Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I am a sucker for any book that promises a glimpse into “the writer’s life”—books that, in discussing the daily practices of authors, will (I hope) offer a clear and well-trodden path to I can follow to literary accomplishment.

There are plenty of books that offer this big-picture, life-of-the-writer perspective. I’m often dipping in and out of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from The Paris Review Interviews. Each section opens with a question—“When Did You Begin Writing?,” “How Important Is Plot?,” “Are You Friends with Other Writers?”—and contains brief responses from a variety of writers. Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, devotes chapters to the value of writing partners, of keeping a journal, and of finding one’s own writing rhythm, interspersed with examples drawn from the writing lives of Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, and many others.

And then there’s Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, a book not, at first glance, about how to write—and yet entirely about writing. In her early 50s, Levy is divorced, living in a shabby apartment with her daughters. She writes about lugging a space heater into the shed where she writes. She describes biking home from the grocery store with a chicken tied to the seat—only for the chicken to fall off and get run over by a car (she rescues it, brings it home, and cooks it anyway). She ruminates on the dissolution of her marriage, and the death of her mother, and she worries about paying the bills.

“I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time of my life. I wrote where I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. . . . to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of time. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the move up the hill and the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”

Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life. Levy is a woman, a mother, an ex-wife, a friend. She befriends an elderly neighbor, she reminisces about Greece, she rides a bike up a hill in London. She is cold, she is frustrated, she is elated. And always, she is a writer.

 

The Cost of Living doesn’t offer any tips or schedules. It offers a single, ever-shifting perspective on a specific life of writing. It reminds me that being a writer isn’t about habits or word counts; it’s in the living, and it’s in the writing.

Do you have a favorite book about the writing life? Comment below with the title for a chance to win a free copy of The Cost of Living!

Monogamist Writing: An Interview with Author (and GLB September Guest) Danielle Trussoni

by Julie Chibbaro

We are lucky to live in the Hudson Valley near the Hudson River, which attracts many artists and writers to its luscious shores. Danielle Trussoni, along with her filmmaker husband Hadrien and her two children, is a recent transplant. Danielle will be our Get Lit Beacon guest in September 2018.

angelopolis_fullsize_story1

Danielle is a phenomenal writer; she’s an award-winning memoirist and novelist, the author of the New York Times and international bestsellers Angelology and Angelopolis, as well as the memoirs Falling Through the Earth and The Fortress. She has also written under a pen name. Her books have been translated into over thirty languages. In addition to writing, Danielle co-hosts, along with Walter Kirn, “Writerly,” a podcast devoted to the practical aspects of the writing life.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Danielle, and asked her about the monogamist approach to writing, how and if becoming a parent affected her as a writer, and what part giving birth played in writing her books.

GLB: Your fiction has a wonderful mix of history, mystery, magic, and the imaginary wrapped in a tight literary package. You’re quite prolific; along with fiction, you’ve written memoir and essays. Your latest, Home Sweet Maison, published under the pen name Danielle Postel-Vinay, is a handbook on how to create a beautiful home like the French. My question is: Are you a monogamist writer—meaning, do you work on one project at a time? Or do you dip into various projects all at the same time?5189JQ6eAAL._SX381_BO1,204,203,200_

Danielle: I am definitely a one project at a time kind of writer. I need to concentrate fully on whatever I am working on. I try to be very clear in my mind about what I am doing and when I will be doing it. I am a planner. I have a journal that I keep in which I write down the number of words I write each day. I give myself a timeline for each project, and work to stay within that schedule. I am rigorous when it comes to keeping myself healthy, both physically and mentally. That means that I don’t drink much (if at all) when I’m working on a book. I exercise. I get lots of sleep. And then I show up every day at 8AM at my desk, ready to see where the road leads me.

When you’re writing, you must create your own day every day. It is important to be realistic, but also to challenge yourself. I’m always impressed by writers who are able to produce great work consistently. I believe that happens by keeping focused through desire, discipline and a strict schedule.

GLB: You have a new baby. Do you find that the publishing world treats mothers differently, as a “woman writer” with a baby who is therefore somehow less focused? Did you notice that attitudes were different in France when you lived there toward the question of work-life balance?

Danielle: I chose to keep my pregnancy a secret for the most part. And now that my daughter has been born I don’t post about her or go into the details of motherhood on social media. I don’t believe that my choice to have a baby should affect my work, and I have never allowed it to stand in the way of what I’m doing. I wrote a novel while I was pregnant. I was back at my desk three weeks after my daughter was born. Being a mother has made me more focused. That said, this doesn’t seem to be the case for everyone. I have worked with women agents and editors who have disappeared or become less focused after having a child. This served to make me more determined to keep my career on track.81wdN9coEaL

Another added benefit of having a child is that it allows you to see the world from a different point of view. Suddenly, you are caring for and protecting a very vulnerable human being, one who cannot fend for herself. This shift in perspective is inherently good for fiction writing, as it allows you to examine your perceptions and how they alter.

GLB: You run the podcast “Writerly,” in which you discuss all sorts of subjects of interest to writers. Why did you start this podcast? What do you hope listeners will take away from it?

Danielle: I found that I wanted to talk about writing, but that I was so tired of formulating written sentences by the end of my writing day that I couldn’t begin a blog. I also really hate the word “blog,” and couldn’t bring myself to create something with such a horrible name. Starting a podcast was a way to free myself from the computer screen and still discuss my ideas about writing in language, without being tied to my computer. It is very collaborative, as I co-host Writerly with the author Walter Kirn, and every episode is a kind of riff on a theme related to writing.

My favorite part of the podcast is that it is giving new writers a window into what it is like to be a working writer. It is like sitting in on two professionals having coffee and talking about their days. I wish that I had something like this when I was an MFA student, as it would have given me such a different perspective about what I was doing. I love getting messages from listeners, and sometimes we even read them (and answer them) on the show.

We now have nearly sixty episodes and we’re still finding important topics to discuss. It seems that it will be a never-ending endeavor! You can find the podcast in your app store or at www.writerlypodcast.com.

 

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?

How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

heti

Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

he

The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Craft Book Recommendation: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

By Ruta Rimas

My first post features one of my personal favorite books about writing. Every month, I will recommend a craft book for our wonderful literary group, one that I’ve suggested over the years to various writers with whom I’ve worked on a professional basis. There’s a lot of shelf-space dedicated to the craft and I hope that by offering up books that I’ve found insightful, helpful, practical, and inspirational, they will help you become the writer that you’ve always wanted to be.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Lamott, a bestselling novelist and creative writing teacher, invites you to join her for a one-on-one creative writing workshop. She asks that you to put in some work. The point of writing is to write and Lamott shares useful ideas like using short assignments to jumpstart your process. She jokes about the inevitable — and important — shitty first drafts, all while providing encouraging tidbits like this gem: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

The chapters are short and digestible, filled with self-deprecation, writing exercises, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Lamott’s style of narration is relatable and unpretentious as she uses life-affirming and often hilarious anecdotes to relate the, ahem, pleasures of writing (it’s “like bathing a cat”) while also candidly sharing with us her struggles as a human, her failures as a writer, her compulsion to never stop writing. She’s honest and raw about her journey, sometimes sad, but also uplifting and always wry.

Lamott provides practical exercises and writing prompts about developing character, plot, setting, as well as observations on dialogue (“You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”). There’s mention of the importance of writing groups and beta-readers, as well as a brief note on publication. But this book isn’t about getting published, it’s about writing, and so not much time is spent on questions like “Do I really need an agent?” because that’s not the point of writing.

Lamott’s book is a good reminder to us all: Take it word by word, writers. Just take it word by word.