Why We Write, Why We Stop, and How We Can Possibly Restart and Keep Going

photo by Sebastien Wiertz
photo by Sebastien Wiertz

I put out a call on Facebook a few days ago, asking writers who aren’t writing, why they aren’t writing. (I know some of my own reasons.) Of course, not writing because you know your creative process and the value of fallow fields is good. I’m interested in reaching out to those who’d rather be writing and aren’t or, for some reason or another, can’t. Here are some unrefined thoughts on the subject. (If I were capable of refined thoughts, I’d be writing a new novel right now.)

Most of the people wrote in saying that time was the issue. I’ve given a lot of advice in the past on creating time, on reserving your freshest brain cells for your own work (and committing to that), on reclaiming your muse time (down time while showering, gazing, waiting for kids to get out of practice, commuting) — I have a very specific speech for this alone.

But the fact is that when juggling the demands of a very, very busy life, sometimes there simply isn’t enough time. And the novel, in particular, is so architectural burdensome and, early-on, so ungainly that it’s very hard to work on it in small increments. This is why artist colonies exist and why some writing professors simply don’t write until summer hits. (I can’t work this way. I have to write or my gears would whir too hard, and I’d resent those around me. I believe in living life with a metaphorical metal detector, always listening for the beeps of possible resentment and digging them out so they can’t root — especially important in relationships.)

But what happens here is that the desire to write when you know you won’t really have the time and head space to do it is painful. It’s an ache. And sometimes the only way to make it not ache is to shut down your desire to write. Stop the wanting. If you practice this, however, this tamping out of the creative impulse, you’ll perfect it. And once shut off tight, it’s hard to open again. There’s been a breach of trust inside of yourself.

I’m not sure that I have a fix. (Can you accept the ache if you know that a stretch is coming? Can you build stretches for yourself? Can you work with your partner to find ways to allow yourself time and head space?) I do know that shutting down the want is not healthy. It’s a shutting down on a life force.

In lieu of not having a great answer to the above, I’ll offer three things I’ve thought of recently about why I get stuck.
[Read more…]

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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.

On the Quilting of One-Liners (and the Second Coming of Once-Dead Darlings)

Julianna post
photo (adapted) by jude hill

There are wire bins in my office, marked with the titles of different projects. One bin, however, is just labeled “Ideas.” Sometimes I throw plot lines in that bin. Sometimes I’ll write the title of a possible future novel — with nothing else because I don’t know anything else but the title.

Mostly, however, I toss in one-liners. I don’t put these one-liners in a word document because I like the physical reminder — they sit in bins on shelves in my peripheral vision. Physical space is important. It’s why I worry about e-readers. How many times have I been saved because I shoved myself back from my desk and gazed at my bookshelf. Invariably when I do this, my eyes land on a title, and I pull the book out, open it randomly, and find some footing. Some writer — with some random lines plucked from the middle of a book they wrote ages ago — throws me a life jacket across time and distance via language and image, and I’m thankful. I don’t claim to understand that process. I just know it works for me. I need the bins to be part of my terrarium.

The bins are also important because they remind me that I don’t just have a bunch of blank pages to fill. I have something to fill them with. I don’t have to create from nothing.

And so you might now be able to imagine the way I often work — a process of quilting, assemblage by way of parts. In fact, when I come to the end of a novel I’ve written, I can usually open the book, point to a line, and explain where it came from. It’s also how I like to judge a book I might want to read. I’ll take in the opening sentence and then flip through it, land on line, flip again, land on a line, flip again, land on a line, and then decide. Does the mystery of the gaps between the random lines hold my interest?

Here are a few one-liners from my recent novel — The Future for Curious People — co-written with Gregory Sherl. They aren’t all exact quotes from the novel, but close. Some of these lines are his, some mine, some a mix, and some may have started out as scrawl on a scrap and dropped in a bin. These are certainly the kinds of bits that fill my Ideas bin. [Read more…]

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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.

The Root of “Prolific”

photo by Flickr's Hartwig HKD
photo by Flickr’s Hartwig HKD

People ask me about my prolific nature and I have different answers. I’ve said that each novel teaches me how to write it. The term prolific novelist dredges up the notion of a formulaic writer; my prolific nature, however, comes from the opposite impulse. I get tired of myself. I get tired of Baggott being Baggott – which is my last name and increasingly how my own growing kids refer to me. I’ll do anything to get away from my own obsessions, to somehow convince myself that the mother in yet another novel isn’t my mother, etc… You know the drill. You have your own damn obsessions.

And I’ll do anything to convince myself that I’m a rank amateur again – that I’m in some new genre, one in which I’m an outsider who’s got no right to be there. In other words, a literary territory in which I’m free to … muck around.

And although I’ve been married to my husband for almost twenty-one years (I’ve come to consistently refer to myself as a child bride so the endurance of my marriage doesn’t date me so … hard), I like to have the novel under deadline and the novel on the side. I’m very Catholic about my wedding vows, but no novel ever asked me to be steadfast and true.

What I’m saying is that I find ways of taking myself – the author – out of authority. Each novel teaches me how to write it because I force myself to make it new – even if that means writing with some new kind of psychological blindfold, some new kind of genre-terrain, or some clandestine way of writing a novel with no one else’s eyes upon it.

There’s the old wisdom of, “Write what you know.” I write what I want to know. I write what I need – certainly the page doesn’t need me the way that I need it. I write to be known, to know others. I write to breathe this world out. I write because I’m scared and weary and because suffering surrounds us. Suffering is the instinct that drives my post-apocalyptic trilogy but also the force behind my domestic comedy.

You want to know the truth. When I talk to writers who put off writing, I marvel. I don’t know how they do it. I sometimes want to tell them the awful truth that they seem unaware of. [Read more…]

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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.

On the Care and Feeding of Writers

photo by Shandi-lee

I have a widget on my blog that lists the most popular posts in a sidebar. The one that has slowly grown to the number one spot over the last year is about women writers and ambition. It was prompted last year by VIDA’s Count – a now annual expose on the percentages of women writers represented in various literary publications and book reviews. The point of my essay went beyond the outrage of gender disparity and focused on why these publications and reviews matter to women – in those late-night conversations that couples have at their kitchen tables, deciding how to make ends meet, maybe with a child sleeping in a bedroom down the hall, trying to figure out who deserves the investment of time, which is what every writer needs if they’re to have a real career. My point was that a woman writer’s argument that she has rightful claim to that investment is bolstered by a literary publication in, say, The Paris Review, and a culture that takes women writers seriously. I also mentioned that it’s often the case that the woman writer has to first convince herself that her career is worthy of the investment of time.

Then, today, as my column deadline loomed, my husband, Dave, and I were talking about what I should write. I wanted to follow up on the ideas about women and ambition, but, in truth, my path has been very different. My kitchen table conversations weren’t arguments. Dave and I have done things differently. Finally, he said, “Write about how to support a writer. This time, write a letter to the people behind the scenes in a writer’s life. Tell them how it’s done.”

The problem is I don’t know how it’s done. I was the stay-at-home person for the first six years of our marriage while our oldest three were little, but my husband has long since taken over that role. We’ve been married twenty years and have four children. I see my husband do it every day, but it’s like watching someone sing opera. There’s something about breathing, something about making notes and the resonance of the space you’re in. But I’ve got nothing.

I’ve been the one in the room, writing for long hours – the sole breadwinner, trying to make ends meet. I’ve been the one who stays in that room until I have something to show – in large part to honor his daily work and sacrifices to give me that time. In the long hours of his days – driving children around, grocery shopping, cooking, leaning into what can be the isolating, frustrating, and ultimately the noble and beautiful work of raising a family – all I know is that he has the ability to say, “Keep going. Write.” Where does that come from? Some wellspring.

So I’m not going to write that advice to those who support writers. I’ll let him do it.

And Dave takes over. [David G.W. Scott is a poet, writer, former communications director, newspaper editor, semi-pro soccer player, and teacher, who is currently Julianna Baggott’s creative (and life) partner. ]

First of all, this is Julianna’s sneaky way of getting me to write. We met in grad school, almost immediately after her mother had dropped her off with the parting line, “Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with a poet!” I was getting my MFA in poetry at UNC Greensboro, and I became that poet her mother was so afraid of. But maybe her mother was afraid of Beat Poets (or Language Poets), and so she accepted me.

The question is how do you support a writer.

1. The most basic and obvious is to let them do it, give them time. But it’s more complicated than that because so much of the time spent writing yields little results. In this way, I’m spoiled because Julianna is working on so many projects, and works so quickly, that she always has something to show me. [Read more…]

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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.

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: [Read more…]

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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.