Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Author Sara Levine answers your questions about writing

In addition to giving you some great tips (see previous post) Sara Levine has very kindly answered some questions posted by Writing Roomers on facebook and twitter.

Sara is the author of Treasure Island!!!, one of our favourite reads of recent months (The New York Times, amongst others, thought that the novel was pretty good too).

We're so grateful to Sara, and hope you find her answers useful.

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere 

• "As soon as the book starts your protagonist comes across as opinionated and gutsy, did you have to think long and hard about getting her voice right or did it come naturally?"

Thanks. I got her voice early on; the tone, the syntactical habits, the lusty if half-crazed attention to metaphor—that came on pretty much the same moment I got the idea for the novel.

But it was work to sustain the voice over the course of a novel so I don't know if I can claim the voice came "naturally."

• "Is there a particular genre you want to leave your stamp on?"

No, I don't think of leaving a stamp on anything.

If I come into your house, I worry about leaving footprints on your carpet.

But there are two genres I was consciously playing with: boy adventure fiction and chick lit. Each one provided me with conventions to write against and gave me questions to chew on: What is adventure? What constitutes a modern heroine? etc.

• "Did being a writing teacher encourage or discourage you to write books yourself?"

I love teaching.

I usually teach seven students one-on-one in a tutorial situation, and I also teach workshops and seminars.

I've learned a lot—I've basically used teaching as a way to pursue my own apprenticeship—but the course load at my particular school is heavy.

It can be a challenge to find the time to get writing done, especially since, unlike with the teaching, there won't be fifteen students saying, "Hey, why didn't you pass that back yet?" Here's how I console myself: it would be a challenge to get my writing done even if you put me on a desert island.

I have to have some kind of job so this particular problem—how to balance writing with teaching—is one I'm happy to struggle with.

• "What are the worst and the best parts of being a writer?"

Best: how writing sharpens my consciousness and makes something solid out of the inchoate mental vapor in which I live.

Worst: I need to be alone, which often means saying no or no, not now to the people I love.

• "Once you had the idea and started writing how did you push through to the end? Was it a strict routine or a lot of noodling? Or somewhere in between?"

A lot of noodling with some long stretches of ass-kicking discipline.

'Treasure Island !!!' author Sara Levine's advice for writers

Our Spare Room writers' group takes a bit of a different form this month...

When it comes to sharing writing advice, Sara Levine is someone you want to listen to.

Currently the chair of the Writing Programme at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sara previously taught in the MFA in NonFiction Writing Programme at the University of Iowa -  and holds a PhD in English from Brown.

This teacher knows how it feels on the other side of the desk too: Sara is a critically acclaimed short story writer ("This book is a wonder"- Matthea Harvey) and her first novel, Treasure Island!!!, was published earlier this year to rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic ("a remarkable debut" - Toronto Globe).

So read on... and in the next blog check out Sara's answers to some of the questions you posted (we got a lot of questions for Sara, sorry she couldn't answer them all!).

You can follow Sara on twitter, @levinehere

Three small pieces of advice about writing

1. Understand and accept your failure rate

The poet Eavan Boland describes this idea by likening the writing process to "working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety-five, it's just a rock face. The other five days, there's a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it."

I'm not sure when exactly I learned this (maybe yesterday), but it was important for me to understand that not every writing session was going to find me sitting there like Flaubert, weeping over Madame Bovary.

If you're realistic about how many bad paragraphs you need to write before you manage a good one, you can finish a work day in a pretty good mental state, which makes it easier to go back to work tomorrow.

Tell yourself that you're doing your job just by showing up at the rock face.

2. Learn how to goad yourself into writing

I think a lot of so-called committed writers don't always feel like doing it.

Rather than spiral into agonies of self-doubt ("Wow, do I really want to do this? Maybe I'm not committed enough; I bet Hemingway never felt this way…") figure out what helps you get started and do it.

I have a friend who always reads a page of a great writer before she begins - "but only a page," she warns, "or you lose the morning."

I have another friend who, when she feels stuck, buys herself a new pen and begins writing by hand. (She has three books now and great collection of felt-tips.)

The point is everybody feels resistance to writing sometimes, and the most helpful course is to expect that resistance - maybe even greet it like an old friend - and cheerfully strategize against it. 

Here is Virginia Woolf talking to herself in her diary in 1922:
"The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First, gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature."

I love reading Virginia Woolf's diary for many reasons, not least of which is she is always coming up with "game plans."

3. Understand that patience doesn't make you a pansy

For me, the writing always takes a longer time than I think it will. And that's okay. You don't take a cake out of the oven early just because you want to eat it.

The world isn't knocking on the door saying, "Hey? Where's that novel?" Only your ego is saying that. Writing goes much better when you forget about your ego. Just relax and take your time.

Don't look at the clock; look at the technical problems on your page, which are so much more interesting.