Elizabeth Hilts, writer and Fairfield University MFA student, invited me to contribute to her third semester project, "The Writer's Life." Here are the results, with hopes you'll find something useful here. It's long, but no one will hold it against you if you skip around.
THE WRITER’S LIFE—A LOOK BEHIND THE MYTH
AUTHOR QUESTIONS FOR PAUL LISICKY
THE “DREAM” OF WRITING
Q: So many aspiring writers have this dream of what their lives will be like once they’ve attained a certain goal—usually publishing the first story, the first book—as if that thing was something more than a step in making a career. Did you have some dream vision of what the writing life would be? If so, how close is the reality to that vision?
A: I never had a dream other than to give my best to the story, novel, or memoir in front of me. I also belief that if you focus on the craft, people will hear about the work, talk about it. The longer I write the less I’m interested in career and goals. Well, I have goals for the writing itself, certainly. But that’s a different thing.
Then there’s that other part of the story, though, that’s different from craft. I’m thinking about the affirmation of individuality in the work. Affirmation is a tricky word; maybe “acknowledgement” is more precise—it sounds less programmatic. That part of the work is really important to me, the current in it that hopes the reader, by coming into contact with my voice, will feel less alone in his. Or hers. That’s definitely part of the vision of the work, an aspect of it that keeps me interested and compelled.
Q: When did the “dream” become a reality for you—when did you consider yourself a writer?
A: I might officially call myself a writer, but privately I think of myself as “someone who writes.” More vocation than career. Process rather than goals.
THE NUTS, BOLTS AND OTHER REALITIES OF WRITING AS A JOB
Q. As writers, we are essentially self-employed—which comes as a shock to some aspiring authors. How much time do you spend dealing with the self-employment aspect of being a writer—bookkeeping, self-promotion (website/Twitter/blogging), drumming up “new business” in the form of writing assignments?
A: Honestly, I don’t think of my writing through the metaphors of the business world. My character refuses it. I’m certainly interested in making contact with other writers through my blog, or through social networks, but it’s mostly because I happen to be drawn to other people who organize their lives around language.
Q: Do you have a system for tracking the works you’ve submitted?
A: Mostly it’s in my head. Or I have a record of it in an email. After you’ve been at this for a while, editors get to know your work, and you’re lucky enough to get solicited. But that takes years, many years. Actually, I usually don’t have that much work out at any time.
Q: How did you find your agent?
A: I’ve actually had three agents over the past nineteen years. There is a long story behind this, but the interesting fact is that none of these agents helped me get a contract, I made contact with the editors of those books myself. Right now I’m agent-free, and happily so; I made the decision myself. The way the publishing industry is shaking down these days, a writer can usually do much better on his own, negotiating his own contracts, especially if he’s writing literary fiction, published by an indie press. I think I have a firmer sense of how I’d want my work to be presented than an agent might, anyway. I want to be the boss of me, but it took a long time to figure that out.
Listen to Steve Almond’s really good podcast about this matter on the Moby Lives website. It was recorded five years ago, but it was really prescient.
Q: How do you keep track of ideas for essays, stories, books, poems?
A: I have a document or two that I keep on-line that’s labeled IDEAS—nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes I scribble things on the back of envelopes, but they usually get lost long before I sit down to write. I figure there must be a reason for that.
KEEPING BODY AND SOUL TOGETHER
Q: When you were first starting out as a writer, how did you support yourself? Do you do that same kind of work now, or has being an established writer opened up different opportunities?
A: In the early years, I worked as a writer of geography textbooks for high school students, a landscaper, a clerk in a clothing store, as a clerk for the arts center where I had been a fellow. Years before that, I had a job as a technical writer for a software company. But since then most of my income has come from teaching and giving readings.
Q: Does teaching provide anything more than income? For example, do you find that exposure to other writers’ work makes you think about your own writing in sometimes surprising ways?
A: One thing that teaching requires to do is to read closely—and to name what we see—whether we’re talking about student work or outside work, and that can’t but help our own writing. I love the conversations that happen in that classroom, the questions raised, the spontaneity of trying to make meaning of the story in front of us. And there’s nothing better than watching one’s students go on to publish stories and books.
Q: Talk to me about fellowships, grants and writer-in-residence positions. Does one need to have an “in” to get these?
A: In many situations a judge is required to recuse himself if he has any connection to an applicant. I’ve had to walk out of the room more than once when I’ve been a judge and a friend’s work has come up for discussion. But different awards have different systems. I’m often moved by the seriousness and scrupulousness with which applications are reviewed in the judging process; it’s tremendous work to be a panelist, sometimes several hundreds of pages must be read in a month or two, and one could only do it because one cares about sustaining the art.
I think it’s crucial to be part of the literary community, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any prize because of my connection to anybody. (Come to think of it, I got most of my prizes very early in my writing life when I didn’t know a soul!)
Here’s where personal connections help: in getting readings, getting teaching jobs and to a lesser extent, in getting books published. By and large, one should think about the literary community as something one could contribute to, rather than something to get something from. In other words, “how can I help sustain and nourish this endangered art?” I think people who think like that are the happiest.
YOUR WRITING COMMUNITY
Q: You’ve said in interviews that you and Mark are one another’s first readers and I’m sure that there’s much positive about your husband also being a writer (and maybe one or two things that would be…less positive). But what about others? How do you maintain connection with your community of writers, those peers who support you in your work (and who you support)?
A: Mark is my first and chief reader, but I show my work to others writers who know my work and get it, but care about enough me to be hard on it. I try to do the same thing back for them. A few of my readers: Elizabeth McCracken, Victoria Redel, the poet Marie Howe. They’re all friends, close friends, first and foremost, but writing is only one aspect of those friendships.
Q: How have you balanced the time it takes to write with the “demands” of work, the time it takes to maintain relationships with family and friends, and the mundane details of life?
A: I haven’t! I don’t know of any writer who knows how the hell to do it. And it only gets harder over the years. You make a list in your head and you feel good if you take care of the two things at the top of the list on any given day. Of course the better known you are, the greater the demands on your attention, and that’s dangerous, as any writer could conceivably give himself over to what I call “literary maintenance”—blurbs, emails, letters of recommendation, introductions to write, commissioned essays, talks, and on and on and on—and not get one’s own writing done. If anything, I think I might have gotten a little better about living, day to day, with projects undone. And maybe that’s as much as we can expect of ourselves.
Q: You posted an entry on your blog titled, “Alive with Current,” in which you wrote:
“I write because my life would be taken over by second incidents if I didn’t have the means to make order of the randomness—the revelation on the sidewalk next to the annoying, the absurd. I’d be flotsam, done to, a feather flying around on a current of air. Nothing makes me feel more solid, or present, than when I’m sitting at my laptop, even when it’s slow, and the sentences strain against the contours of my speaking voice. At least I am making something. At least I am listening--or trying to. Looking at moments, the dimensions inside moments. Thinking. It’s as necessary to me as food or sex. It’s prayer. And I couldn’t imagine the day without that act of attention being a part of it.”
So, tell me about how this happens, tell me about your writing habits. Do you have a specific place where you write? Do you maintain a strict schedule? Do you write on a specific kind of paper, with a specific implement or do you use a typewriter/computer? Do you have any rituals surrounding writing?
A: I used to live the kind of live where I could write for a few hours every morning on my non-teaching days. That steadiness is less true now that I’m giving a few dozen readings a year. I’ve learned to be adaptable. Part of that comes from living half the time in Manhattan where there’s also voices carrying up from the street, and cab horns honking, and precious little quiet space. We don’t have room enough for a desk in our apartment, so we’ve learned to write in coffee shops and public spaces. I seem to write well on trains; I’ve also written on planes, even when the plane is filling up. What I don’t do well is write when I’m away from home, when I’m by myself in some flavorless motel after a reading. But there’s something to be said about writing done when we don’t plan on it, when we honor that impulse, say, when we’re at the gym, or twenty minutes before teaching. I often like the material that comes out of those situations.
As far as implements…usually it’s my laptop, but I’ve been known to write in notebooks, especially when I don’t want to be distracted by email or Twitter or the whole on-line world: Grand Central Station inside the magic screen in front of us.
Q: What about doubt? There must have been times when you thought about not sending the next piece out. Yet you persevered, kept submitting (such the perfect word), kept revising. What drives you to persevere?
A: I can’t not make things, and it’s as simple as that. It’s not so much a matter of choice. A lot of what I do is so raw in the early stages that I can’t bear to see it like that. I need to make it better in order to live with myself. So maybe what I find compelling, in part: the acts of improvement, repair. Here’s a quote from Larry Rivers that pretty much sums it up for me: "It's just that I want to get things so badly that I keep at it. I always like to think that I'd like to get at something the first second I do it. The first second--I just want to get it all. And I don't. And then it becomes a matter of not being able to stand that anybody would see it bad."
Q: What role do you think luck has played in your career?
A: Well, I’ve certainly had good luck, and I’ve had bad luck, too. I think both sides of it are true for anyone who’s in it for the long haul. The crucial thing is how you tell the story of your luck to yourself. For instance, if you focus on the prizes not won, the novels put aside—well, that’s going to be your story, isn’t it? And it’s probably not going to do your soul, or your work, any good.
Q: What non-writing activities “feed” your writing, what kinds of things do you actively do to encounter those random moments like the one you wrote about on your blog, those moments that make you think about some…thing? Or do you think of going to the movies, cooking, gardening, music and going to a gallery or museum as a chance to turn off the writing?
A: Definitely reading. Listening to music. Looking for new music. I’m pretty much a failure as a cook and a gardener, and I get frustrated and bored so easily by movies if they’re not brilliant. Definitely running and/or working out—those are helpful ways to get out of one’s head, back into the body. I like taking local trips, walking or driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood, coming upon something strange and wonderful. The ocean in summer. Riding my bike. Or just going to familiar restaurant, sitting where I always like to sit.