It’s all about trusting your subconscious to tell you the right thing, the thing that you need.
Margaret Dilloway is the award-winning author of SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS and HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, all published by Putnam Books. The e-Book companion to SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, THE TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA, will publish in fall 2015.
Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
Margaret: I think we get stuck when we start telling ourselves, “No.” I used to study improv, and the first thing they teach you is to always say, “Yes, and.” You’re not allowed to say no. So if your scene partner says, “We’re flying to Jupiter,” you don’t say, “No, we’re flying to Mars,” you say, “Yes, and we’re taking our guinea pigs with us.” You say yes, and then you build on the yes. [love!>] It’s all about trusting your subconscious to tell you the right thing, the thing that you need.
In writing, if you sit there second-guessing all your ideas, pretty soon you’re blocked. If you write with responsiveness– the “yes, and–” you’re open to whatever crazy ideas your subconscious gives you. You just let it all come out. I also liken it to when you were a little kid, playing “let’s pretend.” Remember how easy that was? You never put the kibosh on your ideas back then! Besides, the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect– that’s what editing is for.
Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens?
Margaret: I’ve never had NOTHING happen. I try to write a little bit– even if it’s awful and it gets cut later. Most of the time, you end up with something you can use.
But sometimes you need to let an idea percolate for a bit before it’s ready to come out. Let your subconscious solve your problem by taking a break. I go for a walk or go do a chore or perform some other work task. Daydreaming is part of the process.
Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?
Margaret: It’s hard. While I’m writing I might be thinking, “Hmmm, I shouldn’t use this curse word or my MIL will be mad at me,” or, “I wonder if the book clubs will like it better if I include the octopus?” or whatever. You have these little things poking at you.
You have to remind yourself to write in service of the story. If you try to please other people, it will end up pleasing nobody– it turns into a big mishmash. Writing a novel is not done by committee.
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)?
Margaret: I try not to compare myself to other writers. I just write like me. I’ve always had this particular style–friends who read my high school writing tell me that I “sound” the same now, except I’m more refined. You know, that’s really all we have as writers– the way we tell the story, because every story’s already been told, right? I’m not the first person to say that.
That being said, other writers do influence my work. There are certain writers who inspire you to do better and get you excited. After I read ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, I thought, I’m going to try to make my descriptions as beautiful as Doerr’s! I didn’t try to copy him, but I did try to step up my game.
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?
Margaret: I generally know when a book needs to end– not too long after the climax. If I reread it and get bored, then I know it needs cutting.
When I’m done, I’m always a little sad, and relieved. And panicky and excited, because I know it’s time to start a new project.
Margaret Dilloway lives in San Diego with her family. She has a degree in studio art from Scripps College. She enjoys building dollhouses but does not enjoy owning them.