I Used to be a Writer

By Flora Stadler

I’m a writer. That’s what I tell myself when I’m explaining a poem to my son or just editing copy at work. And when I’m buying groceries or cleaning the litterbox or reading Facebook on my phone, I think, “I’m not this, I’m a writer.”

I’ve been telling myself this for 30 years, but it’s never been less true than now.

I spent this summer not writing, which is the exact opposite of what I intended to do. In the meantime, I thought a lot about Kristen Holt-Browning’s spot-on post, Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing, and about the idea that “Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life.” I wonder when writing stopped being my life, and why.

As my children got older and a bit more independent, I told myself that soon there would be more space for writing. So why have I filled that space with so many other things?

There was a time about two years ago when writing took up a lot more space in my life. I felt flooded with inspiration, fearless about the outcome, something close to a state of grace. I could pick at the details of a day and pull meaningful patterns from everywhere, I could find lyricism in everything. It didn’t even matter to me (much) if it was good—it felt good and made sense. I was just starting a novel then, flush with love for the first draft. But then it got hard.

If I’m honest, I think the uphill part of the job—editing and pulling all the pieces I’d made into a cohesive story arc—is what stopped me. After all, the first round of writing can be breathless fun. It’s the discipline of a polished draft that’s the real work, and I wonder if I have the stomach for it. Am I a writer because that’s how I see myself?

Am I not a writer because I’m lazy?

Even if you love it, writing is work. You have to want to be dragged out and exhausted by that work. I did at one time, but I’ve lost the plot. I often don’t feel smart enough to finish the story I’ve started. But I miss being a writer. And it’s not about wanting to tell myself that I’m one. I want that feeling of making the world new on the page.

I’m about 175 pages into a science fiction novel that I’ve built page by page, with characters I’ve come to love. I imagine them stuck mid-gesture, waiting for me to give them something to do. The thought fills me with dread.

Have you been here? What did you do? What’s the one thing that can start the gears, especially when those gears are rusty? What’s the one thing that brings you back, fires you up, fills you with that state of grace where creation comes without fear?

Marie Brennan: On Crushing Disappointment

By Flora Stadler

I was pretty far into adulthood before I realized that failure wasn’t my cue to slink off in shame from something. Learning feels like failure if you’re not comfortable making mistakes.

My late, great journalism professor William Serrin liked to jokingly say, “No indignity is too great.” For me, it meant you should dare to try and fail, to put yourself out there. You should dare to ask. “No” is nothing, and “Yes” is always possible. Keep looking for the yes.

So when I asked the very accomplished fantasy author and essayist Marie Brennan—a Harvard grad whose writing awards are too numerous to list here—if she would agree to an interview, I was thrilled to find the yes.

Her philosophy below is reflected in her popular Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following the adventures of a dragon naturalist who’s accomplished in her own right and doesn’t let fear of failure slow her down. You’ll find these and Brennan’s many other books at Indiebound.

Following the theme of failure and disappointment, I asked her:

What’s the one thing you’ve learned about failure, either in your personal life or your career, that has been the most useful to you?

“For a lot of people, failure looks like a wall. The end of the road. A sign that you should turn around and go back.

I see it as a hurdle.

Like many professional writers, I have a stack of rejection letters for my short stories and novels. Back before self-publishing became a viable option, there were basically two possible responses to those rejections. Walk away… or pick yourself up and try again. Try harder. Revise the story, or write a new one, a *better* one. Level up.

People talk about editors as ‘gatekeepers’ and mean the word negatively, but it also has its positive side. Having somebody say ‘not good enough yet’ isn’t a condemnation; it’s a challenge. I never got away from having an initial reaction of crushing disappointment—I still haven’t—but after that fades, my motto is ‘Oh yeah? Watch *this*.’

I love the fact that self-publishing has opened doors for so many people, and especially for stories that don’t fit the traditional market—but it can also let you get away with coasting. There’s nobody but yourself standing between you and the upload button. It’s a bit like lifting weights: if you only ever lift things that are easy for you, then you won’t gain much strength. It’s possible to be your own gatekeeper, of course, but it takes a lot of self-discipline, because it’s always tempting to say ‘eh, good enough.’

Whether it’s in writing or some other field, though, we all need hurdles. New obstacles, not to make ourselves stop, but to make us leap higher. Because the satisfaction when you clear that bar is tremendous, and so is the reward.”

Carol Anshaw: Not Wasting My Readers’ Time

By Flora Stadler

Carry the One

I read Carol Anshaw backward, starting with her latest book, Carry the One, a few years ago. In it, Anshaw (a novelist and painter) captures the way time shifts everything, how perspective changes like a trick of light. She shows that addiction and brilliance and beauty can all be contained in one person. I’ve thought a lot about it since, and wondered (as I do with books I love) how the writer managed to see it and build it. Then I recently read her 1992 novel Aquamarine, and I could see the seeds of similar themes. So when I got a chance to ask the author herself about her process, I wanted to know:

What’s the one thing you would say has changed most about your writing process in the decades since you began, and how would you compare that to your painting?

Carol Anshaw
Photo: John Reilly

“I was not a very promising writer at first. Maudlin story lines. Broad humor. Smart aleck tone. But I kept at it and got better. I am still capable of making bad sentences but I discovered a strength in revision. Dorothy Parker said that for every five words she wrote she changed seven. That’s pretty much my method. That’s the process that gets me to better sentences. Also, along the way of all these years, my subject matter got more nuanced as a result of an expanding world view, having seen more of people living life and how that works and doesn’t for them. I’ve also traveled a ton, and read two tons. Now I start out from a place of greater confidence and authority. Getting to The End is only half of the process for me. From there I shape the narrative. Compress, then put in more, then compress again. This makes for a dense sort of prose where everything counts, every scene is necessary (but hopefully not expected). I’m always thinking about not wasting my readers’ time or giving them something they feel they’ve seen before. I have a contract with them the minute they open the book.

As for my painting, it is also about making narratives. But I think where my obsessive tinkering helps my fiction, it might make my paintings too fussy. I’m working on developing a looser style. I’m still very much a student painter.”

You can find Carol Anshaw’s novels at Indiebound, and see her paintings here. Her latest novel, Right After the Weather, will be out next year.

Paul Lisicky: An Essay, a Poem, a Story, and a Song

By Flora Stadler

Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:

What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?

“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?

So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.

But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, along with Paul Lisicky’s other books, is available at Indiebound. His next novel, Later, is coming in 2020 from Graywolf Press.

Poet & Essayist Cynthia Cruz

By Flora Stadler

In this series, I’ll ask writers a question about “the one.” That one thing could be about their writing process, their personal experiences, or even writers they admire. The idea is to focus on a detail that (hopefully) reveals more about their writing life. My first installment in this series is with a friend and writer who I greatly admire, Cynthia Cruz. She is a poet, essayist, professor and critic who seems to flow seamlessly between many forms of writing. I first met her nearly 20 years ago as a poet, and that lyricism has always felt like the backbone of her work. This is why I asked her:

What’s the one thing writing poetry gives you that essays or prose cannot?

“I write about things I don’t know the answers to—both with essays and with poetry—but that doesn’t mean I come to any clean conclusions or answers in the end. Both allow me to pursue questions I don’t know the answers to, to move a tiny bit nearer to knowing. Having said that, poetry allows me to use gaps, ruptures, and space which in turn allow for a folding in of hesitation and silence; a kind of troubling and haunting that prose does not allow or at least does not allow to the same extent.

What has consumed me from the start is the question of how to write about experiences either personal or historical that cannot be said. Here, I am thinking of experiences that can’t be articulated either because they can only be expressed through space, gaps, or ruptures. Trauma, for example, fractures and fragments experience by definition. Any attempt at explaining trauma through concise syntax in which there occur beginning, middle and end, will fail. Prose insists on the complete sentence. When it does not, it veers into the lyric which I call poetry.

So poetry, like visual art, with, for instance the montage or collage or film still, does allow for these fragments and stutters, these ways of simulating silence or stammering. Poetry also allows for what I call a haunting—for allowing a space or rupture for what cannot be articulated but must be acknowledged. In my forthcoming collection, Dregs, for instance, I am using space on the page, as well as iterations of the stutter or other hesitations to enact these places where what must be said but cannot be must remain as gaps to allow for the acknowledgment of their absence.”

Find samples of Cynthia Cruz’s poetry here, and look for her fifth book of poems, Dregs, this fall.