Do you have any advice for young writers?
My advice is so basic. Number one: Read. I feel like it’s amazing how many people I know who want to be writers who don’t really read. I’m not convinced someone wants to be a writer if they don’t read. I don’t think the problem is that they need to read more; I think they might need to readjust their life goals. Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work. To be reading good things. I feel that you should be reading what you want to write. Nothing less.
The second thing is, I feel like getting in the habit of it is huge. I guess that was my one accomplishment of those two years [with the first failed novel]— making it a routine is a gigantic part of it.
One corollary of that— and this is probably the most important thing for me— is being willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen. Let it happen!
I mean, when I was writing The Keep, my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: “How can I disappoint?”
So, just write and be happy that you did it. You stuck to the routine. You’re kind of holding the place so that you’re present for when something good is ready to come.
And then it’s all about rewriting. Re-visiting, re-visiting and re-writing. I think it’s a mistake to be too precious about one’s words. I feel the same way about the criticism. You’re not going to break! It’s pretty tough to stick it out, to do this. So, get used to it! People are going to not like it. Okay! You’ll live. So, it’s bad. Okay. You’ll live! They said ‘no.’ You know what? Everyone gets said ‘no’ to a thousand times. If that is really something that you can’t tolerate, this may not work.
Yes, that is huge. That is my biggest gift.
Read the whole Jennifer Egan interview here.
Do you remember the first time you were paid for your writing?
Yes. I got paid $50 by the American Legion, for writing an essay on “What It Means to be An American.” As I remember, it was a total know-your-audience kiss-up piece. You know: “My pride is based on my feeling of feeling proud about the beauty and pride our country does, in fact (because it is so peerless), really make me feel!” Second place went to this African-American kid who wrote about his love for America in light of his complicated feelings vis-à-vis racism. An early lesson that merit does not always get fairly rewarded. For me and for him, I would imagine.
How would you say your engineering background inspired your writing? Do you regret not jumping into the “fold” earlier, so to speak, or are you glad you had a lot of time to find your path?
It was actually really great to get submerged in a completely non-literary world. There was a specialized language, and moral system, in that world, which, I’d say, honed my idea of what “beautiful” language might be. Plus it gave me a kind of special access to certain environments: Kodak Park in Rochester, for example. But also of course, special access to certain psychological environments: the crushing boredom that must be endured because you have a beloved little family at home to support; being the low man on a very small humiliating totem pole, etc etc; coming to understand that the cliché of the corporate bad guy was just that: a cliché. I got to know some people in big corporations who were both really nice people and in positions where they occasionally did some questionable things (which didn’t seem questionable to them, necessarily, but expedient/in service of a bigger cause, etc). So I guess I’m saying that it was eye-opening to have your easy, first dream denied you, and to find yourself living, workwise, in what would have been, even a few years earlier, a nightmare – and then find that you could do it, and it would yield amazing insights and all sorts of odd tonalities of beauty.
What do you tell your students about trying to make a living as a writer? Any immediate advice?
Well, this is sort of old-fartish advice – that is, the type of advice someone who already has a tenure-track job would give—but I do mean it: I think the only defensible position is to sort of say to hell with making a living and put all your energy into making something new, that seems beautiful to you – that is, to try your best to push your work into a new/iconic place and let the chips fall where they may. Otherwise you’re putting the cart before the horse, and it’s very possible that the emphasis on making a living (or being viable, or commercial, etc etc) might cause you to miss a vital path – to be, that is, both (a) lame and (b) unpublished.
And then another thing that I think bears mentioning is that writing is a great, wonderful vocation even if nothing comes of it, or comes of it four books after you want it to come, or comes smaller than you wished for – like anything worth doing, it refuses to be controlled, so puts you in the position of watching it closely, being humble, resilient, and all of that.
Read more here.
I realized there were two types of writers. There were writers that started at a young age because they had something in them that had to come out. These spoken word poets were writing because they had this scream inside of them and they had to get it out in such a way that someone else would receive it. That doesn’t mean they loved to read. They might. They may or may not have even been interested in other people’s screams. But this is where it came from, their urge to write.
Then there’s this other group of people that, usually in high school, first year of college, they read something that impacts them so much that they want to be part of that tradition. More often, I think you see them in MFA programs. They love literature, so they want to be writers.
One is not better than the other. People come from different places. I was coming out of a need to communicate, because I was in an abusive home and lived in group homes for years, and I didn’t have anybody to tell. That’s always been why I’ve written, to communicate, not because I loved literature.
Read the rest of Elliott’s wisdom here.
I also was never considered the “it” writer in any of my classes. At times, I was actually quite clearly the opposite of the “it” writer. I remember one guy in class announcing before the discussion of one of my essays that he wasn’t going to be participating in my workshop because he didn’t think I was a real writer. And another guy once brought a Burger King bag into class and proceeded to loudly eat his way through a chicken sandwich during my workshop. I also had one teacher ask me if I was a bullshit artist, and another tell me I had no passion. So, not to pile up the woe-is-me tales, but by the time I left school I wasn’t really thinking that I would pursue writing as a career. I didn’t think I was talented. I still loved writing, and still found it fun, but the world of nonfiction wasn’t itself exciting to me at that time.
But I should also say that I’m a bit unromantic when it comes to writing. I don’t believe in the bullshitty notion of a “writing life.” I think there’s no such thing. I think the only time we are living a so-called “writer’s life” is when we are actually writing. When we are sitting down and pounding our heads in hopes of jiggling out of them the conclusion of a sentence. When I’m at the gym I’m not thinking “I am so less vain than all of these other people because I live the life of a writer.” Or when I’m eating a great meal I don’t think that my experience of it is any better than Joe Schmoe’s experience of it just because I’ve read MFK Fisher or know a few more clever words that could be used to describe what we’re eating. Or if I get irresponsibly drunk some night, I don’t justify it by listing the endless array of lushes who also happened to be writers. It’s true that I see the world differently from how some other people see the world, and that I process my observations of that world differently too. But I don’t do that because I’ve been mystically gifted with the spirit of a writer; I’m a writer, instead, because of how I see the world. Because it’s the outlet that works best for me. We’re writers when we’re writing, and convincing ourselves of anything else is just justifying our procrastination.
So rejection happens. But I think it’s often a good sign when it happens. I’m one of the least optimistic souls around, but I think that when we find ourselves as artists bumping up against “no,” that is a pretty good indication that we’re doing our job, that we’re challenging ourselves, and possibly challenging our readers too. Not alienating them, but simply asking them to do things as readers that they might not normally be asked to do in the hopes that something during that experience will be inspiring or exciting. Of course, not everything that we produce while we’re challenging ourselves is going to be very good. But the point isn’t to keep churning out the same old polished story or essay or poem to the same old audience that’s eagerly awaiting with the same old applause. If that were the point of art I think we’d have to call ourselves something other than artists. I think we’d have to call ourselves manufacturers, or possibly whores. Doing something real and something new and something that is genuinely consequential requires taking risks, and when you take risks you flirt with rejection.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
Yes: Fail. Spend your time in school exploring as many different forms and voices as possible. You will fall on your face a lot more times than you’ll succeed, but you will slowly discover who you are as a writer by forcing yourself to stretch and to destabilize your understanding of who you think you are. And this will help you grow. And if you repeat the process enough times you’ll grow some more. But it will be frustrating, and painful, and you will be surrounded by people who’ll claim to have already discovered their “signature style,” and they’ll keep producing slightly different versions of the same beautiful poem or story or essay, but no one will really notice this because that poem or story or essay will be so fucking beautiful. And these will probably be the students who get praised a lot by your teachers, and maybe they’ll be the ones who first publish really well, and win contests, and get jobs. But in a few years—after a first book or maybe two books—those writers will disappear, the market for that one poem or story or essay will dry up, and those writers still won’t have learned how to evolve, how to push themselves beyond what they already know how to do, how to make what they have to say matter . . . most especially to themselves. And then the world will start noticing you.
Or, the other possibility is that these folks will become the most famous writers in America, and you’ll just have to live with that.
Read even more from Mr. D’Agata here.
There’s nothing mystical about it, it’s my work. I think of it like a dancer. If a dancer decides to take off a week, say, and then she puts on a piece of music and tries to dance, she’s not going to have the agility and fluidity she had when she was exercising those muscles every day. In fact, she might even hurt herself, pull a muscle, fall on her face. It’s the same with writing. It’s the muscles, the exercise, the limberness, the constant moving inside the language, the crafting of a beautiful structure built with words–the doing of it, day after day, that builds agility. Maybe other writers can just jump into it and do it now and then, but I can’t and I have yet to meet a good writer who does it in that spotty way.
One thing I try to get my students to understand is: the habit of art. A habit is not something you think of like: “is this fun, do I feel like it today, can I fit it into my schedule?” It is a discipline. Some days it’s hard, some days it goes a little easier.
Even on easy days, the next day when I read what I’ve written I know it needs another draft. I’ve found that a piece of writing always needs one more draft than I want to give it. And this is the difference: a writer gives it. It you are more in love with the idea of being a writer, of seeing your name in print, than the writing itself, you dismiss having to go at it again: “It’s good because I wrote it. This is original Alvarez.” If you really are about the writing, then the writing needs tinkering, Alvarez better get to work, even if she grumbles and groans and swears up and down, right before she settles in to do one more revision.
Read more from Alvarez here.
If you can think back to the time before your breakthrough, what might a regular day have looked like for you?
To me, it’s a false dichotomy: breakthrough vs. non-breakthrough. I’m now working on my thirteenth book and I’m trying to break through it. My day in 2010 is pretty much the same as it was in 1974. I try to write, swim, do errands, answer mail, read, teach. Thrilling, I know. Predictable beyond belief, wedded to routine, workaholic in the extreme. You do the same thing for 40 years, you make a little progress.
Any general advice for young writers just starting out?
Write yourself naked. In exile. And in blood.
Read more here.
How do you look back on those poor years?
My parents had four daughters in seven years and not much money. I had been in New York for some time and had met my husband when my two youngest sisters moved to the city to go to graduate school and shared an apartment on the Bowery. I told my parents that if they could afford to help my sisters with the rent, their experience in New York City would be completely different from mine—better. When my sister told me over the phone that my parents had agreed to pay their rent, I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I felt more sorry for my former struggling self than I ever had while I was struggling. It was as if all the pain and pressure of having been so desperately poor returned to me in that sudden flood of tears.
I was not at all self-pitying during that era of my life, however. I didn’t think it would last forever. I had some conviction, unwarranted, as it may have been, that it was a phase of my life that would end. Genuine, grinding poverty is something else. Genuine, grinding poverty means that you look ahead into the future and all you see is more of the same. I did not feel that.
Keep reading here.
So what “other things” did you think you might want to do?
Other things I wanted to be included a pro quarterback, a nameless drifter in the French Foreign Legion, and a European film director. Later I fronted an art rock band. But I was always drawn back to writing, to playing with language, telling stories. I wanted to write because I loved to read, and I wanted to do what the writers of those books had done. I wrote a story when I was fifteen about a middle-aged man having a terrible divorce and recalling his days as high school shot put champion. I actually was a high school shot-putter so I didn’t have to research that part. The rest I had no handle on whatsoever. It was utter crap, but I was hooked. I’d written a lot of science fiction before that, but this was different. I’d stumbled into mid-century American realism! Seemed like two minutes later I was reading post-modern novels, then modernist classics, then back and forward some more. Now a universe began to reveal itself. One book would lead you to the next. One book would support the next, or negate it. You could return to the books you had already read with new eyes. You could love and hate all of this stuff, but the main thing is you started to read as a writer as well as a reader, or even student. You took what you needed, left the carcass behind and kept moving. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I was in deep.
Was there ever a time you thought about quitting writing and focusing on something else? What stopped you?
I really had nothing else to focus on. When you don’t have a fallback, you have no choice but to fall forward. Or, I guess, sideways, which I still do sometimes.
Read the rest here!
What were you like as a student?
I was one of those back-of-class, sitting there with his arms folded, fuck you kind of guys. The kind of people I really hate as a teacher and yet for some reason sort of attract. [laughs] I had ambitions, I had pretensions, I sort of prided myself back then as being this up-against-the-wall radical experimentalist, railing against any kind of bourgeois realism. And I considered it a point of pride that nobody understood what I was doing, and I would have been crushed if they had. Of course I was crushed anyway. I pursued [writing], I did, but I didn’t get much better. I just kept wanting it, basically.
After you got out of Berkeley what was your next step?
I got out of college and I wanted it enough that I decided I wouldn’t take a full time job. I waited tables for about a year and worked as the janitor at an orthodox synagogue in Berkeley. As a reform Jew, I was a shabbos goy in their eyes. Looking back I was a pretty bad janitor. Also a pretty bad waiter. After a year or so I got a part time job at this school in the Sunset District that used to be an anti-bussing school. It was a horrible institution. It was in a church; there were no walls, just blackboards used as room dividers. And the school’s roots were based in the fact that no parents wanted their kids bussed to schools with minorities, even though the school was 30% minorities anyway.
It was a really confused place. And I didn’t know anything, I just had this kind of gee-wiz tune running through my head. The first day I was there teaching 8th grade English. This kid comes up to me, bigger than I was, swastika tattoo on his arm, and he said, “No offense, we just really don’t want you here.”
He said, “No offense” first. That’s nice.
Yeah, I wanted to say, “I don’t want me here either.” That would be perfect, actually, if they paid me anyway. But I hung in there, made that kid my own special project. I got him to read the first book he’d ever read in his life: The Maltese Falcon. His mother came up to me at the end of the year and said he loved The Maltese Falcon so much and it was the first book he’d ever read. I should’ve given him Mein Kampf, that would’ve gotten a good reaction.
Any parting words of encouragement/advice?
The thing I would say to you is that all the stuff will sort out, and when it gets really sorted out you may even find yourself missing this period when everything was all up in the air, not yet knowable or known. And so I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel this way as long as you can remain productive.
I would say even in its impossibility its worth doing. I probably would’ve had more fun and more of a sense of well being if I’d stayed in Northern California in my 20s. That agreed with me more than living in a tiny studio on 110th street. Even now I kind of dream of that studio, and it kind of haunts me, but I don’t know that I would undo it if I could.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up?
I threw out so many drafts of my first book. One time when I was living in Park Slope I threw out a draft of it and, like a good Oberlin graduate, I recycled it. I put it into a bin and the whole thing went flying in the wind. So I’m walking through the neighborhood and my opus is scattered all over Seventh Avenue! And it says Shteyngart at the top of each page. I walked into this blizzard of my own work and thought: “I’m an idiot. This is never going to happen.”
What are your thoughts looking back?
Before you publish your first book there is a sense that you are living an adventure. Something great can happen, something terrible can happen, and nothing can happen, which is the worst of all. But it is exciting. When your book is published and you’ve achieved what you wanted to achieve, the struggle isn’t there to the same extent. It’s not as fun and you feel like it’s work. Knowing you’ll be paid for it makes it more professional, and things are already more professionalized from how they used to be when Hemingway and Dos Passos and Fitzgerald roamed the globe. Because now everyone has this MFA degree and is obsessed with health care, insurance, pension. Once you enter the ranks of successful writers, you hand over the feeling that anything can happen. Then it becomes: I have to work so that I can keep up my lifestyle.
They weren’t such bad times. I was drunk too much. But I really felt young. And I knew it every second. Everything mattered. Every party was interesting. Every conversation was interesting. Everything mattered. Now everything is just pretty much set.
Read the rest here.
When did you become interested in writing?
I remember hanging out with this friend of mine, Eric. I think we were ten. We would take off our shirts and rampage through neighborhoods. Streak. This was in Illinois, where the streaking was good. At some point Eric said what he wanted to be when he grew up, which I have of course forgotten, and I said I wanted to be a writer. I think that was the first time I had ever said or even thought that.
When did you become serious about writing?
In late junior high and high school I wrote poems of heartbreak, which were gambits of seduction.
You would share these poems?
Oh, yeah. It was a way to try to get girls to like me. I think it had pretty much a zero success rate. Same as now. My rhetorical strategy was blunt. I favored self-pity as a mode. It just came naturally to me.
When I was writing in high school I thought I’d made an enormously important discovery about people. I decided that when I was talking to them or when they were talking to me, I would not look them in the eye. I would look at their mouths. I was only interested in the way people’s mouths make their shapes and I decided that if you looked carefully at someone’s mouth when they were talking, you would know everything you needed to know. I tried to write a poem about this. And I think it rhymed.
Read some more here.
After the data entry job in Portland, I had a job working in a Nike warehouse. That was just a straight warehouse job, boxing up shoes and things like that. But I was so eager to write that I somehow let my boss know. My boss was a nineteen year-old kid who was probably making ten times what I was making as a warehouse guy. What a weird idea, really, that I sidled up to this nineteen year old dude, who’d probably dropped out of high school, and was like, “Hey man, I want to be a writer.” Anyway, somehow I let him know that I knew how to write. So he would pull me off the line and I would write his emails for him. I would pack all of my frustrated literary ambition into this kid’s emails.
What did the emails sound like?
It was like: “Hey Larry, we need more of the number 3 boxes on line 6.” And my version would be like: “Dear Larry, I have been contemplating the matter regarding those boxes on line six and my thoughts were as follows…”
What would have been on your grocery list from back then?
In the band days we were doing a lot of oatmeal. My innovation with oatmeal was to throw in a spoonful of chunky peanut butter. I think Susan Stamberg or someone had plugged that as a complete protein on NPR. In the band days it was actually really important to figure out different calorie vectors.
But I was trying to cook OK. I remember making complicated curries in my early twenties. I really liked making pies and cookies. Loved making desert. And meatloaf became a stand-by pretty early on. I would make my own granola. And I made my own hummus— that was a great money saver. You make it out by the pound. It was interesting feeling so besieged financially. It was the same thing when I was at graduate school at Columbia. Those were real flood-relief quantities of hummus. Seems like I had the whole town mapped in terms of where you could get a good deal on cheese or bok choy or coffee. I had an entire values circuit in lower Manhattan. It would take me three hours to go shopping because it felt worth it to walk fourteen blocks to save fifty cents on a bag of oats.
What was life like for you during your so-called salad days?
I’m afraid my salad days consisted, so to speak, of smallish piles of rather wilted lettuce. I lived with a roommate on East 84th St. in New York, in an apartment where the roaches outnumbered the paying tenants by a ratio of several thousand to one. My roommate was an editorial assistant whose daily schedule was enviably structured. She strode briskly from our apartment each morning, dressed for success, long before I’d even risen and put on my working garb of old jeans and a T-shirt. We cooked inexpensive meals from the Joy of Cooking my mother had sent me, often purchasing ingredients from the Hungarian food stores that still predominated in our neighborhood in the mid-70s. I stayed up very late every night, occasionally galvanized to action but mostly staring at my typewriter and failing to write.
Read on here.
But I was still feeling like it was all a fluke. When I applied to MFA programs, I got into quite a few. I got into Iowa, and I swore I believed it was a mistake. One of my friends called me up on the phone, disguised his voice, and was like, “I’m sorry, but we had your file confused…” My first thought was: “That is your mistake and I’m coming anyway!” Then I was like, “Mark, you son of a bitch!”
What an awful thing to do!
Yeah, it was like the trap door just opened up in my chest. Like, “Yep, that’s what I thought this whole time, that it was a fluke.”
I felt that way the whole first year I was at Iowa. I was a public school kid from the Midwest, and suddenly I’m at Iowa in workshop with all these East Coast/West Coast kids with huge educations. So I locked myself up in the library for a year and didn’t come out. I just wrote as hard as I could because I was still so scared that it would all be taken away from me.
My friends still make fun of me for the places that I live because I always seem to choose these dank, basement dungeons for myself. Like, when I lived in Cincinnati, I lived in another basement. It was unfinished, so my closet was a steel rod. My idea was always: why do I even need to furnish this place, I’ll be out of here in three years.
Three years is a long time live in a place!
See, that’s what my friends were saying to me, and I’ve never really thought that way. It’s like my apartment now. It’s faculty housing, and it’s beautiful, but I don’t really have anything in there.
You have a cat.
I have a cat. She’s followed me from Cincinnati. That’s where I adopted her because I needed a friend in Cincinnati. So I had to go out and own one, basically.
Where did you live when you were a graduate student in Iowa?
In Iowa, I lived in a place where a lot of other writers were actually living. Robyn Schiff was there, Nick Twemlow I think, Lana Moussa, just a bunch of us were living there in separate apartments. I didn’t realize it until the spring, but my wall, where my bed was, had a beehive in it. A huge beehive. I woke up one morning being stung. There were bees in my bed. Exterminators came out and sprayed it, but the bees just kept coming back in. I had to start sleeping in the other room until it got cold again. It was horrible, really. I would go to class with all these bee stings. I looked like I’d been abused, or had abused myself. It caused really weird bee dreams.
What was it like, living there, beyond the bees?
It was weird living with all those other writers. We were in class together during the day, but we were so competitive too, like a competitive family. And our teachers had gone to Iowa. And you’re thinking, one day maybe I’ll go back and teach here at Iowa…. I remember a teacher telling a story in class, “When I was a student here I was so poor I wouldn’t spend any money on food. I just bought a bag of rice and flavored it with a beef heart.” I mean, what? Oh my god, right?
Any final words?
All you can do is stick with it. And enjoy the time you have now when you are relatively unknown because no one is asking you for anything specific. There is nothing hanging over you. You are in a world right now when anything can happen. Enjoy that. Once you start publishing you really have to work to recreate that open feeling, because you immediately start getting placed. And now, you’re unplaced— unplaceable even. And that is a good thing. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
One is just to be wary of proven paths to success, because your own path may be a variant that does not look promising. Often I think the well-trodden path is not the most conducive to originality. And particularly in writing, originality is extremely important. There is just a huge value in being able to articulate your own take on the world and to risk a bit of transgression for the sake of interest. I think there is some truth to the idea that some of the best art is made in resistance to something. And so maybe my advice to young writers is to be attentive to that which makes you want to resist and consider what form your resistance might take.