Writing Process: Obsessed by Tom Waits’s “Georgia Lee”

You know, I wrote THE ART OF FLOATING during the five years I lived in Shanghai, China. And while I wrote, I was obsessed with “Georgia Lee,” this haunting, beautiful song by Tom Waits. I had it on my iPod, and every day I’d take a walk through the old French Concession area, deep in writerhead, listening and absorbing.

Take a listen. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

(Once you’ve listened, if you’re so inclined, I’d love for you to pop over and “Like” my Facebook author page! Thx!)


Taking My Own Writing Advice: For Pete’s Sake, Make Something Happen!

Working on new novel at ungodly hours of the morning. Now following advice I give writing students when a story stalls. FOR PETE’S SAKE, MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN! So relinquishing control, I just let a character hop on a scooter in Shanghai w/ a guy she never met. She’s looking for _____; he said the magic words. Oy. What could go wrong? He was smiley, after all.

On Process: Writing & Faith in the Invisible

I’ve got one novel published & out in the world (Thirsty, Swallow Press, 2009); I’ve got one novel in the publishing pipeline (The Art of Floating, Berkley Books/Penguin, 2014); I’m now writing the third. Here’s what’s happening in my writerhead world.

I don’t understand very much at all about the novel I’m writing. I’m just putting my head down, telling the stories that come to me, and trusting that some day on some page in some draft down the road, the women—who all go to Shanghai for one reason or another—will feel so familiar to me that I will believe we had coffee at Starbucks earlier in the week or that I remember meeting each one at Jamaica Blue on Wulumuqi Road in 2010. Or maybe it was 2009. It’s a funny thing to trust in the invisible, to have such faith in the imagined, to believe that this is creativity, not pure insanity.

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 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.


Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Lynda Rutledge

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.

Because I’ve known Lynda Rutledge since I was in graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago back in the 1990s, I’m especially delighted to share her debut novel here on Writerhead Wednesday. If you haven’t read Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale yet, get your cutie-patootie to the bookstore or library.

Now, without further ado, please raise your glasses and give a cheer for Lynda’s writerhead.

Whoop! Whoop!

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

To answer, I’ll tell you of the first moment my journalistic mind tripped the light fantastic into the sometimes dangerous land of writerly lies we call fiction writing. It happened in Chicago years ago when I was just beginning to play around with creating fiction. I was a full-time freelance journalist with literary pretensions, and I had to carefully keep my two worlds—facts and fabrication—apart. And for a long time, I did just fine.

Then… My spouse and I had friends in a picturesque small town outside Chicago and we’d drive out there every few weeks. One day, we passed a homemade sign on the roadside we hadn’t seen before. I don’t recall what the sign said; I just recall my saying something like: “I wonder what’s that’s about? Maybe it’s…[insert a scenario].”

My long-suffering spouse never commented on my speculations since it was a form of entertainment for me, this weaving of riding-along “what-ifs,” and he’d heard it all before.

A few weeks later, we drove by the same sign again.

This time I said, “Hey, I wonder how that [insert scenario] is going?”

The spouse looked at me all-but-crosseyed.

“What?” I said, wondering what his problem was.

“Lynda, you made that up. You know that, right?”

I gawked for a long moment. Then I guffawed: Omigod, I had. The secret to making fiction “real” is that the writer has to believe it, and obviously that’s what I’d done to a fault; I had created the scenario so vividly in my head that I had forgotten it wasn’t real. My two worlds had collided. Now what was I going to do? I decided I’d accept it, let it happen as it would, and see where it took me. My journalist days were obviously numbered, and it was time. Now it’s the place I wander into every day, if it’s a good day. And sometimes even more so when it’s not: No longer am I cranky in stalled traffic or in long lines (at least if they’re not too long). Instead, I eavesdrop, watch, and catalog. Stand in front of me at the DMV and prepare to become grist for my little writer’s mill. Make me think creatively, delight me with your weirdness, force me to see things differently enough to weave a “what if” scenario or two, and I relax. Everything is fodder. Except for those first draft pangs, where nothing seems to want to behave and the earth seems to insist on spinning backwards, I notice that I’m happiest there.

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.)

It’s pretty ugly. You’d think my friends (the ones I have left) and my family (the ones who still speak to me after their heads have been bitten off) would learn to leave the crazy woman alone when she has that “look,” but since that would mean I’d stay in my writer cave so much I’d not sleep, eat, or even notice the earth spinning, that’s pretty much impossible. So, of course, I stay cranky on every entry and exit. It’s always a bumpy ride.

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

For me, it’s an altered state, like the time I took peyote with the Navajo shaman outside of Taos…oh, wait. I made that up. Or did I?

BIO: Hopping across literary and geographic boundaries in her writing career, Lynda’s been a freelance journalist, travel writer, ghostwriter, restaurant and film reviewer, copywriter, college professor, book collaborator, and nonfiction author while living/writing/studying in Chicago, San Diego, New Orleans, Madrid, and many elsewheres, her wanderlust as strong as her writerhead. But her creative writing has always been the stuff of her biggest literary dreams. She’s won awards and residencies from the Illinois Arts Council, Writers League of Texas, Ragdale Foundation, Atlantic Center for the Arts, among others. Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale is her debut novel.

CONNECT: To learn more about Lynda and her spectacular debut novel, visit her website, check out her blog, give her a wave on Twitter (@LyndaRutledge), or become a fan on Facebook.

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).

Writerhead Wednesday: The New Season Launches Next Week

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.

Although I refuse to admit that summer may be heading to a close in just a few short weeks, I am happy to announce that the fall season of Writerhead Wednesday will launch next Wednesday, August 29, with none other than (drum roll, please)…

Erika Robuck

Erika’s second novel HEMINGWAY’S GIRL is due in bookstores during the first week of September. You, lovely readers, will be lucky enough next week to tiptoe into her writerhead.

See you next Wednesday!

Mojo Monday: Anais Nin, Dreams & the Highest Form of Living

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.

“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.”

~Anais Nin