns in the ocean, and I, his daughter, lifelong swimmer, pull him out and resuscitate him. Turns out that was the second most important resuscitation I performed in my lifetime.
You could say that writing The Chronology of Water was the more important resuscitation. The resuscitation of a self.
†Thank you to Gina Frangello for all your help in coordinating. You are truly a writer’s writer, and editor, and friend.
Just like I can’t control what other people do, sometimes I can’t control which direction my writing is headed. I feel so powerless, no—impotent. Though I shouldn’t. Because I have no business trying to control.
Just like living beings, my words have their own footprints and fingerprints. If I respect that then my words, once on the page, allow me to shape and finesse them. The story arc, the words, the themes are already there, waiting for me to listen, to receive them, write them down and consider them. And, when the time is right, let others connect with them, too.
I work well with a deadline because it gives my mind little time to get involved all on its own, to set up camp and start cooking up “smart” reasons why I shouldn’t say it this way or that way–or why I should say it at all. Know what I mean? For some reason, the deadline keeps my mind joined with my heart, and vice versa. This is simply another way of saying I’ve managed to slip into a kind of flow.
The controlling writer in me is not a disciplined writer, though it would like to think it is (ha) and it would like me to think it is (double ha [ha]). It would have me believe it is oh so disciplined, principled even. It’s not. The surrendered writer in me is, though it is not concerned with being called that. It intuitively knows what to do. It’s is open and willing. Mostly, willingness is enough. It doesn’t mind if I write on a scrap of paper, on my computer, in a Mead notebook, in the margins of the newspaper, or tap them into my phone. It doesn’t care if I write when I’m sitting at a stop light in the car or if I’m standing in the library or at Starbucks or if it’s noon or three in the morning. The surrendered writer in me is always ready and willing to release the words and allow them to be shaped and sculpted. And when the words aren’t there, the surrendered writer knows they will come. The controlling writer is, um, how shall I put it? Oh, here’s the word that best describes it: constipated…and very untrusting.
For today, I’m willing to be that surrendered writer. I mean, I can always resort to being the controlling one, right?
by Carol Grannick
Chiaroscuro (kiːˈɑːrə.ˈskʊroʊ, –ˈskjʊroʊ, Italian for light-dark) in art is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. (from Wikipedia)
A Caravaggio painting can take my breath away. A lunar eclipse, when the shadow cuts the light, entrances me.
Consider, though, the dark without the light, the shadow crossing the moon and staying. Many who think and write about the inner creative experience believe that the “shadow” part of the artist’s life is normal. That, specifically, in our writing lives, our anxieties, fears, doubts, need to be welcomed in order to deepen and enrich our characters, stories and plots.
I would agree. In part. Because all feelings, including the negative, “shadow” feelings, pass.
Unless they don’t. What about writers who struggle with the shadow that threatens to control them? What are the options for those writers who feel depleted and distracted by negativity, and for whom all-too-frequent negative thinking diminishes energy, productivity and creativity? What happens, then, to the resilience that is so essential for a writer’s perseverance?
At these times all the statements in the world about how important it is to “stay resilient” can feel like just another failure.
Because “just do it” doesn’t work if you don’t know how.
I believe without question that acceptance and welcoming of negative emotion is integral to the creative life, indeed to life itself. Negative emotions flow naturally from experiences like loss, hurt, disappointment. But unnecessary and prolonged negativity – self-doubt, fear, disappointment, jealousy based on irrational thought – diminishes the brain’s capacity to be open, creative, curious and productive.
The heart-heaviness that spews unproductive negative self-talk and even depression is not beneficial to our writing or the quality and meaning of our lives.
Learning how to reduce that negativity and seed more heartfelt positive emotions (not smiley-faced affirmations) into our writing lives increases energy and creativity, and builds and maintains the resilience essential to perseverence. Serious learned and practiced positivity gives greater meaning to our lives in general – and that’s not bad.
The writing life is not only for the naturally resilient, or for those who live the myth of the tortured but persistent artist. Substantial research in the field of Positive Psychology (POSITIVITY, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Crown Books 2009) provides a growing number of tools to diminish the excess negativity that, rather than enhancing our work, keeps us from it.
We should, by all means, welcome the darkness as natural and normal. But we should also remember how breathtaking, in contrast, is the light.
Carol Grannick is a writer and clinical social worker in private practice. She blogs at The Irrepressible Writer about learning and maintaining resilience for the writing life.
Photo credit: chris.bryant