The very styles of writing that I struggle with the most are also the types of writing that I can’t live without.
ALISA BOWMAN is the author of several books and has the distinction of being one of the country’s most accomplished ghost writers. Seven of her ghost written and co-written books have landed on the New York Times Best seller lists, with several remaining there for 20 weeks or more and selling hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies. She has written for Parade, Family Circle, Women’s Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Prevention and many other national outlets, and she’s appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS Early Show, Fox, Discovery Health and more. She is currently working on Be Fearless, with psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, slated to be published in the next year, with foreign rights already sold in numerous markets [CONGRATS!].
Meredith: When you begin, how deep in you is the knowingness of where you’re going? Is it a place of stillness or chaos? A place that attracts or repels (of which you can’t seem to stay away!)!
ALISA: This depends on what I’m writing and how straightforward it is. I pre-write my blog posts as I walk my dog. By the time I sit down at the keyboard, I already know the beginning and the basic theme. I can write those quickly, and they usually turn out how I envisioned them. This is true for most service writing, too. Essays are a different story. For some reason I just can’t seem to pre-write these. I might sit down with a topic, but I find I must explore an essay with my fingers, and I often get lost more than a few times. There’s a lot of deleting and starting over. There’s a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of “I think I’m done” only to come back to it and realize that I’m not done at all. My memoir had the same confusion to it. Yet, oddly, I’m attracted to this confusion like a moth is attracted to a lightbulb. The very styles of writing that I struggle with the most are also the types of writing that I can’t live without.
Meredith: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Oh, and what is it not?
ALISA: I would agree. I think arriving is probably publication day. For me, that day is either torture or just anticlimactic. The writing is where the joy is. I love piecing words together. I love coming up with analogies that will either make people laugh or understand a topic in a new way. I love that creative process. It’s all about discovery. It’s a journey–a trip. Sure there are moments when the writing isn’t as exciting. Maybe I’m tired and the words aren’t flowing. Maybe an editor has suggested a change that I can’t wrap my mind around. Or maybe I just can’t figure out how to solve a problem. But those moments are like being lost in a beautiful country while on vacation. Publication day? It’s like coming home from that vacation to 800 emails and a stack of bills. On publication day, it’s time to talk about the writing and tell others about it. Just as I’ve never been comfortable talking about my vacations after the fact, I’m also not comfortable talking about my writing after the fact. I want people to read it. I don’t want to tell them why they should read it. I do, of course, because it’s a necessary part of the process, but I don’t enjoy it.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you? Or is it more like that feeling of walking outside on a particular kind of day at a particular time and feeling like you, your body and being is at one with the air around you?
ALISA: I think inspiration can feel different at different times. It can feel like the juicy build up to an orgasm. It can feel hot and angry. It can feel sad and weepy. At it’s essence, there’s a flow state, a time when the world around me shrinks away and all that is left is words and the sounds of my fingers against the keyboard.
Meredith: When it comes to writing is your heart or gut often overlooked by the chatter of something else…the mind, for example (or something/someone external)? Or is it the other way around?
ALISA: I write by switching back and forth somewhat seamlessly from my heart to my brain and back again. I write first drafts with my heart. There’s a flow, a knowing. I don’t judge the words on first drafts. I just put them on the screen. Then once they are there, I switch to primarily using my mind because editing is more mathematical and logical. Editing is about what’s missing, what doesn’t make sense, and what doesn’t advance the story or piece. At times, I get too much in my mind and too little in my heart though. This is especially true when it comes to self promotion. I try to plot and plan and force certain results rather than just doing what feels right and seeing how it all turns out. I’m trying to evolve into someone who can self promote with her heart. We’ll see if I can pull that off! (I think that was my mind that wrote that last sentence!)
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?
ALISA: I often tell people that gut feelings are faulty, especially when it comes to what’s viable. Gut feelings are less about what people will want to read and more about what I would enjoy writing. There’s a huge disconnect. I would enjoy writing many things that people would not want to read. There are many things that people love to read — romance novels, thrillers, true crime — that I don’t want to write.
When I tell authors this, they usually tell me, “Well, your gut feelings seem to be consistently accurate.” I suppose there’s something to that. I do have a good track record, especially when it comes to co-authoring. At the same time, I have a half finished novel and several half finished memoirs on my computer. I won’t finish them because I realized part way through that they could not be executed for various reasons. I’ve come up with dozens of ideas for books that were seriously bad ideas. People don’t know those bad ideas because I didn’t pursue them. So, on paper, it might seem as if my gut feelings are always right. In reality, no one finds out about the gut feelings that are wrong because they rarely turn into books or essays or magazine articles.
All of that said, I think it’s beautiful to explore writing that might not be viable from a commercial standpoint. I’m doing that right now with a memoir. I’m pretty sure I will never be able to sell it to a publisher, and I’m also pretty sure that it will have a small audience if I self publish. But the story is there and it is compelling me to write it. Even if only a few people ever enjoy reading it, it will still be worth writing it. Sometimes you just have to ignore the idea of what’s viable and what will sell and just write for the sake of writing.
What Alisa never gets to say: “I was supposed to go to art school. Some parents push their kids to become lawyers and doctors. My mother is a visual artist. She wanted me to be one, too. I had scholarships to two different universities to major in art. I secretly applied to a third as a journalism major, and that’s where I attended school. I stopped painting and drawing as soon as I left home for college, something that my mother and her artist friends often say is a “shame.” She and her friends saw me as a sort of art prodigy, and they feel I walked away from a calling. I like to think that art and writing are just two different mediums for the same expression. I might not be creating with a paintbrush, but I’m still creating and changing lives based on those creations. For me there’s no shame in that.”