Four writers on their messy process

Bill Roorbach has instituted a new feature over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, an author interview. The first, with John J. Clayton, marking the appearance of his new novel, Mitzvah Man, is remarkable for being done all in scene—Bill interviewed him at his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—and for Clayton’s thoughts on just what God truly is. Or may be.

On his laborious daily struggle to write:

 I do what I can to avoid writing fiction, because writing fiction is the hardest thing I do.  I answer emails; I fabricate the need to write emails; I read parts of The New York Times on line.  I lie down for five minutes.  Now I write.  When I’ve got something coming, I’m grateful.  I don’t listen to music—I put earplugs in my ears and write.  If nothing is coming or if what’s coming bores me, I take a walk with my cassette recorder and our dog and talk to myself.  Then I go home and jot down notes from what I’ve said.  It’s a good system, because then later or the next day I have something to start from.  I write from 8:30 to 12:30, then have lunch, then do all the secondary stuff like scrounging for readings, sending out old stories, etc.  And reading.  For six months I’ve been writing a novel and having a hard time.  There’s a lot of waste effort.  But I do have faith in my process—if I keep working, something will come.  I can’t make it come, but I’m convinced that it will come.

At Hippocampus Magazine, Amye Archer has a great interview with memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking for Mary. Donofrio lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she founded and currently directs the San Miguel Workshops. Her thoughts on memoir as a form of imaginative literature—nonfiction but not journalism—are astute.

Her routine:

I get up, make coffee, read something spiritual, meditate, do yoga, then write. Some days I skip the yoga, some days I go for an early morning walk. All of the disciplines are in some way in service to the writing. To get me centered, able to focus, less stressed. I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth.

At Catching Days Cynthia Newberry Martin catches up with New Orleans writer Barb Johnson, author of the short story collection More of This World or Maybe Another. As the latest writer featured in Cynthia’s smart series on writers at work, Johnson reflects on writing from the perspective of someone who spent twenty years busting her guts as a carpenter.

Her struggle with herself and against the pernicious Internet:

 I love revision. I love to edit. Those things come easily. But making up the new stuff can be scary. The carpenter part of my brain is always trying to find the most efficient way to do everything, but efficiency has no place in generating new material. It takes however long it takes, and the result is often too ugly for me to believe that one day it will be better, good even. So, as a way to keep myself going, I promise myself that I can do anything I want, anything at all, once I hit that thousand-word mark. I can get up and go hang out with friends or finish the book I’m reading or take a nap if I want to. That nap part of the bargaining is hilarious: I never, ever nap. But when I stare at a blank page, it makes me sleepy, so the promise of a nap always feels meaningful.

. . . It most certainly does not mean screwing around on the Internet. The Internet shortens your attention span. Because of its click-and-drag wizardry, it will leave you feeling impatient with the rather labor-intensive, single-focus nature of writing.  All that clickety-click quickly starves your creativity. Writing requires you to make a car out of cardboard box. The Internet gives you the car, complete with customization options applied by clicking a button. Once you contribute to your writerly stash for the day, then go ahead on, find out what your friends have been up to on Facebook while you’ve been cutting holes in cardboard boxes all day.

Franzen earned those whiskers, buddy

Terry Gross has rebroadcast a Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Franzen about his epic novel Freedom, on the occasion of its paperback edition. Franzen worked nine years on Freedom, producing a very good memoir and a neat essay collection in the meantime while enduring depression and doubt as he slogged through the novel. (He’s disabled the ability of his laptop to connect to the Internet.) I love his fiction and his nonfiction. I can’t join the Franzen haters, despite his recent infuriatingly obtuse and self-centered New Yorker essay about his late friend David Foster Wallace.

In this interview, Franzen talks about stripping his style down—he made a self-publicized shift toward traditional fiction some time ago—and what it cost him to go deeply into his characters:

 I don’t want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can’t seem to be a performer. If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. … And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man’s game a little bit. …

I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.

And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways…. So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis.

 

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8 Comments

Filed under discovery, fiction, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality, working method

8 responses to “Four writers on their messy process

  1. John Wylie

    It’s amazing how Franzen can pull my chain. Starting out by saying he doesn’t want to be a performer. WHAT! Does he really believe that he isn’t a performer? It almost makes me feel as if he is so removed from himself that he fakes himself into thinking he is depressed. On the other hand I love the description of starting out feeling superficial and the with reworking it seems to get deeper. Great post, Richard.

    • I take your point, John. But the way I interpret the performer line is that his fiction is traditional and narrative or plot driven. His language is not clever or lyrical, and his structure is far from post modern. That is, he is a very serious contemporary writer working in the old, proven, middle-ground forms. He is writing for masses of literate readers, such as they are, not for hipsters or academics. He is very much a New York trade press Big Novel writer, and aware he is not doing genre-bending work. All that is behind his comment.

  2. theexile

    Clayton’s routine sounds familiar, especially on my days off from my “real” job—the one that pays the bills. I find myself getting distracted, even when I get into a flow. I write, I go lie down, I read, sometimes I nap. I write. The internet, too, such a distraction. I think because it’s easier to write such things as status updates on Facebook or to get distracted by something you feel you need to research online and then get sucked into the wormhole of clicking on links.

  3. Thanks for sharing the excerpt of Bev’s interview here. Great blog post!

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  5. I was fascinated by all four of these — I love to hear about others’ process and routines, and how they get writing done. Beverly Donofrio’s Riding in Cars with Boys is a marvelous, hilarious memoir, and Franzen always fascinates me — I was interested in John Wylie’s reaction. Franzen can certainly stir people up, more than most it seems. And I love your tar baby analogy, Richard. I just spent a week away from the internet and it freed up so much time — but if I disconnect at home, I won’t be able to get your blog. Too great a price to pay!

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