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Where do you write? Do you have a set place? Or can you write anywhere?
I spent years traveling from coffee shop to coffee shop to write try to write, prep for my fiction workshops, edit my students’ manuscripts, and do the administrative work for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. My children were small, and if they were home, I had to be elsewhere to be able to concentrate. I didn’t get much writing done in those 5+ years before they were old enough for preschool, because any kind of noise was a huge distraction for me. Especially the rock, punk, metal, and other genres of music one hears played over loudspeaker in Brooklyn coffee shops.
When my second child turned two, I made a decision to invest more time and money in my writing. I doubled my babysitter’s hours. I joined the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, which was a total writer’s lifesaver. I wrote a novel—Cutting Teeth, to be published on May 13th, 2014—in nine-and-a-half months, spending every free moment I had in the Writer’s Space worship place-like silence. If novel drafts were worshipped, and if the clicking of keyboard keys were like rosary beads passing under fingertips.
What time of day do you like to write?
I am not a morning person and have been an insomniac since I was a kid. So while my husband, writer Justin Feinstein, wakes at 5 most days to write, I might finish writing at 10 or 11pm. This allows us to take turns watching the children, and also means we see each other mostly on the weekends. And at Brooklyn’s finest literary readings, of course.
When I am in love with a project, when I am riding the wave of revelation—a character’s needs crystallize, the scene that is going to serve as the breaking point in the characters’ relationships writes itself—I can write any time of day, all day. When I am revising (my favorite part of the process), I feel as if I could spend every single moment reworking the draft, and this is when I feel most alive, and also start to wonder if the process is shaving years off my life.
Do you set yourself a time limit? Or do you try to reach a specific word count?
I do not set a time limit or word count. I am a very fast writer in the first draft phase. This means that I probably spend more time revising a draft than many other writers. But I write to enter that subconscious trance-like place—the “zone”—where your imagination takes over and it seems as if the characters are speaking, choosing, acting on their own. Writing is an escape for me, just as reading is. A ticket for a ride in another person’s mind, an experience attainable only in books, whether you are reading and/or writing them. When I’m really in the writing groove, when I have a sense of where the story is headed, what conclusion the book is leading to (I often start novels with a sense of an ending in mind), I can write 10 or more pages a day.
Do you need quiet to write? Or do you need music? What kind of music?
I need total silence to write. I buy orange foam earplugs in bulk and wear them even in the near-silent Writer’s Space. The whirring of the fans overhead and the clicking of keyboard keys is too much for me! I hardly ever listen to music, and never music with words. If I listen to music, it is classical. Sometimes I play the same Chopin album on loop. Did someone say uptight writer?
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?
Ask any of my Facebook friends and they’ll tell you, “Julia is a Facebook addict.” I post way too many pics of my kids, my books, my knitting projects. I really enjoy sharing news about Sackett Street writers’ publications and awards, as well as upcoming classes. And there is a never-ending list of amazing literary events in NYC I feel compelled to share with the Sackett writers. I’ve connected with writers and readers all over the world through social media, and for a closeted introvert (I can spend only so many hours with physical company), social media is a perfect way to be social, but on your own terms. It allows a break from the solitude of a writer’s life.
When I’m not writing or running Sackett Street, or hanging out with my kids, I’m knitting baby blankets for my literary mama-to-be friends while I listen to audiobooks—heavy on the true crime. And I spend hours every week scrolling through the lovely knitting patterns (many free) on ravelry.com.
What do you do to break out of a bout of writer's block? Please share any and all tricks.
This is a tough one because it really depends on the writer and their situation. When I am especially overwhelmed with work (non-writing work), and/or parenthood, I can beat myself up because I’m not writing, and that can cause anxiety that builds into what we call a “block.” If it is a long-term block (and I didn’t write for years after my MFA), I might have to take a temporary break. So I read and read some more. Reading will make you a better writer even if you aren’t writing. When you return to writing—after a month, six months, even years—you will be a better writer. We grow in awareness and perspective every day, and a “better” person makes a “better” writer. I believe writing becomes easier, and more meaningful, the more you write and the more you live.
A quick fix to writer’s block is watching an inspiring film or a TV series you love. When I feel my writing momentum lag, I watch an episode of a particularly high stakes show chockfull of anti-heroes, like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, or any British cop show (I’m a sucker for crime TV)—a show where the darkest corner of our existential anxiety is served up. Although I might not be working in that genre, the intensity gets my writerly blood flowing.
Who is the first person you share your writing with and why do you turn to her or him?
My literary BFF is Caeli Wolfson Widger, one of my very first students back in the earliest days (2003) of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. I like to say that Caeli and I “share a reader’s brain”—we both interpret fiction through a psychological filter, using terms associated with point-of-view to describe our reading experiences. In short, we speak the same craft language, which makes Caeli a perfect editor for me. She can describe what my writing makes her feel and think in a language I understand. Caeli was a crucial reader for me in the final drafts of Cutting Teeth. Caeli’s own novel—Real Happy Family—will be out on March 18th. It is a riveting novel about L.A., dysfunctional families and reality TV, and I can’t wait to share it with my favorite readers.
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?
If it—a technique, a detail, an unconventional novel structure, an unlikable character—works, it works. Don’t overthink it. When I first started writing Cutting Teeth, which takes place over a weekend in 2011, I tried to avoid using the Internet in the novel’s text. When I finally gave in, incorporating texts, message boards, porn sites, chat-room dialogue, I realized that the “language” of the Internet was key in revealing the secretive lives many contemporary parents lead, and also a great tool for revealing necessary information in a unique, but also concrete, way.
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 write really fast—partly because I have so little time, but also because I am impatient, especially in early drafts when so much of the process is tied to waiting for the story to reveal itself. In that first draft I am writing to inform myself. Why is this story worth telling? What is it about? What happens next? Who are these characters? Serious anticipatory anxiety. Still, I know I have to bash on because the next day could be a busy Sackett Street-work day—reading student applications, hiring instructors, sending out welcome emails a week before a class begins. Or one of my kids might get sick and have to miss school.
In many ways, my writing has benefitted from this busy work/writing/family balance because I treasure the time I have to write and really take advantage of it. There’s simply no time to lose. This makes writing feel more like a privilege vs. a chore. It also makes me write more efficiently.
What is the best advice you've ever received about writing? And, no, it doesn't need to have come from another writer.
I worked with Marilynne Robinson during my two years (2000-2002) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA program. She urged us to treat our characters with compassion, and to avoid making them suffer unless the story demanded it. This advice became the foundation for my writing, my teaching of writing, and a lesson that can stretch outside the workshop walls into everyday life.
Second was the advice Kurt Vonnegut gave our Iowa class back in 2002. “Don’t write for a living,” he said, “Write to write.” And he suggested we become insurance salesman and accountants, and referenced the famous poet/pediatrician William Carlos Williams.