Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.

George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Lee McIntyre: Post-Truth & the Perfect Fraud of Deepfake Video

By Flora Stadler

I remember once, back when I was a Very Serious Poet recently graduated from liberal arts college, I was talking to my mother about graduate school and she asked if I would consider journalism.

“That’s also writing,” she’d said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I replied, all righteous.

But 10 years later—after falling into a job as an editor at a local magazine and becoming a true believer in the connection between news and democracy—I did go to graduate school for journalism. There, I got an unexpected education in media literacy: I learned not only how to report news, but how to consume it—how to understand the sometimes subtle difference between fact and implication, the importance of source, the way language and even statistics can be manipulated.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for where we are now. News media, social media—it’s overwhelming and, honestly, discouraging.

In this bloody election cycle, I’m going to fall back on reporting and bring some nonfiction focus into the Get Lit online salon. I need truth to counter this confusing, divisive and downright Orwellian time, as we learn to consume new forms of media responsibly in the age of post-truth politics.

In my quest to separate facts from alternative facts, I found the refreshingly straightforward Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, a very good (and kind of scary) book examining the path that led us here, and how we can tread carefully on it.

McIntyre isn’t just a nonfiction author. He also had interesting things to say about his fiction writing, a genre he described as “ethical thriller,” and how it impacted his work on this book: “Quite a number of philosophers read mysteries, all the way back to Wittgenstein. And one day, I was reading [John] Grisham and I thought, ‘I can do this, how hard can it be?’ It’s very hard, very hard indeed. But it’s made me better at writing nonfiction because some of the techniques used in fiction, like show don’t tell, really work in nonfiction. Sometimes what’s the most persuasive is to tell somebody a story. So Post-Truth would’ve been a very different book if I hadn’t written fiction… I had to tell a story that made sense in the overall arc of the argument.”

But let’s get to the juicy nonfiction, and to the root of my question:

Since you’ve written the book Post-Truth, what’s the one thing you’re seeing now that worries you most, and what should we be doing as news/social media producers and consumers to mitigate it?

“The most common question I get is, ‘Where do we go now? What can we do next?’ In order to answer the question, you have to play the ball where it lies, and it’s a slightly different place right now than it was when I turned in the manuscript for the book [in May 2017].

By far, the thing that I’m the most worried about is the extent to which post-truth is a precursor for an authoritarian government. We’re seeing more and more that lying by public officials—not just in the U.S., but in other countries—is a precursor for oppression and silencing of journalists and, in some cases, violence against journalists. Political leaders do that when they’re getting ready to take over, getting ready to accrete more power, and they want to shut up the truth-tellers.

The reason I’m more worried about this than I was a year-and-a-half ago is not only that political events have changed, but fake news has changed. At the time I wrote Post-Truth, the main kind of fake news we were concerned with was the type that was being produced in Russian troll farms and other places, that were these naked attempts to try to insert false stories into the news stream and get us to believe them. That still exists, but now Trump is making false accusations of fake news against legitimate news organizations, which can have a kind of ricochet effect.

And with the technological advances, it’s now possible to produce audio and audiovisual fake news. There’s a company called Lyrebird that has a very legitimate business: What they try to do is take a one-minute audio sample and use that to create a vocal dictionary. So they put it through a speech synthesizer and get you to say anything you need to say. Now, if you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s a good thing. But if you’re someone trying to produce fake news, that’s a terrible thing, because you can use someone’s voice to try to get them to say whatever you need to say.

There’s another project out of Stanford, a video project called Face2Face. What they can do, which is straight out of Orwell, is take a person who’s being videotaped on a screen, put a mask on a person who’s standing just offstage, and through a technology called ‘face capture’ make the image that’s being projected on the screen conform to the facial expressions of the person wearing the face mask, rather than the person in the screen. In real time, they’ll be able to digitally alter the facial expression of the person who is giving the speech. When that happens, I don’t know what happens next. At that point, it may be that people are so cynical and demoralized that they think everything is fake. And that puts us at enormous risk for authoritarian rule.

I think the only thing that we can do is be aware that it exists. We were enormously behind the curve on text- and picture-based fake news, and it’s taken us two years to get to the level of public education and literacy where people are beginning to be skeptical about news. I think it will take that long or longer for people to get to a similar level of skepticism about the new technology, which is called Deepfake tech. It is so compelling that even if you know it’s fake, it appeals to a certain cognitive bias that we have in our brain, where we might enjoy watching it. I remember after the Parkland tragedy, there was a fake photo that went around of Emma González ripping the Constitution in half. It was completely Photoshopped and fake. The sad part of it is that even people who knew it was fake shared it and loved it. So just imagine what will happen when we can share audio and video. Even if it’s fake, it’s still going to appeal to that cognitive bias that we have.”

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and ethics instructor at Harvard Extension School. His many wonderful books on truth, science and philosophy can be ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Tony Earley: Writing Past the Sucker Punch

By Flora Stadler


Most writers I know would say their relationship to writing is complicated. Periods of inspiration make the world feel as if it’s unfolding just for you. But inspiration comes when it wants, a lot like sadness. Tony Earley, author of the beautiful novel Jim the Boy, and its equally dazzling sequel The Blue Star, spoke with me about his own relationship to inspiration and sadness. Our conversation was more than a single question-and-answer, but the fundamental question was:

How does depression affect your writing process?

“What it’s turning out to be, if you look at my work, there’s usually a big gap in books and that’s due primarily to depressive episodes. So I’ll go through two to three years at a time and write very little. My writing is through windows of lucidity between bouts of depression. It feels exhilarating—’Wow, I’ve forgotten how much fun this is!’—and I remember why I started doing it.

My stories tend to be about wistful, sad people… I guess my characters are often kind of emotionally me, if not recognizably autobiographically me. I think when I first started writing about Jim, I just killed the father off—because my father wasn’t a great father and it wasn’t easy growing up in his house. But I replaced the father with the three really kind uncles. What I think I did was I wrote the childhood that I wished I’d had.

[The depression] always kind of sucker punches me, because when I come out of it and I’m writing and the writing’s going so well, I think, ‘OK, this time it’s going to last.’ It’s kind of sudden, but also it’s not something I realized that happened until I looked back at it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh I’m starting to feel better.’ Until suddenly one day, I’m starting to write and my head is filled with ideas.

There’s this sort of narrow band of good level-ness, and whenever I can get into that band, that’s when I write. I tend not to write after I’ve published because I’m just so giddy, and I tend not to write when I’m depressed. I’ve come to accept that that’s just part of the deal, and at this point I don’t see any new deal coming, so I’m learning to accept that this is just the process. And if it means publishing a book every eight years instead of every three or four years, that’s just how it’s going to be. I wrote a story in July and it was the first fiction I’d written at all in two years. And during that two years, I still teach and I’m still a husband and a father, but I’m not an artist.

I sort of like talking about this in that if there’s a possibility that hearing my story might help somebody else—if there is a benefit to this, that’s the benefit. If there’s anyone who, for whatever ungodly reason, romanticizes depression in artists—that really hits me wrong. But I have good radar for fellow travelers, particularly students, and I’ll pull them aside and initiate a conversation and maybe help somebody else get farther down the road.”

Tony Earley is the Samuel Milton Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of several books, including the story collections, Here We Are in Paradise and Mr. Tall, as well as the novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star. His books can be ordered from Binnacle Books in Beacon.

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?