Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success – which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day. Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid – swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out. —Amanda Palmer (via).
I used to play the game, I used to be good at it. But I wasn’t always this way. I spent much of my childhood alone, and while I received praise and accolades for my writing throughout my life, the sting–of repeatedly pulled into rooms and asked, in hushed tones, if there was a problem at home, or losing prizes because my writing was too dark, too haunting, because you can’t expect parents to give an award to someone who wrote a story about a girl hanging herself–was sometimes too much to bear. It was as if my writing had to bear the constant weight of a coda, a we love this but…
Why can’t you write happy stories? Are you incapable of it? Making me feel I have to apologize for the fact that my repertoire sits perhaps too comfortably in disquiet. Making me feel small and confused when I tell someone this isn’t that dark, to which they respond, with a sigh, oh, but it is. As if darkness can’t have a voice–it must be smothered until the flames flicker and fade out and there are only the peonies to harvest. There can only be the simple and compact, where all worlds are reconciled neatly by the final page.
But that doesn’t interest me.
I’ll tell you how I write. I hear voices–calm down, calm down–I hear a character. This is how a story begins for me. I start with people and see where they go. I’ll be on the subway like many of you, and I’ll even swipe here or turn a page there, but a scene will play itself out in my head. At first I’ll know nothing about these people other than the fact that they’ve seized my attention. And that’s what’s important–someone brings me in. Over time, the scenes start to multiply and I can see faces. They’re fictional, really. Maybe it’s a man I’ve seen in the street and my gaze will linger longer that what’s appropriate. Or maybe it’s an actor–someone not famous, but has been in more bad films than good (I often thought of Kyle Gallner–my god, he’s beautiful and fragile; I can’t stop staring at his face–when I created Jonah)–and then I’ve got people to play with. Suddenly, they’re real enough for me to get them on the page and see where the day takes them. My stories always start with a scene and I build around that. Nothing is ever linear, nothing is ever defined–that’s the after-hours work. I just move as my characters move and I love this; I love looking up and thinking, where the fuck did the day go?
Nothing thrills me more than leaving a still-hot page and listening to the chatter that continues on in my wake, because a scene never ends just because you decided to stop writing. It goes on, and I love when characters are like, you can do your own thing, but we’re going to keep talking over here. As the hours pass, the shouts become murmurs and whispers and soon they fall to quiet, ready for resurrection. For me the writing isn’t hard, rather it’s the architecture of the story that threatens to undo me. I have all these scenes but how do I arrange them? Much of my work is reconstruction, puzzle-work.
The last thing I’m thinking about is whether or not the story will be a happy or a linear one.
Years ago I drank my way through book parties, readings and other literary events that made me want to take acetylene torch to my eyes. I was forever feeling imposter syndrome–I could never keep up with the latest book, lit mag or 30-under-30 on the rise. I never thought my writing serious enough, you know, the worthy of James Wood piece or a Guardian review. But I had an MFA from a fancy school, a lit mag that was going places, and more importantly, I knew my booze and how to share it.
Still, I always felt like an outsider, someone skirting the edges of things. I was forever uncool, and exhausted of wearing the mask of an extrovert. All I wanted to do was go home and read and write, but people kept telling me that the business of publishing, the people who are good to know, was just as important as what I laid down on the page. Amidst the talented writers I’d come to know where people who got deals because they were beautiful, connected, had some sort of credential or “platform” or a combination of all of the above. And while it’s true that this has always been the case, discovering it, for someone who spent the bulk of her writing life without a community, was much like finding out there is no Santa Claus. The quarters under your pillow are not gifts from The Tooth Fairy, rather it’s an act of commerce. Teeth for cash. And through all of it I wrote less because I was distracted. I spent too much time playing a losing hand instead of surrounding myself with all sorts of people who could lift me up. I spent so much time working the room instead of untangling the voices in my head.
It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image. From Elena Ferrante’s Paris Review Interview
Earlier this year, my agent circulated my manuscript to a host of prominent editors. I can prattle on about their praise but it doesn’t interest me. What rattled me was the fact that my book was too hard for American audiences, too dark and alinear. Many couldn’t “relate” to my sociopathic lead character (ah, apparently in order for fiction to be sellable it has to be relatable). I’ve never been more proud of my book and here we go again with the codas.
I have a friend who is a tremendous writer. She is well-connected (not her doing, really, people genuinely want to orbit her), published and praised, and it was hard to see her write that so many dark, experimental books were being published and it took everything in me to tell her that her small circle was being published. That for every Maggie Nelson or Lydia Millet there are thousands of authors who are told they won’t sell because people like their characters flawed but not too flawed, and they prefer their endings like a good gin–neat.
It took me a while to stop judging the value of my work against a decision for someone to publish it. While we try to get this book out into the world I’m working on a new collection (I’m sure my agent would weep if he saw this) of stories about women at various stages of their undoing and unrest, a small taste of what you read this weekend.
We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination. –Meghan O’Rourke on Elena Ferrante’s anonymity
I admire Ferrante’s vigilance in protecting her identity, of keeping the author photo in the frame blank. All too often people look at my work, look at me and try to make connections between the two as if I don’t have an imagination, as if everything I write comes from personal experience. And then there are others, for whom what I write rings true and they feel somehow connected to me. And while I want to foster a feeling of community and connectedness, all too often people mistake that for knowing me. For thinking that reading something of mine gives them trespass to the life beyond what I’m comfortable sharing here. Both make me so unbearably uncomfortable because it makes me feel that the work could never stand on its own and that somehow me putting things here makes them less mine, me less mine.
I look at the woman I was ten years ago and she’s a stranger to me. I can’t even imagine moving at the same velocity or bearing the company of unkind people. Ferrante intrigues me because I crave so much solitude and I’ve consciously done things to compromise it. I love writing in this space but I don’t always love what it brings. So I keep strict guardrails in my world to protect my work and the quiet in my life.
At the end of the day what gives me joy are stories and the small, strange group of people around me who make them easier to tell.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from A Modern Way to Eat, with modifications
2 large eggs, at room temperature
7/8 cup of coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup and love it more than Bob’s Red Mill)
scant 1 cup of coconut palm sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup dried coconut (coconut flakes)
2/3 cup almond flour
3 1/2 tbsp coconut oil, melted and cooled
1/2 cup fresh blueberries tossed in a scant amount of flour
Pre-heat your oven to 350F. Spray an 8 inch loaf pan with coconut spray, line with parchment paper (bottom and up the sides) and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, coconut milk and vanilla. Set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flours, sugar, baking powder, and coconut. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the milk mixture, and mix on low until all the ingredients combine. Stream in the cooled coconut oil and mix. Fold in the blueberries.
Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out on a rack.