The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Karma Wilson

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?
Karma:
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 5-Question Interview: Cai Emmons

The writer talks of translating curiosity about human behavior onto the page, the best time to write, and the magic of obsession in the early stages of creation.
Cai Emmons is the author of several books, including the award-winning His Mother’s Son (Harcourt), a Booksense selection, as well as a Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection and The Stylist, (HarperCollins), of which Booklist said: “… Emmons’ potent novel features magnetic characters and complex and compelling secrets.” Cai studied playwriting at Yale, later earned an M.F.A. in filmmaking and subsequently worked in film in New York and Los Angeles.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
CAI
: Neither fear nor strength is a seminal place for my creativity in any way that I’m conscious of. For me the urge to write has its genesis in curiosity, particularly curiosity about human behavior. How would I react if——? It is like the question that children love to pose to one another: Would you rather freeze to death or burn to death? Even to adults that question is fascinating because it asks us to imagine what each of those endings (death experiences) would be like. In freezing to death, when would you lose consciousness? What would it feel like to have your eyes burn? All my stories seem to originate in this kind of curiosity and questioning. What would you do if your brother murdered your parents? If, after that, you bore a son, how would you raise that boy? What is it like for a woman to transition to manhood? How do you relate to that person as a friend? What would it be like if you learned your father had a family which you knew nothing about? When such questions have been brewing in me for a while and they won’t go away, I know I have the germ/s of a story.

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.)

The 5-Question Interview: Allison Winn Scotch

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!

THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Reviews of your most recent book, Time of My Life, suggest that, as a fiction writer, you have “hit your stride.” Can you tell us, from the author’s standpoint, what is going on inside the writer herself when we hear that she has hit her stride? Can you describe how this happens, or, rather, happened it to you?
ALLISON: You know, it’s funny: I definitely feel like, yeah, I’ve hit my stride, but at the same time, getting back to your first question, even when I wasn’t quite in the groove that I’m in now, I always felt pretty comfortable and confident with where I was. I mean, when my debut, novel came out, I loved, loved, loved it and couldn’t have been prouder. And then I wrote Time of My Life and realized that:
a) I had more than one book in me (which was a pretty thrilling discovery)
b) that I had a better book in me. (At least I think it’s better, not everyone agrees, and that’s fine too!)
About her journey
How did I get here? Well, I think a couple of ways. For one, I’ve always been very, very open to advice and constructive criticism, and I have tried, tried, tried to make myself a better writer as I’ve gone through this process. This meant not only refining my words and yes, my voice, but also really understanding what I was referencing before – the high concept idea, what the market is looking for, what makes me the most sellable author. I know this sounds like it has nothing to do with writing, but it does.
On writing as an art
Writing is an art form, but it’s also a business (for those of us who do it full-time), and part of what has given me that confidence to help me hit my stride is to know that I’m creating a product that ideally will be in demand. I had an idea as I was writing Time of My Life that I was writing a BIG book, and it felt inherently different than writing my debut. But I will say that this might be something that only comes in hindsight. At the time, I did think my debut would be a BIG book, but it’s only when you’ve gained some experience that you’re likely to see the difference.
On trusting the right people

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/.

Coming Sunday, March 1, 2009

Allison Winn Scotch, author of the New York Times Bestseller Time of My Life (Shaye Areheart Books).

[can’t wait!]

The Journey Begins.

Pull up a chair.

You’re here because you’re fascinated by the creative process. Showed up because you’re intrigued by the breadth of originality of contemporary writers. And mostly because you, too, have a voice that is original and pure. You’ve got a pocket (or drawer, safe, trunk, notebook, mind) full of stories you want to write (tell, share, draw, paint, collage, or sing). And, yes, you want those stories to be heard.

On The Writer’s Journey, we relate.

I love hearing authors speak about their work. However, I started The Writer’s Journey because I crave insight into how they work, or rather, how their creative mind works. I wanted the tangible not the abstract; I wanted to feel connected, not competitive.

The Writer’s Journey 5-Question Interview is the magical tool I developed that helps authors translate complex, abstract ideas into creative insights the rest of us can relate to–and benefit from. Every author lined up has been utterly cool and fun and generous. And no two are alike.
And speaking of authors, we have stellar list on board: New York Times Bestsellers, Los Angeles Times Bestsellers, contributors to This American Life, parenting writers, award-winning children’s writers, religion writers, reporters, novelists, memoirists, professional creatives, creative coaches…the menu is endless. (YUM.)

This is home. Wear pajamas or sweats. Write to me like we’re old friends. Soon we will be.
Meredith (m)

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