At our sister site, Longreads, we don’t just publish and curate excellent original longform writing — we also spend time talking to writers, interviewing them to dig more deeply into particular facets of their stories and to learn more about their writing process.
Their interviews are educational and motivating — like a master class in brief — and show us the range of ways writers approach their craft. Here are some inspiring tidbits from a few recent interviews that will help you overcome any of your own doubts and frustrations when faced with a blank page.
Want a full master class? Take a look at the Chekhov-Saunders Humanity Kit, created by writer Maria Bustillos after sitting in on an MFA class with George Saunders at Syracuse University.
On writing dreams…
But when it comes to the seed of the book, or being called to write about it, that happened in childhood. My Grandma Betty, one of the main characters of my story, tells me that she remembers a time when we were driving and I was in the passenger seat and I was eight, and I said, “Grandma, someday I’ll write a book about you.” The most touching part is that when she told me, I asked her, “did you believe me when I said that?” And she said, “yes, I did, I just knew you would.” Even though we weren’t a bookish family, my mom being really the only reader in the whole crew other than myself, I had this compulsion or calling, and apparently it seemed plausible enough that she thought it would come to pass, and 30 years later it did.
On finding your form…
I was a private student of Sarah Manguso’s and learned a lot from her about concision and how it is possible to make something very weighty out of only a few words or paragraphs. I like the term “staging”, because I feel that my writing has been informed by my background as a ballet dancer. In dance, you are constantly arranging and rearranging your body in space. This is how I treated the various sections of the book. I moved them around until they seemed fluid like a dance.
The next several drafts of the book, I used a variety of tricks to thwart my own worst impulses. I wrote drafts by hand and threw them away. There was a draft where I turned white every paragraph of what I’d written, so it would blend into the document, so I couldn’t stare at what I’d done. That was how I’d keep going. For a few years, I was in an email group of friends and we’d commit to writing, say, 300 words a day. That helped. At the five-year mark, I was at another residency when, in a fit of despair, I opened a new document and I wrote maybe two sentences of a different book. I’d imagined it would be so much easier but then I thought no, the other book still feels alive to me, even if it’s not where I need it to be.
On writing about real people…
Always, even when writing about perfect strangers, I have real — maybe even higher than is professionally advised — empathy for my sources. I often write about people who are not used to being written about or are marginalized by society. Often, they are at once so happy to share their stories and have someone care, and at the same time maybe don’t understand what it means to have your story be read by so many people. So I always try to say, over and over, this is what I’m understanding and this is how I’m going to present it, does it feel right to you?
This was a process of so many years with my immediate family that I felt very confident about their blessings. But I will say that with my stepparents in particular, I was writing about them in the context of my upbringing, and that necessarily means there’s a more narrow glimpse of them by way of events that involve my own life. I don’t regret anything that I presented, but I feel sensitivity to the fact that they have much bigger stories that put their own decisions and lives into a more whole and compassionate context, stories that just by necessity couldn’t appear in the book.
On writing as acting…
I guess that’s the position I am often writing a story from, trying to make fun of something that I’m feeling so that I can deflate it or understand it in some way. So that story in particular, I had the original position of the story, and that third person that’s looking in on the ex-husband, and then, it was easy to imitate the imitation to create the voice of the ex-wife writer who’s writing the story within the story.
There’s this mime teacher called Jacques Lecoq who has a bunch of different writing about teaching mime technique. He was a very famous mime teacher. And he has all different sorts of exercises for actors.
I feel like when I’m writing in a place that’s really authentic and honest, it does feel a little bit like acting in a way. And then, I’m creating some sort of character, and then I’m just performing that character, and typing what they say.
On showing up…
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A habit of mine that has carried over from when I was religious is that, for most of the 10 years of my novel, I worked on it every day. A lot of those days it wasn’t going well. I think sometimes about this line from Dean Young: “You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.” There’s something about showing up for the work every day instead of waiting to be inspired.
Is there a writer whose guidance has helped you with your own work? We’d love to know who!