"I like to imagine, to fantasize, him orchestrating me—and, well, orchestrating others around me. He is telling them what to do. No part of me is unattended. He is ensuring that all the things I want when I am with him—all together an impossible overlap, for he has got only two hands—are possible. Telling them all what I like, and how, and why."
Sleep on it.
This hasn’t ever been something that’s helped me reimagine a stalled story. Or make progress when I’m up against a wall with a scene. In the past, when something’s felt stuck, it’s felt, well, stuck.
Until lately. In the last few weeks, when a story hasn’t seemed to move and that sense of dread has come over me, I’ve thrown my hands up and gotten frustrated and gone to sleep. Except in the morning, I’ve woken up, and gone back to my computer, and the piece has looked brand new. (What the…?) I’ve been able to move forward and finish three several-thousand word shorts in the span of a couple of weeks—something I’ve never done.
I’m grateful for this shift in attitude (and, subsequently, productivity). I don’t know to what it can be attributed, but it feels like a breath of air. Is it a sign of maturing as a writer? A pleasant side effect of doing so many interviews about other writers’ own processes? A subtle nudge from my executive center that it’s time to move on from this novel and take on another major project? Some soft-serve swirl of all three?
I guess I’ll sleep on it.
In the time that I’ve been writing, I’ve gotten a lot of advice. Some of it’s been good. Some of it’s been fine. Some of it I’ve ignored—and other pieces I haven’t even identified as advice. That’s the thing about writing advice, and creative processes in general: art is so personal that you just have to sit and by whatever means you can get something to the page (canvas, screen, whatever) and then replace it with something more effective and polished, you must, must follow it.
When I met Meg Wolitzer in a café in Midtown last month to talk about her new book, The Interestings, for Bookslut, we spent a while talking after the tape recorder was turned off. And Meg gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.
What would happen if you killed the scene in your book that you hated the most?
And, funny enough, the last edit I made in my manuscript before it went back out to agents: I had. And it had made the book better. But it had taken me so much courage to do it—I’d had to think about it as if the world were falling down, as if I were slaughtering children. Yet, all along, I knew the scene was weak. It was stilted. It was there trying to prove a point that I had hammered home in a million other places.
Meg hadn’t said anything so revelatory (hell, it was something I’d already figured out on my own), but the ease with which she said it—just kill it—was like clouds parting to me. Prose you hate will go away. A scene that’s encumbering you and your story will drop out. You may even—gasp!—like your book better. It was something I could do once. Twice. Again and again to stories, future manuscripts, sentences. Like landscaping: and when you spend time grooming, things always look and feel better, don’t they?
Just kill it. She had lots of other wonderful things to say, too: You’ll want to read ‘em.
I am trying very hard to wrap everything of the last several weeks into a big, glittery bow of perspective. To reach for the big, tall glass of grounding and nothing else to keep my feet anchored.
When May hits in just a few days, that’ll mark six years of work on this book. Six years. I’m tired. I know in the grand sceme, keeping perspective, six years isn’t much, especially when it’s your first novel, and you’re just learning to write and craft, when you’re putting the damn thing to paper, when you’re sculpting and shaping and revising and selling. Six years isn’t a lot of time. But it’s been my life, and six years has felt weighty. Six years has been a journey of highs and lows, of signings and almost-hits and misses, and while I know I can’t feel tired, I do. I don’t feel exhausted enough to not want to keep pushing—because I am, and it’s still all I want—but I’m a little soul-weary as I hit another year on the calendar. It’s just…hard, simply. I never thought it wouldn’t be. I’m picking up publications here and there, which is nice—and necessary in a few ways—but fiction is odd in the way that one pushes and pushes and pushes and still can have so little tangible to show for herself, regardless of the work she puts in.
In the same vein, I started my new job at a publishing startup to build a brand new content site. It’s been hard. Of course, no job where you’re literally creating something out of nothing could be easy, but the challenge has been striking. It’s squeezing my perspective on everything I know about myself, my abilities as a writer, editor, and thinker, and I’ve already been pushed in ways I didn’t know I could bend. We don’t yet have a product to show for ourselves, and won’t for a while, and it’s difficult to go home at night knowing I can’t send along a link, and a, “Look, Ma! Here’s the thing for which I’m responsible!” Having faith in your own ideas, and keeping them close to you—trusting them, and trusting that they’ll ride to fruition—is a skill I’m still building out.
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with writers lately—Meg Wolitzer and Ramona Asubuel recently—and they’ve had a lot more effect on me than I think I’ve realized. Just thinking about not only fiction, but one’s own work, her creative pursuit so in depth has gotten me thinking about my own in ways that I am not sure I would have considered before. Some days, it makes me frustrated; others, I’m pushed through with extra perspective and determination. It’s all part of the scope of each project: if this work is your life, it must get done. And it will.
At 6:30 this morning, I woke up to the sound of the free-roaming peacocks screeching in the front yard. If that hadn’t gotten me, it would have been the goats at 6:45, the horse fifteen minutes later, or the ducks and chickens sometime thereafter. The dogs and cats have been mostly good about leaving me alone.
I’ve run away from Brooklyn to my cousins’ farm—they make sea salt—for the rich, writerly detox my body has started to crave. This one is more potent than it’s ever been; in California, I needed to finish the draft of the novel, but this time around, I’m between jobs and books. After three years at Glamour, I walked away with my head held high and my handprint on the site (and some tears, too) for a new venture that’ll start next week. It’s a little terrifying; I’ll still be an editor, but I’ll be starting from scratch. (More TK, as we say.) And the book? The major revise is out to agents—fulls in the hands of incredibly dynamic people I’d be over the moon by whom to be represented, and who I genuinely believe could understand the soul of the book, seeing it not a story of incest, but rather a love story with complicated psychological overtones. So my fingers are crossed. I’ve had some pretty incredible things said about my work in the last couple of weeks from the industry side that have kept me feeling good, and some publications that I’m proud of.
But the bottom line on both fronts? It’s time to forge on both professionally and in my fiction. And that’s why I’m here. Work starts in one week: a new project into which I’m going to throw my all, and if I do my job right, you’ll all know about it. And as painful as it is, book one is out of my hands—literally—so I need to sit down, gather the snippets of book two, which I’ve been researching for nearly a year, gather the sea salt-infused air in my lungs, and shut up and write it.
I have four days to give myself something to be proud of. To turn this island into an office. It’s been almost six years since I started from scratch on a book, and more than three since I did on a job. Hello, clean slate.
Some conversations remind you why writing—though the most solitary activity in which you can engage—is one that can’t thrive without community. When I sat down to interview Kristopher Jansma for Full Stop, it wasn’t the first time we’d talked; a week earlier, we’d sat down at the exact same table, meeting for the first time through a mutual friend who knew talking to Kris, whose novel was a couple of weeks away from debuting, would be helpful. How right he was. Kris has been through his own funny history with changing agents, and also being a young writer in a space of people much older than him: things that have started to define me, whether I want them to or not. It was fantastic and essential.
This week, as we sat down the second time to talk about this book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, which you all must read, I was in a different position than I’d ever been. Sure, Kris was still an author, and I an interviewer—but he’d already been so candid with me. I can’t know how much it changed the interview, but each answer felt inherently connected to the kindness he’d shown the week earlier. And that’s made this one just a little more special to me.
Did you learn anything about your past or yourself, because you’re so intensely defined as a writer?
Yeah. I wanted to be a writer since I was very young, and started writing when I was a little kid… Eventually, like the narrator, I had to come to terms with if this was something I wanted to do when I was a kid, like being a firefighter or something, or was it something that I deeply needed to do for other reasons. Writing is definitely how I process what goes on in my own life. Saying it’s therapeutic is not really enough. It’s necessary. So many great things happen in the course of a month or two, and then they happen and then we forget about them a week later, and we tell them to someone or send an email to a friend, and they fade away, and that really frustrates me, so if something exciting happens, I’m always thinking, Well, I can hold onto this, I can use this in a book, and that’ll make some kind of record of it.
"The truth is that I’m thrilled by the mystery of the whole endeavor: the origin of fiction, the act of writing, the alchemy of invention and experience. I feel sometimes that a single story encompasses my entire life, and that strikes me as wondrous. I want to write and write and write."
An extended piece from my interview with Sam Lipsyte in Full Stop, on writing in New York, and New York writers.
Meredith Turits: When people list the current crop of “New York writers,” that’s where your name often comes up. I want to step back and talk about the culture of writing right now that’s uniquely American—what do you think those defining factors are in 2013 as this book is coming out?
Sam Lipsyte: I don’t know if there are. Maybe looking from the outside, they’re easier to locate, but I don’t feel there are these central tenants anymore. I don’t know what’s American about American writing.
Were there things that were “American” 13 years ago when Venus Drive came out?
No, I’m not saying it’s all changed in 10 years. My experience is that there are a lot of people writing in America…It’s all very disparate. People are interested in new strategies, and they’re going back to older traditions to help develop some of those strategies, but I’d be at a loss to really characterize it. Do you have a feeling about that?
I don’t. I think there’s something happening in New York, but maybe that’s just because I’m entrenched in it, and possessive of it in a way.
What is it?
I guess it’s a feeling, in a way. Now I’m going to get mushy and nostalgic, but to vocalize it is difficult.
Yeah, thanks for asking me to do it. [laughs]
That’s your job, man.
Yeah, it is difficult. Maybe it’s something in New York, maybe it’s something with younger writers.
Maybe this is what it is. A lot of people come to New York who want to write books, like a lot of people go to Hollywood who want to make movies, and so there are a lot of people around who are trying to write, beginning to write, are thinking about writing, talking to other people about writing, going to readings—and I’m kind of getting this through my students by watching them operate with other people—but I’m getting this sense that people still have this great sense of urgency about imaginative writing, and want to figure out this distinct new ways to go about it, or at least want to refresh it for themselves or their cohorts. I definitely sense that, but I also know even among that group of people wildly different visions of what that would look like.
I think that’s fair. Anyone who has that sensibility is disparate in execution and style and taste. I suppose it’s all “literary” through and through, but there’s a erse sensibility about it.
I think so. I haven’t seen one dominant thing, which is good.
Yeah, is that refreshing to you?
Yes, far more than having one style or one group of people rule.
Does your new book feel refreshing to you?
Yeah, personally it does. I can’t speak for other people, but there are things in it I haven’t done before. There are new approaches to older themes, there are new strategies, new voices and for me, kind of a wider spectrum of characters, and there are a few stories in close third with women’s protagonists, which I haven’t published before. It’s something that’s refreshing for me. I hope it’s refreshing for other people.
Photo: Ceridwen Morris
“If you’re sensitive to the world and yourself and to what your full capabilities as a human are and where they fall short, a little bit of self-loathing is a very natural thing, and not something to be swept away.” —Sam Lipsyte
On Saturday, I interviewed Sam Lipsyte for Full Stop. The interview is up today to coincide with the release of The Fun Parts.
It’s a nice birthday present for me in a few ways; first, the interview clip I’m most proud of, yes, but more than anything the conversation was my favorite I’ve ever had—and one of the most impactful for me.
Today, turning 26, marks the official move past a goal I had: Have my book out during my 25th year. And it nearly happened two and a half years ago; a couple of almost-book deals later, I’m back, almost four years to the day from when I finished my first-draft manuscript, now looking for new representation. For the first time in a while, after speaking with Lipsyte, I have some sort of—dare I say it—pound-the-ground hope again. Going into the interview, I thought I knew who he was going to be: cynical, hard-edged, keeping me at a distance. But there was warmth instantly, hope emanating for fiction, for writers, for youth, for people, for connection, especially in a conversation we had that didn’t even end up in the transcript. I sat rapt on the other line, trying to balance myself both as a professional, and as a student—and also as a punk rock girl with a background not so far off from Lipsyte’s own. Then I saw something more: Over the last year, I’d convinced myself into a cynical, hard-edged self, keeping her own distance from connecting with others and fiction, when really, inside, I am likethe Lipsyte I saw in the interview: imbued with energy, momentum, and, well, hope.
Perspective is the constant struggle. Every day feels so momentous as we are living it, just as each word we put on the page feels as we are writing it. When I step back with the courage to remember that a day is just a day—just like 25 was just a number, just like a paragraph is just words if it doesn’t contribute to the forward momentum of a piece, I’ll be better off. I’m hoping that’s what this year will bring me.
As more time passes and more people come forth to speak on the detail of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the conversation about the ownership of ideas continues to grow—even spiral. (That is, I think, the best way to honor Swartz’s legacy.) Are they currency? Is intent to disseminate, to “steal”—if we can go so far as to define the word—every bit as bad as the action itself? Writers, we definitely have a part in this conversation.
U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who prosecuted Swartz, said in 2011, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar.” (For the purpose of this blog post and my rage blackout, I’m glossing over entirely the glaringly archaic, problematic nature of Ortiz’s sentiments.) Well, then what’s stealing when you take into account the mind? I think that’s where we come in.
We fiction writers are a profession who so openly lament stealing, and so guardedly hang on to “borrowing” as okay. As a collective community we seem to have accepted several invisible lines of imitation guidelines under several different names: “genre”, “flattery”, “classic structure”, “pioneer”, “influencer,” etc. Occasionally, we’ll fight in newspaper columns or blogs about resemblance, but seldom we’ll use the word “stealing”. Why is this? Is there some inherent respect in our creative community that other communities are missing? Are we just scared to use the word in a way that others aren’t? Do we simply just not steal, and henceforth have we created a sort of brilliant policing of our own? I’m not convinced that any of these are the answer.
When we take the mind into account, how do we lay claim onto ideas, and at what point do we feel okay to stick a flag into an idea? Is it when it becomes a work? But even then, it’s not so simple. How do we get an entire community bound by an art that’s a) cerebral yet concrete and b) in so many ways disparate because of location and ability and subject matter and cognizance to, well, shake on it?
As I write, I find I only have questions. I’ve had times where I’ve shied away from a certain plot line or metaphor because I’ve said, “Oh, TK author has done that before”, or, “I don’t want to steal that idea from her”. If I may steal a line from myself, ideas are a hell of a thing.
Swartz encouraged us to question the free-flow of information, to take a second look at our choices, and to look deeper at the sources from where our ideas were derived. I don’t know if this means I will be more liberal with my careful “borrowing”, as there’s still a community jury to face. I don’t know if there’s a habit change impending at all. But I suppose the fact that I’m asking questions at all means that he’s being honored in death. If you haven’t yet, consider doing the same.
"Tovah wondered if Sean was the type who peaked just before setting off into the world, the boy the gang bets on before they understand life."
So, some good news:
I was selected to join five by five hundred as one of their featured writers in residence. And that’s cool. For me, it means a place to publish fiction every week—short, thoughtful pieces fewer than five hundred words. I’ll be writing every Sunday, which means today, my first piece went up: Chemistry 101.
I’d be delighted if you’d give it a read at fivebyfivehundred.com (and keep reading for the other six featured writers the rest of the week, who do poetry and non-fiction, as well). We’re here on Tumblr, too; how double-easy we make things.