The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Amy Friedman

The writer talks about her struggle with judgment, rejection and a personal policy when it comes to sending out a manuscript.

AMY FRIEDMAN has been writing the syndicated series Tell Me A Story since 1992, in collaboration with illustrator Jillian Gilliland. Together they have produced more than 1000 illustrated stories and two book collections, The Spectacular Gift and Tell Me a Story (Andrews & McMeel) that have millions of fans around the world. Amy is also the author of two memoirs, Nothing Sacred: A Conversation with Feminism (Oberon Press) and Kick the Dog and Shoot the Cat (Oberon Press). Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Chatelaine. She is a former columnist for The Kingston Whig-Standard. She has just completed a third memoir entitled, The Murderers’ House.

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Meredith: Why is telling stories so fun and so satisfying? I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?

AMY: I’m sure of it.

I wrote my first story when I was 11 years old; it was the story I was sure my grandmother would tell IF she could. By then she was drowning in mental illness, and she had stopped talking, but I knew she had things to say. And I wanted others to hear HER story. In some ways that notion of hearing “the other side” (the outsider’s) story has fueled much of what I write, though I haven’t before framed it in those terms. I just completed a memoir about the seven years I spent married to a man in prison; while I was fighting the prison system, I was also writing my column “for kids”—Tell Me a Story, now in its 18th year—and many of the stories I chose to write and to adapt are metaphors for tales I wanted told, the stories I heard from prisoners who had and have little voice in this world. [This was one] way to articulate in creative form my own struggle with the judgment that came down upon my decision to marry, the jobs and friends I lost.

But fun? Is writing and telling stories fun? I don’t know that I would call it fun, precisely, but it does feel right. And in the memoir and personal essay classes I teach, I watch the way writers in unfolding and discovering their truths, transform them from what might have been pure sadness or fear or even glee into something more complicated and dense. And each time that happens, I learn again how extraordinary writing is.

Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?

AMY: A most amazing question today since just before Christmas, I received the first three rejections on the memoir I just spent the last seven years writing; the rejections were unacceptable as Christmas gifts, but having been a working writer for more years than I like to remember, I know they’re just part of the process, and something all writers must build up a tolerance against. For years I worked as an editor and part of my job was to reject manuscripts; I hated it because in those cover letters I could feel the writer’s anticipation and longing. But I said “no,” for so many reasons, and “yes,” for so many.

I know acceptance and rejection have less to do with the work itself than with the marketplace, and that marketplace is a fluid and impossible-to-comprehend place. I’ve always followed this policy when sending out a manuscript for consideration: as I place it in the post (or hit SEND), I know where I’ll next be sending it. That way, if/when the rejection arrives, right away I send it out again. The despair that comes with rejection (forever) never goes away, but by sending it out again, hope arises anew, and it’s the hope that keeps me going.

Meredith: Do you judge your work before it’s finished? I guess a better question to ask is how do you keep from passing too much judgment on your work in order to keep moving forward?

AMY: Do I judge my work? Always, forever, constantly. There’s that little voice saying, “This sucks/who cares/how dumb…” and there’s another little voice saying, “Wow, that is fantastic/you’re brilliant/wait’ll people read this…” and I don’t know that they ever shut up. But I do talk to them. I tell them they have no idea what they’re talking about and they must just leave me alone to carry on finishing whatever it is I’m trying to say. I believe, deeply, that our feelings about our work while we’re in the process of creating it are none of our business and only serve to keep us quiet. I shout back at them; I wish them away; I try hard not to listen (at least not until the end of the work day).

Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?

AMY: This varies with the work, but I do set deadlines. Since 1986 I’ve worked as a weekly columnist, and this has taught me that the only way to finish anything is to tell myself I’m going to finish and to give myself an inviolable deadline. I don’t have a daily deadline, ever, but I do set monthly and weekly deadlines. The book I’ve just finished took me seven years to write, and if not for this year’s self-imposed deadline to finish and promises to two writer friends who for 30 years have been my readers and touchstones, I would be working still. But I like the idea of making a deal each time I sit down to write, so perhaps I’ll start.

Meredith: Using the “six-word memoir” approach, please give us your six-word description of how you write.

AMY: Attend, sit, stay, like the dogs.

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AMY lives in southern California with her husband. She teaches creative writing at UCLA extension.  She works as an editor, a ghostwriter, a tutor, and a mentor to students through the Pen in the Classroom (PITC).

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Ellen Meister

The author talks about her natural place as a writer, learning, unlearning and finding her way back and how she’s never been able to buy a thicker skin at Target. Oh, and Richard Yates.

ELLEN MEISTER is the author of two novels, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA and The Smart One, a Woman’s Day pick for one of 2008’s 10 Best Beach Reads, and which Library Journal called Library Journal called “character-driven” and “fast-paced” with “great dialog.”

But very early in her career, she says, “I took a job as an assistant to a high-powered literary agent at ICM in New York. It was a crazy work environment, but I’m too afraid of being sued to spill the details. Suffice to say one co-worker remarked that I looked like Alice in Wonderland sitting at my desk. I lasted five months before I quit.

“But one highlight was that Richard Yates was a client, and I was the one who answered the phone whenever he called. I gushed like a blathering idiot every time, and he was always so gracious. In fact, he inscribed my copy of Liars in Love, and to this day it remains my most prized possession.”

Meredith: 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? Do you have an angel–or something equivalent?

ELLEN: In my interpretation, the story is the blade of grass. Sometimes the little bugger doesn’t want to grow. Other times it wants to meander along the ground in the dark. I’m the hardworking angel coaxing it toward the sun.

Meredith: What did you have to unlearn to find your truth as a writer? What had to go? Can you share how? Was there a turning point to your own narrative?

ELLEN: For me it was a process of learning, unlearning and then finding my way back. In college, I had a creative writing professor who was very experimental. He pushed us hard to leave the conventional behind and explore brave new worlds of writing. It was good for me. I loosened up and found more creativity than I knew I had.

Years later it became clear to me that my natural place as a writer was in a third-person, past-tense limited perspective. Not exactly meta-fiction, but it was important journey for me. Those years of experimenting taught me to take chances, and that has helped my writing immeasurably.

Meredith: Is it true—for you—what “they” say, that every character in fiction is really a part of the author, a reflection of their personality. So, do your stories create the characters or do the characters create the story? Would you say this was true for all your novels?

ELLEN: I think it’s vital to find something of myself in each character, something I can relate to on a fundamental level. Because if I can’t relate to the character, how can I expect the reader to?

I like your question about whether my characters create the story or the story creates my characters. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I’m laying the groundwork for a new book, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s the relationship between the characters that drives both.

For instance, in my first book, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, I knew that the friendship between my three main characters would be the engine that drove the story. I wanted each of the women to have an arc that was directly related to the journey of their friendship. So I came up with a plot device that would bring the characters together and present obstacles they would have to work together to overcome.

Likewise, in my second book, The Smart One, I knew I wanted to write a story about the relationship between three sisters whose adult lives were impacted by their childhood labels. So I developed both the characters and the story to achieve that goal.

My third book, which is in production now, started with a high concept; I wondered what it would be like if a woman could find a pathway to the life she would have had if she had made a very different life decision. I played with the idea for years, and came up with all sorts of rich details about the main character and her story. But the book didn’t come together for me until I realized that her relationship with her mother was at the center of the tale. As soon as that occurred to me, the story unfolded.

I guess it worked, because the proposal generated a lot of excitement among editors and the book sold at auction. It will be published in January 2011 by Putnam. The working title is The Other Life, and here’s how it was summarized in the trades:

Pitched as “Jodi Picoult meets THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE,” THE OTHER LIFE tells the story of a suburban mom expecting her second child who discovers that she might be able to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married. When a routine sonogram reveals unexpected problems, her grief lures her to escape to the life that might have been—in which she discovers that she’s stayed with her neurotic ex-boyfriend, and that her mother, who committed suicide several years before, is very much alive.

Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?

ELLEN: I like your imagery here. My work absolutely does feel like part of me, which is why harsh reviews hurt so much. It always feels so personal. People have often told me I need to get a thicker skin, but they never tell me where to buy one. Do they sell those online? I’ve looked at Target and they always seem to be out of stock.

Meredith: 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?

ELLEN: When I bang my head against the desk so many times I can no longer think straight, I know it’s time to move on.

Seriously, I don’t think I ever really tell myself something I worked hard on is hopeless. Rather, I put it aside with the understanding that I can come back to it later with a fresh eye. But I usually have another idea nipping at my heels to get me to this point. Otherwise, I tend to keep rewriting over and over and over …

ELLEN lives on Long Island. Get to know her at her blog, Side Dish, and at her website by clicking right here.

[Photo and image courtesy of Ellen Meister.]

The 5-Question [Publisher] Interview: Sheyna Galyan

The book editor/publisher discusses audience and high-maintenance authors and translates the real meaning of a manuscript being  “not ready.”

 

Sheyna Galyan is the founder and owner of award-winning Yaldah Publishing, which specializes in books written from a Jewish perspective, Sheyna is fascinated by the intersection of tradition and technology. She holds a graduate degree in counseling psychology. Her favorite questions are Why? and Why not?

 

“Before I started Yaldah Publishing, I was a writer looking for a publisher for my first novel in a Jewish suspense series. Publisher after publisher had the same response: “we love it but….” The reasons were varied: we don’t want to take a chance on a series; we love the series but want to see a track record first; we love the book but we’re moving toward more Sheyna_Galyan_smnon-fiction; it’s too religious; it’s not religious enough; and my favorite: we love the book, love the series, love your writing, but can you make the rabbi a minister instead so it can have more mass appeal? Eventually I realized I had the skills I needed to start my own publishing company and contract with freelancers for needed services. I worked with several mentors and today I can say that I really do understand the perspective of an author collecting “we love it but” rejections. And I know that maybe I can help.”

Sheyna Galyan

 

Meredith: With all the manuscripts that cross your desk, what is the internal experience between the one you know is “the one” and all the others—even if all the others are quite good?

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Like a Maccabee, written by Barbara Bietz is an award-winning YA novel with a Hanukkah theme.

SHEYNA: Unfortunately, I have not yet experienced a situation where, in any given period of time, all of the submissions were quite good. As many as 80% of the submis sions I receive are unrelated to Yaldah’s catalog, full of spelling and grammatical errors, or writing that is simply painful to read, and sometimes all three.

Of the remaining 20%, I will admit it is a subjective decision. It could be written really well and fit with our catalog, but I just don’t love it. And I have to love it. As th e owner of a small press, I am intimately involved with every manuscript, and a manuscript that I

love is one that I can market and promote and stand behind. Th e ideal manuscript is one that is in keeping with Yaldah’s vision and catalog, written well and free of errors, unique, with an appealing topic and a strong voice, and one that I can’t put down.

Meredith: What do writers most misunderstand about editors? What don’t they “get?”

SHEYNA: The job of an editor really is not to bring back nightmares of high school English classes and red pens. Nor is it an editor’s job to make writers feel good about their writing, although I prefer editors who highlight the positives as well as the negatives. Ultimately, the job of an editor is to take a writer’s great writing and make it extraordinary.

Editors also have a sense of the audience (readers) when they’re editing, and in my experience that’s probably the biggest thing that writers don’t always quite “get.” Writers often believe that they are writing for themselves and not for some publisher’s marketing machine. Consequently, they see no need to edit, revise, clarify, or otherwise change their creation. Writers who write for themselves, who see their work as art that should not be subjected to an editor’s or publisher’s scrutiny, are often not good candidates to be published, especially by a small press. The best candidates for publishing are writers who understand that publishing—no matter how much editors and publishers love books and respect writers’ art—is still a business, and that theirwork with an editor is the negotiation, the balancing point, between art and business.

Meredith: How do you view rejection? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer?

 

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One in a series of Galyan’s novels.

SHEYNA: As a writer, I used to look at rejection in terms of the adage, “Every no leads you one step closer to a yes.” But since I’ve been in publishing, I realize exactly how unhelpful that is. I didn’t get into publishing to go on a power trip and tell hopeful writers “No” just because I can. In fact, if it weren’t for writers, publishers would go out of business! If I have to say no, I want to let the writer know why. T he most common rejection I give is actually, “Your manuscript is not yet ready to be a book.” And then I give the reasons, which typically include poor character and/or plot development (in fiction), insufficient research/citations (in non-fiction), readability, awkward sentences, and multiple grammatical/spelling errors.

It is my hope that writers will take this “not yet ready” rejection and use it, along with my reasons for rejection, to make it better, whether that means rewriting or working with an editor. I don’t necessarily expect that these writers will resubmit once they’ve reworked their manuscript, but I do believe that treating others the way you’d want to be treated is just as important in business as it is in life. And I’d much rather receive constructive criticism from a publisher than a simple thanks, but no thanks.

Meredith: Who would you rather publish: a high-maintenance author with an exceptional story but who needs lots of attention and praise, or someone who works/plays well with others but whose story needs more direction creatively, and writerly development?

SHEYNA: This is a trick question, isn’t it? Really, there are pros and cons to both. Having an exceptional story could make sales easier, but may require more non-billable work (keeping a high-maintenance author happy). Similarly, an easy-going author would require less hand-holding, but a not-quite-ready story would mean more work on my end, or my paying an editor more to work with the author. From a business standpoint, the high-maintenance author would impact the bottom line less.

I actually have had several submissions that I liked but needed more work than I thought I could provide, and I have recommended that these writers work with an editor on a rewrite and then resubmit. I also have had submissions from writers who included in their query their recommendations for who should play their characters in the Hollywood film, or suggested that they’d like me to send them on an international book tour (at no expense to them). When it became clear that I could not and would not guarantee a film or TV deal, nor would I send them on an all-expenses paid trip to Europe, they were not all that interested in pursuing a contract. I’m just as happy about that.

Meredith: How long does the decision process of what to publish take you? What’s going on internally as the decision is being made—and what should authors know?

SHEYNA: The decision takes longer than most writers might think. I may make an initial intuitive decision based on their query, but just because I like the pitch and it fits with our catalog doesn’t mean an automatic yes. Since I run a royalty house, meaning that authors don’t pay any money to have their books published, I need to consider costs as well as the manuscript itself. [Some of the things] I need to consider and answer before I can make a decision about a submission:

■  Do I have the capital on hand to publish this book, and how many other books are in the pipeline that may need that money?
■  How much editing will this book need?
■  Will this book need illustrations? What kind? What will the price of an illustrator cost me?
■  What kind of cover is required for this type of book, and what will that cost?
■  What can the author do to market and publicize this book, and how willing are they to do it?
■  What is the market for this kind of book? How much are books like this currently selling for? Can I make a profit on this type of book given the costs of printing, the market, and the average retail price?
■  What is the competition for this book?
■  What are the author’s expectations, are they realistic, and can we negotiate a workable agreement?

I need to crunch numbers, look at the competition, and do some projections to see if a submission will be a good business decision. I had a submission, for example, that was intriguing, but had almost no market, which meant a large print run was out of the question. It was a full-color interior, it was going to cost about $5 per copy to print, and the most I could charge for it, given the competition, was about $7.00. And I needed to offer a 40-50% wholesale discount. The math just doesn’t work. I had to say no.

[Thanks, Sheyna.]

Sheyna is a social media maven, who Facebooks, blogs and tweets regularly. Check her out.

View complete submission information for Yaldah Publishing by clicking here. “We do not require agents, but we will work with them if an author has an agent. We do require a query letter prior to submission,” Sheyna adds.

The 5-Question Interview: Irene Levine

The writer talks about thoughts and actions, the constant of change and the push-pull of boundaries in writing.

Irene Levine is a psychologist, journalist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University-Langone School of Medicine. She has written for practically ever major newspaper and many major magazines in the United States–see for yourself on her website. Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend is Irene’s first solo-authored book. Before writing the book, she surveyed more than 1500 women who were willing to pour their hearts out to her as long as they could remain anonymous.

Meredith: You write about friendships and breakups of those friendships. Can you translate that wisdom into a paradigm that includes writer and his/her writing? How can we feed and fuel that relationship?

IRENE: Like my friendships, my journey as a writer has been dynamic with many twists and turns along the way. My writing is profoundly influenced by what I am thinking, what I am doing, and how I am feeling at a particular time. Although my writing interests and style have changed (and hopefully grown) over time, my love for words and the all the tools associated with them (paper, pens, typewriters, computers and good old books) have been a constant.irene w statues

I’ve had multiple careers that seemingly are disparate but all of them are tied together by heavy use of the written word to communicate to diverse audiences—or at least that was how I chose to operationalize each of those roles. I’ve been an elementary school teacher, a clinical psychologist, a program administrator, a mental health policymaker, a communications director, a professor, a freelance journalist and more recently an author of two non-fiction books.

As I look back, both my friendships and my writing have been typified by change. Each time I changed careers, it was because something pulled me in another direction but it all seemed like it was flowing on the same trajectory. The same thing happens with friendships. All of a sudden, you feel out of sync with someone you thought would be your friend forever and you know that it’s time to make a change but you carry the changed you into your new relationships. Some friends have made me a better mother, others a better wife, others a better writer, and all of them a better friend.

Meredith: Friendships are about healthy boundaries, so where do boundaries fit for you in writing and help your craft and art?

IRENE: smallbest+friends+forever+13a.1Great question—because I have to admit that I have a bit of a boundary problem. The freelance life has no set boundaries—which is not very good for a person like me. I periodically need to remind myself that balance is necessary to make me a better person and a better writer.

All friendships need boundaries that feel comfortable for both people or else the friendship is a source of tension. That’s something I need to tell myself as well when a friendship begins feeling toxic.

Meredith: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is—the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?

IRENE: The running conflict in my life is never having enough time to do all the things I would like to do. When I have deadlines for articles, books or other projects, I need to position myself in a box where I can be totally immersed in my writing and creating without being distracted by the other things I would like to do or need to do.

Meredith: What purpose does rejection serve us in the process of creation?

IRENE: Would I rather receive an acceptance rather than a rejection? Any time! But each time I’ve been rejected it has made me stretch and do something differently, if not better.

Meredith: Friendship is about authenticity. I think the best friendships enable us to relate to ourselves more fully as well as the other person. Let’s say the same goes for writing. So, have you ever abandoned yourself in your writing, and by that I mean not been true to your voice, if you didn’t like the way a piece of work was headed? How did you get back on track—or how do you?

small-ts022608irene01IRENE: As a non-fiction writer, when you’re writing for someone else’s publication (a magazine article or report) for example, you have to assume the editorial voice rather than your own. A few times I’ve received assignments from publications whose voice was so different than mine that it felt like a struggle. I never thought I would get through that article for Corvette Quarterly that required me tschizo get into the mind of a Corvette owner. I needed to spend more time interviewing real people who had that mindset and ultimately had to have someone else edit the piece to get me back on track. One of the joys of blogging is being able to write in your own voice, largely unfiltered.

The closer a piece is to my own voice, the more satisfying the assignment feels and often the better it is received by readers.

Just last month Irene was on local television in DC and on The Today Show in New York. She can’t wait until she’s finished her book tour so she can resurrect all the friendships that she’s placed on temporary hiatus. She blogs as The Friendship Doctor at The Huffington Post and Psychology Today and on her own at  The Friendship Blog.

The 5-Question Interview: Christine Schwab

The writer talks about tempering fear with passion, the warning signs of repetition, and being a trendsetter, not a copycat.

Christine Schwab is the author of The Grown-Up Girl’s Guide to Style and Quickstyle (published under her maiden name, Kunzelman). She has talked about style on Oprah!, NBC Nightly News, CBS-The Early Show, The Today Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, Rachael Ray, Inside Edition, CNBC News, Fox Network News, E! Entertainment and Weekend Today. She is a former contributing style editor to Redbook, and has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and many, many others.

Meredith: How do you balance the outer world of beauty with the inner world of writing when you create? Is it seamless or conflicted? Is the intersection, in fact, quite natural?

cs_work_at_home_022CHRISTINE: For me the intersection is totally natural. I never have to stop and think about it. My world of fashion and beauty is part of me, it comes out on my pages in many different ways. My insight into people. My visual analysis of situations. My love for texture and color. I know some writers can go completely out of their realm and write. I am not one of them so far. .. Everything I write reflects on my background, my career in television and fashion and beauty, and who I am as a person. Having just finished my first fiction book after publishing two books of non-fiction, I am seeing how characters take on a life of their own and have the ability to take me, as the writer on a journey totally unplanned. It’s exciting and stimulating to realize that I may indeed go down different paths as I write more fiction. And who knows, someday I may write something totally unique when it comes to my life and experiences. I look forward to exploring fiction more and seeing where it takes me. It’s like moving to a new place, taking a new job, or going back to school. You never know how you will come out from the experience, but the journey is fascinating.

Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. How about you?

CHRISTINE: I just finished my first novel and fell so in love with the characters and the journey they were taking me on that the day I wrote the last sentence I actually felt a sense of loss and cried. And for several more days I felt empty, missing my new found friends. Before, the closest I came to this feeling was with my first two non-fiction books when I mailed the package off to my agent. I actually wrote Federal Express with a commercial idea:  how as a writer I felt as if I was packing up my first born and shipping him off. Of course Federal Express hires one of the most prestigious public relations companies in the world to do their commercials so they passed on my idea. Still, as I handed the package over to the Fed Ex man my emotions were raging.  I had worked so hard to turn my pages into a story and now it was in someone else’s hands. Out of my control. Now, with everything electronically transferred, it is the same feeling when I press the send button on my computer. How can we not feel so close to our work when we put our heart and soul on the pages?

Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up? How do you temper fear?

CHRISTINE: Most successful writers I know have either fear or extreme nerves over a project. I find this good because it means you’re making demands of yourself. Fear is always an issue for me. Some days I feel like I can do anything. Other days I read my words and question what I have written. As in the television world where I have worked for many years, one always questions their talents. I feel because we put so much of ourselves out there when we write and read, or submit, or go out to sell, how can one not be afraid? Rejection is tough, no matter how experienced a writer you are. I know a writer who has written and sold over a dozen books and with each new book she expresses fear.GrownUpGirl_LowRes

I have written and sold two books and now I have a novel out in the “for sale” world and I am once again in my fear mode. Will it sell? One day I know it will: it’s good, it’s timely and well written. The next day I think of all the reasons it won’t sell: the economy, it’s too long, it’s my first work in fiction and I am known for non-fiction. Try as I might, I can’t stop vacillating back and forth. Can any writer? I have all the ‘believe in yourself’ slogans surrounding me. I wear a good luck bracelet. I am a great believer and a very positive person and yet fear sneaks up on me. However I think fear makes us try harder, grow as writers and move forward because those victories are oh so sweet.

I temper fear with passion. I remind myself how happy writing makes me. How much I adore the process. As I sent this last book to my agent I asked my husband to remind me when I get down about the enjoyment I had in writing. I cut out encouraging sayings and tape them all around my desk:
If everyone thinks your ideas are good they aren’t ideas, their copies.

I will write myself into well being.

If it was easy everyone would be doing it.

Fear? Yes, it’s part of being a writer for me.

Meredith: When you write and report on image and style, does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? Do you think about pleasing the crowd?

CHRISTINE: I have to write about what I believe, even if it gets me in trouble. That said, isn’t it the perfect solution to write what you believe in that makes readers happy? That is a best seller Don’t we all want a best seller?

If I write only to please readers I’m not giving any honest information, just copy-cat words. My job is to look at the trends and translate them for real people. Not fashion people. Not designers. People who will go to the stores and spend their money on what they feel are the most important purchases. Especially today, when money is tight you don’t want to invest in fads, you want longevity. In The Grown-up Girl’s Guide To Style I spoke from experience and honesty. People loved me or disliked me because I didn’t always tell them what they wanted to hear, I told them what they should hear. I feel that my value as a fashion writer is to help people. Style is something anyone can learn. I look at my job as being a teacher. I have great experience, I want to share it with readers. I never want to be a copy-cat. After my book came out many other books followed that adopted much of my philosophy. That’s when I know I’m doing my job.

Meredith: Once you have the basic idea for what you will be writing about, how do you expand on it? Now answer this: How do you know when enough is enough—a line in an essay, a chapter in a book?

CHRISTINE: You have to write what you know. I have never found it hard to fill up a book because I always write what I know and believe in. If you’re reaching for fillers you are most likely on the wrong topic. I feel when you’re writing what you know the words flow. Sure you come to a glitch every now and then, but basically you know where you’re going and how to get there.

I think you know enough is enough when you start repeating yourself. You fill in with long descriptions or dialogue that slows the story. You start looking at other books or magazines and pulling ideas from them instead of from your own head. I believe the more I can take someone into my head, the better the journey. The deeper I dig, the more fulfilling the work, for both me and my reader.

Christine lives with her husband in southern California where she is at work on a second book of fiction. “While many writers only deal with the ‘art,’ I feel you must take a look at the climate and write accordingly. My 25 years in front of the television cameras taught me to flow with the tides. Unless you are only writing to please yourself, you need to see what’s selling, or in the case of my fashion TV work, what’s hot and what’s not. Hot sells. It doesn’t mean you are selling out by any means, it simply means you are being smart,” she says.  You can get to know more about her at her website, right here.

The 5-Question Interview: Rachel Shukert

Playwright, performer and author Rachel Shukert author of, Have You No Shame  muses about creative versus productive, when an idea is rememberable and the drama of obsession.

Meredith: Playwright, memoirist, satirist… when it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe? Describe the relationship.
RACHEL: Friend and foe, absolutely.  I used to think my relationship to my mind was like a relationship with a close friend or romantic partner, in that sometimes you love them and sometimes they drive you crazy, but lately I’ve started to think it’s a little more like the relationship I imagine one might have with a conjoined twin with whom one shares a vital organ such as a liver.  The relationship is necessarily an extraordinarily close one, to the point that it is impossible to imagine an existence without the other, (indeed, if separated, both organisms will die) but it would be really nice to have a break once in a while.  The other day I mentioned to a friend that it might be nice to be able to die just for a day or two, just to have a little time off.  As we were standing on an abandoned subway platform at the time, he looked at me with understandable horror, but I stand by my statement.  As long as you could come raging back to life as though nothing had happened, and not have to learn how to speak or walk or use the toilet all over again, I think it might be very pleasant to be temporarily dead.  It would certainly give you a hell of an opening statement at cocktail parties and lunch meetings.

As far as the specifics of your question, I would say that my mind is a friend when I have an idea that I find genuinely new and surprising, and even better, the ability to adequate execute that idea.  In the absence of these infrequent flashes of brilliance, I consider it a friend when it is simply working properly–like most people, I would imagine.  To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy people (and by extension, their minds) are all alike.  If I’m not currently having a panic attack or berating myself for being a talentless failure, I’ll take it.

I think you managed to sum up one aspect of my mind as foe in the phrasing of your question, where you list all the various genres in which I have
attempted to write something of even middling value.  While I feel fortunate to work in a lot of mediums, this can also be a problem in terms of focus–it’s sometimes difficult for me to feel invested in any one project when I am constantly having ideas for the next one, and the next.  This may sound like a blessing, but it can really be a curse–or at the very least extremely distracting.  The new, as yet unformed idea gets all my enthusiasm, while the old one still in process starts to feel like a chore: always the kiss of death.  But it’s just the way my process works, I guess, for better or for worse.

Meredith: Do you trust yourself when you write? Always? What does trust of your abilities look like in the messy process of creation?
RACHEL: I have sort of a cycle: at the beginning, I usually feel sort of tentative and shy, as though the computer and I have just met and I’m not sure exactly what the boundaries of our relationship are.  Then things begin to get comfortable and easy–I always compare it to when you start exercising again after a long time of not going to the gym–at first you’re kind of nervous and full of dread, but then it begins to get easier, ever automatic.  Eventually, usually about halfway through I sort of crash into a wall and sort of hit rock bottom and lose my mind, at which point I would say my trust in my abilities looks exhausted and weepy, with streaks of mascara running down its face and usually one half to three quarters drunk.  This period of utter, blind despair can last anywhere from a few days to a few months, but when it’s over, I usually feel like I know what I’m doing and what the project needs, which generally takes me through to the end.  It’s not pretty, but it’s at least predictable, and I usually find that as long as I trust that at some point I will figure out the puzzle, so to speak, and just let myself get there, things fall into place.  But that can be a challenge.  Oddly, whenever I’ve written in collaboration with someone, I find I trust myself a lot more.  I don’t know if it’s a feeling of having to keep up appearances and really commit to your ideas and be able to defend them to get them through, or just that having another person to bump up against is sort of like having a built in audience, and you sort of know immediately what works and what doesn’t.  It takes some of the guesswork out of it.

Meredith: 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?
RACHEL: I don’t know if that’s true.  I think that human beings are obviously naturally creative–every object and idea in the universe points to that.  But I think there are a lot of different ways of being creative, and I think we sometimes discount those that don’t conform to our chosen field, or further some kind of larger objective–whether it’s where we want to be in our careers, or some kind of huge goal we are trying to accomplish.  A person can be creative in a lot of little ways that are not necessarily fulfilling in the long term, or have a great effect on the world or our lives, but can be very satisfying in the moment. For example, I spend my working life trying to create these big projects, be they books or scripts or whatever–but sometimes I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when I’ve say, baked a cake that came out well, or painted the living room.  This may not be creative in the sense that we think of it, but they are inarguably acts of creation, and at least in the short term, can be very satisfying.  I don’t think I’d be happy if that was all I did, but I think it’s important to remember all the little things we do that are creative.  And by the way, I think I would swap out the word “creative” for “productive,” which I think is much less loaded and in my mind has a lot more value. I just try to be productive.  I think that’s the most admirable way to be.

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?
RACHEL: I have a lot of ideas where I think: wouldn’t it be great if someone did this?  That somebody isn’t always me.  If it isn’t, I find it sort of ends there–there’s this idea like: Oh, I wish there was a movie about this!  Oh, I wish somebody would write this particular book! and that’s it.  I don’t necessarily have any ideas about how it should be done.  If it really is an idea that is going to work for me, however, I usually have a sudden cascade over the next day–or even the next couple of hours–of sort of secondary ideas–how would it work?  Who would the characters be?  What are the mechanics?  What are some details or potential funny lines?  How should it be executed?  I often start to feel really excited and kind of manic, but I almost never start working on anything right away.  For one thing, I’m usually too backed up with other projects, and besides, I like to let things sort of stew for a while.  If it’s a really good idea, those other ideas will keep coming over the course of several months, even a couple of years, before I actually get around to writing it–and that’s how I know.  If it’s held my attention that long, it’s worth pursuing.  I also don’t like to write too many things down when I first get an idea.  If it’s a good idea, I’ll remember it.  If it isn’t, I’ll forget, and that’s for the best.

Meredith: You are so funny (love your book!)– and your writing is edgy. But being human, what’s the biggest, not-good-for-you lie you tell yourself about your skill, craft and talent? How do you set yourself straight, un-believe the lie?
RACHEL: Well first of all, thank you!  This is a hard question to answer.  I’m not sure.  I don’t know if this is a lie, per se, but one thing I do that really isn’t good for me is obsess way too much about my career and where I am in the relative spectrum of literary success, especially as compared to other people that I know and worrying whether I measure up.  It takes way too much energy and is at least as destructive as it is motivating.  I try just to focus on what I can actually affect–i.e., trying to do the best work I can, but that can be pretty boring compared to torturing myself over press and sales and whether or not I’m ever going to be successful–whatever my definition of that is, and it’s constantly changing. It’s like how they say that old is whatever is 15 years older than what you are; that’s what “success” is for me.  Success is whatever I’m not.  And I know that isn’t a thought that’s very good for me or my work.