The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Therese Walsh

“Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.”
Therese Walsh

  

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed (writerunboxed.com) with Kathleen Bolton in 2006 and is the site’s editorial director. Her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was nominated for a Rsmall picITA Award for Best First Book and was a Target Breakout Book. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal. She has a master’s degree in psychology. You can learn more about her on her website, theresewalsh.com.

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Meredith: In her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, says: “Creativity is a shapechanger. One moment it takes this form, the next that. … It is not virtuosity, although that is very fine in itself. It is the love of something, having so much love for something—whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity—that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.”  Please share how your process fits or doesn’t fit what she says. Tell us how you’ve come to see the process, or if it has changed for you over the years.

THERESE: Thanks so much for having me. First, let it be known that I’m a big fan of Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Women Who Run With the Wolves.

In my experience you have to be able to dwell in your concept, your theme, your story world, until all thoughts about those aspects ring true. It takes a lot of time and energy (and absence from ‘real life’) to make this work, for me. What it requires is something akin to obsession. For me it isn’t always healthy, not always love. But it is a deep-seated need to express something as authentically as possible.

So I agree with her – I see why she chooses to use the word ‘love’ – but my experience is not always filled with gladness for my story or my characters. Sometimes it feels like torment, to be honest. But it’s always burning hot and undeMOON_SISTERS_FINALniable – a storyteller’s passion, with all of its highs and lows, if that makes sense – and I know that feeling won’t stop until I serve the work.

Meredith: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating.

THERESE: Fear is something I’ve considered quite often. I think it’s a wildcard, actually, and so I’ve demystified it a bit in my own mind. When I fear something, I remember other times I’ve faced a fear – believed I would behave one way (cowardly), then surprisingly behaved exactly the opposite (hurrah!). Fear is duct tape over my mouth, hands dragging me into a closet, a key turning in a lock, and I try whenever I feel it to remember that I am the one placing the tape, doing the dragging, and that I own that key. And then I feel freer.

A concrete example: When I wrote the character of Beth Moon, a depressed mother, in The Moon Sisters, I could feel myself holding back, draft after draft; I only approached the shadow of depression. I called myself on it. I’ve felt those feelings. I know more about how that woman would have felt than I wanted to let on. I was afraid, maybe, of putting myself into that headspace or revealing too much of what I may have felt in the past. But once I saw the truth of my paralysis, I faced it, and went as deep with myself and those feelings as I was able. And, of course, the work was better for it.

Fear is not any writer’s friend. It is something that should be actively called out and given a name.

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Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What is it about rules that make us feel like we are doing something correctly? Why, once we set up rules does it seem we need to break them to set ourselves free?

THERESE: Rules are a safety net. They are compliance with a set of standards someone else set a long time ago. They are the teacher with the sticker sheet of stars in hand, ready to put them on our work. They are the opposite of the time-out-chair or corner, depending on your generation; they are not naughty.

Art is messy. Art colors outside of the lines. Art is made away from the corner, naughty or not. And art strives for singularity over replication.

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Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?

THERESE: No, the only work I’ve been sad about is the work that’s waiting for me to return to it; it’s been a challenging year. But I will return to it.

You know when to stop when your gut says, ‘This is the very best I can do.’ When you’ve been over it again and again, and you just know that what you’re looking at on the page meets or exceeds your standards as a reader. You know it’s time to stop when you’re just tinkering. You know when you suspect that tinkering might be making things worse.

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Meredith: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?

THERESE: I’ve had to step away from the work on occasion, and ‘refill the well’ in ways that have nothing to do with art. I’ve also had to remind myself, through short-form writing projects, that I can write, that I have something to say, that it’s worth putting on the page. This can be a discouraging, difficult occupation even after our work is sold and on a shelf, so it’s important to always find ways to nurture ourselves. Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.

‘Believe, believe’ has become one of my mantras, and something I say often to my writer friends.

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Meredith: Is there ever truly a balance between the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? For you, are they unified or polarized? Or something else?

THERESE: If there’s a way to do this dance properly, I have yet to learn it. But I’m not much of a dancer (this is a vast understatement). I find that when I’m promoting, I’m hardly writing, and when I’m writing, I need to stand clear of promotion. That said, I know there are people who do this well. They relegate promotion to a certain time of day, and writing to another, for example. My mind just doesn’t work like that. I tend to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ on one thing at a time. Like I said, writing, for me, tends to be an awful lot like obsession.

[Thanks, Therese!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alan Jacobson


There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know.

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I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.

—Alan Jacobson

Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 11 suspense/thriller novels, including two successful series (Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops novels). His books have been translated internationally, many have been named “Best of the Year,” and several have been optioned by Hollywood.

Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the US military bring unparalleled realism to his stories and characters. His series have been raved about by readers of all walks of life including law enforcement officers, real FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.


Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up?

ALAN: I’ve been writing fulltime for 22 years, and early on in my career, I did wonder about that. And that was honestly a normal thing because although I was well schooled and knew good writing from bad, that’s very different from writing a full-length novel that engages the reader, captures and holds her attention for 400 pages, that features deep and satisfying characters, and features dialogue that advances both story and character.

There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know. Did I measure up? Was the secret sauce in thinking up good plots? Or memorable characters? Or both? If both, how did longtime authors do it—and keep a healthy balance so one doesn’t dominate the other?

As I read more and as I wrote more, I fell into a rhythm as to what constituted an engaging read—and how to create it for myself. I also discovered that just because a book was published did not mean it was exceptional, or even good. A lot of the published novels—from major publishing houses—were disappointing, and I came to learn that I could do a whole lot better. In essence, I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.

That fear that you mentioned subsided and eventually vanished. By the time I started writing “The 7th Victim” (the first in the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and my third overall), I knew I could write with the best of them. No more fear.

UnknownNow, that said, fear does still come into play in one other aspect of writing: not making my deadline! It drives me to keep on schedule, to stay focused and on task.

Meredith: In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we lives our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” What’s your take?

ALAN: I think it’s possible for people to create their own obstacles and barriers to success—and creativity. For some, it’s ingrained in our personalities, our worldviews, to be able to pick ourselves up when the times are tough, when things are not going our way. Others don’t have that capability but they can be
motivated, through counseling or other external means, to find the path, find the key to unlock those chains that the Eagles referenced.

Writing is full of pitfalls that can cause obstacles and barriers. Rejection is part of the recipe of success. Almost every successful author I’ve ever known experienced rejection before overcoming it and getting their agent, or first contract, or significant sales. Those who are persistent, who have it within or otherwise find their keys, are often the ones who make it.

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?

ALAN: The drive to always be better, to find new and fresh ways of telling a story, of stressing my character. When my publisher asked me to make Karen Vail a series character because they’d had such a dramatic response to The 7th Victim, I resisted
because I knew colleagues who’d become stale and bored writing the same character book after bookSpectrum_Alan Jacobson. I vowed that’d never happen to me because if I’m bored with what I’m writing, the reader’s going to be bored reading it. And I’d never put out a substandard book because my name’s on the cover—and my reputation is worth everything to me.

Each one of my novels excited me, and that’s a prerequisite for writing it. If it’s not working, I trash it and move on to another idea. It’s only happened to me once, and it was fairly early in the process, but I’m proud to have stood by my principles and started back on square one. It was the right decision.

So if you could call that an inner conflict, of pushing myself to do better and fresh and different, that’s what drives me year after year, book after book.

Unknown-1Meredith: Do you actively seek ideas, or is your style to wait and see what crosses your path?

ALAN: I never have to actively seek ideas or wait for things to cross my path. I’ve been fortunate to never have a shortage of story ideas. That said, I always have my eyes open. A friend of mine, author John Lescroart, posted something recently about writers always working…they’re either writing or thinking about writing. That’s certainly true in my case—ideas come to me at the strangest of times. I walked into my office one morning right after finishing Velocity (Vail #3), intending to start on a book in my OPSIG Team Black series. The thought “Karen Vail on Alcatraz” popped into my head and I brainstormed on the idea. Over the next few days I kept adding to the outline until I was so excited by it that Inmate 1577 became the next book I wrote.

Other times ideas come to me while working out—I don’t consciously think about it, but it just happens. Those are my creative times. I keep my iPhone within arm’s reach and when an idea strikes—it can be an idea for the book I’m currently writing or something completely new—I dictate the note so I don’t forget it. I then continue to work on it as it develops over the next several weeks. If it’s a Karen Vail story, I’ll run it by one of my two FBI profiler friends to get their take. If it’s an OPSIG idea, I’ll pitch it to one of my special forces contacts.

I currently have several ideas percolating for both the Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black series, waiting in queue to be written. Since it takes me a solid year to research and write a novel, I’m stacked up for quite a while!

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: Iʼd really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But itʼs not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, itʼs the person. Why, do you think, itʼs such a seductive slope?

ALAN: I can see that. And for me, the writing part is what I truly love. I get grumpy when I’m not writing. Of course, the reality is that writing is only one thing we do as authors. The business end actually consumes more time; it encompasses everything from working with your publisher, promoting your books, dealing with your agent and entertainment law attorney or website designer, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, attending conferences, traveling to the locations where my book is set…or following up with my research contacts to ask questions to make sure I’ve got my information correct. Then there’s working with my editor, and copyeditor, and proofreader. There are a million things to manage. As shocking as it may seem, although writing is the most time-consuming part, it’s but one piece to that puzzle called a novel. So it’s very easy for this seductiveness to get lost in all the minutiae, bogged down by the day-to-day business requirements. Depending on what point I’m at in the cycle, it sometimes requires a Herculean effort to get my writing in each day.

For me, the seductive slope is Hollywood. I’ve had several books optioned for film and/or television, and came close twice—very close once—when we were several weeks away from filming The 7th Victim for TNT, which I was co-producing. The problem is that it’s easy to expend a great deal of time and creative energy working toward seeing your book hit the screen—only to have the plug pulled in the eleventh hour due to unrelated things that emerge at the worst possible times. Such influences are out of your control—and when they hit, you realize you could’ve written an entirely new novel during the time you expended on what turned out to be a dead end. And suddenly you have nothing to show for that wasted time. To me, that’s one hell of a seductive slope…because it never stops calling.

Connect with Jacobson on the web at www.AlanJacobson.com, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

[Thank you, Alan!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Sam Apple

“I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought.”
—Sam Apple

 

Sam Apple’s first book for children, The Saddest Toilet in the World, was published this month. Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent.  His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, The New Yorker (online), McSweeney’s, and Slate.com, among many others. He was a finalist for the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction. Apple teaches creative writing and science journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the founder and publisher of The Faster Times.

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?

SAM: I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I think it touches on an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that lots and lots of people want to be authors, but I’m not so sure that lots and lots of people still want to read books. I’m not sure how the seductiveness of authorship has survived the diminishing role of literature in American life, but I suppose I’m glad that it has survived

Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one anther inside you? Or do they?

SAM: I don’t think they ever do quite make peace inside of me. I know plenty of great writers who are extroverts, and they tend to do a fantastic job of publicizing their work. But I’m more of the stereotypical quiet, standing-alone-by-the-appetizers type of writer. I try to promote my work on social media, but I always feel a bit self-Sam_Apple_Jewish_Writers_You_Wish_You_Knew_About_2.09.12_-_6876738965conscious about it. What’s interesting, I think, is that I find it hard to be open on social media, and yet my shyness doesn’t prevent me from writing very personal things in my books. I think book writing creates a safe distance between me and my audience (or, at least, gives me the illusion that such a distance exists), whereas the immediacy of social media collapses that distance.

end or foe?Meredith: When you sit down to write, are you in charge? What I mean is this: are you the scribe or the master creator? Both? Neither? Sort-of corollary: would you describe your mind (in terms of writing) as a fri

SAM: I am definitely not in charge, and I think that the less in charge I feel, the better my work turns out. I suspect a lot of writers feel the same way.  I’ve long been fascinated by this phenomenon, but what struck me more recently is that if I’m not in charge when I’m writing, I’m probably not in charge when I’m not writing either, as I don’t think conscious control is the sort of thing one can turn on and off. So, thinking about this question had made me deeply skeptical of the entire notion of free will.

Meredith: Can somesaddest-toilet stories not be found? Why/why not?

SAM: I’m not entirely sure, but I do think that many stories need to percolate for a long time to before they’re ready to make it out into the world. I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought. I suppose this touches on my response to the previous question.

Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

SAM: Another interesting, tough question. I think there’s only so much you can do to fight the homeostasis, and many of my favorite writers tend to hit the same notes over and over in their books — Philip Roth and George Saunders come to mind. But one of the very nice things about writing is that there aren’t many drawbacks to taking risks in your work. The worst that’s going to happen is that you waste your time, or perhaps end up with a bad review. I always encourage my writing students to experiment with different genres and themes.

I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom I picked up from the memoir of the great fiction editor, Ted Solotaroff. While driving with Bernard Malamud at night, Solotaroff was struck by Malamud’s cautiousness behind the wheel, and by how this caution stood in stark contradiction to the risks Malamud took in his work.  Solotaroff never forgot the lesson: caution in life; daring on the page.

[Thanks, Sam!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

“I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson…”
—Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell


Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
is a journalist and author living her dream life with her husband and 5 dogs in a 480-square foot cabin in the Ozark Mountains. Her memoir, LIVING LARGE IN OUR LITTLE HOUSE is published by Reader’s Digest. One of her mottos: Living Large is a state of mind. She blogs at livinglargeinourlittlehouse.com.

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Meredith: Given your affinity for large lives in small spaces, this question feels apropos: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

KERRI: This was actually the hardest thing for me. I met my future agent in 2011 and wasn’t able to develop a book proposal for the story until 2014. At that point, the story was still changing and evolving and I also couldn’t put a finger to the takeaway. Luckily, my agent believed in my story and was patient with me until I felt I could bring that story to life. Once I felt I had the life lesson I needed to learn to put together a memoir; she then guided me in creating a proposal and a book she could sell. As it turned out, my story, as well as some of the others I tell in the book, continued to evolve even after the book was supposedly finished.unnamed-1

 

Meredith: Is waiting the hardest part for you—particularly waiting for a response from the outside about an idea, a piece of writing, a body of work? If so, how do you temper your anxiety? If not, how do you put it in perspective when something feels so personal and dear to your heart?

KERRI: I do not like having to wait on others to do things in general in my life, I like to be in control, so yes, I would say waiting is a hard part of the writing life. The best way I’ve found in my freelance life to get over the anxiety is to develop an idea, send it off and move onto the next project. I see so many young freelance writers agonizing over a pitch they sent to their dream publication, or a pitch that is dear to them. If they keep that up, they’re going to have very short, anxiety-fueled lives. My motto is to put it into the universe, follow up in 7 to 14 days and if I still don’t have a response, re-pitch to another publication and think of something else for that dream publication. I use the motto I try to use in other aspects of my life: Let it go. Everything in its own time.

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Meredith: Corollary to the above: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?

KERRI: Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I look at my calendar, see I’m not making my financial goals for the next month and feel like a complete failure, I could stop pitching tomorrow and really live the dream, which is to write only what I want whenever I want! I have to remind myself that I’ve always manage to find the next assignment, even if it’s just enough to keep me going until the next month. If I need a reminder of how far faith in myself has brought me, I take my dogs for a long walk in our woods—you can never think life isn’t going your way while walking in the woods. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s always chocolate.

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Meredith: When you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?

KERRI: I think anyone who writes essays or memoir, particularly in this day and age of judgmental and cruel online bullying, is brave. However, sometimes I do feel like some of the superpersonal confessions some writers are engaging in these days may be detrimental to them, or maybe to even society in general, in years to come. That remains to be seen. That being said, I think all of us as writers have a personal responsibility to be true to ourselves and our story. There are some things in my book that sometimes haunt me in the middle of the night about how that part of my story will be received. I think there are instances where you may have to retreat. I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson, not to mention putting me at risk for libel. That’s where a good editor comes in, to help guide you in telling your story or advising you to take a different approach or even removing it all together.

Meredith: You’re an accomplished journalist, so tell me this: what is it that many of us misunderstand about telling a story? About finding hooks in a story? How did you learn to master your understanding of storytelling (article writing, memoir writing) in terms of understanding what a story is supposed to do. Please share.

KERRI: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. I was actually a business school graduate who had a deep love of journalism from an early age. But because I went to business school, I had to spend a lot of time learning and honing the craft, but that unconventional route worked in my favor. Unfortunately, I believe our society is in one of those periods in which people don’t appreciate the value of journalism in a free society. They’re drifting away from the meat of the story and looking for the sensational headline that gets them to click on that site. My high school journalism teacher, Patrick Bosak, who, in my mind, will always be the most wonderful teacher I ever had told me on my first day of class that drawing your reader in with a compelling lede is the most important part of your story, but you have to also know how to keep them engaged by telling them why this story is important to them. These sensational headlines oftentimes fail to deliver the meat.

News hooks aren’t always sexy, they’re not always sensational. They should be something that interests the public and also informs them. Whether I’m writing a news story or writing an essay or memoir, I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the takeaway, what can I help my reader learn or understand and what makes it relevant to their lives?”

[Thank you, Kerri!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Jen A. Miller

“I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something….It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece.”
— Jen. A Miller

 

Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runner’s World, espnW, Allure and SELF. She lives in Collingswood, N.J. with her Jack Russell Terrier Emily.

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Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation that can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

JEN: When I’m bored with work, I know I need to shoot higher. Before I even had the idea for Running: A Love Story, I wrote a travel guide about the Jersey Shore, and then I updated that book three years later for the second edition.

It was great! The books were fun and interesting, and lead to a lot of work that spilled over into my freelance life. I was known as Jersey Shore Jen for a while.

But it got a little staid. While things are always changing down the shore (especially after SaIMG_0163ndy), I could only write so many travel guides. When I was offered the opportunity to update the book for a third edition, I had a choice to make. It would have been relatively easy money, but I wasn’t excited about doing it. I had gotten comfortable being known as the Jersey Shore expert, but I started to feel hemmed in by it too.

I turned down the offer, and started talking about writing “the big book.”

It was a huge risk: professionally and personally, especially when writing is the thing that pays your bills. The path to book publication, even if you’ve written books before, can be an onerous one – not even including the idea! There’s writing the proposal to get the agent (I represented myself on my first two books), picking the agent, writing the proposal to sell the book, picking the publisher. One book project that I was told was a sure fire hit didn’t happen. That was a major blow, and it took me a while to try again. I’m glad I did.

When I reach that crossroads of do I stay or do I go now, I think about times when I took the shot and made it, and what a difference it’s made in my career today. Have I missed? Sure. But I don’t even remember all of those misses. So I take the shot.

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Meredith: How do you block out the chatter—yours and everyone else’s?

JEN: Sometimes it’s a matter of putting in your headphones, putting your head down and writing away. If I’m overwhelmed bIMG_3874y something, I’ll physically move locations, whether that’s to my bedroom, where I have a writing surface; to my mom’s sunporch; or even to a hotel. I wrote big chunks of Running: A Love Story while locked away in hotel rooms overlooking the ocean.

On a bigger level, though, I need to block out a lot of noise about trends, the writing industry, etc. Those things are important, but if I read every single piece about how freelance writing is terrible, how publishing is terrible, I wouldn’t have even started. It can be overwhelming, which is why running (and when I’m not training for a race, hiking) is so key to me. It hits pause on everything, even if it’s just a half hour or an hour, and makes everything not seem so bad. Of course that’s when I get some of my best ideas too.

I’ve taken a lot of long road trips too, that have had nothing to do with writing projects. They’ve helped take me out of my environment for a while, take me to somewhere new. When I’m back, I’m refreshed.

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Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

JEN: I can’t agonize over something forever, so I use deadlines to make me wrap things up. From the time I got the book offer for Running: A Love Story to when I turned in the final chapter of the manuscript was five months (that may sound short, but I had been working on the book for nearly a year before it sold). I also turned in the chapters on a rolling basis so that I was just about done with some of the early chapters two months after I sold the book.

Not everyone works this way. I do because I know that with long deadlines, I won’t work on it, and if I hold onto something too long, I’ll start picking at it, which can make it worse. Not to quote Frozen, but sometimes you really do need to let it go.

And if I’m at the end of my writing rope – with books or articles – I usually send it to my editor and say “tell me if this is finished.” Sometimes they see that it’s done – or not done – and I don’t. That’s why I’ve worked hard to build and maintain relationships with editors who are OK with that. It’s lead to some of my most popular (at least as they tell me) New York Times pieces. It’s so key to have that other person keep you in check.

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Meredith: The screenwriter, author and therapist, Dennis Palumbo, has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?

JEN: That’s interesting. When I wrote the Jersey Shore book, a criticism I sometimes heard was that I shouldn’t be allowed to write the book because I didn’t live there. I think that’s one reason I should have written the books. I’d been going to that area of the country since I was a baby, so I knew enough so that I wasn’t parachuting into the place, but I had enough of that visitor wonder and curiosity that I wasn’t skipping obvious things. When some locals read the books, they told me that they learned things about shops or buildings or landmarks they passed every day that they never knew.

I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something – and that applies to article work too. It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece. It keeps me from being lazy.

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Meredith: What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself and your writing—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could put yourself on the page? How did you let it go—or maybe you didn’t?

JEN: Way back when I started out as a freelance writer, I told myself I couldn’t fail. On a macro level, that was “fail as a writer.” On a micro level, that was “fail in getting this assignment; fail at getting this interview,” those kinds of things. I quickly realized, though, that failing was OK. Not trying would have been a whole lot worse. And when I failed, I assessed what happened, and learned from it too.

I still trip up on this occasionally. I was 25 when I became a full time freelance writer, and I had much lower overall life costs then. If I failed, I could have slipped back into an office job. I don’t know anyone who would hire me know. Even though I’m further advanced in my career, that idea of failing is still there. I temper it by having some what I call “gimme” work. It’s not the most exciting stuff, but it pays the bills, and it allows me to take those chances I still need to take.

Visit Jen at JenAMiller.com.

[THANKS, JEN!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Nora Baskin

Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about.
I reach as high as I can.
—Nora Baskin

Nora Baskin is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. She has written more than a dozen books, most inspired by her life events growing up. Her newest book is Ruby on the Outside. Her next book, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story will be released later this year. norabaskin.comauthorphoto

Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? 

NORA: I don’t think we can get “stuck.”

Creativity can happen all the time, in every possible way. When we write, draw, dance, what we think while we walk in the woods, sing in the car, play the guitar all alone in the hallway. What does get in the way is when we try to force our creativity into a form that we think we can “sell” or will get us praise; when we worry about what someone else will think about our work.

Creativity is a natural state. It is free flowing and constant.

That is not to say there isn’t an external aesthetic by which to measure the results of our creativity. I am a believer in educated, thoughtful criticism. Society needs a measure by which to place art in time and history; to judge what is good, what is relevant, what is meaningful. (Note that sometimes it takes years for this to happen, often long after an artist is dead)

RubyOnTheOutside_1But actual creativity (not to be confused with the ART that is produced) is a constant. It’s always there. It’s a matter of separating heart and mind, those nagging voices in your head that can get in the way. It keeps us from getting out Ann LaMott’s “Shitty first draft.”

Meredith: The Talmud  (in one way or another) 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?

NORA: As a matter of fact, I do. I tried to get published for nine full years, meaning nine years of sending out my work and often coming home to a mailbox stuffed full of self-addressed stamped envelopes with my handwriting! (From the days before email, of course.) It was hard to keep the faith, so to speak. After a few really difficult rejections and disappointments, I decided to just write the story I had always wanted to write but everyone in my life had told me “get over.” It was the story of my mother’s suicide, not exactly the stuff of a middle grade novel. But I had just read an award-winning book called “Belle Prater’s Boy,” which had a similar topic and was told in a poignant but hu
morous style. I could do that!

I didn’t care if anyone bought it or not, if anyone wanted or liked it. I wrote it for me, and I used everything I had learned over the last nine years. It sold to the very first editor who read it.nine ten rev front cvr

I dedicated the book to my mother, because it was the worst thing in my life that became the very thing that made my greatest dream come true. I’m not sure there was any angel involved, but maybe.

Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?

NORA: I am alone a lot. And I walk in the woods with my dog a lot. That helps.

I also grew up in a home of artists. Success in my family was never about money. It was always about artistic integrity. I greatly admire artists who have come from banker-type families. Their journey is harder. They have a system they have to buck. I didn’t and for that I am grateful. And poor. 🙂

Meredith: A kind of corollary to the above question: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)?

NORA: No. And I don’t think you should. Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about. I reach as high as I can. I read books I consider to be of the best literary standard, and I try to learn from them. If I get even halfway there, it’s something, right? My goal as a writer is to continue to get better and better. I set higher and higher standards. My goal is to be embarrassed to read my work from ten years ago (this I’ve certainly achieved.) Of course, what one considers good is personal and objective. There is not one single work of art that every single person agrees upon. And thank goodness for that.

Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?

NORA: You’re right. It’s never done but at some point it goes to print. I’ve been back and forth with my editor, copy editor, and proofreader. It’s good to have other people make that decision. I try never to read my work once it’s published. I always want to change something.

I’ve seen friends of mine who mark up, change, edit their hardcover books for readings. I get such a kick out of that because I know how they feel. I’ve had my dad come to my house and cut up his old paintings.

I guess that’s what it is to be an artist.

[Thank you, Nora!]