Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Peter Selgin

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks 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.

Today, I welcome Peter Selgin to Writerhead Wednesday. Peter and his memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, caught my eye on Facebook because he is both artist and writer, and I’m insatiably curious about the intersection and overlap of those creative paths.

Let’s go…

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

Well, let’s be honest, inspiration doesn’t strike all the time. It’s not like knitting or doing a crossword puzzle, either, where there’s a consistent rhythm or where the problems have all been worked out in advance. Every sentence, every word of a good piece of writing is charting some sort of new territory, is both raising and answering its own questions. If words come to us too easily, we really should suspect them. Most writing that’s done with great facility and ease is suspect. If and when we get into the “zone” we do so, must of us, usually, through great effort. As for where and when it happens—for me, anyway, it’s not predictable, although I love those wide-open days when everything else has been put aside and I can do nothing but write for hours. In that case I write in my studio, which lately occupies the loft of an A-frame on Lake Sinclair in Georgia, and faces out through one of two very large triangular windows facing the lake, with the dock from which I periodically swim centered in the view under a tree. It’s one of those views you can get lost in, that inspires daydreams. At times I have to remind myself that it’s not one of those rear-projector fakes like the ones Hitchcock used to use all the time in his movies, that I really can go jump in the lake any time I want. The view is distracting but it’s also comforting. In some ways I think it mirrors an ideal internal state, the state of tranquility in which emotions are recaptured.

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.)

Since I live alone here out by the lake there are very few interruptions. My neighbors are mostly weekend and summer residents; often their homes are empty, and if I wanted to I could walk out naked to my dock for a skinny dip and get away with it (I don’t). I keep the music (usually opera or classical) very quiet and even then sometimes I have to turn it off completely. There are several dogs in the neighborhood, but they don’t seem to bark, thank goodness, although there is also a red fox who makes a hideous sound, a sort of half-howl, half-bark, but he does it deep into the night when I’m usually asleep. Since I do 99% of my corresponding my email the phone seldom rings. On summer weekends the powerboats and jet-skis all come out on the lake. The jet-skis in particular bother me, not just because of the noise, but because they’re such disgusting, infernal nuisances. I really detest them and have these terribly uncharitable fantasies about their drivers colliding (they also scare me since I’m a swimmer and like to swim across the inlet and back, and so the greater likelihood is that one day one of those morons will collide with ME). As for other kinds of interruptions, usually they’re self-engineered. I stand up, I stretch, I look out the window, I make a pot of espresso, I do some push-ups, I jump in the lake. It’s good to move the body now and then. Sometimes, if things aren’t going well, I find other things to do. Writing is the most avoidable of all endeavors.

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

I’m afraid I may be the least romantic of all your respondents to this question. No, for me inspiration isn’t at all like eating a bowl of warm pudding or rolling down a fur-lined embankment or anything like that. It’s more like snuggling up to someone in bed—the someone (if I’m writing narrative) being a story, its setting, its characters. Mostly, though, it’s snuggling up to words, caressing and exploring them, finding new ways to put them together. In that sense it is sort of like a jigsaw puzzle, except that first you cut out and shape the pieces, then you discover how to put them together. But there’s always effort involved. At the very least there’s the effort to surpass and challenge oneself. If someone tells me that writing is easy, that it’s pure joy for them, my first thought is always, “Well, maybe it should be a little harder.”

BIO: Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Prize, and his essay, The Kuhreihen Melody, won both the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize and the Dana Award for the Essay. Selgin’s full-length drama, A God in the House, was a National Playwright’s Conference winner. He teaches at Georgia College and State University.

CONTACT: Visit Peter’s website at peterselgin.com.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Kate Burak

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks 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.

Back in August, I featured Erika Robuck on Writerhead Wednesday, whose new novel HEMINGWAY’S GIRL was inspired by, well, Hemingway, of course (you know, THE Hemingway…Ernest Hemingway). Today, I’m excited to feature another author whose new novel was inspired by one of our literary greats: Kate Burak, whose new YA novel EMILY’S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS was inspired by Emily Dickinson.

Welcome, Kate! (and Emily!)

Now, readers, you know the rules for mucking about in writerhead. No talking. Hands to yourself. No entry into trap doors.

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

For me, it has a scent:

I lived in the fog that summer. It filled the front part of my head. I was writing my first book, spending 6-8 hours a day in that state. After a couple of weeks of this, I noticed my detachment from the real world. Even though I have an electric kettle, I put in the stove and turned on the heat. I only realized my mistake when the smoke detector went off. I did the same thing, a couple of weeks later at my sister’s house: put her electric kettle on the open flame of her gas stove. This is why I have come to associate serious writerhead with the scent of melting plastic and burning wires.

For those around me, who observe it, it has a look:

I’ll tell you how my son described the look of writerhead—because that’s a point of view issue:

The conversation we were having was about writing, how good it feels.

“When you write it doesn’t look like it feels good,” he said. “It looks like it hurts.”

“No,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “You should see your face. It’s full of pain.”

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.)

Interrupting my writerhead is probably more frustrating for the person who interrupts me than it is for me. Take my son, for example, who tells me how he knows I’m in the writerhead zone by the look on my face. He says I answer questions, but it’s like a zombie talking. Information comes out but nothing else.

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

No matter what my son sees, it doesn’t feel like pain. It feels like being underwater, knowing I have to come up for breath eventually, but also knowing it’s okay to be where I am even though it’s below the surface and kind of dangerous. I have the power to emerge if I want to, but the world under the surface is so interesting to explore. I can almost be convinced I don’t need air.

BIO: Kate Burak is the author of EMILY’S DRESS AND OTHER MISSING THINGS, a young-adult novel. She teaches writing at Boston University.

CONTACT: Visit Kate’s website at kathrynburak.com. Give her high-five on Twitter (@DressWriter).


#38Write: If You’ve Ever Felt Like a Square Peg in a Round Hole

38Write—my global writing initiative—is a monthly series of online writing adventure workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. Each writing adventure focuses on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life (for example, writing kick-butt descriptions), and during each 38-hour adventure, writers connect with me and 38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag (#38Write) and a group Pinterest board. Lots of good work getting done.

The theme of September’s #38Write workshop was Square Peg, Round Hole? Thirteen writers in 8 countries participated. After reading a number of essays, articles, and blog entries, as well as watching the oh-so-hilarious episode of the “I Love Lucy” show I’ve embedded below, I asked writers to write a couple of pieces, including a short piece about a time in which they either conformed or did not conform to a cultural reality.

Here’s what a handful of the brilliant #38Write writers put on the page:

 Anita | U.S.

Two weeks after starting work at the convent, Sister Mary Alice questioned me about my religion. After taking her medications, she asked “Are you Catholic Anita?”

“No, Sister”

Her wimple framed her sudden frown. “What religion are you?”

I squirmed under her scrutiny. I was raised Methodist but I now follow the Buddhist philosophy. My mind raced through the ramifications of telling Sister Mary Alice of my fall from Christianity. If I told her the whole truth my role would change from being her nurse to being her project, so I told a half-truth. “I was raised Methodist, Sister”.

Fingering her rosary she gave a weak smile. “I’ll pray for you dear.”

I had become a project after-all.

 Meena | U.S.

I landed at La Guardia airport dying to see the gregarious America sculpted by my childhood staples of Archie comics and slapstick sitcoms. It was summer of ’96. The immigration queue labeled ‘Aliens’ was long. Me, the alien waited for my turn that finally was about to come. Before me was an old Indian auntie who spoke little English. She had her papers in order but was finding it hard to understand the official’s question on the length of her stay. Rolling her eyes, the New York official bellowed the question to the helpless auntie. I stepped forward, past the yellow line saying I could help translate. “Ma’am, step back,” barked the lady official. I heard few sniggers behind my back and felt embarrassed. When my turn came to stand by her window I instinctively knew that my entry to USA was going to be unpleasant. She scanned the front, back of my passport and papers. I was invited to offer database programming expertise for an organization that’d sponsored me for 4 months. She then, handed my visa stamped for 3 months. Finding my voice I stated that the program was for 4 months. “You Indians, you are here more than in your own country,” she said insultingly, waving me away. Offended, I pointed to the company letter and said loudly, “Well, an American company invited me. Your country lacks qualified people to do specialized work and that’s why I am here.” It was petty but heck I wasn’t going to take the slur silently. Maybe it was my anger. Or maybe because she wanted to reserve her bullying for another alien, she became quiet, turning her face away.

The friendly Indian auntie standing beyond the counter smiled at me.

Jennifer | S. Korea

Dongjin told me the stories in moments of vulnerability, the two of us alone and intertwined in the black of night. How his father was separated from his parents at the start of the war, his terrible survival, his persecution as the relative of a Communist, the deaths of his wife and first child. I was filled with sympathy for this man I had never met, and fantasized that I could be the perfect daughter-in-law, a balm to him in his old age.

It didn’t last long. I ground my teeth when he told me that women were responsible for happiness in the home. I nodded when he told me to smile more and always speak with a light, pleasant voice. When he blamed a fight he and DongJin had had on my influence, I only bitched to DongJin about it.

But when he started to give me advice about my child I put my foot down. He told me that long-term breastfeeding would create a wimpy, “Momma’s boy.” He accused me of starving Jae because I wouldn’t follow him around and feed him. He told Jae that no one would play with him if he cried. Lacking the ability to argue well in Korean, I ended up lashing back with the same frustrated, dismissive, petulant tones he used to me. Then I’d repent, turning my anger into analysis: He’s taught himself suspicious of happiness; it never lasts. He deals with his anxiety by constantly preparing for disaster. He doesn’t know how to talk to people, he only knows how to command and scold. For a while, the only solution that worked was to pretend I didn’t understand what he was saying.

Ten years later, I still bounce between good intentions and imperfect execution. But I’m proud that Jae can say, “I used to think that Grandfather was nagging me all the time, but now I realize that that’s just how he says he loves me.”

Rocio | Belgium

When I was six years old, I was supposed to go to Morocco with my parents and my brother after Christmas, but I got a fever. My parents decided to leave me with my grandparents and go anyway. I was just enough feverish not to be fit to go, but it was nothing serious. Going to exotic Morocco, wasn’t a prize for me. We used to go very often as we had some relatives there and my parents loved it. The trip was a nightmare, a whole day in the backseat of the car dividing the space in two halves with my brother. This is before highways existed in Andalusia! After almost a day driving, we had to cross the Gibraltar Strait in the ferry for a couple hours, maybe more, and then at the end go to the border and pass the control. And this, too, was long before any electronic passport was in use.

So I was really happy to be left behind and stay. My grandma cooked everyday delicious stuff; even her fixes of Christmas turkey were transformed in amazing homemade cannelloni. I wonder now, if I didn’t fake that fever somehow… But, always a but, I had to accompany my grandparents to church, oh god! I was so nervous before going! Already that young, I knew it, I was a square peg in a round hole, dying to fit in. I had heard at school about god, angels and all the paraphernalia, scary. When we entered the church, I was wishing my grandparents wouldn’t go sit in the firsts rows. All I wanted was for time to go by quickly, me unnoticed; and all I could see were the images of the saints, with those decrepit and melancholic marble faces.

Being in church was hell for me. The mass began. Each and every single part of the ritual, I was absorbed by all the procedures, now stand, now sit, now do the cross… all I wanted was to get it right and all I was imagining was the priest pointing his long thin finger to me, lightnings and thunders accompanying his gesture, and saying out loud: YOU!!!! It was martyrdom. And then the mass finished, I was still there, alive! Back home to a dish of hot cannelloni.

Maria | U.K

I failed miserably at being a free-spirited student during my university years. You know, the kind of student who studies like crazy during many sleepless nights, but who also parties like an animal when the occasion appears. When I was 19, fresh into Journalism school, and for the first time living alone in a flat in Bucharest, all I could think of was getting a job, earning money, and standing on my own two feet. Escaping from under my parents’ tutelage had been my dream since first year of high school. While other freshmen were learning the ropes of how to get from A to B in the Capital, I got my first job—working nights in a media monitoring centre, smoking two, three packs of cigarettes a day and feeling damn grown-up. I seldom attended parties, never took a trip to the mountains with my friends, and didn’t touch alcohol for about three years. Sadly, it also took me almost six months to actually get to know my university colleagues. At a time when I was supposed to learn all about the hot places to hang out in Bucharest and enjoy my longed for freedom, I incarcerated myself in a job, learned the ropes of office politics, and got almost eaten alive by my older, well-versed work colleagues. After the four years of study were up, I suddenly realized what I had missed. And that’s when the bitter taste of regret started eating at me. All I could show for during my college education were a few paychecks, a lot of working week-ends and an untimely coming into adulthood.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Dinty Moore

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks 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.

Now ssshhhh, don’t y’all start raising a ruckus just because Dinty Moore (yes, THE Dinty Moore!!!) is here at Writerhead. Yes, it’s true, he’s…

But despite all that, you still can’t venture into Dinty’s writerhead whooping and hollering like a gaggle of writers and readers gone wild (see Dinty’s answer to question #2 below). This kind of hallowed ground deserves a little respect and consideration.

So if you’re ready to show a little of each, we’ll proceed.

As Dinty says, “Breathe deeply, friends.”

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

Writerhead is when the writing is talking back to me and I have to listen. I have to listen even more than I have to listen to my wife Renita when she asks if I want cereal or yogurt for breakfast and whether I want it now or want it left for me on the kitchen counter. (Yeah, I know, I’m lucky that way.) Back when I primarily wrote fiction, it was the characters talking back to me, suggesting what might happen next, or what they might say. Those were golden moments. Now that I’m primarily always in nonfiction mode, it is the ideas talking back to me, suggesting ramifications or reversals, and sometimes it feels like it is me talking back to me, the crotchety old man in one corner of my brain (me) arguing with the optimist (also me) in another corner and both shushing me (also me) up so I can hear what they have to say, because in their view (which is also my view) what they have to say is more important than anything I was going to come up with on my own.

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 ignore phone calls, dog barks, lightning storms, and all lesser stimuli, but someone in my office doorway asking me a direct question is hard to overlook. The first thing that happens is that I wave my arms in front of my face as if I had been attacked by gnats. I am startled, surprised to find a keyboard and a computer screen in front of me, and flabbergasted at the sound of an actual voice, instead of those voices emanating from the musty back alleys of my inner consciousness. And then I either splutter, “Wait, wait, one minute until I get this down,” or I look so startled that my spouse backs off and calls her best friend and gossips about what a freak I am. (Actually, that’s a lie. She has great regard for the artistic process.) When my daughter was little and I would stagger out of my office mid-morning looking like I had been on an all-night whiskey binge, my wife would calmly explain that, “Daddy is in story land. He’ll be okay after he showers.”

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

Writerhead is like an endorphin high from exercise, without the aching leg muscles, or a marijuana high, without the paranoia, guilt, shame, and dirty ashtrays. Writerhead is like getting up out of your chair, crawling into your own ear, and wandering around inside of your own brain for two or twenty minutes, and the whole time you are also sitting in that chair, typing notes on what you’ve found.

BIO: Dinty W. Moore is author of numerous books, including The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, and the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize. He recently edited THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH NONFICTION: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.

Having failed as a zookeeper, modern dancer, Greenwich Village waiter, filmmaker, and wire service journalist, he now writes essays and stories. He has been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, among numerous other venues.

Dinty lives in Athens, Ohio, the funkadelicious, hillbilly-hippie Appalachian epicenter of the locally-grown, locally-consumed, goats-are-for-cheese, paw-paws-are-for-eatin’, artisanal-salsa, our-farmers-market-rocks-the-hills sub-culture, where he grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions, and teaches a crop of brilliant undergraduate and stunningly talented graduate students as director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program.

CONNECT: To find out more about Dinty, visit his website. He is also the editor of one of my favorite online literary magazines, Brevity, “a small magazine with large ambitions.” You can also give him a high-five on Twitter (@brevitymag).


Mojo Monday: #38Write & “How Might We”

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.

Yesterday I read a blog post over at the Harvard Business Review about how the most successful companies wrestle creative challenges by leading off discussions with “How might we….”


(fly to the moon, build more affordable housing, grow a better tasting tomato, train better math teachers, reduce water usage in washing machines, invent a machine that records dreams, train dogs not to grab plates of hamburgers from counters, create more green space in giant cities, etc.)


It struck a chord.


Because HOW MIGHT WE is exactly why I launched the #38Write writing adventure workshop series. Because each day I ask myself the following questions and look forward to helping writers who ask them, too.

  • How might we tell the story of culture and our place in it?
  • How might we share the communities and cultures in which we live, no matter where we live?
  • How might we take a more honest look at our own preconceived notions, prejudices, and biases?
  • How might we be braver as storytellers?
  • How might we feel more empathy to people who are different from us?
  • How might we get what is in our heads and hearts onto the page?
  • How might we write kick-ass stories and novels and essays that keep people thinking about them long after they’ve closed the book/turned off the e-reader?
  • How might we do all this in our own gorgeous, unique voices? And how might we access those voices?

There are two ways you can get involved with #38Write:

  • Register here for September’s #38Write (theme = “Square Peg, Round Hole?”), which will take place on September 29–30. This will guarantee you a spot in the workshop.
  • Enter the contest to win a scholarship to September’s #38Write. Click here for more info on how to win!




Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Marcia Aldrich

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks 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.

Marcia Aldrich, author of the new memoir Companion to an Untold Story, came onto my radar earlier this year via Ned Stuckey-French…and I’m so glad she did. As you’ll see below, this woman can write. She lures you to her world so gently and deliberately, it’s impossible not to follow.

You’ll see what I mean. Let’s go.

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

When I was in high school as other girls compiled lists of names for the children they dreamed of having, I wrote the titles of the books I hoped to write when I grew up. Most of my girlfriends aspired for a life fulfilled through marriage and children. I dreamed of a life that would begin and end in my solitary bed, with just enough room for myself, a book, and a writing pad. I might go out into the world for romantic adventures, I thought, but I would return to my narrow bed, where I imagined everything inside me would bloom.

In one of my life’s many ironic twists, that’s not how it turned out. I did not arrange my life along the solitary lines I had envisioned at fifteen. Among my friends I was the first to marry and had my first child in graduate school. My husband, also a graduate student, and I shared one desk and one bed and we took turns using the computer between shifts of child care. After teaching my morning classes, I’d take the bus home where Richard would meet me at the bus stop with Clare in his arms. He’d hand her off to me as I descended the steps and he got on to go teach his afternoon classes. It would have been comical if the timing hadn’t been so precarious. At the end of our first year of our first post graduate school jobs, we had our second child. If I was writing something autobiographical about those days, I’d call it Spillage because all our boundaries were overrun.

We tend to think of writers removing themselves from the thoroughfare of living, retreating to rooms of their own and closing the door. That’s how I located writers in my imagination growing up. But in my life there has been no sacred, solitary space except in my head. I have had to compose however and wherever I could, carving out a niche for myself in attics and basements and bathrooms if need be, by flashlight and candlelight and by the flare of a fire. I have not depended upon an ideal location or situation to make my writing possible even if at times I have yearned for a cabin of my own.

Still, within the particular demands of my life, I prefer to write in my bed, a bed I share, in my bedroom, a room I share, where there are no books in the early morning right after I have woken up and before I begin to attend to children or dogs, before the phone begins to ring and the noise of the living intrudes. Why no books, you might ask; wouldn’t they be inspiring? And of course certain books are inspiring and I want to have them near me, but not when I’m trying to write. At those times the voices in those books crowd me. I try to stir as little as possible reaching for my pad and pen on the night table where I keep them. I’ve been communing with the dead, listening to their wise counsel during my night of sleep. If I’m careful and lucky, I manage to keep my ear to the grave for a bit after I’ve opened my eyes.

Once I’m inserted fully into the day, it becomes difficult to keep the brain I woke with alive—what you call writerhead. In those early hours of the milky morning, my mind, body, and heart are on the same calm plane and working rhythmically together.

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.)

When I was embarking on my own writing life, the women writers I hungrily read were temperamentally and stylistically varied but shared certain defining biographical features. Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, and Edith Wharton did not have children. They were all wed to their writing above all else, for better or worse, until death did them part. Each represented a fierce intelligence and commitment to use all their ingenuity to arrange their lives so as to write and write they did. A woman must choose, I thought, unless she wants to be torn asunder by competing demands and desires.

Closer to my own time, Sylvia Plath has been another influential exemplar. She read the same women writers I had and noted the same stark fact: these women did not bear children. She was determined to try to have it all, to be the modern woman writer with marriage, children, and the literary career. We know what happened to her.

I’ve spent my adult life thinking about my forebears, going over their choices, what they gained and what they lost, wondering about my own imperatives and choices. Sometimes when I feel driven like a scourge by the life I’ve put into motion, it seems I haven’t made any choices, and that my life has just happened. Of course, this is false. I chose to have children before my career was launched. Many of my women friends chose otherwise. They chose to devote themselves to establishing their careers first and then to have children. I wasn’t orderly. I tried to do everything simultaneously with certain predictable results. Picture a woman whipping up a soufflé while vacuuming the living room while a baby bounces in the doorway while the phone is ringing and someone is at the door and a notebook is open on the counter with a pen lying quietly in the crease. That would be me. Oh and add a stack of student papers that need to be graded and a stack of books I’m teaching. Oh and a dog and three cats, maybe a few plants capsized on a bookshelf. And my glasses are sliding down my nose. Interruptions to my writing aren’t something that I can calculate a sum for; they have defined my writing life.

It has perhaps been impossible to know what would feed me, what would make my writing rich and so I have followed my instincts even if they seemed counterproductive. My inclinations were to try to have children, a complicated home life, a career and a writing life, rather than not to try. I accepted that I might come to rack and ruin by this method but that an orderly life wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself with a writing life but no children or a life with children but no writing. I knew I was rushing headlong into chaos and possible catastrophe and I just kept going.

Now looking back, I can say there were times I went under, that there wasn’t enough of me to go around, that sometimes I didn’t serve anyone as well as I would have liked, least of all myself. For whatever reason I could never give anything up. I couldn’t give up trying to write, I couldn’t give up being a teacher, and I couldn’t give up being a mother or a wife or a friend. I couldn’t give up having dogs and cats and a garden and dinner every night.

And yes there are times when I lose my equilibrium. I know when I have it and when I don’t: I tip like a boat about to capsize. I start careening through the world, slipping in the shower, tripping on the hem of my skirt, mistiming opening and closing doors, tea kettles are forever whistling waiting for me to remove them from the heat, papers scatter from my hands across my students’ desks like fast moving clouds just before a tornado hits.

And then I have to right myself—I have to divest myself from unwanted obligations, attachments, behaviors. I resign from committees and programs I run at work. I let laundry pile up, dirt gather in all the corners, peonies fall because I did not stake them, and emails go unanswered for a day or two. In general I try to stop accepting responsibility for the maintenance and success of the world, well not the world, but my small corner of it. It’s hard to see the dishes pile in the sink corroding and not pick up a sponge, hard to watch the grass die because I didn’t water it. The list goes on. I’ve had to school myself to say no. Friends said you must learn to say no. And I began. No felt funny to shape in my mouth and even funnier when I said it out loud. Saying no seemed the verbal equivalent of setting off a bomb, a kind of personal terrorism to reclaim the tiny principality called myself, my writerhead.

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

The closest companion to writerhead in my life is swimming. I am open to the lessons swimming teaches me—don’t try to dominate the water. Subdue yourself. Try to swim inside the water.

In other places and situations being a quiet person hurts me. In the water the quietest swimmer is the best swimmer. Working against the water is exhausting. I’ve known instinctually that water is the story—she suffers my presence.

BIO: Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has had essays appear in The Best American Essays, The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women, and a wide range of literary magazines. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to an Untold Story was selected by Susan Orlean for the 2011 AWP Award in Nonfiction.

CONNECT: To learn more about Marcia and her new memoir, visit her website and her blog. Or simply skip all the in-between steps and buy her book here.


Mojo Monday: Don DeLillo’s Writerhead

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.

Yep, Don DeLillo talked about his purest writerhead in a Paris Review interview. Love this! (to read full interview, click here)


Athletes—basketball players, football players—talk about “getting into the zone.” Is there a writer’s zone you get into?


There’s a zone I aspire to. Finding it is another question. It’s a state of automatic writing, and it represents the paradox that’s at the center of a writer’s consciousness—this writer’s anyway. First you look for discipline and control. You want to exercise your will, bend the language your way, bend the world your way. You want to control the flow of impulses, images, words, faces, ideas. But there’s a higher place, a secret aspiration. You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger. The best moments involve a loss of control. It’s a kind of rapture, and it can happen with words and phrases fairly often—completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense, that come to you out of nowhere. But rarely for extended periods, for paragraphs and pages—I think poets must have more access to this state than novelists do. In End Zone, a number of characters play a game of touch football in a snowstorm. There’s nothing rapturous or magical about the writing. The writing is simple. But I wrote the passage, maybe five or six pages, in a state of pure momentum, without the slightest pause or deliberation.

Mojo Monday: China Talks: “2032: The Future We Want”

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.

In this film—produced as part of the UN’s “The Future We Want” campaign—”232 ordinary Chinese citizens were invited to answer the same question in front of the camera: ‘What do you want the world to be like in twenty years?'”

It’s kinda cool.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Hank Phillippi Ryan

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks 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.

Confession: I have a huge writerly/life-erly crush on today’s featured author. She is none other than Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the just-released-yesterday-to-huge-acclaim The Other Woman (a thriller, which is the first in a new series). Not only is Hank a gripping, hold-you-to-your-seat writer AND a rather famous investigative reporter in Boston who helps a lot of people, but she’s also a warm, genuine, funny, so-much-like-you-and-me, no bullshit person who gets it done. Hell, she’s even sexy.

I was lucky enough to meet Hank earlier this year when we were both speaking at the 2012 Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA. She was the brilliant keynote speaker who touched everybody’s heart, and I was sharing the gospel of writerhead.

As I suspected, Hank’s got one hell of a writerhead, so please put your hands together and raise your voices. Let’s hear it for Hank!

“Hank! Hank! Hank! Hank!”

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

I have a full-time job as a television reporter—9 til 6, every day. Being a journalist has writerhead of its own—a deadline-crazed instant-gratification banging out the best you can, as fast as you can, of what’s absolutely factual—knowing it’ll evaporate into the airwaves the moment it’s broadcast.

When I flip the switch to writing my book each night—not reporting, but making stuff up!—I don’t have the luxury of much time to get into the groove. I write—or I don’t. And I have to write, because the publisher is expecting a book! A good book! So I have to get to writerhead—but I know that state of being is not attainable simply by “wanting” to.

So—I let go. Each day as I sit at the desk in my study, in front of my computer, I tell myself it’s all fine, it doesn’t matter. I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a page. A paragraph. One line. I give myself permission to “not-do” it.

What do I hope will happen in this part of the book? I ask myself. What’s my goal with the scene? I try to envision it, how people would look, and what they want, and how they would feel and react to each other. And I try…a few words.

Even telling you about it now, the background noises in my house are fading, and the light seems to be focused on me and nowhere else, and I can feel the tunnel of the story pulling me into it.

And soon—I know, I rely on it!—my fingers will be flying across the keyboard so fast I have no idea what I’m even writing. (Thank goodness for spellcheck—although sometimes even spellcheck is baffled.) Oh, I think—I didn’t know that was going to happen next! She said—what?

Sometimes tears come to my eyes. And then I know.

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.)

Smiling. Even through the mists of writerhead, I can hear the footsteps in the hall. My husband, since we live alone and he’s the only possibility. I’ll ignore it, I say. Maybe he’ll go away. Maybe he doesn’t really need me this very second.

Sometimes he’ll come in, and stand behind my chair. Look over my shoulder at the screen. “How’re you doing?” he’ll ask. And I know he’s lonely, or wants to connect, and truly does want to know how I am. And I feel—guilty that my reaction (which I tamp down) is to say: Go a-WAY.

But I finish the line I’m writing, sometimes make a little reminder note (“gun” or “phone call” or “Jane doesn’t know about baby”) and try to totally focus on him. It the least I can do, right? And then I can get back to work.

Quickly—over the fourth of July, my wonderful 9-year-old grandson was in town. I was at a particularly difficult part of my (now-finished) new book and could NOT decide what to do. Writerhead was a memory.

Eli came in and said—“I’m so interested in what you’re doing Grammy. What are you working on?”

How could I resist that?

But I had a dilemma. How do you tell a nine year-old you’re trying to decide if a character should live or die?

“I’m deciding whether a character should live or die,” I said.

Eli thought about that. “Is it a good person?”

“Yes,” I said, “she is.”

“Then she should live,” he said. “Maybe have a narrow escape.”

I smiled. “Yes, that’s what I was thinking, too. But sometimes a narrow escape is a cheap shot.”

Eli thought about that. “True,” he said. “So she should have to give something up to escape.”

And of course that was exactly right, and I told him so. Thank goodness for the interruption!

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

Oh, it’s time. Pure, timeless, endless time. I feel like a star, glittering in space, constant and confident and eternal and even alone.

BIO: Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 28 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She’s been a radio reporter, a political campaign staffer, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.

She’s won the Anthony. Agatha and Macavity for her crime fiction, and is president-electo of national Sisters in Crime.

Her newest thriller, The Other Woman (an Indie Next GreatRead) is now out in hardcover from Forge. A starred review in Library Journal says “Readers who crave mystery and political intrigue will be mesmerized…,” and a starred review from Booklist calls it “The perfect thriller for an election season..”

CONNECT: To get more Hank, visit her website or check out her blog at Jungle Red Writers. Give her a thumbs-up on Facebook. Or say give her a high-five on Twitter (@hank_phillippi).

Mojo Monday: Richard Wright and Books

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.

“The impulse to dream was slowly beaten out of me by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.”
– Richard Wright, Black Boy