Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Eric Olsen

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

If you write—and like me, love talking about writing and writers and the writing process—you need to read Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer’s We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1974-1978). It’s like being a fly on the wall at the Iowa workshop. Great storytelling. (In fact, I can’t seem to get this blog post done because I can’t stop reading the chapter about John Cheever, who was teaching at Iowa at the time.)

So read the book. But first, read about Eric Olsen’s writerhead because, like the book, it’s kinda brilliant. (Just wait ’til you get to his answer to question #3…)

(FYI…today I’m giving away a copy of We Wanted to be Writers. Leave a comment to enter the giveaway.)

The Scoop About We Wanted to Be Writers

We Wanted to be Writers is a rollicking and insightful blend of original interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with nearly thirty graduates and teachers at the now legendary Iowa Writers’ Workshop between 1974 and 1978. Among the talents that emerged in those years—writing, criticizing, drinking, and debating in the classrooms and barrooms of Iowa City—were the younger versions of writers who became John Irving, Jane Smiley, T. C. Boyle, Michelle Huneven, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jennie Fields, Joy Harjo, Joe Haldeman, and many others. It is chock full of insights and a treasure trove of inspiration for all writers, readers, history lovers, and anyone who ever ‘wanted to be a writer.'” [from amazon.com]

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“As a longtime fan of many of the writers who have passed through the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was thrilled to discover We Wanted to Be Writers. I had hopes that it would speak to avid readers like me as well as to writers and writing teachers, and I wasn’t disappointed. I read the entire book aloud to my husband on a nine-hour road trip from Oregon to California. Both of us were delighted by the clarity of the individuals’ voices as they spoke with candor and insight of the influences that have informed their work: the events that led them to Iowa, their experience in the workshop, and the vicissitudes of a writer’s life after they left.” ~ K. Girsch (amazon.com review)

“The scuttlebutt about life at the school is a pleasurable diversion while reading the good stuff about writing.” ~ Schuyler T. Wallace (amazon.com review)

First Sentence

“In 1977, sixty days after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a master of fine arts in imaginative writing, I was a stockbroker trainee in Beverly Hills.” [Chapter 1, “The Creative Enterprise,” by Glenn Schaeffer]


And now, Eric’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

We talk quite a bit about this in We Wanted to Be Writers, how we get into that state of mind when the words are flowing and that pesky internal editor has shut up for once. For a lot of us, me included, it seems as if the state of mind we hope for, long for, and organize our writing space and time around is that moment when the work begins to write itself, and we’re just along for the ride. Or as C. G. Jung put it, “The work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust which creates Goethe.” T. S. Eliot said something similar: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The irony here is that artists of all sorts are known for their outsized egos, but what they often crave above all else is to escape that ego, lose control.

Jung offers a poet as an example, and Eliot himself is a poet so maybe they’re both talking about poetic inspiration in particular, but I think inspiration is inspiration. Of course, when I’m working on nonfiction, it’s usually for a buck and with a deadline, so it’s not as if I have the luxury of coaxing some particular state of mind. I just crank the stuff out. Still, even then, sometimes the work seems to take on a life of its own and carries you along; I live for those moments.

When I’m going to work on fiction, which for me is a somewhat different process from nonfiction, I’ll light a St. Jude candle. St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. St. Frances de Sales is the official patron saint of writers, but St. Jude seems more appropriate, if you ask me. He had his head lopped off in 65 CE in Lebanon. St. Jude is often depicted with a flame around his head, or coming out of the top of it. This flame is meant to indicate that he received the Holy Spirit. I think of the flame as symbolizing that inspiration we all hope and pray for. There’s something rather writerly about that flame, and the decapitation, which is a little like a rejection slip for all your troubles.

I blow out the candle when I’m done working for the day. Thus these candles can last for days, or weeks, a sorry commentary on how often I work on fiction. The idea of the candle is to remind me that I’m not writing fiction because I hope to sell it and make a buck but because, well, I guess because I can’t help myself. Anyway, it’s my little attempt to set the time I work on fiction apart from other time. It’s a little sign for the Muses that, OK, I’m ready, I’m waiting, bring it on….

I have the candle right in front of me at my desk, and also a retablo of St. Jude hanging on the wall, so I’m always looking at the poor guy no matter what I’m working on, and so at least I’m thinking about my fiction, even if I’m not working on any at the moment. It’s helpful to have that little nagging reminder….

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

I lack the discipline to turn off my phone and the little annoying “ping” my computer makes when a new email has plopped into my in box, so I’m always getting interrupted. But that “zone,” that state of “flow,” when the work it carrying me along, is such a tenuous and fleeting thing at any time that it always comes and goes on its own, and I guess I’ve learned to accept the interruptions and shifts in mood or state of mind as part of the process. The really important thing for me is to keep my butt in the chair and put words on the “page.” Even when the words aren’t coming, or they’re coming and my internal editor is telling me they suck, at least I’m making myself available to a good idea. So I don’t have a lot of ups and downs.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

As I mentioned, I think of this state of mind as “going along for the ride.” You’re standing by the side of a two-lane country road out in the middle of nowhere, thumb out, waiting for a ride, and along comes a 1957 Cadillac convertible, pink, and driving it is a beautiful young woman (the Muse, of course), and she pulls over and tells you to get in, and you ask, “Where you heading?” and she says, “We’ll see.” So you get in and you’re not sure where you’re going but you don’t care because it’s wonderful to go along for the ride, and you settle back into that plush leather seat and watch the countryside flow past through half-closed eyes. But it doesn’t last long. Just as you’re getting comfy, the beautiful young woman pulls off the road and parks in front of a rundown one-pump gas station with a big, faded Coca Cola sign on top and goes inside, and a couple minutes later she comes out with a bag of butter-toffee peanuts. She tosses the car keys to you and tells you to drive. She gets in on the passenger side and opens the bag and starts eating the peanuts. She doesn’t offer you any. You’re driving now, but you have no idea where you’re going.


Eric Olsen was born and raised in Oakland—go A’s!—California and started college as a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, like all ambitious young freshmen at the time. His interest in medicine lasted about halfway through his first quiz in “orgo.” He finished college many years and false starts later with a BA in Comparative Literature (Classical Greek, a long story and we won’t get into that here). He received his MFA in fiction in 1977.

With Glenn Schaeffer, he co-founded in 2000 and then directed the International Institute of Modern Letters, a literary think tank that helped writers who were victims of censorship and persecution. Eric also helped establish the first American City of Asylum, in Las Vegas, an Institute program. The Institute also ran programs to support emerging writers in this country and abroad.

Prior, Eric served as executive editor of custom publishing at Time Inc. Health, a TimeWarner company, and he worked as a freelance journalist.

Eric has published hundreds of magazine articles, a few short stories, and six nonfiction books, including We Wanted to Be Writers. He served as a Teaching/Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1976-77), and after leaving, he received a James A. Michener Fellowship for fiction. Most recently, his writing has delved into art and design.

Eric continues, despite common sense of family and friends, to work on a novel and screenplay. He does sometimes wish he’d toughed it out in orgo.

Want to connect with Eric? Check out the We Wanted to be Writers web site. You can also give him a wave on Twitter (@2bwriters) or say hidy-ho on Facebook.



Today—Wednesday, November 9, 2011—I’m giving away 1 copy of Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer’s We Wanted to be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

RULES: To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment for Eric and Glenn right here on WRITERHEAD.

*Comments must be posted before the clock strikes midnight on November 10, 2011. (That’s Eastern Standard Time U.S.)

**This contest is open internationally.

***The winner will be drawn on Thursday, November 10.

****Though I welcome all charming comments, only one comment per person will be counted in the contest. (I know, I know…but this isn’t American Idol.)

*****The winner will be drawn randomly by the highly scientific method of my 3yo pulling a name out of a hat (or some other convenient container…blocks box, [unused] cereal bowl, sand bucket, etc.)



17 Responses to Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Eric Olsen

  1. I’m going out right now and getting a St. Jude candle. And the book! (Unless I win the copy, of course.) Thanks for terrific insights on the state of writerhead.

  2. Ha! I laughed out loud when he said he lights a candle to the patron saint of lost causes. Man does it ever feel like that some days!

    It’d be a hoot to get my hands on this book. As a proud graduate of a low-residency MFA program (Vermont College – woot!), I’m nevertheless intrigued as to what really goes on at the near mythic Iowa Writers Workshop.

    Thanks, as always, Kristin, for this terrific series.

  3. …and when the Muse tells him to get in, this adventurous soul does as he’s told. He’s willing to take the wheel. I’m workin’ on it! Thanks, Kristin!

  4. Kristin ~ Great piece to read as I’m sitting here waiting on a muse (Caddie OR tricycle). I could relate to the part about writing non-fiction versus fiction — a paid article or my novel for Nanowrimo. Guess which one won this week?

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Eric Olsen is one fascinating fellow.

    While I understand that “the interruptions and shifts in mood or state of mind as part of the process,” I am still working on keeping my “butt in the chair.”

  6. Oh, how I love this, especially the part about how “[t]he work in process becomes the poet’s fate and determines his psychic development.”

    That’s awesome. A little unnerving too, but then, so is death by decapitation. 🙂

  7. I like the candle ritual & also how he’s “not disciplined enough” to ignore the ever present interruptions. Interesting “ride” metaphor in the pink Caddy, as well.

    Wonderful resume in his pocket & great that you featured him on Writerhead, Kris.

    (I also enjoyed your method of sharing the book with Andrew. That must have been pre-Tully days.)

  8. Aahh the heady days of an earlier Ioway. Would love to have participated. Salter, Cheever, atoms and arcs. Perhaps this book will get me there. Great Writerhead, thanks.

  9. Pingback: Writerhead Wednesday: The “Tell Me About Your Writerhead” Giveaway | Writerhead