Almost without exception, author Ralph Keyes’ books top their list. His books, THE COURAGE TO WRITE and THE WRITER’S BOOK OF HOPE, have inspired countless writers to overcome their fears and to find ways to get on with it despite that nagging voice inside that tells us “What if our work is terrible? What if we never make it?” Contributors Marsha Moyer and Jack Slyde both recommended Keyes to beleaguered writers (we’ve featured them on our Craft Corner sidebar) and on their recommendations, I read and blogged about THE COURAGE TO WRITE here on WU. Both books helped me out of a dark, post-manuscript period and got me to see that these doubts and fears are natural, even desirable. My whining had nothing on E.B. White’s, and that made me feel inexpressibly better.
So imagine my delight when Ralph agreed to an interview, despite his packed schedule of speaking engagements, book deadlines, blogging, and toaster collecting. We are very pleased to bring you our interview the Ralph Keyes.
Q: What prompted you to write books to help writers overcome their fears and to find the courage to write?
RK: During decades of writing, and teaching writing, I’ve become painfully aware of how anxious a business putting words on paper can be – for me no less than anyone else. Yet anxiety is seldom discussed, or written about. II just felt that if we could put this topic on the table and take a look at it, we’d all be better equipped to move forward better with our writing.
Q: Is it natural for writers to write from a place of fear?
RK: It’s not only natural it’s inevitable. As I tell students (and wrote in The Courage to Write) “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing (anything of consequence, that is).” What mean by that is this: The best writing comes from deep within. If we reach deep within for words to put on paper, we might come up with things we’d rather people didn’t know about us. We might come up with things we’d rather not know about ourselves! This is scary. Yet it’s where we must go if we’re to write more than pablum. That’s why I have so much admiration for those who set out on this path.
Q: You mentioned that writers should be writing with some fear. What about writers who haven’t been able to tap into those emotions? Can you offer any advice for reaching deeper within to pull that “good stuff” up that can take a manuscript from “eh” to “wow”?
RK: When I lived in San Diego and taught writing there I once took a class full of students to non-tourist sections of Tijuana just to throw them off their feed. Some excellent writing about the experience resulted. At Prescott College in Arizona I did something similar with a writing class taking them camping in the Santa Catalina Mountains in the wintertime then writing about the experience. On other occasions I’ve simply assigned students to go to an unfamiliar environment that makes them uneasy and describe the experience. (In one writing class in Pennsylvania this involved a woman who had grown up thirty miles away from Philadelphia yet never been there until she went to write about it!) So I think that simply nudging yourself into unfamiliar settings – physical or emotional – can produce surprising results on the writing front.
Q: What do you think are the top three reasons that writers become hopeless? What can they do to overcome this?
RK: I’m tempted to say that the top three reasons for hopelessness are rejection, rejection, rejection. But let’s cast our net wider.
1) Not being able to write as well as we hoped we could. (Who can?)
2) Not being able to write at all.
Q: If we take a look at each of those three reasons, can you offer specific advice for authors facing those challenges?
RK: Reading about the experience of writers who have been there is enormously reassuring. Some of my favorite parts of The Writer’s Book of Hope are those that depict the sense of despair writers such as Flaubert and Woolf and Conrad endured on their way to immortality. I also like Paul Laurence Dunbar noting that he’d never once reproduced on paper exactly what was in his head, and e.e. cummings dedicating a book of poems to the many publishers who’d rejected it with their names arranged in the shape of a funeral urn.
Q: You’ve written 14 books on a variety of topics. Have you grappled with overcoming writer’s block yourself? What did you do?
RK: I have a number of tactics. Since I have to pay my bills with my writing, having bills to pay is a great motivator. Deadlines are another. (I’m amazingly shiftless without them.) When I’m not up against a looming deadline, shifting from one project to another helps keep me from blocking. If I have the time, taking a break from writing when I’m stale to do related work such as research, book publicity, networking, etc., can re-charge my writing batteries. But this is a risky tactic. It’s striking how persuasively we can convince ourselves that procrastination tasks (tidying up our office, writing e-mails, shopping for a new computer, etc.) are desperately important. Mary Higgins Clark calls this as soon as syndrome. “As soon as _____, I’m going to get some writing done.” Fill in the blank.
Q: Have you heard of other tricks that may work with unpublished writers – or writers working without deadline-motivation?
RK: Be as creative in your tactics as you are in your writing. Find what gets your engine going, no matter how peculiar it may seem to others. One poet splashes ink on her blouse early on just to get it over with and give her self a sense of abandon. John McPhee tied the sashes of his bathrobe to the arms of his chair to keep himself there. Many writers – Hemingway in particular – gave themselves quotas of words they had to write before leaving their desk. Raymond Chandler made himself stay at his typewriter for a certain amount of time every day whether he wrote anything or not. Whatever works.
Q: We’ve interviewed many writers, and with few exceptions most tell us they become successful after painful years of rejection and failure. What can writers do to overcome this paralyzing sense of failure?
RK: What works for me is reading about writers such as Beckett, Seuss, Rowling, et al who went through terrible periods of rejection before becoming “overnight success stories.” (Irony alert.) Hey, if Beckett can keep going after 42 rejections of his first book, who am I to whine and feel sorry for myself. Not that I don’t do both, but I try to persevere nonetheless.
Q: We’ve also talked to writers who find success just as paralyzing as failure. Why is that?
RK: In our book Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins, Richard Farson and I have a chapter on the failure of success. In it we write about the loss of friends, of privacy, and identity that inevitably follow when we “succeed” on society’s terms. I remember vividly hearing Dustin Hoffman interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and saying how much more he liked being an actor when he was struggling with a group of friends to make the grade. When he did and they didn’t, those friendships suffered. Hoffman said that if he’d known how much success he’d enjoy as an actor he might have chosen some other line of work.
Q: Writing is a lonely occupation. Do you recommend writers groups or online groups to help writers out of their isolation? Why or why not?
RK: I have mixed feelings on that subject. Early in my career I always belonged to writers’ groups and found them invaluable: for the company, the solace, the shop talk, and the help with my writing. Reading aloud to listening ears can be a remarkably helpful exercise, independent of feedback. However I think at a certain point it’s tempting to over-rely on a group when one should be slogging, alone. Where that point is I can’t say. At this stage of my career, however, I find slogging more useful than grouping.
Q: Many of your books focus on revealing shared experiences like how Americans overcome the often searing years of high school, how sons regard their fathers, and now how many distinguished writers are just as afraid as any of us. What has drawn you to exploring the commonalities?
RK: I like to think of my specialty as “universal secrets”: difficult inner worlds that we think afflict us alone. One thing I like about writing is that it provides such a wonderful opportunity for confidential chats with readers. In the privacy of writing, and reading, we can discuss topics that are a little touchy, a bit embarrassing, and feel less alone in the process. Feeling consumed by memories from high school. Feeling wimpy. Feeling time-obsessed. Yearning for our fathers. Wishing we were taller, or shorter, or less average. To name just a few.
Q: The musical “Is there Life After High School?” was based on your book IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL? What was it like to have your book adapted as a major musical?
RK: In most respects I love the musical adaptation of that book. Without being slavish it caught the spirit of Is There Life After High School? and added its own spice. However, the multiple cross-currents involved in having one’s work adapted, then mounted on stage could be trying. At the single rehearsal I attended cast members referred to me as the author of the “source material.” You need a microscope to find my name on the playbill. An old friend who was then drama critic for the New York Times trashed the play and is no longer a friend. However, a quarter-century since its Broadway debut Is There Life After High School continues to be produced here and abroad, and that is a source of gratification (as well as royalty checks!).
Q: You travel extensively on the lecture and interview circuit. Do you find it easier to appear on television than to write?
RK: It’s easier in the sense that it doesn’t require the same amount of work. An appearance happens, and it’s done. In the YouTube era, however, all of your tics, mumbles, and inane remarks are on the record for ever and ever. No editing allowed. I’d rather write.
Q: What other books for writers do you recommend?
RK: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. On Writing by Stephen King. Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy. Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood. And, of course, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. When I teach writing I always take a copy of this with me and hold it up between thumb and forefinger in the first class to make the point that there isn’t a whole lot to be said about the craft of writing, and most of what there is to be said can be found between the covers of this thin book.
Q: What is your next project?
RK: Collapsing. No, seriously, although I am exhausted after constant deadlines for the past several years, I’m sure I’ll be back at work on some book or other before too long. I’m wrapping up a book called Retrotalk about terms we use that are rooted in the past and might confuse those not around then (stuck in a groove, 98-pound weakling, the grassy knoll, Mrs. Robinson, etc.). After taking a break once Retrotalk is done I’ll reflect on what to do next. My three venues are social comment (e.g., Timelock, Chancing It, The Post-Truth Era), writing (The Courage to Write, The Writer’s Book of Hope), and language (“Nice Guys Finish Seventh,” The Quote Verifier) so it will probably be in one of those three categories. Or maybe I’ll write a book about toasters.
Thank you, Ralph!
Please visit RalphKeyes.com for more information on forthcoming books, his speaking tours, and his toaster collection.