1. Not only are you a writer yourself, but as a professor you are also actively helping others develop their creativity. What’s your favorite lesson to teach and why?
I am now retired, though I lead a group of women writers. But I always loved to do the following. I’d tell the writers I worked with to write freely for ten minutes, then to count the number of words that they wrote during that time and to write that number down. I’d ask them what they learned. And most were stunned at how much you can write in a short period of time and they learned that if they write consistently even if for short periods, they will eventually accumulate enough material to work on in a serious way. Next I ask them how much they think Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her two or three hour writing sessions and to write that number down. I then read them what she wrote during one writing period. I forget the exact number of words, now—I describe this in The Art of Slow Writing but it’s something like 500 or so—they are startled that a writer working at the height of her powers worked so slowly. I then ask them to compare how much they wrote to what she wrote and to think about the lessons learned from the exercise.
2. In your most full or challenging seasons, how have you still managed to create? What have those seasons looked like?
Throughout my life, I have broken a leg (required a few operations), a foot, had disabling asthma for years, several rounds of very serious Lyme Disease requiring IV antibiotics, breast cancer, and now, metastatic breast cancer (both requiring chemotherapy with all its attendant side effects). Continuing to write through all these challenges to the extent that I could has always been a goal of mine though, of course, the more serious the illness, the more difficult it is. And the one I have now isn’t going away. In fact, I have been ill in one way or another for the majority of my writing life. I have a timer that I use. And I tell myself that if I can write for 25 minutes I’ll consider it a successful day. I learned about the 25-minute goal when I read about the Pomodoro method—you work for 25 minutes, setting a timer, then you take 5 minutes off. After a certain number of sessions you take more time off. (There are online descriptions of this.) I find that if I commit to just one session a day I’ll often do more. And when I do even one, I feel proud. Continuing to write through illness helps the immune system, I know. I have always meditated, written journal, and done some aerobic exercise every day. And I now do Qi Gong-Lee Holden DVDs, also on You Tube. All these practices keep me as healthy as I can be considering my illnesses and they make the writing possible.
3. What is one of the best ways a writer can develop the discipline to write through creative slumps?
The best way to learn to write through a creative slump is to keep writing no matter what is happening on the page. It helps to know that the middle of every process is fraught with problems, and that if you quit then, you will never develop. It is in writing your way through difficulty that you grow as an artist. I like to tell writers about people who have written on toilet paper in prison, people who have written while ill—compared to many writers, the circumstances under which we write aren’t bad. I ask my students why they think writing should be easy, why it should always work, why it should always be just fine. Doing our work despite how we feel is an essential part of the growth process. Do we just feed our kids when we feel like feeding them? Do we just parent them when it’s easy? We can use what we learn from parenting through the good and the tough times and apply it to our work as writers and artists. You just do it no matter what. You might not like doing it, but you do it anyway. I don’t like to think that this takes discipline because then people believe they need to develop discipline before they become writers. You develop discipline by writing no matter what. There’s no mystery to it. But we are sometimes inclined to let ourselves off the hook. I’m a great believer in not doing that.
4. What inspires you: as a wife, mom, and artist?
I have lived in a family of jocks. Both of my sons are elite athletes. My eldest was a bicycle racer, followed the Tour de France, now does long distance riding; he also trained for and ran in marathons. My youngest is a world champion in Shukokai karate and runs and teaches in a karate dojo. My daughter in law is a world champion in Shukokai karate and a specialist in teaching karate to kids with learning issues. My husband, in his late 70s, still teaches karate. When I was in my early 70s, I began to train myself though I had to stop because of a serious illness. What inspires me, what has always inspired me, is watching and learning how elite athletes go about their work, how they train, how they live their lives, how they deal with success and defeat. The reason for this is that such training is an every day, not a once in a while kind of thing. It is the way a life is lived, not something you just do. I have always applied those lessons I learned from watching my family to writing. You must work daily; you must take proscribed rest periods; you must eat well, sleep well, live well; you must learn to lose gracefully and to learn from your losses; you must learn to keep at it even when nothing seems to be happening; you must learn to evaluate what you’re doing well and do it better and what you’re not doing well and do it better.
5. What or who do you read to help inspire your work? What other resources do you recommend to fellow creatives?
I have always read widely, and often with a goal in mind. When I was writing Chasing Ghosts about my father’s and my family’s life during WWII, I read novels written during WWII. When I was writing about Virginia Woolf, I tried to read everything she’d written. I am always reluctant to recommend reading programs to other writers because I’ve learned that part of the process is going out and finding what it is that we ourselves need to read to help us. What helps me won’t necessarily help you. And I am suspect of reading too many book about writing, especially if they are written by writers who only write books about how to write and don’t have a significant body of their own work. Reading about writing without actually writing seems counterproductive. What helped me immensely at the beginning was reading Anne Tyler’s “Still Just Writing” that appeared in The Writer on Her Work. You can find it online. It is a stunning glimpse into how this novelist wrote when her kids were small, her dog was sick, her husband’s relatives visited—it tells of the impediments to and the rewards of writing while raising kids. I read it and told myself that if she could do it, so could I. And ... I love to read interviews with writers, like those in The Paris Review about process, though of course, we have to take them with a grain of salt—they can tell us much if we understand that what happened in the writing of a book can’t necessarily be remembered and described.
6. Do you have a scripture, word, or mantra that guides your work?
“Yes you can.” I have described how I found this crudely lettered sign inscribed inside a cut-out arrow in a place where I had gone to give a talk. It was just sitting there on a table, and I took it, and I still have it. The reason it spoke to me was that, from childhood, I had been given inhibitions—“No you can’t”—about so very many things, that this sign became an important source of strength to me.
7. How do motherhood and creative work complement one another?
Paradoxically having less time to work than the writers I knew who didn’t have kids made me a more diligent writer because I knew I had to grab the time I had. I learned to enter and leave the work and not get precious about it. I never understood writers who said, “I need blocks of time or I can’t do my work.” I didn’t have blocks of time. I had the time in the car while I waited for a kid to emerge from school; the time in the speech pathologist’s waiting room while my son had his lessons. I learned to “grab and go” in terms of my work. So having kids and having less time for work meant that I worked better, that I didn’t procrastinate. As important is this: as you watch kids grow, you realize that you can’t make an infant raise her/his head before they’re able. Growth takes time. For me, watching my youngest son learn how to speak—he was born with a hearing problem—taught me that what I was doing, in comparison, was easy.
8. How has your perspective on creativity shifted during the course of your career?
When I first started writing I believed that you had to be gifted, you had to have talent. I thought that “real” writers wrote their work pretty much as it was published. I had no model for how “real” writers write. I set myself the task to learn about that, and so discovered that there are stages of the creative process, that it is impossible to get to the end of a project without feeling confused and overwhelmed: this is an inseparable part of the project. So that now I understand that if I just keep working, no matter how bleak it seems, the book will eventually get done. I, as a beginning writer, was less able than most of the students I taught. What I learned, though, was that though it might take me 16 drafts to get where I wanted to, I would eventually get there. Many of my more gifted students expected too much of themselves in the early stages and quit when the work bogged down. I had to teach them to keep at it. I learned how slow the process is and that you can’t speed it up no matter how much you yearn to: the work will tell you what needs to be done if you give it enough time, and that’s what I have tried to pass on. I often say, “Such and such a writer took 11 drafts to get to the finish line. Why do you think you can shortcut the process?”
9. What’s one goal you have that you haven’t accomplished yet?
I can only choose one? Hmmm. I have always written down ideas about books I would like to write someday even as I was engaged in writing something. Right now I would like to finish a book I started years ago about my sister’s suicide. I’d like to finish a book I’ve begun—a memoir in third person—about having cancer. I’d like to turn some of my blog posts into a book about writing memoir. Then there is the novel about a woman who’s writing a non-fiction researched work about adultery who decides to do a little non bookish research. For me, the idea is to work at the book currently under my pen (or sometimes the more than one book I’m working on) while allowing myself to dream of others and scribble towards them while still completing the work I’m doing. So there are a lot of things I haven’t yet accomplished. And of course, organizing my drawers, which I will never do, and that’s all right, because the saddest thing my mother said after my sister died was that she was so well organized.
10. If you could tell moms who long to create as they raise little ones a word of advice, what would it be?
Children learn by watching parents, so that if we want them to be creative, we ourselves have to do creative work and model how it is done and that it is done. I have been struck by how many parents (moms, so very often) work very hard to ensure that their children are exposed to dance, music, sports, etc., yet neglect to allow themselves to do their own creative work. Postponing our own creative work until the kids grow up will (almost certainly) make us resentful, sad, and miserable—at least that is the way it was for me. And that kind of parent can’t parent well. Some simple practices allowed me to continue to write (and knit and paint) when my kids were small, and I offer them here. 1) Do household chores when kids are awake; if they nap and when they nap and if they are at school or when they are at school and we are a stay-at-home parent, do our creative work during those times. So many of my friends would spend that time doing laundry, cleaning house and then complain that they had no time to do their work. We learned that kids are better off having happy satisfied parents who, though we of course must make sacrifices, don’t put off our dreams until they grow up. Kids don’t always fulfill our dreams for them or repay the sacrifices we made for them—that’s the human condition; sacrificing our dreams entirely for them doesn’t make much sense. 2) If we work while raising kids, as I did, then finding time is necessarily difficult. But I was not the kind of parent who played with my children; I did my creative work while my children played. I set them up to do something when I was home with them, and I worked alongside them. Not ideal, but doable. Once on a rainy weekend day while their father was working and I was “in charge” I gave them a basket of yarn and they tied the house up—it took hours; it was gorgeous; and later they learned about artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude who tied things up. I always had lots of stuff they could play with in a creative way: paper, crayons, pens, boxes. They knew I wrote books, and they were happy to sit in my study writing their own work as I wrote mine.
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