How to Uncage Your Inner Writer? Ask Your Inner Pulitzer-Prize-Winner.

photo by ::Prad Prathivi @ Amodica::

A few years ago, I had this dream of being in prison. It looked a lot like a college campus. Their so-called torture was a series of empty threats but no real torture. All in all, it wasn’t bad, but I felt trapped. I was, however, allowed to walk the grounds. One day, I decided to try to escape. So, I ran all the way to the edge of the grounds and found that there wasn’t a watchtower or a wall or even a chain-link fence with barbed wire. Those things weren’t necessary because, on the other side, was a gray desert. Unlivably scorched.

The dream wasn’t hard for me to unravel. It was about being an assistant professor and feeling like a caged writer.

That afternoon, I knew that I wanted advice. I pulled up to a red light – I remember the exact intersection – and asked myself, “If you could get advice from anyone, who would it be?”

I picked Richard Russo – a professor and writer who’d surely felt caged, if his novel Straight Man was any indication. I realized I couldn’t really track him down and ask him for advice – he’d once blurbed a novel of mine, but we didn’t know each other. So I closed my eyes and said, “Okay, Rick. I need some help. What should I do?”

The answer was immediate. And unless Russo is part-deity, it clearly sprang up from inside of me because I knew the answer all along. It was simple: “Insulate and go off.”

The advice was to find a way to protect myself – creatively, somehow, anyway I could – and to truly write what I felt I had to, needed to.

I did just that. I decided insulation was a state of mind. Did I really care what other people thought of my writing? I’d already learned there was little to gain from praise. I’d come to rely on criticism and to siphon energy from rejection.  I encouraged my restlessness. I wrote a lot and I wrote it recklessly and playfully. I dabbled in bizarre fabulism. I found my appetite for world building. I opened up my canvas and decided to sprawl out.

I didn’t think of the market. I wrote to the page. I went off.  Eventually, what emerged was the first book in a trilogy, a novel titled Pure. I honestly didn’t think of anyone in my profession reading the book until I’d sent it to my agent and, at that moment of hitting send, a flush rose to my cheeks – a delayed self-consciousness. I’m thankful it came when it was too late to dig its claws into the work.

Eventually, I had a lot of readers who helped shape the book. I went through what seemed like endless rounds of revision, but that all came later. Insulation had been essential. The publishing story has been a very happy one, including film rights selling to Fox2000. The final book in the trilogy comes out next month; it has been a wild ride. And I’m very thankful I took the advice.

So I guess my advice to all of you is that, most likely, you hold your own best advice. You know yourself better than anyone. You know what you’re stuck on and what you need to do in this new year. I hadn’t been listening to myself. I’d needed to call up the spirit of someone with greater authority, someone I’d pay attention to, and then the answer was there. Try it.

A couple of years later, I met Russo at a writer’s conference.  I told him the story and thanked him for the advice he’d never really given me. He was gracious, funny, and generous. He was, in fact, the kind of guy to give the advice to insulate and go off.  My inner Russo made a pretty good call.

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About Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the author of of eighteen books, including Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012; the sequel, Fuse, will be published in February. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode -- most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Julianna: So, you’re an author of some 18 books and then you had this experience to go rogue and risk a new writing adventure? It must have been very exciting for you. After reading your post a question came to my mind. When you say you “needed to call up the spirit of someone with greater authority,” were you calling up the muse? So many writers tell me they don’t believe in muses. But I’ve been curious and fascinated about how writers break into true creative inspiration like you seemed to have done. You say the thought came from inside you, from your inner Russo. But I have to wonder … would you say that what you call your inner Russo is your muse?
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..Literary Horror: Windeye by Brian Evenson

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  2. says

    Julianna-

    I’ve written, taught and advocated the methods of breaking down the the box and setting oneself free. Many contributors here on Writer Unboxed (the site name is not an accident, surely) have described how their best work has come from experiences similar to yours.

    What I like about your post today is that you also are honest about revision. The writing process in a way is first striking out bravely and alone to create a story uniquely one’s own, then returning to measure its effect upon readers. One must be both fiercely independent and yet, at other times, attuned to one’s audience.

    Is it the first and final drafts that need to be most emphatically one’s own? I can tell you this: Writers who start out first of all trying to satisfy the market and meet readers’ expectations do not write original, high-impact fiction. On the other hand, writers who ignore or disdain feedback are uneven and less consistently effective than they’d like to be.

    Russo’s advice is good, glad you followed it. I’m also glad you listened to feedback. If the end result of the process are novels that fulfill your purpose, and which both engage your readers *and* make your point, then you’ve escaped the prison.

    (BTW, so interesting that your prison looked like a college campus. MFA students, take note.)
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Starred Review: The Shibboleth by John Hornor Jacobs

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  3. says

    Hello Julianna- isn’t it amazing how a) the best writing advice is always along those lines and b) how hard it is to remember and act on it?

    Lately my go-to writing advice is from Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Wildly successful sitcom, right? And he had tons of trouble getting it off the ground. Then one night a friend said to him, “You know, you should just write what you want to write- they’re going to cancel you some day anyway.’ In other words, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

    Happy New Writing Year!

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  4. Denise Willson says

    We often talk about our character’s journey. But we too are changed when we pour ourselves onto the page. Writing is personal, an internal conflict that should, at the end, lead to something altered inside us. Wonderful, isn’t it?

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the process, Julianna.

    My best to you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  5. says

    A wonderful post laced with great advice. I’ve faced such moments before over other issues and always I buried my head instead. In 2005 I discovered my courage and started listening to that inner voice. It’s served me well. Now, I embark on a new adventure where my writing is central and it was that same inner voice that inspired the journey.
    Christina´s last blog post ..Growing Just A Little

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  6. Bob Greee says

    Wonderful information. I have been twisted by this person and that who “suggest” my writing could be improved, yet they have never published and/or their stories are shallow and stilted. So I have come to the conclusion and your post confirms, that I am my best story consultant and to let the words and ideas fly then sit back and use trusted (experienced) people who can advise on my direction. Thank you.

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    • Tina says

      Bob Greee: Some unpublished people may be able to give you very good advice concerning your novel. These people are called readers. There are many readers who know a great book when they read one, even though they are not writers.

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  7. Carmel says

    Great paragraph on praise and criticism.

    I found I had to get past caring what people would think of me in order to write honestly. I still need to work on freely.

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  8. says

    Always revision. Always always. And yes, Maass, it was when I was explaining the dream to my husband in the morning and in trying to explain the prison said, “A lot like a college campus,” well, I just stopped there — a particularly rough patch in academe (reviews, tenure…)
    I don’t think Russo was my muse. He was my counsel, my elder, my sage — my authority figure. My muse would be A. definitely a woman. B. very hostile. C. with advice like an old-school, foul-mouthed football coach.

    Julianna
    Julianna Baggott´s last blog post ..a bit on epiphany

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  9. says

    This is great, Julianna. Broke from writing a blog tour post about yearning to read it, and love how the two go together. Without honoring your deepest expressive impulses you won’t activate the yearning that will see you through the project.
    Kathryn Craft´s last blog post ..My Life as a Grand Bitch

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  10. says

    Julianna, your post reads like a scene from a best selling novel. I’ll have to read it again, just for the fun of it.

    Thanks, for recycling the idea of a prison with no walls. Hmmm, I like that. It’s sounds useful.

    Ahhh, we’ll have to take your post and Nora Roberts bio, and send them out to the world like a hungry virus.

    Oh the possiblities…………..
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..It’s a journey best traveled with your mind open and your preconceived notions shut.

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  11. says

    Great post, Julianna. I’ve fallen into the trap of writing for the market and it ends up like something that came out of a can. It’s tough to open a vein and let the words flow, but once we do, we take on a unique voice. Of course, the problem is that none of us likes the sound of our own voice. So we have to take that leap of faith, hit “send,” and trust in ourselves. Thanks again for the post.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Top 10 Ways to Pay off our $17trillion Debt

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  12. says

    Thank you so much for your honesty and revelation. It means so much to me. I have been struggling so much with this. Your journey has given mine some new light. Thank you. I will be linking to this article on a blog post where I can share my thoughts on this “prison”. Thanks again Julianna!
    Jodi

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  13. says

    Great post. I firmly believe in trusting oneself, like you did. I try to do that when I approach the page and it helps. As long as I’m clear and not wrapped up in too much stress it usually works out just fine.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Best Reads in 2013!

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  14. says

    Julianna, I haven’t been able to move forward with my novel. Donald Maass’s post, “Novel Resolutions,” set me free. Now your post hits with a spiritual kick for the New Year.

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