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.

Misfires, Stalls, and Mistakes: Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

by Julie Chibbaro

My interview this week is with an author, Anthony Tognazzini, whom we can all thank for giving me the idea to start our Get Lit Beacon salon. Back in the 1990s, when I moved to Prague with the idea of becoming a writer, he was the leader of a literary salon called Beefstew, which met weekly at a local pub. I brought a story to read, and listened to his writing, and felt my whole idea of what it meant to be a writer shifting. He was one of the first people to give me positive feedback, and also to show me how to demand more of my work. Anthony is the author of many short stories, and the collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These. You can listen to his story “Neighbors” read aloud at WNYC’s Selected Shorts here.

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GLB: Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Or how do you judge your own work (or know if what you’re writing is good?)

AT: My stories aren’t perfect, so no, but I try to make each one as good as it can be. I’m a slow learner, and writing takes me a long time; much of the process is spent just trying to figure out the most basic stuff, like what the story’s really about and how it’s going to unfold. There are a lot of misfires, stalls, and mistakes, a lot of bumbling around. The process feels inefficient and often pointless, but it also helps me discover where the real story is, and pushes the draft, successively, through revision, toward some more fully realized form. Getting rhythm and sound right is really important to me too. But none of that is unusual. All serious writers have high standards in these regards.

As for judging the work, it helps to read it out loud, and to get feedback from readers you trust.

Doubt plays an important part in keeping my standards high. Believing my draft is a piece of shit doubles as a way to figure out how to make it more solid, more honest, and more imaginative. I sometimes worry that I revise so much to compensate for a lack of other gifts. I asked the poet Dean Young if genius was maybe a matter of timing, that what the genius can do in 10 minutes might take a hard-working non-genius 10 years to do. (Dean’s answer, “Maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.”)

But I also know that if I doubt too much or for too long then the work probably isn’t that good, and I need to either quit or totally re-think the story.

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GLB: Do you keep a diary? Or how do you keep track of your thoughts as a writer?

AT: I don’t keep a diary or daily record of my life and thoughts, but I take a lot of notes in notebooks. I also use the Notes function of my iPhone. Some of those iPhone entries are devoted to a story idea, and I’ll just add more to it now and then, sometimes over months or years. Eventually I type those notes into a Word document, adding more, and in this way build bones for a story, collage-style and by accretion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the gaps created by the collage approach create too many narrative absences that are then hard to reconcile. I’d like to move more toward generative, narrative-driven momentum in my writing process.

GLB: How has your writing changed over the years?

AT: I used to write shorter stories, and I think I’ve lost some of the spontaneity and freedom those forms allowed. I’m writing longer stories now, and trying to do more within the stories, so in terms of composition and story construction it’s gotten more complicated. Everything in the process takes about a thousand years.

Certain literary qualities that I believed in when I was younger still hold. I still want the stories to be fun, energetic, subversive, and emotionally impactful.

One key change is that the stories I’m writing for my current book are more concerned with moral questions. Especially around issues of social equality, justice, and individual freedom, the stories have become more moral. That might sound icky and prescriptive, but the morality is philosophical, speculative, a way to explore problems and imagine solutions. In a broad sense, the writing tries more to help. It wants to be of service.

Anthony Tognazzini is the author of the fiction collection I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These (BOA). He has received fellowships from Yaddo, Millay, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He teaches Creative Writing at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 

Year End Roundup – Our Favorite Posts!

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

 

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In only one year, Get Lit Beacon has become an indispensable part of my writing life. Just the chance to spend a couple of hours a month in a room full of people as passionate about words as I am is a gift. Add thought-provoking and inspiring guest speakers and the chance to share work, and the gifts begin to spill out from under the tree. To torture my holiday metaphor, then the cookies arrive each week via blog posts that I gobble as soon as they land in my inbox. I’ve certainly learned from these weekly posts this year. As I looked back, I wondered what Julie, Kristen, Flora and Ruta had learned by writing them, and which posts stood out for them in 2018. I asked, they answered.

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Her interview with Lily Burana is Julie Chibbaro’s choice. In it, she asks Lily what it’s like to go so far out on a limb with her thoughts on so many difficult topics. Lily replies: “I may summon up a lot of nerve … but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life.” She can be brave in her writing because she keeps her private life very private. Something I find especially encouraging coming from an established author in our current world of personal brands and online self-promotion. But I think my favorite part of the interview is what Lily has to say about shitty first drafts. “Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.” Yes!

Kristen Holt-Browning didn’t hesitate when I asked about her favorite post. It’s the one where she talks about reading poetry every day. Partly because she’s still doing it, which means that it’s truly having an impact on her. As she describes it, “in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language.” What stands out for me is how easily poetry can fit into a busy schedule. Like a snack to keep you going, a poem can be a little hit of beauty, emotion, wordplay. And inspiration.

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Tony Early’s interview is Flora Stadler’s choice. Mine, too. The open discussion of how depression affects Tony’s process affected me deeply. First, that he’s willing to put his experience out there, especially if it might help someone else. And then, because I have this fantasy that everyone else is writing daily in a wholly disciplined way and I’m a total slacker. My reasons may not be the same as his, but sometimes I just can’t make myself work. To hear a successful author say that he sometimes goes years without writing was something I really needed to hear.

Having someone from the publishing world give an insider’s glimpse is invaluable. I have learned a lot from Ruta Rimas’s posts. Her favorite, it turns out, isn’t about the industry itself but about improving your writing. In July she reminded us to pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Yeah, yeah, whatever, said my inner bratty teenager. Then I did pick up my copy. Yeah! Yeah! Going back to the basics can be a great catalyst. Now I’m hoping that every word in this post counts.

What stood out for you this year? Let us know in the comments below.

A Little Beacon: Interview with Katie Hellmuth Martin

by Julie Chibbaro

Last month, in October, we were lucky to have two journalists join us for Get Lit Beacon. One of them, blogger, public relations expert, and owner of A Little Beacon Blog, Katie Hellmuth Martin, shares her thoughts about finding a good story:

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Katie Hellmuth Martin

GLB: How do you know when you have a story that really works, that you want to pursue?

Katie: When I hear a statement that has bigger implications, my ears perk up. For instance, during a regular yearly budget negotiation for the trash pickup contract, the attorney representing Royal Carting – the trash collector for Beacon – mentioned that Beacon is no longer getting paid for recycling, but rather is paying to have it picked up. I knew from earlier reporting two years ago that this was a big shift. It was a pretty simple statement said in an off-the-cuff way, but I decided to look into it.

If there is a mystery about who did what, or where something came from, then I know I have interest in a story. It could be anything, such as “what is the Spirit of Beacon Day?” even though by now, I myself know what it is. But as long as I remember that others don’t, then that fresh, wondering spirit will stay alive on A Little Beacon Blog.

GLB: Can you talk a little about how you put together a news story?

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Katie: I have a lot of Text Edit documents open. Either I’ll type thoughts into there, and any URLs I’ve found along the way, or I’ll put them straight into a draft at the blog. If I interview someone, they get their own Text Edit document saved into my Notes folder in my blog, called “A Little Beacon Blog” or ALBB on my computer. I only hand write notes if I’m visiting someone in person who might be put off by a laptop or if I don’t have a laptop.

As I marinate, sometimes I stall because I don’t know if it’s timely enough. Sometimes an idea will hit me for the Subject Line in the email that will go out with the article. When and if that happens, the story gets out much faster because I get that much more excited to share it with my readers.

GLB: How do you stay fresh and not get burned out on the glut of information? How do you see a story as important?

Katie: Sometimes, very often, I miss the boat with timeliness. And that makes me sad. I’ll often try hard to fit in an older story. I see a story as important if I feel that a lot of people didn’t know about it, or if they saw misinformation on social media, and if I can get the facts and the links to back something up. Then the story has stronger legs and will seem important to people’s lives.

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Katie Hellmuth Martin is a writer, blogger, designer, business owner, wife and mama. She has been working in the tech space since 2005 as a website producer, digital content strategist, blogger, and small business owner. She is the co-founder of Tin Shingle, the web-based community and resource making buzz-building affordable and accessible to all small business owners. Katie runs A Little Beacon Blog (www.alittlebeaconblog.com), a blog spotlighting her hometown of Beacon, NY and the local businesses that help it thrive.

Brain in a Basket: Interview with Sarah Herrington

by Julie Chibbaro

A few months ago, I crashed physically: I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t look at my phone or computer, couldn’t be near electronics of any kind, couldn’t even wear my step counter. I had been working hard—clearly, too hard—on my novel for months and months. I had forced myself to sit at my desk for 6 to 8 hours a day, crouched over my computer, churning out pages, even when I didn’t feel like it. I was angry that the book wasn’t coming as fast or as well as I wanted it to. And, maybe I was somehow punishing myself for not being the writer I’d imagined I would, and should be.

Later, huddled in bed with my physical pain, I realized I’d suffered a disconnect between my brain and my body. It wasn’t the first time that had happened to me. So I decided to talk to friend, yogi and author Sarah Herrington about how to approach the relationship between my writing and my physical body.

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Sarah is a yoga teacher and author of Wanderlust: A Modern Yogi’s Guide to Discovering Your Best Self; Om Schooled: A Teacher’s Guide to Yoga in Schools; and Essential Yoga. She is also a poet, and a fabulous journalist whose work has appeared in the LA Times, the New York Times, Interview magazine, Tin House, and Writer’s Digest, among many other publications.

Here are her thoughts on writing and the body, and other topics:

GLB: As a writer, I often feel like a brain in a basket, at times completely forgetting I have a body. You’ve written a number of essays on writing and the body. What does my body have to do with my writing?

Sarah: I have felt that way a lot! As a teen I had my nose in books and often forgot I had a body at all. When I discovered yoga it not only helped heal that split (the word “yoga” means “union,” after all), my writing practice changed. In fact, one of the reasons I started exploring yoga is that, after my first class, I felt a surge of creative energy and went home and wrote all night.

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In my experience it’s helpful to get out of my head and into my heart and body, where I believe the origins of stories live. The body records stories in the form of sensations, and to tap into their power before approaching the realm of language, to me, makes the words more true. And I want my words to be as true as possible. I often practice meditation or yoga before going to my computer. They both quiet my mind, so I can hear my spirit and gut, and hopefully write from there. Getting in touch with my body helps me sense my way into the subconscious as well, which has a lot of interesting writing material. I think writers’ minds are often on fire with ideas and to settle the mind through a body-centered practice helps you focus and follow through.

I’ll also say writing can be quite physically rigorous—think wrists and back. Dance, yoga, walking, taking a nap—something to get into the body—creates a sense of ease which then will hopefully let me write longer.

GLB: Your topics are wide-ranging. For example, you’ve written about ethics in yoga practice. That’s a fascinating subject! Why is this an important issue to write about?

Sarah Herrington

Sarah: Because there are questionable things—and worse—happening! And I believe in the power of talking, and writing, about what is in the shadows. As a woman in yoga and meditation spaces I’ve both experienced and been witness to other practitioners—mostly women—being touched inappropriately, complicated student/ teacher relationships, disrespectful language, and other potentially shady behavior.

I wrote about ethics in student/teacher relationships in particular for the New York Times and Yoga Journal before the #metoo movement hit, and I’m very thankful to see conversations expanding, and communities more consciously addressing this. All seekers, regardless of gender expression, have the right to learn and explore. Of course I feel the same about literary spaces, as well.

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GLB: Can you talk a little about what other writers have influenced you? What has led you on this particular writing path that you’re on?

Sarah: I think of the word “lineage” a lot, because it’s important in yoga and Buddhism, but also art and writing. I feel I’m part of a lineage of both women writers who I admire for using their voice in societies that tried to silence them, and of writers who practiced both Eastern contemplative practices and creative ones. For example, poets and writers like Anne Waldman, Jane Hirshfield, and Allen Ginsberg both meditated and wrote. These people moved between silence and language, and that’s my jam. Then there’s Walt Whitman- great yogi poet who explored the interconnectedness of things. Emerson and Thoreau, whose Transcendentalist work drips with yogic philosophy. There’s also my mentors: Francesca Lia Block, who encouraged heart-centered creativity, and Susan Shapiro, who fired me up and helped me fall in love with essays and being more honest in my work.

There are so many writers, dead and alive, who feel like family, and depending on what’s going on in my life, different ones speak to me in different ways. In this way I’m never alone.

BIO: Sarah Herrington’s essays have appeared in the New York Times LATimes,  Poets and Writers Magazine,  Tin House, Interview Magazine, Slice, San Francisco Chronicle, Writer’s Digest, Yoga Journal and other outlets, and she was selected as one of eight emerging women poets by Oprah Magazine. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2011) and several nonfiction books, including Om Schooled (Addriya Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013). She worked as editor/co-author on Wanderlust: Find Your True North (Rodale, 2015).  She has worked with Girls Write Now mentoring teen girl writers, Gotham Writers Workshop offering student support and coordinating events, and found family at the Bowery Poetry Club. She has been a visiting writer at UCLA, The New School, University of Central Florida and other institutions. She currently works at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.