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Where do you write? Do you have a set place? Or can you write anywhere?
I often write in my home office because it’s convenient and I’m lazy, but I can write anywhere. I’ve written on trains and buses, at the dining room table of my parents’ house in Baltimore, in my husband’s childhood bedroom in Boston, etc.
What time of day do you like to write?
Usually I write during the day, but if I’m involved in what I’m doing and I don’t have any obligation to do something else in the evening, I’ll keep going.
Do you set yourself a time limit? Or do you try to reach a specific word count?
No. I just write. If I’m absorbed in what I am writing, all these things seem beside the point. If I’m not, I don’t think they’d help. I wait until I have something to say. This can be unnerving. I spent the whole decade of my twenties waiting to have something to say, and not knowing if I was kidding myself in believing that there would come a moment when I was “ready” to write.
Do you need quiet to write? Or do you need music? What kind of music?
I get really absorbed in what I am writing so if there is music on, I won’t hear it. Usually I put music on before and after writing, when my emotions are running strong. During times when I’m not working on fiction—like now—I rarely listen to music. Instead I listen to audiobooks. But it seems like the process of writing fiction or maybe doing something creative, temporarily changes something in your brain. At least when I am in a writing phase my craving for music is intense, the way it was when I was a teenager.
What is your number one procrastination tool? Just kidding! It's the Internet, right? Of course it is. So, specifically, what on the Internet is your own personal black hole?
I must be the only person under 40 who isn’t that into the Internet! I’m not proud of that. It makes me feel self-involved and myopic, like I’m not interested in enough things. I check my email, I click on Facebook—but I just look to see if anyone’s messaged me and read whoever’s status update is at the top of the page—and I glance at Twitter and often appreciate a few funny tweets. But all of this takes about five minutes, and then I don’t know what to do next. I see links to pieces I want to read—articles by writers I admire, about, say, youth joblessness or life with an autoimmune disorder. And I want to read them, in theory, but I often seem to put off reading journalism. What I wind up doing instead is reading a novel. I’m a sucker for narrative.
What do you do to break out of a bout of writer's block? Please share any and all tricks.
For me, writer’s block has typically meant I’m not ready to write yet, that I don’t yet have something to say or that I need to think things through more. So I tend to think a lot and wait it out. But I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this. It can be awful. With The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., there was about a four-month period where I just couldn’t figure out how to proceed—I knew what I wanted to happen, but I didn’t know how to make it happen. And I didn’t know if I’d ever figure out a way or if I just wasn’t capable of doing what I wanted to do (show the slow decline of a relationship in a realistic way). I thought I might have to shelve the book, which by then I’d been working on for about two years. I did force myself to try various scenes, most of which were bad—although from those efforts I’d usually write a few lines that I wanted to save. So I guess I was did a bit more than passive thinking, but I certainly wasn’t writing much, and not every day. Still, eventually I started to figure out a way for the thing to work—a series of scenes that I thought would accomplish what I wanted to accomplish without being, as some of my attempts had been, too talky, i.e., simply having the characters explain that the relationship is in decline.
Who is the first person you share your writing with and why do you turn to her or him?
My husband. He’s an amazing editor. He’s great at the sentence level, and good at showing me where I over-explain or am repetitive. But he’s also very sensitive in terms of character and inner life. I am incredibly lucky to have him as a first reader. (I do worry though that I tax him too much—I am always emailing him scenes or paragraphs with deceptively breezy little notes like, “if you have a sec!”)
What is one "rule" that you follow as a writer? Writers always seem to be coming up with lists of rules. Or are you not into rules? Maybe you're not into lists? What's the deal?
I don’t know. I try to use the verb “said” mostly, for dialogue. For better or worse, I try to write for myself—that is, write things that I find funny and smart, and not for some mythical Middle American reader/user of Goodreads/Amazon reviewer. I also revise a lot (I spent four and a half years on Nathaniel P.). I also try and force myself not to bat away my doubts about what I’ve written but instead articulate them to myself and consider their substance. No matter how uncomfortable, usually there is something there worth addressing that I’d miss if I just pushed these thoughts away, or treated them as mere insecurity or anxiety. These doubts can be about anything—character stuff, like addressing possible inconsistencies or re-working moments in which a character’s thoughts or actions seem slightly off, as well structural or writing issues. Sometimes changing the order of scenes feels like the most daunting thing imaginable, but I think getting pacing right is far from trivial. Thinking about pacing means thinking about what each scene is doing, which forces the writer to be very meticulous in his or her thinking.
Do you compulsively edit as you write? Or do you write a lot and go back and then cringe at how many times you repeat the same word over and over? Which, what is that word?
I compulsively edit as I write, and I compulsively edit afterward, and I compulsively edit a year later. Sometimes it’s depressing. I need to push the thought from my head that the scene I’m editing won’t be finished even when I finish it this time—no matter how hard I work now, I’ll come back in six months and see different things to fix, things that the current me is incapable of seeing.
I think I use the word “breathy” a lot.
What is the best advice you've ever received about writing? And, no, it doesn't need to have come from another writer.
Shoot, I don’t know. I didn’t get an MFA and I didn’t know many fiction writers when I wrote my novel, and I didn’t read books about writing. I don’t know that I sought out much advice. I just turned to novels I love and re-read them over and over. There were disadvantages to this method. I felt a little lonely and crazy. When I read Blake Bailey’s terrific biography of Richard Yates, I was relieved and heartened by how obsessively Yates revised. This made me feel less crazy and weird for reading the same scene over and over again—maybe four or five times in a day—because it was only after the fifth time that I’d see what wasn’t the page—that the scene needed a sensory detail or that a certain line was repetitive. So maybe my advice is to read that book? It’s great. It’s called A Tragic Honesty.