I recently stumbled on this interview I gave two years ago that was posted on a site where I was teaching a creative writing course. I figured readers might want a break today from the All Tucson News.
I was in the fourth grade, nine or ten years old, and I rewrote the lyrics to the then-popular song Sixteen Tons, changing it to fit the life and times of Jesse James (we were studying the Wild West). My teacher, Mrs. Kleinman—who dressed like a slut (this was 1956 or thereabouts) in tight black skirts and sweaters, and wore dark red lipstick—flipped out, thought my song was the cleverest thing she’d ever heard, and took it around to show it to the other fourth grade teachers. She dragged me with her from one classroom to another, where I stood beside her feeling awkward—but also proud—as each teacher read it. Watching each of them laugh at the same places in their reading was a major thrill.
This was the first time I’d been the center of so much attention for a skill or an accomplishment. In later years this kind of experience was occasionally repeated: for instance, in high school, someone told me they heard my English teacher reading my essay “Teen Idol,” a spoof on rock stars like Fabian, out loud to the school librarian.
Still, the real reason I became a writer was to capture my mother’s attention. She was always reading, even at the dinner table, and got annoyed if my sister or I interrupted her. I’m convinced I started writing out of desperation, figuring the only way she’d ever pay attention to me was if I wrote books or in magazines. My plan actually worked, though it was too little too late. She saved all my published pieces except the erotica–but even that she insisted on reading (against my wishes), buying herself a copy of the first Herotica book. Occasionally, in later years, I’d send her my work for feedback. She submitted one of my poems, much to my humiliation, to The , with a letter saying she thought it was much better than the poetry they usually published. It bothered her that my poetry and fiction only made it into obscure journals. Like most people, she hadn’t a clue about the writing life; she only knew the mainstream, and thus had no respect for some of the venues in which I was published—not to mention the places where I did readings.
None really, except for a workshop here and there—and not as many of those as I would have liked, because I never had money to pay for them. During my early writing years I was a single mother; to spend money on a workshop, and take the time for it, was almost impossible, both practically and psychologically.
One workshop I did go to was a women’s weekend in Maine led by the poet Joan Larkin. This proved to be a cathartic experience, partly because Joan herself is somewhat fringe — her workshop was more therapeutic than academic — and partly because of where I was in my writing life at the time.
I’d stopped writing fiction after my third novel, the one I most believed in, went through the whole submission/rejection process with a NY agent. I was 36 and convinced this book was my ticket into the New York Times Book Review. Now I have to laugh at my naiveté: the book is way too fringe to have broken into the mainstream at that time (early 1980’s). After 20 or so rejections, including some from smaller publishers I sent it to myself, I was devastated. I didn’t write much of anything for almost five years—and then I went to Joan’s workshop. By the end of the weekend I was ready to write again.
Whatever I’ve learned about writing has come primarily from reading. I used to dive into a book, immerse myself entirely, and swim straight to the end; by osmosis I picked up a clue here and there. I’ve tried to force myself to pay attention to the craft when reading , to figure out how writers do what they do in their novels–but I rarely manage to read that way; I get too involved to pull back and study a book rather than get lost in it.
Regrettably, I rarely read fiction with that kind of intensity anymore; I’ve become too discriminating to fall in love with books so easily. This has been a huge loss.
As for feedback, I’ve always been starved for it. Occasionally I used to ask my sister, who’s a great editor, for her opinion, but I always felt like I was forcing my work on her (it’s a complicated relationship). I tried writing groups a few times, but none of them thrilled me—it seemed I was always the best writer in the group. I’m not bragging– I just always seemed to run into real amateurs.
The issue of sharing my work is fraught with conflict. Most professional writers don’t go to groups, or even ask friends for feedback. Doris Lessing and Philip Roth, my favorite writers, surely don’t, and I can’t even picture them doing so when they were younger. Lessing says a writer should never show her work to friends, since they usually have hidden agendas and ulterior motives. Not that I’m comparing myself to Doris Lessing, believe me—I have a realistic sense of where on the quality scale my writing fits, and it’s not with The Golden Notebook. But I’ve become more and more cautious about who sees my unpublished work. I no longer trust random feedback—with good reason. Some 15 years ago I took a helluva beating in a class taught by Donna Levin at UCBerkeley—the last writing class I’ve ever taken or ever will take again. Eager to share a novel-in-progress, I agreed to be the first person to share my work with the group. I knew the book needed help; I also knew I had a great concept and a “grabby” first chapter.
The feedback I got was absurd. Believe me, I’m not one of these writers who’s attached to my own precious words–but my fellow classmates were mostly neophytes, and their comments were blatantly, embarrassingly, stupid; some were downright mean. I dropped the class.
I frequently feel like I’m burdening people when I ask them to read my work. I even have trouble telling friends to read this blog. My kids don’t read it, and my mother, my most avid reader, died four years ago.
Being poor, without question. I have been poor almost my whole life, except for spurts when I took “real” jobs. Now in my 60s, I see that I’ll never be able to retire, never stop hustling for a buck.
My poverty (and, except in the field of erotica, my obscurity) is a direct result of my failure to network, to schmooze with people in the publishing industry. For me the act of writing comes easily; it’s selling myself that’s so difficult. I don’t do well in groups or at parties, and as time goes by I’m becoming almost agoraphobic.
Lucky for me, along came the blogosphere! I ‘m ecstatic that I can bypass the publishing industry and go directly to readers, even though I don’t make much money at it. When I first started blogging, I tried, but one obstacle after another got in the way—money seems to elude me. I recently started ghostwriting, which turns out to be a lot more lucrative than writing my own books—but even in this area it takes schmoozing and networking to land major gigs.
What has been most rewarding in this journey for you?
The act of writing is my sanctuary. I imagine what other people get from religion must be something like what I get from writing. I think of writing as a place, a sacred space. Writing almost every day keeps me sane, and when I don’t do it for awhile, I become greatly unbalanced.
What’s been particularly grand for me is writing novels. I’ve written five to date, and although none were published, what I got from each experience can’t be measured monetarily. There were times when I was working at the most loathsome jobs, nine-to-five gigs that nearly pushed me over the edge–yet if I got up early every day and wrote before going to work, I’d be almost happy all day….actually, happy is the wrong word: I’d be in a different world entirely. My body would be in some office performing tedious tasks, while inside my head I’d be living in my novel, remembering what I’d written that day, thinking of changes or additions. Living inside my novel made the “real” world I was forced to live in bearable. John Gardner spoke for me when he wrote:
The true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.” –John Gardner
What advice would you like to share with up-n-coming writers?
My advice is just the opposite of what most people say: I’m not a cheerleader for the sanctity of toiling in the glorious field of words. I tell my students that if they don’t love to write, if they don’t feel absolutely compelled to do it, they might as well drop it right now. I’ve had students who don’t love or even like to write, but for some reason feel they “should”; they force themselves to do it; they seem to loathe the process, yet they persist. They have some romantic notion that suffering and mental blocks are an integral part of the process. This, in my opinion, is a damaging myth. The decision to take on writing as one’s life work means resigning yourself to a harder life than most—so if there’s anything else you like doing as much or more than writing, I tell people to do that instead. Not everyone has to write, and if you don’t have to, you’ll be better off relegating it to a minor role in your life, as an occasional hobby or pasttime.
Re-reading this question, I note the “up-n-coming” adjective, and wonder exactly what it means. I thought I was ‘up-n-coming’ when I completed that novel I was so sure would be published. Years later, when I had an article published in Mother Jones, I thought it was my ticket into the magazine market, that I was now an “up-n-coming” magazine writer–but it led me precisely nowhere. I’m not too sure what the term means to other people, but I suspect it’s not connected to making a living. Again, you should be writing only if you feel passionate about it—in that case, there’s no stopping yourself: no matter how poor or unacknowledged you are as a writer, you simply have to do it. For those who are “authentically called to the profession,” there’s no way out.
On the other hand, I think of writing as The Only Way Out—a phrase Anne Tyler used in The Writer on Her Work, an anthology of essays by women writers. For me writing has been the only way out of an overactive mind, and out of intolerable circumstances. It’s been a way out of pain, a way to create order out of chaos and confusion. I can only make sense of life, and bring order to my world, by writing it all down.
- Nobel-Winning Doris Lessing Says What She Wants and is Usually Right [Books] (gawker.com)
- Doris Lessing Knows the Meaning of Life But is Just Witholding It [Books] (gawker.com)